28. Slice of Life

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Cutting the X-Bot open was taking the biggest risk so far. The fact it was partially alive implied it could also be killed.

Without an accurate map of its internal structure, they couldn't be sure what they would be slicing into. Aside from the pepper-like specks, the rest was pudding. Doogie suggested lighting it up with positron emission tomography, but the handheld PET scanners just coming onto the market were designed like meat thermometers or human-sized headbands. There was no way around it; they would be cutting blind. That being the case, their best strategy was to cut small and shallow. They would take a lower wedge, staying well clear of the eye band.

With Johnny's help, they had finally solved the immobilization problem. Oxygen deprivation knocked it out cold and, at least for short durations, didn't cause any adverse effects. Manipulating the oxygen level was child's play and, unlike a vacuum, didn't trigger the twisted tadpole effect. For the first time, they had full control over the testing environment. Objects could be inserted and removed at will and, if an experiment started to take a bad turn, they could quickly abort it. They successfully removed the cricket corpse on the first trial run and later collected the moldy crust and leaves along with bottom scrapings, sending them to the on-base lab for analysis. Within an hour they received news that more pin-hole punctures had been found and were being pored over for chemical traces.

To perform the excision, they would use a state of the art laser cutter with a photon edge so fine it could cleave apart water molecules. Since the original robotic arm was not adapted to work inside the bell, Doogie had insisted on mounting it to the pterodactyl instead. Mason suspected there was some degree of professional pride involved; the prosthetics expert was looking for redemption.

If the pterodactyl had looked predatory before, now it seemed downright alien. Gripped in its quadripartite beak, the round laser casing was like a metal eyeball trailing a black optical nerve. Doogie performed a demonstration on a sunflower seed, slicing out a perfect wedge. Much of the credit went to Gabby and her crowdsourced algorithms for the stabilization and jitter suppression; there would be no accidental slicing due to shaky hands.

Without any of the high drama that marked previous experiments, the modified pterodactyl was screwed into place and the final calibrations were made. Once the oxygen was pumped out, the tension went out of the X-Bot's legs and its body sagged against the glass. When they shone a laser pointer at it, it didn't budge. It almost seemed too easy.

According to Johnny, they would have approximately twelve minutes to perform the procedure; beyond that he was less certain of the risks due to hypoxia. Wasting no time, the pterodactyl gracefully swooped in. A red tracking dot marked the current position of the laser beam. The beam itself was so tightly focused it was nearly invisible to the naked eye, showing only as the thinnest of platinum strands as it ionized the air around it. A blue spot marked the target. Doogie's first task was to line up the two dots so the locking algorithms could kick in. This accomplished, the dot turned purple. They were ready to cut. Doogie eased into the joystick, extending a purple line over the X-Bot's shell, the only visual cue of progress.

To Mason's delight, the bottom wedge would include a leg joint and hence the entire leg attached to it. Finally, he would be able to see how well his scaled-up model correlated to the real thing.

The cut took the form of an inverted triangle. As the laser was working its way down the left side, Mason noticed that the purple line seemed to grow thicker in one part. "What's that?" he asked. "It's like the line is bleeding ink."

That's impossible, Gabby said. The purple line isn't actually there. It's super-imposed on the image for visual reference only.

"I see it too," Corny said.

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