Outward: Chapter 16: Blank

“What do you mean it didn’t work?” Raskin exclaimed, dumbfounded. He stared at MSgt Abernathy across the table from him. “You were there! You saw it!”

“Technically,” she replied, “what I said was that we were unable to get a confirmed kill on the target.”

“The building it was in was obliterated. Nothing could have survived!”

“That much is essentially correct.” She slid a small stack of photographs across the table to Raskin. “The air burst quite literally flattened the building. And we’re quite certain that the Mackinelly Device itself did not survive.” She paused briefly, wondering silently to herself whether the word “survive” was entirely appropriate. She continued, “Nor did the object it was constructing in the subbasement, as far as we can tell. But those photographs, taken during excavation of the site over the following weeks, indicate more was going on.”

Raskin picked the stack of photos off the table and looked at the top one. It depicted a chaotic gray mass, ravaged by gashes and with large chunks of darker gray material lodged within it.

“Those images were taken of the floor of the blast crater,” MSgt Abernathy explained, “beginning from after the loose debris had been removed. Keep in mind, ‘loose’ in this context means that it wasn’t fused into the foundation and several strata of collapsed structural material. We still needed cranes to lift the material out to get that far.”

“I remember that much,” Raskin reflected. He had been able to visit the blast crater once or twice as the work crews were struggling to deal with the mess that MOJO had left behind. The top photo was probably taken a week or so after his last visit, while he was stuck in endless closed-door debriefings, being grilled about every conceivable detail about his handling of the entire series of events. He didn’t much care to reflect on that particular part of the past. He flipped to the next photo.

“If you had asked me a year ago if we’d ever have need of an archaeologist,” MSgt Abernathy commented, trailing off.

The photo looked much the same as before, except for a black grid spray-painted over the mess. “You treated it like an archaeological dig?”

“Roughly speaking. You should have seen the consultant flinch when we brought out the jackhammers.”

“I should imagine so.”

“But seriously, we were hoping to be able to recover something from the Mackinelly device or the mystery machine. At the very least figure out what it was made of by seeing what was left.”

“And?”

“Unsurprisingly, the results were thoroughly inconclusive,” MSgt Abernathy replied. “That kind of blast and collapse are going to wreck any kind of meaningful structure from the mechanical to the chemical level. We certainly weren’t going to come across some alien circuit board or anything. About all we could do was do a mass spectroscopy to look for any interesting isotopes or element ratios.”

“And nothing, huh?”

“Pretty much. At least, nothing unusual enough to clearly point at something being alien.”

Raskin flipped through some more of the photographs. They showed the progress being made digging into a scattering of the grid squares. Other than some slight color variations and lengthening shadows as the pits grew deeper, he couldn’t interpret what any of it meant. He flipped to another one and saw the grid and pits suddenly vanish.

“That stack is the abridged version,” MSgt Abernathy said, noticing the slight look of surprise on Raskin’s face. “I have several DVDs full of JPEGs that I left out. That picture there was taken just as we were reaching the dirt underneath the foundation.”

She leaned back as Raskin looked at the next several images, waiting to see the realization hit him. Raskin watched as the photographs showed more and more dirt, with the fused foundation material giving way more and more until it was limited to a few small spots on the ground. Spots that remained largely unchanged over the next several pictures.

The realization hit. “Tunnels,” he said.

MSgt Abernathy nodded. “That’s what we concluded too. Some part of it was burrowing down through the foundation. What you see there is what got shoved into the tops of those tunnels from the blast.”

Raskin reached the bottom of the stack. “So what happened then?”

“From there, the trail got cold. The tunnels themselves had collapsed after we reached the end of fused material, and we couldn’t tell from studying the dirt down there where the tunnels had gone after that.”

“But you think something, some of those robot spider things, maybe, escaped.”

“That’s about the size of it, sir,” she replied. “Our guess is that the mystery machine in the bottom level was some kind of drilling platform of sorts. Or it was going to be, and a couple of the spiders were on a scouting mission. Or something.”

“Escaped, and no one knew anything about it for…?”

“Three months.”

“And you haven’t told anyone!” Raskin asked.

“There’s a saying,” a voice at the door said, a voice that made MSgt Abernathy reflexively stand at attention, “they say, don’t catch any exceptions you don’t know how to handle.”

Raskin looked up. “Col Newmeyer, I presume,” he said.

So this was his replacement, the current Commander of AFEXOCOM, Raskin thought. Col Newmeyer wore an impeccably pressed uniform that clashed with his ruddy, grinning face. He had a bearing about him that gave Raskin the impression he couldn’t wait to get his first star so he’d be able to get away with chomping on a cigar everywhere he went.

“I’m–” Raskin tried to continue.

“Major Earl Raskin, United States Air Force, retired,” Col Newmeyer interrupted, idly waving MSgt Abernathy to sit back down. “I know, I’ve read your file. Pretty impressive work, I have to admit. Especially considering what limited resources you had to work with. Excepting the Sergeant here, of course.”

“Yes, sir,” MSgt Abernathy said quietly.

“A good sergeant is worth her weight in gold,” Col Newmeyer continued, “don’t you ever forget that. But where was I? Oh yes, no point in getting the public all worked up about it, especially when there’s nothing they can really do about it.”

“But the alien–” Raskin protested.

“Has been out there three months now and hasn’t shown his face,” Col Newmeyer interrupted. “Or whatever it is it has.”

“Don’t underestimate it,” Raskin warned. “I thought the Mackinelly Device was completely inert when it hadn’t done anything but sit there for a few days, and then it suddenly tried taking over a building.”

“Son, I’m not in the habit of making the same mistakes other people do,” Col Newmeyer grinned. “I prefer to make my own mistakes.”

“What the Colonel is trying to say,” MSgt Abernathy explained, “is that we haven’t been sitting idly by. We have been searching for it ever since then, as discreetly as possible.”

“Without any luck, apparently,” Raskin said. “Which is why you called on me, hoping I might be able to come up with something now that you’ve run out of leads.”

“I wouldn’t say we’ve quite run out just yet. Here, catch,” Col Newmeyer said, pulling a vial out of his pocket and tossing it to Raskin in a single motion.

Raskin caught it, and held it up to his eye. He shook it. Inside was a thin, clear fluid. “What’s this?” he asked.

“That right there, Mr. Raskin, is 100% grade-A alien disinfectant, synthesized, of course.”

“You have a bioweapon against the alien?” Raskin said in disbelief.

“No,” MSgt Abernathy replied, “it’s a disinfectant produced by the Mackinelly Device itself. The Medimetics lab techs found it in some of the samples I had collected way back when.”

Raskin looked at her. “I thought the lab had called back saying they didn’t find any contamination at the landing site.”

“They did say that, yes,” MSgt Abernathy replied. “There was no contamination, strictly speaking. Quite the opposite.”

“Why didn’t they say something?”

“Turns out the sons of bitches were holding out on us,” Col Newmeyer replied, “trying to patent the stuff first. The joke was on them, though. The stuff’s not nearly as effective as they thought it was.”

“When the soil samples came back completely cleaned,” MSgt Abernathy clarified, “they thought they found a powerful broad-spectrum antibiotic. They found out in testing that it was a lot more narrow-spectrum than they had hoped.”

“How narrow?” Raskin asked.

“It’s pretty much only effective on the type of soil bacteria found around the landing site. Reasonably effective on soil bacteria from other sites too, of course. But there’s not much market for something that can kill something that’s already harmless.”

“You could chug a gallon of that stuff and not get any healthier,” Col Newmeyer added.

Raskin set the vial down gently on the table. “You know,” he said, thinking aloud, “I find it pretty unlikely that the Mackinelly Device just happened to be carrying something within it that just happened to be able to kill the bacteria in the dirt it just happened to land in.”

“We had already been able to determine it was intelligent,” MSgt Abernathy said.

“There’s a big difference between counting to ten and manufacturing a disinfectant targeting to something you had never even encountered before within a day.”

MSgt Abernathy considered this. “On the spectrum of non-living to intelligent, they might be pretty close, actually,” she mused.

“The point is,” Col Newmeyer said, “is that it’s got a calling card. It’s OCD about not getting bacteria on it. You find soil that’s been sterilized, or that’s got that kind of goop in it, you know it’s been there.”

“I’m actually starting to think that’s what SrA Roberts got sprayed with when we were in the building,” MSgt Abernathy added. “He never did come down with any ill effects from it.”

“I got the EPA to send a couple dozen teams running around collecting soil samples all over here,” Col Newmeyer continued, “under cover of doing some runoff study.”

“But so far, no sign of anything,” Raskin guessed.

“You got it. We were kind of hoping you might have a suggestion for what else we should be trying.”

Raskin thought. “Nope, I’ve got nothing.”


Chapter word count: 1,706 (+39)
Total word count: 28,158 / 50,000 (56.316%)

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