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A thousand thousand slimy things

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1995
Near Lynchwick, Gloucestershire

Larch Hill, thought Scully. It's ridiculous, it's like something out of Masterpiece Theater.

She got out of the rental car, trying to blink away the jet lag, and stared again at the house in front of her. It was the ideal English country home; Hollywood, with the help of technical advisers, could hardly have made it prettier. The maps had brought her here, after an overnight transatlantic flight and a two hour journey from Heathrow into the heart of the Cotswolds, via winding country lanes and a drive which must have been a mile long.

It was nothing like Mulder's usual wild goose chases, with neither rural abductees nor roadside motels in evidence. A stranger place to have come pursuing alien-human hybrids could not be imagined. But she had come all this way; however unlikely the destination seemed, there was no backing out now.

She strode up to the imposing front door and rang the bell.

The door was answered by a perfectly trained maid, who showed her without conversation into a sitting room whose French doors overlooked a garden in full bloom. It was furnished with as much good taste as one would have expected from the house's exterior. The place could have been a museum; almost everything looked to be an antique.

On the mantelpiece was a single black-and-white photograph in a silver frame, a portrait of a startlingly handsome young man whose face was strangely familiar. He must, Scully concluded with surprise, be an actor from one of those old movies that her mother enjoyed.

A cloud of cigarette smoke; she startled for a moment, turned, and caught her breath when the haze merely revealed a very elderly lady sitting in an armchair, holding a cigarette. Despite the warmth of the sun on that spring day, she was tucked under a knitted angora blanket.

It was, thought Scully, a long way to travel to visit someone's grandmother. But Mulder had insisted.

"Dr. Fleming," she said, speaking loudly and clearly. "I'm Agent Scully. I wrote to say that I would be coming to visit."

"Mrs. Fleming, actually," came the reply, a sharp correction. "I was a surgeon. And yes, of course, I have your letter here. Do sit down. I don't have so many visitors nowadays."

Her accent was the purest cut glass. She spoke like the Queen – or, rather, like the Queen Mother, whose contemporary she must be. Scully had never before met someone so purely a representation of 'to the manor born.' Her ancestors must have lived here at Larch Hill for uncountable generations. Not anything like the surgeons with whom Scully had worked.

"If you've read my letter," said Scully, taking a seat as indicated on a rather magnificent sofa, "then you'll know why I'm here."

"The research programme, yes, I've been wondering when someone would come wanting to talk about that. Even Bletchley Park is a museum nowadays and we were never as secret as that. We couldn't have been; the scale was too large, and the subjects were mostly sailors – who are never known for their willingness to keep their appendages to themselves."

Whatever Scully had been expecting to hear, it was not this. She wondered whether there had been some misunderstanding.

"These experiments," she began. "Could you tell me what they involved?"

"I'd assumed you knew that much," said Mrs Fleming briskly, as though she were answering a question from a newly-minted resident who ought to have known better.

"My partner gave me some idea, but from a medical point of view his information seemed rather improbable..."

"It seemed the same to me when they first brought me onto the project, in '39. But I suppose we would have said the same about the atom bomb."

Scully studied the woman in front of her, trying to imagine her all those years ago. It was almost impossible. What must it have been like for a woman in medicine back then? It had been difficult enough going through med school in the eighties.

Mrs. Fleming went on with her tale. She had, she said, just begun working as a general surgeon at the City Hospital in Bridstow when she was asked to join a military research project based there. Its aim, she had soon learned, was to see if it was possible create better soldiers, and improve the deftness of sailors in wet conditions, through surgeries grafting tentacles to experimental subjects. Octopus or squid, she said, in the main. It was an incredible story, but Mrs. Fleming answered Scully's questions with a matter-of-fact air that was difficult to doubt, showing a knowledge of transplantation that would have been impossible to counterfeit.

"And were these surgeries actually successful?"

"Some of them, for a time. Mostly they led to rejection. The drugs we had then weren't nearly as advanced. But there were psychological problems too. The majority of patients simply couldn't make the adjustment. We had more than one suicide attempt. In practice the transplants were effectively useless, at least as far as the military was concerned."

"So the program was shut down," Scully guessed.

"Before the end of the war, in fact. There was some thought of specialists being more adaptable than ordinary enlisted men, and so we tried for a while to see if we could create better surgeons. But that meant medical students, mostly; and they weren't. All the transplant work was wound up not long after D-Day."

"You're certain of that? Might there have been a smaller-scale program that continued afterwards? Something more highly classified? Perhaps involving... biological materials other than tentacles?"

Even at the best of times, Scully had difficulty bringing herself to utter a phrase as ridiculous as alien-human hybrids. In this context, with birds twittering outside in the gloriously flowering garden, and green hills stretching off to the horizon, it seemed almost an obscenity. One imagined that Hilary Fleming's knowledge of aliens began and ended with H.G. Wells.

Mrs. Fleming shook her head as emphatically as a ninety-year-old woman could manage. "No, I would have known. It was Donald Scot-Hallard who ran the programme and I knew him personally. In any case he died soon after the end of the war."

Scully leaned forwards. "Died? How?"

"Skiing in St. Moritz. In '49, I think it was. Massive traumatic brain injuries; he never made it to a hospital. Not that it would have helped if he had."

Another dead end. Scully let out a breath in frustration. No doubt Mulder would have immediately started wondering whether the man had actually died, whether the US government had not instead airlifted him off to West Virginia or Nevada along with a collection of Nazi scientists. But Scully had other priorities.

"Can you offer any proof for what you're saying about the program?" she asked. "Any documentation, any photographs...?"

Silently, Mrs. Fleming lifted her left hand from under the cover of the afghan. To the knuckles it was the hand of a woman of ninety, veins prominent underneath loose, papery, age-spotted skin. But instead of fingers, there grew five sinuous tentacles of a pale, unearthly white, patterned with suckers which pulsated in a gentle rhythm.

"Oh," whispered Scully under her breath.

"Surprisingly useful, not that they could have predicted why, or would have cared if they had known. I went into Gynae after the war."

Scully could see instantly why suckers would be considerably more useful to an obstetric surgeon than forceps, or even a ventouse. She nearly said this, bit her tongue, strongly considered asking to examine the hand, and ended finally by saying nothing at all. There was little that could be said. She imagined that her face, more expressive than she would have liked, had said it all.

Mrs. Fleming was studying her as though she were the laboratory specimen, and not the other way around.

"I was one of the luckier ones," she continued, her voice steady and matter-of-fact. "A salt water bath every evening, and they've held up rather better than the rest of me."

In an effort to avoid her gaze, Scully looked again towards the pictures on the mantelpiece. Suddenly the name that she had been seeking sprung into her mind.

"That's Julian Fleming, isn't it?"

Hilary Fleming smiled. "You have a good memory. I once knew a young man who had never heard of Rudolph Valentino. But that was a long time ago."

"Relative of yours?" guessed Scully, though it was impossible to trace any facial resemblance between the handsome young man in the portrait and the elderly lady who sat in front of her. "Son? Nephew?"

"Something along those lines," said Mrs Fleming slowly. "He always hated that picture. I was only able to put it up – a few years ago."

She drifted off into a haze of memory, gazing into the distance, all of a sudden showing every day of her ninety years. The tentacles moved in slow, preoccupied loops, seeming to show a will independent of that of their owner. I must have tired her out, thought Scully.

A few moments later she gathered herself, focusing on Scully once again. "Was there anything else you wanted?"

"No, Mrs. Fleming. Thank you for your time."

Scully had got to her feet and gone to the door when a final thought struck her.

"One last thing," she said, turning back. "Do you regret it?"

"Regret it?" echoed Hilary Fleming. "I wasn't just following orders, if that's what you mean; I wouldn't have made that defence even before Nuremberg. I volunteered to join the programme and I volunteered for the surgery; it seemed worthwhile research to me, not to mention that the alternative was general practice in Gloucestershire."

"But the ethical implications of such an experiment... you might have been able to give informed consent to the operation, but the others, the sailors..."

She could not help thinking of her own father, who had joined the US Navy not long after the end of the war.

"Agent Scully, my first house appointment was in neurosurgery. That was in 1935. If fate hadn't intervened I might have spent the next two decades performing pre-frontal lobotomies. It was a different time and there was a war on. Under the circumstances I feel I have nothing to apologise for."

She picked up a bell from her side table and rang for the maid, bringing the interview to an end. "I hope you have a pleasant trip home."