"Have we found any hard evidence linking it to the Chinese?" Major Zeus had returned to the Bridge alone this time. Only silence greeted his question. "Nothing then. Damn. That's not going to make for a very meaty report."
"Of course it's the Chinese," Skunkworks said. "What do you need, a made in China label? How about the expert judgment of an engineer with over half a century's experience in the defense sector?"
"A label would be more convincing to the general," Major Zeus said without humor. "What about the inventory list I sent over? Any hits?"
"Doogie and I went over it with a fine tooth comb," HotDamn said. "Nothing panned out. The X-Bot is definitely a custom job."
The major nodded. "I suspected as much."
"Personally, I think your guys are wasting their time on the supply chain angle. If someone is placing part orders for more X-Bots, it's probably through the Shenzhen underground or a chain of sub-contractors long enough to wrap around the moon."
"Until we have something better, we're working all the angles," Major Zeus said. "And we don't have anything better yet, do we?"
Skunkworks puffed air through his lips. "I've got to hand it to the Chinese bastards—no offense Johnny. They've covered their tracks well."
"Aren't we going about this backwards?" Corny said. "Even if we're ninety-nine percent sure it's the Chinese, it's bad science to start with a foregone conclusion. Unless there's something you're not telling us?" She looked to the major. "Withholding useful information would only be hurting your own cause, you know that."
After a thoughtful delay, the major said, "I'm not sure this information is of the useful sort, but here it is. Last night the Chinese submitted a resolution at the UN to ban the use of ground-based autonomous surveillance devices within the sovereign territory of another state."
"What's new there?" replied Skunkworks. "They've been opposed to drones since we deployed them against the Taliban, even as they were secretly ramping up their own militarized drone program."
"True. And much of the language was lifted straight from previous resolutions. But there were some interesting additions—specific references to micro-robotic agents and cybernetically enhanced organisms, especially those designed on a bug model that can evade standard methods of detection."
"That's a hell of a coincidence," HotDamn remarked. "Did the resolution come with a police sketch of the X-Bot?"
"That prove they are maker," Johnny agreed. "How else they know about biology part?"
"So let me get this straight," Corny said. "The Chinese want an international ban on micro-cyborgs? Why would they do that if they were the ones who made it?"
"Because it's a frame job," Skunkworks said. "It's the oldest trick in the book. Create incriminating evidence and plant it where your enemy will be sure to find it. We took the bait and now we've got exploding ink all over our hands."
"It's a bit worse than that." said the major. "The resolution has some teeth. If it's ratified, a breach would be considered an act of aggression on sovereign soil, warranting a retaliatory response.
"Wait, you can't mean war?" Mason couldn't wrap his head around it. "Over the X-Bot? I mean, it's not like it's a weapon of mass destruction."
Corny set him straight. "A stealthy smart-bug that can drop from the sky, infiltrate almost any building and silently kill people in their sleep—you don't see why other countries would find that the least bit threatening?"
"And a WMD can't record you having sex with the catering staff," HotDamn pointed out.
"In any case, our analysts think direct confrontation is unlikely," Major Zeus intervened. "But it could give China the justification it's looking for to move against Taiwan or seize American assets within its borders. Even if it only leads to sanctions, my superiors are understandably eager to avoid the political fallout of another trade war."
"What if we expose them first?" Corny said. "After all, it isn't ours. Right, major?" The question had a sharp edge to it.
"It's not ours. I have that from the general himself. As for exposing the Chinese, we would need hard proof, which we're clearly lacking."
"How could they know we even have it?" Mason ventured. "Could it have a homing beacon?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Skunkworks said. "We're in a shielded, underground bunker. No signal is getting out of here."
"He's got a point, though," said HotDamn. "Could they have found out about us? How tight is your security, major?"
"It's tight, but no security is perfect. We can't completely rule out a breach." His solemn gaze passed from team member to team member. The message was clear; the biggest risk of a breach was right there in that room. After letting them stew on this for a moment, he said. "We're not sure what game the Chinese are playing at but we're hoping to have some answers by the time backchannel discussions begin with them tomorrow. General Dixon will be heading up a contingent from the CIA."
"What is there to discuss?" Corny said. "We're sure as hell not giving up the X-Bot, at least not until we've squeezed out every last bit of technological fairy dust. And even if they do know we have it, it's just their word against ours. They can't force us to go public."
"You're missing the point," HotDamn said. "If the Chinese made one of these, they can make a thousand. They start showing footage of army green X-Bots infesting their rice paddies and everyone is going to assume we're behind it."
"Then we deny it. That's what governments usually do, right?"
"That may not be such a good idea in this case," said HotDamn. "We would look pretty foolish as a technology superpower if we let some rogue actor unleash a plague of robo-spiders right under our noses. But if we claim them as our own then we look like aggressors and we're at the mercy of whoever did make them. Either way, we end up with egg on our face."
"Maybe we're overcomplicating things." Goat looked up from his monitor as if he were just now paying attention. "Aren't we missing one obvious possibility?"
"What's that?" Skunkworks challenged.
"What if the Chinese didn't make it?"
"Then maybe you can explain how they know so much about our little X-Bot friend here?"
"Maybe they found one of their own. Naturally, they would assume it was the work of the United States."
"You must be kidding. That's—" Skunkworks stopped mid-sentence as if someone had yanked on his beard.
"Not as crazy as it sounds," HotDamn finished for him.
Major Zeus chewed on his lower lip. "That might account for a few things actually. Around the same time we found the X-Bot, a number of Chinese robotic and AI specialists dropped off the grid. Also, the Chinese diplomats seem unusually hasty and disorganized, sending mixed messages and backtracking on previous statements. It's as if they are being forced to wing things on the fly as more information comes to light."
Skunkworks started to chuckle.
"What's so funny?" HotDamn asked.
"If the Chinese didn't make it, they must really be soiling their pants right about now."
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...