“Cuando…ah, cuando paso?” Max grimaced, pulling his stetson off his head and wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his arm. Fuck, it was hot. And there was no cover for miles. It was just Max in the middle of a deserted pasture with the witness, the vic and the unforgiving sun.
“Casi dos horas,” said the witness, lifting two fingers up. Isidro Buente, a ranch hand, an older man in light grey shirt and his own stetson. His eyes darted between Max and anywhere but the vic. But it was hard not to look at her.
Max stared down at the body of a young woman. Maybe twenty or so, he guessed. Though he couldn’t be sure about that. Her features were withered and obscured by what looked like mold, covering her body and feathering out over the grass.
“No…” Max paused, working out his question, reigning in his frustration with himself. He usually felt like he had a pretty good grasp on Spanish, but it was a lot harder during an investigation. “I mean yes...Si. Estabas sola con Antonio para cuantos minutos?”
Antonio Mejia was the last person to see Fior Dorantes alive. And now here was Fior, dead. Antonio, nowhere to be found.
“Nandamas diez minutos,” Mr. Buente started, uncomfortable, nervous. Not at all happy to be talking to a cop. Max listened, nodding encouragingly.
Fior had only been gone for ten minutes. She had run off after her boyfriend, wanting to speak to him. Or no, not her boyfriend. Antonio was someone she liked. There had been an argument. They were going to talk in private. Then there had been a scream and when Mr. Buente and a few others had come to investigate, they had found Fior dead. Unrecognizable, save for her clothes.
Feeling completely at a loss as to how to approach this investigation, Max turned to Mr. Buente, asking if he’d ever seen anything like this before. Might as well. He was pretty sure the Roswell coroner’s office wouldn’t have the first clue where to start with this…. Whatever the hell this was.
Mr. Buente looked furtive for a moment, glancing out over the field. “...los chivos.”
Max frowned, confused. “The goats?”
Mr. Buente nodded, suddenly animated. He still looked frightened but he clearly seemed to want to get this story out. The speed at which he spoke made it a little hard for Max to follow. But he was able to piece the story together. Apparently they’d lost twelve goats over the last couple of weeks. Same MO. The others in the community attributing the strange deaths to what Mr. Buente scoffingly called “El Chupacabra.” But even though he clearly had no patience for superstitious nonsense, he said as much, he still looked down at Fior’s body, unsure.
Max blinked, biting back a laugh. “Seriously?” Oh, Michael was going to get a kick out of that.
Mr. Buente frowned at Max. “Los chivos… the goats. We found, them drained of their blood. Y ahora Fior …” Buente covered his mouth, eyes bright with unshed tears. He took a few steps away, turning his back to the scene.
Max gave him a moment to compose himself, crouching down next to the body, careful not to touch it. Fior was desiccated–skin pulled taut over bones and teeth–like she’d been out in the sun for weeks. Not just a couple of hours. But drained of blood seemed like a stretch. Whatever was making her look like that, he had a suspicion it had to do with the mold covering her body like spoiled fruit, not goat sucking whatevers .
Not that the mold was any less bizarre.
He focused on the mold, staring at it closely. It was hot out here, hot enough to be hazy, but the mold seemed like it shimmered . Not just the sickly green, but yellow, blue, even purple. It spread out from around her body, covering the rocks and dirt for about twenty or so inches in every direction. But thankfully it didn’t seem to be growing.
He inhaled slowly and stood back up.
Damnit, this was so not his area of expertise. Petty theft, vandalism, the occasional reckless use of a firearm. Not… this.
“Anyone touch the body?” He asked when Buentes came back. Max grimaced, about to repeat his question in Spanish but Mr. Buente had understood and shook his head.
“Están asustado. They’re–”
“Scared, yeah.” Max couldn’t blame them.
He sent Buente away after that, pulling out his phone, turning it on and scrolling through the contacts. He paused on the number to the sheriff’s office – but quickly realized that calling Sheriff Taylor out there would mean that no one would speak to him again. Hell, Buente only did because he was understandably desperate and Max’d been referred by his immigration lawyer as someone they could talk to without fear that he’d be bringing ICE with him.
He was going to call Michael but found himself scrolling down his list of contacts, finding Kyle’s number. He paused for a second, looking down at Fior’s body… this was definitely a weird science kind of thing. He hit the call button.
“Hi Max! What’s up?” Kyle sounded excited and Max smiled. He wished he was calling under better circumstances.
“Hey um, listen Kyle, how much do you know about fungus?”
There was a moment of bemused silence. “...Are you calling for cleaning tips or advice about athletes' foot.”
Max, grimaced. “I’ve got a body. It’s… weird. The locals think it’s Chupacabra. Do you think you guys could consult?”
“Call animal control, Max,” Kyle said dryly.
Max shook his head, exasperated. “Animal control deals in rabid coyotes. My vic’s a human that seems to be mummified by fungus. And she was perfectly healthy a matter of hours ago.”
Kyle was silent for a moment. “That does sound like our kind of case. Send me pictures, I’ll round up the Scoobies.”
“I appreciate it.” Max nodded. “And Kyle? Maybe skip the FBI uniforms.”
Is it so strange to mistrust a government that has been known to lie? To cover up? To use its considerable power to terrorize and violate the rights of its citizenry, to obfuscate the truth? According to the Pew Research Center only a measly 22% of Americans trust our government. Yet you and I, dear listeners, are considered unhinged lunatics for that very skepticism. So much effort was put into convincing Americans that UFOs were mundane, easily explainable phenomena. They lied and smeared us while the FBI, CIA and the Air Force were researching and collecting UFO artifacts, experimenting with alien bodies and technologies. That was the work of Project Moon Dust, a project so classified that even our very senators were not given briefings. Taken in that light, is it not unreasonable to suspect that this latest activity in Roswell, New Mexico is just the latest–
“Wait, wait,” Grant – or was it Graham – made a face, stopping his brother. “No, I think we can punch that up. What about… ‘from Project Blue Book, to Project Moon Dust, the government has always, actively lied and obfuscated the truth.’”
The other twin nodded, scribbling notes on what was clearly his script.
“I cannot fucking believe the Green twins are doing a report on location ,” Michael grumbled, glaring at them. They were somehow even more annoying in person, constantly revising their script. He’d heard the same bit five times by now.
“Ugh.” Rosa rolled her eyes, setting the round of milkshakes they’d ordered down. “They’re always in here. You’ll get used to it soon enough. White noise. Emphasis on the white.” She wrinkled her nose.
“Thanks, Rosa.” Liz smiled at her sister from her spot in the U-shaped booth, at the outside edge, opposite Michael.
Alex was watching the twins, carefully.
“You gonna go over there and ask ‘em for their autographs,” Michael asked dryly.
Alex rolled his eyes. “More like go over there to find out how, exactly, they learned about buytricol...”
Alex’s anxiety had eased since his mindscape adventure, but he was no less invested in running down more information about butyricol, its origin, and uses.
“That’s gonna have to wait,” Max said, as Rosa headed to the next table. “I called you out here because the case I’m working on is a weird one. And I’m afraid it’s going to get worse.” Max handed the case file over to Liz. “The pictures are rough,” he warned her.
Liz didn’t seem to be phased as she flipped it open. Moving her milkshake so she could spread it out on the table for everyone to see.
Michael, however, was. “That is gross .” He’d seen the cellphone pictures, but these were quality .
“Agreed. That’s the unofficial report,” Max said quietly, using his straw to stir his Peanut Butter Blast Off. The Crashdown wasn’t terribly busy and they were further towards the back, away from most of the customers. But it made sense to speak quietly. “Figured there needed to be one that would keep Sheriff Taylor from asking too many questions.”
“Did you get samples of this fungus?” Liz asked, looking at a different picture, inspecting it closely.
“I have a poker buddy down at the morgue.” Max nodded. “Called in some favors to get him to come out to Goodin ranch and handle it. He’s got the body on lockdown and he took some scrapings. They’re in the fridge.”
She grinned at him, brightly, and Michael tried not to roll his eyes at how Max practically flushed with pleasure.
Apparently Max’s crush was alive and well. This was going to be so annoying .
“I’ll start the autopsy,” Kyle said, frowning at the photos. “And the mold wasn’t there before they found the body?” Max shook his head. “Liz, maybe you should go to the site and grab some soil samples.”
Liz was grinning like a kid in the candy store. “Are there goat corpses? We should cross-reference the samples.”
Max shook his head. “There were, but the ranchers burned the bodies. I think they were afraid it would spread.”
“Smart,” Kyle said. “We should probably take precautions, in case this is something airborne.”
“Was there anything else weird that happened?” Alex asked, looking up from the file. “Anything recent?”
Max smiled. “Other than the weekly UFO sightings called in by people who are definitely not high?”
Alex raised his eyebrows, face flat. Michael smirked, knowing that face by now.
Max sighed, raising his hands a bit. “Rumors of a crash out that way a couple weeks ago or so now. Nothing concrete, but we can ask about it when we go out there tomorrow.”
“The crash the Greens are covering over there?”
Max shrugged. “Reasonable to assume, yeah.”
“Any reports of debris?” Maria asked. She’d been uncharacteristically quiet, eyes on Max, frowning as if she were trying to figure something out. As if Max were a puzzle she was trying to solve.
Hard to trust someone when he literally had an evil clone running around the world, Michael supposed. Made sense, even if he didn’t like it.
Max shook his head. “A few military vehicles rolled through, though.”
Michael shifted up from the slouch he’d settled into, frowning. “Why didn’t you lead with that?”
Max shrugged. “I mean, military comes through here pretty frequently, Michael. If I got on the phone with you every time I saw a convoy, you’d actually have to tell me details about your life.”
Michael grimaced and slouched back down.
“We can ask about it when we interview the locals,” Maria said. “They may have seen or heard something.”
“Maybe even ask the Greens about it,” Alex said.
Michael groaned. “You’re just fishing for an excuse to talk to them. As if you’re gonna get anything useful .”
They continued to go over the documents for a while. Alex latching on to the military information that Max had tossed aside as unimportant. He had his laptop open, his intricately detailed spreadsheets up, ‘mysterious mold’ was placed under the military column. Cell colored green for possible alien origin.
Michael tried to keep his frustration bottled. It wasn’t like he didn’t get it. Alex wanted – no needed to take his dad off the board, especially after Sedona. But Michael had been hoping for a simple killer mold case, not another goddamned military-sourced conspiracy.
Even after the answers Isobel, Alex, and Maria had managed to find, the Sedona case had left them all with too many questions, a fuckton of anger and nowhere really to focus it. There was no more information about Bradshaw Ranch that they could find. They still couldn’t find Forrest or fully trace his shady activities. All they really knew for certain was that the military was kidnapping psychics–mostly people of color, all of whom had familial roots in New Mexico. Specially the area around fucking Roswell. Around Caulfield.
Michael did not like the picture it was painting.
It was getting uncomfortably close to an MO.
Michael leaned over to Maria, whispering, “Hey. Can we talk?”
“Of course,” Maria said, nodding. She nudged Michael out of the booth. They walked towards the back of the Crashdown, near the bathrooms.
Once they were alone, Michael turned to look at her, hoping the tension wasn’t too clear. “Look,” he started quietly, very aware of how public this place was, “this is the first time we’ve run into the Air Force since Sedona. I think we need to keep our heads down. The last thing we need is Flint–”
Maria looked startled, then scoffed. “Michael, the day I hide from Flint Manes…”
“I’m serious, Maria! Misty, Terrell, Kate… and four other psychics, that we know of . They all fit the profile.”
“So?” She shrugged, widening her eyes.
The innocent act wasn’t going to fly with him. “So, Maria, you fit the profile. Age, birthplace. Connection to alien experimentation. You’re practically a big juicy steak we’re waving in Jesse Manes’ face, and if the military is here …”
“ Please .” Maria waved her hand, dismissive. “Michael, if Jesse Manes had wanted to black bag me, he wouldn’t have waited this long.”
Michael pressed his lips together in frustration. “Math changes when people start to become inconvenient. Flint knows we were poking around Bradshaw and knows Alex remembers something about it.” Alex had stupidly, in Michael’s opinion, tried to reach out to Flint with no success.
“ The sergeant is not on any urgent mission, he just declines to speak to you, captain. ” The brief message Alex had gotten back had done nothing to soothe anyone’s nerves.
Michael would never say it out loud, but shit like this reminded him how lucky he was with Max. Having a brother who cared, no matter how annoying he was sometimes…
“Hey.” Maria’s voice softened. “Michael, come here.” She reached for him, taking his wrist and pulling him into one of the small, single-occupancy bathrooms. She locked the door behind them before wrapping her arms around his shoulders, fingers playing with the hairs at the nape of his neck. “You need to relax. I’m not going anywhere, okay?”
He sucked in a harsh breath through his nose, rubbing it in frustration afterwards. He didn’t want to be reassured. He wanted Maria and Alex safe.
They were lucky Alex wasn’t black bagged, or worse.
They wouldn’t have suspected anything until it was too late. And now here was Maria with a big neon take me sign. One they hadn’t even known about.
Fuck, he missed the days when he only had to worry that he was the one who was going to end up in some secret government lab.
Maria held him, quietly. Letting him stew until the wave of fear and frustration and anger ebbed a little.
“I’m not going to leave you, Guerin” she said, softly, fingers gentle in his hair
“That’s not a promise you can make.”
Maria sighed, frowning. “I can’t make a promise that’s better than ‘I’ll be careful.’ Not in my line of work.”
“Comforting,” he said dryly, pulling away. They’d be missed, soon. But Maria held him tight, pressing closer.
“Look. I can promise that if I’m snatched, I will fight tooth and nail to get back to you.” She took a deep breath. “And I expect you to fight like hell to get me back.”
Michael clenched his jaw hard. Nodding. Hating that this was a conversation. “I’ll never stop.”
“Good.” She nodded, leaning up to press a kiss to the corner of his mouth. “That’s all I need.”
Michael didn’t bother mentioning that it made his anxiety rachet up to new heights. They both knew it. And both knew nothing was going to make that better any time soon.
Liz spent the rest of day tracking Antonio Mejia with Maria and Alex, to question him and to collect samples. They were looking for anyone who might have seen him, or might know him.
They’d finally gotten a tip at Jenkins ranch, a few miles down the road from the one where Fior Dorantes was found.
However, it seemed that Antonio was the least of the rancher’s concerns. When Liz, Maria, and Alex pulled up, at least a half dozen of them were milling around the entrance to a field, clearly rattled.
El Chupacabra , they’d murmured, when asked what was going on. One or two nervously crossed themselves, and the bravest one pointed out to the field.
Liz squinted in the sun, making out a body. “I’ll go take a look,” she’d offered, pulling her hair back into a ponytail and grabbing the field-work kit she’d brought, pulling out a mask, gloves, and goggles.
Maria’s Spanish, while not completely fluent, was passable. Liz half-listened as she pulled the PPE on. The ranchers seemed quiet, standoffish. Liz couldn’t blame them. Her family might be safe now, but she still remembered the dread she felt whenever a deputy came by the Crashdown for a coffee or when she came across one on the street. The irrational feeling that they knew was unbearable. So she knew that even though she, Maria, and Alex had purposefully dressed down and not flashed their badges, they were suspicious. And she absolutely understood their suspicion.
What was strange was that the suspicion didn’t seem equally distributed, focused more on Alex than Maria. Their eyes barely leaving him.
Well, no matter. Liz had a body to investigate. She didn’t want this to take longer than it had to – the thick, plastic PPE was already cooking her alive.
In the sun, the shimmer to the mold was less obvious than it had been in the lab. But this was definitely the same stuff that they’d found at the location where Fior Dorantes was found.
Liz crouched down in the hot field, looking at the remains of a cow and the mold feathering finely out from its body, and started collecting samples. The mold on the grass and ground, the mold on the cow. Skin samples. Blood. Not that there was much of that, and what she managed to get seemed to be thick, coagulated. She’d never heard of a fungus that could do that .
But maybe neither had Earth? she wondered, shading a tubed sample from the sun with her body so she could see the shimmer.
It wasn’t exactly like the mushrooms she’d been studying. The shift in color was the same, but the colors themselves were wrong. Muddied. They felt… polluted, somehow.
Super scientific there, Ortecho , she thought, shaking her head at herself and packing the sample away in the box she’d brought out.
Moving several feet away from the carcass, she swapped out her gloves for fresh ones and collected soil samples there too. She did it two more times, getting further and further away from the carcass. The mold didn’t look like it was spreading, but better to check. It wasn’t like those ranchers had anywhere else they could go, and she didn’t want to expose them to something dangerous.
“No!” A voice broke into her concentration, and she looked up over at Alex and Maria, currently being confronted by a new woman. Tall, broad, and large, she had a weathered face that spoke of decades of hard work.
Curious, Liz moved closer, shedding her mask, gloves and goggles.
“We’re just trying to help–” Maria started, obviously trying to placate her. But the woman scoffed, folding her arms.
“We have had plenty of your help ,” she spat, glaring at Alex. “You aren’t welcome. Go.”
Alex was frowning, utterly bewildered. “I think you’re mistaken. We’re just here to find–”
The woman interrupted Alex with a string of curses in Spanish.
Even Maria looked confused, and Liz realized that the woman had probably blown right past Maria’s command of the language.
“She’s cursing us for bringing back the military,” Liz explained before quickly explaining to the woman they were not at all associated with the military, in Spanish.
She scoffed, spitting in the dirt at their feet.
Alex looked at Maria, frowning. Flashing another look to the woman before they stepped away, Liz following.
“You’re thinking Flint was here,” Maria guessed.
Alex nodded. “And considering that reaction, Flint used all of his legendary charm . If he’s been all over this area, I’m sure that’s not going to be the last person who refuses to talk to me.”
“So what,” Liz started, frustrated, “we just give up? Go home and study the mold and write our observations down without doing anything for these people?”
“Of course not.” Maria shook her head. “Just means that someone else needs to take point out here.”
They both looked at her.
“Oh no.” Her stomach sank. She knew that look. She hated that look.
“No way,” she protested. “I don’t want to talk to people, I want to research this mold!”
“Come on.” Maria was smiling far too much for Liz’s liking. “You and Kyle are always telling us how easy our jobs are.”
Liz folded her arms over her chest. Absolutely not talking that bait. “All they’re going to want to do is talk about el chupacabra , and I am not listening to that bullshit, guys. I can’t. I’ll snap.”
“It’s part of the mold research,” Alex said, waving his hand like he was dismissing her comments. But she could see a gleam in his eyes, suspiciously gleeful. “And it needs to be done. You and Kyle can do all things mold. Maria and I will follow up on this military lead. Figure out what the fuck Flint was up to. Maybe even get a chance to talk to him,” he added bitterly.”
“Divide and conquer.” Maria nodded, rubbing his back, just a little.
Liz groaned, not seeing an escape. She was absolutely going to make Kyle do the majority of the talking.
“Besides, Liz. Just means you get to spend more time hanging out with a hot cop,” Maria added, sweetly.
“... Oh that is the last time I am doing tequila shots with you,” Liz breathed out, betrayed. Aware that she was flushing.
Not that she minded spending more time with Max, but it was the principle of the matter.
After they finished up in the field, Liz headed back to the morgue to give Kyle the bad news. He and Max were working together, Kyle handling the autopsy and Max trying to ID the mold.
“Ugh this is a bust,” Max was saying. “The mold isn’t popping up in any of the image searches. Nor are any of the phrases I’m using giving me anything useful. Except, did you know frogs are being killed off by a fungus?”
“Frogs are always being killed off by something ,” Liz said, exasperated and annoyed as she stormed into the office and dropped her field kit on a desk. “Canary in the coal mine when it comes to environmental issues.”
Kyle looked up with a raised eyebrow. “What’s got you all riled up?”
“Ugh,” she groaned. “Looks like Flint’s been around.”
“Guess that confirms the military involvement.” Kyle leaned back in his chair, looking unsurprised. Displeased but unsurprised.
“Yeah. Even better, Alex’s Manes family resemblance has poisoned the well, the ranchers won’t talk to Alex, so guess who’s been nominated to do fieldwork .”
Max chuckled. “I’m guessing you?”
“And, by extension, me,” Kyle said dryly.
“Smart man,” Liz said approvingly. “And you too, cowboy, so keep the smug smile off your face,” she added lightly, grinning at Max.
“Yeah I don’t mind. Anything you need. Put me to work,” Max said and Kyle tried not to groan.
Liz smiled wider. “ Well .”
Was it Liz’s imagination or did Max blush?
“Did you get any good samples?” Kyle asked. Party pooper. She shot a displeased look at Kyle but he was right. There was a time and a place for wooing and even Liz didn’t think the morgue was it.
While making plans for pursuing Max, they had decided that they would have to be careful not to come off like a creepy couple looking for a unicorn. Max seemed like a serious sort. Liz got the impression he was deeply romantic, she thought he’d respond well to some courting.
But it was hard courting someone over long distances. Talking to Max on the phone. Rarely seeing him. It cramped her style. Liz was never much for waiting. She was getting impatient . It was weighing on Kyle too and he was the patient one!
There was a Max shaped hole in their lives and Liz hated waiting to fill it up.
“Yes,” she sighed. Forcing herself to focus on work. There was a lethal unknown mold around that they needed to stop. “But considering we’re going to be off talking to superstitious locals about fucking cryptids, I have no idea when I’m going to be able to analyze them.”
“I’ll make sure we get at least a couple hours of lab time,” Kyle said, sounding as frustrated as she felt. “What the hell are Alex and Maria doing?”
“Following up on the military angle.” Liz grumbled. But it made sense, as loathe as she was to admit it.
“It’s Antonio we need, let’s focus on that,” Max reminded, calmly.
“Speaking of,” Liz said. “I just spent way longer than I’d like trying to convince some locals to give me any information on Antonio’s whereabouts. I am tired and hungry. Anyone want some Italien?”
The restaurant was just as kitschy as every other establishment in Roswell, just with an Italian twist. The ubiquitous chianti bottles hung from the ceiling like they did in basically every Italian restaurant that Liz had ever been to – only these ones had been painted like grey and green aliens, some with fairy lights jammed into them to give them a rather unworldly glow.
“Feels like someone’s watching us,” Kyle noted as they settled at their table, dryly.
Liz didn’t look up, instead flipping open her menu. “Eh, you get used to it. We should get a bottle.”
“We have work tomorrow,” Max reminded her, amused.
“And I’m not sure I want to bring the eyes any closer,” Kyle said, still eyeing the bottles warily.
“Why do you think I want a bottle,” Liz asked, with a teasing grin.
“C’mon it won’t be that bad,” Max said.
“Neither will the wine,” Liz said, closing the menu with a sigh and waving their waiter over to order it.
And that was that. Wine was ordered, food too.
“I’m a little surprised you didn’t want to go to the Crashdown,” Max said, glancing at Liz. “Spend time with family?”
Liz groaned. “If I go to the Crashdown, papi will again pester us with questions about why we’re not staying with him . And I am not letting papi sleep on a couch just so Kyle and I can have a full-sized bed that probably should have been replaced a decade ago.”
“Next Christmas present for Arturo really needs to be a new mattress and bedframe,” Kyle said.
“Doesn’t solve the problem of letting papi sleep on the couch.” Liz wrinkled her nose.
“I’d offer you a room at my place, but I only have the one,” Max said with a sweet smile.
Ugh. She just wanted to take that stupidly handsome face in her hands and press her own face against it. And while Liz was fantasizing, Kyle blurted out something truly delightful.
“We’ve shared before.”
Instantly regretting his words, Kyle cleared his throat and reached for his glass of water.
Max looked startled, like he was trying to keep a neutral face. But Liz didn’t think it was her imagination that he looked a little pleased. “I. Um…”
Well they weren’t in a morgue anymore. It was a nice restaurant, romantically kitchy even. A little flirting was allowed. “Got room for three, deputy?”
Max was definitely flushing, even in the low light of the restaurant. His smile just a little lopsided, it was cute. He opened his mouth to speak, resting his leg against Liz. A bit of an anticipation sparked between them – broken too soon by the waiter coming back with the bottle of wine she’d ordered.
Max immediately shifted in his seat, looking a tad self-conscious. The physical contact between them broken.
She tried not to pout as their glasses were filled up. “Anyway, as attractive as the offer is, the FBI is footing the bill at Little A’le’Inn,” she said, laughing a little. “The absolute nicest no-star motel in the city. Hardly any roaches.”
“Ah yes,” Max said, shaking his head. “Restaurant, bar, and motel. Earthlings welcome.” He winked at them.
“Mmhm,” Liz agreed with him, rolling her eyes.
“It’s definitely an experience ,” Kyle said, diplomatically. “Maybe one I don’t need more than once, though.”
“I don’t blame you,” Max said, dryly.
“ Speaking of alien-themed establishments… come here often?” Liz asked Max in a decidedly flirty tone.
Max blinked a little, momentarily bewildered then laughed. Definitely laughing at her. Kyle was too, his hand covering his mouth. She’d kick him under the table if she could be sure she wasn’t going to kick Max.
“Not usually a fan of all the alien kitsch,” Max said.
“You are in the wrong city then,” Kyle said and Max laughed again.
“Suppose I am,” he agreed, amenably.
And oh , Liz wanted to read into that. Very badly.
“Still no luck reaching Flint?” Maria asked, glancing back at Alex in the backseat. He was glaring at his phone.
“Not exactly much of a surprise,” Michael said, drolly. He took one hand off the steering wheel to reach for the paper Crashdown bag in Maria’s lap and steal a fry. They’d spent the rest of their day scouring for evidence of a plane crash. Finally, they’d decided to head back to the motel to regroup, grab some food and maybe even a shower, and figure out their next steps.
Alex grunted, waving his phone a little. “Same stupid message from his secretary or whatever.”
“Alex,” Maria began, as gently as she could. “If he was going to take your calls, he would have already.”
She was worried about him. After all the progress she and Isobel had made with him, he seemed to be snapping back into his hyperfocus, that swirl of fury and dread threatening to take control again.
“I know that,” Alex snapped at her. Michael looked back at him sharply and Alex became immediately guilty, taking a breath. “Sorry,” he apologized.
“You need to breathe, love,” Maria said, gently. “We’ll find something soon.”
Alex scoffed. “We’re out chasing our tails in dusty fields, Flint and the rest of the military are in the wind, and the fucking Greens know more than we do, somehow.”
“The Greens don’t know shit , Alex,” Michael said, flatly.
“ They were the ones who put us on the buytricol trail, Guerin.”
Michael rolled his eyes. “Even a broken clock–”
“Ugh don’t,” Alex grumbled. He looked down at his phone again. “Drop me off here.”
“Rosa said sometimes they record their show at the park. They weren’t at the Crashdown so I’m going to check there.”
“Seriously Alex?” But he was pulling over, turning to look at Alex.
“Yes, Guerin. Look I get it. That well might be dried up. But it’s stupid not to check. Dad is too many steps ahead of us. And if they can provide anything to help us, to save those psychics, to maybe save Flint.”
“Save Flint?!” Michael repeated, shocked. Glancing at Maria, who just sighed. She had a feeling his head was in that direction. Alex hadn’t voiced it until now, but the way he’d been trying to track Flint ever since coming back from that drug induced field trip, was riddled with emotions usually not associated with his brother.
Even Isobel had remarked on it during a recent practice session, where she’d wanted to talk about the auras that Maria’d seen. They’d both seen a deep hopeful indigo shooting through a lifetime of prickly feelings and mistrust.
Like when Greg had reached out to him after years of silence.
But this was different . Greg had fled the Manes family as soon as he could. Flint, on the other hand… “You really think Flint wants saving?” Maria asked, cutting right to the heart of it.
Alex shrugged. “I dunno. But that memory reminded me that he’s not as bad as I think he is.”
“No he’s worse,” Michael said, tightly, his own aura twisted up in the browns and reds of mistrust and anger.
“He knows everything , Alex. All about the torture, the murder. He’s actively involved in kidnapping innocent people. What do you think he’s doing with them, having a fucking tea party?”
“I’m aware, Guerin.”
“And you're just forgiving him.”
Alex let out a frustrated breath. “I haven’t forgiven him. I’m trying to offer him the opportunity to get out. To realize his mistakes. Maybe to atone.”
“Alex, I think he’s very much aware of what he’s doing,” Maria interjected. As much as this meant to Alex, she was afraid he was reading too much into one memory, one moment.
“Me too. But maybe he’s–”
“You’re not him,” Michael said, sharply.
“What?” Alex looked at Michael.
“You’re not Flint. You’re not like them, Alex. I’ve told you.”
“Yeah. But I could have been. No, Guerin. Had I been straight? I could have easily been him.” He opened the car door, angry. Hurt. The feelings weren’t really directed at Michael. No, Alex understood Michael. The negative feelings were aimed solidly towards himself. “I’ll meet you guys back at the hotel in a couple of hours.”
And with that he was gone.
Maria reached over, gripping Michael’s arm, keeping him from going after Alex. As much as she wanted to do it too, she was sure it wouldn’t help right now. “He needs time, babe.” He didn’t argue, just glared after Alex’s retreating back. She rubbed his forearm to gain his attention. “Maybe I should drive?”
“No, I need something else to focus on.” He put the car into drive, pulling away from the curb, the tires squealing a little.
“Back to the motel?” She suggested. “We can go over our notes. See if we missed something.”
“We didn’t,” he said, shortly. “And I just need to get out...” he looked over at her. “I can drop you off first.”
Maria squeezed his shoulder. She could feel the needle-prick tightness of anxiety and anger. Michael needed to get away. That didn’t mean he wanted to be alone , though. So she wasn’t gonna let him be. “Nah, babe, show me your hometown.” She smiled. “ Not the junkyard. Someplace nice. Where did you like to go, to get away from it all?”
He smiled back, grateful. “I know a place.”
They headed out of town, through long stretches of lonely, dusty desert road. Maria started to think all Michael really wanted to do was drive, and she was prepared to settle in, wait til he drove away from his frustration.
It was calming for her, too. Something about a drive was just inherently soothing. That was until the landscape took on a familiar feel as they drove. The scenery out here always felt the same – dry desert and scrub brush – but something about the hills and outcroppings had Maria’s nerves back on edge.
“Where are we?” She asked, eventually.
“Just outside Foster’s Ranch,” Michael said. “Yeah the very one.” He chuckled at the confusion on her face. “Probably cheesy. I used to come out here a lot.” A wave of bittersweet loneliness.
“Looking for a way home,” she said, remembering that conversation with him.
“The wrong way,” he said, softly, rolling his shoulders in a shrug. “I dunno. It’s one of the first places I felt at… peace, I guess. Hopeful.”
Maria reached to hold his hand. “Wanna get out? Sit for a bit?”
Michael nodded, squeezing her hand back. They parked by a fence and started to follow it, hand in hand. Maria let Michael think, occasionally peeking in on his feelings. Michael wasn’t especially angry anymore, just confused, frustrated and worried. Even that started to fade after a few minutes of walking.
“This is where Isobel and Max found me when I got back to Roswell, you know? I was always… drawn here, I guess. So when I finally got emancipated…” he shrugged a little.
Maria shifted to wrap her arm around him, leaning against him. “You were fifteen?”
“Yeah.” Michael nodded, cautiously. “Blew into town a few months before our sixteenth birthday. Camped out here on the side of the road in my truck, and then all of a sudden Max and Isobel were driving up in that shitty old jeep of his with a bag full of fast food.” He chuckled softly. “Took months for me to really trust them.”
“So, you skipped out on birthday shenanigans?” Maria asked.
“No actually….” He shrugged, amused. “When our birthday came around, they wanted to do something to celebrate and I didn’t fuss.” He wanted to celebrate too, Maria wagered. If she’d learned anything about Michael in the past year, it was that he didn’t actually like being alone. It just felt safer. “‘Course I couldn’t afford anything, really. So, I suggested camping. It definitely wasn’t what Iz wanted to do on her birthday but she agreed. It was our first birthday together, after all. So we packed up and drove out here. Max thought it would be fitting,” he laughed softly.
“In more ways than one.” Maria agreed, though the story was taking on a shape that felt as familiar as the landscape. She looked back over the field with a more critical eye.
“Yeah.” Michael laughed, the sweetness of the memory shifting. Into something darker, more complex.
It hit Maria then. An aching bone-chilling fear that was not her own.
Isobel had refused to talk about the memory they’d uncovered. Even the next day when she’d come by to check on Alex and tell Maria about the auras she’d been seeing. Even after that, when they’d been training. When Maria tried to nudge, she just found a wall. Isobel deftly shifting the conversation without giving a single insight as to what, exactly, had happened that night, or if anything had actually happened, at all.
Maria had considered asking Michael, but the right time never seemed to come up given everything else that was happening. This wasn’t the right time either but she wasn’t sure there would ever be a right time.
“Michael,” she started, carefully. Keeping a tight hold of his hand, knowing this would upset the delicate peace he had found. “Can I ask you about something?”
“Yeah?” He asked. Leaning against a fence post, looking out over the empty field, wistful.
She took a moment to form the question. “Did something bad happen that night?”
Michael went still, gripping her hand tightly. “What do you mean?” he asked, carefully.
“When I was in the mindscape with Isobel. We saw something… You were camping… and there was a man with a knife. And Max was…”
Michael’s jaw tightened and Maria knew in her gut that the vision hadn’t been a nightmare. It was a memory…
“Tell me the story, Michael,” Maria asked, softly. Pressing closer to him, shoulder to shoulder. She covered his hand with both of hers, turning her head enough to meet his eyes. “Please?”
Michael grimaced, uncomfortable. He looked away from her, at the scrub brush and sparse sprinkling of desert trees. “It’s not a pretty one.”
“I know.” She stroked his skin, trying to soothe him. Encourage him.
Michael nodded. Starting again, staring out over the desert. “We get here and set up. And it’s actually a great time. I even forget about being self conscious about forcing these two rich kids that I barely know out camping for their birthday. Night comes and we hide from the cold in our tent, tell stories.” He paused, jaw flexing. Eyes momentarily closing. Swallowing down the guilt.
Looking over the desolate landscape, she could easily envision it. The warm glow coming from a small blue and grey tent. The brilliant stars in the sky. The way a gentle breeze rustled through the brush, the rustle of batwings and the chirping of insects.
“Iz went out to pee. Max and I snuck out a bottle of acetone. It was a quiet night, you know? None of us thought… It wasn’t even two minutes before we heard her scream. And we’re out there in a second. There’s this, I dunno, a drifter or something. He’s got a hold of her. It’s all kind of a blur after that. So much happened so fast.” He stopped, rolling his shoulders. She could feel him, hoping that was enough.
Maria bit her lip. She wanted to let it go, let him relax. But this felt too important – not just to him but to the story they were trying to piece together, so she pushed again. “Michael. We said no more secrets, right? Max got hurt. Bad.”
“Max should be dead,” Michael said, finally, letting go of her hands to grip the fence tightly. “I’m not lying when I say it was a blur. We should have ran after I got Isobel free. But it happened so fast , Maria. A glint of metal and suddenly Max has a huge gash across his throat and he’s gasping, eyes wide. Terrified. Blood everywhere. And he’s the healer , you know? Iz and I… Isobel was crying, screaming Max’s name. I was just desperately trying to keep the drifter away from her, but I was freaking out. My control wasn’t that great.”
Maria could practically hear it, even the memory of Isobel’s screams like ice in her bones. “You told Isobel to run, but she went to Max, instead.”
“Of course she does. He’s her brother . Her twin. And he’s dead. Except he’s not. I dunno. I have no fucking clue. One minute his throat was wide open, Maria. His clothes were drenched in his blood. The dirt too. There was so much blood . But the next minute, Max is up. And he’s running towards the drifter. I was so fucked up, I didn’t even noticed he was coming at me. Max tackled him and then…”
Michael paused. And this seemed even harder for him to say than anything else. His lips pressed in a thin line, he looked away from Maria.
It took him a moment to respond, but when he did, it felt like a dam bursting. “He can do what Jones does, ok? Or some variation of it anyway. Kill with the handprint. It’s the only time Max has ever done it, Maria. I swear. He didn’t even know he could do it until it was done . He was trying to protect us–” The panic rising. Michael was terrified.
And she could see why. She couldn’t say, for sure, what she’d have done with this information if she’d learned it a few months ago, when she was just getting to know them. Hell, she didn’t know what she was going to do with it now. But she knew what she needed to do for Michael.
“Hey. Hey. I know.” She took his hands again, pulled when he tried to pull away. She pulled until his arms were around her. Let him hold on to her. “You were kids. It’s ok. I know.”
Michael shuddered, clinging tightly to her.
“It wasn’t Max’s fault. Or yours.” Her heart ached for him. Just holding onto him. Not asking her other questions. What happened after that? Where the drifter was. They weren’t important.
He was quiet for a long moment.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Michael said. “I can’t explain it. We’re not immortal. We don’t have nine lives. Even as a dumb kid I knew we only had one alien life. But Max was different somehow.”
“Has it ever happened again?”
Michael shook his head. “No. Despite the idiot joining the police force. I was so fucking pissed at him. Always giving me shit about exposing us and he gets a job where gunfire is a part of a routine day. He did it for me, he said. I didn’t ask him to.”
“So you think it’s just Max.”
Michael nodded. “I mean Caulfield is undeniable proof. We can be killed. Maybe it’s a clone thing? But no that doesn’t make sense either, cause we found that body….”
“Didn’t Noah imply they were defective in some way?” Maria suggested, thinking back to those terrifying twenty minutes in that warehouse, trapped while a lunatic raved.
“Yeah,” Michael grimaced. “So why is Max different? Does that mean Jones is fucking immortal? I dunno. There are so many things I still don’t know!”
The fence rattled violently for a moment. Michael pulled away from it. From her. Ran a hand through his hair, taking deep breaths. Trying to calm down.
“This is what we’re here for,” Maria reminded him, watching the way his shoulders hunched forward. So much tension. “You’re not alone in this anymore, Michael. We can figure it out together.”
Michael nodded, kept pacing. The fence rattling again, here and there, the sound of rocks skittering along the ground. Michael flexing his powers all around them – it seemed to help calm him. Maria gave him his space, waiting quietly.
Eventually, Michael came back to her, leaning heavily on the fence, his shoulder against hers. They stood there in silence, the closeness of their bodies the only solace for their ignorance.
“You know what we know, agent,” Graham Green said, his toupee listing slightly to the left. Alex forced himself not to look at it.
He’d found the Green twins setting up their equipment at a picnic table not far from the gazebo in town, opening cases of recording equipment, trading pages of notes between them. Alex had no idea how they managed to get even halfway decent sound quality.
But he didn’t really give a shit about their sound quality. “I think we both know that’s not the case. And I’m more interested in knowing how you know what you know.”
“A reporter never reveals their sources,” Grant said. At Alex’s glare, he took a step back, hands up. “What we’ve learned, we’ve learned the same way you have, agent. Nose to the ground, good old fashioned detective work.”
“Putting all the puzzle pieces together,” Graham said. “Tracing Roswell through McCarthy through Eisnhower through Carlsbad and Dulce–”
“--Until we have a picture, is what I mean.”
Talking to these tin hatters was already giving him a headache. “That picture includes some awfully specific details. Butyricol, for one.”
The twins looked at each other but Alex couldn’t say they were suspicious. More like exasperated, though definitely nervous too.
“A lot of people have a vested interest in the truth,” Grant said. “Not just you. They’re just not willing to talk to you . You know, on account of your government’s efforts to suppress and silence us.”
Alex was getting annoyed. Well he’d been annoyed. But his tolerance for it was definitely reaching its limits. He knew when he was being taken for a ride. He was about to snap, when he realized that Graham wasn’t looking at him anymore.
He frowned, tracking his gaze, to a man carrying a bag of greasy takeout. He was wearing jeans, a tight army green t-shirt, and a Dodgers baseball cap. The outfit did absolutely nothing to hide the fact that he was military.
Of course Alex would’ve known him anywhere, anyway. Flint .
Their eyes locked. Flint’s going wide, his jaw clenching. Flint shifted, turning on the ball of his foot.
“ Damnit .”
“Wait, Agent, we have a case–”
Alex didn’t hear the rest of what they were saying, heading right after him as fast as he could.
“Fuck off, Alex,” Flint said, as he spun around to meet him, glaring. Alex glared right back.
“Would it kill you to take my calls?”
“I have more important things to do than hear your Jersey Devil stories.”
Alex snorted. “And what about Sedona?”
Flint froze, sucking in a sharp breath. “Sedona? Great hikes. Haven’t been in years, I hate the tourists,” he said, clearly trying to brush Alex off.
“Don’t give me that bullshit, I know–” Alex cut himself off, abruptly. Realizing that Grant and Graham had been slowly approaching them, microphone in hand. An unsettling hunger in their eyes. “We should talk elsewhere.”
“Not intere–Hey you shit!” Flint shouted, startled.
Alex had snatched up Flint’s takeout bag and was crossing the street before Flint could properly react. But as he expected, after getting over his surprise, Flint was right behind him.
Sometimes you just had to lean into the little brother vibe.
“Give me my fucking food, Alex,” Flint growled.
“What did you get?” Alex asked, peeking in the bag, and digging out some fries, popping them in his mouth.
“ Alex .” Flint half-heartedly grabbed at the bag. “I don’t know why you insist on being a black sheep pain in the ass,” he growled, sulky as Alex held it away.
“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” Alex retorted, sitting down on a bus stop bench. “We’re gonna share these damn fries and you’re gonna talk to me.”
Alex stared at Flint challengingly but he was holding his breath, hoping his gambit would pay off. Flint could just as easily walk away. There really wasn’t much of a reason for him not to.
“At least put the hot sauce on them,” Flint said, sitting down. “Fucking heathen.”
Alex dug out a little plastic container–the contents were a bit green. Maybe a salsa? He dipped a fry in, cautiously. “Oh spicy!?” He tried to double dip, Flint swatted at him.
“Thai place sells fries for the yokel and has off menu hot sauce that are actually spicy. Win for me. That’s chili garlic,” Flint said, dipping a fry into the condiment and taking a bite. He didn’t say anything else. He was sitting there stiffly. Awkward and still angry.
So was Alex, of course. This was the most civil they’ve been with each other in… Fuck Alex couldn’t remember.
“Good tip,” Alex said, taking a breath. Not sure how to approach any of this. “I wanted to thank you. For Bradshaw.”
If it was possible, Flint went even more rigid. Sitting practically at attention. “How the fuck do you remember that?”
“You learn some stuff chasing cryptids,” Alex said, noncommittally – not about to admit either alien or pharmaceutical intervention. Flint frowned at him, unamused. “It doesn’t matter. Why didn’t you disappear me? Get rid of a thorn in your side.”
Flint scoffed. “More importantly, when are you going to learn to back off? You never fucking listen. You are in way over your damn head!”
“Save it,” Alex said, irritated with the same old song. “Save all the stupid warnings. What dad did to us – to all of us. What he’s doing in his black ops sites. It’s not right . Why do you keep giving him a fucking pass? Why are you helping him? He’s a monster. He doesn’t deserve this loyalty.”
“And who does? Mom ?” Flint watched the cars drive past them. “Dad stayed.”
“To torture us and pit us against each other,” Alex countered. “It doesn’t have to be like that. We can make a different choice.”
Flint opened his mouth, to speak… but there was a group of teenagers walking toward the bus stop. Alex clenched his jaw on anything he might have said in the silence, and both of them turned glares on the kids, who gave each other nervous glances and hurried on past.
No Manes was about to air their dirty laundry in public.
“I’m no traitor, Alex,” Flint said, once they were gone. “I’m a patriot. I care more about this country and this planet than I do some petty revenge against a man who was just trying to do his best to prepare us.”
Alex tried not to roll his eyes, it would be counterproductive. “For what, the human rights violations and genocide?”
Flint snorted. “Don’t be naïve, Alex. You were in the Air Force. You’re more than familiar with the dirty work required to keep the nation safe. That’s always been our family’s mission. And dad only just got back into position after granddad overstepped.”
Alex’s eyebrows drew together in confusion. The letter from the DoD suddenly came back to him. The one they’d found with the other classified documents in Michael’s bunker.
Egregious overreach of trust without due cause, it had read. The removal of assets from under General Manes’ purview.
Alex had wondered about that a lot. Gone through his grandfather’s service record trying to find a clue as to what that could have meant.
“What the fuck did Grandpa Coltan do that was so egregious?” Alex asked.
“All you need to know is that he was doing his best to protect the innocent. They didn’t agree with his methods.”
“No you’re going to have to do better than that,” Alex said. “You want me to back off. But all I’m seeing is my family’s evil legacy. Stripping innocent people of their rights–”
Flint half-laughed, shaking his head. “Look, I know dad was hard on you. But I’m actually starting to worry about you, Alex.”
“I’m touched,” Alex said dryly.
“I’m serious,” Flint said, visibly swallowing down his irritation. “I don’t like that you’re on the outside of this. You’re in danger , you know that? You’re so distracted by this pissing match with dad that you’re going to be completely blindsided by what’s really coming.”
“Tell me what’s coming,” Alex said, tamping down on his anger. He could almost hear the lecture already, and over that he could hear Michael telling him he was wasting his time.
Flint let out a sharp laugh. “Listen to me, Alex. These creatures. They’re an invading force, they don’t have rights .”
“Right. That explains the human experimentation,” Alex said, flatly.
“Just trying to give ourselves an edge.”
“Right. And instead of honest, brave soldiers volunteering, dear old gramps tested out his shitty science on people like grandad. Like mom. People who had no idea what they were signing up for,” Alex grit out, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice.
Flint fell silent for a minute. Searching for a defense, perhaps, although they both knew there was no defense to be made, here.
“Mistakes were made. Like I said, he overstepped,” Flint finally said, grudgingly. “I don’t like it either. But in war there’s no good side, you know that. There are just winners and losers. We can’t be the losers.”
“I’m sure the Nazis would love how you write history, Flint.”
“You’re so goddamn naïve,” Flint snapped. “You know they say they’re refugees. That they came here fleeing war and persecution. Yeah, so did the Puritans. How’d that turn out for people like us? There are no good fucking choices in any of this, Alex. I’m choosing the path that will protect my family .”
Alex froze. Flint spoke with a certainty. Like he’d spoken to these refugees, directly. And he desperately needed to know what Flint knew. “Fine. Convince me! What is pops doing to protect us with Project Shepard nowadays, exactly,” Alex asked, trying to keep his voice neutral.
Flint sucked his teeth. “Project Shepard is closed,” he said, not rising to the bait. Probably just enough sense to know that Alex was trying to play him. “But if I were you, I’d go back to chasing ghosts. Stay far away from the rest of it. Since we all know you’re not going to help defend our country. Our planet .”
“Defend it from what exactly?” Alex demanded, unable to hold back his exasperation. “Some geriatric aliens? The crash happened seventy years ago, Flint. And those survivors were all rounded up by grandpa Harlan.”
“Not all of them were rounded up,” Flint snorted, exasperated. Alex felt cold suddenly; did Flint know about Guerin? “Not all of them came in ‘47. Not all of them landed in the US. We have to be ready for the next ship, and the one after that.”
“I’m done. Think about what I said.” He didn’t leave immediately, looking at Alex for a moment. Like there was something else he wanted to say. It was odd. Flint looked worried, stressed in a way Alex had never seen before. His concern seemed genuine.
Alex kept his mouth shut because he didn’t want to say the wrong thing. Not that it mattered. Flint just walked off, leaving Alex alone and frustrated and unsure.