3. The Bridge

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When the double doors opened onto the dark space, Mason felt like he had stepped onto the bridge of a starship. On a raised platform at the front sat a glass dome under a gantry holding lights and cams—that must be where the X-Bot was being contained. An arc of six jumbo monitors was mounted overhead and just forward of it, each screen showing the X-Bot from a different angle.

The floor sloped gently upward, theater style. There were three rows of equipment clusters, each with a mesh-backed chair and its own trio of monitors giving off an aquatic glow. Mason pictured a Starfleet captain striding in and declaring, Charge torpedoes and prepare to engage! On second glance, he saw there was no captain's post. Besides, the Gray Man didn't seem like the type. Still, it was quite the setup they had here and, he couldn't help noticing, there was room for several more people. Less than half of the equipment clusters were currently manned.

"Maxwell, status report," the Gray Man said.

A man's face appeared on an overhead jumbos, which could apparently be slaved to any of the smaller monitors or cams. Aside from the liver-spotted skin around his eyes, the rest of his face was covered in a bushy white beard streaked with clay.

"We just finished shooting it full of X-rays," said the grizzly man. "I put the data files in the drop folder. Maybe the radiography guys will see something we missed, but it's all looking pretty mushy so far."

"Mushy?" repeated the Gray Man.

Another face came on the screen. He was a black man in his mid-thirties, mildly handsome but already going bald with a shrinking peninsula of hair. "We didn't light up any circuit boards or electrodes, and we're not seeing any ion spikes."

"Ion spikes?" Mason blurted.

"As in battery, like the lithium-ion battery in your phone."

"You're saying it doesn't have a battery?"

"Try to keep up, dickhead!" Though the voice came from a station across the room, it was loud enough to make Mason jump. The acoustics in the place were music hall quality. "Hey, who is this guy anyway? Not another one of your cube jockeys?"

"This is Mason Donnelly," the Gray Man introduced him. "He has extensive experience in all aspects of microbot fabrication and assembly."

Damn, Mason thought. The guy made him sound like a freaking Freeman Dyson. Maybe he could use him as a job reference when this was over.

"Oh yeah, Corny mentioned something about a peeper guy," said the shouter.

"He's currently working through some legal entanglements," explained the Gray Man.

"Terrific. So he's a dickhead and he's got a rap sheet."

"What's the deal with you?" Mason said. "You got Tourette's or something?"

"No, I don't fucking have Tourette's Syndrome!" A pimply Indian face with a red headband appeared on-screen. He was younger than Mason even. Eighteen maybe? Jumbo high-def didn't do his complexion any favors. "I don't have any tics, see. What I have is a speech disinhibition condition. There's some screwed up wiring between my frontal lobe and speech center that causes me to vocalize whatever comes to mind. It's involuntary, meaning I can't help it. So show some fucking respect, dickhead."

"Right, got it. But do you think you could call me something other than dickhead?"

"Sure thing, peeper."

Mason thought it best to stop while he was behind, lest he find himself even further behind.

"What's on this morning's docket?" the Gray Man asked, unruffled by the exchange.

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