THE STORY SO FAR:
Braggadocio between American and Japanese robotics engineers on social media escalates to a real-world, multi million dollar face-off. Backed by corporate donors, each team begins building a gigantic robot to compete in a fighting match to the “death” in Las Vegas, Nevada. The winning team will take home bragging rights and a massive purse for the charities of their choosing.
A driven young woman, Lumin Mira, is sent to a secluded location in the southern Oregon desert to manage the American team’s stable of talented but erratic engineers. Her team toils under a tight deadline to design and build their robot using limited resources.
When the Americans lose their financial backers, an eccentric billionaire named Eldridge Roundstone steps in and restores full funding–with the strange stipulation that Lumin pilot the robot herself. Despite Eldridge’s quirks, Lumin finds herself drawn to his charms and their partnership becomes more than professional.
Lumin’s team endures various setbacks, including a disastrous test run of their robot–dubbed “Biz”–and a traitorous engineer who has given designs of their most powerful weapon to an already dominant Japanese team. Less than a week remains until the two teams’ giant machines clash in the first match of a best-of-three tournament.
“We better be ready, Samuel. I’ve already lost half a day’s training because of this damn leak.”
Samuel stuck his head over the edge of the ferrofluid tank: a solid, upturned bell the size of an industrial steel smelter. “Don’t worry, Lumin…we scrapped the first tank entirely and molded this new version out of magnesium alloy. It’s strong as ox farts and completely seamless. The hatch on top is air-tight.” He climbed from the scaffolding surrounding the tank down the long ladder until his heavy boots thumped to the hanger floor. “Impressive, eh?”
Skip stood nearby, with crossed arms. “Yeah, it’s an impressive death trap. I’m having some doubts about this.”
Samuel sighed. “Skip, the tank’s chamber is lined with emergency air hoses in the event Lumin’s main O2 reserve malfunctions. Plus, the hatch is purely mechanical and the fluid pumps are pneumatically pressurized. There’s no risk of an electrical failure trapping her in there.”
Skip took a deep breath. “Sam, I’m aware of the safety features but I’m still nervous.”
“Fine Skip, just cut the snark.”
“Get me in there already! I’m tired of Skip staring at me in this switch suit,” said Lumin.
Richard walked up with his hand in a Fritos bag. “What did I miss?”
Lumin groaned. “Don’t you have some code to tweak or something, Richard?”
“Nope,” said Richard through his crunching.
“Almost ready,” said Samuel, “we just need to position the tank’s umbilical lines and get the pneumatic actuators synced.”
Skip blushed. “Could that suit be any tighter Lumin? I already have a sore neck from looking at the ceiling to avoid a direct line of sight with your, um, with you.”
“Perv,” said Lumin, grinning.
“I swear! I’m pretending you don’t exist from the eyes down. You could have put a robe on, you know,” Skip countered.
Lumin shrugged then started up the ladder. “Grow up, Skip. Come on Sam, let’s do this.”
“Wait,” called Samuel, “We need to hook you up to a safety line.”
“I can climb a damn ladder, Sam…relax.”
Skip looked away from Lumin’s rear-end as she climbed. He leaned over to Richard. “How you do avoid having…sexist thoughts at a time like this?” he whispered.
“I’m gay, you idiot,” said Richard, rolling his eyes.
“Oh, right,” said Skip, turning redder.
“What was that?” Lumin called down as she reached the top of the tank.
“Nothing!” yelled Skip. “Careful, you’re 40 feet up on bare metal.”
Lumin tugged at her wedgie and sighed. “After our disastrous meet and greet with the Japanese, maybe I should just throw myself off of this thing.”
Samuel put on a headset then handed one to Skip. He looked up at Lumin and waved. “Don’t even joke. I’ve powering up the comlinks. Can you hear me?”
Lumin tapped her ear and gave a thumbs-up. “Gotcha, it’s working fine.”
“Skip, you read?”
“Loud and clear,” said Skip, through his headset.
“Dammit, I wish I had more time to train,” Lumin bemoaned.
“I wish I knew more CB lingo, Papa Bear,” said Skip.
“Sorry we couldn’t get you in the tank sooner, Lumin. We had to mop up all of that steer’s blood from the hanger floor and sterilize everything,” said Samuel.
Richard looked down at the concrete. “Ew. Explains that bleach smell.”
“Hang tight Lumin, a couple of my people are coming to get you on the rig and make final preparations,” said Samuel. A man and woman hurried up the ladder toward Lumin.
“Lumin, was Roundstone pissed?” asked Skip. “Are we screwed? We agreed to that meet-up to avoid bad press and we still managed to create a media shit-storm.”
“No, our prize-funding is secure. Only a small portion of the general public were horrified by our inadvertent animal cruelty, the rest seemed to be intrigued or amused…sick bastards. The world may be laughing at us but at least they’re not outraged. The whole thing was perceived as a freak accident–which it was.”
“It was definitely perpetrated by freaks,” added Richard.
Skip shook his head. “I don’t know, Lumin. The butcher Sato brought along rubbed me the wrong way from the get-go. Now that I think about it, I didn’t see that cow until it had already smashed through the wall. The entire incident may have been orchestrated from the beginning in order to get a look inside our operation.”
“A sacrificial cow, huh? Remind me not to ask your thoughts on nine eleven,” said Samuel.
Skip raised his arms in the air. “I’m just saying! It’s possible. The cow somehow managed to punch through a wall where no security cameras had been set up.”
Samuel rubbed his head. “You want to talk conspiracy? Well, maybe you were in on it, Skip. After all, weren’t you were supposed to be keeping tabs on the cow and the butcher? Where the fuck did you go?”
“What? I’m no Bo! I went to get that beast a dish of water and the next thing I know I’m coughing through a cloud of debris and watching the cow cut itself into deli slices!”
“Enough!” yelled Lumin. “There’s no use crying over spilled…bovine blood.”
“Sorry, I think we’re all a bit on edge,” said Samuel. “I know you’re no traitor, Skip. You’re as loyal and stupid as a Labrador.”
“Thanks?” said Skip.
“Well guys, if the Kyoto Team’s goal was to get intel on us a week before the event I suppose they succeeded. I just hope they caught a glimpse of something that put them in the same position as us–scrambling to adapt their build before match time.”
“God, I keep forgetting we’re only a few days away from the match. I suppose thinking they’d make changes to their bot this late in the game is a little far fetched,” said Skip.
“Wow, these little things are heavy.” Lumin braced herself as the techies began plugging gyroscropic motion-control units into her suit across her body.
“We’ll only have to do this a few times in order to calibrate the equipment,” said Samuel. “The ‘switches’ on your suit will retain the movement data for future runs.”
“That’s good. They don’t weigh much but they still feel a touch awkward,” said Lumin.
“I’m still flashing back to that damn cow,” said Skip with a far-away look in his eye.
“I know, but even though the press tried to whip up the cow controversy we somehow ended up more popular than ever,” said Lumin. “Yasamin told me we’re ‘generating positive trends in social media awareness’ for the first time since the match-up was announced.”
“If anyone else saw how that poor cow ended up, no one would have found it positive,” said Skip.
“Well, just thank Christ there wasn’t a Youtube video,” said Samuel. “Alright Lumin, the tank’s systems are nearly online.”
Skip started pacing near the bottom of the tank. “At least the Japanese seemed okay with what happened. We’re nothing but a big joke in their eyes.”
“Let them underestimate us,” said Lumin.
“I thought Kengi Sato was surprisingly respectful. It was damned classy of him to deliver us those pizzas by helicopter,” said Richard. “They were even still warm.”
“You hold anyone who brings pizza in high regard,” said Skip, glaring at Richard. He looked up at Lumin again. “I’m just going to assume Kyoto knows about our chainsaw modification to the quantum vibration blade at this point.”
“What’s done is done,” said Lumin. “Okay, the techs are finishing up. I’m getting in the rig.”
“Slow and steady, Lumin,” said Samuel. “All systems are go.”
“Hello, Ma’am, my name’s Diane,” said one of the Techs, rising from her knees after ratcheting a few thick cables to the tank.
“Hi Diane, I’m Lumin…I’ve seen you around before.”
Diane nodded. “Miss Mira, we’re going to attach you to this soft harness and lower you into the control bell. Once you’re submerged in the ferrofluid a stability arm will attach to the the back of your suit to keep you upright, but you’ll barely know it’s there. After some system checks the clips of your harness will release and we’ll be ready to start the simulation.”
“Right.” Lumin was starting to get nervous. A thick, viscid splash in the tank caught her attention. She leaned over and watched the bell filling with the inky black ferrofluid. “It looks like you’re dunking me in raw petroleum.”
Diane shook her head. “Samuel went with a mixture of soy lecithin and magnetite; fairly benign, unless you’re allergic to tofu.”
“I guess I’m good then. It smells strange–super clean–like a freshly sharpened kitchen knife.”
Diane clicked Lumin into the harness and gave it a sharp tug. “Once you’re in the tank it’s important not to panic. The fluid will remain thin until the electromagnetic housing is raised, so you’re going to sink right to the bottom. With the ferrofluid being the same temperature as your body, you’re bound to feel incredibly disoriented. You’ll be blind until your VR screen comes online which may add to your anxiety. Once the electromagnetic array fires up, you’re going to feel a slight squeeze as the ferro fluid thickens. The software will quickly calibrate your mass and the adjust the fluid’s viscosity accordingly.”
“I know this was all my idea, but it sounds like the work of an insane masochist.”
“I apologize if this information is redundant, Ma’am. Samuel told me it was important to run through the process even though you designed the system.”
“I helped,” chimed in Skip.
Samuel groaned. “Shut up.”
“It’s fine, Diane. We were working at such a breakneck pace that a quick overview is definitely appreciated.”
“Lumin, your heart rate is rising. You alright?” asked Samuel, looking at his monitor.
“I’m good! I’m ready. I spent a few hours in a sensory dep tank preparing for this.”
“Good idea.” Diane smiled then looked at her tablet. “Alright, the system diagnostics came back clean. Your umbilical line is set. I’m going to lower your helmet and lock it in place. Once your oxygen levels have normalized we’re sending you down.”
“Let’s do it,” said Lumin.
Diane lowered Lumin’s helmet and secured it in place with a pneumatic latch. “Feel alright?”
“Whoa, yeah, I’m definitely blind now. Hello?” Lumin felt a sharp tug, and realized the rig was lifting her harness to lower her into the tank.
“Am I in?”
Lumin’s senses were completely nullified. Finally, her feet touched to the bottom of the tank, allowing just enough stimulus to let her know she still existed. “Jesus, is anyone reading me?” Her limbs felt strange as she swirled her arms in small circles.
“Hello! Hello? Lumin, do you read?”
“Skip! There you are!” Lumin squinted as the VR headset lit up. She opened her eyes fully and saw a no-frills, 3D rendering of a desert and a menacing looking beast. “Is that a gorilla in a space helmet?”
“Diagnostics Phase B complete: optimal levels,” said Diane.
“Lumin! There you are, I’m so sorry,” said Samuel. The audio streams in your helmet cut off when the visor booted up. I’ll get that fixed right away. Get ready, the magnetic housing is lifting.”
“Slow down a little,” said Skip.
“This is nerve-wracking,” said Richard, finishing his chips.
“We can’t stop. The start-up process is automated. If we shut down now we’ll have to drain the tank and start over again.”
“It’s okay, keep going,” said Lumin as a loud hum surrounded her. She felt momentarily dizzy. “Ugh, my fillings hurt for second there.”
“The electromagnetic array is up,” said Diane.
Lumin squeaked as her arms and legs became lighter and her body lifted from the floor of tank. “Whoa.”
“The ferrofluid is being calibrated to hold you at exactly zero G. You’ll get used to it soon,” said Samuel.
“What the hell am I seeing in my visor?” asked Lumin.
“In the VR simulation? Oh, I rigged up a cheap 3D model to be your opponent for testing. I based it on an old 50s B-movie: Robot Monster. It’s one of my favorites.” said Skip.
“A gorilla wearing a fishbowl with antennas…terrifying.” said Lumin. She lifted her hands in front of her visor, and could see the simulated hands of Biz. “Holy shit, it works!”
“Excellent,” said Samuel, “the system will constantly re-calibrate until we achieve true one-to-one movement between you and your virtual robot. This physics simulation should be pretty damned accurate to real life.”
Lumin still felt off-kilter but she couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pride. “Yeah, the simulation seems a little delayed, but not by much.” Lumin kept moving her arms, up and down and in small circles. “Sloshing through this liquid is tougher than I anticipated.”
“Remember Lumin,” said Skip, “the electromagnets are keeping the ferrofluid dense in order to limit the speed of your movements. Physics don’t scale up kindly from 5 feet 8 inches to 350 feet 8 inches. If you threw a punch at full speed without the ferrofluid limiting you, the movement would become supersonic when Biz performed the same motion. The joules of force generated by such a attack would be equivalent to an atomic explosion.”
“Don’t we want a supersonic, atom bomb punch?” asked Richard. “It sounds awesome.”
Skip shook his head. “One of Biz arms weights close to a million pounds. Just a 5 mile per hour punch sent from Lumin’s six pound arm becomes a 400 ton freight train traveling at a 100 miles per hour when thrown by Biz…which is still absolutely devastating. Any faster and the force could rip the robot’s arm off.”
“You don’t need to talk to me like I’m an infant, Skip. I just think it’s stupid we’re making Lumin have to strain just to make simple movements,” said Richard.
“It’s not that bad, actually,” said Lumin. “I guess I am little worried about the fluid density fatiguing me too quickly.”
“The density of the fluid will lessen if your vital sensors show you becoming fatigued at the cost of sacrificing a bit of synchronization with Biz,” said Samuel.
Let’s proceed,” said Lumin, annoyed. “This overgrown deep fryer is all we’ve got and I’m the tempura shrimp that has to make it work.”
“It’s closer to magnetorheological fluid than ferrofluid, if you want to get technical,” mumbled Richard.
“What was that?” said Lumin.
“Ignore the Frito Bandito,” said Samuel, looking at the crumbs on Richard’s shirt, “You’re doing great in there, Lumin.”
Skip cleared his throat. “Lumin, if Biz falls the control bell’s gyroscope should keep you upright. We can’t have you flopping around inside the bot. Biz is programmed to stand on his own after a fall as soon as possible unless you choose to keep him grounded.”
“Skip, I got this. I’m good.”
“It’s going to feel weird, is all I’m saying,” said Skip.
“I’m already blind and submerged in 2,000 gallons of humming goo. I feel like I’m floating 20 feet above my body right now. I think we’ve moved well beyond weird already.”
“Lumin, you gotta tell me if you’re freakin’ out. Your vitals are pretty spiked,” said Sam. “I can have you out of there in seconds.”
“I’m fine,” said Lumin. Her thoughts began to wander. She felt a sudden chill.
“Lumin?” asked Skip. She had been silent for nearly a minute.
“Okay, I’m okay,” said Lumin, finally. Sam and Skip watched the simulation of Biz waving it’s arms erratically and stumbling back and forth. “I’m good.”
Sam turned up his headset. “Do you–”
“I think I’m freaking out,” said Lumin quietly.
Skip looked at Samuel and shrugged. “What should–”
“GET ME OUT! I’M FREAKING OUT!” yelled Lumin.
Sam punched a big red button on the console, and an alarm began to sound. The top hatch of the ‘bell’ popped open with a pressurized blast. Black liquid began draining out of the chamber, up into thick transparent tubing with wet, squelching glurps. “Easy Lumin, just stay still,” said Samuel.
As soon as Lumin felt the ferrofluid drain past her body she reached up to her helmet and unsealed the pneumatic locks. She trembled, gasping for oxygen. Light spilled in from the open hatch above, momentarily blinding her. Her feet began to slide around as the fluid drained past her hips, sending her to the oil-slicked floor on her knees. The carbon fiber helmet tumbled out of her hands and swirled around the curved walls until it spun to stop. Her support arm snapped off her back with a loud pop.
“Lumin, hang on!” yelled Skip.
Finally, the harness lowered to Lumin. She strapped herself in, still shaking, and began to rise.
Skip was waiting for Lumin when she reached the top. He hugged her tight as she stepped onto the scaffolding that supported the tank.
Lumin finally caught her breath. “Sorry…I…I just–”
“It’s alright, you don’t have to do this,” said Skip.
“I..I do, though.” Lumin leaned back a little. “I think I ruined your shirt,” she said, looking down at the oily stain she had transferred from the switch suit to Skip’s flannel shirt and cargo pants.
Skip laughed. “My look could use an update, anyway.”
Samuel puffed as he reached the top of the ladder. “Damn Skip, I’ve only seen you move that fast on taco night in the commissary. Lumin, you good now?”
Lumin nodded. “I’m good, Sam, I don’t know what happened. I felt like my mind was suddenly trying to escape my body. God, it was strange.”
Sam nodded. “I think you suffered from some dissociation caused by the VR and a lack of sensory input. It’s going to take some getting used to, for sure.”
“She okay?” yelled Richard from the floor.
Lumin closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her body went rigid as she clenched her fists. “I’m good now. Put me back in the tank.”
“Are you kidding? No way! You need to rest,” said Skip.
“Goddammit, put me back in there, we don’t have time for this shit! I won’t let this–” Lumin hunched over and threw-up through the steel grating below her. The vomit hurled 30 feet to the concrete floor below, creating an impressive splash.
Richard dove out of the way. “Hey! I just bought these pants!”
Skip gagged and turned away. Sam patted Lumin’s back and helped her stand back up.
“Okay, maybe I’ll take a…15 minute break,” said Lumin.