Episode 27: End of Term

episode-27-end-of-termMelinda stood at the back of the Academy hall, surveying the empty seats. She’d lost a bit of weight over the term, but not so much that she couldn’t wear the same black trousers and white blouse she’d worn to her induction. She thought she was less confused than she had been then, although objectively the seating plan made less sense. She’d triple checked when she’d realised that she wasn’t supposed to sit in the row Bryony and the others were allocated to, but apparently the seating plan was just that weird.

“Seat B22 is this way,” Poly said, launching out of Melinda’s gown pocket.

“Oh yeah, I forgot you could look that stuff up.” Melinda ambled down the stairs after her mech. She frowned when they started crossing the front of the hall. The path finding algorithm should have chosen routes that crossed the back of the hall over crossing the front of the hall whenever possible, although she was early enough that it didn’t really matter.

“Here’s your seat, Melinda.” Poly perched on the back of a chair in the front row.

“No that can’t be right. B22 ought to be further back. This is –” Melinda checked the label at the front of the seat. “this is B22. Oh. Well that’s odd.” She sat down and swung her legs impatiently.

Students trickled in and a few minutes later Ken arrived and parked his hoverchair next to her seat at the end of the aisle. “I’m glad I’m not the only one here. I figured they’d given me a different seat from everyone else to handle the hoverchair, but maybe it’s more complicated than that.”

“I have no idea.” Melinda shook her head. “Nobody I asked is in this row, but I’m glad it’s not just me.”

Ken shrugged. “It’s not like it matters much. I’m just glad I know how to manoeuvre my chair around here by now. It was a lot more stressful last time we were in here.”

“Yeah, I remember that. You were even later than Jaxon.”

Ken laughed. “Did you know Jaxon was late for the robo-duelling awards last night? I’m pretty sure half the reason their captain called him out by name was to cover for the fact that he ended up sitting in the wrong place. Not that he didn’t deserve it.”

“I think he would’ve been called out anyway. He kind of won that last match single-handedly. But it sounds awfully convenient for him. We’ll get him next year, though!”

“Don’t they scramble all your teams next year anyway?”

“Yeah, technically. But it hasn’t happened yet.” Melinda shrugged.

“Like eggs?” Poly asked.

“Huh?” Ken stared at the mech.

“Do they scramble all your teams like eggs?”

Ken looked even more confused.

“Has Bryony been giving you instructions?” Melinda took the mech from the back of her chair and put it on her knee where she could see it.

“Yes, Melinda.”

“And what instructions has Bryony been giving you?” Melinda rolled her eyes at Ken as the best apology she could manage while talking to the mech.

“Bryony said it was a good day to be as chirpy as I could. And chirpy is related to eggs!”

Melinda sighed dramatically. “Today is a good day to be a sober, well-behaved mech, Poly. You can be chirpy after we get up from here.”

“Does that happen to you often?” Ken asked Melinda.

“Once in a while. It’s happened less since we’ve been tiptoeing around Nieminen.”

“That figures. Oh, hello Quintessa.” Ken greeted the girl who had just arrived.

“Hello.” Quintessa didn’t have a chance to say more before one of the mathematicians was at the podium up front.

“Please rise for the academic procession.”

There was music as the red-robed mathematicians entered. Introductions followed. Chancellor Briggs gave a lecture on how wonderful the term gone had been. Melinda didn’t disagree, although experiencing it had been more interesting than hearing the chancellor talk about it. After that, there were awards to various students and staff members that seemed to go on and on. Melinda lost track of things a little until suddenly Quintessa was standing up next to her.

Chancellor Briggs was saying something about “the award for top first year student. Congratulations, Quintessa.” She pinned something onto Quintessa’s gown. Melinda cheered.

“Our next award is for the top project submitted by a first year student. This award goes to Kenneth Delaney.”

“Congrats,” Melinda whispered as Ken went up to the front to receive his pin.

“The top project award takes into consideration not only the standard of the scientific work done, which must be exceptional, but also the presentation of the work. I’m informed that this year especially it was highly competitive. Congratulations, Kenneth.” Melinda knew Bryony’s modelling project had got full marks in the end, so Ken’s must have been truly spectacular. He deserved that, given the ridiculous amount of effort he’d put into it.

“Finally, the Class Spirit award for the first year class. This award is chosen based on both recommendations from staff and student votes. This term’s Class Spirit awardee is Melinda Mirreme.”

Melinda blinked. She hadn’t even considered that possibility. She felt a hand on her shoulder.

“Well, go on,” Quintessa said.

Melinda stood up and walked to the podium in a daze.

“Congratulations, Melinda,” Chancellor Briggs said as she pinned the award to Melinda’s gown.

“If Melinda’s the class spirit, can I be the laboratory ghost?” Poly asked loudly.

Melinda felt the blood rushing to her face and ducked her head in shame. That Poly would do that in front of the whole Academy!

Somebody cheered — Melinda wasn’t sure if it was for her or for Poly — and then the applause took over for a few seconds while she walked back to her seat.

 

“What do you mean, I embarrassed you?” Bryony asked at the tea after the awards ceremony. “You must have noticed Poly was chirpy.”

Ken giggled. “She told it to behave until she stood up again. Didn’t think you were getting an award, did you?”

Melinda turned on Ken furiously. “Did you know?”

“Of course I didn’t know. I might’ve guessed, but I honestly didn’t think about the implications of the instruction until Poly started asking about ghosts.”

“You have to admit it was pretty funny,” Bryony said.

“It was horrible.”

“What was horrible?” Jaxon asked as he walked past. “Oh and congrats to both of you, by the way.”

“Yes, congratulations, Melinda and Kenneth.” Only Kelly Jean would have used Ken’s full name like that, but Melinda thought she meant it genuinely.

“Thanks, Kelly Jean and congrats on your guys’ award last night too,” Melinda said.

“Yeah, congrats, KJ.”

“Who?” Kelly Jean’s eyebrows shot up.

“Kelly Jean is a bit of a mouthful,” Bryony said. “Congrats either way.”

“Well, uh, thank you.” Kelly Jean drifted off into the crowd.

“I guess this is it,” Jaxon said. “At least for now.”

“Well, the holidays just mean lectures stop, right? We were doing cool stuff before we arrived here and we’ll carry on before we come back. I’m definitely not going to wait to give a certain mech some much-needed upgrades.”

“I guess.” Jaxon sounded wistful.

“We should meet up. Kaspar’s Koffee Bar is a good place. I’ll be there most afternoons, probably. Come meet up with me if you’re feeling homesick.” Melinda winked. “I could always use some better conversation than Poly’s.”

“My natural language algorithms can only produce conversation at the level received via input devices,” Poly said.

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The End

Author’s note: I’ll be taking a break over Christmas and while I focus on finishing my MSc thesis. I’ll start writing here again in 2016. Details of what remain to be decided (suggestions welcome). Merry Christmas!

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Episode 26: Duel

episode-26-duelJaxon woke up early on the morning of the final duel. It wasn’t quite the last match of the season, but people had started calling it that as it had become apparent that it was going to decide the winner of the robo-duelling B-league. Even Mathematician Nieminen had to know this was a big deal to a lot of people, Jaxon thought as he stared into the darkness above his bed. Not that it would stop her cancelling the whole thing if she saw fit. Ivor reckoned she was bluffing, but Jaxon sincerely hoped that nobody tried calling that bluff. They’d come close enough as it was.

Deciding that he wasn’t going to get any more sleep that night, Jaxon started running through the list of things he would be responsible for at the evening’s match. It was too late to tweak anything before the match, but if they needed to make changes at half-time, he’d be glad he had everything straight in his head. It would be awful to forget something crucial in the pressure of the moment.

He realised he was starting to think in circles just before the morning bell sounded and the lights flickered to life.

“Bleargh. Match day, huh?” Ken asked from across the room. Jaxon was surprised he’d remembered, or at least acknowledged it. “I’ll race you to breakfast.”

“That’s not fair!” Jaxon pushed the covers away and swung out of bed. If he didn’t make time getting ready he wouldn’t stand a chance. Ken’s hoverchair indisputably made shorter work of the Academy’s corridors than he did.

“You need to be motivated to get proper sustenance before your big match,” Ken said, vaguely waving a finger at Jaxon.

“I didn’t think you cared about that.”

“I guess I don’t have to care about some robot to care about my friends. Now get dressed, you’re wasting time.”

Jaxon tore through the dining hall doors and collapsed into his seat about thirty seconds before Ken arrived.

“And that?” Ricardo raised an eyebrow.

“Jaxon had to be chased to breakfast before he decided he’d lost his appetite over the match tonight,” Ken said seriously.

The people already at the table laughed. Jaxon occupied himself with his porridge bowl.

 

Jaxon was fairly certain that lectures that day covered interesting material, but he resolved to get Ken to remind him what they’d covered later. A friend who wasn’t obsessed with the robo-duelling league could be quite useful.

Everybody tiptoed through the laboratory session that afternoon. Even Bryony patiently waited for Kelly Jean to finish complaining about the travelling microscope before making her own measurements. Kelly Jean was so surprised that she actually thanked Bryony, which Jaxon observed with some amusement from the other end of the lab bench. He heard Melinda giggling across the aisle too. After that he managed to forget about everything else and get lost in the laboratory exercise. It was the kind of thing that was much prettier on paper: measuring the sizes of resistors and seeing how that affected their behaviour in an electrical circuit. After piling up a lot of measurements and calculating the fit to the theoretical prediction and the uncertainty, things began to match somewhat satisfactorily. He sighed happily and was contemplating his graph when Kelly Jean arrived behind him.

“All ready for tonight?”

“We’ve been ready since the last team meeting, Kelly Jean.”

“Yes, but I thought you might have been thinking since then. I’ve come up with a couple of ideas that might be useful.”

Jaxon tried to look appropriately impressed. “Yeah, um, that’s — that’s great. I’ve got a few things in mind too, but it’s too late to really test anything now, you know? We’re better off running what we’ve got and modifying if we need to respond to what they’ve done.” He nodded at Verashni and Melinda, who seemed to be having a similar conference on the other end of the lab.

“Well, we’ll see what the rest of the team have to say when they hear about what I’ve got worked out.”

“Yeah, I think this is something we should discuss with the whole team.” Kelly Jean did have brilliant ideas sometimes, but she wasn’t always the best at knowing which of her ideas were brilliant. And Jaxon wasn’t the best at trying to explain that to her.

“We interrupt this important meeting to remind you of the importance of sustenance. Wait, I said important twice there. Drat. Anyway, you guys should be heading to supper shouldn’t you?” Ken tilted his head and waited for a response.

“Um, yeah. Thanks for the reminder, Ken. Kelly Jean, I guess we’ll talk to the team after supper.”

“As you wish, Jaxon.” She turned on her heel and flounced off. Jaxon wasn’t sure if he’d upset her.

Ken rolled his eyes. “Drama queen. A man’s entitled to his dinner, even if the weight of the B-league hobby team is on his shoulders.”

Jaxon tried not to laugh.

 

To nobody but Kelly Jean’s surprise, the team elected not to make last minute changes to their robot. “That would almost certainly give us more speed,” the captain said, “but there’s a very real chance of burning out the motor and we won’t be able to monitor that in the match. We run as stands. I’m not sure we could pull it off in time anyway.”

“Yeah, you’d have to rewire everything. We should try it for next term, though. If you can tune it right, it could be beautiful,” someone added.

Kelly Jean shrugged. “It was just a suggestion.”

They moved onto the final tests before loading the robot into the starting position. With everything ready, there was nothing to do but wait at the edge of the ring. Jaxon fidgeted and tried to count the number of graphs he could make if he used the eyelets of his shoes as vertices. Unsurprisingly, he kept losing track, but he did avoid freaking out and screaming in front of the rapidly-filling auditorium. When the pre-game announcements began, he glanced over his shoulder at the crowds. There were definitely more people than had been at the previous matches. This one had something of a reputation. Jaxon gulped. Somebody had even found cheerleading pompoms, although they didn’t match either team’s colours. Jaxon thought it was the kind of thing Bryony would do.

As the announcements drew to a close and the opening countdown began, Jaxon turned back to the ring.

“. . . four, three, two, one, here we go!”

Jaxon stuck his fingers in his ears and focussed on watching their bot’s performance without the commentary. Somebody else would keep track of that. The bot rolled into the arena as expected. Jaxon felt one layer of pressure peeling off at that. There were a few minutes of back and forth before the bots engaged. It felt almost like an A-league game, where the bots had enough subtlety to test for each other’s weaknesses. Jaxon felt himself grinning, although the pressure was definitely not off yet.

Once the bots engaged, the work the software team had been doing with the video sensors began to show. The bot was definitely dodging, if rather clumsily. The enemy bot closed in rapidly. Jaxon heard the whole team gasp. Their bot shifted sideways just in time. There was a collective sigh of relief, but they remained on the defensive for the rest of the first half.

As soon as half time was announced Kelly Jean turned from the ring and said, “We have to implement my speed up.”

“There isn’t time.”

“You’ll burn out the motors.”

“Is there anything else we can do to speed it up?” Jaxon asked. “If we can’t shift this game we’re going to concede a point eventually.”

“We might not concede a point, but we will concede the game if we don’t get back on the field.”

“I can do it in time,” Jaxon said. He took a deep breath. He’d done this before. Not under this kind of pressure, but it really was their only chance of winning. “We don’t have a chance otherwise, but I have to start now.”

“The kid does work quickly.” The captain winked at him. “I think I’m okay with this. If they make improvements now, we’re going to concede points if we can’t speed up.”

“Yeah, I think we have to take the chance. Go for it, Jaxon.”

“I agree.”

Jaxon started the upgrades in a blur, flying through steps that had been imprinted on his memory through long repetition. “Somebody keep track of the screws for me. These are K7s.” He held them out to the side. Somebody took them and he carried on working. “Where do you want me to set this?”

The rest of the team must have come to a consensus while he was taking things apart, because the answer came back immediately and he could start reassembling. Jaxon was almost finished when he tugged something a little too hard and pulled a wire out of place. He swore loudly.

“Don’t sweat it, Jaxon, you’ve still got time,” his captain said. “Can you tape it up?”

“I’ve run out of duct tape in my repair kit.” His stomach was horribly knotted. He should’ve had more tape. It was an obvious include, but he’d missed it. And now it was going to cost them the game.

“I’ve got tape. Will it help?”

Jaxon grabbed the tape and turned  back to the bot. “You are the best ever and anywhere.” It didn’t exactly make sense, but he was back in the wiring now, reconnecting the broken pieces and building back to the last screw.

“Play will recommence in one minute,” the announcer said.

“And I’m done.” Jaxon stepped back. “I hope it works. Somebody else can get that thing ready to launch, though.”

People started running, but he was too lost in the world of robotic circuitry to appreciate what was going on until the duel restarted. Their bot was on the field and definitely faster, but the opponent was more aggressive too. They just barely dodged the first attack. Jaxon’s heart sank, but seconds later they were on the offensive. The enemy got away, but they were back in the game. Jaxon turned to his teammates, but everyone was too focused on the game to comment. Jaxon didn’t disturb them.

The game went back and forth from there. The bots moved around a lot, as their newly speedy model retreated and then launched into new attacks. They didn’t have the precision of an A-league game, but they were putting their opponent under pressure. Not enough pressure to actually grab the liferep, though. The game had turned in their favour, but they weren’t pressing the advantage quite hard enough. Jaxon sighed.

“The game’s not over yet,” a teammate muttered.

“One minute of play remains,” the announcer said.

“Close enough.” Jaxon pulled a face.

As he spoke, the retreat-attack sequence that had made up most of the game played out again. The autotuning software must have been at work, because this time, somehow, the bot reached all the way through the enemy’s defenses and grabbed the life-rep. The clang of a point scored rang moments before the announcement that play was over came.

People screamed and cheered. Jaxon thought he might be one of them, but he couldn’t tell over the noise. He lost track of who had slapped him on the back or vigourously pumped his hand.

When things had calmed down a little, there was space to go over to the other team.

“Well played.”

“Congratulations.”

“I thought you had us,” Jaxon said to Melinda. “Still can’t believe it.”

“That was some scary stuff you did at half time,” Verashni said.

“I nearly didn’t finish.”

“I think I’m glad you did,” Melinda said. “I’d rather be honourably defeated. Something like that.”

“That’s a relief.” Bryony had somehow found her way into the player area. “I was beginning to worry I’d been so well-behaved for nothing. Congrats, by the way,” she said to Jaxon.

“Yeah, congrats.” Jaxon had no idea how Ken had maneuvered his hoverchair down from the main seating area. “I hear you were kinda useful. Well done. Just as well I made sure you ate properly, huh?”

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