Outward: Chapter 23: Isolation

The bandsaw is not in the typical reverse engineer’s set of tools. Accordingly, MSgt Abernathy was not a typical reverse engineer.

It wasn’t as though there were any other alternatives readily available to get any insight into how the alien antenna was constructed. It had the outward appearance of having been molded from a piece of whatever kind of metal alloy it was. There weren’t any seams or joints anywhere along its body. No access panels or fasteners. No apparent way to get inside other than a rotating diamond-tipped saw blade.

At least that would also solve the problem of shaving off some samples to send for metallurgical analysis, MSgt Abernathy thought as she carefully traded the device to the technician in the metal shop in exchange for a pair of safety goggles.

The technician braced the device in the cutting path of the saw blade, preventing it from rolling out of place. He waved MSgt Abernathy to stand back before bringing the saw up to speed and slowly lowering it along its path towards the object. Sparks and a few errant shavings flew as the blade made contact with the antenna, passing through cleanly with little resistance before it reached the bottom of its trajectory and automatically powered down.

MSgt Abernathy lifted the safety goggles onto her forehead as the technician reset and locked the blade. She leaned over the table and watched as he released the smaller of the two pieces from its mounting clamp. As he placed it on the cutting table, MSgt Abernathy got her first look at the antenna’s cross-section.

The metal body was a shell, only about an eighth of an inch thick all around. The interior was filled with a pinkish-gray mass, quivering slightly from being jostled. It seeped a trickle of clear liquid that slowly oozed down onto the table.

“What the hell is that?” the technician asked, stopping in the middle of unclamping the other piece once he caught sight of what was inside. He looked at MSgt Abernathy and saw panic.

“Call the infirmary,” she said in a quiet, deliberate voice. “Tell them we have a probable biohazard situation here. Nobody comes in or out of here until they say otherwise.”

Plastic barriers blocked all three entrances to the metal shop, marking the boundaries of the provisional quarantine zone. Inside were MSgt Abernathy, the technician, another airman who had happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the member of the base’s medical staff who had been sent in to monitor their condition.

“OK,” Dr. Ullman instructed, her voice muffled and distorted through her hazmat suit’s respirator, “now gently drop the plate on top of the sample and slide it under the microscope.” She kept her eyes fixed on MSgt Abernathy’s face instead of her hands.

“There,” MSgt Abernathy replied as she finished preparing the sample taken from the interior of the antenna. She placed it under the objective lens of the digital microscope Dr. Ullman had brought with her into the quarantine area. She flipped the light switch, shining a bright light from underneath the sample, through the lens and into the camera, which displayed the image of the sample on a nearby computer screen.

“Hmmm,” Dr. Ullman said, stealing a quick look at the image. “Watch it and let me know if it or you change. I’m going to check up on the other two.” She slowly made her way to the cutting table, where the other two victims of the quarantine were playing cards while supposedly keeping an eye on the antenna, now mounted so that the exposed surface pointed directly upward.

MSgt Abernathy adjusted the focus settings on the microscope. Biology had never been her strong suit, xenobiology even less so. The idea had always been to bring in a couple experts in the field when the time came. She hadn’t expected her direct involvement to ever extend beyond collecting samples for someone more qualified to look at later. But there wasn’t time for that now.

Instead, she’d have to make do with what she remembered from high school biology. The magnified image on screen wasn’t fundamentally different from the few times she had used microscopes back then. Of course, her high school’s microscopes hadn’t been nearly this sophisticated; the digital image was far sharper and clearer than the beat-up lenses at her disposal then. On the other hand, the samples they looked at were properly stained to show better contrast, whereas this one hadn’t, making the features, such as they were, more difficult to make out.

Difficult, but not impossible, and they broadly resembled the images she had seen in her youth. She could identity the membranes separating the cells from one another. There were darker and lighter spots within each cell, presumably the organelles. If pressed, she would have guessed that the darkest of them were the nuclei, but she couldn’t even remember the names of what the other options were. But then again, she could well be jumping to conclusions. She couldn’t assume the alien biology was anything like that of Earth.

“And how are you doing over here?” Dr. Ullman asked, seeming to suddenly appear behind her.

“Wishing I had minored in bio instead of music,” MSgt Abernathy replied.

“I mean how are you feeling? Any symptoms?” Dr. Ullman turned MSgt Abernathy’s head towards her own and stared into her pupils.

“Same as before.”

“Good. Now give me your arm; I’m going to take another blood sample.”

MSgt Abernathy groaned as she rolled up her sleeve.

“And no vampire jokes,” Dr. Ullman warned, sanitizing a spot on MSgt Abernathy’s arm. “Both of my daughters are big into Twilight.”

“Yes, ma’am.” She looked away from the approaching needle and back towards the microscope’s screen.

“So how does the sample look?”

“It hasn’t moved an inch. I mean, an inch on the screen. Not an inch inch.”

“Hopefully that means it’s dead. Hold still.”

“What do you mean, ‘hopefully’?” MSgt Abernathy asked, turning her head to Dr. Ullman and immediately regretting the decision as the syringe entered her peripheral view.

“If it’s dead, it’s less likely to pose an immediate threat to any of you in here,” Dr. Ullman replied. “Not impossible, mind you. You’re still going to be stuck here for another twenty-three hours at least.”

MSgt Abernathy winced. “It’s kind of a shame, really.”

“You did saw clean through it, you know.”

“Well I didn’t know there was going to be something alive in there!” MSgt Abernathy protested. But then she wondered, had it been alive? The way it filled the space inside the tube, it was more part of the device than it was merely inside of it. Was the alien technology simply part biological? If so, the fatal blow could have been when SrA Roberts had broken it free from the ground, presumably severing it from its power source. Some way to discover definitive proof of alien life.

Was the Mackinelly Device the same way? They had never been able to see inside it. Was it not a probe at all but a spaceship? Had there been something alive inside?

“The soil bacteria underneath it was dead,” she thought aloud. She caught Dr. Ullman’s confused expression and elaborated, “The Mackinelly Device, I mean, not that. It leaked something into the soil that sterilized everything in it. Maybe it was afraid of us contaminating it as much as we are of it contaminating us.”

“I’ll let the bloodwork be the judge of that,” Dr. Ullman replied. “But the three of you seem to be doing fine so far, as far as I can tell. Speaking of bloodwork, I need to go hit up those two too.”

MSgt Abernathy nodded. “I’ll keep looking at this, I guess. Oh, doc, I don’t suppose you have anything like a toothpick in your gear, do you?”

“A toothpick? I don’t think so. Needles, on the other hand…”

“No, never mind, that’s quite all right,” MSgt Abernathy said.

She had wanted to try putting a swab of her own cheek under the microscope to see how it compared to the alien sample, to have a better reference than her own fuzzy memories of what a “normal” cellular sample was supposed to look like. Not that she was likely to be able to accomplish much with it, anyway.

She stared at the sample on the screen, watching the cells, or whatever they actually were, lie there perfectly still. There weer probably hundreds of thousands of scientists who would kill to trade places with her, even despite the constant attention from the doctor. Hundreds of thousands of scientists who had no idea what was here. Who might not ever know, in fact. Official word was that the operation to destroy the Mackinelly Device was completely successful and, a bit surprisingly, the conspiracy theories that sprang up about it all centered on the idea that the Mackinelly Device itself was some kind of hoax. The sample could possibly answer all kinds of questions about the fundamental properties of life, now that a sample of non-terrestrial life finally existed, and it would probably wind up hidden in a warehouse an aisle down from the Ark of the Covenant.

On the other hand, the sample had been recovered over a hundred miles away from the sites where the Mackinelly Device was known to have been. Assuming there wasn’t a second Device out there that everyone had somehow missed, there were probably still more of the cybernetic antenna devices around, waiting to be unwittingly discovered by someone. And there was something underground connected to it, that much was almost certain. Something that had survived the Mackinelly Device’s destruction, and quite possibly remembered it.

If it was still out there, and intelligent, and alive, MSgt Abernathy wondered what its disposition towards them was. They had acted more aggressively towards it than the other way around. If it was part machine, part organism, had breaking off the antenna device injured it? Hurt it? And, more to the point, how was it going to respond?

Chapter word count: 1,685 (+18)
Total word count: 40.625 / 50,000 (81.25%)

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