20,000 Nerds Under the Sea

BOOK: 20,000 Nerds Under the Sea
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DEDICATION

For “Aunt” Linda Hall—my second mom

CONTENTS

“NOW, REPRESENTING COLORADO'S ROMARE SMYTHE
Junior High School: Neil Andertol!” the announcer boomed to the crowded auditorium. Neil Andertol nervously stepped out from behind a heavy curtain, careful not to get tangled in the banner that read
SOUTHWESTERN ROBOTICS INVITATIONAL.

He slowly walked toward the center of the stage, making sure not to break the robot he cradled in his hands.

“Good luck!” whispered a girl, Marla, who had just finished her presentation. She lugged her small,
malfunctioning robotic poodle backstage. Its bark was supposed to scramble any piece of technology, but its mechanics had gone haywire halfway through.

“Thanks,” mouthed Neil, his palms clammy.

He wore a blue polo shirt tucked into khaki pants. He hated tucking in his shirt—almost as much as public speaking—but somehow his family and friends had talked him into doing both.

With a thud, Neil placed his square hunk of metal on the ground. It was a flying drone, with a rotor at each of the four corners like tiny helicopter blades. Its center was a black metal hub that contained a jungle of wires, batteries, and moving parts.

The tournament host was dressed in a faded shirt and thin black necktie. His hair was shiny with hair gel, and he wore a white-and-green name tag that read
AMEER
.

“Who's ready for more robo fun?” Ameer asked the crowd.

The audience clapped as Neil stepped forward. He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the bright lights. Through the glare Neil looked for his family—and his friend Tyler—in the audience.

Tyler had originally meant to compete in the
tournament, but his robot had caught on fire days before. With only a pile of melted metal and ash to display, he'd convinced Neil to take his place.

Neil and his friend had created their robots as a project for their after-school robotics club, but there was one problem: each school was only allowed
one
slot in the tournament. Neil had insisted that Tyler enter, claiming that his sister had a karate tournament the same day. But really, he just wanted to see his friend succeed; and to be honest, Neil was a master video gamer, but a master with robotics? He wasn't so sure about that.

But once Tyler's robot was out of operation, there was no one to take his place but Neil.

Now, standing in front of a full auditorium, Neil ran a sweaty palm through his messy black hair. He pushed up his glasses. The lights overhead felt hotter than re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

“Neil! Over here!” shouted a voice from the crowd. It was his karate-loving younger sister, Janey. “Everyone is watching! Don't mess this up!”

“Oh, quiet, Jane. Neil, you're doing great, honey! And if it helps, I don't think everyone is watching!” shouted his mother's voice.

Oh, great.

“That's quite some cheering section you have, Neil,” said the announcer, glancing at a clipboard with Neil's official entry form. “I see here you're a pretty good pilot?”

Pretty good?

“I, uh, enjoy flying things, yes,” Neil said.

“Ooh, things!” said Ameer. “Any ‘things' in particular?”

Neil thought about telling the truth. How past “things” he enjoyed flying included the Air Force's undercover jet fighters and NASA's experimental spacecraft—but he was sworn to secrecy.

“Just this,” Neil answered, nodding to his creation lying on the stage. He'd built it using an old fan and a broken lawn mower that he'd found in his parents' garage. Several hours of online DIY-droning video demonstrations had helped with the final touches.

“Does your machine have a name?”

“Lieutenant Drones.”

“I like it, very official,” replied Ameer. “And this is your first time in our tournament, I see. So you
are
aware of our grand prize, yes?”

“VIP passes to attend RebootCon, and the chance to
meet Reboot Robiskie himself,” Neil answered quickly.

“And there's more, folks!” said Ameer. “Don't forget about the signed photo of your meet and greet.”

If there was anything that could make Neil speak in public or tuck in his shirt, it was the idea of meeting Reboot Robiskie. He was Neil's internet hero, a loner who lived on a private yacht and ran his own underground gaming site. Neil would often upload videos of his gaming to the server.

“I also see here that you are part of a club?”

“Yeah,” Neil replied, leaning into the microphone. “My friend Tyler started it.”

“Does it have a name?”

“Drones 'n' Scones. For people who like robots. Or baking.”

“Or both!” yelled Tyler from the audience.

“Or both,” Neil added. A slow laugh crept through the audience, and Neil felt his shoulders relax.

“That sounds like my kind of club,” said Ameer with a phony smile. “And speaking of food, I don't want to forget to thank this year's tournament sponsor, the good people at Rogers Ketchup.”

The audience gave a round of halfhearted applause.

“So without further ado, let's see what you've got, Neil,” said Ameer. “Judges, are you ready? Neil, all set?”

Neil nodded.

“Neil Andertol, from Drones 'n' Scones in Colorado, you have five minutes . . . starting now!”

Neil cleared his throat and flipped a small switch on the back of his remote control. His robot came to life, loudly whirring like a facedown box fan. It slowly lifted off the ground.

“Hello, everyone,” said Neil. “I'd, um, like to introduce you all to a thing I made.”

Neil pushed a small remote joystick, and the drone slowly lifted higher, floating with ease. It shot across the stage, then stopped in midair, waiting for Neil's next command.

“This machine operates like most hobby drones,” he continued. “While it's illegal to fly these commercially without a license, mine has a cruising altitude of a few hundred feet. Plus the controls are very responsive.”

Neil pushed the joystick, and the drone dipped down. It stopped inches above the floor, pausing before it rose out toward the audience. A spotlight followed it over the crowd.

“While this drone looks simple, it does have a secret.
Who here would like a treat?” Neil asked the audience.

A young girl waved her arms from a few rows back, and Lieutenant Drones soared toward her.

“A gift from Drones 'n' Scones. Heads up!” Neil said. He pressed a button on his remote control, and a blueberry scone dropped from the center of the robot. It landed a few seats over from the intended target, but people eagerly passed the pastry to her.

“Anyone else?”

More hands were raised throughout the audience, and Neil steered his drone toward the back rows. He guided it smoothly, his tongue darting out of the corner of his mouth in concentration. Neil looked at his parents and realized it was their first glimpse at his expert piloting skills.

Why was I afraid of this? This is great!

Before reaching its next target, Neil's drone began to wobble. He fidgeted with the controls, but the rotor blades began to spin even faster.

Phoomp! Phoomp!

Like a T-shirt cannon at a basketball game, Neil's robot began firing projectile baked goods into the audience. Scone after scone peppered the crowd.

Uh-oh.

Neil tried to steer his robot back toward the stage, but it wasn't responding. He panicked and mashed every button available, but nothing worked. He turned off the power switch on the back, but the drone kept flying. It spun in chaotic loops, unloading its supply of scones.

“That's gonna leave a bruise!” yelled a man in an orange T-shirt, rubbing the top of his bald head. Neil heard someone laugh from backstage and glanced in that direction.

He could only see a girl's profile, as her face was covered in shadows, and frizzy hair. She laughed once more, a nasal cackle.

“Land that thing, kid!” hollered a voice. Neil turned back to the audience and saw that the robot had gone haywire.

He tried to maneuver the robot toward the ground, but he couldn't control it. It was overheating, and a chocolate scone was turning into a gooey mess. Molten chocolate leaked out from the bottom. People began to duck under their seats.

“Neil, your robot is pooping!” yelled Janey.

Neil's face went red.

“Sorry, everyone. This isn't normally how this goes,”
he shouted, his voice cracking.

From the side of the stage, Ameer appeared. Marla was with him, her robot poodle in her hands.

Woof! Woof!

With the poodle's high-pitched bark, Neil's robot quickly turned off, falling onto the lap of a stranger. The poodle's radio frequency had scrambled all the electronics in Neil's drone.

“Wow, that's some bark!” Ameer shouted. “It looks like we might have our champion!”

Ameer proudly raised Marla's hand as Neil watched an angry group of people pull raisins out of their hair.

“Better luck next year, kid,” said the tournament emcee. “Or, you know, maybe not. . . .”

Neil trudged down into the audience to collect his drone, knowing he'd just ruined his only chance at meeting his hero.

BOOK: 20,000 Nerds Under the Sea
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