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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Camping in April

Spring is here, bringing early camping season with it. Fresh air, kayaking, arts and crafts, and of course, writing. That's right, it's time for the first round of Camp NaNo.

This year I've returned to YA with a Sci-Fi offering. One day down and 2200 word in and my story is taking shape. Would you like a sneak peek? Here it is, Chapter One of what is currently being called S.A.M.

Remember, this is first draft, unedited and still very much in the works. Hope you enjoy it. ;-)


CHAPTER 1

The machine clumped and whirred down the hallway in front of me. Dull gray with ‘S.A.M. 15’ stenciled in red across its vaguely humanoid shape. Long, thin metal arms and legs squeaked, crying out for oil long overdue.
I ran up behind it, jumping on its back and wrapping my arm around its neck in a headlock.
           It stopped, bending over under my weight with a screech. The cylindrical head rotated to face me. A shutter snapped closed over blue eyes, a camera taking my picture and running it through facial recognition software.
“Good morning, Isaiah. Did you finish the history assignment for today?” S.A.M.’s computerized voice chopped the words, pausing at random intervals. I released my hold. With another screech he stood.
“Nah, I’ll do it during study hall. Plenty of time to get it done.” Around us the student body of Asimov Senior High flooded the halls, pushing and shoving to reach their next class on time.
S.A.M. continued his clunky progress toward our math class. I slowed down, matching his stride. It was difficult to do, given his erratic movements. Sudden bursts of speed followed by a slow couple of steps, bringing him to a near crawl. I was used to it, though. We’d been best friends since first grade.
“Why do you always put off assignments to the last minute?”
I shrugged. Human ideas and emotions were impossible to convey to a machine, even one as highly sophisticated as S.A.M. Things like slacking off and procrastination didn’t register in his limited human experience. When he was given an assignment or command, he took it to heart and completed the directive before anyone finished explaining it to him. Not needing to go to the library or internet to look information up made research easy for him. S.A.M would close his eyes and pull up every article related to the project in seconds, processing them all in a fraction of the time it took normal kids to start the research.
One point in favor of being a machine.
S.A.M. was a Self-Aware Machine. Scientists spent years perfecting Artificial Intelligence resulting in S.A.M. Roughly fifty existed, scattered throughout the country in different environments to see how they learn and adapt. My S.A.M. was designated number 15. Each one knew they were a machine, something the scientists hoped to eliminate in future models.
“How do you hope to graduate if you do not complete the assignments given?”
“Don’t worry about me, bro. I always finish everything on time. Haven’t missed an assignment yet.” We reached Mr. Poplachek’s calculus class. Most of our classmates were already in their seats. I slid into mine behind S.A.M. and pulled out my book.
“Hey, Ice. Check it out.” I turned in my chair to face Ned the Nerd. His smirk disappeared under my glare. “Sorry. Isaiah. Look at this.” He shoved his graphing calculator at me. I kept glaring at him, making him squirm, as I grabbed the calculator from his hand.
One of those stupid internet memes looked back up at me from the screen.
“Le Trollface? That’s the best you can do?” I flung the calculator back at him. It spun across his desk and he caught it before it tipped over onto the ground. I hoped it would fall and smash. Serve him right for calling me ‘Ice.’
“Careful. This is my second graphing calculator. Mom won’t buy me another if I crack this one open.” Ned cradled the calculator in his hands. A couple button clicks and the Trollface meme he had programmed changed to a naked lady. He held it back up for my approval.
“Better. Might want to work on getting a more realistic pic on there. Digital boobs are the only ones you’re likely to see in this lifetime.”
Ned flipped the calculator back towards him. “Don’t hate because you don’t have the skills.”
“Skills. Right,” I snorted. Behind his thick glasses, Ned rolled his eyes.
In the front of the classroom, Mr. Poplachek cleared his throat, bringing the class to order. Ned cleared out his calculator, prepared to run any equation thrown at us.
“Nerd,” I said under my breath. Ned didn’t acknowledge my insult, his eyes trained on the teacher.
Truth was, we were all nerds. You didn’t attend Asimov High, Robotics War Champions for the last twenty years, without loving math and science. It was in our blood. The only thing that excited any of us more than a well-functioning machine was a fellow Nerd Girl. They were a rarity around Asimov, treated like royalty and never in need of a lab partner.
With the class quieted down, Mr. Poplachek started in on his morning lecture. “As many of you know, the Robotics War Championships will be kicking off in a few weeks. As one of the team coaches, it’s up to me to make sure all our entries follow the rules and operate correctly. For most of you, this just means approving changes made to your entries last year. For others joining us for the first time this year or whose entries last year were,” Mr. Poplachek paused and coughed before continuing, “unrepairable, you will need to start from scratch. It is my hope most, if not all, of you have already begun your builds.”
The class broke out into excited babbling. Robotics War was what we lived for, creating the perfect machine to annihilate all others. One or two students stared at their desks, avoiding the teacher’s gaze.
“Amateurs,” I muttered, indicating our unprepared classmates when S.A.M. spun his head around to face me. “And can you not do that? It’s creepy.”
“My apologies.” S.A.M. twisted his shoulders to line up with his head. “Better?”
“A little. Less owlish, anyway.”
Ned leaned in to join our conversation. “What have you guys cooked up for this year? Same old with new twists or all new redesign?”
 “I have created something new,” S.A.M. said. “I was told my Exterminator lacked pizzazz.” Lacking pizzazz was an understatement. He had entered the competition the year before with what amounted to a tank. Heavily armored to resist attack, the thing weighed nearly a ton. S.A.M. made it all the way to the quarter-finals by running over his opponents, crushing them flat. He got taken out finally by a robot on stilts. Turns out S.A.M.’s machine had a weak spot on the top where the control panel was situated. Guess he never expected anyone to build a robot with enough clearance to reach up there.
Mr. Poplachek clapped his hands, gathering our attention once again to him. “Since your entries will counted as half your final grade in all your classes with the exception of English and History, we will be devoting part of our class time each day to your projects. Questions on design and build can be addressed the first fifteen minutes every day until they’re due. Testing and troubleshooting can also be done when you reach that stage. The only thing you will not be permitted to do is fight against one another. Battling will be reserved for the ring only.”
A mixture of cheering and groans arose. I was a cheerer. Having time during class devoted to getting our robots ready would help improve our chances. With everyone’s input, flaws in design stood a better chance of being noticed and fixed before we pitted them against each other. The better the robots, the cooler the fight.
The boo-ers weren’t upset about the robots taking up class time. They were upset we couldn’t test out their fighting ability early. Probably for the best since flame-throwers and miniature chainsaws were generally implemented at least once a year. Not something I wanted attacking my leg if the operator lost control or never possessed it in the first place.
“I’ll allow you the rest of today’s class to discuss your robots and ask any questions you might have going into this. Remember, you’re allowed to work in teams up to four people if you wish.” I caught Ned rolling his eyes. No one worked in teams. Every student at Asimov wanted to claim the glory for themselves. Having complete control over the design and build meant if you won, you won on your own. Also, if you failed, you had no one else to blame. Win or lose, it all came down to you.
Everyone clumped their desks into groups to talk about ideas. Ned scooted his chair over to me and S.A.M. spun his torso around to face us.
“Check this out, guys.” Ned unfolded a sheet of paper covered in sketches and notes. “I’ve worked out some of the bugs from last year and added on a few secret weapons. This year is all about Ned Norbert and Lady Nebula destroying the competition.”
S.A.M. blinked his eyes, analyzing Ned’s diagrams and calculations.
“You better not be working out a way to beat me, Metal Head.” Ned covered part of his plans and glowered at S.A.M. Hiding his drawings wouldn’t do anything. One click and S.A.M. had all the information stored up in his brain.
“Why would I do that?”
“Because you’re a cheat. Bad enough you’re a walking computer without exploiting the weaknesses in everyone else’s design.”
“I am not a cheat. I wish only to help. If you look at the butane lighter attached underneath, you will discover it’s too close to the rear tires. Should you make use of it during a match, the tires would melt and your robot disabled.”
Glancing back and forth between S.A.M. and his design plans, Ned’s face went from indignant outrage to annoyance.
“Dammit. The tin can’s right. At least right enough I don’t want to risk it.” Ned slammed his palms against the desk. He studied his plans, brow furrowed as he worked out a new solution.
S.A.M. clicked a hand down on the edge of the paper. “If I may?” He started pulling the page towards himself until Ned yanked it back.
“No. I don’t need your help. I can figure this out on my own.”
S.A.M. raised and lowered his shoulders, a jerky imitation of our own ‘Whatever.’ He let Ned stew over the design flaw and turned his attention to me. “Have you finished your plans?”
“Yeah. I’m just making a few changes to The Metal Cannibal. He didn’t do bad last year, but his jaw could have been stronger. Had trouble chomping down on some of those thicker gauge metals.”
“Like The Exterminator?”
“Exactly like The Exterminator.” S.A.M.’s beast was responsible for my elimination last year. Cannibal couldn’t crunch through the thick exterior and Exterminator took me out with no problem. Being a friend, S.A.M. only disabled my bot rather than run over it and render it completely useless.
Never let it be said machines don’t make good friends. Even if they do still manage to destroy you.
“What about you? What ‘pizzazz’ are you adding to Exterminator?”
S.A.M. spun to face forward and pulled his plans out of his bag. Turning back to me, he laid the paper on top of Ned’s.
“Hey!”
“Sorry, Ned. Isaiah wished to see my blue prints for this year. You are welcome to look as well.”
“No, thanks.” Ned yanked his plans out from underneath and folded them up.
With Ned back at his desk in a huff, me and S.A.M. were free to look over plans for Exterminator.
At first glance I didn’t notice anything different from last year’s model. Block motor encased in steel. It was a thirty-eight pound metal brick, capable of flattening lighter, quicker bots in a single roll. Its one functioning weapon was a sharpened spike used to pierce thinner metal.
In fresher ink, artwork had been drawn on the side. A large bug in a red crossed out circle.
“Do you like my new pizzazz?” Other than the new picture, I didn’t see anything different about his plans.
“Uh, well. The bug’s cool.”
“What do you think about the new weapon?”
“Huh?” I peered closer and noticed the slight change to the spike. “It swings up and down now?”
“Yes. After Terminator was defeated by a competitor I was unable to hit, I decided I needed a way to strike above. Do you think it will work?”
I checked his calculations. The changes allowed the spike to turn ninety-degrees and thrust upwards, effectively punching through any metal on the underside of taller bots.
“As long as the other bot clears the top of Exterminator.”
He took the plans back and put them into his bag. “The smaller ones I will roll over.”
“So, no change there.”

S.A.M. whirred, his head shaking. At least I knew what I was up against. Cannibal would need an additional weapon if I hoped to advance. With this being senior year and my last shot at the championship title, I wanted to win more than anything.