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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