Eschaton

by Deslea R. Judd

Eschaton (Part 1/4) (Prologue, Chapters 1+2) Deslea R. Judd
Copyright 2003

DISCLAIMER: Characters not mine. Interpretation mine. ARCHIVE: Sure, just keep my name and headers. RATING: R for low-key sex and adult concepts. SPOILERS/TIMEFRAME: Pre-XF, through XF and beyond. It's all fair game. The main references are to Eve, Herrenvolk, One Son, Per Manum, Existence, NIHT II and The Truth.
CATEGORY/KEYWORDS: Mytharc, Knowle/Shannon, Knowle POV. Pre-XF, post-col. Passing allusions to Shannon/Doggett UST, Doggett/Reyes, Mulder/Scully and Krycek/Marita.
SUMMARY: You don't have to be mortal to love. You don't have to be human to feel.
MORE FIC: http://fiction.deslea.com
FEEDBACK: Love the stuff. deslea@deslea.com.

ESCHATON (es-ka-ton): Last things, end times, pertains to the extremity of life and death. Koine greek: eschatos.

PROLOGUE

He becomes aware of words.

He doesn't hear them, but he feels them as vibrations penetrating the stillness. He knew how to read vibrations once, and he reads them now. There is no particular reason for him to do so - no decision, no desire - but he does it, passively receiving what there is to receive.

The vibrations becomes gradually more with each passing (day? week? year?). More insistent. More forceful. There are other vibrations, too, different ones, strong and coarse. If he could hear, they would be loud. He is not threatened by them. He accepts their presence as an inexorable fact of his existence.

In time, they form patterns. Rhythms. He makes hazy connections between vibrations and words or pictures. He doesn't seek them out, but sometimes they come to him unbidden. Miss McMahon. McMahon Industries. Number Seven Mine.

He feels the change, the rise to consciousness, like a rising sun. A breaking dawn. There is a shift. A focus. Somewhere along the line, he ceases to merely recognise these connections, and begins to actively seek them out. The search is dream-like. Slow and languid. Quietly curious. He becomes aware, and then he becomes aware that he is aware.

He becomes aware that the vibrations begin and end. That there are rises and lulls. He has a vague idea that the rises are day and the lulls are night.

Slowly, the connections beget more connections. First just a few, and then whole series of linear connections. He begins to interpret them. To derive meaning.

Miss McMahon is in Roswell today.

Albuquerque branch office is having a Christmas party.

So my wife says if I'm not back for dinner with her mom, she's gonna kill me. Man, I hate that old cow.

He becomes aware of movement. Of structures that hold him being withdrawn. Tumbling. Falling. Of feeling exposed and vulnerable. He doesn't like it. There is poking and prodding. He comes to rest.

New vibrations replace the old, new words and concepts. Liquification. Centrifuge. Cyanide solution. Intercooler. Aftercooler. Byproduct. He tries to make more connections, but this time, they don't make sense. They are too complex. Too detailed.

He is aware of dizziness. Spinning. A crawling feeling, like being worn away at the edges. He feels a separation. Sudden. Shocking. When it ends, he feels oddly cleansed. His thinking is clearer. His memories more ordered.

He feels vital. Fluid. He feels himself...growing. Becoming more. Flowing and joining. Like orgasm. Spilling out and merging. Dense pools of memory and knowledge come to him with every wave.

He feels cold. Feels himself contract and fall back on himself. The growing stops. The vibrations are muted. Now and then, there are waves of warmth, and vibrations filter through once more. Storage. Nitrogen. Just brief fragments. Then new knowledge, new memory, and cold stillness again.

He waits.

Gradually, he comes aware of warmth. It is a slow warmth. Like stolen moments with Shannon in the greenhouse when they were kids. Like making love with her in the sun. Like springtime in Beirut. Like the ruins of the Mayan pueblo that last day in New Mexico, before - before -

Before what?

He doesn't know.

More vibrations. Gentler ones. Forming words. They have a consistency that is new. They originate from a single source. They are familiar. Vibration gradually becomes sound.

Knowle, she says. Ark. Shan. Shannon. Ants go marching. Ants go marching two by two.

Memory and sound collapse on one another and merge.

The ants went marching two by two, hurrah, hurrah.

The ants went marching two by two, hurrah, hurrah.

The ants went marching two by two, Samantha stopped and Kurt would stop too.

And they all went marching down to get out of the rain.

Down to get out of the rain.

Down to get out-

ONE

His first memory is of the dormitory.

They were two, maybe three years old. The six-yearolds had been shipped out to their assignments, so it was a smaller dorm than usual. Shannon was snuggled up beside him in his bed, and Mrs Pendleton sat beside them. He remembers giggling because Shannon was trying to sing along.

"Down to get out of the rain!" she cried, clapping her chubby little hands. "Down to get out of the rain!"

"That's right, Shannon, good girl," said Mrs Pendleton. She patted Shannon's head, and Shannon giggled. The other children, the little ones, clapped along as well. The elder ones were sullen. It wasn't until he was older that he would understand they envied the attention he and Shannon received.

Mrs Pendleton rose. "Goodnight, children," she said.

She bent down to pick up Shannon, but Shannon shook her head. "Want to sleep with Knowle."

Mrs Pendleton sighed. "Very well. Just this once," she warned, just like she always did.

"Just this once," Knowle agreed, just like he always did.

The last thing he felt was her leaning down to drop a kiss on both their foreheads, and then there were heels tapping, and lights going out, and Shannon, always Shannon cuddled up at his side.

~x~

The first time he saw Mrs Pendleton cry was when they were taken away for the tests.

He liked the tests. They measured how strong he was, and how much they could do to him to see if it would hurt. He was so proud of how much he could stand. Much more than those stupid drone Kurts, who sneered at him because he was strong and they weren't.

The discomfort was brief, and it was worth the beaming smiles. The first time they killed him and he stood right back up, the whole room applauded. They invited important people to watch, men in black business suits and green army suits and people with clipboards and even a man they said was the Chief of Staff. The Chief of Staff knelt down and shook his hand and said, "You're going to be very important to us when you grow up, young man." He pinned a military recruitment button on Knowle and ruffled his hair. Knowle felt very special and very proud.

Shannon got a button that day too, but no one ruffled her hair. Her trick was to be the one who killed him. She knocked his head right off with her hand, and just before he blacked out, he saw the way the men flinched and drew back in their seats. When his head was back and he was straightening out his clothes, he saw them muttering together, looking at her, looking afraid, and he thought they were saying bad things about her. So he led her away and showed her his button and made her giggle by telling her about the hairs in the Chief of Staff's nose.

Mrs Pendleton knew about it when they came back to the dormitory. They found her sitting on his little bunk, wiping her eyes on a tattered handkerchief that had seen better days.

He and Shannon exchanged a worried glance. They ran to her and stood before her, side by side. "What's wrong, Pendy?"

Mrs Pendleton looked up. Startled. She crumpled the hanky in her hand and tucked it into her sleeve. "It's nothing," she said. Sniffled a little.

"No, it's not," Shannon protested. "What's wrong?"

Mrs Pendleton sighed. She reached out and smoothed Shannon's hair off her face. "It's nothing for you to worry about, dear." She drew breath in a hiss, pulling back, staring at her hand as though she'd been burnt.

Knowle peered down at her fingers. They were red with blood. She'd gotten it off Shannon's hair. He pulled out his hanky and looked at it critically. Grimy, but not used. He took her hand and tried to wipe it. It seemed so big in his own.

This seemed to break her. She smiled at him miserably, and she took the handkerchief from him and finished off. She had to rub hard. The blood was sticky. Drying out.

"This is all wrong," she said in a low voice, folding the fabric and tucking it back in Knowle's pocket. "They shouldn't be teaching you to - to hurt each other like that."

"I don't mind, Pendy!" he said. "I just get straight back up again! It's really easy. Look, I'll show you!" He raised his arm to Shannon, ready to strike her.

Mrs Pendleton grabbed him by both arms. "But it won't always be Shannon. One day they'll use you to hurt people who can't get up again."

He stared at her. Bewildered. People who couldn't get up again? It didn't make any sense. He looked to Shannon for guidance, but she looked puzzled as well.

Mrs Pendleton seemed to recognise their confusion. "Like the Samanthas and the Kurts," she prompted. "They can't do everything you can do. They can't get up again, either."

"But - but they're just drones. They don't matter," said Shannon.

"I've been so very wrong to let you think that, dear. They matter very much. And it isn't just the drones. It's everyone. Me. The men who take you to be tested and the men who watch. All of us." She drew both of them close. "We're not like you. We die. All of us die. And we don't come back."

She looked so wretched that he hugged her tight around the neck, and then Shannon was hugging them both. Shannon got blood on Pendy's cheek, but this time she didn't draw away. She hugged them both back and ruffled both their hair, and Knowle felt his circle expand, from two to three. As though she belonged to him, just like Shannon did.

Finally, they broke apart, and Shannon said gleefully, "We got our orders, Pendy. The Major said. We're going to Canada."

Mrs Pendleton swallowed. "Really?"

"We're going to look after the crops and the bees with the Kurts and the Samanthas," she said. "Me and Knowle will have a little house just for us. And then when we're big, we'll go in the Marines. See my button?" she said importantly, holding it out for inspection.

Mrs Pendleton took it. Looked at it dutifully. "That's very nice, dear. You're a very lucky girl." She was very white.

Knowle didn't think she looked any happier. "Pendy, what's wrong?"

"It's just not right," she said. "Pairing you up like some tribal kids promised as babies. It's 1970, for God's sake! We're supposed to be civilised!"

Much of this went over Knowle's head, but he had the vague idea she didn't want them to have a house together. "But we belong to each other," he said. "We're supposed to live together. Like the Samanthas and the Kurts."

Shannon nodded. "We were made for each other. We're like each other. The Major said."

Mrs Pendleton sighed. "You probably are. But you should have been allowed to choose, don't you see? You shouldn't be given a house and a bed and no-one else and left to - to - to find each other that way. You should be allowed to find yourselves first. It's all wrong. Don't you understand?"

They shook their heads at her. They didn't.

"But why do they do it if it's wrong?" Knowle wondered. Determined to get some sense out of this puzzling pronouncement.

"Because a boy - or a girl -" she added, smiling at Shannon, "with nothing to lose is a very dangerous thing." She drew them onto the bed beside her. "You see, a long time ago, I used to take care of different children. A whole group of little girls and boys called Adam and Eve."

"Like we're Adam and Eve?" Shannon said.

"Yes, like that. They call you Adam and Eve sometimes, because those ones didn't work out. And so they tried again and they made you."

"Why didn't they work out?" Knowle wondered.

"The Eves got very sick in their minds and their hearts, and they did bad things. And they were strong like you, so those bad things were very very bad. And the men who had to decide what to do about it, decided it was safer to make you children in pairs. Because if you love someone, you want to take care of them, and you don't do things that could hurt them. Or make someone else hurt them."

A glimmer of understanding came to him then. He thought it was like the men saying mean things about Shannon, and the way he led her away.

"When do you go to Canada?" she asked suddenly.

"When we turn six," Shannon said. Drawing herself up. She was very proud of getting to be such a big girl.

"Next week," Mrs Pendleton said. Inexplicably, she dropped the subject, and sent them away to change their clothes.

She was still sitting there, frowning, when they left her.

~x~

He still slept back then.

It was not an easy skill to learn without the imperative of instinct and need, but he did it. It was a discipline, instilled in them as much for Pendy's benefit than for theirs, and it served him well. In years to come, it would help him blend in with his unit. Help him structure his day. He kept regular hours right up until Shannon went AWOL. It was a valuable skill, and on the rare occasions that he thought of Pendy at all, he was grateful to her for it.

That last night in the dormitory was the only time she ever allowed their sleep to be disturbed.

He wasn't fully asleep when he heard her footsteps. Just drifting in the no man's land between wakefulness and sleep. He felt his brow wrinkle, first with irritation, then with worry, as the footsteps grew closer. He felt her warmth and smelled her scent - closest thing he knew to a mother's - and then she was extricating him from Shannon and lifting him away.

"This is insanity, Miriam. Absolute insanity."

The voice was male. It came to him in sound and in vibrations as he was passed from one set of arms to another. She leaned over him, long hair brushing his cheek, and tucked his blanket around him. It was white, with big red stars. He knew it by scent, without even opening his eyes.

"No more insane than what I let them do to those poor children all those years." Shifting sounds. Then, distantly, Shannon mumbling protests without conviction.

"We follow orders. That's what we do."

"Maybe you do, but it's sure not what I signed up for." Movement. Footsteps. Sound of a door opening. Cool air washed over him.

He blinked. Opened his eyes. Blackness. Stars.

They were outside.

"They'll kill us if they catch us." He felt himself being shifted from one arm to the other. Sounds of keys jingling merrily in the dark.

"Herb, did you see the tape? What they made that little girl do? She's five! Five!"

"That tape is exactly why I'm here. I'm not a monster, Miriam, I'm just scared."

A picture started to form in his mind. They were doing something. Going somewhere. Somewhere secret.

"Pendy?" he called. "Where's Shannon?"

"I've got her, Knowle. She's fine."

"Gonna take you on a car ride, boy," the man said gruffly, but he smiled down at him, too. A tense smile in the moonlight.

"Okay," he mumbled. Reassured. He closed his eyes. Almost asleep again.

The next time he opened his eyes, it was daylight. They were driving along a dusty road. Lots of trees. Fences made of wire run through posts on either side. Shannon was already awake, and she and Pendy were singing. Shannon was clapping.

"The ants go marching two by two, and-"

"Shannon stopped and Knowle will stop too!" he piped up. Shannon giggled.

"Morning, Knowle!" said Pendy, twisting around in her seat to look at them. She prompted them, "And they all went marching down to get out of the rain."

"Down to get out of the rain," they chimed in.

Pendy rejoined, "Down to get-" and then her face went slack and white. "Oh, my God, Herb, behind us."

The man looked into the rear view mirror. "Oh, shit." Suddenly the trees seemed to be slipping past them much faster. Knowle tried to look out the back window, but the seat was too high. He couldn't see.

"Speed up. Get to a diner, or - or something. They can't do much in public."

"They can arrest us." Shannon had wriggled free of her seat belt and was peering over the seat. Knowle worked at the catch on his own, without success.

"And then we get handed over to law enforcement. There might be a chance that way." Knowle got himself free and looked too. There were trucks behind them. Army trucks, with soldiers in uniform. And cars further behind.

"I could hurt them," Shannon offered. "So they don't get up again." Knowle turned to stare at her. Hurt their own soldiers? He didn't understand. Why would she offer such a thing? He had a vague idea that maybe it was because of the bad things they said about her.

Pendy turned to look at them again. Stricken. She reached back and stroked Shannon's hair.

"Maybe you will turn into...what they want you to turn into, dear. But not today. Not for me." Her gaze moved upwards, and she swallowed. "Oh, God, Herb, hurry."

"The pedal's to the floor, Miriam, this car's a piece of shit. Damn. Damn!"

A voice. Firm. Amplified. Knowle looked back out the window. A soldier was leaning out the window of his truck and speaking into a bullhorn. "Move over to the road shoulder. We are authorised to use force if you do not cooperate."

The man's hand was shaking when he put the car into neutral. The car slowed, and he turned to them when he pulled the brake. "You kids just close your eyes, you hear?"

"No," said Mrs Pendleton suddenly. "No, you have to watch."

The man turned to face her. Outraged.

"They have to know, Herb. They have to see. They'll never understand why it's wrong if they don't."

So he watched, because he always obeyed. He watched them get shot, and they didn't get up, and he huddled there with Shannon and kissed her and promised himself he would never love anything that could die again, ever.

TWO

They called it the Ark, where little drones came two by two.

Knowle understood that the moniker was not entirely complimentary, but he didn't mind. He liked Canada. He felt free there. Unfettered. He had his house and he had his jobs and he had Shannon. As long as they got their tasks done and their lessons written, they were left to themselves. And that was how he liked it.

He liked the bees. Their sounds and their busy toils were soothing. He didn't understand the other children, but he understood the bees. They worked for the good of the hive, each with their own place. They mated, and they worked, and that was their whole life, just like him and Shannon. Not that he and Shannon mated yet - it was understood that that would come - but it was a way of life that made sense to him. It was simple. Efficient. Purposeful, with a minimum of waste.

He even liked the presence of the other children. He didn't really like them, but after Pendy died, both he and Shannon grew more insular, so the animosity between the races eased. And their rustling movements in the background were pleasing to him.

He liked their house. He liked the muted noises that came from the homes around them as they dropped off to sleep together at night. Sometimes they snuggled up together, sometimes they argued and pinched, sometimes they tickled. Now and then they ignored each other altogether. It was no different to the rest of the day.

He remembers General Lauderton. He had a bad leg, and he flew in to teach them once a week. If Lauderton resented playing nursemaid to the children, or the injury that rendered him nursemaid, he never said so. The Samanthas and the Kurts did not receive instruction; there was no need. They were, after all, only drones.

"General," Shannon asked one day from nowhere, "why didn't Mrs Pendleton want us to live together?"

Knowle held his breath. They had never discussed Mrs Pendleton with anyone.

But Lauderton just nodded, as though he'd expected this. They were older by now, maybe twelve or thirteen years old, and they were sitting in their little sunroom, geography books open but forgotten. He said, "Shannon, there are many cultures where it's acceptable for children to marry, and when their bodies develop and the time is right then they live together like grown-up men and women do."

"You mean sex." It was perhaps a legacy of their different rates of development that Shannon spoke of sex, while Knowle still spoke of mating.

"Yes," he said. "For a long time, most of the world worked like that, and there are places where it still does. But there are a lot of people now - Western people mostly - who think that's very wrong. That's what Mrs Pendleton thought."

"Is it wrong?" she wondered.

Lauderton shrugged. "I don't know, Shannon. I don't get to make that decision. But I'll tell you this. I see people marry by choice all the time, and I don't think they're much happier for it." He glanced down at his hand, then back up again. Knowle saw a mark on his finger - an indent left by a ring. "I served in Nepal in the war, you know. I've seen arranged marriages used to hurt people. To trap a girl or give her to someone who might make her do things - sexual things - before she's ready. But I don't think that's what's happening to you. If I did, I wouldn't be here."

Shannon frowned. "Mrs Pendleton thought we should be allowed to choose. That it was wrong for them to choose for us."

"But who would you choose? Who else would understand? Who else could accept what you are?" Lauderton took off his glasses and pinched the ridge in his nose. "We humans don't like difference, Shannon. If we did, we would never have needed to make you two in the first place." He sighed. "Are you not happy here, Shannon? Don't you want to be with Knowle?"

Knowle looked at her. Holding his breath. It had never occurred to him that she didn't.

But she nodded. "It isn't that. I just wonder sometimes. What she thought I was missing out on."

He said again, "Are you happy, Shannon? Knowle?"

Shannon glanced at Knowle. She nodded. Knowle nodded too.

"Then you're not missing out on anything." Lauderton looked down at his hand again. "Most people would kill to have the kind of bond you have with Knowle. And to know they'd have it their whole lives. You're luckier than you know."

Shannon didn't look convinced.

"You know, I'm going to tell you something, Shannon. I'm not supposed to even talk about her, but I think you need to hear this. Miriam Pendleton was wrong to do what she did. She loved you kids very much, and she believed she had good reasons, but she was wrong. You wouldn't even be asking these questions if she hadn't put them in your head, and I think you'd be happier if you'd never asked them." Shannon shifted, clearly uncomfortable, but Knowle nodded. Understanding this. "That's why the military is the way it is. Why you, and me, and the Samanthas and the Kurts are the way we are. It's like the bees. They don't question their role. They trust the queen to look after the interests of the hive. They work for it, and they don't question it, even when they die for it."

Shannon seemed oddly disappointed in him. "And that's a good thing?"

"You look after them, Shannon, what do you think? A hive is a vibrant society, teeming with life. We humans should be so lucky." Lauderton sighed. "It can't be easy for you kids, being different the way you are, but for God's sake, don't look to humans for guidance. Look to the bees. Follow orders, work hard, love each other. You won't go far wrong in life if you do that."

So Knowle did, and it never led him wrong.

~x~

Shannon asked him that night if he understood.

"I understand why you ask it, but I don't understand why it matters," he said, turning on his side to look at her in the dark. "If we're happy, what difference does it make?"

"Oh, Knowle," she said in exasperation, propping her head up on her hand. "It's not that simple. You'll understand when you're older."

"Oh, all of a sudden you know more than me, because of these?" he snorted. Nodded to her budding breasts, pushing against her thin cotton nightgown. "You're not the only one who's growing up, you know."

"I hadn't noticed," she said dryly. "Must be the way you've taken to sleeping on your stomach all of a sudden."

He flushed. "Shut up."

"Anyway. He's wrong. You can put two people together, but it doesn't mean it'll all be hugs and kisses. Look at next door," she said. "I'm sure he hurts her. She always cries afterwards. You can hear her when the windows are open."

He snorted. "And you wonder why I hate them. You wonder why I only want to be with you. If that's choice, I don't want it." He turned on his side, away from her. "I wouldn't do that to you."

Her voice was conciliatory. "I know. Don't be mad at me, Knowle?"

"I'm not mad," he said. "I just think you're asking questions we were never supposed to ask. And there's just no point." He looked over his shoulder at her. She was beautiful, sitting there in the dark. He felt that vague, nagging ache for her that had begun to make itself known to him, and he suppressed it, somehow understanding that this was the wrong time for it. "What does it change, Shannon? Really?"

"Maybe nothing," she said. "Maybe everything."

"You're talking in riddles."

She moved down behind him. Pressed up against his back and rested her cheek against his shoulder. "Don't worry about it. Go to sleep."

He linked his hand with hers, but he still didn't understand.

~x~

He remembers their first kiss like it was yesterday.

It comes to him differently to the other memories. It always does. The others are methodical. Logical. They have clarity and purpose. Building up that which has been broken down. His cognitive mechanisms are rebuilding, and so is his experiential base. The process is one he understands.

But the kiss. That kiss. It comes to him bathed in heat and colour. It wasn't even that good a kiss. Just a clumsy first kiss, awkward and bumbling, but something clicked for him, something primal, and he was breathing hard and overcome. Drowning in her. Longing for her. Needing to be consumed.

Raw, unfiltered instinct, perhaps for the very first time.

It occurs to him that they took his death instincts - took them, dulled them, made them irrelevant. Whatever it took to make him into the killer they wanted him to be. But they didn't take his life instincts. They cultivated them. Relied on them to keep him in line. He doesn't understand them, even now - they are messy and disordered and complicated - but he has them, and he accepts them as an unchanging part of his existence.

Is it always this way for humans, he wonders? Is this how they live? Their consciousness consumed with one pressing need after another? Need food. Need warmth. Need water. Need safety. Need to touch and feel and sink flesh into flesh. Need to stay alive. The idea of being so enslaved horrifies him.

No wonder they're so weak.

It's a wonder they can keep going at all.

~x~

They lost their virginity together two months later.

It was late by Ark standards. They were fourteen, a full two years later than most of their human counterparts. For Knowle's part, the desire had been there for at least a year, and he thought for Shannon possibly longer. But the excesses of the Kurts and the Samanthas deterred them - particularly those of the Kurt next door, who would eventually injure his Samantha so badly that she couldn't work (and to Knowle, this fact made it the most grievous level of injury).

They came close in their bed before that. They touched one another - first tentative, then with growing sureness. They held one another, kissing and rocking against one another until they came, barely aware of what it was they were trying to achieve, driven only by instinct. There were massive gaps in their education; they understood the process of lovemaking but not the desires that drove it. In their isolation, they had no exposure to literature that might have made that information available to them. He understood the eventual goal of penetration, but their early fumblings were opaque to them both.

He had her for the first time in the shadehouse, and that was better. He understood it. It had an end, a tangible goal, a resolution. It was part of something bigger - the life cycle - and it made sense to him to bond that way. That was what his life was given over to, after all. Shannon, and the work. Always the work. An unending cycle, unchanging purpose. Its immutability was comforting.

So they stayed behind after the others were gone for the day, and he explored her there, joining with her, surrounded by the bees and the ginseng. Immersed in warmth and life. It was the culmination of their lives together. This was what they were meant to do. To work, and to belong to each other.

He believed it was so for Shannon too, but he was wrong.

~x~

They were drafted in 1982.

It was a year early, but a typographic error by Lauderton's secretary took care of that. The government had invested sixteen years in them, and now it was time for payback. To Knowle, this seemed perfectly reasonable, but Shannon was outraged at the loss of their last year at the Ark. She railed against it bitterly.

Lauderton had the unenviable task of breaking the news, and he bore her fury with practiced calm. When, finally, her anger was exhausted, he turned discussion to more productive avenues.

"What you have to understand about military training is that it tears people down and builds them back up again in the USMC's image. Everyone is learning how to live, all over again. No-one's going to be suspicious of you in the slightest if you make mistakes."

"Do you think we will?" Knowle wondered.

"Of course you will, boy. I like to think we've taught you pretty well, but there are bound to be things we've missed. You were raised to be different. You are different. And the beauty of your Marine training is that even when new experiences confuse you, you'll blend right in with everyone else, because they'll be confused as well."

"Will we still be together?" Knowle wondered. He glanced at Shannon. Worried.

"I imagine you'll get separate assignments eventually, but I'll keep you together for as long as I can. You'll need each other in there." Lauderton looked from Knowle to Shannon with sympathy. "I think dealing with humans will be quite an adjustment for both of you."

"We deal with you," Shannon pointed out, speaking for the first time since her outburst. She still looked pretty steamed.

"Yes, but you don't see all of me, Shannon. You don't see me when I'm weak, or afraid, or petty. And you're going to see a lot of those things in boot camp. At least at first."

"Where will we go?"

"MCRD Parris Island. You'll go through a three-month training course with a group, mostly male. Shannon, you may be the only woman there, or there may be a small number of others. It's hard to say." Shannon sat forward, suddenly interested, and Knowle wasn't sure why. The change in her demeanour was marked.

"What's our backstory?" he asked. Still looking at her.

"There's no point denying you know each other. There's no foreseeable need, and frankly I don't think you could pull it off." Knowle nodded his agreement. "You were raised in Snoqualmie Falls, Washington. Childhood friends, enlisted together on the same day. That kind of thing. There's a briefing in the folder I gave you that explains it more fully." He looked at Shannon. "It's your choice whether you present yourselves as a couple, but I don't recommend it. It may make things harder for Shannon, in particular."

Shannon nodded. "We have credentials to back this up?"

"Yes. School transcripts, drivers' licences, birth certificates - it's all taken care of. I need not tell you how important it is that your origins remain classified."

Knowle sat up very straight. "You can count on us, Sir."

"I know I can. You're a good boy, Knowle."

His approval did not extend to Shannon. Knowle didn't think much of it at the time, but he would remember it later.

~x~

It was at boot camp that the differences between them began to become apparent.

Knowle revelled in boot camp. It affirmed everything he believed in. At worst, he was puzzled and annoyed by their fellow recruits. They were unnecessarily burdened, unnecessarily complex. He strove to be better, and he was a favourite of their instructors.

But Shannon struggled with it. She came to him in their limited free time. Sought him out to unburden herself. She spoke of abdication of self. Of humiliation. He tried to be sympathetic, but he didn't understand, and in time, she sought out other recruits instead. She graduated with him, but she didn't share his pride. He wore his uniform all day; she couldn't wait to take hers off.

"You know why we're on the enlistment track, don't you?" she said after they made love for the first time in thirteen weeks.

"Because we're eighteen and we don't have degrees," he said, sitting up beside her.

"Sixteen," she corrected. "And it's more than that. They'll never let us into officer training even after that."

He stared at her. Puzzled. "What do you mean?"

"They don't want us to lead, Knowle. They don't trust us to lead. They're afraid of us."

Privately, he thought it was more likely they didn't trust her to lead (if that was the case at all) because she had a chip on her shoulder, but he didn't say so. "That's ridiculous."

She turned to face him. "Is it?"

"Yes," he said. "It's not about trust. At most, it's about utility. We're more use to them as enlisted personnel."

"Yeah, it's easier to kill if we're in the killing fields, isn't it?"

"Shannon..." He put his hand on the back of her neck. Stroking the slight, steely ridges of her spine. The mark they shared. Funny how he never thought much about that mark before. It seemed more important now.

She shrugged him off. "You're wrong, Knowle. You're being terribly naive."

"Why are you thinking about this? Do you want to be an officer, Shannon? Really?" He wondered what the hell difference it would make. More and more he felt her heart and her mind diverging from his. Their world was opening out, and it didn't matter to him because he had everything he ever wanted, but she seemed to want more, and he just didn't understand it at all.

She shrugged. "I guess. I think - I think I'd feel better about what we are."

He sighed. Finally, he said, "Then do it. We'll both do it. We'll ask to go to Durham. We'll go to Duke - do law or something. And then we'll be officers." He didn't have any better plans, and it would make her happy, so why not?

She turned to look at him, a smile spreading over her face. Eyes bright. "You'd do that for me, Knowle?"

"Course I would. Come here."

She did, and this time, when he touched her neck, she didn't pull away. The gulf between them closed.

For a while.

THREE

For a long time, he ignored it.

She came to him late at night, smelling like other men. Kissing and touching. Looking for what they couldn't give her, whatever it was. And then he would give what he could, but she couldn't accept it because it was from him. They would lie there, side by side, flush and spent and more distant than ever until she got up and slipped away. When they talked about it at all, it was whispered reproaches and apologies and pleading, why, why as they covered one another with kisses and regrets, never spoken of in the light of day.

He ignored it while they lived on base in Durham, and he ignored it when they shipped out to Lebanon at the end of their second semester at Duke. He ignored it until he found her in their makeshift barracks in Beirut with John Doggett. They weren't even very far along, just rumpled shirts pulled open, smelling of booze, but it was enough to make him draw in his breath in a hiss.

"Knowle," she said. Sitting up. Pulling her shirt closed over her bra. Covering herself.

"Sorry," he stammered, and he left them, movements clumsy and jerking. He made it out of there and dropped down on the ground beside the barracks, his head in his hands. Reeling, as though from a punch to the gut. Somehow, he'd never really expected to deal with it head-on.

"I thought you said there was nothing goin' on between you two?" he heard John say through the window.

"There isn't," Shannon said. Knowle let out a low, miserable laugh. Wondered how many men she'd said it to. "It's just complicated. We go back a while. Before the service."

"Bullshit. I saw his face. I've got a girl back home, you know, and he looked like I'd look if-"

"If what?"

"Jesus. What am I doin' here? I'm gonna go sober up."

"John-"

"No, I don't wanna be part of this. You guys are my friends. If you got stuff to work out with him, you do it on your own time. I don't want anything to do with it."

Shannon's voice was pleading. Seductive. Knowle thought he might throw up. "John, you're making this so much bigger than it needs to be. Why can't it just be about you and me? Just for one night?"

He heard movement, and outraged sounds from Shannon. John pushing her away, maybe. "You know what? I'm gonna go sleep this shit off, and then I'm gonna phone Barb and tell her I love her. You got any sense, McMahon, and you'll do the same. Knowle's an all right guy. He doesn't deserve this." Thudding, belligerent footsteps, and then John came tramping out of the barracks and damn near tripped over him.

"Sorry," he said when John looked down and saw him.

"Hey, buddy, you got nothing to be sorry for." John pulled his shirt down straight. Sniffed at the collar a little and made a face. "What do you say we go get a drink?"

He didn't bother pretending he hadn't overheard. "I thought you were going to sober up."

"I am, but you might wanna head in the other direction, you know what I'm sayin'?"

He didn't get drunk, but he and John talked shit over the pool table, and in its own way, Knowle found that comforting. John had no particular expectations of him, and he liked that more than he'd thought he would. By the time they sneaked into their bunks at 0600, he was willing to bend his own rule and make an honest-to-goodness human friend. John was all right.

The base was bombed a half an hour later.

He got John out. He got fifteen of them out, in fact, and they gave him the Legion of Merit for it. He was proud of his service and proud of his men, but he took it as a warning, just the same. It was just no good to get attached to humans. They died. All of them died. And John, lying there in his bunk in the makeshift infirmary, was living proof.

"Sure do owe you one, buddy," John said that last day before they flew him home.

Knowle waved a hand. "Just doin' my job. How's that leg?"

"Pretty fucked. Barb reckons she's gonna nurse me when I get home. We'll see how long that lasts. I'm a terrible patient." Knowle laughed. "We should get together when you get home, Knowle. We'll knock back a few beers."

"Sure thing." He held out his hand.

John shook it, then sketched a little salute. "Semper fi."

Knowle returned it. "Will do."

So John went home, and when Knowle followed, he took him at his word. They had some beers, saw a few ballgames. Stayed in touch. But he never let his guard down that way with him again.

~x~

Things got better once they came back to Durham. Not great, but better.

They never really reached any kind of understanding about John, or about any of it, but they learned to coexist with it. They had their homes, bachelor houses on the base around the corner from one another. Close enough to stay close, but far enough apart that Shannon could come and go as she pleased, and Knowle didn't have to see who she took into her bed. These arrangements were made without discussion, rubberstamped by Lauderton, and for a time, their
relationship returned to something approaching normal. They studied together, they slept together some of the time, and Knowle rarely gave her other activities a lot of thought. He wasn't happy, but he wasn't really unhappy either. He was content. More or less.

In the evenings, she sat on her front step with a cup of coffee, waiting for him to come back from his run. Ready to study, or to talk about their day. It grew to be a routine. Still, he didn't think much of it the night she wasn't there. He had no inkling that anything was wrong until he rounded the corner to his own house, and she was sitting there instead. Her head was bent low, and she was weeping. She had a sheaf of letters in her hand.

He dropped down on the step beside her. "Shannon? What is it?"

She handed an envelope to him, addressed to him but otherwise identical to hers. It bore the USMC logo. "I got it from your mailbox," she said. "Open it."

Frowning, he did as she told him.

"We regret to inform you that you have been unsuccessful in your application for admission to officer training in the current intake," she said bitterly. "That's what it says, doesn't it?"

He sighed. "Pretty much."

"We worked for this for years. I told you this would happen," she said accusingly.

"We don't know that's what it was, Shannon."

She made a sound of annoyance. Clearly exasperated by his ongoing naivete. "What else could it be? We did a tour of duty in the middle it, survived a bombing, you got a fucking medal, and we still managed to stay on the Honours track. What more could they want from us?"

Privately, he wondered if she might be right, but he didn't say so. He took her by the hand and tugged her to her feet. "Come inside. I'll call Lauderton. Let's get this thing straightened out." He sounded more confident than he felt.

Shannon didn't look convinced, but she spared him a smile and let him lead her indoors.

~x~

Lauderton let out a low whistle.

"Something big's brewing, Knowle. You might want to stick close to the base for the next few days."

"What do you mean?" he asked, glancing through the kitchen hutch at Shannon. She was sitting on his lounge, drinking coffee. Calmer now. Watching curiously.

"Looks like your officer training was approved, then squashed from above. There's a whole lot of new security clearances on your file - just went into effect in the last twenty-four hours. Same with Shannon. Looks to me like you're about to be put onto something classified."

He frowned. "Do you know what it is?"

"No idea. It's SCI, and I don't have clearance for it. Something called the Genesis Project by the looks."

"How do we find out?"

Lauderton's laugh echoed down the phone. "You can't, my boy. You'll just have to wait for them to come to you."

~x~

Lieutenant Colonel Randolph was his name, and colonisation was his game.

"What do you know of your antecedents, Lance Corporal Rohrer?"

Knowle recited the specifics by rote. "After the failure of the Litchfield Eves, the practice of adding further human chromosomes to embryos was abandoned. Instead, cellular material was taken from an extraterrestrial biological entity executed in Hanoi under Security Council Resolution 1013. This matter was used to modify human embryos, which were then carried by human surrogates. The result was a male and female biosoldier prototype - myself and Lance Corporal McMahon - comprised of metallic and organic matter, capable of regeneration, and unhampered by normal human limitations." He added with a trace of pride, "The experiment was entirely successful."

"Eventually. There were failures before you." This was news to Knowle, but he didn't say so. "What you probably don't know is that despite the existence of SCR-1013, EBEs have been allowed to flourish in this country under a diplomatic agreement reached in 1972. A treaty was negotiated. Certain concessions were made."

"What kinds of concessions?" Shannon demanded.

"That's need-to-know. What I can tell you is that the ultimate objective of the Genesis Project is the integration of alien life into human society on this planet. Your role will be to facilitate the project in various facilities across the country. Most of the time, you'll work remotely in the Pentagon, but there will be times when you'll be called upon to troubleshoot." Randolph's pointed look left no doubt in Knowle's mind. The pun was intentional.

"Facilitate how?" Shannon was very pale.

"There's a list of facilities that will come under your brief in the document packets I've given you. Learn the work, and especially the staffing structure and the schematics. You'll need that for coordinating surveillance and tactical operations, among other tasks. You'll be relocated to Washington, and commence your placement next month."

Knowle nodded. Frowning. "Thank you, Sir," he said. Anxious to bring the meeting to an end. He wanted to study the paperwork before he said anything more.

But Shannon didn't seem so eager to pull the plug. She was already looking through her brief. She said, "Sir?"

"Yes, Lance Corporal McMahon?"

"These are medical institutions. Military hospitals, fertility clinics, maternity hospitals." Shannon looked up at him. "This is a breeding program. It's not integration, it's colonisation."

Randolph peered at her over his glasses. "I would be very careful about the words I bandied around if I were you, soldier."

"But-"

"And I will remind you that you have legal obligations to the Department Of Defence about the responsible use of this information. State that you understand these responsibilities, Lance Corporal."

Shannon stared at him, pale and still for a long moment, but then she backed down. "Yes, Sir. I've been so advised, Sir."

Randolph watched Shannon, grim-faced and stoic, but after a moment, he nodded, rising to his feet. Knowle and Shannon rose, too. "Very well. My office will make contact with further instructions closer to the time."

Knowle stood to attention and offered a parting salute. "Thank you, Sir."

Shannon shoved her hands in her pockets, and when Randolph glared at her, she turned and walked away.

~x~

She was packing when he found her.

He let himself into her house, ready to prepare her for what he suspected would be a charge of insubordination, but angry sounds of cupboards opening and closing distracted him from his purpose.

He followed the sounds to her bedroom. She ignored him when he appeared in the doorway, just kept darting back and forth across the room.

"Shannon!" he burst out. He stared down at the open bags on floor. Clothes and white cotton underthings stuffed in any which way. No uniform.

She was going AWOL.

Dismay settled over him, but not surprise. Hadn't she been drifting towards this anyway?

She didn't stop moving. Didn't even look at him. "Go back to your house, Knowle. You'll want to keep that plausible denial of yours intact."

"You're leaving?" he hissed. She ignored him. Just kept on moving back and forth. "Shannon?" he persisted. He grabbed her arm. "Shannon!"

She met his gaze at last. Eyes bright with fury. "This is wrong!" she said. "What they want us to get involved in is wrong!"

"Why?" he demanded. "The alien race was here first. They're only reclaiming what's theirs."

"But humans have been here for millennia! They've made it theirs! They're entitled to be here!"

He loosened his hold on her arm. "It doesn't matter! It's not for us to decide. We're just along for the ride. And we have a responsibility to the Corps."

Shannon stared at him. "So you'd fight against it if you were ordered to? Just as much as you'd fight for it?" She seemed taken aback at the very idea.

"Yes, I would," he said. Did she really think he was taking any side here, besides the Corps? Did she really think that was their place? "I don't have an agenda here, Shannon. I'm just doing my job."

She stamped her foot like a frustrated child. "Why?" she demanded. "Why are you so loyal to them?"

He stared at her. "They made me, Shannon! They raised me! They gave me everything!" He took her hands in his. "They gave me you."

At this, some of the fire left her. She suddenly looked very tired. "I wasn't theirs to give, Knowle."

He sighed. Not this again. "I thought we loved each other. Don't we?"

She pulled away. Paced a little. "Of course we do. But we were never given the choice not to love each other - don't you see that?"

"Why does it fucking matter?" he burst out. "I don't need that choice! I never wanted anything but you."

"But they taught you what to want!"

"Show me a parent who doesn't."

She gave a sound of exasperation. "It's wrong, Knowle. What they did was wrong. What they're doing now is wrong."

"That's a very human thing to say," he said. "They made us to be productive and happy. I just don't see what's so terrible about that."

She held her head in her hands. "But I'm not happy."

"And this is how you solve it?" he demanded. "By going AWOL? By sleeping with human men?"

She stepped back a little. Face flushed with anger. "Don't start."

"How does it feel, Shannon? How does it feel when they touch your neck and they think it's a deformity? Does even one of them love you for it? Does even one of them understand it's who you are?"

Red blotches rose in her cheeks, and there were tears in her voice. "Stop it. Just fucking stop."

"Shannon, do they?"

"You're just jealous!" The tears were flowing freely now, and she wiped them away impatiently.

"I'm not jealous. I don't need to be jealous." Shit, he hated seeing her like this. He felt the anger drain out of him, and, sighing, he went to her and took her by the arms. Drew her close. She didn't fight him. "You can't run from who you are, Shannon. Sooner or later, you'll realise that, and you'll be back. And I'll be waiting."

Her voice was muffled against his shoulder. "You're very sure of yourself, aren't you?"

"I'm a patient man. And I have all the time in the world." He released her. "Do what you have to do. I'll be here."

"You're not going to try to stop me?"

He shook his head.

She touched his arm, and went back to her packing. He sat down on her bed, watching her.

"This isn't about you, Knowle," she said presently. "It's about something they took from me."

He looked down at his hands. "I'll miss you. If it matters."

She dropped a kiss on his head. "Same."

He was still sitting there when she left.

~x~

Lauderton loved his petunias.

Knowle never saw the appeal, himself, but he planted them readily enough. It felt good to get his hands dirty again. To plunge into soil and feel it shape itself around his fingers. Just waiting to nurture. It felt...right. Decent. Whole.

Lauderton was kind to him that day. He spoke of trifles in a low, droning voice. He spoke of his new sprinkler system. The way his secretary never got his filing quite the way he wanted it. The pretty physiotherapist who took care of his leg, and how if he were twenty years younger he'd take her to his favourite lobster restaurant in Maine. He filled the silences, and let Knowle have his time and his space to work himself out.

"It's different for women, Knowle," Lauderton said when he finally unburdened himself.

"But how? Why? I don't understand."

"I don't really understand it either, my boy. But they're made differently, and I think that has something to do with it." At Knowle's puzzled look, he elaborated, "I mean sex, Knowle. It's more frightening for women. Because there's more ways they can be hurt." He got to his feet and winced when his bad leg creaked.

"But we weren't like that," he argued. "I never hurt her. And she can't even be hurt."

"Physically, no. But I think she probably has the same instincts. The same reflexes." He hefted a bag of fertiliser, and waved Knowle away when he started to get up to help. "It's not you she's rejecting, Knowle. It's the idea that she was born into what amounts to a marriage. She's rebelling."

"You knew this might happen," Knowle accused.

Lauderton nodded, dumping the bag. He got out his handkerchief and wiped his brow. "I hoped I was wrong. But yes, Knowle, I thought so. The decisions that were made for you all those years ago were, I'm afraid, very short-sighted. The men who made these decisions feared the changes in the world, and they blamed those changes for the things that went wrong with your precedessors, the Eves. They said they said their psychosis was a result of sexual immorality - all sorts of nonsense. People were very ignorant back then. They came from a time when marriage was believed to solve everyone's problems, and they thought it would solve yours, too. We know now that it isn't so simple." He was panting. "Phew. That thing's heavy."

"I offered to get it," Knowle said pointedly.

"Yes, well, serves me right for being a martyr, I suppose. Beer?"

Knowle nodded, and got up to fetch it before he could argue.

"There's something else," Lauderton said after they'd been drinking a while. "Something you might not have put together, but that Shannon probably has."

"What is it?" he wondered.

"Shannon never got her menses, did she?"

Knowle frowned. He'd never thought about it. But he'd clearly noticed without being aware of noticing, because he was able to come up with the answer.

"No," he said. "She didn't."

Lauderton looked down into his beer. "She can't have children, Knowle. Neither of you can have children."

He felt something. Something obscurely hurtful. Not an ache, but a shadow of one.

"Oh."

"They made you that way. They were afraid you'd make more. Ones they couldn't control."

"That makes sense." Saying it helped him believe it.

"It makes sense," Lauderton said, "if you think of yourself as the property of the military. Something to be used and controlled. An asset. Which you clearly do."

"Well, of course," he said. "They made us. We owe them."

Lauderton looked at him with curiosity. "This idea that Shannon has - that she has a right to be free. It seems very ungrateful to you, Knowle, doesn't it?"

Knowle hesitated. He didn't like to criticise her. But-

"Yes. It does."

"Because they created you."

He nodded. More sure of himself now. "Yes.

Lauderton sat back a little. He said expansively, "Imagine you saw yourself as made by something else, though. Doesn't matter what - God, the life force, the soil, primordial slime, whatever. And then they interfered with you. They gave and took, unjustly, for their own ends. You can see how it might look different if you saw it that way, can't you?"

Knowle stared at him. "Is that what you really think? That she's right?"

"I think she's hurting, Knowle. And you're just going to have to give her the space she needs to work it all out."

"But she will," he said. "Won't she?"

Lauderton clapped him on the shoulder. "Course she will, boy. It's just going to take some time. And that's the one thing you two have in spades, right?"

"I suppose you're right."

"Of course I'm right." He set down his beer. "Now, my boy, it's time to earn your keep. Let's take another look at these petunias."

~x~

The next time he saw her was two years later.

She was living in Maryland with a group of identical women - renegade Samanthas turned rogue. "You're choosing a dangerous path," he warned her. "If they order me to go up against you, I will."

"Of course you will," she said. She tried to close the door in his face.

"Shannon," he said, holding the door open. "I miss you."

That affected her. Real grief flitted over her features. She came through the door, out onto the verandah. Closed it behind her. She admitted, "I miss you too."

"House feels empty without you," he said.

She hugged herself. Held herself taut, pulling her cardigan around her. "Knowle-"

"Are you happy?"

She looked away. Blinking. Swallowing. "I, uh," she managed, "Knowle - please -"

It hurt, seeing her like that. He went to her. Tugged her close. He only meant to hold her, but she kissed him. Hungry. Needy. Whispering his name into his mouth. God, he'd missed her.

Finally, she pushed him back. Stroked his lip with her thumb. "You should go."

He didn't want to, but there was no point in pressing her. He knew that now. He just sighed. "I love you, Shannon."

She smiled a little. "Me too, Knowle." She turned to go.

"Shannon?"

She turned.

"If they ask me where you are, I'm going to have to tell them. You should get them out of here."

She nodded. "Thanks."

She shut the door gently, and left him standing on her doorstep in the cold.

~x~

The next time was eighteen months after that.

He found her sitting on his back porch in the rain in the middle of the night. Hair straggling. He could see the lines of her bra through her shirt.

He came out of the house, closing the screen door behind him, and sat down beside her. She didn't look at him. Just sat there, lips trembling. He put his arm around her, and her face crumpled. He rocked her while she wept.

"What do you want from me, Shannon?" he asked her when the worst of it had passed. He kissed her hair. "Whatever you want, you can have it. But you have to tell me. Because I just don't know any more."

She kissed his neck. Slow. Gentle. He bent his head to hers. She tasted of rain and tears.

"You," she whispered. Wet fingertips on his jaw. She drew away and met his gaze. "I know I don't have any right to ask."

"You have every right to ask. I'm yours, Shannon. You know that." It wasn't a sentimental statement in the least. Just a statement of fact.

She sniffled a little. "I don't deserve you, Knowle."

He drew her close. "Shh," he said. "I just wish I understood. I wish I knew how to make it all stop hurting." She clutched at his shirt, weeping again, and he tilted her chin up to face him. "Hey, hey, don't. Come on. Come in."

She shook her head. "No, stay here. Please." She reached for him. Pressed her face against his. Kissing and nuzzling. Her skin was white and cool. "I need to feel."

So he had her there, fierce and tender in the pouring rain, but he still didn't understand.

FOUR

They were on the same side, for once, during Desert Storm.

He didn't know how she managed it, but she was there in his unit with him under a different name. He didn't know whether she was there with any kind of official sanction from those who knew what she was, or if she was there independently under falsified credentials. But she was there, and they fought side by side.

"I like seeing you like this," she said one night during a lull in hostilities in Basra. There were Iraqi troops on the other side of town, but they appeared to have run out of firepower and were presumably waiting for backup. Knowle wasn't worried. They'd be ready.

"How do you mean?" he wondered. He over his shoulder at their men. They were sleeping. Nodded down at her M16. "How you doing for ammo for that?"

"Four and a half mags. I'm fine." She put the rifle back in its holster and came to sit beside him. "What I mean is, you're not stressed by it, but you don't get off on it, either. You're just...you. Like you're in your natural habitat."

He thought about it. She was right. "I like it," he said. "I like all the crap stripped away. All the shit that humans-" he glanced over his shoulder again, and said in a lower voice, "that people hang onto. The petty hopes and fears. They're just here with their heads down trying to get the job done, and they'll live or die in the attempt, and either way, that's okay. I like that. I understand it."

Shannon nodded. "I can see how that would appeal to you." He wasn't sure whether that was a compliment or an insult.

"I like being on the same side with you," he said after a while.

A smile spread over her face. She was filthy - they both were - but he thought she was beautiful. "Same."

"Think it will last?"

She leaned in and kissed him. There was none of the anguish that had come to mark their occasional trysts. Just plain affection, pure and simple.

"Not a chance in the world."

They laughed softly in the light of the rising sun.

~x~

She was right, of course.

When they came back home, the camaraderie fell by the wayside. He went on with his work in the Project. She went AWOL again and took her place with the renegades, working against him. Now and then, they were positioned head-to-head, and sometimes she bested him, sometimes he bested her. Either way, there were no hard feelings. Not for him, anyway. For her, it was more complex, but then, wasn't it always?

She took a succession of men into her bed, and at her lowest lows, she came to him. He was gentle with her, gave what she could accept, and did not reproach her for what she couldn't. In fact, he didn't give their relationship, what there was of it, very much thought at all. He missed her, but they had all the time in the world to work things out. He was at peace with the way things were.

At some point, Shannon apparently decided it was more efficient to work on the inside, because by 1995 her career mirrored his own. Her indiscretions were elegantly erased from her files. Lauderton was not forthcoming about her agenda, and it was likely he simply didn't know. Whatever the case, they were amicable. There were stolen moments. They were rarely on the same side.

It was one of their better days when the call came. He stood there in his office in the Pentagon, eyes fixed on hers, smiling at her while she stroked his chest and talked shit to him. He knew perfectly well she was gearing up to ask him for information about something or other, and he didn't care. These moments were a game, but there was love too, and he could play the game and enjoy the love at the same time.

There was a knock at the door, and then his secretary came in. They broke apart. "Lydia, I told you no calls."

"Begging your pardon, Sir, but your phone is off the hook."

"There's a reason for that." Lydia was a civilian, but she came from a military family. There would be no wise-ass retorts about what those reasons might be.

"Sir, it's a Captain Heimann. He says it's about the Genesis Project." He and Shannon exchanged looks.

"Do you want me to go?" Shannon asked him in an undertone.

He thought about it. Heimann was not a familiar name to him, and that was a bad sign. "No," he said after a moment. "Stay."

She held his gaze, frowning. "All right."

"I'll take it," he said to Lydia. "Shut the door." Lydia looked doubtful. He prompted, "Miss McMahon has the same clearance as I do. Shut the door."

"Yes, Sir." Lydia spared them one last look and departed.

He waited until she was gone, and then he put the phone on speaker. "This is Master Sergeant Rohrer."

"Sir, this is Captain Heimann. I'm chief of security at El Rico Air Force Base. I have a situation here I'm told you should be made aware of. Is this a secure line?"

"Yes, it is. Go ahead, soldier." He held out his hand to Shannon, and she took it and came closer, her brow lined with worry.

"Sir, there was an incident here at the base overnight. There was some kind of meeting of the heads of the Genesis Project, and they were killed outright. It appears that they were victims of a mutiny."

Shannon's hold tightened around his fingers. "This is Master Sergeant McMahon. Are there any survivors?"

"I have unconfirmed reports that Mr Spender and his assistant, an FBI Agent Fowley escaped unharmed. All other members of the team have been identified, Ma'am."

Knowle spoke. "Have you established live contact with them?"

"Not yet, Sir."

"Captain, who has taken provisional command of the Project?"

They listened, and Shannon's shoulders slumped. She looked ill.

"Thank you," he said after a moment, and he rang off.

"The Purists have control," she said. "Of all the possible ways it could have played out-" she broke off. "At least the Colonists were going to let the humans live."

"Some of them," he reminded her.

"Yes. But the human race would have survived. It was still better than this."

It was on the tip of his tongue to remind her that Purist ascendancy was a predictable outcome of her own renegade activities against the Colonists, but he decided against it. He said instead, "This changes nothing. We still have a job to do."

"Even when the government changes hands? Even when that government is not the government that made us? Knowle, if we ever owed them anything, the debt is paid. They're gone - they're all gone."

The idea that that might really be true was more than a little frightening.

"I don't accept that," he said. A little shaken. "The politics are irrelevant. They're not my affair. I do my part. It's what I was made for. That's all."

"We're hybrids, Knowle! Half-castes! You think we're going to have an easy time of it under the Purist rule?"

"So what? What are they going to do? Kill us?"

"You know, we're not invulnerable just because we can't be killed," she said, pacing the room. "They can make life very difficult for us. How would you like to be locked up for all eternity?"

He gave her a withering look. "You don't really think there's a prison that can hold us."

Shannon shrugged. "Maybe we'd just be drones. A slave race."

"That's no different to what I do now," he pointed out. "Unlike you, Shannon, I like following orders. And my loyalty has been repaid."

She snorted. "I wish you'd been that loyal to me."

"You were always my first loyalty, Shannon. It's your politics I have a problem with."

She sighed. "This is pointless." She turned and went to the door.

"Where are you going?"

"I'm going to try and find Spender and this woman Fowley. See what I can find out."

He shook his head. "You're going to go AWOL again, aren't you?"

She shot him an infuriated glare.

"You want to watch out, Shannon. You keep switching sides like this, and you're not going to have anyone left on yours."

"I could just do what you do and let the devil come to me, I suppose." Lightly scornful.

"Shannon," he warned, "the Purists aren't going to piss around like the humans. You defy them, and they'll send me after you over and over again. It won't be a couple of times a year - it'll be every step of the way. If you're gonna walk out of here, you have to tell me you understand and accept that as a consequence of your actions."

"No," she said. "I don't accept that. I don't accept that you can live that way."

"Shannon, we've been killing each other every time they told us to since we were five years old. You don't seriously think I'm going to stop now."

"Yeah, I do. Because you don't believe in it any more. I can see it in your eyes." She went to the door and opened it.

"You're wrong, Shannon," he called after her. It sounded hollow and forced, even to his own ears.

She just gave him a pitying smile and left him there.

~x~

She drifted in and out of his life after that. She appeared when he least expected it. Sometimes he would go to his bedroom in search of something and find her asleep in his bed, and he would wonder how long she had been there, because sometimes he didn't go in there for days.

"You know they've worked out how to turn humans like us now, don't you?" she said one evening. He hadn't heard her come into the study, but there she was, reflected in the window in front of him, floating there all in white like a ghost. Or maybe a poltergeist. She was certainly good at wreaking havoc. It would have been funny if he wasn't so damn tired of it.

In fact, he knew nothing of the sort, but he said, "So I heard." He spared a look at her reflection and then went back to his reports.

"This accelerates things," she warned. He revised his assessment. This time she was a fucking prophet of doom. "They don't have to wait to make more like us, and ease them into positions of power. They can just take over the people already there."

"It's still not our problem, Shannon. It's between the alien race and the humans. And in case it escaped your notice, we're neither."

"We're both! It's every bit as much our problem as theirs!"

He threw down his pen and sighed. Twisted in his chair to look at her. "I don't want to argue about this."

"Then what do you want to do?" she challenged, coming around him to sit on the edge of his desk before him. "Kill each other, or screw? Because it only ever seems to be one of those three for us."

"That wasn't my choice, Shannon." He held her gaze. "All these years you've been searching, and you're no happier for it. Are you?" She closed her eyes. Lips trembling a little. "We could have had a life together all that time." No reproach. Just a statement of fact.

She swallowed a little. "I know that, Knowle. I would if I could." She pulled away. Went to the door. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I just hate knowing you're unhappy, that's all." He sighed. Shuffled papers. Waiting for her to leave.

She turned back. Came to him, and leaned down and kissed him. "I do love you, Knowle."

He put a good face on it, but when she left, he felt bruised, and for the life of him, he couldn't work out why.

FIVE

He'd never held a human child.

The thought came to him in a nondescript hospital room in Washington. Doggett's friend Scully was there, pale, sleeping, hands braced tightly around her belly. He didn't need the files, or even those hands to tell him of the life she carried. He could feel it, the way he felt the life in the plants and the soil and the bees.

He kept looking at her hands.

The life she carried was special to his superiors, but he didn't think that was the source of his interest. He puzzled over it in his mind, but enlightenment was not forthcoming. He was not practiced in the art of introspection, and he felt like he was going into a tactical manoeuvre without a map. It unsettled him.

"Knowle!"

He looked up. John Doggett was standing in the doorway.

"John," he said. "Good to see you. Come in."

Doggett did as he was told. He opened his mouth to speak, but Knowle held up his hand. "She's fine. She was frightened - hysterical. We had to sedate her. She'll be awake within the hour."

John's lips were tight, but he nodded. "You want to tell me what happened out there, old buddy?"

"Not much to tell," he said. "I took a team out to Walden-Freeman Army Hospital, just like you asked. Scully was there with the other woman you mentioned."

"Mrs Hendershot. Is she okay?"

"She gave birth while we were in transit, but she's fine."

"Any problems with the baby?"

"Healthy boy, six pound eight," he said, manufacturing a wide smile. He thought about the grey alien thing mewing like a kitten in his arms. About feeling oddly connected to it. He'd killed it - those were his orders - but he felt nagging disgust when he did it, and that was unfamiliar.

John nodded. "And Scully?"

"She was hysterical," he said again. "She overreacted to everything in there, John. It's to be expected. I understand she lost her partner recently."

"We're still hoping to find him. I'm not giving up on Mulder yet." John's voice was mildly reproachful.

Knowle accepted the reproof without comment. "Well, nonetheless. She's carrying a lot of grief. A lot of fears about this baby of hers. It's all she's got left."

John stared at him.

Knowle suddenly realised that John hadn't known Scully was expecting. He felt momentary, malicious satisfaction, and that was new, too. What the hell was happening to him?

"Are you telling me she's pregnant?"

Knowle nodded. "She had an amnio done while she was in there. They taped it onto an old tape. She saw the previous patient's name on it and panicked - said they were showing her some other woman's tape so she wouldn't know what was really happening. All sorts of paranoid stuff. Then she took Mrs Hendershot and ran, and you know, you can't do that after an amnio. If we hadn't gotten there when we did-"

"Yeah. I know." John frowned. Looking at Scully and those hands of hers. "This explains some things."

"You really didn't know she was pregnant?" He wasn't sure whether he was fishing for information or just trying to twist the knife a little. He hoped it was the former. The latter was beneath him.

John shrugged. "Maybe I did know. She reminded me of Barb sometimes, when she was having Luke."

Knowle nodded. He didn't know what to say. They'd never discussed the son John lost. He'd never known how.

John said abruptly, "You ever think about kids, Knowle?"

"I can't have them," he said. Hoping to nip that line of discussion in the bud. His thoughts were too outof -focus, too disordered for him to make small talk about kids right now.

"Aw, hell, I'm sorry, Knowle. I didn't know."

"I was pretty young when they told me. I hadn't thought about having them, so it was pretty abstract." He shrugged easily. Trying to make light of it. This wasn't a conversation he wanted to have.

Clearly, he was unsuccessful, because John prompted, "But...?"

Shit. He grappled for something to say. Thought about that day with Lauderton. About that ache. That pang he'd felt.

"I felt displaced," he said after a moment. "Like I wasn't part of it any more."

"Part of what?"

"Nature. The life cycle. I dunno." But he did know. He didn't feel part of the bees.

"Yeah."

Knowle cleared his throat. "I have to go, John. Take care of your friend."

"Will do." John held out his hand. "Thanks for getting her out for me."

He shook it. Mustered a smile. "Yeah."

He walked away, but the unease lingered.

~x~

By the time Scully came to term, he and John were no longer on such good terms.

John suspected him of complicity with the enemy, though he was not sure who the enemy was. And, of course, he was absolutely right. Knowle wondered if John had ever realised that he was positioned alongside Scully precisely because of his past association with Knowle. But he doubted it. John wasn't that paranoid - not yet.

But he was smart enough to know when he was out of options, and for that reason, he hadn't entirely cut ties with Knowle. He didn't come to him for help any more, but nor did he walk away when Knowle came to him. To Knowle, this dance of mutual caution was perfectly acceptable - hell, he'd done it for close to twenty years with Shannon - and the resentment he sensed in John bewildered him.

Shannon was keeping an eye on the case, too. He assumed that this was because of his own involvement, but now and then he allowed himself the nightmarish thought that perhaps she had been watching John all along. He told himself that it was stupid and irrational, that John was just one of a very long stream of men for her, but he was never quite able to erase the memory of her covering herself that night from his mind. And the fact that she was always close by when he talked to John did not improve matters in the slightest.

"Please tell me you're not going to kill that baby," she said one evening while he undressed.

"You and I have got to talk about doorbells sometime," he said, unknotting his tie and draping it over the chair.

"You don't have one," she said deadpan.

"That's because you never use one." He stripped off his suit and nodded to the washbasket on the bed beside her. "Pass my shirt?"

She complied, but said nothing. Waiting.

He sighed. "You don't know anything about it."

She got up and buttoned his shirt for him, as though he were a child under her care. This amused him somehow. "I know Dana Scully is on the run waiting to deliver and I know you're after her. And I know the alien race thinks her child is important. You do the math."

"For your information, my orders are to protect Scully - and her baby." He pulled away and picked up his trousers. Sat down on the bed to put them on.

She stared at him. "What? Who from? Why?"

"The why, I can't answer," he said, peering in the mirror, more from habit than anything. "They need the baby alive - that's all I know."

"Then who?"

He turned to face her. "Fox Mulder."

"Mulder?" she demanded. "Are you insane? Mulder's the father!"

"Mulder and Scully let her daughter die in 1997 to keep her out of the hands of the old Syndicate," he pointed out. "Mulder is prone to self-interest, that's true, but we can't count on that. There have been instances where he's put the big picture first, especially during his early years on the X Files. He can't be discounted as a possible risk."

She stared at him. Somewhat mollified. "What do you have?"

He came and sat down beside her. "We know their old Syndicate contact Krycek implied to Skinner months ago that Scully's baby needed to die in order to thwart colonisation. I tracked Krycek to Skinner's office - he was there with Mulder and Skinner and John Doggett. He's probably told them what he knows."

Shannon frowned. "So Mulder knows they need the baby."

He nodded. "Pretty much. The behavioural psych team are saying that if he delivers Scully's baby, there's a forty percent chance he'll kill it at birth and tell Scully it was stillborn. The numbers drop right off once he's seen Scully bond with it, but the birth is a danger zone."

She still looked dubious. "You don't really believe that."

"I didn't. But I learned today that he told Doggett not to tell him where Scully is, and now, I'm not so sure. I think he's afraid of himself. Of his own thoughts and fears about this baby."

"I don't like it." She got to her feet and paced a little. It annoyed him.

"Would you rather I killed it?" he enquired. "After all, it's starting to look like that might be in the humans' interests."

She glared at him. "Don't be an asshole."

His head hurt. "Jesus, Shannon, you're never happy. You didn't like it when you thought I was out to kill the kid. Now you're angry because I'm out to protect it. Just when am I going to measure up to your expectations? What the hell do you want from me?"

"I want you to feel!" she hissed. "I want you to stop calling that baby 'it'. I want you to acknowledge that we're talking about a life here. Something that matters, even if, in the end, it has to be killed. I want you to acknowledge that we live in a world of shitty choices and that's worth grieving for, even when we can't do anything to fix it. That's what I want." She made a sound of frustration. "You know what your problem is, Knowle? Your immortality. You don't value life because it isn't precious to you. You're so goddamn sure of it. Because you were never threatened. And you never let yourself love anyone who was."

That was rich, coming from someone who made a career of fucking up her own. "No, Shannon. It's just that everything I ever had that made it precious, you threw back in my face."

She gave a sharp, humourless laugh. "Don't you put that on me, you bastard. It wasn't my job to save you from how they made you."

"No. You just come back again and again to throw it in my face. As though I owe you being any different, when you were the one who walked away." He pinched the ridge of his nose. "I'm so fucking tired of fighting."

"You're tired?" she scoffed, leaning back against the dresser. "You don't even know everything they took from us."

"I know we can't have children, if that's what you're getting at," he said. He looked away.

She stared at him. Stared for a good half-minute. Her face was white.

"Oh, my God," she said finally, in a very different voice. "That's why you're doing this, isn't it? Why you want to protect it? It's got nothing to do with the mission."

He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. "I'm just doing my job."

"Knowle-"

He rose up and grabbed her by the wrist. "It's just my job, dammit, it's my job!"

She stared up at him. Ashen. She rested her free hand on his chest and patted him there. Trembling a little. "All right, Knowle. It's your job. All right."

He stared down at her wrist. If she'd been human he'd have broken it. He released her, ashamed of his outburst. "Sorry."

"It's all right." She said in wonder, "I've never seen you like this."

"I've just got a lot on my mind. I'm fine."

"I can see that."

The way she was looking at him. As though looking at him for the first time. He felt exposed, and he'd never felt that way with her before.

What the hell was happening to him?

"I need to go, Shannon." He grabbed his jacket. Not looking at her. "Lock the door on your way out."

~x~

"You know, it doesn't pay to leave your doors unlocked," Knowle said, sliding neatly into the passenger seat of Krycek's car. "I think you're slipping."

Krycek didn't turn a hair. "What do you want, Knowle?"

Knowle liked Krycek. No bullshit, no mind-games or ball-breaking. At worst, a wisecrack or two, but then it was straight down to business. Krycek was all about the work and that woman of his, and to hell with everything else. Knowle liked that. Krycek was the kind of guy Knowle would've liked to have under his command, if not for the fact that Krycek was essentially ungovernable.

Also, Krycek knew what he was, and that was oddly freeing.

"Just drive," he said.

"You know, I'd sure like to know what it is with you people. You're always telling me to drive somewhere. Are they too cheap to spring for a taxi for you guys these days?" There was no malice in Krycek's voice.

Knowle just smiled. He had been shaken when he left Shannon, but that was over now. He was serene.

"FBI parking garage."

Krycek obeyed.

"You want to tell me what this is about?" Krycek said when he parked the car at Knowle's request.

Knowle nodded towards the rear-view mirror. "See that car behind us? It's Mulder and Doggett."

"And I suppose there's a reason that you've blown your cover by having me drive up in front of them with you in the car?"

"I might go up in their estimation, actually. But as it happens, it doesn't really matter any more." He turned to face him. "It's all unravelling. They know the Purists have infiltrated the FBI now. Mulder's right on the edge."

Krycek frowned. "On the edge of what?"

"Finding out where Scully is. If he does, it's in your best interests to stop him. You know he's gonna kill that baby if he gets the chance. You can see it eating at him. Why else would he have given Scully to you? He wanted you to do it so he wouldn't have to." Knowle was less sure of Mulder than he sounded, but that wouldn't get Krycek moving nearly so well.

Krycek gave a sour laugh. "I've been trying to get someone to kill that kid for months. Why would I stop him now?"

"Same reason you didn't just do it yourself when you had the chance. You know it needs to be done, Krycek, but deep down, you don't want blood that innocent on your hands." Knowle looked at him, not without sympathy. "I like you, Krycek, but this is a war you can't win. You may as well try and salvage something of yourself if you can."

Krycek snorted. "Tell me, has that line ever worked for you?"

"I'm just telling you how I see it." Knowle looked away. He hadn't wanted to play this particular card, but it didn't look like he had a choice. "Of course, you could let him kill it. And then I'd have to tell the Purists that there is an alternative."

Krycek turned to look at him, face pasty and white. "What alternative?"

"That this is not the only infant you couldn't bring yourself to kill." He was thinking of a house by the sea in Mexico. A blonde woman who bore Krycek's name, though she was not his wife. Delicate, pale, heavy with his child. A secret Knowle had kept, even from his own superiors, and he didn't even know why.

Krycek swallowed. "Get out of my car."

"I haven't told them about her," he said. "And I won't. Not as long as Scully's baby lives."

"Just get out of my car."

Knowle felt vaguely dirty.

~x~

He thought about Krycek a lot over the next few days.

It wasn't just Krycek, who died in his bid to stop Mulder from going to Scully. It wasn't even Mulder himself, who put a safe distance between himself and his son just days after the boy was born. It was the whole picture. The mass of human contradictions. The killer who gave his life to keep two children safe, against all good sense. The father, torn between the instinct to protect his son and the inexorable logic that the boy must die. There was something oddly compelling about the human drama of it all.

Knowle puzzled over this, trying to make the pieces form a coherent picture, but he couldn't. It was too messy, the edges too jagged. And yet it was just a little too noble, too decent for him to completely dismiss as human trivia. He had the same uneasy feeling he'd had with John Doggett in Beirut: a kind of low understanding.

But even that wasn't the heart of it, because he had known decent humans before. They weren't the most common breed of them, but they were there. He'd known them in General Lauderton, in Mrs Pendleton, in the people he'd served with in the Gulf and Beirut. It was something deeper. Something to do with Mulder and Scully's son, maybe. Or maybe about how he would be used. He knew, deep down, that even if the child had died that day, he would never have told his superiors of the existence of the other one. As far as he was aware, they still didn't know, and they would never learn of it from him.

He was not sentimental about human life. Never had been. Human death was as inexorable as the rising and setting of the sun. Soldiers knew it, accepted it, and Knowle understood that. They were at peace with what they were, and with their ultimate fate, just as Knowle was with his.

But that was adults. Soldiers. And he counted Fox Mulder, Alex Krycek, and their ilk among those. Less formal soldiers, to be sure, but soldiers just the same.

But a child. Even he and Shannon had not been involved in war as children. Childhood was a time of formation, not a time for war. Even to Knowle's sensibilities (which were undoubtedly dulled by his upbringing), it was unacceptable. So was the taking over of the humans - so much worse than simply killing them. It was like skewering them on a stick and using electric shocks to make them dance. Alive, but subject to the whims of another, all choices gone. He knew it was wrong, the way he'd known instinctively that Kurt hurting Samantha was wrong, all those years before.

He was not devoid of human instinct, he supposed. Certainly, he had human appetites. Sex. Warmth. Comfort. Love. He could exist without them - maybe that was the difference - but he wanted them. Hungered for them. Hungered for Shannon, every goddamn day. Did it not follow that he knew other human instincts as well?

He abhorred waste, in all its forms. Wasted time, wasted energy, wasted life. He abhorred senseless violence. Violence with cause, with purpose, well, he could tolerate that. It didn't disturb him. But the petty, purposeless violence humans inflicted on one another every day - so needless. So reprehensible. He had no horror of inflicting death, but he still honoured life where he could.

It occurred to him, mulling it over, that he probably had more respect for life than Shannon gave him credit for.

But what did that mean? He didn't even know who to ask.

He could ask Shannon. Certainly, she would understand the things stirring in himself. And yet it seemed like ratifying every bad thing she'd ever thought about him. He wasn't ready to do that, because he didn't believe that. He'd had something to offer her, and she threw it away.

"Do you remember what I told you? About following the bees?" Lauderton asked him when he unburdened himself. He was eighty now, and he still loved his petunias. They sat there planting them in his garden while Knowle said what he needed to say.

"Yes, Sir."

"Don't yessir me, Knowle. I've known you since you were wiping your snot on your sleeve, for Chrissake."

Knowle laughed, and hot on the heels of laughter came nostalgia. He felt the unfamiliar taste of salt rising up in his throat. He looked away, blinking, and wondered again - what the hell was happening to him?

If Lauderton noticed, he didn't say so. He said in that rumbling voice of his, "Tell me something. Where does the queen get her authority?"

"She gives birth to the hive. She looks after them."

"Good," Lauderton said, as though they were back in the sunroom at the Ark with their schoolbooks again. "And are these Purists - are they looking after the hive? The ones who serve?"

He thought about it. Shook his head.

"They're eating them alive."

"There's your answer, boy," he said. Clapped his hand on his shoulder. "Follow the bees. You won't go far wrong."

~x~

Shannon came to him three days later.

"We have a problem," she said, closing his front door behind her. Wonder of wonders, she knocked first. He wondered if that was a good sign, or a bad one.

"We?" he queried, making room for her on the couch beside him.

"Thanks," she said, dropping down at his side. She helped herself to a piece of his pizza without asking. "The work that created us, and has created others like us, continues."

"That's not exactly news."

"No. But there are plans to get it into the water supply. To induce it as a mutation in children of human mothers."

He stared at her. Oddly outraged. Something flickered in him, perhaps an ancestor of a paternal instinct. Something he might have had if they'd been allowed to reproduce themselves. To conceive a child, and have it turn out to be something other than you both - the thought of it horrified him.

"How do you know?" he said at last. He felt cold.

"Two whistleblowers approached me," she said briskly between bites on her pizza. "I killed them." It occurred to him that for all her principles, Shannon never hesitated to kill when it suited her.

"You killed them?" he echoed. "Why? Why not use them to stop it, if that's what you want to do?"

She shook her head. "It's not that simple. There will be records about us. If it were to be exposed that way, we'd be exposed, too. At the very least, there would be cellular material people could study and use. Maybe even use it to craft some sort of weapon against us."

He stared at her. "You don't really think that's possible."

"Let's just say I don't want to find out." She looked down at her pizza. "This is good."

"You're buying the next one. What do you need from me?"

"I need you to track down the base of operations and rip it apart. Kill them, blow it up, whatever you need to do. I don't want it exposed, Knowle, but I want it to stop."

"All right." It was tantamount to working against the Purists, and he wondered if her curiosity would be piqued by his ready agreement, but she didn't seem to recognise that that was what it boiled down to. On the whole, he was relieved. He felt vaguely selfconscious about his growing disloyalty to the Purists. Was it just a fear of admitting he may have been wrong? Was he really that petty?

"There's another problem," Shannon said. "An assistant director at the FBI has been digging around the first guy's death. Guy named Kersh. Now John Doggett's in on the act. He's tried to contact me."

A wrinkle of irritation passed through him. So that was why she was preoccupied. "Wonderful."

"Don't worry about John. I'll distract him while you do what you need to do." He didn't ask how she intended to do that. He didn't want to know.

"All right," he said, swallowing his dismay. "Tell me what you have."

~x~

He woke to the salty, sour taste of polluted water. Baltimore water.

Lovely.

Gradually, as higher thought returned, he became aware that Shannon was tugging him by the hand. Dragging him ashore. She dumped him on the sand, and then she kicked him in the stomach. Hard.

"You son of a bitch!" she screamed at him.

"What the-" He stared up at her. Trying to make sense of it. He focussed on her face, looming over him in a perfect fever of fury. He remembered blowing up the ship and the evidence within it. John was there, he remembered - had he rejected Shannon a second time? - and then -

It came back in a rush. He'd tried to kill John. Shannon had stopped him. They fell into the water together. She must have taken his head off - that was why it was unclear. His memories were still reassembling themselves in his mind.

Did John see that? Shit.

"You bastard!" she yelled. "You were going to kill John!"

His head hurt. He stayed there on his back, grimacing. "You told me to blow it up and kill everyone. So we wouldn't be exposed."

"Oh, fucking bullshit! He didn't even make it in there before you tried to rip his fucking face apart, and since when are you that fucking brutal anyway? You're fucking jealous of him! You've always been jealous of him!"

He didn't think he'd heard her swear so much since they were in combat.

"You were the one who dragged him into this, Shannon. Don't lay this on me. Believe me, I'd have preferred it if you'd left him out of it altogether." He winced. The lights were hurting his eyes. They were brand new, after all.

"Bullshit. You wanted him there and you wanted him dead. I wouldn't be surprised if you led him down there to begin with."

"It was the goddamn ship's captain. He was the third whistleblower. Remember the whistleblowers? The ones who started all this? Jesus, Shannon, you've had a blind spot for him ever since fucking Lebanon. You whore yourself around to anyone human with balls and he's the one fucking man who didn't shove it into you, and you've been carrying a torch for him ever since."

Her face was flushed, hot and pink under the lights. Twisted with humiliation. "Fuck you, Knowle."

He pulled himself away from her. Sitting up. "No, fuck you. You demand my help after treating me like shit for twenty years, cost me my job - I can't fucking go back into a public position after this! - and then you throw him in my face like that? That's bullshit!"

Tears were flowing freely down her cheeks now. "You are half the man he is. Not even half. I thought you'd changed, but now you're worse. Because you know better now, and you're still doing that same old shit." Her voice broke a little. "You're an empty shell, serving an army of them. Everything I ever loved about you is gone." She turned and ran off into the night.

He slammed his head down on the sand and wished she'd damn well left him down there.

~x~

He went to Canada.

It was deserted now. The Samanthas and the Kurts were gone. He didn't know why. He didn't really care. It was a relief.

He went there on the basis that he had to go somewhere while Doggett turned his old stamping grounds upside down. He was annoyed by the loss of his work in the Pentagon. That had been a comfortable life. Still, he'd known that would end sooner or later. That wasn't what had sent him running to the shelter of the only home he'd ever known.

More than anything, it was the confrontation on the beach, but that wasn't the whole story either. There was something growing within him, rolling in lazily like the tide. Since at least that day in Washington with Doggett, but maybe even earlier than that. Maybe ever since the Purists came into power.

Whatever it was, it had culminated in the fury that had tumbled out of him, first with Doggett, and then with Shannon. Some of the things he'd said to her - he didn't even know where half of it had come from. There was a hostility, an anger of which he'd never been conscious in himself before.

Uneasily, he wondered if he were really so at peace with himself and his lot as he liked to think.

He spent a lot of his time in the shadehouse with the bees. Human neglect of their environment had been immaterial; they were self-sufficient. The ginseng germinated wild, and the bees continued down their simple, time-worn path. He let them swarm over him. He enjoyed their humming, droning sounds, and he found their labours soothing. Little by little, over the next few weeks, he felt his mind grow still.

He was in the shadehouse when she found him.

"Great minds think alike," she said.

He didn't turn around. Just kept on studying the bee travailing his palm. "I came here to be alone."

"Do you want me to go?"

He shook his head. "It's your home too." He deposited the bee onto a leaf and picked up another.

"How are they?" she wondered, coming over. She sat down beside him.

"Seem fine. They have a food source. Numbers are up."

She rested her hand on his shoulder. Fingertips brushing the ridges in his neck. "Knowle..."

He shrugged her off. "Shannon, I've only just stopped thinking about that night and I would really rather not revisit it."

"I don't think we should stop thinking about it," she said. "I think it needed to happen. I think we said a lot of things that had been festering for a long time. For both of us."

"And what does it change?" he wondered. "You don't want to be who you are. You don't want what I am, or what we have. You spend your life chasing pipe-dreams and men who let you down. I've been there all our lives, always done everything you ever asked, and it isn't enough for you. And no amount of talking is going to change any of it. It's just the way things are."

She sighed. "I love you, Knowle. I just can't live with you." She got to her feet. "I think I should go."

He swallowed hard. Sat there, cold and numb in the morning sun.

"I love you too. If it matters."

She nodded. "It does."

He didn't believe her.

~x~

The last time he saw her was the night before...before...

Before it. Whatever 'it' was.

She was standing there in the middle of the road in the middle of the night, just over the New Mexico border. Waiting. Hair and clothes all fluttering in the wind.

He sighed. Pulled over. Got out of the SUV.

"What do you want, Shannon?"

She walked around the front to face him. They stood facing each other in the middle of the highway. She looked at him, sad, wraith-like, face pale and thin in the dim light of dawn.

"Don't do this, Knowle. Please."

So she knew he was after Mulder and Scully. He wondered where she was getting her information these days. Doggett, maybe? The idea stung.

"I might have known you'd get involved," he said. "What with John and all."

"It isn't about John," she said. "It was never about John."

"Then what is it?"

"I love you, Knowle. I'm so sick of fighting with you."

He reached out. Squeezed her hand, let it go. Leaned against the SUV.

"I have to finish this one, Shannon," he said. Looking away. "It's my mission. I accepted it. I have...I have responsibilities."

She stared at him. "And after this one?"

He shrugged. Shifting uneasily. "A lot of things don't feel right these days. That's all."

"You'd really walk?"

"I don't know." He met her gaze. "Maybe."

She came to him. Eyes glittering with tears. "Knowle, you don't know what this means to me."

It pissed him off. This was exactly why he didn't tell her what he was thinking, what he was feeling a year ago. He felt like she was claiming his - his - his whatever-it-was as her victory. As though she'd finally succeeded in moulding him into whatever the hell it was she wanted. Somehow, her joy managed to take all her dissatisfaction with what he was and amplify it until it burned. "Goddamn it, Shannon, stop it. Just fucking stop it. This isn't about you. I'm not your knight in shining armour. I'm just the guy who wasn't enough." He pushed her away and went to the SUV.

He felt her hands on his shoulders. "Knowle, don't."

"It's my job."

"I don't mean Mulder and Scully. I mean - you didn't do anything wrong. I'm sorry I made you feel like you did."

He leaned his head against the door. "I'm just so tired."

"Do you sleep, Knowle?" she wondered. Her voice was kind.

He shook his head. "Not for years."

"You should," she chided gently. "It's good for the soul."

He smiled a little. "I only sleep with you."

"You should come see me when you're finished up here. We'll have a sleep date."

He laughed. A weary laugh, but a laugh just the same. "A sleep date?" he said, turning to face her.

She looked little sheepish. "I felt bad about how we left things last time, Knowle. I'd like things to be better between us. One way or another, you're always going to be part of my life."

"Whether you like it or not, huh?"

"Knowle-"

"Sorry," he said. She was trying, after all. "I'm just-"

"I know. Tired." She nodded to the SUV. "Go do what you need to do. I'll see you back in DC."

He nodded. Kissed her diffidently. "I love you, Shannon."

"Same."

He got into the SUV and left her.

SIX

He feels light penetrating the darkness.

He blinks a little. Looks around him. He's in the sunroom. Their sunroom.

He's in Canada.

He gets to his feet. He's naked. There are clothes at the foot of his cot. T-shirt and track pants. He puts them on, more from force of habit than anything. Takes one, lingering look out the window at the dawning light, and then he goes in search of Shannon. Who else would have brought him here?

He passes through the kitchen. Stops for a glass of water. When he turns to leave, he sees something out of place, something that gives him pause.

Sitting there on the floor in the corner is a white steel barrel, with an attachment he doesn't recognise. McMahon Industries, the legend reads. Property of Chemical Separation Unit, Albuquerque. Liquid nitrogen. Authorised personnel only. That word, nitrogen, arouses some faint twinge of memory - but beyond that, it suggests nothing to him. He touches the side, but it isn't cold. Whatever it was used for, it isn't being used now.

He frowns a little, mentally filing his odd find for future reference, and moves on.

The lounge room is familiar, yet different. The old lounge is still there, but there are belongings he doesn't recognise. Old, dog-eared paperbacks. The curtains are different. It all seems so much smaller than he remembered.

He reaches their bedroom. Looks inside.

Shannon's there.

He goes in and closes the door gently behind him. "Shannon?" he says. She doesn't stir. Again, louder, "Shannon?"

She opens her eyes. Gasps a little.

"Knowle," she whispers. Sitting up. Gray t-shirt all askew on her shoulder. She holds his gaze for a long moment. Swallows a little. She pulls back the covers, making room.

He goes to her, and slips into bed at her side. She wraps her arms around him. Trembling. She clings to him, holds him tight. Kisses his hair. Fiercely tender.

He holds her too. Bewildered. He's never seen her like this before. When she finally releases him, her eyes glitter with unshed tears, and that only unsettles him more.

"Shannon?" he says. "What's wrong?"

She laughs a little through her tears. "It's a long story, Knowle." She strokes his neck. Says oddly, "You don't know how long."

He doesn't understand. But she's suffered, that much is clear, and he leans in closer and kisses her. The only thing he's known how to give her. The only thing she would accept.

She gives a hitching breath into his mouth, and then she kisses him too.

She smiles a little when they break apart. Keeps her hands on his chest. Doesn't seem to want to let him go.

"Do you know how you got here?" she says at last.

He shakes his head. "I was in New Mexico. I was trying to stop John Doggett and Agent Reyes. They were helping Mulder and Scully."

She nods. "Yeah, I knew about that."

He thinks about it. His brow furrows. "I felt this kind of - pull - when I got close to the ruins. Like a current. And then my skin started to burn. I remember looking at my hands. I was confused." Shannon swallows hard. "That's the last thing I remember. After that, everything gets fragmented. I remember starting to become aware again, but I think that was later."

She gives a short, sharp laugh. "You could say that." She releases him, settling in under the covers, still facing him. "I had to wait until it was safe."

"Wait for what?" he wonders, moving down beside her. "I don't understand."

She sighs. Runs her fingers through his hair, frowning a little. "The quarry, and those ruins in particular, contain large deposits of magnetite. Magnetite is harmful to us, Knowle. I wasn't sure if I was going to get you back at all."

He stares at her. Uncomprehending. "What do you mean, you weren't sure?" Then, nervously, "I mean - well, we can't die." But looking at her, he suddenly isn't so sure of that any more.

She meets his gaze in the dim light. "Yes, we can."

She's so quiet, so sure, that it doesn't occur to him to doubt her. There is a gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach - a void collapsing in on itself. He tries to comprehend the idea that he might one day cease to exist, and he can't do it. Tries to fathom his own fundamental absence, and it's too big, too dark and devoid to fit into the confines of his mind.

She watches him. Sees it all unfold in his face. Her look is kind. He touches her hair. Breathing hard. His fingers are shaking.

A thousand memories assault him. How many times has he brutalised her? Shoved her over or run her down or lanced deep into her flesh with his bare hands? How many times has he swept her out of the way of some goal or other, blindly thinking she'd be all right just because she always was? He feels something within him shatter - some complacency, some inner calm - and he is overwhelmed with an urge to possess and protect. To hold on, and never let her go.

In the space of an instant, his world changes. She changes. Becomes fragile and precious.

How do people live with it? How do they can keep on going when any moment could be their last? How do they love? How can they risk it?

For the first time, he knows real fear, and it is crippling.

"All those times," he manages at last. "I never thought-"

"Yeah," she says. "I know."

Of course she does. His fingers sink deeper into her hair, cradling her, tugging her close. Trembling. His mouth finds hers, fierce and demanding, breaths caught and hitching, and her hands rise up between them to pull him closer still. "Knowle," she whispers. Tugs him down on top of her. Her palms search the planes of his back, her thighs entwine with his, and her mouth is urgent and hungry. He kisses her, feasts on her, no tenderness, no finesse. She's hot and vibrant and alive and he has to be inside her, has to feel her around him and know she's still alive, still there, still his.

"Shannon, Shannon, God," he breathes as his lips travel over her jaw, her pulsing throat. He wants to take off her shirt, but he can't seem to let go of her to do it. Can't seem to stop devouring her. He blurts between frantic kisses, "Need to - Shannon, need you, got to -" and he can't finish, he can't think, he just needs, and nothing else is clear any more. But she understands, she nods and gasps out half-formed words into his hair, and she reaches down between them and scrambles to free him from his track pants. Strong palms caress him and guide him inside her. He can feel the elastic of her panties where she pulled them aside. Slick warmth closes around him, and it takes just one stroke, two, and a third for her to begin to seize around him, sharp breaths falling from parted lips, and that sends him racing towards his climax. It's all over too fast, too soon, but they stay there, mouths searching, feeding off one another until his body slips free of hers.

Their kisses slow. Urgency abated. Muted. Tender.

"Sorry," he murmurs, touching his forehead to hers. Calmer now, and a little sheepish.

There's a hint of laughter in her voice. "There's always next time." She kisses him with simple fondness and releases him.

His good humour fades. "Is there?" He eases off her, settling in beside her. Rests his head on the pillow beside hers and kisses her temple. He kicks off his pants and pushes them onto the floor with his feet.

She turns her head to face him. "It does get better, Knowle. You learn to deal in probabilities instead of certainties. It's not so bad."

"You seem so calm about it." He can't quite keep the reproach from his voice.

She shrugs a little. "I've had a lot longer to adjust."

"How long?"

She looks away. "You have to understand, Knowle. A lot's happened. There was a war. We used magnetite against the alien race. I couldn't do...what I did until I was sure they couldn't use the information to try to invade again. They might have used it on William. They might have tried to make him into what they needed again."

"How long, Shannon?" he says again. Suspicions mounting. She had to wait for William to die. That's what she's getting at.

Her voice is small and thin. "Eighty-seven years."

"Eighty-" he breaks off, breath catching in his throat.

She turns her head to look at him. Pale. Ravaged. "Knowle," she says, dragging his name out like an endless sigh. When, impulsively, he kisses her, her lips tremble like crumbling leaves. Hot tears spill over her cheeks. "I missed you," she whispers. "I wanted you with me so bad."

He feels her grief like an ache, a heavy burden on his chest. The pain of separation is pain he understands, and he feels heat rising in his face. His beautiful, strong Shannon is undone in a way he's never seen before, and it tears something inside him to shreds. It's all wrong, all out of kilter. Messy. Vulnerable. Mortal. Unsettling and terrible and fuck, she's beautiful like this, all askew, all out of place, just because she missed him.

He's going mad. They're both going mad.

"Shannon," he says. It comes out as a plea.

She silences him with a kiss, rising up, leaning over him, holding his face with her palms. He plunges his hands into her hair, all glossy and black, urging her down as sounds of grief meld into longing. Strong hands push his shirt up his side, kneading, grasping, moulding to his contours and learning them all over again.

Eighty-seven years, he thinks. He can't remember the time between, but he feels the loss, just the same. She transmits it in her kiss, in her touch. In the way his name mingles with her breaths like a mantra.

His hand lingers on the ridges of her neck. Traces them. Relishing them, their mark, his mark, her mark, branded on her. On each other. It's never been arousing for them, but now she sighs for him when he does it. "So long," she whispers, "so long." She meets him, kisses all fiery and eager, sighing out his name.

It's longer this time. Slower. Her touch is reverent. She's never touched him that way before. It perplexes him. Pleases him. Humbles him.

"Mine," he whispers when they come.

She strokes his hair. Holds him with weary eyes. "Yes," she says. "Yours." He can still feel her body throbbing lazily around him. Tapering off into a low hum, then growing still.

"They should have let you choose, Shannon," he says. It is a truth that comes to him, and he doesn't even know why. Something to do with the tiredness in her voice. The slow acceptance of a destiny she never wanted.

She comes to rest against him. Draping her body over his. "Yeah," she says. Fingers drifting across his chest. He closes his hand over hers. "They took so much. From both of us."

Both of them? He doesn't believe that. He believes he would never have had her if she'd had the choice she wanted. The knowledge hurts him, makes him look away, swallowing hard. Feeling the unfamiliar smell and taste of tears. They don't come all the way up, but he can feel their aftertaste like bile. She loves him, yes, but deep down, she doesn't want him.

He wishes she hadn't told him. He never ached for her like this when he thought they would live forever. When he thought there would always be time to make it right. He never hurt before he knew there could be loss.

"You should sleep, Knowle," she says. Half-asleep herself. "It's good for the soul."

He manages, "Yeah. Maybe I will."

He does sleep in the end, and it helps, but it isn't enough.

Kind of like him.

~x~

When he wakes, the sun is high in the sky, and Shannon is gone.

He finds her in the kitchen, washing up. She greets him with a smile and goes back to what she's doing. He hoists himself up on the counter top and talks to her while she does it.

"Are you hungry?" she says. "This place has been abandoned for years now, and most of the crops are dead, but there's processed stuff over there." She nods to a large carton with the same logo as the barrel he saw last night. He notes that the barrel itself is gone.

He shakes his head. "McMahon Smallgoods?" he queries, raising an eyebrow.

"Strictly a sideline. We ship food to the miners, and it was cheaper for us to source it ourselves. The main thing is the mining. There are defence contracts."

"You mine magnetite for the DOD," he says.

"Well, the Department of Defence no longer exists, but for the modern equivalent, yes."

"That's how you found me?"

Shannon shifts a little. Clearly uncomfortable. "What there was to find, yeah."

"I don't understand."

She sighs. "I knew roughly where to look. John didn't report what happened at the time, but he and his wife - Reyes - testified about it after the war. They reported that you'd been - well - kind of sucked into the rock. It was like you were burnt up and absorbed." The lines of her jaw are hard, but she doesn't look at him. "Anyway. I got the coordinates by comparing their testimony with Fox Mulder's, and some other things - old defence files, GIS data, that kind of thing. So I knew where to look, but I didn't really know what I was looking for. Or whether there was anything to find." She pulls the plug and dries her hands on a dish towel. Swallowing hard.

"What did you find?"

"Nothing, for a long time," she says. "I had the area mined, separated out byproducts in chemical treatment plants - it's taken years. It was maddening. I wanted to go out there and dig myself, but of course, I couldn't." He nods. It would have taken her, too. "Eventually, my miners found metallic deposits that weren't indigenous to the region, adhered to the magnetite itself. A cluster of it in a small area. I wasn't sure, but-" she trails off, helplessly.

"So you collected it," he says. Held rigid on the counter top. Beginning to understand how complete his destruction had been. Blindly, stupidly, he'd assumed she'd found his body. His skeleton, still whole, merely immobilised in stone. Something like that. But this -

"There wasn't much," she says. He wishes she'd stop saying that. "I put together what I could. When I'd found as much as I could, I warmed it - you - whatever," she says, fumbling for a pronoun, "trying to get it to regenerate. But it was slow. It tried to rebuild, but it wasn't fast like before. It was like watching mercury rise on low heat."

"So you brought me here."

She nods.

"To bring me back? Or let me die?"

"Don't say it like that, Knowle," she says, looking away. "This was the one place we made things grow. Where we created things instead of destroying them. It just - made sense to come here. If there was anything left, this place would help. And if there wasn't, then it would end here. Where we were happy. That's all." She looks away. Stiff. Hurting. Trying not to let it show.

He thinks that if he were a mortal man in a movie of the week (do those even exist any more?) then he would hold her instead of sitting there in shock. Then he remembers he is a mortal man and reaches out. It feels awkward and forced, but she comes to him, and then it's okay. The way she fits in the crook of his arm feels okay.

"It took a long time," she says at last. Strokes his arm, moulding to muscle and tracing contours. "We've been here for months. And I didn't know if you'd still have your memories, your brain function - I was so scared I was bringing back an empty shell."

He wonders what she would have done with him if that had been the case. He doesn't ask. He suspects he wouldn't like the answer.

"I thought you thought I was an empty shell the first time around," he says finally.

She draws away. "I never thought that. It was a horrible thing to say. I should never have said that to you." She stands back. Hugging herself.

He doesn't understand her. Doesn't even recognise her. Can't bridge the gap between then and now. Where is the cocksure, jaded woman he left behind? He hated her at least half the time, but he knew her. The changes in her seem as terrible now as they were beautiful the night before.

He wonders why she brought him back. Loneliness? Obligation? What the hell does she want from him? He doesn't know what she wants, or how to give it to her, and with a sinking heart, he realises he never did.

Did she bring him back to sever the ties that bind them, once and for all?

He has to get out of there.

"I need to think, Shannon," he says. "I'm going for a walk."

She nods, still hugging herself, but he doesn't wait for a reply.

~x~

He doesn't deliberate about it. Not really. Whatever the changes of the last twelve hours, he is, after all, a soldier. He was raised for this. For making hard choices, and carrying them through.

The pain, though. Loss. Sacrifice. That's new. New, and brutal. He has been ripped apart in body more than once, and it didn't hurt - he isn't made that way - but he felt wrenching, and that's what this feels like, too.

Only this time it does hurt. It hurts a lot.

But the hurt is irrelevant. She needs him to go. She needs it to end. That's why she brought him back, so he could set her free. He realises that deep down he knew it all along.

It will be, perhaps, his final task. His final assignment in the tour of duty they began over a century before. And then, maybe, somehow, he can learn to simply live. He can shape himself into this new existence he has, mortal and alone. Thinking about it, he thinks that his mortality is, perhaps, not such a blow after all. He won't self-destruct without her (he isn't made that way, either), but he doesn't want to live forever without her.

He walks a little. He thinks about the stories of human men. Movies and books. He thinks he's supposed to cry now, but he doesn't remember how.

Finally, he turns around, back towards their home, and prepares himself for what needs to be done.

~x~

He finds her in the shadehouse.

She's tending to crops. The strawberries are still there, but the tomatoes are gone, replaced by what looks like ginseng. She kneels there in the dirt with her trowel, wiping sweat off her face, hair pulled back any old how, and he feels waves of nostalgia wash over him.

Quiet. Comfort.

Peace.

He wonders if this is how the humans mean it after all. If this is how they love, and the swelling music and the pretty words are just because they don't know how to explain it, so they try to explain how much it matters instead.

He realises it doesn't matter what it is. What matters is that it's theirs.

"Shannon?"

She looks up at him with such simple pleasure that he wonders for a moment if he was wrong. The love there is so clear.

But then, it always was. Love was never the problem. It was everything else that brought them undone.

"Come and talk to me, Knowle," she says, and she goes back to her digging.

So he does. He comes and sits with her, and she talks. Her voice is soporific in the afternoon sun. She talks about the crops coming back. The irrigation system. Stupid things. He watches her. Enjoying her. Loving her, for the final time.

"I got married, you know," she says idly, turning over soil with her trowel. "His name was David. We met during the war. He was a UN peacekeeper."

Just what she wanted, he thinks. Everything he could never be.

"We did everything together. Food drops. We ran an orphanage. Everything I wanted to do for people, everything that was important to me - he was right there, Knowle. I was so happy."

"I'm glad you had that," he says. He means it, too, even though his heart is breaking.

Her mouth twists into a thin, bitter line. "Yeah, well, all good things come to an end, right?"

"He died?"

She shakes her head. "Worse. He found out what I was. He left me."

Oh.

He reaches out. Puts his hand on her shoulder. She closes her fingers around his, and suddenly he understands what happened to her. It's the same old Shannon, underneath it all. Love and life and loss have just gradually worn the edges off her, that's all. Just like they are with him, even as he sits here, comforting her over a man who was everything he wishes he could have been for her.

"There were two more," she says. "Just the same. Good, sound, committed men. We rebuilt villages in South America, taught people how to self-govern, started schools - you name it, we did it. But they saw how I was, how I didn't age, how I healed sometimes, and they got scared. They couldn't understand. And then when I tried to explain it, they got even more scared. They couldn't accept it. And the more time that passed, the more alone I felt."

He pulls his hand away. Looks down at the ginseng.

"I'm sorry you didn't find what you were looking for," he says. Then, before he can stop himself, "I'm sorry I couldn't be what you needed. I didn't know how." To his mortification, the tears that have been brewing since the night before rise up at last. They spill over his cheeks, and he bears them in silence.

She's staring at him.

"No," she whispers like a hurt little girl. "No, Knowle, no," she says, and she's crying too. "My God," she says, clutching his hands, "don't you see? All those years, I was looking for something, and I thought it was someone to understand what I was about, but it was really someone to understand who I was. And I was too angry about what they did to us to see what it was or that I had it the whole time. I didn't understand that until I didn't have it any more." She leans in, touching her forehead to his. Takes his face in her hands and says, "It took me a lifetime, Knowle, but I chose. I chose you. Don't you see that?"

It all hits him. Their estrangement all those years. The years they lost. The sacrifice he'd thought he needed to make. He tugs her into his arms, and he kisses her, hard, her name just a raw sound in the back of his throat. She kisses him too, his name leaving her in a sob.

Their lovemaking is slow and bittersweet. Kissing and touching there in the ginseng. Joining more as an afterthought, and he barely thrusts at all. Very nearly still.

"It wasn't just what they did, Shannon," he says when he's inside her. Touching his brow to hers. Hands in one another's hair. "I chose you every day of my life."

"I know that, Knowle," she says, trailing her thumb across his lips. "I think if they'd let me choose, I'd have chosen you much sooner."

They stay there, quiet, desire slow and constant. Melding and joining. Healing a lifetime of distance. She doesn't move or cry out when she comes, but he feels it in her deepened breaths, in the vibrations deep inside her. His name falls from her lips in a sigh.

When they come to rest together, the sun is low, and the air is cool, and as he drifts into sleep, the last thing he feels is her lips on his temple and the smell of ginseng in her hair.

EPILOGUE

"What do we do now?"

She asks it casually, kneeling there in the flattened ginseng, buttoning her shirt. He reaches out and brushes leaves from her hair.

"Not sure," he says, buttoning his trousers, "but I think I'm going to have to get used to the idea of being human. More or less."

"Well, we're still not really human," she says. "Just a little more human than we used to think."

He shrugs. "I'm not so sure the differences matter any more."

She looks at him. Eyes wide.

"Well, it's not like I'm going to become an ambassador for inter-species relations or anything."

"You were rocking my world on its axis for a minute there." Same old Shannon.

Somehow he needs to make her understand. He's still not that guy who shares all her dreams, and maybe he never will be. "Shannon, those things - temporal things, passing things. Human things. They still don't matter to me. Not really." He sighs. "But for what it's worth, I'm starting to understand why they matter to you."

"Okay," she says. Eyes grave. Then, more lightly, "I suppose drilling artesian wells with me in South America is out of the question, then?"

He snorts laughter through his nose. "Ask me again in twenty years."

She laughs. "I will, you know."

"Of course you will." Yes, same old Shannon.

They sit there, smiling at one another.

"We could stay here," she says after a while. "Work the land."

He raises his eyebrows in query. "There's a need for ginseng?"

She nods. "A lot of doctors died in the war. Folk medicine came back in a big way. Pretty near a whole generation was reared on it."

"There are doctors now?"

She nods. "Yes. But there's still a lot of people in need. We could help them, Knowle. We could heal them."

He thinks about it. Tasks. Purpose. The comfort of hard work and solitude. Everything he was raised for, everything that gives him a place, a foothold. And to do it here, where they belong, with Shannon at his side, and happy to be there at last.

Yeah. He could do that.

"All right," he says.

"Really?"

"Really."

They smile at one another in the moonlight.

"We'll have to stop screwing in it," he says ruefully, looking around at the flattened plants.

She shrugs. "Wouldn't worry too much. The leaves are secondary. The roots are the most important part."

He grabs her by the wrists and tackles her down. "In that case-"

She squeals laughter. Leans up and kisses him.

"You smell like ginseng," he teases.

She reaches out. Runs her hands through the leaves. Gentle rifling sounds in the night. "It's good stuff," she says. She runs her thumb over his lips. "Maybe it will heal us, too."

"Maybe it will."

She tugs him down. Kisses him. Touches him, warms him, until there's nothing but the two of them, the warm night air, and the sound of ginseng moving with the breeze.

END

AUTHOR'S NOTES:

As I embark on the final cleanup of this story before its release, troops from my own country and others are being deployed for Iraq, so this story takes on more immediate layers of meaning. I come from a military family, and I have a great love and respect for the military, even while I acknowledge its shortcomings and the shortcomings of the governments who direct it.

My aim was not to write a story in which Shannon was right and Knowle was wrong. I think they were both on a personal journey, and there was truth and falsehood for them both. The middle ground they reached in the end was hopefully a meeting of the best and most truthful in them both.

So I wouldn't like this work to be seen as antimilitary in the current climate. It's just the story of a couple of people who had to learn to live in a world that wasn't entirely theirs. For one of them, the military was a good place to do it, and for the other it wasn't. That's all.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this is all filtered through Knowle's singular lens, and I think there's a lot here that is not entirely accurate. For one thing, I think Shannon's journey is probably a lot more complicated than he thinks it is. I also think that Knowle was quite misled in his understanding of who was running things and how they related to him and his own creation. I think Knowle probably never learned to analyse human agendas critically because they were rarely relevant to him.

I also think it's very possible that Knowle and Shannon were a modified version of the Herrenvolk drone children themselves. Their initials point to that, and their physical colouring and build is very similar to that of the children we met in Herrenvolk. (This is true far more so than the impostor Samanthas we met in Colony and the renegade Kurts we met in Memento Mori, neither of whom were ever conclusively associated with the Herrenvolk children. However, I have used the widely-understood "Kurt" and "Samantha" designation for the children here in order to avoid labouring the point. Poetic licence). I think that connection may have been where the show intended to take Knowle and Shannon's arc before Lucy Lawless became pregnant. But Knowle doesn't make issue of this, because he considers himself and Shannon to be radically different from the drones. To him, there's no meaningful relationship at all.

So there's a lot of canon backstory here that didn't make it into the final cut, because it would be out of character for Knowle to perceive it or dwell on it. In that sense it's a more flexible account of the truth than I usually write. That has been quite freeing, oddly enough, and it's also helped me to be more accepting of the kaleidoscopic nature of the mythology as a whole.

So be careful how much of this you take on faith. Knowle is entirely truthful about his own perceptions, but he's not a good judge of anything he can't see, because he is essentially incapable of fully taking account of human idiosyncrasies. It's been interesting for me, because I have never written such an unreliable narrator for a long story before. Probably the only other narrator I've written who was this unreliable was Teena Mulder in A Woman's Code.

I've given a lot of thought, while writing this, to the matter of Knowle's morality. I original envisaged him as amoral - outside the human and moral sphere, existing more in the sphere of animals with a more limited set of instincts and purpose, and lacking an experience of consequences as we understand them. Certainly, there are vestiges of this idea in his identification with the bees, and in the idea of his upbringing and military training effectively serving to tame him. But this sense I had of Knowle changed as the work went on, and I reached a point where I felt he'd internalised a kind of modified morality that was as full as it could be in the absence of an experience (either directly or empathically) of mortality. And, of course, this too came full circle in their post-col world.

So all this was really interesting to play with. And I must admit, I developed quite a fondness for Knowle in the course of this. It's been fascinating to look at humanity through his eyes. Hopefully I've conveyed that. He is not a noble character in any usual sense of the term, but he is, I think, an endearing one. There's a peculiar kind of honesty and simplicity about him that I've enjoyed a great deal.

Anyway, thanks for coming with me on yet another ride into extreme possibilities. This one means a lot to me - it touched a lot more chords than I'd thought it would. So, thanks for sticking with me as always. It means the world.

Love always, Deslea



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