Anyway. Please kick back and enjoy my little project that's been five years in the making...
Winston rubbed his eyes and wondered how on earth he could make it through this day. Only five hours of sleep had birthed a black hole where his frontal lobe normally sat and left him feeling slightly nauseous. On the concrete, sock-strewn floor of his bedroom, his robot – his contest entry, his life for the last five months, the fate of his future – sat motionless and indecisive, as if struck by a freak cosmic ray of stupidity.
“Why?” Winston moaned. “Why don’t you work?”
The compact machine could fit in his cheap, plastic laundry basket, which was how he carried it to and from school. With a LEGO control module head the size of a thick paperback book, four spindly legs, and a bulbous body fashioned from LEGO motors, a heating coil, and his mom’s old stainless steel salad bowl, the Stadlerator 7000 carried itself like an arthritic spider. The machine’s mission couldn’t be simpler: search and destroy. With its bulging eyes and recognition algorithms, it scoured its surroundings for worksheets from Mrs. Stadler’s seventh period English. Upon finding one, the Stadlerator snatched its prey with a slender grappler arm, dropped it in the steel bowl, closed the bowl’s lid, then heated the bottom of the bowl to 435 degrees Fahrenheit until the offending sheet baked into crispy oblivion.
Last week’s exercise – Copy This Paragraph in Ten Different Styles – lay in the bowl without so much as a browned corner. His “B-” grade in red ink remained perfectly legible above the words “Technically correct, but you should be trying harder.”
Trying harder. Yes, because the world needed more people able to describe an airplane ride in journalistic, comedic, pedantic, or minimalist styles at will. In his fourteen years, Winston had never been to an airport, much less set foot on a plane. Such worksheets were a distraction from working on his robot, and with only four days left until the district competition, he had no time for distractions.
The lid remained open over his homework. The Stadlerator’s eyes, scavenged from a couple of old webcams, stared with uncaring patience at his floor.
“The pincer releases, then a two-second wait…” Winston mentally reviewed the instruction code, trying to discover some flaw. “Rear camera confirms the sheet in the bowl. Initiate motor number five lid drop routine…”
Only the lid didn’t drop. Motor number five had worked last night, and now it didn’t. Again. Over and over, he mentally reviewed the robot’s instruction code, scouring each memorized line for possible errors, and found nothing.
Winston fell back onto his bed, not caring if he rumpled the clothes he’d folded a couple of days ago and never put away. From their posters taped to the ceiling, history’s greatest scientists and inventors stared down at him. In particular, the ever-grouchy Edison, scowling at the light bulb in his hand, seemed to rebuke Winston, as if saying, “I tried ten thousand designs until I figured it out. What’s your excuse?”
“I don’t know why it doesn’t work!” he told them all.
He didn’t have time to troubleshoot it now, and he’d be hard pressed to find the time tonight. Mr. Mendoza’s server lay dissected across half of Winston’s main workbench, awaiting resuscitation. Winston couldn’t afford to sacrifice his reputation as a cheap but efficient PC repairman. Without his income of several hundred dollars per month on top of his mom’s waitressing, how would they cover the bills?
Yet he only had four days to wow the district judges and advance to the state-level Robotics Tournament. Sure, being a team of one was a calculated risk. So was drawing attention through the automated destruction of homework. Did anyone else have his visual recognition systems, though? And wasn’t it a small step from finding and incinerating worksheets to, say, finding lost keys or picking up dirty clothes and putting them in the hamper? The Stadlerator 7000 was only a proof of concept, a stepping stone to affordable, next-generation robots that could make life easier for people like his mom. Surely, universities like M.I.T. or Carnegie Mellon would recognize his potential with a tournament victory under his name. Or perhaps Intel, 3M, or one of the other tournament sponsors would simply scoop him up out of high school in a year or two.
Then Winston and his mom would be set. She could retire and stop worrying about him so much. He would go on and live his lifelong dream. Winston had it all planned out…assuming, of course, that he could get the lid to go down.
“Honey, did you eat breakfast?” his mother called from her bathroom.
“No!” he hollered back.
“Well, can you hurry?”
Winston groaned and pushed himself out of bed. He wore the same T-shirt and jeans he’d fallen asleep in. His tattered backpack waited by the bedroom door, homework still unfinished, but he could probably catch up during lunch…if he didn’t spend it reviewing control code on his phone. Mr. Mendoza’s server demanded his attention, but there was no time to deal with it now. One desktop PC and two laptops waited in line behind it. Above his long workbench, all manner of tools and shelves containing sensors, soldering equipment, spare parts, and even an oscilloscope sat in scattered disarray that made complete organizational sense in Winston’s mind. He found something about living in the middle of an electronics workshop that used to be the home’s garage glamorously geeky.
He took a step toward his door, then paused to look down at the Stadlerator 7000. It would power off automatically after five minutes, or he could command it with a series of four snaps if he didn’t feel like hitting the red power button at the back of the mechanical beast’s head. Two claps put the robot into patrol mode. Three suspended patrolling.
Winston clapped three times, and the Stadlerator gave an electronic confirmation chirp. He clapped twice, hoping against hope that the order would work this time.
It didn’t. The stillness of the garage, with its dust-scented sprawl of clothing, plates, worn rugs, and exposed insulation, closed in on Winston a bit more, making him feel less like a robotics genius and more like an overambitious little boy.
Winston growled and ground his teeth at the robot. In his mind, he saw past the control module’s outer shell and into the circuit board, with its labyrinth of chips, wire traces, and interfaces. He visualized them all perfectly, having spent hours modifying the board for his needs, and probed for where any weakness might be hiding. His fingertips tingled with the intensity of his concentration.
Come on, you rust bucket, he thought. Where’s your problem? I just…need you…to close…the lid!
The robot beeped once, and, with a soft grinding of motor gears, played out the center cable until the lid clanked shut.
Winston froze. The superstitious caveman part of his hindbrain instantly tossed up an explanation: magic! Then the mathematician in his forebrain helpfully offered a solution: Coincidence!
Of course. Somewhere in the control module, the commands he’d given sat queued up. For some reason, the processor was firing really slowly. That had probably been the command he’d given five minutes ago, and now the robot would inch its way through the pending instructions. Better to turn the thing off and figure out whatever glitch was gumming up his order flow later.
Magic, whispered his hindbrain.
No. Winston didn’t believe in magic. Magical things never happened in his life. One might create occasional exciting breaks from everyday routine, but everything happened due to a natural progression of cause and effect. Glaciers melted when temperatures climbed. Bullies punched and mocked for specific psychological and social reasons. And Winston’s mind shut down whenever he wanted to talk to Alyssa Bauman because…well, that scientific analysis remained unresolved.
But this? This wasn’t exactly figuring out cold fusion. This was coincidence.
Winston didn’t spend much time on social media, but he did texted his best friend, Shade, dozens of times daily. Almost with a mind of their own, his fingers reached for his phone and tapped out an update. Slipping the phone back into his pocket, Winston bent over to press the robot’s red power button.
Maybe it wasn’t coincidence, argued his hindbrain.
He paused, hand outstretched.
Feeling a bit ridiculous, even in the privacy of his own room, Winston straightened and whispered, “Fine.”
He couldn’t remember the exact order of commands he’d given that might still be waiting to execute, but he knew which ones he hadn’t given and so wouldn’t be in the queue. Winston again focused all of his attention on the robot’s head, picturing in his mind the control module as it existed within its shell. Green circuit board. Bluetooth radio chip. ARM7 processor. Serial buses and power input. Winston’s breathing slowed as he focused, and not only did the tingling return to his fingertips but little flecks of blue seemed to dance over the motherboard in his imagination.
Stadlerator 7000, he thought with slow, overly pronounced care in his mind, as if the machine were mostly rather than entirely deaf. Reverse fifty centimeters.
With an affirmative chirp, the robot clicked and hummed as it backed up over the rug and came to a smooth stop.
Reaching out to steady himself, Winston sat back down on his bed.
It wasn’t magic. Magic didn’t exist. But it definitely wasn’t coincidence.
Without taking his eyes from the robot, barely daring to blink, Winston tentatively reached a hand toward his creation, realizing that he must look as if he were trying to use the Force. He visualized the CPU, the data ports, the motors and winch…
Open. Wait three seconds. Close.
The Stadlerator 7000 obeyed.
Winston pressed his fingers over his mouth and stared.
“No…way,” he breathed.
His mind raced for an explanation but returned with nothing. It wasn’t coincidence, and Winston tossed telepathy in the same waste bucket as magic.
Only then did he wonder for the first time if he could use this strange ability in the competition. No more debugging necessary. He could make the Stadlerator dance through any challenge the judges dished out. That would be cheating, of course, and he knew as soon as the thought crossed his mind that he would never do it. If he couldn’t win fairly, he would inevitably fail later in his career — cause and effect.
So what could he do? What if he demonstrated this phenomenon at the competition? He would be disqualified, but imagine the wonder on the judges’ faces! Would Intel hire him on the spot and place him in a research lab? Whoever got to the bottom of this would make a fortune, maybe even change the world.
Winston had streamed enough movies and TV to know what would come next. Wherever a fortune waited for the good guy, gun-toting bad guys couldn’t be far behind.
Be careful what you ask for, he thought.
Keep your head down, his mother would caution. Be humble. Nothing good comes from attracting too much attention.
As if she could hear his thoughts, his mom appeared in his doorway. Her dark, still-damp hair hung about the blue and white shoulders of her Sam’s Diner waitress uniform.
“Winston!” she called impatiently. “Breakfast? What are—” She broke off when she saw his face. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Winston started to say, but the word never came out. He didn’t actually know if anything was wrong. He looked from her to the robot and back. Should he tell her or keep his mouth shut?
“Honey?” She stepped hesitantly into the room, low black heels clicking on the concrete.
Should he tell anybody? Should he even give Shade details? Winston had shared everything about his life with Shade since they were in the second grade. This was so radically different, though. And if word got out at school…what would happen then? Winston had enough social problems already.
“Winston, are you OK?”
His mom stood over him, brow furrowed, studying his upturned face.
He could keep it from her and blame his weirdness on short sleep or school stress or a particularly stupid YouTube video.
What came next surprised Winston even as the word tripped awkwardly from his mouth.
He held up his hand and focused on the Stadlerator 7000 through the gap between his thumb and index finger. Again, he concentrated on the machine’s inner workings.
“Tell me something I should have it do,” Winston said.
His mom’s voice sounded odd and slightly worried. “Umm…go in a circle?”
Winston took only a moment to practice the maneuver in his mind and imagine how it would execute, then the robot complied perfectly.
“Well, good job,” she said. “You made it have voice recognition?”
He shook his head solemnly.
Winston watched as the look of confusion on her face eroded into something else. Her thin lips parted, and she took a slow, deep breath, as if preparing to be submerged.
“Mom, I don’t know what it is or how I’m doing it. Really. I just focus on the robot and how it works. Then I think about what I want it to do, and…it does.”
She took one step away from him.
“Mom, I’m not lying.”
Winston’s mother gazed into his face — not so much into his eyes, but at his features. He saw her linger over the white streaks in his hair, following them back from his temples to the back of his head. After several seconds, with a clear effort, she glanced down at the robot.
“It has to be a bug,” she said softly. “You’ll figure it out.”
“That’s what I thought at first, but then I—”
“Winston,” she interrupted with strange firmness. “You haven’t eaten breakfast yet. It’s a bug.”
He stood up from the bed. In the last year, he’d grown five inches and now looked down on her, a situation they both still found alternately funny and awkward. Winston realized that his mouth had gone dry, and he forced himself to swallow. Her reaction reminded him of a time several years ago when he’d had an accident on the playground. As a first-grader stuck in after-school care, he’d wandered over to where the big kids were playing baseball. Curious for a closer look, Winston wandered into the baseball diamond just as some burly sixth-grader nailed a hit down the line just west of first base. The ball never reached the first baseman, instead colliding squarely into the center of Winston’s forehead. The impact lifted him off his feet. The next thing he knew, he was on his back looking up at the clouds as blood trickled into his eyes. The pain was horrendous. When his mom finally arrived at the nurse’s office, the look of fear and worry on her face had been exactly what anyone would expect from a mother. The nurse kept blathering on about concussions, the speed of the ball, fracturing, and how they should go to the hospital immediately for x-rays. His mom straightened, and the change that came over her expression then reminded Winston exactly of how she was acting now. They’d gone home, cleaned up, and by the next day Winston had little more than a small cut to show for his troubles. When the nurse asked him how he was doing, he repeated his mother: He was tougher than he looked and healed quickly.
That was then, though. Winston was no longer a little kid, and he needed answers.
“Mom, I’ve never heard of anything like this, at least nothing without some kind of EEG brainwave headband, like the kind—”
“Winston, get your breakfast.”
Her eyes wandered about his room, first at the robot, then the ceiling and corners, back to his face, and with each second her expression grew tighter and more anxious.
“Mom, are you listening to me? I don’t have an explanation for this. I mean, I’m wondering if I should demo this at the competition and get—”
She reflexively grabbed his arm above the elbow, fingertips digging uncomfortably into his flesh.
Winston fought down the urge to pull away from her and instead calmly said, “Oww.”
But calm was the last thing he felt. He couldn’t remember the last time his mother had ever touched him in a way that came close to inflicting pain.
She released him almost as quickly as she’d clutched at him. “I’m sorry. Winston…”
Her eyes pleaded with him before again flicking away to search about his room. What was she looking for? Had she lost something in here?
He covered his exposed left arm where she’d squeezed him and rubbed at the aching muscles. Beneath his hand, Winston noticed that his skin showed a faint blue bruising. For many years, Winston had been prone to such discolorations. Injuries on other kids turned red or purple. With him, they seemed more indigo or sometimes a steel blue, but they passed quickly. Usually, his mom would put on a bandage, and by the next day he’d be back to normal. Someday when they could afford insurance, she’d say, they would get it checked out.
For now, though, he didn’t want her thinking she’d hurt him. That would only worsen her odd mood.
“Please,” she continued, tone strained and muted. “Let’s get you some breakfast and figure this out tonight, OK?”
She knew, Winston suddenly realized. His mom wasn’t baffled like he was. She was worried.
No. He looked again at her expression and read the truth of it. She’s scared. Why?
“Can we go?” she asked. “Are you ready?”
He nodded, knowing he wouldn’t get any information from her now. This was her hedgehog state, when she curled into a prickly ball, kept her head down, and waited for the current problem to blow away.
Winston resisted the urge to mentally command the Stadlerator to turn off and instead reached down to press the power button. With two descending beeps, its indicators went dark. He followed his mom up the single concrete stair and closed the door behind them.
There wasn’t much to their house. The narrow hallway that ended in the former garage also led to his mom’s “master bedroom,” which measured about one-third the size of his own. She turned off to finish getting ready for work. Five more steps took Winston through the hall and into their small kitchen. Beyond this was the living room, which contained little more than a couch and a still-functioning 1998 television with a remote control the size of a tennis shoe. Despite the spindly furniture and worn nearly bare carpet, Winston’s mom kept the home immaculate. She was a nut about keeping everything sterile, but it still felt gray and tired.
They had few non-essential things. As Winston’s mom often reminded him, things only broke over time, and college was coming up someday. When he was home, Winston essentially lived in his room. Most days, he would shuffle out for dinner or to share a movie with his mom, but his life and most of his heart was with his robots.
He grabbed some orange juice and two breakfast bars, then set about downing his meager meal while pacing the living room. In record time, his mom tromped down the hallway, hair still damp but now more thoroughly brushed. As he downed his last swig of juice and set the cup in the sink, his mother emerged from the refrigerator holding two stuffed brown bags, both crinkled from several days of reuse. She handed one of these to Winston, and he noticed that her eyes were wet with tears.
“Ham sandwich, salad on the side,” she said.
He stuck the bag in his backpack, wondering if he should try to say anything to make her feel better. “Thanks.”
His mom snatched her purse from the counter and said, “OK, let’s go.”
She wiped at her eyes and tried to smile.
“Mom, you’re kind of—” he started.
“Running late,” she cut in. “Come on, honey.”
No discussion. Fine.
She cracked the front door open and waited. As he passed her, she gave him a little hug in the doorway and kissed his cheek. Again, strange. She normally never kissed him except right before bed.
Then he felt her free hand press a slip of paper into his own and close his fingers over it. She held his hand closed to emphasize that he shouldn’t look at it yet.
Winston’s mom met his eyes and gave him a meaningful nod. He nodded back, unsure if she had mentally snapped.
She locked the door behind them and got into her ancient Honda Civic, a ‘94 model she had bought used even before he was born — with cash, she loved to remind him. “Credit is for people who don’t understand math,” she would say. “In my day, if you didn’t have cash, you could afford to wait.”
The car engine turned over with a wheezing heave. His mom rolled down the window half-way, her shoulder weaving back and forth as she turned the handle. They were the only family Winston knew of that had a car with manual windows. For a second, she looked like she was going to call him over to her, then she thought better of it.
“Have a good day, honey,” she said. “Learn lots.”
“Uh huh,” he replied. “You, too.”
It was his customary comeback to her customary morning goodbye.
She gave him a tight-lipped grin, rolled up the window, and backed out of the driveway. As she passed, he gave her a small wave, noticing once again that there were tears in her eyes.
She drove off, a little slower than usual, leaving Winston alone in the driveway. Theirs was by far the smallest home on their cul-de-sac, one of the poorer and more run-down pockets in this area of Beaverton. The morning air was clear and warm for October. Sunlight filtered through the trees. Winston knew that other homes had gardens in their last bloom, stained glass knickknacks in the windows, and other signs of suburban decoration. Meanwhile, their house had a couple blotches of grass and a white picket fence in dire need of braces. Mustard-colored siding paint flaked like a week-old sunburn. They didn’t bother with window decorations because his mom almost always kept the curtains drawn. The screen door had a rip in the bottom where Winston had tried to drive a toy tractor through it many years ago. One corner of the gutter sagged lower than the others.
He’d seen more luxurious accommodations in trailer parks. Still, this was Winston’s home, and he was used to it. They didn’t make much, but the house was paid for, and even in eighth grade Winston was able to help pay for some of the bills.
With a sigh, he started down the street, but he couldn’t shake the image of his mom shushing him and searching around his room. Then he realized that the slip of paper his mom had given him still waited in his palm. He opened it and recognized her handwriting, hastily scrawled in felt pen.
Assume you are being watched. Do not show what you can do to ANYONE. Discuss tonight.
Winston read the note over and over. Perhaps she really had gone off the deep end…but he doubted it. Her bizarre behavior, while frantic and disturbing, fit too closely with what he’d seen long ago in the nurse’s office. She didn’t seem crazy. If anything, she seemed like someone suddenly realizing that last night’s nightmare hadn’t entirely been a dream.
Assume you are being watched.
As Winston pondered her words, he found himself glancing around at the neighborhood’s power lines and scattered ash and elm trees — for what? Snipers? Evil spy birds?
“Get a grip,” he murmured as he shoved the sticky note into his jeans pocket and started down the street. “She’s just stressed with work or something. And the robot…”
Yes, the robot. Neither development offered any rational explanation yet, but Winston felt sure that both were related.
Assume you are being watched.
If his mom wasn’t crazy, why would she say this? There must be some basis for it. And if her paranoia had been triggered by watching him mentally command the Stadlerator, then that meant…she wasn’t surprised. She was afraid, but not surprised. She knew something about Winston that he didn’t.
Do not show what you can do to ANYONE.
A speed tracker stood at the cul-de-sac’s entrance, one of those mobile units with solar panels on top and a big readout showing an approaching car’s speed. One block off of the main street bordering their neighborhood, Winston had thought it was a stupid place for a speed sensor ever since it had shown up there a couple of years ago. Now he found himself studying it as he walked past. Tucked underneath the solar panels, a dark plastic block mounted to the central post. Presumably, infrared or laser sensors hid within the block. Winston knew that the sensors had to face toward Denney Road in order to detect drivers’ speeds. Could there also be a camera pointed toward his house?
He shook his head. No, the idea was both ridiculous and irrational, just the sort of fantasy any ordinary, bored fourteen-year-old would cook up to have some excitement in his life. He kept walking.
Still…what had his mom been looking for in his room?
Winston swallowed hard and glanced back at the speed readout sign. Was someone watching him? Could his home, even his bedroom, be under surveillance? The thought that someone might have cameras or microphones in his private space made his heart skip with sudden embarrassment. Then he realized that any cameras would have also seen what he could do with the Stadlerator 7000.
His mother worried about him telling anyone, but what if the secret was already out?