The Sonic Breach
1 The Conjunction Malfunction
“YOU’RE GOING DOWN, WATTS,” NOAH said to his opponent.
“Bring it, Newton,” Jamal Watts replied.
The two faced off inside a circle of other students. And no, this wasn’t some kind of after-school fight. It wasn’t even after school. This was during our robotics class, and the two combatants weren’t combatants at all. A large robot rested on the floor beside each of them.
One of the cool things about attending the Swift Academy of Science and Technology is that you never knew what the day might have in store. Sure, most
schools held field trips to local museums, but Swift Academy students may get to work on a project with NASA. Regular schools might have well-equipped science departments. But the academy students have access to a lot of the high-end equipment at the next-door Swift Enterprises—a major government contractor.
Or, we could keep it simple like today and have a robot battle sparring session in part of the gym during robotics. All right, there were several cool things about our school.
“Okay, teams,” Mrs. Scott said with a smirk as she strolled to the center of the circle. Her usual red bandanna held back her curly jet-black hair. Usually dressed in overalls, she always looked like someone who grew up in a mechanics shop. And judging by the wrench tattoo peeking out from her rolled up shirtsleeve, she probably was. “Enough trash talk. Final checks.”
This year, Mrs. Scott had us build robots for our very own robot battle—just like the ones you see on television. She had outlined the specifications for the robots and we divided into teams to build one of our own. Luckily, I got to work with my friends Noah Newton and Samantha Watson.
Noah worked the joysticks on his controller. Our robot’s body was half a meter square and fifteen centimeters tall. It looked like an oversize flat gift box painted battleship gray. The robot moved forward and backward as Noah controlled it. “Locomotion, check,” he said.
Sam toggled the joysticks on her controller. She was in charge of the three axes protruding from the top of our robot—two in the front, one in the back. Okay, they weren’t real axes—more like ax-shaped hammers with blunt edges. But I designed the heads to be shaped in such a way that they created a ramp when the front two were in the down position; the same with the one on the back. That way, our robot could not only whack an opposing robot but also wedge itself underneath the opponent. Then the axes could raise and potentially flip over the enemy.
“Axes are a go,” Sam reported as the ax heads raised and lowered. Even though we had only plastic heads installed for today’s practice match, a devious grin stretched across her face as she brought them down in a chopping motion.
My job was a little different. I had a tablet connected to my controller for power distribution. Noah had
coded a simplistic AI for our robot. It wasn’t a true artificial intelligence, but it stored several preset maneuvers. It also allowed power levels to be adjusted in real time. With a swipe on my tablet, I could give more power to the axes for attacks or flips. I could also assign all power to the drive motor for a quick escape.
I checked the readings on the tablet. “AI and power levels are good,” I announced.
Noah turned to me and grinned. “One final test,” he said, his dark eyes gleaming through his safety goggles. “Let’s hear it, Tom.”
“Really?” I asked. “For a practice match?”
“Come on,” Noah urged. “You know you want to.”
Noah had pulled the team leader card and insisted on naming our robot. He called it the Choppa. That made sense and all; it did wield three ax-shape hammers. But the real reason behind the name was a meme he had found on the Internet. It showed a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger standing in a jungle, muscles rippling and covered in sweat and camouflage face paint. Under the image were the words GET TO THE CHOPPA! Noah liked the meme so much that he talked us into pasting the image on the top of our robot.
“Come on! Do it!” Noah growled in his best Arnold impersonation. “Do it! I’m right here!”
I shook my head and pressed a button on my controller.
“Get to za choppa!” shouted Arnold’s voice from a hidden speaker on our robot. “Get to za choppa!”
The surrounding students laughed. Nothing cracks up a bunch of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds like a good meme, even an oldie but a goody.
Our opposing team readied their robot. The team consisted of Jamal Watts, Maggie Ortiz, and Tony Garret. Their robot was called Flailing Grade. It was about the same size as ours but it was completely round. It was able to spin really fast and, thanks to some clever programming by Jamal, it was also able to maneuver around while it spun. However, it got its name because it wielded a small flail as it spun—you know, that medieval weapon with the metal ball at the end of a long chain, dangling from a stick.
Flailing Grade didn’t have its little metal wrecking ball at the moment. Instead, a red foam ball hung from the end of its chain. A safety precaution just like the Choppa’s rigid plastic ax heads. This was just sparring
practice, after all, meant to get the feel of squaring off against a real opponent. Not to cause actual damage before the real battle. That’s also why all the students simply watched from a wide circle around the robots.
In the upcoming robot battle, Mrs. Scott had arranged to have the entire gym converted into a mini robot battle arena. The wooden floor would be covered and the audience and controllers would be safe behind thick, clear plastic sheeting. I knew she couldn’t pull off rows of saw blades slicing up from the floor or pits with erupting flames like some of the TV shows. But it was going to be exciting nonetheless.
“All right, are both teams ready?” asked Mrs. Scott.
“Ready,” replied Noah.
“We’re ready,” Jamal announced.
I glanced at my tablet for the third time. This was our team’s first practice match so I was a bit nervous.
Mrs. Scott raised a hand. “Three! Two! One! Battle!” She ran out from between the robots.
I diverted all power to the main motor as the Choppa sped toward Flailing Grade. The yellow robot moved away from us as it began to spin. The thing about spinning robots is that they take a while to get up to full
speed. If it had attacked us immediately, its flail, metal or not, wouldn’t have enough momentum to deliver a damaging blow. That’s why we had to move in as fast as possible. Unfortunately, Tony’s team did a great job at staying out of reach.
We didn’t give up. Noah kept at it, closing the gap between the two robots. “Get ready, Sam,” Noah said.
Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a figure dressed in all white, jogging up to me. A quick glance told me it was someone wearing a fencing uniform. Our robotics class only took up part of the gym. The fencing team practiced on the other end.
“Did I miss anything?” asked a familiar voice.
“We just started,” I replied. My eyes flicked back and forth from my tablet to the two robots.
Amy Hsu removed her mask and leaned closer. Her black hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She was a close friend and the final member of the Formidable Foursome, as my dad called us.
“Wow,” she said. Then she poked my shoulder. “Do the thing.”
Not taking my eyes off the power levels, I tapped the button on my controller.
“Get to za Choppa!” shouted our robot.
Amy chuckled. “That kills me.”
Flailing Grade was not up to maximum speed when the Choppa finally caught up to it. However, the foam ball bounced off the side of our robot and several students clapped.
“Glancing blow,” Mrs. Scott reported.
Sam worked the joysticks and both front ax heads raised. When our robot was in position, I slid my fingers across the screen, diverting power to the axes. Sam made them slam down atop Flailing Grade. More students applauded. Some cheered.
“Solid hit,” said Mrs. Scott.
The plastic heads weren’t enough to stop the other robot’s momentum completely, but they slowed it down a bit. Still Noah pulled back the joysticks, dodging the foam flail as it came back around.
“Let’s go for a flip,” said Noah. “You with me, team?”
“Oh yeah!” said Sam. She pulled down on the joysticks, and the ax heads lowered to their bottom position.
“I’m ready,” I replied as I redistributed the power back to the main drive motor. “If you time it just right . . .”
“We can dodge the flail,” Noah finished, edging our robot closer. “Who’s driving this thing, anyway?”
I shrugged. “Just saying.”
“Teamwork, guys,” Sam scolded, never dropping her gaze from the two robots. “Less talking, more flipping.”
Noah edged our robot closer. The flail swung by once, twice, three times. When it passed again, Noah jammed the joysticks forward. The tips of the axes slid under the other robot, tilting it off the ground. With the enemy robot askew, the flail came back around and whizzed harmlessly above the Choppa.
“That’s right,” Noah said as he kept the momentum going. He pushed Flailing Grade forward, not letting it get traction.
I used two fingers to swipe the tablet, sending all power to the front axes. “Now, Sam!”
Sam jammed the joysticks forward and our axes shot up, launching Flailing Grade into the air.
All the spectators cheered as the yellow robot shot straight up.
“Yes!” I shouted.
My eyes widened and the crowd’s cheers quickly turned to groans when Flailing Grade fell straight down
and landed atop the Choppa. I cringed as the rear plastic ax head snapped off.
“No way,” said Sam.
“Great flip,” Mrs. Scott announced. “But a self-inflicted hit by the Choppa.” Some of the students laughed.
I shook my head in disgust. The biggest hit of the match was one we’d given ourselves.
Lucky for Jamal’s team, Flailing Grade landed right side up. It began to spin again.
“Get to za Choppa!” our robot shouted.
Noah glanced at me. “Not now, dude!”
I glanced at my controller. “Uh, I didn’t do that.”
Noah went back to his controller. He jerked the joysticks up and down and our robot moved in stuttering arcs inside the circle. “I . . . think we have a problem.”
“What’s it doing?” asked Amy.
“I don’t know,” I replied, looking at my tablet. “I think it’s cycling through the presets.”
The axes began moving up and down. Even the now-empty metal rod on the back acted as if it were chopping with an invisible ax head.
“Okay, I’m not doing that,” said Sam.
“That’s the problem.” Noah’s brow furrowed as he worked the joysticks. “I’ve lost control.”
“Get to za choppa!” our robot repeated. “Get to za choppa!”
I groaned. “That last hit must’ve damaged the motherboard. I’m killing the power.”
I slid all three power bars to zero. It had no effect. The robot continued to move forward and back in jerky motions. The axes chopped air.
Noah glanced back at me. “You going to do it anytime soon?”
I slid the powers up to full and back down to zero. Nothing happened. “I’m trying.” I shook my head. “I’m locked out too.”
The audience had been laughing at our robot’s crazy movements. But then they cheered when Flailing Grade swooped in and laid into us with its flail.
“Multiple hits,” said Mrs. Scott.
“Aw, man!” I said, flinching with every hit. In a real match, that might’ve sent our robot reeling. “You getting anything?” I asked Noah.
“Nothing!” Noah banged the side of his controller with one hand. “Come on!” he growled.
“Get to za Choppa! Get to za Choppa!” our robot repeated.
“Wow,” Sam said, struggling with her own controller. “That’s not so funny anymore.”
Then our robot stopped its stuttering movements and took off in a straight line. Students jumped out of the way as it raced out of the circle. Noah, Sam, and I chased after it, each of us still working our controls.
“Go for the kill switch!” I shouted.
Mrs. Scott had us install a switch in the back of each robot in case something like this happened. The trouble was getting to the thing while the robot sped across the gym floor.
“I’ll get it when it hits the wall,” Noah said between breaths.
The robot veered left and right as it moved. It blared “Get to za Choppa!” all the way as it neared the wall.
“It’s not going to, is it?” asked Sam.
“It looks like it,” I replied.
The robot veered toward the open doorway.
“Ah, man!” Noah shouted as he led the way.
The Choppa zipped out of the gym and disappeared around the corner beyond. I could hear it bouncing off school lockers as we chased after it. I could tell the other students heard the racket too. Their laughter increased with every hit.
Once we exited the gym, we saw that it had finally stopped. I cringed when I saw our robot attacking Mr. Jacobs’s floor buffer. Mr. Jacobs was the school custodian, and he held tight to the machine’s handlebars as our robot pushed against it. Its plastic axes whacked at the buffer.
Noah slid to a stop and flicked the toggle switch at the back of the robot.
“Get to za chop . . .”
“Sorry, Mr. Jacobs,” Noah said.
“Yeah,” Sam and I agreed. “Sorry about that.”
Mr. Jacobs switched off the buffer and slowly removed the earbuds from his ears. He shook his head. “What are you kids up to now?”
There was a very good reason why he asked us that question. It was the same reason why I knew exactly how to operate that particular floor buffer he was using (as well many other pieces of custodial equipment). But you know what? That’s a whole other story.