Episode 24: Communication

episode-24-communication “It still feels kind of like cheating to me,” Jaxon said as the class trooped back into the common room.

“It’s completely within the rules, though,” Melinda said. “The other team shouldn’t have left their bot open to that kind of attack. If you make it possible to shut down your mech when it hasn’t lost its life-rep, you ought to lose.”

Jaxon shrugged. He didn’t want to fight about it.

“Don’t you think that’s a bit harsh, Melinda?” Ivor threw himself down onto the common room couch. “Most mechs probably have security flaws somewhere. If you lose just because it’s in principle possible to hack your mech, I don’t think we’d ever have any winners.”

“Well, not just in principle. You can hack pretty much anything in principle, given enough time. But it shouldn’t be possible to do it in the space of minutes.”

“I stand by my statement that we wouldn’t have any winners.”

Buhle eyed him critically. “I wouldn’t exactly call that standing.”

Ivor shrugged expressively, rubbing his shoulders against the couch’s faded red armrest. “I’m standing in principle.

Jaxon snorted. “I’m not saying they shouldn’t have won. It just wasn’t a very exciting game. It’s like the Hippogriffs just surrendered a couple of minutes into every round and there was no actual fighting.”

“What a typically uneducated point of view. The fact that the Manticores’ bot could hack into the Hippogriffs’ system that fast is very impressive.”

Jaxon only realised he was backing away when he bumped into the wall behind him.

“He has a point, though,” Buhle said. “We didn’t get to watch any of that.”

“Who’s Kelly Jean bullying now?” Bryony had walked over from the tables at the back of the common room.

“I’m not bullying anyone,” Kelly Jean said, “but you would hardly be able to appreciate the finer points of the game when you don’t even take an interest in the Academy’s main extracurricular activity. I’m afraid it’s all rather beyond you.”

“Kelly Jean Jenkins!” Bryony screeched so loudly that Jaxon cringed. “How dare you? Just because I don’t spend all my spare time fawning after your heroes doesn’t make me –” She came to an abrupt halt as the common room door swung open.

Jaxon edged away along his wall as Mrs McKinsey entered, followed by Mathematician Nieminen.

“Would you like to explain yourself, Miss Adams?” Nieminen asked.

“I’m — I –” Bryony seemed too flustered to talk. Jaxon wasn’t surprised. She’d been just about ready to explode.

She was going on about the finer points of robo-duelling.” Bryony glared at Kelly Jean.

Jaxon cringed. Bryony was just going to talk herself into more trouble. She didn’t deserve this. He gulped. “Please, I — I think I upset Kelly Jean.”

Nieminen swivelled on her heels to face him. “You did what?”

Jaxon’s mind whirled. “I was, um, complaining about the game and I think I upset her. Um.” He stared at the mathematician helplessly.

“It wasn’t Jaxon’s fault,” Buhle said firmly. Jaxon felt a wave of gratitude, although it didn’t stop him from rocking nervously back and forth on his heels.

Nieminen turned to Buhle. “What — no, don’t bother explaining. I take it you felt the entire Academy needed to know about your robo-duelling disagreement.” She looked around the room scathingly. “Well let me tell you then, that if I see one more instance of this kind of behaviour, none of you will be attending the next robo-duelling event. I’m sure a group of toddlers won’t be missed.” She turned and marched out of the room.

Jaxon felt his stomach clamping in on itself. He’d just made everything worse. Worst of all, he was supposed to be playing in the next match, as were half his classmates. If he’d cost everyone that, he didn’t know what he’d do with himself.

Mrs McKinsey was still standing in the doorway. “I think you’ve all been sufficiently scolded, then,” she said. “Nobody’s hurt or in need of attention?” She peered around the room.

Jaxon shrank back against the wall, wishing he could just disappear.

“I’ll leave you to it, then.” Mrs McKinsey left the room, closing the door behind her.

“Well, stars and planets,” said Ivor. He had sat up during the commotion, but now he lay back again, fanning himself. “If that isn’t enough to ruin a chap’s rest and relaxation after a traumatic robo-duelling match, I don’t know what is.”

It was a sign of the class’s sombre mood that nobody laughed.

“I’m sorry,” Jaxon mumbled. He knew it was too soft to hear, but he felt like he had to say something. He was surprised when he got a response.

“Not your fault, buddy,” Mark said quietly. He shook his head. “Those two are crazy.”

The two girls were still glaring at each other and Jaxon had to agree.

“Say, Melinda,” Buhle said exaggeratedly casually, “suppose you tell those of us who are interested how you think they pulled off the hack.”

Jaxon was only halfway interested, but anything was better than the awkward silence. He moved forward stiffly and found a seat near Melinda and Buhle.

“Yeah, okay.” Melinda paused for a while, staring off at a spot on the wood panelling. “Okay, yeah. Well, I think — I think that the most obvious thing is that there’s a sort of emergency channel. Not the actual emergency channel which all mechs have and you aren’t allowed to use for other purposes, a secondary thing that the referees can use if they need to. So they can enforce timeouts or whatever they might need to do. I don’t know. Anyway — sorry, I’m a bit all over the place.” She shook her head briskly.

“No, it’s okay,” Buhle said. “So you think they hacked the ref channel?”

“It seems like the obvious thing to do. You’d expect the channel to open and I don’t know what kind of authentication the ref is supposed to use, but if you’re not checking that properly, it might be possible to fake it somehow.” She paused again.

Jaxon took a deep breath. “What do you mean by checking it properly?”

“Well, I actually have no idea how our bot does this — I haven’t looked through all the code in that much detail — you can’t use this against us in the match!” She held up her hands defensively.

Jaxon just hoped there was going to be a match.

“Don’t worry, Melinda, nobody here’s going to do something on that scale in the next couple of weeks.” Buhle winked.

“Yeah, I’m going to fix it anyway. For all I know, the default behaviour is just to assume that anybody sending signals on the ref’s channel is the ref. So if somebody else sends a signal on that channel telling the bot to stop it’ll just stop and you can walk over and grab the life-rep. That’s more or less what we saw today.”

“You must get the same sort of issues with iris-cam messenger mechs,” Verashni said. “You know the ones that have to scan your eye before delivering the message? You wouldn’t want someone to just send a signal with another mech that makes it spill everything.”

“Encryption and security is a whole subject,” Melinda said. “There are textbooks and everything.”

The silence once she’d finished was not quite as awkward as before. Gradually people drifted into other conversations. Keeping mechs from communicating properly might be hard, Jaxon thought, but getting people to communicate properly was even harder. He’d had enough of it, so he headed out to the lab where he could tinker with his circuitry project in peace.

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Episode 23: Dumb Luck

episode-23-dumb-luck“I’ll tell you all about it when we get back — if you want me to, at least.”

“Thanks, Melinda.” Bryony smiled. “I wouldn’t mind a summary. I wish I could come with, you know? But I guess I deserved this, so really I’m getting off easy.” She shrugged.

“Yeah, I never really understood what happened with all that, but as long as you’re not miserable.”

“I’m not miserable,” Bryony assured her friend. “Go have fun and don’t worry about me.” She gave Melinda a gentle shove down the corridor, after the rest of the class. Swinging her arms, she wandered back into the common room and collapsed into one of the big maroon stuffed armchairs.

She’d been a fool to think that the Academy was all about her personal adventure and she was paying for it now. She’d been honest with Melinda: she wasn’t miserable, but she wasn’t entirely sure what to do with herself either. The common room was almost eerily quiet without the usual chatter. The only sound was the scratching of Ken’s pen.

“So you really didn’t want to go to the big match, huh?” she asked.

“I’ve got plenty of work to do and the whole robo-duelling thing makes me sick.” He looked so unhappy that Bryony believed he might feel physically sick. “I thought we came here to learn science.” He jabbed his pen into his notebook.

“We’re still allowed to have fun, though.”

“I don’t object to having fun. This is fun when it makes sense.” Ken jabbed his pen into his notebook again. “But that is just a mess.” He shook his hand in the direction the rest of the class had departed.

“You seem pretty worked up about it.” Bryony had nothing better to do and Ken sounded like he needed to talk this through with someone, so she walked over and took a seat at his table.

“It’s all just so — so stupid.” He gestured helplessly. “It’s not like they’re learning anything from all this. They’re just idolising the people who had the dumb luck to get it right.”

“Dumb luck?” Bryony raised an eyebrow. That certainly wasn’t the way Melinda talked about robo-duelling.

“There’s no direction to anything. It’s not like there’s a set of instructions you can read to figure out how to do things or process to follow so that you know you’re doing it right.”

“Well, I guess that’s how you come up with new stuff.”

“If you’re lucky!” Ken lifted his hand as if he was going to thump the table, but then laid his pen neatly next to his notebook. “Otherwise it’s just how you fail.” His shoulders slumped.

Bryony wound a braid around her finger. “I guess you can look at it either way.” She didn’t think Ken was right, but she wasn’t sure what she could say to refute him either.

“I’m not interested in dumb luck. At least with something like this –” He waved at his notebook. “With something like this, hard work will get you somewhere.”

“Are you saying Jaxon and the others don’t work hard at their robotic stuff?” Bryony took a deep breath and hoped Ken wouldn’t explode at her.

“No! Well, I mean, uh.” He trailed off. “Obviously they work hard. I’m not trying to call them lazy. But it just seems to sort of work for them. Their bots don’t crash before the audition even begins.” He picked up his pen and rammed it into his notebook. “It’s not fair!”

Bryony bit her lip trying not to giggle. She wasn’t surprised that Ken didn’t like being outside of the robo-duelling clique, but he was being a little silly about it. From what she’d heard, he wasn’t the only one who hadn’t made much progress at the robo-duelling auditions either.

“What?” Ken glared at her.

“I’m sorry, Ken. I think I know what you mean. They have all this glamour; and senior students looking out for them; and people wanting to talk to their mechs; and who knows what. And we’re just sitting here.” She hadn’t meant to mention Melinda’s mech specifically and she hoped Ken didn’t pick up on it; but that wasn’t really the point. “They have spent half their lives fussing around with these things already, though, you know. And we were doing other things. That’s okay.” It was a little annoying, if she was honest with herself, but a little annoying didn’t mean it wasn’t okay.

“Yeah, well it’s still unfair as an old Earth contract.” Ken stared down at his pen and turned it over in his fingers.

“As a what?” Bryony hadn’t heard that one one before.

Ken shrugged. “It’s something my dad says.” He dropped the pen and pushed his hoverchair back from the table. “I still don’t see what’s so special about their robots.”

“I guess they’re fun to watch. I mean, I don’t mind doing titrations, but I don’t expect anyone to watch me, you know?” She put on a commentator’s voice. “And now Adams is releasing the forty-seventh drop of acetic acid. If it’s more than just a drop she could ruin the measurement. She’s turning the tap slowly — look at her go — and there’s a single drop. The crowd goes wild!”

Ken laughed in spite of himself. “But that doesn’t make it less important.”

“Of course it doesn’t. Hey, if it helps you can show me what you’re doing and I’ll try to be an excited audience. I’m not in the mood to get my own work done anyway.”

Ken peered at her for a few moments. “If it’s a serious offer, I wouldn’t mind some help with this. There’s some chemistry stuff I don’t understand that might make more sense to you.”

“Sure, why not?” It wasn’t quite what Bryony had been thinking of, but doing chemistry was usually fun.

“See, I’m trying to model a benzene atom. Well, actually just one electron in a benzene atom, the rest is way too complicated. But the point is, there are these different kinds of bond that form in the molecule, and I really don’t understand the detailed physics explanation of what goes on there. Do you have more of a big picture view? The electron I’m modelling is supposed to be sort of free to move all the way around the molecule ring.” He flipped through his notebook and pushed it towards her. It was open to a diagram of a benzene ring: six carbon atoms connected in a hexagon. There were technically hydrogen atoms too, but people tended to ignore those in books.

“Yeah, I think I remember something about this. It’s pi bonds and sigma bonds, right?” Bryony closed her eyes, trying to reconstruct her mental picture of the benzene molecule.

“Uh-huh. The one I want is a pi electron.”

“Okay, so I don’t remember this exactly, but basically, it only takes one electron to form a strong bond between the carbon atoms. So there’s a strong bond between each pair of atoms, with an electron. Those give the molecule its basic shape and they’re called sigma bonds. But then there are other electrons left over from the atoms. You have to keep them around or the molecule would be electrically charged, but they’re not involved in such strong bonds as the sigma electrons are. In fact, they can move about and change which carbon atom they’re bonded to, as long as they stay in the molecule somewhere. That bond is a pi bond, so the electrons are called pi electrons. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah, I think so. I’m not worrying about the sigma electrons or the carbon atoms. Well, I am worrying about the carbon atoms, but not the nucleus and stuff, which is what’s all bound up there. I’m just thinking about a pi electron which can skip about from one carbon atom to another. So I guess it has a sort of track that it can move along between them.”

“It’d be sort of in the hexagon shape, although there’d be a lot of wiggling depending on how far out from the carbon nuclei it goes.”

Ken sighed. “I think we have to just simplify that out. The equation I have is for just moving in a circle, and it’s still a mess.”

Bryony pulled a face. “I guess it’s kind of a circle. How complicated can the equation for a circle be?”

Ken flipped through a few more pages of his notebook. “This complicated. Dustborn says it’s a simplified version of Schrodinger’s equation for a particle trapped on a circle.”

Bryony peered at the line of derivative signs and the tangled set of trigonometric functions that followed in the solution. “Okay, that’s pretty messy. Do you have to solve that?”

“I wish. I’m just showing that if you plug in the solution here it checks out. But that’s tricky enough, plus I have to explain why it’s reasonable to use this equation in the first place. I think I’m starting to get it now, though. I’ll have to think about why it’s easier to use a circle than a hexagon. Something about symmetry, probably.”

“Rather you than me.” It struck Bryony as sort of ironic that Ken thought that mess was more fun than robo-duelling, when she couldn’t think of anything worse.

“Nah, it’s fun.” Ken was already flipping through pages in his notebook.


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