As Milo Forever ushered Bear pack and their guest, Miyoko Smith, through the door of their work shed, he said, “It’s not safe talking out in the open.” He warily looked around the perimeter of the Bear pack campsite and explained, “You can’t be too cautious, these days. Wolf pack always seems to know what its competition is up to.” Then he scanned the campsite one more time before locking the door and arming the security system.
Miyoko Tomorrow looked around the work shed. It was spacious, but crammed with gear. Four walls were lined with work benches and test equipment, the fifth had welding equipment and a small levitating equipment dolly, and the sixth was more or less uncluttered and furnished with a folding sofa and chairs. Becky Yesterday settled at the work bench; Milo Forever stood by her side, talking; and Joey Today was putting on sturdy work gloves, thick-rimmed circular goggles that he positioned on his forehead over a dangling shock of black hair, and seven-league boots that covered his legs from foot to mid-thigh. But what caught Miyoko’s attention was the huge, lumpy mound in the middle of the work shed that was mysteriously covered by a big blue tarpaulin.
“What’s that?” Miyoko asked, as she squinted and tried to imagine what was hidden under the hulking blue silhouette.
It took Tommy a moment to reply because he was distracted by a nearly invisible insect that buzzed annoyingly close to his ear. Colonies in a closed ecosystem were meticulous about maintaining a cleanroom environment for safety reasons, but at least one bug had apparently hitched a ride among the 400 plus Jr. Planeteers attending the Jamboree and slipped through quarantine. Tommy was swatting the air before the buzzing stopped and he heard Miyoko’s question. “Oh, that,” Tommy said. He signaled Joey Today, the pack’s expert engineer, who activated his seven-league boots and walked on thin air as if climbing up an invisible flight of stairs. When Joey stood above the mound, he reached down like a beachcomber reaching for an interesting seashell and dragged away the blue tarpaulin to reveal a robot. A really big robot.
Miyoko’s jaw dropped. “It’s a bulldozer,” Tommy said. “Normally, it’s used for mining.” The robot was a man-shaped, semi-autonomous, remote-controlled, heavy-lift device. It was sitting on the ground, on its haunches with its knees pulled up toward its chin, and staring blankly ahead with empty glass eyes in a vaguely human face. “We call him ‘Big Red’.”
“Even seated, it must be two meters high,” Miyoko said. “Standing, it will be what, four?”
“Four point three,” Tommy corrected.
“It’s beautiful—in an old-fashioned, Jules Verne, twenty-first century steampunk sort of way,” she said. The robot was sleek and powerful, like a bronze sculpture by Rodin of a muscular man with hints of machinery showing through his metallic skin. “And whose idea was it to paint red racing stripes down its sides?” she asked with a half-smile, but didn’t wait for an answer.
Miyoko considered the robot some more, then said, “How did you get it here from Luna? Transportation must have cost a fortune—”
Tommy noticed that on the other side of the shed, Becky Yesterday was talking furtively with Joey Today, who was kneeling down in midair just above her head. At the same time, judging by the way he was swatting the air, Milo was now being harassed by the same insect that had annoyed Tommy. Then for no reason Tommy could comprehend, Becky turned toward him from across the room and made a rolling gesture with her hands meaning, Keep going. Don’t stop.
“You’re right,” Tommy said to Miyoko, “we couldn’t afford to transport our robot from Luna. So, we didn’t.” Miyoko looked puzzled. “We figured we should build a big, dramatic robot to win our Robotics merit badge, but we couldn’t afford to transport it. Instead, I made a deal with the Hawking salvage yard to borrow for a few weeks an old robot they were going to junk anyway. We did all our programming at home on Luna, then we came out to Hawking a week early to refurbish the robot we borrowed and install our software.” Tommy pointed to aspects of the honey-colored metal machine. “We must have patched a million micro-meteor strikes, replaced broken parts, and polished it up. And yeah,” Tommy said with an embarrassed grin, “the racing stripes were…my idea.”
On the other side of the work shed, Tommy noticed Becky Yesterday inconspicuously scan the air with a handheld device, while Milo Forever started casually sidling around the tent toward him.
Miyoko Smith was in awe. “So instead of transporting a giant robot, you just brought the knowledge you needed to adapt a robot that was already here. Clever. But doesn’t your robot need an operator?” Miyoko was referring to the retracted jockey’s cockpit that bulged between the bulldozer’s shoulders like an enormous backpack. “Robots in the steeplechase must autonomously navigate the obstacle course.”
“That’s what our software’s for,” Tommy explained. “Usually, a miner wears a motion sensor mesh under his or her spacesuit, and the bulldozer mimics their movements. Our code just pretends to be a virtual miner wearing a sensor mesh.” Miyoko was sharp, Tommy thought to himself. He liked that. “We’ve been doing simulations of the race and tweaking our code for the last few days.
“We don’t need the operator’s cockpit, but it still works in manual mode,” Tommy said. “Actually, it was kind of fun to climb on the bulldozer’s back and take giant steps playing hide-and-seek in the salvage yard.”
Miyoko stood up to walk around the seated machine. Overhead, Joey Today walked beside her, but three meters in the air. During the meantime, Milo Forever took that opportunity to edge back-to-back with Tommy and whisper over his shoulder into Tomorrow’s ear. Tommy’s eyes snapped wide, but he recovered his composure just as Miyoko finished her circuit. She was about to ask a question, but never got a chance because suddenly chaos broke out in the shed.
Becky Yesterday abruptly pointed her handheld device toward seemingly empty air and shouted, “There it goes! Catch it!” Milo Forever took a hop-skip-and-jump off the platform of the levitating equipment dolly and clutched the air as if he were catching a fly ball. But he came down empty handed and disappointed. “Missed it!” he said. During the meantime, Joey Today shouted, “Look out below!” as he ran scant centimeters above Tommy’s and Miyoko’s heads. The two Tomorrows managed to duck just in time under Joey’s galloping seven-league boots while Becky Yesterday yelled, “Joey, it’s over here!”
Tommy fell on his back, and Miyoko suddenly found herself pressed not unpleasantly against his chest, looking over his cheek at a flitting glint in the work shed’s lights. Suddenly her foundation rolled out from under her as Tommy got up and raced around the seated giant toward the cleaning bay. “Where is it?” Tommy yelled and Becky pointed at a flicker of light flying in his direction. That’s when Tommy aimed the wand of a power washer and sprayed a fine mist of water into the air.
The fine droplets were suspended in the air unless they came into contact with a solid surface. “The water droplets are making it too heavy to fly. It’s going down!” Becky shouted as she lowered her arm in an arc, her handheld device tracking a water-laden speck of light all the way down to a puddle on the ground. “I see it,” Joey announced as he adjusted the lenses of his goggles to maximum magnification. He hovered mere centimeters above the floor as he plucked something from the puddle with a pair of mechanic’s tweezers and then put the thing into a glass jar. He sealed the jar’s cap as the something inside rattled and buzzed and collided helplessly with the sides of its prison.
Becky grabbed the jar from Joey, sprinted to her workbench, and then shoved the jar into a variable environment chamber. Everyone in the pack, including Miyoko, gathered behind Becky as she set the chamber and subjected the jar to an electromagnetic pulse. “That should decohere the qubits in its quantum computer,” she announced. Then she reset the chamber and fired a burst of gamma rays into the jar. “And that should fry the rest of its electronics, you know?” Becky didn’t need to add an interrogative at the end of her sentence, but she was excited and a hint of her childhood native language crept into her spoken Standard.
Miyoko looked on, quickly comprehending what had just happened. The jar no longer buzzed or rattled. Then she asked half-jokingly, “Do you think it’s ‘dead’ enough yet?”
“Let’s see, yeah,” Becky replied, parrying Miyoko barb for barb. Then she fished the something out of the jar and placed it under a microscope. The image that appeared on a large display above Becky’s head was that of a lacy, skinless, geodesic airframe shaped like a dwarf dragonfly. Amidst the wreckage could clearly be seen four camera lenses, a pair of microphones, a motor and four lacy wings covered in iridescent fullerene, a near-field communications antenna in its tail, a power supply, and a small quantum computer loaded with a rudimentary artificial intelligence to run everything.
“It’s a spy-drone,” Joey Today said.
“It’s a dead spy-drone,” Becky Yesterday corrected.
“And we know who sent it:” Milo Forever growled, “the Wolf pack. I told you we should have smashed them.”
“Seriously, Nyong’o,” said Tommy, “can whoever sent this drone still see and hear us?”
“No way, Tommy,” said Becky. “That near-field antenna means the drone can’t communicate directly with the people who control it. The drone records two or three days of spy surveillance, then has to find a near-field communications node to download what it has recorded and get new orders. Our work shed’s security system restricts access to the Hawking communications grid, so we should be alright.”
Miyoko picked up Yesterday’s handheld detector and said, “Becky, you were clearly prepared to track a spy-drone. What made you think you’d need to be able to do that in the first place?”
“Three days ago, we started testing our software and running obstacle course simulations for the ‘big fella’ over there,” Becky said, referring to the seated giant in the middle of the room. “Everything looked fine. Then two days ago—“
“When the Wolf pack arrived before the Jamboree began,” interrupted Milo.
“—Two days ago, I noticed intermittent interference when I monitored the robot remotely. I was so angry that communications had suddenly started acting up that I didn’t notice the interference only happened about the time a stupid, buzzing fly was annoying me.
“I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I was baffled, you know, yeah? So I decided to take a break; step out from the shed to get a breath of fresh air; then lock the door and walk around the camp grounds to clear my head. I didn’t think about the open door. Amazingly, when I got back, I had no more trouble with our tests.
“And no more annoyance from that buzzing fly,” she added.
“It was about then that I started to think how improbable it was that a fly had gotten aboard a space colony 415 million kilometers from the Sun, in a closed ecosystem that maintains a cleanroom environment to protect its life support system, and gotten past a quarantine procedure that can detect a clutch of fruit fly eggs on a bunch of bananas. That’s when I put two and two together and began making preparations.”
“Now, today—“ Becky started to say.
“—The same day Bruno Cardellini threatened Tommy;” Milo interrupted to point out, “the same day Bruno would want to spy on Tommy to figure out how he’ll defend himself.“
“—Today,” Becky continued, “that annoying fly was back again.”
Miyoko Smith flung her hands wide like a magician revealing a rabbit from a top hat. “This is it! This is proof of how Wolf pack has been cheating. Don’t you see? At last year’s Jamboree, Wolf pack upstaged my Orca pack’s presentation of counterintelligence software to defend against spy drones. We were too shocked at our loss to bother thinking that the best way for Wolf pack to test their software was to challenge it against their own spy-drone. It never dawned on us that another Jr. Planeteer would stoop so low as to spy on us to get an edge. Since that Jamboree, Wolf pack has been attending meet-ups and regionals all year long, and winning awards at them too.”
Miyoko’s voice became grave as she looked at Tommy with revelation in her eyes. “Wolf pack probably already knows about you big bronze robot. But now we’ve got physical evidence,” she exclaimed. “Let’s tell my pack master, and your Mr. Dimbleby, and—why not?—Col. Dubois himself!”
Miyoko Tomorrow’s fiery enthusiasm had most of Bear pack growling for justice. But Tommy Tomorrow was not enthused. “And tell them what?” he asked soberly. “Yes, we have a spy-drone, but there’s nothing linking it directly to Wolf pack. And since we had to fry the drone’s electronics to stop it, we can’t interrogate its quantum computer brain. And no one’s going to look for fingerprints on a fly. No, we can’t stop the Wolf pack that way.”
Tommy was thinking logically, as was his function, even though his analysis seemed to suddenly decompress the air from the room. Everyone’s high spirits evaporated in an instant. Miyoko looked crestfallen. Becky and Joey looked as if all their hard work was for nothing. And Milo looked as if he wanted to smash something.
“On the other hand,” Tommy said slowly, thinking strategically, “all is not lost. We know Wolf pack is guilty. After all, who else could it be? Which means, of course, that the Wolf pack members know they’re guilty. Naturally, they’re going to get very worried when their spy-drone never reports back to them.
“If we act confident and unafraid when we meet them next; and hint that we know their secret and are waiting for just the right moment to expose them; then we’re sure to make them nervous. And nervous people make mistakes.
“Let’s be honest. The Wolf pack is bad, but their work is awfully good. When two evenly matched opponents clash head to head, it’s usually the little things—the little mistakes—that make all the difference.”
Tommy Tomorrow laughed. “Come on, guys. Pick yourselves up off the floor. We’re Jr. Planeteers. We’re Bear pack. Nobody gets away with trying to take us down.” A wave of pride washed over the pack, and even Miyoko Tomorrow began to smile. “Let’s get working, guys. We’ve got a race to win tomorrow.”