Episode 14: Robot Duels

episode-14-robot-duelsMelinda closed the tap on the burette and squatted down to squint at the beaker she was filling. The water level didn’t quite reach the measuring line, so she nudged the burette tap open. A single drop splashed into the beaker. Once the water level settled, there was no noticeable difference. She pushed the tap open further and let the water trickle down to the waterline. Even though the burette could measure more precisely than the trickle, it didn’t help here. The beaker capacity wasn’t that clearly defined. That was an interesting idea to put in her report.

“Melinda? What have I missed?” Bryony dumped her bag under the lab bench and grabbed her notebook.

“Um, we’re testing different measuring instruments. We have to write a report for two weeks time. Hang on a minute.” Melinda scribbled her results into her notebook.

“Well, look at that. Bryony Adams finally worked out how to follow directions and get to the lab.” Kelly Jean walked over from her lab bench.

“Taking the initiative to try something new is usually considered a positive trait, Kelly Jean Jenkins, although I wouldn’t expect you to understand that.”

“Think you’re too good for humanity’s most advanced mathematical institute, huh?”

Melinda turned around and glared. “Oh give her a break, Kelly Jean. Don’t you have anything better to do?”

“Taking sides now, are you?”

“I am on the side of actually getting some work done, which is what we’re here for.” Melinda didn’t realise how loud she’d been until the silence that settled when she’d finished.

Mathematician Nieminen appeared immediately. “Can I help you ladies?”

“Bryony has deigned to show up for class after all.”

“I’m sorry, Mathematician. I got lost.”

“Try not to disrupt the laboratory when you do so. If this happens again, there will be consequences. Now you two get back to work while I bring Bryony up to speed.”

Melinda almost managed to forget the argument as she tried to use the burette to get an idea of the uncertainty in what the beaker actually measured.

She had amassed several pages of notes on most of the apparatus set out around the lab when Mathematician Nieminen called them to a halt. “You have ten minutes left before I send you off to get ready for supper. You should have taken some measurements with everything or nearly everything set out by now. If you haven’t, you’re going to have trouble finishing next week. Those of you in that boat should come and see me sometime this week to work out how to speed things up.

“In the next couple of days we’ll also be sorting out the labcoat situation. Once we issue you all with labcoats — yes, you too, Ricky — we’ll assume you’ll be wearing them in the lab and set up accordingly. That means that once labcoats have been issued, you will not be allowed to enter the lab without one, as there may be potentially dangerous chemicals and so on set out. Likewise, you’re expected to wear proper shoes in the lab once we start introducing things more exotic than plain water. Ask Ricky or me if you’re not sure about the safety rules.

“Now you have a few minutes to clean up what you’ve been working with and you can be off.”



After supper they congregated in the common room. A handful of people had settled down to carry on working, but most of the class was chattering at the front of the room. Jaxon pulled a Go board out of the cupboard and Melinda found herself watching him teach Buhle to play.

“No, you can’t hold the stones like that. You’re going to keep messing up the board when you play. Pick it up between your first two fingers, like this.” He demonstrated.

Buhle tried, but only succeeded in shooting the stone off the table. “This is impossible,” she complained as she retrieved it. “Can you do it?” she asked Melinda.

“Yeah, I used to play with my brother.” Melinda grinned apologetically. She slid her fingers into Buhle’s dish of stones, retrieved one and slid it onto the board. “Atari.”

“Hey, that wasn’t a real game!”

“Shouldn’t have got the board out if you were too scared to play!”

“Okay, fine. But this is a teaching game and it doesn’t count if I lose. See, I escape capture like this.” He placed a stone on the board.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!” An older student with two hoods and a full brown beard stood in the doorway. “I’m Mike le Roux, captain of the Manticores robo-duelling team. The Manticores are recruiting as, I believe, are some other teams. If you’re interested in auditioning, I’m taking names now.”

Melinda was out of her seat and at the door almost before he’d finished talking. “You take first years?”

From her gown pocket Poly remarked that, “Robo-duelling teams consist of Academy students at any level who are invited to participate.”

“Where did you get that from?” Melinda demanded, pulling the mech out of her pocket.

“The Handbook of the Mechatropolis Academy for Mathematical Sciences, page four hundred and thirty seven.”

“First years can audition, although you’ll probably end up in a B-league team. All depends on your performance really. Where’d you get the mech?”

“I saved up and bought a cheap messenger model to play with. Just the software side of things, though.”

“Nice work. I assume you want to put your name down then.” He passed Melinda a signup sheet.

When she’d finished filling it out she found a small crowd waiting behind her. “Plenty of competition, huh?” She passed the sheet to Jaxon.

“Well, if you think it’s that great it can’t hurt to try,” Ken said.

“I’m surprised the whole class isn’t lining up for the chance to build a robo-duellist,” Buhle said. “I’ve wanted to do this since I was a kid.”

When they’d all signed up, Mike took the sheet back. “Given how many of you there are, I might as well give you the basics right now to save getting you all together again. You’ll all be familiar with the A-league duels that happen in the city hall. What you may not be aware of is that the Academy also runs a B-league with the same rules: each team provides a robot; no communication from humans once the duel begins; first robot to capture the other’s life-rep wins. A-league robots are always built from the ground up, but you lot will likely to start out in the B-league, where plenty of teams just build on basic models.

“B-league duels are in the Great Hall and there’s usually a fair bit of student support. It’s not quite as exciting as duelling in front of the public in the city hall, but you still learn a heck of a lot. Most of us worked our way up from there.”

“So what do we need to know for the audition?” Jaxon asked. “And do we automatically get into the B-league?”

“If you have a preference for hardware of software, we’ll want to know that when you start the auditions. If you don’t have a preference, that’s fine too. You do some building in teams and we talent-spot. B-league applications will open as soon as the A-league is finalised, but there’s no audition.”

“Why’s it a separate application?” It sounded inefficient to Melinda.

“A lot of people change their minds about joining a team after trying the audition.” Melinda’s surprise must have shown on her face, because he added, “Oh, I don’t think you’ll have a problem, looking at that thing.” He gestured to Poly. “But not everyone has that kind of experience.

“Any more questions? No? Well then, I’ll see you at the auditions. Cheerio!” He disappeared back down the corridor.

Melinda bounced on her toes with suppressed excitement. “Why didn’t I know about this? If I’d known we could audition I would’ve practised or something!”

“More practice than coding up your own mech, which is basically what the audition is?” Verashni raised an eyebrow.

“I suppose you have a point,” Melinda said. “This is going to be so much fun!”

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