The Gray Man picked up the top page of the sheaf and scanned it over. "So you're the Donnelly kid. I wasn't expecting you to get here this soon. You were just down the road at university then? Aren't classes out of session for the summer?"
"I'm confined to campus until the sentencing phase of my case is decided. It's a funny quirk of the Arizona penal system that a college dorm can actually be considered a detention facility."
"Yes, I see that here. Looks like you got yourself in some serious legal trouble."
"I guess you could say that. If you call video voyeurism involving a minor serious."
The Gray Man's eyebrows shot up, but only by a notch. "Care to tell me about it?"
"My lawyer says I shouldn't discuss my case without legal counsel."
"Fair enough. I suppose I can just look it up on this Internet thing here." He extended his fingers toward the keyboard.
Oh, what the hell, Mason thought. It wasn't like it mattered now. And besides, it was all over the Internet. "You've never heard of the Zeta peeper incident then?"
"Nope. How about you fill me in."
"It's not like they made it sound in the news." The viral version had him piloting a spybot into the showers of a sorority where a full-on lesbian orgy was in progress. A bootleg porno clip had even been made of it, claiming to be live footage. And no, he hadn't watched it!
While the robo-bug had indeed managed to infiltrate the common room of Zeta Kappa house where it scaled the back of an attractive coed to perch atop her shoulder, those were the only facts the stories got right. The girl was wearing baggy gray sweatpants and a matching Arizona State sweatshirt. From the perspective of the microbot, it was a bunchy gray landscape that had as much to do with nubile curves as the Grand Tetons had to do with actual tits. Also captured in the feed was a side view of her face, looking oddly gargantuan, the shaggy beige carpet good at hiding beer stains, and a side table with old issues of Cosmo magazine. It was a real technological tour de force.
A few days later Mason was called out of class for a private meeting with the provost. The meeting went from bad to worse, starting with the Spanish Inquisition and ending with a criminal indictment. Due to the growing number of peeper crimes, harsh new penalties had been put on the books for video voyeurism, and the university saw an opportunity to score social points by making a public example of him. They handed the case over to the council on student conduct which dealt with date rape and misbehaving jocks. The council filed a criminal case in state court. Mason would probably be expelled and might even have to serve jail time.
"How old was the girl?" the Gray Man asked. "She couldn't have been under sixteen, right?"
"She was a sophomore, so she was nineteen or twenty, I guess. But her fifteen year old sister was visiting for the week. You could see her pass by in the background for maybe two seconds. I thought she was going to the pool, but they said she was in her underwear."
"So the whole thing was just a misunderstanding?"
"Pretty much," Mason sighed. As if the Gray Man was likely to believe that. No one else had. Even his lawyer had been skeptical, putting him through an endless gauntlet of questions.
"Tell me some more about this micro-robot here. Why did you choose a spider as the form factor? Why not, say, a cockroach?"
"Everyone was doing cockroaches already. You can buy kits off the Internet. Besides, I wanted to make a climber and a spider is better suited for that. They're more impressive too, if you ask me."
"That was one of the few sound judgment calls you made in this situation," the Gray Man said. "Why the extra pair of legs though? Last I counted, spiders only had eight."
"I was having some problems with them getting snagged. When that happens, you're pretty much screwed. The bot gets trapped in place by its own feet."
"How does adding more solve that problem?"
"Then I can afford to lose some. I made it so if you applied a certain amount of force, the leg would pop off. Problem solved. Good thing too. I think it only had five left by the time I got it back to the backpack."
"What are the dark splotches for?"
"Camouflage. It's supposed to look like a rock spider. Let's just say I'm not much of an artist."
"You got the death curl right." The Gray Man held up the bot by its body-frame. "Anyway, it's not half-bad given the constraints."
Not half-bad! Mason felt like he had been sucker punched. He would rather be accused of being a peeping pervert than have his creation picked apart by this stranger.
The Gray Man must have sensed his outrage because he leaned forward and fixed Mason with his gunmetal eyes. "No offense intended, Mr. Donnelly. I'm sure you could have done better given more time and access to better tools. I even envy you in a way. I did some mechanical tinkering myself back in the day. RC airplanes mostly. That was before 3D printers came along, not to mention the Internet. Anyway, I think you could be of some use to a little project we have going on here. In return, perhaps I could assist with your legal entanglements. All of this is contingent on certain conditions and obligations being met, so why don't we just see how things go and revisit that conversation down the road?"
"What kind of project?"
"I think you'll find it right up your alley." The Gray Man folded his laptop and rose to his feet. "Come with me, Mr. Donnelly."
YOU ARE READING
West of NothingScience Fiction
When a sorority prank with a microbot lands him in hot water, university student Mason Donnelly is recruited to work on a secret project at a remote research facility. As the newest member of a team of brilliant misfits, he must help reverse enginee...