‘Bring Me the Heart of Joe Kowalski’

Ball Machine
This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Ball Machine

Chapter two of ‘Ball Machine’

Rosa spun the tennis racket in her hand, knees bent in a half crouch waiting for the ball to come over the net. Wearing the skimpy white shorts had been a mistake. She could sense Jedster’s eyes on her butt. The man had no subtlety. No class.
She bobbed her head at Tony to ask what was happening. Why the delay?
“Coming right up,” he called. He stepped away from the man-shaped machine on the other side of the net and pointed the remote control at its head. One arm swung into action, dropping the tennis ball to the ground. The other swung the racket. It missed, flailing at the ball with a whoosh of fresh air.
Over by the fence, a couple of the guys laughed. Rosa stood up straight and walked to the net, resting her racket on the top tape.
“Give it time,” Tony called out. He tapped at the control panel on the back of the robot’s head.
Rosa waited at the net, racket slung low by her ankles. The robot bent over, picked up the ball and threw it in the air. The racket whirled, made contact, and the ball flew towards her. Nonchalantly, she stuck out her racket and volleyed it away.
“Fifteen love,” someone shouted from the fence.
“It’s not even a very good ball machine,” Rosa said.
They were four weeks into the challenge, and despite working for three weekends solid, plus stolen time in the week when the bosses weren’t around, this was as far as they’d come.
“We need a robotics expert,” Billy said. “We can’t invent all this from scratch.”
He was right, and she knew it, but there was no one here with the expertise. Could she bring someone in? Easier to hire a tennis coach for the weekends, but not as much fun. Besides, she’d done some research into synthetic skin and flesh. As a doctor on the team, here to research the genetic regrowth of limbs and new transplant techniques, she had access to the latest thinking. And she could order in products. She was sure she could turn this mechanical monster into something that looked like flesh and blood. She’d laid down this challenge, but now she was hooked by it herself. She was going to make this work.
“Who can we get?” She looked around at the guys lining the court. It was Sunday, and there was nothing much for them to do but work, or read, or fire bullets at tin cans. Or watch Rosa in her tennis shorts and dream about that striptease.
“There’s a guy at MIT,” Tony said. “He’s the best.”
The Arizona desert was a long haul from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They’d need a ruse, some excuse to get him here.
“Look.” Tony strode towards Rosa, pointing at the screen of his tablet computer. “This is the guy, Joe Kowalski.”
He was younger than she expected, thirty something. More handsome too, in a rugged kind of way. She felt a tingle someplace in her tennis shorts.
“Professor of robotics? He doesn’t look old enough,” Claus said.
Her thoughts completely.
Tony read out Kowalski’s list of accomplishments, reeling off qualifications and names of companies. “Out of our league,” he said. “He wouldn’t look twice at the Project.”
“Not unless we can find something,” she said. “Some way of tempting him here.”
“Got anything in mind?”
She didn’t like the smirk on Tony’s face, but said nothing.
“Yes,” she said. “I might just have something.”

It took two months to swing it, but here he was, Joe Kowalski, in the flesh.
It was Sunday, he had driven across the desert in an open top car, his shirt unbuttoned to the waist. Standing there, hands tucked in his belt, like some kind of cowboy, or star of a black and white matinee. Too good to be true, she thought. Rosa mentally pinched herself. Get composed. Don’t act like a schoolgirl.
She’d created a whole new line of research, just for this. The boys kept telling her to stop, said she was going too far.
“She’s dying to get naked for us. Look at her, she wants it,” Jedster had said.
She should never have promised to strip. She’d never live it down. But the new research idea had paid off. It could work. Add robotics to the organ transplant process, combining the two into a whole new paradigm for creating body parts. On the phone, Kowalski had sounded excited. This was the scary part. Up until now, all this had been some kind of game for Rosa, getting one over on her bosses, seeing if she really could wangle it. Now here was Kowalski in person, and his time was precious. His science was serious. He didn’t know the real reason he was here was to create a better ball machine.
“You must be Rosa.” Kowalski was holding out his hand, a grin on his face that almost buckled her knees.
How was she going to tell him? How could she get him working on the robot, without being rumbled? She’d have to make the organ transplant scheme look good. Really good.
“I’ll show you to your room,” she said. Kowalski would be here for two weeks. It wasn’t long enough. They had to get started. “This way. Canteen is over there. Gym, swimming pool. Oh and there’s a tennis court.” She paused, her eyes flickering to read his expression. “Doesn’t get used much, I’m the only one interested.” She’d checked his social media. He was college standard. Putting on her best, most innocent voice. “Do you play?”

Rosa ran, lungs pumping, sucking in air hard and fast, her legs muscles hot and weary. She stretched her right arm, swinging wildly but the ball thundered past her.
“He’s getting the hang of it,” Joe called. He stood, leaning on the net-post, watching the robot give her the run around.
She guessed being a professor brought certain power and prestige, but she hadn’t realised it could open so many doors so fast. As soon as she told him about the plan for an advanced ball machine, a robot good enough to give her a game, he’d gone into overdrive. He ordered parts, sent out for specs, called people who knew people. Before she knew it, the world’s finest robotics equipment was arriving in boxes.
In two short weeks, Joe had taken the contraption from a useless heap of mechanical moving parts to a free-flowing robot that could hammer balls past her with a pace and spin she’d never seen.
“Vision’s the problem,” he’d told her. “Co-ordination. It’s all in how well it sees and tracks the ball. Without that, it’s sunk.”
He called more people, ordered the finest in artificial vision and advanced sensor tracking. It was all fitted, running, and working a little too well.
“I’m done,” she said. She’d been on court for an hour, chasing down lost causes as the robot flexed his metal muscles and pounded serves and forehands from one corner to the next.
Joe prodded the remote control, and the robot lumbered towards the net. “You’d still beat it, you know.”
“You’re being kind.” She wiped the sweat off her forehead, wondering if she was red-faced and blotchy.
“You would, in a real game.” He wasn’t looking at her in any case. Too busy examining the robot. “You can out-think it. The robot can reach the ball, hit the ball, do all of that. But the software’s your real problem. What about strategy, tactics? Tennis is a thinking game.” He stared into her eyes. “You need a programmer.”
“We’ve got those,” she said. “Artificial intelligence. It’s part of Project Five. I shouldn’t have told you that, though. It’s top secret.”
“I won’t squeal.”
Her smile morphed into pursed lips as he fumbled with the robot’s inner workings, and she bit her bottom lip. She still hadn’t asked if he was married. And this was his last day here. Another chance blown, she thought.
Joe packed up the robot, talking about interface issues, how to integrate the artificial intelligence into the robotics. He was starting to lose her. She understood the human body and how it worked, even how to enhance it with some artificial additives. But quantum entanglement and superposition algorithms were out of her ball park.
“I’ll get the boys to look at it,” she said. “But I don’t want to mess up your work.”
“Call me,” he said. “If you have problems, there’s my mobile number.”
She took the piece of paper from his hand and looked up into his big brown eyes. She could find a problem from somewhere, some excuse to call him, she was sure she could.
“I should charge you for all that kit,” he said.
“Put it through the system,” she said. The bosses were usually cool about money, providing the inventions kept coming. She’d find a way to justify it.
She escorted him as far as his car. “If you’re ever near MIT,” he said, clunking the car door shut.
“I’ll remember that.” She patted the bonnet of his sports car. MIT, she thought. How could she wangle a transfer to MIT?

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