She had been it for hours. She felt so tired. She had a head ache. All the parts were in front of her. The schematic for the U.G.V. she had created was spread out on a work bench the 3003 had made. The 3003 stood next to her erect and silent, awaiting her next orders.
The announcement of the next A.C.T. challenger was coupled with the declaration that she would have two days to prepare. The next challenger was Rubix Color. Room four. The smallest of the boys, when the Nanny had announced he was her second challenger, for a second she had felt relief. She towered over the boy, weighing fifty more pounds than him. In all the physical training him and Virginia Vanish couldn’t even finished. But what if it was another mental challenge?
The two free days had been heaven for Echo. No classes. No Nanny. No Atticus. No Helen. She had been on her own for the whole first day. She knew she should have been studying U.G.V., practicing building them on her own, but the freedom from the routine has been too wonderful of an opportunity. She had decided to use the 3003 to make her a baseball glove and she had played catch in the large classroom with Paul and Frank.
They had both tried to steer the conversation towards her next challenge but to no avail. In all the fun of playing catch and chasing the ball, it seemed they had forgotten about the challenge too.
Margaret and her clique had stood in the entrance to the hallway watching the three of them playing. She had smiled, a sick little disdainful grin at the trio and then they had marched back down the hallway.
That first day had been pure bliss. After catch with the boys for hours, she had taken lunch in her room, and spent the rest of the day hanging with Sylvester and watching cartoons. That evening she had tried to review some footage of previous A.C.T.s but when she had seen little boy Beta, struggling to build the U.G.V. and had seen the pressing faces of the huge crowd, it had brought back all her anxieties.
She did flip through A.C.T. handbook for a few minutes that night. She discovered an important point in the rules. She didn’t have to win every A.C.T. to not be terminated.It was three losses and then she was out. This gave her quite a bit of hope, to her it seemed it didn’t matter if she tried or not, and her new plan was just to let Rubix win. Maybe she’s just let them all win. This was comforting and soon she was off to sleep.
She woken up early the second day. Everything had been dead silent as usual in her room. She had wanted to go back to bed, and maybe even sleep the rest of the day, but then images of broken Beta ran through her mind and she realized she would not be able to go back to so sleep. She grabbed her glove and headed for Frank’s room. She found all the doors of her classmates shut. This was odd. They had all never been shut like this before. She had the terrifying thought that she was all alone and was going to be stuck that way.
The room to the classroom was open though and so she made her way there. It was completely empty except for the usual table and chairs, and one 3003 which stood silently glowing. She lazily tossed the ball in the air and caught it. She knew she should just try to build a UGV, in no way could a little preparation hurt, and she was the Captain so it wouldn’t be right to just let Rubix win, but some little part of her was just determined to throw the whole thing.
She had been wandering the room playing catch with herself for ten minutes or so when one of her classmates appeared in the door way. At first she thought it was Helen, and her heart stopped; she would not be forced into studying by her, but then she realized it wasn’t Helen, but Grushka Lana and she had a sword at her side.
In the C.C.D. she would be trained in two weapons, a sword and a rifle. Echo hadn’t even begun training on the sword yet, so she was surprised to see the one hanging from Grushka’s hand. It was a glossy black thing that looked sharp as hell. The sight made Echo’s skin bubble up in a thousand tiny goosebumps.
Grushka was a scary, serious monster. Everything Echo felt she wasn’t. Smart, serious, intense. Atticus had paired them up early on in the UGV workshops, but it hadn’t worked out. Echo had frustrated the girl to an unproductive level. Grushka had insisted that Atticus put her in another groups.
She was also one of Margaret’s clique. All this led to them barely knowing acknowledging each other. Things were no different this morning. Neither of them said a word. Instead Grushka moved to a corner of the room and requested from the B.R.A.I.N. a 3003 machine all to herself.
The rectangular object rose from the floor. “3003 activate Samurai simulator, level medium,” she said. A holographic image of a Samurai soldier, in full regalia, came out of the 3003. Grushka took a combative position, holding the large sword close.
Echo kept on tossing the ball in the air as if she wasn’t scared, but she was.
There was no real danger to Grushka. It was a sophisticated hologram. Totally life like, but when it slashed it passed through like a ghost. Now if the girl blocked the blow, there was the realistic twang of steel on steel and a visible reaction from the opponent. She blocked most of the them.
Grushka made a fearful display of her ferocity. She sliced and hacked, grunting and breathing loudly. Quickly she made a killing blow on the hologram, plunging her sword deep into its digital guts. She pulled her blade with a satisfied grunt and returned to a starting position.
Echo made a few more laps around their table, keeping a steady eye on Gruska the whole time. She realized she had to try. But still she was confused, what was the point of trying when she was so behind? Out of fear, she realized she had to apply herself. She studied into the night, only dozing at her chair.
Nightmares came too. She dreamed of giant U.G.V.s with long arms coming and snapping at her. Weird machines, with swirling blades, imagined by a mind like Da Vinci’s. It caused her to wake up and frantically try to find her place in the material.
Helen finally stopped by late in evening of the second day. It had been an awkward conversation. Frank and Paul also came later and tried to help her, but they sensed right away that it wasn’t sticking. This just wasn’t Echo’s challenge.
Before she would have liked, the weird ceremony was dragging her into the auditorium. All she could do was close her eyes and try to imagine a better place than his. A natural place.
The crowd was enthusiastic again. Cheering for each of them. There was also plenty of side chatter this time, or so it seemed to Echo. She just wished everyone would shut up so she could get the thing finished.
After introductions by Attics, Rubix had snapped into a flurry of motion. She would have never anticipated this from the kid. He had always been weak, non-sporty, but he had rolled up his sleeves, showing his bony arms, and had gone to work. His U.G.V. was almost assembled, before she had a wheel on hers. It looked so brilliant, and perfectly thought out.
The challenge was rather simple on the face of it. There was a large clear cage with four items in it, and there were corresponding holes which the objects could be put in. They were arranged in the center of the room. There were also two openings stacked on top of each other, about three foot by three foot, which their U.G.V.s could enter or exit.
Atticus in a booming exalted voice had instructed them that the winner would be determined by who ever placed the most pieces in their right spot and make it out of the trap, and let the game’s begin, and Rubix had become a furious, demon mechanic. He was putting the final pieces on his creation, as she finished producing what she needed from her 3003. It was hopeless that was obvious. She scanned her schematics for something to do. Anything to take her mind of the beating she was taking. She began to take it step by step, and it started making sense. She had to try. She began to focus.
Not near fast enough to beat Rubix; but still fast enough that soon she had it built; not perfect, but at least it might roll; that would be a big victory to her.
She got done as Rubix placed the third piece in its hole. There was a satisfied grin on his face. He had noticed her picking the pace on her U.G.V. His face said it was amusing. It was wobbly, and she didn’t know how long it would last, but she entered the ground level door with U.G.V. Doubts still plagued her. Rubix had already won. She wondered if perhaps he would let her just try, just to get a taste for it.
Out of no where, he attacked. She hadn’t noticed his machine stop in it’s path to the fourth object, or the hush of the crowd. She was too focused on operating her machine. At that moment she realized, maybe she should have looked more into the rules, because Rubix’s U.G.V. turned on her, and a brilliant flash was emitted from it and Echo’s machine was split in half.
The roar and applause from the crowd was deafening. They began to chant his name. He laughed and happily went and got the fourth object. It was a large black ball which was suspended by chrome rings. It was awkward and required a special attachment for the Rubix’s flying U.G.V.; she realized her machine would have been worthless with it. There was the glitter and the announcement. Rubix had been paraded around the room by the rest of the class and the teachers.
Atticus had congratulated her about completing the U.G.V. “It is not easy. The act challenge must be taken seriously. I know you have been studying hard through the night, but these challenges will get more difficult, and as you can tell the competition is stiff. You must apply yourself at all times.”
“I don’t care,” she said, “this is a stupid game, and I don’t want to play.” She knew it was petty to say, but it came out anyway. She couldn’t believe she was talking to her teacher like this, but in all the commotion that followed, either standing or sitting, in a controlled repetition, somehow she felt insulated. She wasn’t out of the A.C.T. She was still the Captain, wasn’t she? That had to amount to something.
After some time it all wound down. The crowd remained in its place the whole ceremony, behind the thick glass barrier and above the exhibition floor. She wondered why she could not go with them at least for a little bit? Get away from all this pressure. See the real sun. Why did she have to be trapped in these three areas?
Then she was back in her room and it was all over. Sylvester sat calmly next to her on the bed. She was exhausted now, but still she could not sleep. Tired, but also tensely awake. Something burned so strongly in her mind. There was something wonky in all this. She had to figure it out.