Interphase: Exodus – Chapter 11

Don stepped back from the microscope, wincing as he sat down carefully on a stool. Dr. Douglas glanced at him with a flash of concern before she took his place. “You should be resting, Dr. Harris. I don’t think you’ve slept since the attack last night,” she told him reproachfully.

“I’m fully aware of that,” he said, “and if I thought it would do me any good, then that’s what I’d do. But resting is far more uncomfortable. Better to keep my mind occupied.”

She chose not to question or argue, letting silence fall over them as she peered at the sample. Don saw it in his mind’s eye: a series of fragmented machines, their segments held in place by the laser tweezers. He’d spent the better part of the morning doing nano-dissection, separating the nanites’ components and studying them. Their design was astonishing, a replica virus composed of metal and circuitry. The level of sophistication went beyond anything he could have dreamed of… but they had been built with a specific mandate in mind. A program.

That was what he needed to understand.

“Got company for you, Dr. Harris,” Trey announced from behind. Don turned and saw the young lab technician leading Mike’s tech expert into the room. He managed to get up from the stool without too much discomfort and extended his hand.

“It’s Connor, isn’t it?” he asked as he shook the newcomer’s hand.

“That’s me. How’re you feeling, Dr. Harris?”

“I’d be better if we could figure out the program driving these things,” Don replied with a wave toward the microscope.

A broad grin broke over Connor’s thin face, and he rubbed his hands together enthusiastically. “Oh, it’s so good to be needed.” He stepped forward and politely tapped Dr. Douglas on the shoulder. “Mind if I take a quick peek, Doctor?”

With a nod, she moved away to let Connor step in. Don felt a hand tap his shoulder and turned to see Chris holding out a fresh cup of steaming coffee. Don accepted it with a grateful nod.

“Okay, there’s one of the CPU cores,” Connor muttered. “Geez, this sucker is delicate.” He backed away and narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. “Is there a way to pry the casing from the top of it? I wanna take a look on the inside first before I try what I’ve got in mind.”

Don shared a curious look with the other team members. “Do you think we could jury-rig one of the micromanipulators to operate at a nano scale?” he asked.

“The scalpel mount might be a little too big,” Dr. Douglas pondered. “What about the injector? It might be thin enough.”

“Would it be strong enough to handle the pressure though?” Chris asked dubiously.

“It’s worth a try,” Don said, noticing a smile flicker across Dr. Douglas’s face.

While Trey left to retrieve the appropriate tool arm, Dr. Douglas removed the current attachment from the microscope stage. She set it aside carefully, and when Trey returned, he passed over the new arm and pulled a holographic imager from a lab coat pocket. “Figured it might be useful to show everyone else what’s being worked on,” he explained.

They clipped the micromanipulator arm in place and attached the control joystick while Trey slid the imager into the projection port under the stage. After dimming the lights, he fired up the device, displaying the nanite’s CPU core fragment in the air above the workstation. Chris volunteered to operate the tool and stepped up to the microscope.

“Try the seam on the underside of the, um, what do you call that part?” Connor asked.

“The base plate,” Don replied.

“Yeah, that part,” Connor suggested, pointing at a spot on the projected image.

The tip of the needle touched the seam, and Chris rotated the joystick incrementally. The hydraulic controls ensured precise movement. The needle slowly wedged into the seam, and part of the casing pried up and outward.

The image jerked. Thinking that someone had bumped the counter, Don urged, “Everyone stay still.”

“Whoa, wait, the sample just moved,” Chris said.

“How?” Dr. Douglas demanded. “The tweezers are anchoring it.”

“I don’t know.” Chris extracted the needle from the case with delicate movements. “Maybe I hit something inside—”

The core trembled again. The partially-bent casing detached completely, and pieces of the main structure broke away and drifted out of view. Don watched with mute astonishment as the fragment disintegrated before his eyes.

“What the hell… the other samples are deteriorating,” Chris exclaimed.

Connor pushed forward. “Let me see.” He took Chris’s place and peered through the microscope, and Don watched his mouth slowly drop open. “I’ll be damned…”

“What’s happening, Connor?” Don asked.

“I’m not entirely sure, but… I think the nanites just self-destructed.” He stepped back from the microscope, mouth still agape and his eyes wide. He released a helpless laugh that seemed tinged with fear.

Don motioned for him to step aside and gazed into the microscope. Of the five individual nanites he and Dr. Douglas had pulled apart, all of them were little more than slivers, barely detectable even at the microscope’s highest setting. The contents of the entire slide had been destroyed completely.

“Someone really doesn’t want us finding out what makes these things tick,” Trey remarked nervously.

Dr. Douglas threw him a frown. “We don’t know for sure that’s what happened. What if Chris is right? He might have impacted an internal component, fried the power source.”

“That’s the part that’s kinda freaking me out, Doctor,” Connor told her. “The CPU core wasn’t attached to the power component when it blew up.” He ran his hands through his hair, blinking very fast and chewing his bottom lip. “There could be some residual signal linking the components together. Or it could be that there’s an internal security protocol regarding the CPU chamber seal…”

As Connor drifted off into muttering, Don drew a deep breath and released it, absently rubbing his sore side. “Let’s try again and see if the same thing happens,” he suggested.

It took almost an hour to stain and prepare another half-dozen slides. During the process, Connor left to retrieve some equipment from his office. When he returned, he began setting up a laptop and unloaded a plastic bag full of various wires, connectors and a plastic bottle of clear liquid.

Everyone backed away as Don and Dr. Douglas prepped a fresh sample, taking apart only a single nanite this time and leaving the other three drifting intact. They replaced the attachments again and let Chris take over.

The results were the same. Once the cover of the CPU core was cracked open, both the fragmented nanites and the whole ones came apart. “I think Connor is right,” Chris speculated grimly. “These things were designed to resist tampering. If that’s the case, how are we going to get access to their internal components?”

Connor tapped at the keyboard on his laptop and didn’t look up as he replied, “It’s gonna be a lot harder, but I think I have an idea to make it work. Can you set up another slide and just put a single nanite inside? Leave it intact, and here…” He stopped typing long enough to pass the bottle to Don. “Put two drops of that in with the sample.”

To Don’s chagrin, his hands were shaking as he tried to gently squeeze the plastic bottle. Dr. Douglas’s delicate fingers extracted the container from his grip, hiding the tremble from their colleagues with her back. “Now, will you go rest?” she asked quietly, applying the solution to the sample.

“Once this is finished,” he replied. “Thank you for the discretion, Dr. Douglas.”

“Sarah. Dr. Douglas is too much of a mouthful for everyday use, Don.”

He kept his expression neutral. “I couldn’t agree more, Sarah.”

She put the slide in place, and Connor resumed his typing. The rest of the lab workers crowded around and watched him input commands into his computer, the tip of his tongue clamped firmly between his teeth. Don joined the rest of the observers. “What exactly are you attempting?” he asked.

“Trying to see if I can hack my way through the nanite’s programming. That stuff I had you put in? It’s a specially designed conductive fluid that can interact with electronic devices without disrupting…” He caught himself rambling. “Suffice to say it’s like a liquid wi-fi.”

Don tried to follow the code streaming by on the technician’s screen, but gave up when he found reading Connor’s face to be far easier. The young man’s every thought seemed to translate directly to his expression, and as time passed he became increasingly frustrated. “Damn, this code is an absolutely mess. It isn’t letting me establish a single solid connection. Everything I get is all surface. It’s like the device itself is fighting me.”

“Isn’t there anything we can use?” Sarah asked anxiously.

“All I’ve managed to pull so far is the nanite’s point of manufacture,” Connor told her. “I’ll keep trying, but I’m afraid this program is beyond even me.”

Don patted his shoulder. “It’s all right, Connor. That’s more than we had before.”