Chapter one of ‘Ball Machine’
Arizona, May 2014
Half way down the second bottle of vodka, Rosalita Rodriguez had an idea. She looked at the others, a grin on her face, wondering how they would respond. It might work. They could do this.
“A robot,” she said.
The guys turned to look at her, their soupy eyes lingering a little too long. Their expressions, puzzled. Their demeanour, drunk.
Saturday night, and there was nothing happening outside of booze, poker and yelling at the Arizona desert. Fifty miles to the nearest town, nothing but run-down houses and a store. A hundred and fifty miles to the nearest place with a bar, anything that even smelt like nightlife.
“We build a robot,” she said. “It’s something to do.”
They were geeks, engineers, scientists. The best of the best. Smart and creative and ahead of every curve. Yet here they were, stuck in the middle of the desert, spending Saturday night watching reruns of sci-fi flicks and flipping corn chips around the canteen.
“Think of it as a hobby, something for time off.” Her gaze scoured the room, hunting for agreement.
“Sounds like hard work,” Jedster said, never taking his eyes off the first person shooter game on his tablet.
“We’ll pool what we can do,” she said. “Artificial intelligence. Robotic arms. Synthetic skin. We’ve got organic body parts growing in the med labs. Not a robot, we’ll make an android. See how far we can get. See how good we can make it.”
“No money in the budget,” Tony said. His eyes loitered behind a thicket of black, bushy eyebrows. At thirty, he was three years older than Rosa. It was ancient, for this place. “No time set aside for it. No lab time, no conference time.”
“Weekends,” she said. “Take time off from the porno.” She paused, a sly smirk on her face, waiting to see who would react. “It’ll be fun.”
In the corner, Dany the enigmatic Chinese maths genius looked up from his laptop, stared at Rosa for a moment, rubbed his chin, and started typing furiously.
“You can’t just make a robot,” Billy said. “What do you want it to do? Clean the house? Play the piano?”
“Everything,” she said.
“That’s not happening.” At least Billy was sitting up, looking at her, as if he thought there was something to it. “Get specific.”
“All right,” she said. She knew what she wanted. As well as a gym and swimming pool, the campus came equipped with a tennis court, but there was no one here who could give her a game. “Let’s make a robot that can play tennis. Looks real, plays a decent game, gives me a work out.”
“I’ll give you a work-out,” Jedster sneered from the back of the room.
She ignored him. “Build me a robot that plays to my standard. Or better. I challenge you.”
She looked around the room at the eight young men, all genius material, in their own sweet ways. Dysfunctional, awkward, selfish, immature. But brilliant.
They were here to create the future, solve the world’s problems, build a new world. The Arden Project brought together the most creative minds and let them work on their most outrageous ideas, providing it led towards a profit.
“What’s in it for us?” Jedster lobbed an empty beer can across the room. “It’s Rosa getting the tennis partner. She should put something on the table.” Jedster’s tone implied he wasn’t thinking of money.
Only a handful of women worked at Arden. She was the only one stuck on campus at weekends, with all these geeks. The pressure was intense.
“Incentive,” Jedster said. “We work better with incentives.” His mouth slunk into a leering grin.
She’d often wondered why the boys followed Jedster. It was crazy. All the intelligence in this room, and they allowed the idiot to lead them.
She needed to tip the balance. Something they couldn’t resist. “A striptease. You build a robot that looks human, moves naturally, and can beat me at tennis, three sets, and I’ll do a striptease.”
The silence was intense, as if the boys were already undressing her, thinking it over.
“All the way? Completely naked?” Billy was trying to sound casual about it.
“All the way,” she said. “Bare naked.”
Rosa had dark, Spanish looks, big brown eyes, flowing black hair and skin tanned from the equatorial sun of her homeland. The boys followed her around like puppies, but they weren’t getting any. She came from an island, a small community, where girls thought twice about dropping their panties. But she could do this. For the fun of it. And a chance to play.
“It has to look human? That’s the hardest part.” Claus sounded serious, as if weighing up the possibilities. “You mean the skin, the eyes, everything?”
“And he has to speak,” Rosa said. Could she really strip in front of these boys? Part of her liked the idea. But another part was backing out fast. “He has to pass off as human. Looks, talk, movement. Otherwise it’s too easy.”
The boys around the room hissed at the idea this was easy. But the plan was gaining ground, and not just because of the striptease. It was a challenge. They needed something to do, in the down time. Something they could all get behind.
“How long do we have?”
“Six months,” she said. “I go home in six months.”