After a week of building anxiety, the day of Lumin’s meeting with Edridge Roundstone had finally arrived. She spent the remaining hours before her trip at the factory distracting herself with paperwork; trying not to dwell on the fact the entire project hinged on the success of her “date.” No one else besides Yasamin Jones knew the team had lost their financial backers.
A private jet would be arriving at the factory’s makeshift airstrip in a few hours a to take Lumin to Roundstone’s estate outside of Cupertino, California. She left the factory’s elevator and made her way down the hall to the building’s entrance. As she walked she checked the visual voicemail on her phone. “Mom, mom, pharmacy, mom, mom, Steve? Uh, no, we’re done. Mom–God, why did I get her a smart phone?”
Lumin grunted as her body collided with a wall of studded leather. “Jesus! I’m sorry!” She looked up and saw Darwin Spotswood grinning at her in his favorite biker jacket. “So, Spotswood…you just decided to let me walk directly into you?”
“You should be more observant, boss lady. Look.” Spotswood pointed out a window that faced the massive testing field behind the factory. The land once supporting a bustling community supported by a network of copper mines, but became a ghost town when the vanes ran dry. The government swooped in and converted the abandoned town into a massive artillery testing range. When federal budget cuts closed the range, Ryan Lumb purchased the wasteland for a pittance–along with the factory–which had somehow survived all the shelling.
The craterous expanse of the testing range took up a good chunk of the central Oregon desert. A naturalist at heart, Lumin normally cringed when looking out at the wastes, but she found herself staring with wonderment. “Is that the skeleton? It’s complete?” she asked Spotswood, her heart pounding as she moved closer to the glass.
“We wanted to surprise you. We finished the steel laticing on the torso this morning and Skip installed a temporary operational system an hour ago,” said Spotswood.
A gigantic crawler-transporter salvaged from NASA’s shuttle program was hauling the 200 foot tall titanium-alloy frame of the team’s robot from the build hanger. The bot’s skeleton lay peacefully on its back as it rolled out into the dry, desert air; its hull not yet covered in the armor, weapons or sensory systems.
“Come on, we’re gong to be late for the show,” said Spotswood through his toothpick. He hustled with Lumin to the team’s communal pink golf cart–riddled with punk rock stickers and sloppy graffiti. “I’ll drive.”
Lumin was still in mild shock. “Fine, punch it!” After unplugging and hopping into the electric cart, they tore through the building to the hanger’s entrance.
“Faster!” barked Lumin.
“I’m about to flip this thing as it is!” yelled Spotswood, white-knuckling the wheel.
Lumin groaned. “Some badass you are.” The rest of the team–assembled at the edge of the testing grounds–watched as the cart launched out of the open hanger doors and skidded to a stop in the dirt.
“I can’t believe you guys,” said Lumin, nearly falling out of the cart as she rushed over. “Give a girl some warning!”
“Surprise! Our baby is about to take its first steps,” said Skip Pantheon as Lumin hurried up to him.
“Lumin!” yelled Bo Dozens, excitedly, shambling up with a smile on his face. “I’m sure you noticed the shuttle crawler moving at triple it’s normal rate of speed. The fuel mixture I developed is–”
“Uh, wow Bo, that’s great,” said Lumin, not really listening as the crawler came to a stop.
Bo looked disappointed. “I just though that–”
Skip put his hand on Bo’s shoulder. “Save it, Bo. We all know your fuel mixture is amazing; my scorched eyebrows are testament to that fact. Come on, man! Forget the crawler…this is what we’ve been waiting for.”
“No fuel system has ever operated so well in such a grimy, dust-riddled environment, that’s all I’m saying,” mumbled Bo, as he stuck his hands in his lab coat.
“Where’s the cranes? How are we supposed to get Biz upright?” asked Lumin. The robot had garnered the nickname “Biz” by the build team, based on its last design designation before going into the production phase: BZ9.312.
Lumin walked up to Samuel Maston, the team’s Build Manager. “You guys are incredible! I thought it we were looking at another four weeks of build time.”
Samuel brushed his fingertips through his bushy mustache. “We’d have even more done if your alloys guy could get his shit together.”
“Sam, I’m standing right here,” said Spotswood, looking annoyed. “Don’t act like you don’t know me.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Samuel, equally annoyed. “I know who you are, Spotswood, I just wish I didn’t.”
“Listen, grade 5 titanium was a no-brainer for the frame but the armor is another story. A grade 38 alloy alone isn’t going to cut the mustard–and you know it,” said Spotswood.
“Hello, cranes?” Lumin asked Samuel, cutting short the pissing match.
“We don’t need ’em,” said Samuel, “These new actuators can handle ten times the stress load as the last set we tested. The performance metrics are rock solid. If the bot goes down, the pilot should be able to get it upright again in seconds…if we ever manage to designate a pilot, that is.” Samuel stared at Lumin.
Lumin straightened up. “I know! I know! I’m narrowing down my choices–this isn’t easy. Look at these…people.”
Samuel looked around at the engineers surrounding him–all of them being a potential operator. “I don’t envy your position, Lumin. It would just be easier on us to get our specs in line with the operator’s stature…but it can wait.”
“Alright, let’s do this,” said Skip, sliding behind a small console sitting in the dirt.
“Who said you get to drive?” asked Dezzie Lynch.
“He’s the only one who asked in advance, so I’m letting him,” said Lumin.
“Teacher’s pet,” said Dezzie, “maybe more.” She grinned, evilly.
“Careful Lynch,” said Lumin, cutting her eyes at her. Skip was blushing.
“Shouldn’t we be testing Biz from the bunker?” Asked Bo, turning to face Richard Den, the team’s nuclear engineer.
Richard shook his head. “The core is fully shielded and triple reinforced. It’s been ready to go for months. A uranium tipped round from a rail gun couldn’t pierce that shell.” he said, after finishing a bite of his hoagie. “Our Reynolds Wrap wall should suffice.”
“Good,” said Lumin, overhearing him.
“I mean, don’t go crazy though…until we get the armor on,” added Richard.
Bo grimaced. “I knew it!”
“Shouldn’t you be in that thing?” Katerina asked Skip. She was feeling even more nervous than usual.
“We’re operating the robot remotely until we’re sure it’s safe.” Skip shook his modified X-box controller and smiled at Katerina. He sat down in metal folding chair in front of a small console and put his feet in front of a series of pedals. A modified tablet computer was duct taped to the control panel in front of him.
“God, that looks janky,” said Lumin.
“I whipped this rig up fast,” said Skip, “it will look less like something a kid slapped together in his back yard in the final build.”
“It’s still just a toy. This is madness,” said Yasamin Jones as she came walking up, “but still, I wouldn’t miss it.”
Buttercup barked at the robot as it began to stir. Everyone cheered. The sound of scraping metal echoed through the valley as Biz’s joints creaked. The robot lifted up to a seated position on the crawler–looking like a tired man rising from bed.
“That’s normal, he’s just a little stiff. The kinematic linkage will loosen slightly in time,” said Samuel.
“You forgot something,” said Katerina. “Where’s the head?”
“The head will house the pilot and the sensors. It’s not ready yet,” said Skip.
Katerina shivered “It’s spooky looking.”
Four helicopters roared overhead, hauling a towering bundle of paper and cardboard the size of a three story building. It was all held together with a slight steel frame and a thousand yards of nylon mesh. The choppers lowered the huge cube from towlines to the dessert floor with a heavy thump, lifting a thick cloud of dust that their rotors blew over the team.
Lumin coughed, “What is this?” she yelled through the noise at Skip.
“We needed a target to test a few basic offensive capabilities. You approved this, remember? You signed the check.”
Lumin vaguely remembered authorizing the purchase of a defunct local newspaper’s warehouse and press building after its parent company folded. “I thought we were using that facility for external storage.”
“We are,” said Skip, “plus, we made this big paper cube to punch.”
“Neat,” said Spotswood.
Lumin noticed one of the robot’s hands was already fully armored. “Spotswood, is that plating on Biz’s fist up to spec?”
“It’s close. The armor on the hand is temporary until I get the specs finalized,” said Spotswood.
The robot rose up slowly as the helicopters flew off; Its hip joints making a ratcheting clatter. Everyone gasped seeing Biz’s silhouette reach into the hazy sky; its wide shoulders blotting out the sun.
“Unbelievable,” said Yasamin, finally breaking the team’s silence.
A rapidly cycling array of metallic innards chugged beneath Biz’s gleaming skeleton. A pair of sturdy, bipedal legs attached with thick, cylindrical joints to a relatively small waist. The bot’s barrel chest supported a pair of bulky arms, each featuring four-fingered hands. Both feet were surrounded by four steel spades the size of Cadillacs jutting out in different directions.
“It’s actually happening,” said Lumin. She broke out of her trance when a diesel semi truck rolled out of the hanger carrying what looked like a gigantic weapon on its flatbed. “Is that what I think it is?” asked Lumin, turning to face Dezzie.
Dezzie shrugged as she picked up Buttercup. “Okay, so, I may have lied about the quantum vibroblade being strictly theoretical. I may have already been secretly working on it with my physicist friends for months before you approved it. I may have been planning to embezzle a good chunk of the 200 million you earmarked for the project.”
“Lynch!” yelled Lumin, exasperated.
“Despite my religious reservations, I’ve decided to defy my Lord Satan and do the right thing for the sake of the team.”
“Aww, that’s really sweet,” said Katerina, smiling.
“Dez, is this the pet project you’ve been talking about?” asked Skip.
“Jesus…I just finished running through the theoretical math behind your damned sword the other day. Have you considered what could happen if you clashed one quantum vibration blade with another?” asked Skip.
Dezzie looked up while she stroked Buttercup’s ears. “Well yeah…it would result in an immense nuclear explosion spanning several physical locations as atoms on the blade’s edge shed their electrons through a chaotic state of quantum entanglement across a multitude of inter-dimensional planes.”
The engineering team was stunned silent.
Dezzie continued. “Or it might create a quantum singularity and warp space-time to an unknown degree, possibly creating a gravity well…but I doubt it would be on the level of a black hole.”
“I was going to say it could unleash a torrent of zero point energy and wipe out the whole of existence,” said Skip.
“That too…maybe,” said Dezzie with a shrug. Buttercup panted.
“Comforting,” said Lumin, shaking her head. “And you didn’t see a problem with this, Lynch? You’d actually risk a collision with another quantum blade?”
“Uh, no…that’s why I only built one, duh” said Dezzie.
Lumin felt exhausted. “We’ll talk about the blade later. Skip, what movements have programmed in Biz?”
Skip sighed. “Alright…well, these foot pedals on the console control basic locomotion; the recycled tank levers here allow varying degrees of fine movements; three dimensional arm control is utilized with this touchscreen; and last but not least a series of combat maneuvers are mapped to individual buttons on this Xbox controller–just like Street Fighter.”
“I know,” said Spotswood, “it should have been Mortal Kombat.”
“Do you already have a sword stroke programmed?” asked Dezzie.
“Yeah, sort of. I wasn’t planning on using it today–but I mapped a melee weapon combo to R2.”
“Alright, hold up…this test is going to be extremely limited!” said Lumin, with authority. “I want to see a few steps forward and back, a 360 degree turn, and one punch into the cube–that’s it. We’re not going to test a weapon I’ve just laid eyes on for the first time!”
Skip and Spotswood groaned collectively.
“Come on, Lumin!” said Dezzie, pouting.
“Who actually built the sword?” asked Lumin, looking around.
“I did,” said Samuel, “the blade’s construction is sound…built perfectly to specifications I barely understood.”
“I supervised the installation of the nano-tech myself,” added Richard.
Lumin sighed. “So, you two vouch for the build then? You swear by it?”
Both men nodded. “Absolutely,” said Samuel.
“Fine,” said Lumin, “but it doesn’t mean anything if no one’s taken a good, hard look at the specs besides Dezzie. This should have never hit production without my approval.”
“Lumin, I had no idea the thing would actually be built, but I did pour over Dezzie’s designs,” said Skip, turning around from the console. “The math, the architecture…it’s incredible. Despite my reservations I’m excited to see it the project move forward. It all seems workable on paper…as long as nothing has been tweaked since then.”
“Nothing,” said Dezzie. “And there’s only one blade so shut up already. You’re like those idiots who thought the Large Hadron Collider was going to collapse the galaxy, or that the atomic bomb would ignite the atmosphere.”
“I’m defending you here, Diz!” said Skip, raising and eyebrow.
Dezzie slumped. “Oh, sorry.”
Lumin realized if her meeting with Roundstone went poorly, they may never be able to see the robot in action again. “Fine, one slash, and we’re done.”
The majority of the team cheered–the rest were left in shock.
“Will someone raise the damn blast shield?” said Lumin. “Everyone, get back.”
“Raise the Reynold’s Wrap!” yelled Samuel into his yellow radio.
A loud clunk sounded, and a towering, transparent wall began rising from the desert floor–a hundred feet high.
“We’re going to hide behind a wall of glass? Brilliant,” said Yasamin.
“It’s not glass, Yasamin,” said Bo. “It’s aluminum oxynitride: a transparent, aluminum-based ceramic.”
“That shit won’t crack, even if a hunk of shrapnel the size of a Buick slams into it,” said Spotswood.
“I have to admit, that’s fairly cool,” said Yasamin, as the wall boomed into its final, upright position.
“We just need to make sure its not facing the sun or it could focus a beam that could burn a hole through the hanger in seconds,” said Bo with a laugh. “Like frying ants with a magnifying glass.”
“Alright,” said Skip, focusing again on the control console, “A few steps forward and back, a full turn, one punch, and one sword strike…correct?”
Lumin nodded as everyone huddled together in collective suspense.
“Such a tight ship we run here,” said Yasamin, crossing her arms.
Skip put the Xbox controller in its cradle and put his hands on the levers that steered the robot. He put his feet on the pedals that controlled Biz’s speed. The robot took a lurching step forward; it’s foot stomping to the earth and shaking the ground in the process. Everyone gasped.
“Sorry, a little too much mustard…Biz is a little more sensitive than the simulator,” said Skip.
“We forgot to account for the missing weight of the armor,” said Spotswood.
“Yesh, thash et” said Richard, taking another bite of his sandwich.
Skip pushed pedals again and the robot took a gentler, if still awkward, stride forward. The third step wobbled a little, but Biz’s self-righting gyroscopics kept it from toppling. The earth quaked as the robot righted itself with a shimmy to the side. “Still getting my bearings here, no worries,” said Skip.
“Awkward,” mumbled Katerina with her sweater pulled up over her mouth.
“At least we know the stabilization tech scales,” said Lumin.
Skip managed a few confident steps and maneuvered Biz in front of the giant block of paper and cardboard. “That’s better.”
Bo pushed up his glasses and looked at Dezzie. “That cube of pulp should prove surprisingly strong. Ever try to tear a phone book in half?”
“What’s a phone book?” asked Dezzie.
“Nevermind…Jesus, I’m old,” said Bo.
Skip cracked his knuckles and grabbed the Xbox controller from it’s cradle. “You’re going down, cube.”
“Do it,” said Lumin.
Skip reared back Biz’s fist, and brought it forward so fast it created a sonic boom. The robot’s armored hand slammed into the newspaper cube; rocking it upward before it fell again. The impact sent a wave of dust slamming into the blast shield. The robot shook but kept its footing as Skip retracted its arm–revealing a giant crater in the cube’s face.
Spotswood’s voice cracked as he yelped and fell to his knees with his fingers in his ears. Everyone else was cheering.”I have…inner ear issues,” he said, rising up with embarrassment.
“Holy Christ, that was something else!” said Richard, with a grin.
Skip was sweating. He looked at the diagnostics screen. “All readings normal. So far so good!”
Lumin remained stone-faced…focused on the test. “Alright, bring the flatbed up. Skip, can Biz lift that sword without crumpling it?”
“Sweet,” said Dezzie.
“Absolutely Lumin,” said Skip, “Biz’s tactile feedback receptors are fully operational. I could pick up a ladybug with his claws–or, a lady out of a Volkswagen Bug, at least. I just focus Biz’s optical sensors on the object I want him to grab and select it using the touch screen.”
“But…he’s got no head,” said Katerina, peeking out from behind Lumin. “No eyes.”
Skip laughed. “The sensors are momentarily mounted in the robot’s chest.”
“Ew,” said Katerina, sticking out her tongue.
The yellow semi belched black diesel smoke as it rolled up with the quantum vibration blade mounted to its bed. Skip released the locking mechanism remotely, and Biz reached down in a surprisingly smooth motion to pick up the sword. Lumin cringed as the robot grasped the handle, but it lifted the weapon without issue and held it in a defensive stance as Skip hit a button on the controller.
“Nice response time,” said Richard.
“Oh, this is going to be fun,” said Skip.
“There’s a plunger switch on the butt of the hilt. Press it in and the quantum blade will activate,” said Dezzie. She turned to face the rest of the team. “Everyone, listen up. Do NOT look directly at the blade once it’s activated. While the surface area of the edge is sub-atomic, it’s approximately 30 times brighter than the sun.” Dezzie pulled off her backpack and passed out welding goggles. “These will help a little, but still…don’t look directly at the glare.”
Everyone put on the goggles; some with dread on their faces.
“Uh, Lumin?” asked Bo, hoping she’d halt the test.
Lumin looked at him. “Bo, I fully realize this is a bad idea and the smart move would be to stop this madness.”
Bo smiled with relief. “I knew you–”
“Alright Skip, go for it!” shouted Lumin.
Skip adjusted Biz’s sensors to “look” at the the Quantum Blade. He then tapped his view of the sword’s hilt on the touch screen and the robot reacted in kind, hitting the massive button with a closed fist. “Here we go!”
The edge of the quantum blade began shining like the sun emerging from a total eclipse–emitting a blinding white light. A syncopated hum throbbed from the sword like a million florescent bulbs burning out in unison. Every man and woman on the ground clamped their eyes and ears shut.
“Jesus!” shouted Lumin, having second thoughts, “shut it down!”
“No!” yelled Dezzie, “it’s working perfectly! It’s beautiful!”
Even wearing goggles, Skip was forced to squint. He pressed a shoulder button on the X-box controller and Biz went into an offensive stance in front of the paper cube. With another button press the robot unleashed an immense, air-splitting downward slash of the blade through the cube. A flash of radiant heat scorched the desert sky and a wave of air pressure slammed into the blast shield, creating a tremendous metallic clap.
“What is happening?” screamed Spotswood, huddled on the ground, nearly in tears.
“It looked like the sword passed right through the cube without touching it,” said Richard, rubbing his head.
Yasamin stared at the robot as it returned to a ready stance. “Incredible.”
Lumin’s ears were ringing. “Shut the blade down, Skip!” she yelled.
“Alright, deactivating the blade…now.” The robot hit the quantum blade’s hilt on its skeletal thigh, deactivating the sword. The yellow haze in the air dissipated and all went eerily quiet.
“Holy balls, that was intense,” said Skip.
“All flash, no fury,” said Richard, lifting his goggles.
“No, look…the paper is smoldering!” shouted Bo as he pointed up at immense cube. Suddenly, the top of the mound shifted with a loud, shredding scrape.
“Everyone, get down!” Yelled Lumin as the top half of the block started sliding down the slope of the sword’s surgical cut.
The bisected brick of newsprint began disintegrating as the top portion fell, colliding to the ground with a boom. An explosive wave of sand, dust and newspaper rolled toward the team. The avalanche of debris engulfed the robots legs, sending it to the earth. Biz impacted the ground violently, his armored hand landing inches from the blast shield.
Lumin and the others backed against the thick aluminum barrier and watched a flood of shredding newspapers pile against the wall and surround them; the detritus spilling ever closer, threatening to bury them alive. Finally, the slide stopped; leaving the team huddled in the untouched eye of a hurricane of old news.
“Everyone alright?” asked Lumin, standing up. Everyone seemed accounted for. Skip’s console had been lost somewhere beneath the yellowing broadsheets.
“Buttercup?” asked Dezzie frantically. The dog emerged from a mound of paper, shaking a scrap violently in his mouth.
Spotswood was sobbing, holding tight to Bo who looked annoyed. “Get away, Darwin!”
Lumin brushed herself off and looked at her watch. “Samuel, you still have some crew in the hanger right?”
Samuel plucked the yellow radio off his belt. “Yup, and believe you me, I’m going to hear some shit about this from them.”
Skip jumped up, smiling, and hugged Yasamin. “Woo! Did you see that? Freakin’ amazing!”
Yasamin reluctantly returned Skip’s enthusiastic affection with a few pats on the back. “Yay, we’re alive.”
Richard rolled his neck. “At least the robot had a cushioned fall. If its hand had hit the barrier we might all be dead right now.”
Lumin sighed, looking at the 12 foot wall of paper surrounding them on all sides. “Samuel, have your guys start digging us out–carefully–I have a plane to catch.”