LIFE: An X-Files short story about Scully and Mulder's discovery of a new form of intelligent life.
By Wayne Schmidt
13 August, 2001
(latest revision: 20 September, 2001)
GCC Electric Generation Plant No. 3
July, 4:13 A.M.
Greg Bamosian cradled a donut box and coffee cup in his left arm as he punched an entry code into the control room door's access pad. He pushed the door open and threaded his way through the maze of consoles that controlled a quarter of Boulder's power. Joseph Arturo, a slender man with white hair, sat behind one of the consoles.
Bamosian held out the cup. "Cream and double-sugar, right?"
Joe took it without looking up. "Perfect."
Bamosian pulled out a cinnamon-sugared donut and took a bite as he scanned the console's lights; they all showed green. He nodded as he chewed. "Looking good. That storm's due to blow back in so we better get the protectors online before-"
Overhead fluorescent lights flickered as klaxons blared. A dozen lights on Joe's console blazed red.
Bamosian stiffened. "What the hell?"
"Generator four's output went through the roof then dropped to zero," Joe yelled. "I'm isolating." He hammered shut-down actuators. Red lights changed to amber and the alarm cut out. "Got it!"
"Come on," Bamosian bellowed and dashed into the generator room.
They raced down a metal walkway along one side of a room the length of a football field. On their left, a row of twelve, house-sized engines filled the room with a soul-shaking hum. Bamosian stopped at the fourth generator and frowned at a bank of blown-out indicator lights. He placed his palm on the generator's side, it gave off no vibration.
"Hey, Greg!" Joe yelled. "Get over here."
Bamosian hurried to the end of the unit where Joe stood motionless, his jaw slack.
"Joe, what-" Bamosian jammed to a halt as he caught sight of the end of the generator. "Jesus Christ."
They stared at a two-foot hole melted through the generator's inch-thick end plate. The hole's edges glowed a dull orange.
FBI Headquarters Building
Assistant Director Walter Skinner's Office
Mulder sailed into Skinner's reception room and held the door for Scully. She nodded at Skinner's secretary and headed for the door to the inner office. Mulder paused by the secretary's desk but before he could say anything, Skinner's deep voice growled out of the intercom.
"I heard the door, Jill. If that's Scully and Mulder, please forgo the usual banter and send them in immediately."
"No rest for the wicked," Mulder said with a crooked smile and strolled through the door. As he stepped into the office, Skinner shoved a folder at him. "Four power plants in Boulder Colorado have been damaged. The Bureau is working on the assumption that a terrorist group is sabotaging them. I'm assigning you to investigate." He tossed two airline tickets on top of the folder. "Your flight leaves for Boulder in three hours. That is all."
Skinner turned and strode over to his desk to retrieve a folder from its corner. He read the cover page, then stabbed the intercom. "Jill, I need Agents Reyes and Montgomery."
"We have our assignment, Mulder," Scully said. "Let's go."
GCC Electric Generation Plant No. 3
Mulder leaned out of the rented Suburban's window and handed the guard his ID. "You get many break-ins at this plant?"
The guard glanced at the ten-foot high chain link fence topped with razor wire. "Not likely. The company put a lot of money developing the new generators we got here and no one's taking any chances with industrial espionage."
"Any recent cuts in the fence?"
"Nope. And no one's gone under it, either. That fence is set four feet deep." The guard stepped inside the shack and worked a keyboard. He studied a monitor, then came out and returned Mulder's identification. "You're cleared." The gate rolled aside and Mulder drove through.
Scully pivoted in her seat to watch the gate close. "Security is tight. I doubt amateurs could have broken in."
Mulder's expression darkened. "You're thinking professional saboteurs?"
She turned back. "The guard mentioned GCC is using new generators. Perhaps the competition is attempting to level the playing field."
"Could be." He smiled at her. "But there's always the hope that something more interesting will turn up."
Scully felt her lips grow tight, but resisted the temptation to answer his baiting.
Mulder drove up to the only door in a windowless four-story building the size of a small stadium. He got out and grimaced at the dark clouds gathering to the east. "Looks like we could be in for some rough weather."
Scully followed his gaze. "Boulder is a thunderstorm hotspot. I hope you brought a rain coat."
Mulder smiled with half his face. "I'll have to dodge the drops."
Distant thunder rumbled and they hurried inside.
The door opened to a small reception area. The only way deeper into the facility was past a square-face receptionist with auburn hair the same color as Scully's. The woman's white dress brightened the color of her hair but her eyes were dark and hard. A steel-eyed guard standing behind her rested his hand on the butt of a large caliber revolver. He was tall, sandy haired, and wore a khaki uniform whose buttons strained to contain hard muscles.
Mulder flipped open the leather billfold that held his ID. "We're agents Scully and Mulder."
She held out her hand without comment. Mulder handed over his ID. The hand remained and the receptionist raised an eyebrow at Scully.
Scully yielded her identification. The receptionist compared them to a short list and then handed them back. Her voice reminded Sully of a drill sergeant she'd had in Quantico.
The receptionist studied them coldly. "I am Agnes Krump. Do not attempt leave by any exit other than this one. Do not attempt to take any photographs of the grounds or facilities. Do not attempt to call anyone except on this phone." She pointed to the phone on the corner of her desk. "Do not do so unless I am present. Talk to no one except... " she rechecked the list. "Night shift supervisor Greg Bamosian. Do you understand these directions?"
Mulder tried a boyish grin. "Do we have to ask permission to go to the bathroom?"
Agnes deflected his attempted charm with an icy stare. "That won't be necessary. Officer Rodrigues will accompany you at all times."
Scully stepped forward; an eyebrow raised a quarter inch. "At all times?"
The receptionist glared at her. "Should that become an issue, you may use the restroom in this lobby."
The receptionist didn't return it. "At which time I will accompany you."
Scully's smile faded.
The receptionist jabbed a pencil down the corridor behind her. "That way."
They stepped wide around the desk and into the hallway. Rodrigues stayed close on their heels, his hand still on the revolver. Twenty paces down the hall he glanced over his shoulder and sighed. "Whew. Agnes really takes her job seriously."
Mulder's brows went up. "I take it that statement means that not everyone's as tight around here as dear Agnes."
The man shook his head. "Don't count on it. Since the new generators went in we're all looking over our shoulders. There are a lot of companies that would like to get a good look at them."
"Is that what you think happened?" Mulder asked. "Someone decided to invite themselves in for a quick look and sabotaged the facility while they were at it?"
Rodrigues shook his head again. "Doesn't make sense. If they wanted to shut the plant down there are easier and more effective ways of going about it."
Scully gave him a shallow smile. "Are we supposed to be talking to you? You're not on the approved list."
His smile turned wry. "I don't know enough to compromise any secrets." He started down the hallway. "Bamosian came in forty-five minutes ago and should in the control room by now."
Agnes smiled in satisfaction of having put the FBI agents in their place. She heard the outer door open and forced the smile away. Her eyes focused on a security report and didn't lift at the approach of soft footfalls. Agnes enjoyed making visitors feel like they weren't important enough to be acknowledged. It gave her the upper hand.
The steps stopped but no one spoke. Agnes glanced left and pretended to read an inspection roster. The visitor didn't make a sound.
Without moving her head, she jerked her eyes up just far enough to glimpse visitor's shoes: black Oxfords, a man. She smiled coldly. I'll make this one crawl.
Agnes picked up a third document and read it twice, slowly. Still no sound. She switched tactics and glared up imperiously. He was six-feet tall, early sixties, dark haired, and wore a black trench coat over a navy blue suit.
"You will state the nature of your business," she began, then stopped. He wasn't looking at her. He gazed around the room as if she wasn't there. She drilled him with a glacial stare. "If you don't have the proper clearance I will call security and order them to remove you."
A chill crawled up her spine as he looked down at her without expression. "You admitted Agents Scully and Mulder a few minutes ago?" His voice was deep and impersonal.
Agnes felt her hands begin to tremble. "I... I am not required to give you that information without proper authorization."
He snaked a hand into a coat pocket and pulled out a red and black pack of cigarettes.
She hardened her voice. "Smoking isn't permitted in this building. You will have to-"
Using a lighter that hissed as if it was a torch, he lit the cigarette and sucked air through it. "Do what?"
Agnes sniffed at the acrid smoke. "You'll have to go outside." She thrust her hands into her lap to quiet their shaking.
"You didn't answer my question."
She tried raising her chin in defiance, but his stare forced her eyes down. "I can't say."
He took a plastic card from his suit coat pocket and showed it to her.
Agnes looked at the card's logo and felt her face blanch. "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't realize-"
The man smiled thinly. "Of course not. Scully and Mulder?"
"Yes, sir. They came in ten minutes ago and are going to interview Mister Bamosian."
He took a slow drag. "Where is your television surveillance room?"
She pointed toward a door to the right.
Without saying a word, he walked to the door and stepped through.
Power Control Room
Rodrigues held the door and pointed to a heavyset man sitting in front of a console. The man wore blue jeans and a purple tee shirt with Electricians get a charge out of it printed across the chest in bold white letters. "There's your man."
Greg Bamosian had his feet up on the edge of the switchboard and a donut box in his lap. He stood as they walked over to him, spotted Scully, and tried nonchalantly to cover the tee shirt's logo with his right hand. Scully smiled and held out hers for him to shake. "I am Special Agent Dana Scully and this is Agent Mulder."
Bamosian switched hands covering the logo and took hers.
"We are investigating the incident that occurred yesterday," she said.
Bamosian nodded. "Generator number four. She was purring like a kitten one second and dead the next. Never saw anything like it. And that hole. I tell you-"
Mulder stepped forward. "Hole?"
"Two feet across if it was an inch," Bamosian said. "Right though one-inch plate steel to expose the generator's windings."
"And that destroyed the generator?" Mulder asked.
Bamosian shook his head. "No. That's the weird part. What happened was... wait. I'll show you."
He led them into the generator room. Scully felt the thrum of the great engines as she followed bamosian between two generators. The one on the right was silent.
Bamosian slapped it. "This is number four. Been running nonstop since she was installed. Never gave us a lick of trouble." He pointed down at the generator's end. "Then this happened."
The two-foot hole Bamosian pointed at was perfectly round and showed only minor blistering around its edge.
Scully stooped to inspect it. Her eyes narrowed. "Mulder, there are no metal drippings."
He kneeled and ran a hand around the curve of the opening. "Clean and smooth. If some sort of torch cut the hole we'd see some melted steel." He looked up at Bamosian. "Where is the disc that that came out of the bulkhead?"
Bamosian held his palms up. "Never found it. What I wanted you to see for yourselves is that the internal windings are untouched."
Mulder noted the coppery gleam of the wires. The insulation had been burned away but the wires themselves were untouched. Mulder's brow wrinkled.
Scully ran a quick calculation in her head. "The disc would have weighed over two hundred pounds. I doubt that a saboteur would take anything that heavy with him."
"What?" Mulder asked.
"Well, that's the other thing. So far, security hasn't found a trace of a saboteur. No entry alarms went off, there are no holes in the perimeter fence, and the only way into this room is through a heavily locked maintenance access and the control room. The maintenance access is untouched and I'll swear that no one came through the control room."
Mulder stood and studied the room. His gaze flicked up and held on the ceiling a moment before looking back down. Scully noticed that Mulder's eyes had taken on a distant sheen. She began scanning the floor around the generator's end. "Mulder, I don't see any scorch marks where the disk would have fallen after being cut free. It must have been lifted away while it was still hot."
"Maybe not," Mulder said. A fever-like brightness had come into his eyes. "What if there were no drips or scorch marks because there was no melting metal or hot disk?"
She crossed her arms. "How could that be?"
"What if the disk had been vaporized."
Scully felt her mouth want to drop. "Do you realize how much energy that would take?"
He held up a palm towards her. "Hear me out. If the metal had been turned into a gas it would have dissipated without a trace, right?"
"In theory, yes. But-"
"If that's the only theory that fits the evidence, we have to follow it."
Scully's lips drew tight. "If that was the case, then the rising hot air would have carried the vaporized metal-" Her eyes grew round and she looked up.
High overhead, the open-framework truss supporting the room's corrugated ceiling was painted dark brown, except for the area directly above them where a twenty-foot diameter circle of glittering metal coated the trusses and ceiling.
"What is it," she asked.
Mulder looked up. "All that's left of two hundred pounds of high-grade steel."
GCC Security Monitoring Room
Three security guards whispered to themselves in one corner of the room. In the center, the man in the trench coat lit a cigarette without taking his eyes off the television monitor. On the screen, Scully and Mulder stood up from where they had been inspecting the end of a generator and after Mulder pointed out the ceiling area plated by evaporated metal, left the generator room. The smoking man waived the hand holding the cigarette to the men in the corner.
A stork-like man detached himself from the group. "Yes, sir?"
The guard threw toggles, switching cameras to follow Scully and Mulder's departure. The last scene showed them getting into their car and driving off. The smoking man's cigarette crackled as he sucked air through it. "I need tapes of everything they said and did. Get some footage of the ceiling area they were looking at, both from the ground and up close."
"Yes, sir." The guard fumbled with VCR recorders mounted below each monitor. He handed four tapes to the man. "We'll get the rest to you right away."
The smoking man left without a word.
Paramutual Power Plant
Thunder shook the generator control room as Bannon Morrell slapped the control panel's relays. "Damn, Damn, Damn!"
Another lightening bold flashed bone-white light through the window and three more lights blazed red. "Damn it all to Hell." He slammed the edge of his hand against the switches beneath the red lights. They continued to glare at him. An entire bank went red. Morrell raised a fist to strike the panel, then let the hand fall to his side. "I give up. Let the whole grid crash for all I care."
One by one, the remaining lights flicked from green to red until the panel was solid crimson. Morrell picked up a flashlight and headed for the generator room.
The room was absent of the hum that had filled it for every minute of the nine years he had worked at the station. His steps echoed off the walls, making him feel as if he were walking in a cave. He tried several switches on the wall. No amber emergency lights came on. A faint flickering through the room's windows, followed seconds later by a distant crash, indicated the thunderhead had moved on. Morrell heaved a sigh of relief and moved deeper into the room. The yellow shaft from his flashlight cut left and right through the darkness as he scanned for signs of damage. Morrell jammed to a halt.
A faint circle of light radiated from behind the last generator. Morrell flicked off the flashlight. The circle blossomed into an aurora of electric blue. Morrell shivered and forced himself to walk toward it.
The glow rippled, making the walls shimmer with light and shadow. Morrell's steps grew stiff as he worked his way around the end of the generator. The light dimmed and he rushed forward.
A three-foot sphere of light hovered in front of Morrell. It oscillated up and down, pulsing with blue light. Deep inside the globe, subtle reds and greens swirled through a sea of luminescence. Pungent odors of ozone and sulfur assailed his nostrils as sounds like crackling cellophane filled the air. His hair prickled from static electricity. The globe drifted to the right. It touched the brick wall and the cellophane noise crescendoed. The glowing sphere dissolved into the wall. The room fell silent.
Morrell stepped forward, placing his hand over the spot where the sphere vanished. He felt a static itch in the palm of his hand. Morrell stretched up to look out of a window. A fast-moving point of blue light caught his eye. The sphere was chasing thunder storm.
He eased back off his toes. A crackle and the flash of an orange spark drew his attention to the left. Morrell felt his mouth drop. The row of six generators stretched away from him. In the end of each, a circular hole glowed red.
Knocking paused Scully's hand as she drew a brush through her hair. "Who is it?"
"Open up, Scully," Mulder said.
She pulled the security chain out of its track and opened the door. "You're early. We had planned to meet in the diner at eight-thirty." Scully dropped the brush into a cosmetics case.
He hovered in the door. "Change in plans. I had a message this morning that another plant got hit. I think we should check it out while the metal's still hot."
One of her eyebrows eased upward. "Same pattern of sabotage?"
"Two differences. This time all the generators were damaged and we have an eyewitness."
Scully's grip on the car's armrest turned her knuckles white as Mulder screeched to a stop. Mulder leaped out and dove through the building's glass door before Scully had opened her door. She got out, straightened her navy blue suit, and strode after him.
A seventy-year-old security guard stood with his back to her as she entered a small reception area. He was scratching the back of his gray head and looking down a hallway on the left. She showed him her ID. "Did a tall man just burst in and run down that hall?"
The guard nodded, a bewildered look on his face. "Yes'm. He tore down there like the devil was after him."
Scully smiled. "It wouldn't be the first time."
The guard gave her a questioning look. Scully ignored it. "He's with me." She pointed down the hall with her ID. "Is that the way to the generator room?"
He grimaced. "What's left of it. The boss came through half an hour ago and said everyone's going to be laid off for three months while the equipment is replaced."
"I'm sorry to hear that." She gave him an encouraging smile and turned down the hall.
The generator room was similar to the GCC facility except this one only held six generators. A heavy silence filled the room. Scully heard two men's voices coming from the last unit on the right; one was Mulder's. She hurried to join him.
Mulder had his arms held in front of him, palms facing each other and two feet apart. "This big?"
"Bigger," a short wizened man said. "The thing was more like three feet across."
Scully stepped up next to Mulder. "What was three feet across?"
Mulder spun toward her, his face burning with animation. "This is Bannon Morrell, the night power manager. He says it wasn't a person that damaged the generators but a glowing sphere. Look." He pointed to the circular holes burned into the end of the generators.
Morrell shook his head. "Those units cost a million each, now they're just so much scrap."
"What happened to them?" Scully asked.
The man shrugged. "From what I hear, the same thing that happened to the four other plants: something pulled all the power out of them until their overload circuits kicked in. The circuits weren't fast enough and the control circuitry got fried. Without that, the internal windings fused." He sighed. "We'll be down three months at least."
"What about the glowing sphere?" Scully asked.
"It was blue with red and green in its heart." He ran gnarled fingers through the wiry curls covering his head. " It made my hair stand on end."
"Where'd it go?" Mulder asked.
Morrell patted the brick wall one foot in front of Mulder. "Right through here. After it vanished I looked outside and watched it take off after the thunderstorm."
Mulder's brows came together. "There was also a thunderstorm the night the GCC plant got attacked. Do you get a lot of thunderstorms here?"
"You're kidding, " Morrell said. "This time of year we have them almost every night. It's common for us to get locked into a cycle where a storm blows through, circulates up north to pick up more steam, then the jet stream carries it right back to us. Sometimes the same storm will pound the city five or six times." He shook his head wearily. "I can tell you, it's a nightmare for the power grid."
Mulder's eye grew distant.
"Mister Morrell," Scully said. "Are you saying that you saw a coronal discharge on the end of this generator and-"
Morrell held up a hand. "Hold on one minute, lady. I've been pushing electrons since before you were born. I know what coronal discharges look like and this wasn't one of them. This thing had real power to it."
She felt Mulder walk away. He drifted down the row of generators to stand by the first one. He crouched down and ran his hands around the perimeter of the hole. His head jerked up and swept in Scully's direction, pausing to glance at the hole burned into each generator.
Mulder bolted to his feet and ran past her. "Come on. I need to look at the files of the earlier attacks."
"Attacks?" she called after him. "Mulder, we still don't have proof that these events, which are beginning to look like a natural phenomenon, are related."
He broke step long enough to jab a finger at the ceiling. "There's your proof that the same force is at work in all the cases." He sped away.
Scully looked up. The entire ceiling glittered with condensed steel.
Scully looked through the door to Mulder's room. Paper rustled as he scattered case files over his bed. He grabbed a photograph from each file and thrust them into her hands. "Here's more proof."
She scanned the pictures. They were close-ups of randomly-sized holes in the ends of four different generators. "All this indicates is that whatever force is causing the damage is different in each case. The different hole sizes prove that."
Mulder took the pictures and laid them out in a row. He checked the backs of each, reshuffled them, and stood back. "Now look."
From left to right, the photos displayed holes in order of increasing size. Scully looked back at him. "What about it?"
"I've arranged them in the order the attacks occurred."
Scully crossed her arms. "So far the evidence suggests that these events are simply the random effects of a natural electric phenomenon. There is no indication that anything attacked the plants."
"Not so random," Mulder said. "These pictures show the holes getting larger with each attack. I saw the same thing at the Paramutual plant. Each of the six holes was larger than the one before it. This isn't a series of unrelated events." He stepped close. "The same entity is repeatedly attacking the plants to get what it needs: electrical power."
Scully's voice took on a pleading tone. "Entity? Even if it is a related phenomenon, surely you're not implying it's alive?"
Mulder fell into a chair and laced his fingers together. He stared over them at her. "What is life, Scully?"
She raised her hands in exasperation and then let them fall. "I hardly know where to begin."
"On the most fundamental level, what are the outward indications of life?"
She slowly exhaled a deep breath. "Most people agree that life exhibits the ability to move, consume sustenance, and reproduce."
Mulder blinked several times. "That description fits a lot of phenomena. Fire does all that."
"Well, yes. I suppose that on the most basic level, life is combustion." She held up a slender finger. "However, to claim that combustion is life is another matter."
He let the challenge go unanswered. "If simple fire exhibits the properties of life, why not a ball of lightning? Morrell saw it move and it seems to consume food in the form of electricity, at least that's a reasonable explanation for why it attacks power plants. As for reproduction-" He gave her a half smile. "Maybe our sphere is shy about those things."
Scully ignored his innuendo and forced herself to keep from frowning. Mulder was right more often than than wrong. She spoke slowly, with deliberate exactness. "To evaluate your theory, we are going to need more technical expertise on the subject of electric discharges than I am able to supply. I suggest we contact someone at a lightning research institute and see what he has to say about the incidents at the plants."
Distant lightning flashed sharp-edged shadows across the room. Mulder turned toward the source as low thunder rumbled through the room. "We'd better move fast. At the speed this thing's appetite is growing we may not have much time."
Arapaho National Forest
Thirty Miles West of Boulder
Mulder pressed his foot relentlessly down on the Suburban's gas peddle. The vehicle bucked and clawed its way over the broken granite trail. Suddenly, the tires locked and the car skidded to a halt sending up a cloud of dust.
Scully squinted out of the front window. Mulder had stopped inches from a sign informing them that no vehicles were allowed beyond this point because it was a flora preservation area. Mulder smiled over at her. "Good thing we brought our hiking shoes."
She smiled back sourly and began exchanging her dark pumps with a pair of tennis shoes. She felt uneasy in them. They were too comfortable and informal. Scully preferred the rigid formality of working shoes.
She stepped out of the car and joined Mulder. He was standing with his hands on his hips, staring at the Suburban. It's exterior was completely hidden by a thick coat of dust. "There goes the cleaning deposit."
Scully started off down a foot path. "Come on, Mulder. It's getting late."
He followed and unfolded a sheet of hotel stationary. "According to Dr. Lansky's directions, the facility is two miles ahead."
She was already breathing hard. ""We're at eleven thousand feet. At this altitude walking two miles is like running ten back in D.C."
Mulder gulped a breath. "I'm beginning to see what you mean."
They trudged on.
blue lettering on the white sign read:
High Altitude Lightning Observation Site (HALOS)
Authorized Personnel Only
Mulder leaned over, gasping. Scully willed herself to stand straight, but breathed just as desperately as Mulder. She peered around the edge of the sign and saw a Quonset building shod in heavy corrugated metal. It had no windows. "This has to be it. Dr. Lansky said he'd be inside." She forced her legs to start walking toward the hut. Mulder straightened and followed.
Mulder pounded the door's timber frame. It jerked open. A tall dark man with a forty's-style toothbrush mustache stared at them wide-eyed. "Good God, you made it." He stepped out of the way. "You must be exhausted. Come in and have a seat." He pointed at a pair of stools by a high bench covered with electrical equipment. "Let me get you something to drink. Water? A coke?"
"Coke," Mulder gasped.
"May I please have some water?" Scully said.
"I'm Doctor Lansky. We talked on the phone." He took a bottle of Evian and a can of coke from a refrigerator and used to coke to indicate a short, fire-plug shaped man in a white lab coat. "That's Doctor Henry Burke. He and I are here on a grant from the National Lightning Institute to look at horizontal charge dispersion at ground level."
Mulder stared blankly as Lansky handed him the coke. The doctor noted his expression. "Most people think lightening enters the earth through a small point. Actually, the zone of penetration can be quite dispersed and extend out as much as thirty meters."
Lansky jerked his head in the other researcher's direction. "Henry thinks the dispersion is limited by ground-charge accumulation to ten meters." Lansky gave them an amused smile. "We'll see."
A distant rumble shook dust out of the hut's rafters. Lansky turned to Burke. "Sounds like we've got another storm coming in. I got the sensors in place and calibrated. Are the recorders ready?"
Burke grunted and nodded his head. Scully wondered how he managed since it appeared he had no neck.
Lansky turned back to Mulder. "You said you needed to talk to me about how lightning could have damaged the power stations."
Mulder handed him the photos of the holes melted into the generators. "Can lightning do that?"
Lansky quickly flipped through the pictures. "Lightning can most assuredly cause this level of damage, but since these generators were inside a building, I doubt it. The lightning would have had to strike the outside of the building first and that would have dissipated its energy." He handed the photos back. "I'm sorry."
Mulder pursed his lips. "We have an eye witness. He says that it wasn't a bolt of lightning but a ball, a sphere of glowing-"
The crash of metal striking the hut's concrete floor snapped their heads around. Burke had spun to face them, dragging a tool chest off the table as he did. Wrenches and screw drivers lay at his feet. He didn't seem to notice. "Ball Lightning?" he demanded.
Lansky covered his eyes with a hand. "Oh, God. Here we go."
Burke stormed over to Mulder. "Let me see those photographs."
Mulder handed them to the shorter man who scanned through them impatiently. "Yes, yes, yes," Burke said to himself. "It could be. It has to be." He wandered back to his table, turning each photo to inspect it from every angle. He crunched over the fallen tools without noticing.
Lansky tossed up his hands. "You've done it now. One mention of ball lightning and he's lost to any other work."
"Ball lightning?" Mulder asked.
"A spherical electrical phenomenon," Lansky said. "There have been a few reports-"
"What was that?" Burke demanded. "A few reports? I have a file of eighteen hundred sightings."
The corners of Scully's mouth quivered with a smile as she whispered to Mulder, "Considering there are ten times that many UFO sightings that hardly fills me with confidence."
Mulder gave her a sour look.
"You say you have an eyewitness?" Burke asked. "I'll have to interview him. Where is he? Can you take me to him? What's his telephone number?"
"For God's sake, Burke," Lansky said. "Take it easy."
"What is ball lightning?" Mulder asked.
Excitement sparked in Burke's eyes. "That's the great thing about it, no one knows. It may be the last easily observed natural phenomenon that we don't understand. There are many theories but I subscribe to the one that states that ball lightning is a complex systems of currents contained by their own self-magnetic fields. They're formed in the course of normal lightning discharges. Typically, they are orange and the size of a grapefruit." He held up the pictures. "These are giants."
"Would they have the energy to vaporize steel?"
"These? Oh, my. Yes. Undoubtedly. Small ones have dissipated explosively with enough energy to blow out windows. The energy capacity goes up with the third power of the radius so these spheres could cause catastrophic damage."
"You said that normally the spheres are orange," Mulder said. "Our witness said his was blue, almost violet."
Color drained from the man's face. "Blue? My. My."
"What does the color signify?" Mulder asked.
Burke's expression looked vague for a moment. "Color? Oh, yes, the color. Well, the higher the spectral color, the greater the energy density. It's the same for light bulbs: orange is relatively cool and low energy, blue is hot and high energy."
Mulder leaned forward. "What you're saying is that this thing is powerful both because of its size and its color."
"Right. It could be extremely dangerous. Oh, I've simply got to see it for myself." His brows came together. "You said it? Are you implying that the same sphere caused all of the damage?"
"Well, yes," Mulder said. "I thought you understood-"
Burke shook his head. "Impossible. Most spheres last only a few moments. The record to date is fifty-three seconds. And you're implying that this one has survived several days?"
Mulder nodded and arranged the photos in chronological order. "As you can see, the size of the melted circles increased each time. The same thing happened at the last plant to be attacked: each of the six generators had a slightly larger hole. I've been working on the theory that the same sphere has been feeding on power stations and getting bigger with each meal."
Burke extended a shaky hand toward a calculator. "How big was the last sphere?"
"We estimate it had a diameter of three feet," Scully said.
Burke stabbed buttons on the calculator. His mouth dropped as he read the results. He ran the numbers again, then let the calculator clatter to the tabletop. "I don't think I want to see it after all."
Scully picked up the calculator and saw the number seven with nine zeros after it. She decided not to ask what the units were. "Doctor Burke, if this is a single phenomenon, we need to know how to kill it."
Mulder gave her a smile bordering on a leer.
She drew herself up. "That is, destroy it."
Burke's forehead wrinkled. "Destroy it? Why would you want to-"
Scully held up the calculator so he could reread the number on it. "If it is the same sphere causing each attack then it's only going to get stronger and cause more damage. We need to stop it, now."
The man frowned. "You're right, of course. But if it were true...."
Mulder lowered his voice. "People could be hurt. Killed. We have to do it. What do you suggest? Some kind of lightning rod?"
Burke shook his head. "No. Ball lightning has been reported to travel unharmed along grounded conductors of all kinds. What we need is something-" He jumped up. "An inverse Faraday cage!"
"A Faraday cage is an electrically conductive shell that is grounded," Scully said. "It protects anything inside from electromagnetic radiation."
Burke bobbed his head. "Right. But an inverse Faraday cage is different. It's still a conducting shell but instead of being grounded it's connected to a large bank of capacitors. They're used to contain electro-pulse experiments. In this case, it would act like a cage to trap the sphere. As it approached one of the walls, the capacitors would drawn off its energy. It would either move away from the wall or be completely absorbed." A light went on in Burke's eyes. "If we caught it, we could bring it back here for analysis."
The Quonset hut went silent. Mulder broke the spell. "Where do we find the capacitors we'll need. I assume they have to be big."
Scully heard a defeated sigh from the far end of the room. They all turned and saw Lansky with his shoulders drooping. "We have all the high-energy capacitors you'll need. They're part of this facility's standard inventory."
Burke clasped his hands together in front of him. "You're going to help us?"
Lansky extended his arms outward, then let them fall to his sides. "I might as well. I'm not going to getting any useful work out of you until you get the opportunity to incinerate yourself."
Burke grinned. "There's several meters of scrap chain link fence out back. I'll get that and start on the cage." He scuttled away.
"Right," Lansky said and headed toward a heavy-duty dolly parked next to a cabinet. "Mulder, you're with me."
"Wait," Scully demanded. "This cage is going to weigh a ton. How are we going to move it?"
"We'll use the pick-up truck we used to drive here. It's parked behind the station." He smiled at them. "You didn't really walk the two miles to the hut at this altitude, did you?"
Scully and Mulder exchanged chagrinned looks.
Pat Murkson gazed through the binoculars at the research station. An end door opened and Mulder walked out pushing a dolly in front of him. A second taller man followed with another dolly. They disappeared around the side of the Quonset hut. Murkson put the binoculars aside pressed headphones tighter over his ears. All the directional microphone could pick up through the hut's walls were metallic clanking noises. He detected movement near the hut. The binoculars came up again and showed Mulder and the second man returning. Each dolly strained under the weight of four olive-drab blocky objects. The two men struggled to drag their loads into the hut. Murkson winced as the door slammed.
He put the binoculars down and regarded the hut. Without taking his eyes off it, he picked up a cell phone and pushed the memory-one button. There was no dial tone or ringing. He watched the row of lights across the top of the phone with his peripheral vision. The first one on the left turned green, indicating his call had been sent. A second amber light blinked on, telling him that the scramblers at both ends had been activated. A heartbeat later the third light glowed red. His party had picked up.
There was a momentary pause during which Murkson could hear the sucking sound of air being drawn through a cigarette. A man's voice breathed heavily out of the phone. "Report."
"Sir, they're still in the station. The pick-up through the metal walls was good and I heard them talking about constructing some sort of trap. It seems they believe there is some danger attached to the spheres."
Another slow drag. "Explain."
"One of the scientists implied that the sphere could explode with deadly consequences."
There was a pause. "That sounds like something we could use."
"Continue the surveillance."
All three lights went dark.
North Boulder Municipal Power Station
Scully ran jittery fingers through her hair. In front of her, Mulder struggled with Lansky and Burke to manhandle the six-foot box of welded chain link into position next to the first generator. Three other generators crowded the room but they were silent; only unit number one hummed with power.
Mulder's white shirt was open at the throat and both it and his blue slacks were wrinkled and stained. Lansky and Burke's lab coats were also soiled. Mulder's hand slipped and his fingers racked across the fencing's surface. He stared at the parallel red scratches a second, then reared back and kicked the cage. It rattled from the impact.
"You better let me look at your hand," Scully said stepping up behind him.
He turned blood-shot eyes on her. Scully wondered if she looked as bad as he did.
"When I need your help-" He bit his words off. "It's nothing. We're almost done." He wiped the hand on his slacks. It left a streak that looked black in the station's amber lighting.
"I'll start connecting the capacitors," she said.
"Right." Mulder turned and helped the men shove the cage so that it rammed against the generator's end. The side of the cage next to the generator and the one facing outward were open. Framed chain link doors extended above each of these openings. The men checked the clasps holding the doors and then collapsed on the floor.
Scully came over and held out a thermos. "Coffee?"
They grabbed for it. She handed them paper cups already stained with brown dregs from repeated fillings. "I connected the door releases through a relay. We can trigger them from a safe distance."
Mulder nodded and took a shaky sip from his cup.
Scully picked up the thermos and poured the last of the coffee into the thermos's top and drank it down. The coffee was cold but its bitterness help shock her awake. A low rumble coursed through the building. "It seems the local weather service is accurate when it comes to predicting storm tracks," she said.
Lansky struggled to his feet. "They get a lot of practice. You can count on that storm passing directly overhead." He pointed to the end of the row of generators. "Let's move down there. It should be far enough for us to be safe yet see what happens."
They nodded and joined him as he forced himself to his feet and dragged down the walkway. They'd just hunkered down when an electric flash shot sharp-edge shadows across the room. A second later rolling thunder crashed against the windows. Scully eased away from the wall. "It's moving in fast."
Lansky nodded. "I only hope that this is the one with our little friend."
Mulder smiled at Scully. "I've got a convert."
Lansky twisted around. "Eh?"
Burke leapt to his feet. "Something's happening."
The brick wall opposite the humming generator glowed with a dim green light. The glow widened and a point of intense electric blue appeared in its center and expanded outward, bulging into a luminous dome. It paused, then pushed forward, blossoming into a yard-wide sphere. Tendrils of brilliant blue and subtle violet writhed across its surface, casting undulating light on the floor and walls. Burke took a step forward. "I've got to get closer."
Lansky pulled him back. "Don't be a fool. That thing could kill you.
Burke reluctantly crouched back down.
Scully squinted at the glowing ball. Beneath its rippling surface, red and green filaments twisted in tight clumps. These aggregations drifted around a central mass that burned with purest purple. Her eyes watered at the nucleus's brilliance, then went wide. "Nucleus!"
Mulder turned to her. "What?"
"Look at it! Its internal structure is similar to a single-cell organism. Those red and green clumps look like mitochondria. The central structure could be a nucleus. You were right, Mulder."
"It's moving," Lansky hissed.
The sphere drifted away from the wall and approached the generator. It glided to a stop inches from the cage's opening, hovered a moment, then drifted away from them and past the cage. It moved forward again, working its way between a sheet metal partition and the first generator. Yellow sparks flew as it grazed both metal surfaces.
"See that?" Burke asked. "It can manage going through nonconductors like brick but seems to have problems with metals. That's unheard of for ball lightning."
The sphere pulled back and moved toward them. It stopped at the walkway between the humming generator and the next silent one and tried to insinuate itself between them. Sparks flew upward in twin arcs. It moved back and slowly positioned itself in front of the cage.
"It doesn't seem to like the cage," Lansky said. "Almost as if it could sense that capacitors are dangerous."
Mulder's breath prickled Scully's ear as he whispered, "Intelligence."
The surface of the sphere facing the generator grew brilliant with orange light and a dull red spot began to glow on the generator's bulkhead. It spread to a three-inch circle accompanied by a thin ribbon of rising smoke, then died away. The orange light faded.
"It tried burning through to get at the electricity but the range was too great," Scully said.
"Why doesn't it go over the cage?" Mulder asked.
Burke glanced back. "Most reports indicate ball lightning prefers to stay at ground level. Even if it forms high in the air, it'll work its way down as soon as possible." He shrugged. "No one knows why."
The sphere began inching forward into the cage. Scully's hand tightened on the control box.
The glowing orb eased forward, paused, then pushed deeper into the cage.
Mulder's voice was hushed. "Halfway there."
Scully's thumb clicked the switch guard up and rested lightly on the release button.
Three-quarters of the sphere was inside the cage. It's forward surface turned orange and a circular section of the bulkhead lit up cherry red. Paint blackened and vanished in a puff of smoke. A cloud of glittering vapor began drifting upward. The sphere moved the last inch into the cage.
Mulder jumped to his feet. "Now!"
Scully's thumb crushed the release button and the inner cage door sliced downward like a guillotine. It slammed home, cutting through the orange glow from the sphere. Yellow sparks flew and the orange light cut out. Blue tendrils whipped madly over the sphere's surface and it began drifting backward.
Scully pointed at the cage. The second door had jammed halfway down. "The rear door won't close!"
Mulder hurtled forward. "Like Hell it won't!" His shoes hammered over the metal grates as he raced forward and smashed a foot into the cage's side. The door crashed down and blue-white light exploded outward. Painful brilliance framed Mulder's silhouette for a heartbeat, then he crumpled to the floor.
A low moan pulled Scully's attention way from the test apparatus and toward Mulder's bed. She smiled wanly and walked over to him. He opened eyes rimmed with red and looked around. "HALOS station?"
She nodded. "The power station's morning shift helped get everything loaded. Management was so happy at our success that they loaned us a few men to get back here."
He thrust himself up. "The sphere?"
She pointed to the far end of the hut where the sphere floated in its cage. The laboratory's lights had subdued it to a hazy glow. Mulder collapsed back onto the bed. "What's the verdict?"
"I've got hand this one to you, Mulder. As far as I've been able to determine, it's a complex pattern of self-stabilizing currents and magnetic fields, just as Burke theorized. I've been reading through his notes and this sphere is unusual in that it has a much more complex structure than in any other reported sighting. It must have formed with sufficient complexity to sustain itself long enough until another lightening bolt increased its energy and complexity. This process continued until it reached a level where a rudimentary form of intelligence formed. That's when it started looking for a more reliable form of sustenance."
"Power stations," he said.
Scully nodded. "I assume that after feeding, it felt the need to return to the nearest thunder storm until it got hungry again. The next time the storm came near a station, it attacked."
"How intelligent is it? Can we talk to it?"
She shook her head. "Not even close. It can perceive its surroundings and react to them. I accidentally discovered that when I connected a high-frequency circuit to the cage. It shook and turned dark red. I don't think it liked it. Fortunately, it hates the capacitors and won't touch the fencing."
"Lansky and Burke?"
She indicated a screen partition closing off the other end of the room. "They lasted until half an hour ago and then crashed." She ran a hand across her brow. "I'm about to do the same."
"How long can it survive?"
She shrugged. "I have no idea. Since it fed off the low-frequency power of the generators, I assumed that's what it can absorb and set up a trickle charger to feed it."
He managed a weak smile. "Like an intravenous drip?"
"What happened to me?"
"When you kicked the door closed the sphere emitted a blast of hard violet rays."
The corners of Mulder's mouth pulled down.
"Don't worry," she said. "The only lasting damage effect will be the darkest tan you've ever had." She eased herself down onto a cot. "Go back to sleep, Mulder. And don't wake me when you get up.
Scully closed her eyes and let the world fade away.
Murkson silently pulled back the slide to his nine millimeter automatic and placed the end of the barrel close to Scully's temple.
An older man's hand closed on his forearm. "No. They may still be useful to us... for a little longer. Use the gas to keep them out and get the men in to take everything away.
Murkson raised his eyebrows in the direction of the sphere. "That to?"
The man took a final drag on a cigarette and dropped it to the floor. "Especially that."
Scully groaned as she pushed herself up on the cot to a sitting position. Splinters of pain stabbed at the backs of her eyes. She rubbed her temples. "Mulder?"
"Yeah," he said. "I'm here."
The sourness of his voice opened her eyes. She blinked to wash away the bright light graying her vision. Mulder was crouching down with his back to her, examining something on the floor. Scully stood up and immediately fell back on the cot, pain pounding in her head. She placed a hand to the back of her neck. "God, what a headache."
"It's probably a side affect of the drug," he said.
Her eyes snapped open. "What drug?"
"The one someone used to keep us knocked out while they took everything from the case."
Scully's eyes went wide, then scanned the room. All her notes, test equipment, and the cage with the sphere were gone. "Who-"
Mulder stood and spun towards her. He held out the butt of a cigarette for her to see. "Who do you think? He did it to us again, Scully."
A chill ran up her spine at the deadly edge in Mulder's voice.
"The next time we fight him," Mulder swore. "It's going to be different."
The technician flipped the switch and the high-frequency generator whined. The glowing sphere twisted in pain. Blue tendrils fired to blood red and spasmed. He released the switched and the sphere returned to its normal shape.
The smoking man nodded. "Good. If we can hurt it we can train it."
The technician turned to him. "Train it for what?"
"What ever we need. Do it again."
The switch clicked and the sphere writhed. Jarring colors raged over its surface for a full minute of agony.
The smoking man's face remained dispassionate. "Again," he ordered.
The technician looked away and threw the switch.
Disclaimer: X-Files is the property of Fox Television and Chris Carter. Only the story elements particular to Life are the property of the author and may not be used without his permission.
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