59. Mercury Rising

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Patched in from the lab, Johnny's bloodshot eyes blazed with excitement. His face was haggard and unshaven and his lab coat hung crookedly from his narrow shoulders. Mason looked around the Bridge and suppressed a laugh. They were all looking a bit like psych ward patients these days.

"Can you be a bit more specific?" Skunkworks said.

"Have a look yourself." He reached up and panned the camera around the lab. About a dozen X-Bots were being kept in reinforced glass containment tanks resembling aquariums. Only some of the tanks were now completely opaque as if their sides had been coated with non-reflective silver. The illusion of solidity was broken when a vibration produced a shimmery ripple across one of them.

"What's all that liquid metal stuff?" Mason asked.

"It is not metal," Johnny said. "It is coming from the specimen. The body casing splits open and this emission pours out. It is just beginning a few minutes ago. It makes a sound effect like—what do you call it—when a kernel of corn goes..." He made an explosive motion with his hands.

"Pop," Corny said.

"Yes, like popping corn." As if on cue, there was a loud bang. "There is one now." He pointed to a still-translucent tank.

The X-Bot inside had split open like a pistachio. A mercury-like froth poured from the breach, boiling and expanding before their eyes. In the span of a few seconds it went from a sudsy gray mass, wet-looking and glistening, to a cluster of pewter-colored grapes that floated up and spread out along the top of the tank. As it continued to expand, the bubbles squeezed against each other until only hairline seams could be seen. The corners of the tank were the last to fill in. The seams compressed until they all but disappeared, giving it a solid appearance. The whole process took less than half a minute.

"I thought they were turning themselves into soup on the inside?" Skunkworks said. "Where'd the bubbles come from?"

"The cell membrane reconsolidates to form mega-cells with compressed hydrogen in the center," Johnny said. "Once the shell is breached—"

"They inflate like a car's airbag," HotDamn finished for him.

"Airbags that float," Skunkworks said. "Balloons in other words. Is there anything inside them?"

The SDNA, Gabby said before Johnny could respond. The information payload.

Johnny nodded.

"What about the ones we cut open?" Mason asked. "Did they pop too?"

"That depends," Johnny said. "Ones that have recent procedure do not develop to the rupture point. But other ones with old wounds that scab over—you just see it break out of shell."

Mason felt a surge of relief. Hopefully Alpha wasn't too injured to take the next step in his cosmic journey, whatever that might be.

"The shell comes completely detached then?" Skunkworks asked. "What about the eye?"

"Not not, we not have time to do an examination yet."

A white-coated man appeared at Johnny's side and they launched into excited talk. Meanwhile, Mason pulled up the feeds from the Hab. He had been so immersed in recent events on the Bridge he hadn't been paying attention to what was going on with their own X-Bots. When the rows of live-stream boxes appeared on his monitor, about eighty of them in all, he thought there must be a technical glitch. In place of the brightly lit, wilting garden, the feeds were a solid mass of gray. Not entirely solid though. Vague blobs were discernible in some while others rippled diaphanously. Of course, the outflow vents. Holy shit. Whatever this bubble material was, the Hab was stuffed full of it.

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