41. Pet Peeves

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Following the surge of discoveries, the team sank into a despondent trough. Everyone was sleeping too little, imbibing too much caffeine, and working too intensely with nowhere to blow off steam. Pet peeves were piling up. Skunkworks had a habit of cracking his knuckles like walnuts that made everyone jump. HotDamn started giving himself pep talks (out loud) and Goat slathered his hands in scented moisturizing lotion until the place smelled like a botanical garden, which caused Corny to sneeze and swear. Doogie tinkered endlessly with his pterodactyl, Johnny slipped into encyclopedia mode and Gabby played Angry Birds on her talk-pad to the sound of explosions and pig squeals, painfully reminding everyone that their own mobile devices had been confiscated. It had all the makings of a reality TV show. Lucky for Mason they didn't play by reality TV rules. He would have been the first to get voted off. He had a habit of annoying everyone.

Corny looked like she could use a pep talk, having grown remote and sullen of late. Occasionally, Mason would catch a glimpse of her monitor showing a nature scene with lots of plants and a stream running through. If she caught him looking, she would quickly switch it and flash him a withering glare.

The spiderbot image Mason had stumbled across on the Internet had not reappeared, and he was beginning to wonder whether he had even seen it in the first place. After all, he had been seriously sleep deprived and juiced up on Mountain Dew. How could something just disappear from the Internet? Hadn't Gabby worked at Google? He decided to ask her.

Do you think that X-Bot picture was really there? he messaged. Maybe I mistook something else for it.

Like what?

I don't know. One of those fake Halloween spiders for scaring trick-or-treaters?

Have you ever mistaken a microbot for a bunch of twisted pipe cleaners before? Gabby asked.

Well, no. But how could it have just disappeared? It was right there in the images, and now it's gone.

That's simple, Gabby said. They used an AI-based image filter.

They can do that?

They've been doing it for years. How do you think Google gets rid of all the sadism and porn? It's the reason why, when you search for 'wild bush' you get holly and rose and not, you know, Holly and Rose. They feed the AI a library of images and videos and teach it the difference between botany and... other stuff. You can do it with anything. It wouldn't be hard to teach it how to distinguish a real spider from a spiderbot. All you would need is about an hour of video.

Where would they get the video from?

You're such a naif, Peeps. They got it from us, of course. Courtesy of Major Zeus or the general.

So there really are more X-Bots out there?

Looks like it, Gabby said.

And the government wants to keep it hushed up?

Welcome to the global conspiracy.

Mason felt a strange sense of betrayal. Google was his external memory bank and if it couldn't be trusted... It put him in a funk.

He wasn't the only one off his game. That afternoon, there was a string of minor catastrophes.

There was a glitch with the latest cinema-scope, which HotDamn blamed on Gabby's algorithm but turned out to be Skunkworks' jerry-rigged wiring. The daisy-chained monitors functioned like cheap Christmas lights; if one went out, the entire string went dead. Johnny's latest lab assay had been botched and would need to be redone. Worst of all, it was due to Johnny having improperly loaded the tube-tray. Mason's Makerbot shot its nozzle, turning it into a plastic slushee machine.

In a slapstick scene worthy of the Three Stooges, Skunkworks backed his chair into Doogie as he was returning from the Storeroom with a small case of drill bits, spilling them all over the floor. Everyone got down on their hands and knees to search for them beneath their workstations.

"Mary, Martha and the Holy Christ!" Military Mannequin chose this moment to enter the Bridge. "Are we having a fucking scavenger hunt?"

As the four-star general's "boots on the ground," she had taken to accompanying Major Zeus on his routine visits. This time her skirt-suit was the color of an old scab.

The team collected their dignity and returned to their seats. In the process of getting up, Doogie put his weight on a keyboard tray, snapping it from its mounting. As Military Mannequin's scowl deepened, he gave up trying to fix it and let it hang by its cord.

Skunkworks quickly launched into a status report, starting with the origami eggshell feet and ending with the DVD-like SDNA.

Military Mannequin's face betrayed no expression as she waited for him to finish. "A fucking egg, that's all you've got?"

"A self-assembling geodesic graphene composite," Goat clarified.

"I don't care if it hatched from a fucking cat-in-the-hat," she snapped. "What I do care about is who laid all these fucking eggs and what kind of nasty surprise they have in store for us." She turned her ire on Major Zeus. "What kind of operation are you running here, major? The goddamn Khan Academy? Because I was given the impression it was a high tech research facility, the best money can buy I'm told. While your science guys are busy counting the number of oxygen isotopes that can fit in a fucking mole, the Chinese and Russians are at the U.N. about to take a fresh green hickory switch to our asses in front of the entire class for setting our bug-bots loose in the girls' bathroom. That's right. In case you haven't been keeping up with current events, we are talking a grade triple-A fucking international incident. Trade sanctions. Seizure of foreign assets. Expulsion of troops from strategic bases from the far Middle East to the Korean peninsula."

The major absorbed this tongue lashing with what might have been either admirable stoicism or soul-less ambivalence.

"We do have one theory about who could have made it," HotDamn spoke up.

Military Mannequin's voice turned to a deadly whisper. "If the next thing out of your mouth goes by the initials LGM, you can grab your bags right now and I will personally escort you out the front gate. We are the goddamn military branch of the USA, the most technologically advanced civilization to have ever graced God's green Earth, not a couple of shroom-heads from the sixties playing cosmic telephone with radar dishes. When someone finds a UFO in the dessert, it's because we fucking built it! You got that?"

HotDamn closed his mouth. Mason had never seen him looking so cowed.

"I thought so," Military Mannequin said. "Now major, while I go deliver this deep fried shit on a stick to the general, maybe you can give your troops a peppy speech and instill in them a sense of fucking urgency." With a crisp turn, she pivoted and left.

Major Zeus waited a sufficient time to give her a head start. "We should prioritize finding out who made the X-Bot and what its mission objective is," he said before he too turned and left.

"LGM?" Mason asked. "What does that mean?"

"Little Green Men," Goat said. "It's shorthand for anything alien."

"Guess she's not too crazy about that hypothesis." Mason meant it to be funny, but it fell on deaf ears. He'd seen the team in all stages of frustration but never before had they seemed so defeated. They knew Military Mannequin was right. After all this time, they were still no closer to solving the riddle of the X-Bot. On another level, they also knew she was wrong. The LGM theory was far out, shroom-head crazy, no one would deny that, but after spending two weeks peeling away its mysteries only to be confronted with more, they had run out of plausible explanations. All that remained was the impossible.

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