As Mason stepped into the semi-circular workspace, the three large monitors glowing an edge-of-space aquamarine, he felt like a jet pilot strapping in for his first mission. He was a bit dubious that the swivel chair, with its wire frame and webbed surfaces, could comfortably support his weight, but he needn't have worried. It gave a quiet recoil as he eased into it. After a few adjustments to the backrest, it was the perfect fit.
First order of business—set up his computer. He hated this part. It usually involved hunting down license keys for his favorite programs or, he was ashamed to admit, downloading pirated copies from the Internet while hoping he didn't pick up a virus that ate his hard drive. "Here we go again." He braced himself for hours of wading through progress bars and setup wizards.
"Oh, that's funny," he said when the username Peeper appeared and asked him to create a new password. This done, the standard desktop filled the screen and a message bubble popped up. I see this is your first time logging on. Would you like to install some software?
Now that was downright friendly. Mason typed in Firefox, his preferred Internet browser, and hit the confirm button.
The progress bar zoomed past in two seconds flat and the familiar interface appeared. Holy Crap! That was fast. Staring at the open search box, Mason felt a mental itch he knew would be a bad idea to scratch. He had just been accepted onto a secret research team in some sort of high-security military base. It was not the ideal time to be testing boundaries. Still, the itch wasn't completely irrational. He would need to use the Internet sooner or later, so he might as well find out now what sort of watchdogs were in place before he landed himself in deeper trouble later on. If he got caught, hey, he was just the dumb new guy who didn't know any better.
He typed in "gods of death love apples" and felt a surge of relief when links to anime fandom filled the screen. He launched a couple for good measure. So far so good. Next he typed "top secret spybot." The browser page just sat there, spinning. Not good. What would happen now? Alarm klaxons and armed guards?
A chat window appeared with the heading FN IT Security. He wondered what the FN stood for. Did they realize how ridiculous that would sound when spoken aloud, all eff'n-this and eff'n-that? Probably not. In his experience, security folks had little sense of humor.
Please be more discreet with your Internet browsing, FN IT Security said. Any content deemed to be hateful, obscene, or against the national interest will be disallowed pending administrative review. Any violation, intentional or otherwise, will result in revocation of privileges and/or corrective action. This is your first and final warning. Please acknowledge you have read and understood this message by replying Yes or No.
Yeah, I get it, Mason typed back.
Please respond Yes or No.
Damn, this guy was persistent. He waited a few seconds in a pointless gesture of passive aggression before typing, Yes.
Thank you. Have a nice day.
With FN IT Security out of the way, Mason got down to installing the programs that were his bread and butter. These included file and photo editing utilities, industry staples like Photoshop and, of course, the maker packages that would allow him to print his 3D creations. But why stop there? Just for grins, he typed in Renderman, the graphics program used by Disney Pixar Studios. Did he want to install this program? Sure, why not? While he was at it, how about those industrial strength engineering packages the big firms used? In fifteen minutes flat he had installed and configured all his favorite programs plus several more that, as a flat-broke university student, he had only lusted after.
Meanwhile, the other team members kept up a running dialogue. In this way, he was able to pick up their names, or nicknames rather. Maxwell, the man with the grizzly beard, went by Skunkworks. The most senior by a wide margin, his role was less that of leader than critic in chief. There were the two women, Corny with her hideous corn-row hair and Gabby with her amazing finger-boards. There was the loud-mouth, Shouter. What Mason had taken for a red headband was actually an elastic mask he pulled down over his mouth when he found it necessary to muffle his outbursts. The black man with thinning hair went by Doogie. The Gray Man was referred to as Major Zeus, though there was nothing remotely Olympian about him. Mason was terrible with names but these he picked up so easily. After just a few minutes on the Bridge, he couldn't imagine them being called by anything else.
It was during this period when Mason first heard of the Table of Requirement.
The Bridge was attached to a larger, warehouse-like area referred to as the Storeroom. The Storeroom was more than just a high tech broom closet, though that was its main use at the moment. When Mason went in there to fetch, of all things, a mousepad, he was amazed to see the rows of workbenches and machinery: printers, laser cutters, saws, lathes and sanders along with racks of arduino boards, batteries and other spare parts and gizmos. You could build your own robot just from the spare parts lying around. There was even an industrial class 3D printer the size of a photo-booth. It was like stumbling into Santa's workshop—aside from the Terminator poster someone had tacked to the wall.
The best feature of the Storeroom was the Table of Requirement, thus named for the Room of Requirement in the Harry Potter books where whatever you happened to desperately need could magically be found. The Table of Requirement was no less a thing of magic. Need a five/eighths inch magnetic coil for an obsolete model of heart defibrillator, just send an email request to email@example.com and it would materialize on the Table of Requirement in minutes. If you didn't know what something was called, you could just describe it, like "that handheld doohickey electricians use to test an electrical current without interrupting it."
Even the more difficult requests seldom took more than a few hours. And yes, it worked for just about anything. Shouter got a rare issue of DC Comics Swamp Thing while Doogie got a telescope signed by his science idol, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Skunkworks got Bob Dylan's 1964 Fender Stratocaster, at least a one-twelfth size golden replica with a key ring. Gabby scored big with a top of the line iMac, which she was not allowed to unbox until departure. Corny was still puzzling over her special requisition. You couldn't get too greedy. If you sent more than one genie request, you would receive a copy of Section 38 from the Military Code of Ethics on the appropriation of taxpayer dollars for personal use.
Once he had his computer desktop arranged, Mason turned his attention to a folder he had noticed when he logged in. It was labeled Anomaly 73, making him wonder how unusual the X-Bot really was. Was the number random or had there really been 72 anomalies prior to this one?
Inside the folder were sub-folders by day, only two so far, that were further broken down into hours. The hour folders contained files for the nine live-feed cameras positioned around the bell along with the six jumbo monitors. These were of limited practical use, however. Not only were there long stretches where nothing much happened, but the video capture was often redundant or the action moved in and out of the range of different cameras.
Fortunately, there were the composite files. The composites showed the jumbo monitors in a three-by-two Hollywood Squares configuration with the nine live-feeds as thumbnails along the bottom, giving a play-by-play of everything the research team was doing. Individual feeds could be launched in separate windows so they could be enlarged, replayed or slowed down. There was also an audio track with a transcript option that displayed scrolling text in the right-hand margin.
All right then, time to get down to business. He had a lot of catching up to do.
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...