19. That Nineties Sitcom

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Major Zeus glanced at his watch. "I'm late for a staff meeting. I'll leave you experts to work this out."

"Christ, what a cluster fuck," Corny said the moment the doors closed behind him. "Whose idea was this?"

Doogie slumped lower in his mesh chair. Still clutching the Xbox controller, he looked like a video gamer who'd just gotten PK'd.

"There's no point in placing blame," Skunkworks said. "We need to focus on the problem."

Corny flushed. "Sorry Doog, that was out of line."

"We need to seal it off." Skunkworks shifted into engineering mode. "I saw some Plexiglass panels in the Storeroom we could use to construct a larger containment chamber around the bell."

Wouldn't that make it difficult to run experiments? objected Gabby.

"It's the safest option," Skunkworks asserted. "Our foremost priority is containment. Full stop."

"I'm with Gabs on this one," Corny said. "If we completely box it in, we might as well pack up and go home."

"And if it gets loose, we're all going home anyway," Skunkworks pointed out. "Just as soon as we get through explaining to General Dixon how we let a Chinese minibot get the jump on America's best and brightest. That's not a footnote I want added to my career service record."

"Screw our service records," Corny shot back. "This is the sort of breakthrough that only comes along once in a lifetime."

"At this rate, it's shaping up to be a real once-in-a-lifetime snafu!"

The engineer and the biomimeticist locked stares.

"All right, we have our fall back plan." HotDamn stepped in. "There's got to be some way of getting the bot down from there."

"I can tune the resonator to—" Shouter began.

"No chance," Skunkworks cut him off. "There's too much for it to hold on to up there. Besides, the pterodactyl is hanging on by a single bolt. Any more shaking might knock it loose."

"Tase its ass with electricity!" said Shouter. "That will knock it loose!"

"Are you crazy?" Doogie came to life. "You could fry the pterodactyl's electronics."

"Worse, you could fry the X-Bot," Corny said. "We don't know what its electrical tolerances are. The last thing we want to do is hit it with a supercharged bug zapper."

"Instead of a stick, what about a carrot?" HotDamn suggested.

Skunkworks bristled. "If you make one more goddamn joke about—"

"No sexy pinups. But there must be something it wants. It has drives and goals, does it not?"

"Even if we knew what it wanted, we can't put anything into the bell without removing the lid which we can't do because it's stuck to it like a barnacle. It's a Catch-22."

"Who says we have to put something inside the bell? The bell is made of glass, after all."

You're right! Gabby said. I bet the X-Bot is programmed to prioritize novel images over static scenes. It wouldn't do its makers any good for it to sit and stare at the same patch of wall all the time.

HotDamn latched onto the idea. "That's it! We lure it down with some flashy video."

"Ah, hell, it's worth a shot," Skunkworks capitulated. "But if this doesn't work, it's full quarantine lock-down, agreed?"

"Got it." The entrepreneur gave a one-handed thumbs up; his other hand was still pressing down his phone. "Tell me you get NetFlix in here?"

A monitor was appropriated from an unused station and placed next to the bell, tilted back at a steep angle so it would be visible from the top. After a lengthy exchange with FN IT Security, they had NetFlix up and running.

There was heated debate over what program would be most likely to trigger its novelty algorithms. Something outdoorsy and naturalistic or urban and mechanized? How about something with vivid colors and rapid cuts? Mason's suggestion of anime was overruled on less than scientific grounds. In the end, they left it up to the Netflix recommendation algorithm, which offered up a banal serial with an ensemble cast, the nineties sitcom Friends.

"Please tell me we're not logged in to Major Zeus' profile," Corny said.

Finally, the show was set to play. The X-Bot, which had only been poking its head out every minute or so, now settled into a fixed viewing position.

"I think that's enough of a teaser," HotDamn said.

The screen was repositioned so it could only be seen from the bottom. The X-Bot's only reaction was to crane its body farther back.

"So much for that," Corny said.

"It hasn't gone back into its hidey hole at least," Skunkworks said. "I suppose that's progress."

That's strange, Gabby said. Its eye is still moving like it's tracking something.

HotDamn let out with a boisterous laugh. "Why the clever little son of a bitch. It's watching the reflection in the glass. Well, we can't have that." HotDamn reached up and fiddled with a couple of the cylinder lamps mounted on the gantry until they washed out the bottom of the bell. "That should do it. If you want your MTV, you're going to have to come down off your perch."

The X-Bot scanned around the bell but, finding nothing else of interest, turned its gaze outward upon the Bridge where it briefly rested on each team member in turn. Did it linger longest on Mason? Then, as if having come to a decision, it broke off eye contact and crawled down the length of the pterodactyl. It paused at the lower tip of a beak-prong, which now hung nearly three feet in the air, probably higher than it could jump. Once it let go, it wouldn't be able to get back up again. It still couldn't see the show from there; they had made sure of that. It dangled by two legs then dropped the rest of the way. It walked over and positioned itself squarely beneath the monitor, the shifting colors of the LCD screen playing over its body.

"All right," HotDamn said. "Let's get the pterodactyl back to its nest."

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