Episode 20: Racing

episode-20-racing“You done there, Jaxon?”

Jaxon looked up from the library mech’s propeller. “Yeah, pretty much. It might be a little better if we rebalanced it now that the wiring’s changed.”

The de-facto captain of Jaxon’s audition team shook her head. “Better to leave it now. We’ve only got a few minutes until testing starts. Don’t want to break it before then.”

“It’ll only take half a minute to balance, all going smoothly,” someone objected. “That leaves plenty of time for damage control.”

“Yeah, and what do we gain if we take the risk and it works out?”

“Not a heck of a lot,” Jaxon said. “It might not even technically need rebalancing.”

“I’d do it anyway, but I’ll bow to the wisdom of experience. Gives me a chance to stretch, anyway.” The dissenter stepped back from the lab bench and yawned widely. “It feels like years since lunch.”

He wasn’t the only one looking forward to supper, Jaxon thought. A regular day at the academy was energy-intensive, but at least there were breaks between lectures and classes that didn’t take quite so much work. Today, even lunch had been more like a planning session over a meal than the usual hour of free time.

“Does this mean we’re pretty much done?” Jaxon asked. “We just turn it on in the library and hope for the best, right?”

“All going according to plan, yes,” the captain said, “but if something goes wrong, we’ll probably be allowed to make emergency repairs.” She pulled a tiny toolset out of the pocket of her gown. “You learn to keep one of these on you.”

“Or you rig up your notebook to modify the software on the fly,” said the last group member. “Even the A-leaguers pull stunts like that between rounds.”

The captain’s eyebrows rose. “Modding depending on what you’re facing is just good tactics, but it’s hard to do on the fly. I suppose you can think of emergency repairs as the very first step in that directions if you like. It’s not ‘even the A-leaguers’, though.”

A buzzer went off, reverberating through the room. Mike stood up at the front. “Alright folks, that’s time. Please make sure your benches are tidy and then head on to the library.”

Jaxon’s group only took a minute to pack things back into place: that was why they hadn’t rebalanced the propeller, he supposed. On the way out they passed Ken scribbling frantically in his notebook. A few tables later Buhle was watching dubiously as one of her groupmates finished attaching something to their mech. The A-league captains were keeping an eye on those tables too, Jaxon noticed. He guessed that whether or not you could finish on time might be part of the audition. It was actually a pretty critical skill.

The library issue desk had been divided into shoebox-sized squares. Jaxon, as the group’s youngest member, was given the honour of placing their mech in one of the start points. It seemed a little silly, but he was as proud of that mech as just about anything he’d ever done and appreciated the task. Just placing it on the counter felt flat, so he called out “Go team!” before heading back to the crowd. Somebody cheered in response, although he didn’t think it was one of his groupmates. He didn’t care: this was exhilarating.

They’d built a mech from the ground up. It flew and he was pretty sure it wouldn’t fly into anything. Even if it did fly into something, they’d spent a lot of time developing an elegant exit strategy and demonstrating it to Mike’s satisfaction. Whatever happened next, he thought, they’d achieved a heck of a lot over the course of the day.

It took a few minutes to position all the mechs. Then Mike gave the signal to power up remotely. Jaxon had to squint to see their mech’s lights come on. Some models immediately started whirring and rose into the air, so that the neat line became a lot more straggly. One mech began circling somewhat erratically. Another crash landed almost immediately.

“Blighted Earth!” Somebody was unhappy about that.

Mike was watching from behind the issue desk. “You may reclaim your mech and make emergency repairs,” he announced. “However, we’ll be continuing without you, so it had better be quick.”

A lanky young man rushed forward, gown billowing, to grab the mech.

“As you know,” Mike continued, “The signal beacon is located somewhere in the stacks. We’ll be turning it on in three, two, one, now!”

A few mechs rushed forward immediately, but most had at least a little lag. Jaxon waited anxiously for their model to finish calculating and start flying. He couldn’t imagine how people had made their lag times so short.

That question was answered, at least in part, when one of the early starters flew into a bookshelf and began a shutdown routine.

“You may reclaim your mech and make emergency repairs, if you wish,” Mike announced.

“What could they change?” Jaxon asked his neighbour. “Won’t it just fly into something again?”

“Depends what went wrong. They might’ve just forgotten to activate something, say. Look, there we go!”

Their mech rose and, to Jaxon’s surprise, began to catch up with the scattered array of mechs already in the air.

“She’s an efficient little thing,” his neighbour said with some satisfaction.

A few moments later the mech that had originally crashed relaunched and began wobbling in what seemed to be the generally correct direction.

“Good on them to get her back in the air. Not the easiest thing, under pressure.”

Jaxon nodded fervently. He seriously hoped their mech wouldn’t go down now. The possibility of his careful wiring suddenly failing didn’t bear thinking about. But, if anything, the mech was slowly gaining on its competitors.

Something clanged and a collective gasp went up from the crowd. Two mechs had collided: one was now emitting electric blue sparks, but to its builders’ credit still managed to land with some control. The other seemed to be continuing fine. “You may collect your mech for repairs if you wish. Both groups involved in the collision please send a rep to me immediately,” Mike said.

The frontrunners were now out of sight between the bookshelves. Jaxon had lost track of his group’s mech in the excitement of the collision, but he didn’t think it was still visible.

“Don’t think we’ll win, but we’re doing solidly,” Jaxon’s neighbour said. “And we did some fancy weaving work getting ahead there, which compares favourably, I think.”

“It seems very orderly and controlled,” Jaxon said.

“That’s really the trick. If you don’t know exactly what a mech’s going to do, you can assume that sooner or later it will do the opposite of what you want. And that’s if you’re lucky.”

Jaxon shivered. It seemed far too easy to mess up something very fundamental. He’d never really thought about how carefully messenger mech and cleaner mechs and other everyday things must need to be tested.

“Team number twelve, your mech has arrived.” Mike was reading off a notebook connected to the library system. “Team three, you’re in. Team five has arrived.”

Jaxon cheered. Third place was exciting and he’d been part of it. The day’s work had stripped him of any illusions of being good enough to play in the A-league, but he knew that learning more was going to be exciting.

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