"So we're all in agreement then?" Doogie said the following morning when they were all back on the Bridge. "It's time we cut it open."
There were nods all around. Corny's was the last, reluctantly given.
"And how do we do that exactly?" HotDamn asked.
"Cutting it open is the easy part," Doogie said. "One of the first things we asked for was a micro-surgical laser cutter, and Skunkworks and I spent the last couple days modifying it to work with the pterodactyl."
"Well, what are we waiting for then?"
"There's still the little problem of immobilization," responded Doogie. "It's hard to cut open a moving target. We figured it would run out of juice and then we could take it apart at will, but that clearly hasn't gone according to plan."
"There has to be some way of knocking it out," HotDamn said.
Mason thought the answer was pretty obvious. "Why not freeze it?"
"We don't know what its thermal tolerances are," Skunkworks replied. "Some materials become very brittle at low temperatures."
"You said it came from outer space right?" HotDamn stated. Since Mason had first proposed the hard hat as heat shield theory, it was now generally accepted as fact. "If it survived the frigid cold of space, surely it could tolerate a liquid nitrogen bath?"
"Perhaps," Skunkworks considered. "By the same token, it might still be able to function at low temperatures. Besides, super-cooling the bell won't be easy. You can't just pump it full of liquid nitrogen. Even that glass could shatter."
"How about covering it in a binding agent?" HotDamn suggested.
"Like super glue?" Mason said.
"It would need to be something faster acting," replied Skunkworks. "Maybe some sort of quick-dry foam."
"Once you've glued it in place, how would you unglue it?" Corny said.
"There's the catch. You need something that can undergo a reversible phase transition—by shining infrared light on it, for instance."
"Do we have anything like that?" HotDamn asked.
"There's stuff in development." Skunkworks need say no more. They all knew what "in development" meant; it was shorthand for not in your lifetime.
"What about magnets?" HotDamn said.
Skunkworks shot that down too. "The scans show a low ferrous content, so it would take a powerful magnet applied at close range. Not to mention the field would have to be tightly focused so it wouldn't screw with our own machinery."
"Can we put it into shutdown mode somehow?" HotDamn tried again. Mason had to hand it to the guy. When it came to throwing ideas against the wall, he had an endless supply of wet noodles.
Skunkworks dismissed this one with a chuckle. "Did I miss an off-switch somewhere? Besides, even if it does have a low power mode, it appears to sleep with one eye open—you proved that. The moment we start pointing a cutting laser at it, it's going to get antsy."
Wait! Gabby typed. Maybe HD is on to something. The X-Bot may have a hibernation mode that gets triggered by a specific set of environmental conditions, like being in space for instance.
"How would we reproduce space-like conditions here?" Corny asked.
"That's child's play," replied Skunkworks. "Space has only one thing—or lack of a thing really—that Earth doesn't, and that's vacuum. All we have to do is void the atmosphere from the bell. If it's monitoring for pressure or the concentration of a particular gas, then we're sure to get a response."
"How long will that take?" HotDamn said.
"About five minutes," Skunkworks replied cheerfully. "The bell was built for vacuum experiments. I bet there's a cap and pump in the Storeroom somewhere."
Skunkworks had lied about the time it would take to prepare the experiment. It took a full ten minutes. Still, the feat surely deserved its own entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for nearest to on-time completion of an outrageously optimistic engineering estimate. There was indeed a ready-to-operate vacuum pump with a lid attachment. Most of the time was spent pressure sealing the gasket to avoid seepage.
The electric pump emitted a low hiss as it began to suck out air, punctuated by loud clicks. It took less than a minute for the PSI readout to drop from over fourteen to seven but another full minute to drop to four, with the needle slowing the lower it went.
"Shouldn't we be noticing something by now?" Mason asked.
"If it was a soft-skinned mammal in there, you surely would. Surface capillaries would start bursting and it would get a really bad case of red eye. Then it would start bleeding out of every orifice. It wouldn't be a pretty sight. But this thing is pretty well armored, so I don't expect it to leak."
Indeed, other than the sound of the pump, nothing happened for the next seven minutes. By this time, they were starting to doubt anything was going to. Then suddenly, when the needle dropped to point one seven, the X-Bot tottered over and twisted into a stubby tadpole with a coiled tail (legs) that ended in a spiky cluster (feet).
"That did it!" Hotdamn pumped a fist in the air.
U-wa! exclaimed Gabby. We found the automatic trigger!
"If there was any doubt it was built for atmospheric re-entry, here's our proof," Skunkworks confirmed. "Notice the configuration. The legs are wound together in the deflection shadow of the hard hat. Those big feet would be a problem though..."
"Are we sure it's not just playing possum?" Corny spoke over him.
"Let's poke it in the eye and find out." HotDamn aimed a laser pointer through the bell, which bent the beam, until he managed to cross it over the eye band. He passed it back and forth. No response. "Hot diggity—"
Before he could finish the phrase, the double doors to the Bridge swung open. It was Major Zeus followed by a trim, be-spectacled Asian man in a white lab coat. They were both slightly out of breath.
"Major," the Asian said. "Please communicate to person in charge it most important to halt experiment with all due haste."
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...