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.”


“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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Episode 25: Paths through space

episode-25-paths-through-spaceMelinda sat on a lab stool, swinging her legs aimlessly. Nobody in the class wanted to risk arriving late to the lab and having Mathematician Nieminen cancel their next robo-duelling match, but avoiding that created a lot of downtime. At the end of the bench, Ken was staring intently at his notebook.

“How do you always manage to have something to do when we’re waiting for class?”

Ken sighed and looked up. “I may have bitten off more than I can chew with this project. You’d think modelling one measly electron would be doable, but it’s Earth-blighted hard.”

“So what are you doing, modelling the path of an electron? In an atom or something?”

“In a benzene molecule, because apparently that’s easier.” Ken grimaced. “But it doesn’t really have a path, because it’s quantum, and that’s just a mess. Heisenberg and what have you.” He yawned.

That sounded vaguely familiar. “Heisenberg’s principle, right? Is that the one that says if you’re  being precise enough you can’t know both where something is and how it’s moving at the same time?”

“Yeah, that one. Obviously, if you’re measuring an electron you have to be quantum-level precise. But-” He paused to yawn again. “But if you know where an electron is at every point in time, you’d be able to work out how it was moving, right? So the electron can’t really have a path.”

“That’s pretty trippy.”

“Yeah, it’s all weird probability distributions that collapse when you make measurements and then somehow grow back again or something, I assume, and I have no idea how to write this up in a way that makes any sense at all.”

“Well, you wouldn’t be the first person to have that problem.” Ricardo had arrived early too, and peered over Ken’s shoulder at his notebook. “Interpretations of quantum mechanics are notoriously fickle. If it seems intuitive in one context, it’ll probably look outright impossible in another.”

“So they’re all just wrong?” Ken looked unimpressed.

“You could call them imperfect, rather. They can be helpful, if you’re aware of their limitations.”

“Like classical mechanics is useful, but it’s not really as accurate as quantum mechanics?” Melinda said.

“Hmm.” Ricardo stared up at the ceiling for a few moments. “Sort of, but not really. You can make measurements that show where classical mechanics breaks down. But our interpretations of quantum mechanics aren’t making predictions you can measure. They’re just tools to help us think about our mathematical predictions. The interpretations that are still considered legitimate are ones that haven’t been disproved by measurements. Sometimes they sound terribly unintuitive in ways that we haven’t — maybe can’t — use measurements to test, though.”

“So you’re saying the actual theory is just the maths?” Ken started making notes.

“You need a little bit of interpretation to get from an equation to a measurement. Otherwise you’d be doing pure mathematics, not physics and certainly not a modelling project. But if you can successfully predict whatever you set out to predict, your model works, doesn’t it?”

“I suppose so.” Ken was still writing. “But it’s not entirely satisfying.”

“You wouldn’t be the first person to have that problem either,” Ricardo said. “It’s worth some thought, but don’t beat yourself up about it. Nobody’s expecting you to have an intuitive grasp of quantum mechanics, believe me.”

Melinda glanced at her watch. The afternoon lab session was scheduled to start in less than a minute, but neither Bryony nor Kelly Jean had arrived yet. She kicked at the air nervously. Nieminen didn’t need much excuse to pull them out of the next robo-duelling match. Bryony might not understand the significance of that, but Kelly Jean knew it was the last match of the term and if her team — or Melinda’s — had to pull out, they’d be excluded from the rankings. She glanced at her watch again. Thirty seconds. Where were those girls?

Bryony rushed into the room, braids flying, and swung her bag onto the nearest lab bench. That was one. And Kelly Jean arrived moments later, as Bryony was pulling out a stool. She swerved to avoid Bryony, slipped on the smooth, hard floor, and landed with a thud. Melinda drew breath sharply. That hadn’t sounded pleasant.

“Bryony Adams, how dare you?” Melinda was relieved to see Kelly Jean getting back on her feet.

“I did noth-”

The click of Nieminen opening the door at the front of the lab seemed to echo through the laboratory. Melinda felt the adrenaline surge through her body and jumped to her feet. “Uh, good afternoon, Mathematician Nieminen!” It sounded weird and artificial, but it cut off the argument. It couldn’t be worth a robo-duelling ban, could it?

“Good afternoon, Melinda.” Nieminen looked over the laboratory. “Is everything alright?”

Bryony and Kelly Jean were still glaring at each other.

“Miss Adams?”

Melinda held her breath.

“Ah, yes, Mathematician. Everything, is, um, fine. I was just, um, sitting down here.” She jumped onto her lab stool, pulling her bag onto the floor with a resounding crash. Melinda’s heart sank. It obviously hadn’t been intentional, but Nieminen might not see it that way.

“No need to worry, Mathematician, we’ve got it under control.” Kelly Jean was on her knees, handing Bryony the contents of her bag. Melinda gawped.

“Alright class, no need to stare. I think we can trust the ladies to have a satchel under control. Remember that all of you need to make sure you’ve discussed the outline for your project write-up with an instructor before the end of today’s session.”

It wasn’t until they were leaving the lab that Melinda got chance to talk to Bryony. “What happened?”

Bryony scowled. “Dustborn caught us after lunch. He wanted to sort out some paperwork and refused to let us go until he’d finished. He took absolutely forever, so we had to sprint and, well, you saw the rest.”

“Yeah, don’t expect me to cover for you ever again, Adams.” Kelly Jean pushed past them.

“I didn’t — you know what?” Bryony shrugged. “Whatever. Just don’t bring the Hawk down on me.”

“The what?” Melinda asked.

“The hawk was an Earth animal that flew about watching everything very closely and then swooped down to devour some unsuspecting, innocent little creature.

Melinda giggled. “I’m not sure that’s the most flattering description.”

“Well, it wasn’t my fault I was late, was it? And then I had to wait excessively long to talk to von Rejk, because I was afraid she’d ask awkward questions if I got her to okay my outline, just to be told that innovation is a bad idea and I need to conform to established conventions.”

Melinda snorted. “What, did he insist that you use punctuation or something?”

“Hey, I use punctuation! I just wanted to start by throwing the data out and seeing what interesting conclusions you could get from it, but he insisted that I make the first thing the hypothesis and then consider the data strictly in terms of that. It’s so formulaic.”

“Yeah, but that’s the point, isn’t it?” Verashni came alongside them in the corridor. “If you do something that isn’t formulaic, you’ll get all your hopes that it’s interesting tangled up with whether or not it actually is interesting. But anyway, just wanted to say, nice save with Nieminen earlier. I barely missed Dustborn on my way out of the dining hall, but I didn’t think he’d keep you guys that long.”

“Yeah, well, I couldn’t wreck my first chance to see a robo-duelling match I actually care about, now could I? You guys had better win, is all.”

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