Three weeks and six days later, Mitch found himself wishing he had more time. Bische’s lab hummed with activity. It was First Check-In, the day that students with completed projects could present them and call it a semester. It was also the day for struggling students to solicit help. As Mitch’s maker reputation spread over the course of the semester, more often than not his classmates called on him. Today was no different. He floated from one bench to another, soldering a piece here, rebuilding a breadboard there, thoroughly enjoying solving real problems, but completely losing track of time. Three hours later, a host of completed projects flitted, whirred, and glowed on benches thanks to Mitch’s ministrations, but not one device belonged to him.
It’s not like he hadn’t had any ideas these past weeks. In fact, he’d had at least one idea a day. The problem was that his ideas seemed to be the same as everyone else’s. As soon as he’d start building something, someone else would appear with the exact same creation. He couldn’t bring himself to submit a device that someone else had already built. He needed to do something original. He couldn’t prove Bische right!
But now that it was zero hour, Mitch had to admit that maybe he already had. He returned to his own bench and his latest attempt: a wireless charging station. It was only half done, which was just another way of saying not done at all. Worse, from what he saw surveying the room, it was not completely unique—it was one of three chargers in fact. He had built it quickly, a win at this point, but it was simple as hell and trite at best. The only interesting thing about it was its independence. The other two chargers were tethered to wall sockets. His charger gathered passive energy from three different sources—heat, light, and radio waves, depending on which was more abundant. A bit of inventive heterodyning had made it super-fast as well, maxing the charge in five minutes or less.
“At least it works” Mitch muttered to himself as he tightened a last screw on the case. Three fuel sources plus heterodyning—none of that was in the textbook and no one else had done it. Bische had to be impressed. At the very least, he would have to admit that Mitch had applied himself. Stepping back an hour later to admire his handiwork, Mitch felt a glimmer of hope. Now that it was finished, his little charge box looked pretty cool.
“What’s soup, Campbell?” Maggie breezed in, all snap and sass, her smile ahead of her by seconds.
“Playin’ ketchup, Heinz,” Mitch replied, gamely adding on to her word play. She chuckled and, cruising to her side of the bench, cheerily deposited her completed project, a shoe box-sized affair with collection ports on one end and inverter panels on the other. Mitch blinked. He couldn’t believe it.
“That’s a self-powered charging station, isn’t it?” he asked, moving to her side to give it a closer look.
“Good guess, Campbell. Hey! You built one, too?” She sidled over and picked up his box, inspecting it from all sides. “Nice work. Great minds think alike, eh?” She paused over the power collectors. “Three sources?” she asked, a note of awe in her voice. He nodded absently. “Wow. I barely got two and that took a whole week. The moisture converter alone only started working last night. I can’t imagine connecting three. And you did it in one night? You rock, Campbell!”
Mitch, examining her box, was starting to not think so. In addition to the moisture converter, Maggie’s charger included a discovery beacon. Any device needing power could find it easily and hook into it over the ether. As if on cue, the box “pinged”, having already found a needy tablet battery in the room. Two benches down, the tablet owner accepted the charge and was rewarded with a holo banner declaring “Have a pack of Heinz.” The owner shot Maggie a thumbs up. The device chimed, and Maggie raised her arms victoriously over her head. “It works!”
Mitch sighed deeply. Not only had Maggie done essentially the same thing as he, she’d done it better, with humor and pizzazz. Can’t compete with that. His box, which had seemed so cool five minutes ago, might as well go in the trash.
A hot, sweet-smelling wad of goo zinged passed Mitch’s head and embedded itself on the wall behind his work bench.
“Whoohoo!” came the triumphant cheer from across the room. “Five down. Six to go.”
The whooper, Dean Chambers, pointed what looked like a bazooka at Maggie’s bench.
Another goo wad landed just inches from her charger. “Whoohoo!”
“Chambers!” Maggie feigned irritation, but couldn’t quite smother her normal bubbles and giggle. She smooshed a bit of sweet goo into her mouth, and then, in her best Bische voice said, “As it happens, we’re working.”
“Just passing out snacks,” crowed Dean. “Six down. Five to go.”
The bazooka was Dean’s answer to Bische’s challenge. “I call it The Corn Capper,” he’d explained to Mitch the night that he’d finished it. “‘Ol’ Cornie for short. Or ‘The OC’. ‘TCC’, ‘Cornball’, what have you. You get the point.”
The Corn Capper combined Dean’s two loves: junk food and cartoon violence.
“Just toss in some corn kernels, a handful of Skittles, pull the trigger and—” Phoomp! “—rainbow popcorn balls! How about ‘Big Ballie?’ ‘The Phoompster?’ Oh, wait—how about ‘Chamber’s Flaming Fire’!” Mitch remembered staring at him blankly, semi-comatose from studying for the Metallurgy final. Dean, taking his silence as affirmation, had said, “Okay, ‘Flaming Fire’ it is.” He’d cackled maniacally and pointed the beast at the elevator down the hall. Phoomp! “Ha ha!”
Obnoxious as it was, it dispensed free sweets, so Ol’ Cornie was a big hit in the dorm—who doesn’t like free sweets? And Mitch had to admit, it was a genius design. Dean slapped a power pack and mini-amp onto an old music player to make an engine that functioned purely on sound waves. As soon as “Hot Goulash” by Tower of Cows started up, everyone within two feet of their room knew it was treat time.
That had all happened over three weeks ago, just one day after Bische had announced the assignment. Despite being Dean’s best friend, after dodging hot candy balls for close to a month, even Mitch was feeling a bit annoyed.
“You’d think he’d get tired of shooting that thing.”
Wayne Hirano had walked over to Mitch’s bench, having wisely deserted his own.
“I’m nine of eleven on Dean’s list. Not that I’m worried.”
Dean’s enthusiastic embrace of his new toy had inspired Wayne’s own entry for the challenge. He’d built a dual field emitter that projected alternating electric and magnetic fields, each one perpendicular to the other, then coerced into a lattice. That made it a great blocker. It effectively nullified the Corn Capper, disintegrating Dean’s sizzling glops of goo into sweet-scented wisps of gas. It was simple and elegant and Wayne had completed it—from spare parts in his room, no less—the same night the Corn Capper came to life. Mitch shook his head, thinking back on it. Though he, Wayne, and Dean had been pals since forever, it never ceased to amaze him just how freaking brilliant they both were.
Not to mention competitive. An arms race of sorts had developed between Dean and Wayne over the past three weeks, each of them tweaking their respective devices to thwart the other. Good thing we’re friends, Mitch mused.
“You know,” he said, turning to Wayne. “Dean’s latest addition is a field disruptor. He thinks it’ll, and I quote, ‘crumble Wayne’s shield like sugar glass.’ You gonna let that pass?” Disconsolate as he was, Mitch couldn’t help but stir the pot a little.
“Yeah, heard that,” said Wayne, stifling a yawn. “Spent some quality time last night adding a smart oscillator. Any disruption re-triggers the field and the oscillator moves it in time with the disrupter. Dean should be nicely thwarted.” Wayne grinned. “Let’s watch, shall we?”
Dean had arrived at Wayne’s bench. Posturing dramatically, he flipped the switch on Ol’ Cornie, and shouted,
“Eat Skittle, Little Man!”
The gooey blob sprang from Dean’s device, sizzled briefly in mid-air, and then flew backwards, landing squarely in the center of Dean’s jeans. “Owwwwwww!”
Their labmates roared with laughter. “Ow, Wayne! Who told you?!” yelped Dean. He hopped gingerly from one foot to the other, swatting burnt, acrid popcorn from his crotch.
“Seriously, Chambers,” Wayne called. “You’re so predictable. I saw that coming a mile away.”
“Yikes, that burns,” Dean hobbled to Mitch’s bench, fanning his crotch the whole way. Their labmates laughed louder. Everyone knew it was just for show. The candy cooled quickly, and nothing had stuck to his pants. Now he shook a finger at Wayne. “You got me, Hirano, but I’ve got plans for you. We get back to the dorm, you better—hey. What’s wrong with you?” Dean said to Mitch.
Staring solemnly at Maggie’s device, Mitch had sighed, loudly, and flopped his back against his bench. “It’s no good, guys. I’m doomed.”
“Nonsense,” said Wayne, scanning the bench. “What happened to your charging station? What’d you call it? The ‘lame-o-doohickey’?” Dean punched him in the arm. Wayne shrugged and mouthed, “What?” Mitch gestured unhappily toward the trash.
Dean peered into the receptacle. “Now what’d you go and do that for?” He retrieved the discarded device and examined it. “Looks pretty good to me.”
Mitch sighed again. “Maggie beat me to it.”
“Duuude…” Dean rolled his eyes. “You’re thinkin’ too hard. You’re psychin’ yourself out. Honestly, Bische won’t care if you make the same thing as somebody else. How many different ‘motors’ are there, anyway, for cryin’ out loud? Just hand it in.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You’re done. Both of you.” A bitterness gripped Mitch that he had not expected. He turned away, not able to face his friends. “And not just done, mind you, but totally inventive, Nobel Prize, first-couple-of-days done. I should be, too!” His impatience with himself, always simmering below the surface, welled up suddenly, erupting as an angry growl. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me! I should have aced this. Now I’m stuck.” Mitch punched his bench top. The timer in the corner went off, signaling the end of the period.
Bische came out of his office. “Good work, everyone. The official Project Day turn in is tomorrow. Anyone needing extra time,” his eyes fell deliberately on Mitch, “can stay late tonight. You all know where the key is. Just be sure to lock up before you leave.”
Wayne and Dean went back to their benches. Mitch looked around. Everyone was packing up to go. So… it would just be him.
Bische headed out with everyone else. He turned to Mitch as he reached the door and help up one finger. “Tomorrow, Campbell.” Then he spun on his heel and left.
Dean thumbed his nose at Bische’s back, then said to Mitch, “Seriously, just give him the lame-o-doohickey. It’s game night, I’m getting pizza, and I got a plan for beating Wayne. I need you, dude.”
Mitch shook his head sadly. “Bische said original and he meant it. If I’m honest, it’s my own fault for doing shit work and expecting an ‘A’.”
Dean thought a moment, then reached across to his own bench and pulled a car battery out of the bottom drawer. “Take it,” he said, plopping the battery onto Mitch’s bench.
“What am I supposed to do with that?”
“Duuude.” Dean tapped him on the forehead. “Inspiration, maybe? Tape a wire and a fridge magnet on it. Tell Bische it’s a cooler.”
Wayne returned with a couple of steel coils and tossed them onto the bench next to the battery.
Despite his misery, Mitch smiled a little. “More inspiration?”
“Just doing my part to help.” Wayne tapped his contribution. “These are high-tension magna-coils from one of my Metallurgy labs. They emit a strong magnetic field. The more you twist them, the stronger they get. Watch.”
Wayne cranked the pin on one coil until it was down to half its original size, then he held it next to the battery case. Like an attacking cobra, the coil leapt from his hand and onto the battery’s side.
“Neat trick,” said Mitch.
“Such is my specialty,” Wayne said with a bow. “In case you care, I agree with Dean. You are thinking way too hard about this. The best stuff you’ve built always started out as jokes. So here’s two of my jokes. Play around a little. Something good might happen.”
“Not getting my hopes up,” said Mitch. He couldn’t look at his friends. He appreciated their help, but it was still… what? Embarrassing? He shook his head.
“Neither are we, buddy, but you never know,” said Dean.
They left, and Mitch was alone. He pulled his “lame-o doohickey” from the trash, set it down next to the car battery and the coils, and had no idea of what to do next.
Thirty immobile minutes passed, with Mitch just staring out the window and sighing. The maintenance crew showed up in the corridor, noisily emptying trash barrels and flushing the toilets in the lobby bathroom. The whine of the floor buffer knocked Mitch out of his inaction. Hard as it was to not be depressed, he knew he had to snap out of it and do something. He turned back to his bench and thought, What if I just surround these pieces with whatever junk I can find? If I throw enough stuff onto the bench, something might come to me.
Copyright © 2020 AJ Kilgore
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
AJ Kilgore’s first words were “light” and “door”. Her fascination with both has never ceased. She lives in Denver, the light of Colorado, but considers herself a citizen of the world.