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Authors: Kevin Anderson,Chris Carter (Creator)

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BOOK: Ground Zero (The X-Files)
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stalling tactic. She chided herself for avoiding the corpse. After all, she thought, the sooner she got to it, the sooner she could be finished and out of there. At the moment, though, she would much rather have been with Mulder interviewing some of Dr. Gregory’s fellow scientists—but this was her job, her specialty. She switched on the tape recorder, wondering if the radiation seeping out of the body might affect the magnetic tape. She hoped not.

“Subject: Emil Gregory. Male Caucasian, seventy-two years of age,” she dictated. Curved mirrors reflected the harsh white fluorescents overhead down onto the table. These, along with the surgical lamps, washed away all shadows, allowing no secrets to be hidden.

Gregory’s skin was blackened and peeling, his face shriveled to a burned mask over his skull. White teeth poked through the split and charred lips. His arms and legs had been drawn up, folded together as his muscles contracted with the heat. She touched him with one heavily gloved finger. Flakes of burnt flesh fell off. She swallowed.

“Apparent cause of death is sudden exposure to extreme heat. However, other than the several external layers of complete charring…” she nudged the burnt layers that peeled away, revealing red, wet tissues underneath “…the musculature and internal organs appear relatively intact.

“There are some indications of the damage normally seen when a victim dies in a fire, but other indicators are missing. In a normal fire, body temperature rises throughout, causing extreme damage to internal organs, massive trauma to the entire bodily structure, rupture of soft tissues. However, in this case it appears that the heat was so intense and so brief that it incinerated the subject’s exterior, but dissipated 32

GROUND ZERO

before it had time to penetrate more deeply into his body structure.”

After finishing with her preliminary summary, Scully inspected the tray and took a large scalpel, holding it clumsily in her gloved hands. When she cut into Dr. Gregory’s body cavity, the sensation was like sawing through a well-done steak.

In the background the Geiger counters clicked with stray bursts of background radiation, sounding like sharp fingernails tapping on a window pane. Scully froze, waiting until the counts died down.

She adjusted the lamp overhead and went back to work, probing in detail for any clues the old man’s body had left for her to find. She dictated copious notes, removing the intact organs, weighing each one, giving her impression of their condition—but as she proceeded, it became clear to her that something was terribly wrong.

Finally, still wearing her gloves, she went over to the intercom mounted on the wall, glancing back over her shoulder at the remains of Gregory’s body. She punched in the extension for the Oncology Department.

“This is Special Agent Dana Scully,” she said, “in Autopsy Room…” she glanced up at the door, “2112. I need an oncology expert to suit up and come down here briefly for a second opinion. I’ve found something I’d like to have verified.” Though Scully had requested consultation with a specialist, she was already virtually certain as to what they would find.

The voice on the other end of the line reluctantly acknowledged. Scully wondered how many of the specialists would suddenly disappear for lunch breaks or rush off to long-forgotten games of golf, leaving the remaining few to draw straws to see who would have to come in to the room with her and study the burned corpse.

33

THE X-FILES

She went back to the body on the polished metal table and looked down, still keeping her distance. Her inhalations through the respirator packs at her mouth hissed like the steaming breath of a dragon.

Long before Dr. Emil Gregory had died from his fatal flash burn, his entire bodily system had been ravaged from within. Tumors upon tumors permeated his system, disrupting his functions.

Even without this bizarre and extreme death, Dr. Emil Gregory would have succumbed to terminal cancer within a month.

34

FIVE

Vandenberg Air Force Base, California

Underground Minuteman Missile Control Bunker Tuesday, 3:45 P.M.

A boring routine in a buried trash can that somebody considered an office. Some assignment. Captain Franklin Mesta had once thought being a missileer would be exciting, protected in an underground fortress with the controls of nuclear Armageddon at his fingertips. Dial in the coordinates, turn the keys—and the fate of the world rested in your hands, just waiting for a launch order. In reality, it was more like solitary confinement…only without the privacy of solitude.

Mesta was stuck down here in a little cell, his only company a randomly assigned partner with whom he had little in common. Forty-eight straight hours without seeing the light of day, without hearing the wind or the ocean, without stretching his muscles, or getting a good workout. What was the point of being stationed on the 35

THE X-FILES

spectacular central coast of California if he had to pull duty down here under a rock? He might as well have been in Minot, North Dakota. One underground control bunker looked like any other underground control bunker. They all had the same interior decorator—no doubt a low-bid government contract. Maybe he should have asked for EOD duty instead. At least Explosives Ordnance Disposal offered the
chance
that something unexpected and exciting would happen. From his chair he turned to look at his partner, Captain Greg Louis, who sat out of arm’s reach in an identical scuffed red Naugahyde chair. The chairs were mounted to steel rails on the floor that kept the two missileers permanently at right angles to each other. Regulations required that each man remain buckled in his seat at all times. A circular mirror mounted in the corner between them let the two men look into each other’s eyes, but prevented them from being able to touch physically. Captain Mesta supposed there had been instances at the end of a long shift where stircrazy missileers had tried to strangle each other.

“What do you suppose the weather’s like topside?” Mesta asked.

Captain Louis worked intently on a pad of paper, scribbling calculations. Distracted, he looked up, blinking at Mesta in the round observation mirror. Though Louis’s flat face, wide set eyes, and full lips gave him a perpetually stupid expression, Mesta knew his partner was a whiz at math.

“Do you want me to call up?” Louis asked. “They can fax us a full report.”

Mesta shook his head and looked aimlessly around the old metal control banks. Everything was painted battleship gray or, even worse, sea-foam

36

GROUND ZERO

green, with clunky black plastic dials and analog numerical readouts—technology straight from early Cold War days.

“No, just wondering,” he said with a sigh. Louis could be so literal. “What are you figuring out now?”

Louis set down his pencil. “Taking the projected area of our chamber here, and our depth beneath the surface, I can estimate the volume of material in a cylinder above us. Then I’m going to use the average density of rock to calculate the mass. When I’m done, we’ll know exactly how much stone is hanging over our heads.”

Mesta groaned. “You’ve got to be kidding, man! You’re psycho.”

“Just occupying my mind. Aren’t you curious?”

“Not about that.”

Mesta slid his chair along the rail bolted to the floor, allowing him to check another station, one he had inspected only five minutes earlier. All conditions remained the same. He looked at the heavy black phone at his station. “I think I’m going to call up and get permission to use the head,” he said. He didn’t really have to go, but it was something to do. Besides, by the time the decision came down from the watchdogs, his bladder might well be full.

“Go ahead,” Louis answered, intent on his calculations again.

A single cot sat behind a heavy red curtain that provided minimal privacy—and minimal stretching space—but each man was allowed to use it only once during a shift, and Mesta figured he could stay awake a while longer. Then the red phone rang.

Both men instantly transformed into crack professionals, alert and aware, snapping into the

37

THE X-FILES

programming that had been hammered into them. They knew the drill, and they took each alarm seriously. Mesta picked up the phone. “Captain Franklin Mesta here. Prepare for code verification.” Grabbing the black three-ring binder, he flipped through the laminated pages, searching for the proper date and authorization phrase. The voice on the phone—flat, high-pitched, and oddly genderless—rattled off numbers in a crisp, precise drone.

“Tango Zulu Ten Thirteen Alpha X-ray.”

Mesta followed the digits with his finger, repeating them into the phone. “Tango Zulu One Zero One Three Alpha Xray. Verified. Second, do you concur?”

At an identical phone, Captain Louis studied his own threering binder. “Concur,” he said. “Ready to receive targeting information.”

Mesta spoke into the handset. “We are prepared to input coordinates.”

Mesta felt his heart pounding, the adrenaline running through his veins, though he knew this had to be just an exercise. It was the military’s strategy to keep the men from going insane with boredom—putting the teams regularly through routine drills, constant practice in aiming their missile, their personal Big Stick, housed in a silo elsewhere at Vandenberg.

In addition to providing simple practice and relief from the tedium, Mesta knew, the constant and unforgiving drills were designed to program the missileers into following instructions without thinking. Buried under however many tons of rock Louis had calculated, the two partners were so isolated they could never know whether they were preparing for a real launch, or just going through the paces. That was exactly the way their superiors wanted it. 38

GROUND ZERO

But as soon as the coordinates came in, and both captains dialed them in using analog numerical wheels, Mesta knew the launch could never be real. “That’s out in the Western Pacific…somewhere in the Marshall chain,” he said. He glanced at the world map taped up on the metal wall, its edges curling from age. “Are we nuking Gilligan’s Island, or what?”

Captain Louis answered in a terse, no-nonsense tone.

“Probably in keeping with the government’s new nonthreatening posture. The Russians don’t like us even pretending to aim the birds at them.”

Mesta punched in the TARGET LOCK VERIFIED sequence, shaking his head. “Sounds like somebody just wants a few radioactive coconuts.”

Still, he thought, the very possibility of an actual launch, a no-turning-back instigation of nuclear war, was enough to bring out a cold sweat—drill or no drill.

“Ready for key insertion,” Louis prompted. Mesta hustled, ripping open his own envelope to pull out the metal key on its dangling plastic chain. “Ready for key insertion,” he repeated. “On my mark—three, two,
one
. Keys in.”

Both men jammed their metal keys in the slots, then simultaneously let out a relieved sigh. “Exciting, isn’t it?” Mesta said, breaking through his professional demeanor. Louis blinked and looked strangely at him.

Now it would all depend on the command station, where someone else in some other uniform would arm the missile, de-safe the warheads, the small conical cluster of atomic bombs. Each component of the MIRV, the multiple independently-targeted reentry vehicles, packed hundreds of times the wallop of the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs. 39

THE X-FILES

The voice on the telephone spoke. “Proceed with key rotation.”

Mesta gripped the round end of his key in the slot, feeling perspiration slick his fingertips. He glanced up at the round observation mirror to see that Captain Louis had done the same, waiting for him to give the order. Mesta began his short, careful countdown.

At “one” they turned their keys.

The lights went out.

Sparks flew from the old control panels, transistors and capacitors—possibly even obsolete vacuum tubes—overloading.

“Hey!” Mesta shouted. “Is this some kind of joke?”

Despite his bluster, he suddenly felt a primal fear of being trapped in absolute darkness, buried deep underground in a metal cave swarming with tarlike blackness. He thought he could sense every single ounce of the overlying rock Captain Louis had calculated. Mesta was glad his partner could not see the expression on his face.

“Searching for emergency controls,” Louis’s voice called, eerily disembodied in the blackness. His voice remained pretend-calm, professional, but with a ragged edge that belied his cool demeanor.

“Well where are they?” Mesta said. “Get the power back on.”

Images of suffocation and doom swirled in Mesta’s mind. Without power, they wouldn’t have air, they couldn’t call up topside and request an emergency evacuation. What if the launch had been real? Had the United States just been obliterated in a nuclear fire? Impossible!

“Switch on the damn lights!” Mesta shouted.

“Here they are. No time for a self-diagnostic.”

40

GROUND ZERO

Instead, Louis’s voice howled in pain. “Aaaah! The controls are hot! I just fried the palm of my hand.”

Mesta could make out the silhouettes of the control banks as the metal racks began to glow a deep brownish red, like a stove burner. A renewed shower of sparks skittered across the electronics. Then another, brighter glow seeped through the wall plates themselves.

“What is going on here?” Mesta said.

“Phone’s dead,” Louis answered, maddeningly calm again. Mesta swiveled back and forth in his chair, sweating, hyperventilating. “It’s like we’re in a giant microwave oven! So hot in here.”

The seams in the steel-plate walls split. Rivets shot like bullets from one side of the enclosed chamber to the other, ricocheting and shattering glass instrument panels. Both men screamed. Blazing light poured in.

“But we’re underground,” Louis gasped. “There should be only rock out there.”

Mesta tried to leap to his feet, to run to the emergency ladder, or at least to the secure elevator—but the straps and seatbelts trapped him in the uncomfortable chair. Smoke began to rise from the upholstery.

BOOK: Ground Zero (The X-Files)
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