Outward: Chapter 8: Skin Deep

Luke conspicuously drummed his fingers on the desk as he listlessly stared at the bank of computer screens and slowly swiveled back and forth in his chair. He sighed. Then he tried sighing louder.

“Problem over there?” Todd asked, not looking over at him.

“What, problem?” intoned Luke. “No, I’ve just been staring at the same thing for the past three hours. No, no problem at all.”

“Well then, keep staring at it. Watch to see if anything changes.”

“If only.”

Luke had felt better about being pulled off the Advanced Hyperspectral Collimator project when he had learned he’d be studying a real-life alien thingy. Well, technically, a suspected real-life alien thingy, but it sure looked alien enough to him. There were even a few brief moments of excitement. The excitement had been tempered a bit when he learned they wouldn’t be cracking the thing open to see what was inside.

And the excitement plunged back down to zero when the sheer passivity of passive analysis had sunk in.

Right now, in the anechoic chamber next door, a dozen antennas were pointed directly at the object, each of them straining to pick up some kind of signal, or beacon, or anything, emanating from it, as the antennas continually retuned themselves to sweep up and down as much of the electromagnetic spectrum as they could. Their output was being drawn in real-time on the monitors in front of him in just about every breakdown imaginable: time domain, frequency domain, spacial domain, energy density, power levels, you name it.

And all of the results confirmed it: nothing was happening.

Which wasn’t to say the graphs were all completely flat, of course, just that all of the slightly interesting-looking bits on the graphs would be there even if the object wasn’t. That jittering bump around 2.4 GHz was the access point for the building’s wireless network. The occasional peaks over there was his phone trying in vain to contact the nearest cell tower. Reception was iffy even if he was outside. Down in the basement, it was hopeless.

By all rights, there should have been something big. Surely the object must be trying to send a signal to a mothership orbiting somewhere, or even back to its home planet, right? The kind of power needed for that would positively leap off the screen. Even if the aliens had some kind of crazy sci-fi subspace communications network or hyperspace relays, surely there must be some ordinary photons falling out of it.

“Nothing is happening,” Luke complained. “It’s not doing anything. I’m not doing anything. You’re not doing anything. He’s not doing anything either,” he said, pointing at SrA Roberts, standing guard on this side of the entrance to the lab.

“Of course things are happening,” Todd countered. “I’m monitoring the EM environment in the chamber. You’re annoying me. He’s listening to music.”

Luke looked over at SrA Roberts again. Sure enough, there was a thin white wire running from one of his ears down to a pocket in his uniform.

“I never knew iPods were standard issue,” Luke said.

Todd sighed. “All right, you’ve made your point. We’re not picking up anything, and we’ve got no idea when that will change, if at all. We might as well start with some of the other instruments. How about we start getting a good close look at it?”

Luke shrugged. “Sure beats this, I guess.”

Todd opened the door to the anechoic chamber and wheeled in a high-resolution camera assembly. He spent a few minutes hooking it up to the makeshift network of cables running across the floor to the patch panel in the wall between the chamber and the lab before returning to his seat.

“OK, let’s see what this thing looks like up close.”

The rig was essentially a remote-controlled microscope on a stick. A high-resolution camera was positioned less than an inch away from the object’s surface, flanked by miniature spotlights that shone onto the camera’s point of focus. A system of infrared lasers measured the distance from the rig to the object. Not only would this provide a topographical map of the object’s surface as the rig moved around the object, but it also minimized the chance that they would bump into each other. This was crucial, because the expensive camera would wind up taking most of the impact.

Todd flipped the system on, and he and Luke crowded around the display to look at what the camera saw.

Luke’s first reaction was to notice how dirty the object looked up close. It hardly looked like it was in mint condition to begin with, but up close all the tiny particles of dirt and whatnot were evident. Which was to be expected, of course, since the object had been half buried in the ground, and no one had dared hose it down or wipe it off for fear of somehow damaging or contaminating it.

“Hang on, what’s that?” Luke asked as Todd instructed the camera to move vertically along the object’s curvature. “Go back a bit, a little more, there!”

Todd saw it too. A minute crack running horizontally across the viewport. No, not a crack, it was too straight for that. A seam? Whatever it was, it was too small to be seen with the naked eye. The two sides fit together perfectly, with hardly any gap at all between them. Todd maneuvered the camera to follow the seam, first left, then angling upward, then right again, and back down.

“Is that what I think it is?” Luke asked.

“I don’t know,” Todd replied. “It looks almost like some kind of access hatch. Hang on, I’m going to see if there’s anything inside that square.

Todd slowly swept the camera back and forth, but didn’t reveal any features inside the square shape formed by the groove, just smooth, almost perfectly curved metal, modulo some dirt and grime.

“It doesn’t look like there’s any handle or fasteners or anything,” Luke concluded.

“But I’d bet if there’s one hatch or whatever, there’s bound to be more,” Todd said.

“Right.”

“Are you going to be able to handle the search?”

“No problem. We’re actually finding something now.”

They spent the next hour and a half meticulously covering ever exposed square inch with the camera. Occasionally one of them would go into the chamber to reposition the camera rig so that it could see a different part of the object. As time went on, they plotted out a series of similar shapes in the surface, some square, some rectangular, some circular, but all of the same microscopic thickness.

“Well there’s obviously something inside it,” Luke said. “Those hatches have to be there for a reason.”

Todd thought for a minute. “Penetrative scan time?”

“Penetrative scan time,” Luke agreed.

They spend the next half hour removing the camera rig and the antennas from the anechoic chamber, and replacing them with a different set of antennas and an emitter device that, had it been the production model, would have had some ridiculous name like InternaView 5000 XT blazoned on it. The production test model the lab had available had a simple black casing.

Either way, the device could fire photons at just about any frequency and intensity you wanted, and the antennas surrounding the target would catch the reflections and backscatter and derive information about what was inside the object. Given enough frequencies and enough angles, you could ultimately build a pretty accurate three-dimensional view of the target’s internal structure and a fairly good guess as to what it was made of.

Luke remembered having been brought into a sales meeting once to discuss the device’s capabilities. TSA had been interested in trying a few out for passenger and luggage screening. The TSA reps had started to look doubtful when Luke had explained how a successful imaging of something would take fifteen minutes minimum per target. They walked out when he then started estimating the cost of modifying it with hardware interlocks to prevent it from sending fatal doses of radiation into an unsuspecting passenger.

He and Todd, of course, knew what they were doing.

The downside to the current setup, where they had to move the emitter and devices around the room because there was no way they could rotate the object around instead, was that it would take a while until enough measurements had been taken to get even a rough picture of what was inside the object. Finally, though, after an hour of measurements and another pot of coffee, the preliminary results were available.

“This says it’s solid,” Todd announced doubtfully.

“That’s got to be an error,” agreed Luke. Check again.

“That’s what it says. Something’s not right. Hang on, let me check the raw data.”

They looked at the results of individual scans. They looked at each one separately, but as a pattern emerged, they started advancing through the set rapidly, confirming their suspicions.

“The shell is completely opaque,” Luke concluded.

Todd nodded. Some of the frequencies bounced off the object’s surface like a mirror. Others scattered off in all directions. Many of them appeared to have been absorbed wholesale. A few outliers somehow skimmed the surface until reemerging near the opposite side of the object. Todd was especially curious how it pulled off that trick, and wondered whether he’d be able to figure it out in time for designing the Advanced Hyperspectral Collimator, Generation Four.

“Should we try boosting the intensity?” Luke asked.

“We can try, I guess,” Todd shrugged, “though I doubt the results would be any different.”

They started running a second series of measurements.

“Wait,” Todd said, his gaze fixed on the screen. He furrowed his brow. “This can’t be right.”

“What is it?” Luke asked.

“The computer’s not able to reintegrate the most recent measurements with the ones it took a few minutes ago.”

Luke held up his hands defensively. “Well, don’t look at me, I didn’t bump any of it.”

“I know you didn’t. None of the vibration sensors on the equipment went off. I double checked. They didn’t move.”

“Todd.”

“Yes?”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Yeah.”

The scanning system was very sensitive to movement during a scan, since the algorithms used to combine the results of successive measurements weren’t very good at resolving changed frames of reference. Movement was the only known cause of the error. And if the equipment hadn’t moved, that means the object did.


Chapter word count: 1,743 (+76)
Total word count: 14,165 / 50,000 (28.33%)

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