Battle of the 'Bots

The joy of creation always involved a certain level of pain. Craig Meyer drew a smiley face on his robot in the beginning, but before he was done, he'd thrown blocks at his robot. After he crossed out the smiley face in exasperation, the robot became known as "No More Mr. Nice Guy." Other would-be engineers threw their robots against the wall and started over. To receive an A in the course, it was necessary only to try, but most people wanted to succeed and to build a winner. In the last three weeks of the class, the lab was occupied at all hours, the students falling asleep over their LEGOs. Cliff was not an all-night kind of guy, but seeing some competition forming, he committed himself to the lab until morning, working out a few kinks.

As for the creators of Fatty McGee, the team's third member, engineering major J.C. Kneale, wanted to run a few last tests. Cornett and Winkler told him, "nah," and the night before the contest, they all went out drinking.

The next day, the robots were placed across the table from each other, and Dr. Young turned on the light that activated their sensors, and the games began. Laura Schwent lay in the back of the auditorium snapping a photo of the Urinator. (Why the Urinator? "It's yellow," a team member said.) Craig Meyer sat with No More Mr. Nice Guy, feeling nervous. It wasn't as though he had to stand in front of everyone and pick up blocks, so he said he was nervous only for his robot. He began kissing it and wishing it luck.

Team Grundle sat quietly waiting. Cliff held the robot on his lap, and when it was their turn, Grundle went out and collected every block on the board. "A perfect score for Grundle!" Dr. Young announced, and at least he was excited.

Fatty lost the first match when the block bumped against the wall coming over and fell. But then, in the second match, the claw hauled the block home, and Kneale raised his hands for the touchdown sign, and the crowd exploded -- "Yes!"

All of creation rose and fell. Kamikaze, the collaboration of an anthropology major, a music major and an ancient Mediterranean cultures major, lumbered forward with the weight of a thousand years, collided with the foe and slowly burned out its engine. Mr. Green, which was blue, brought back all the blocks -- and then reversed and returned them. And facing Je Ne Sais Quoi, No More Mr. Nice Guy became utterly baffled and heaved the blocks off the table.

Oh, the agony of defeat. Against Ol' Dirty Bastard, Fatty McGee just sat there, unmoving. "What's Fatty doing?" someone shouted. And Winkler shouted back, "He's getting fatter."

The tournament was double elimination; Fatty was out. Team Fatty McGee was disappointed, but, as Cornett explained, "It's not like this was the pinnacle of our college career or anything." They had proved that Fatty could do the job, if someone would do the work. And they went back to their room and that night went drinking again.

Grundle, meanwhile, surged through the competition. The robot had been invincible, but Cliff knew the limits of his machine. There was nothing out there that could score more than Grundle, but Cliff's worst fear was those machines that did not try -- the imprecise creations that simply banged into you, as though this were a crash-up derby. Cliff had not built Grundle to take a blow. Knowing this, he set his robot down finally against Oscar. Oscar, whose creators had pulled three all nighters in the previous week to prepare for this. Oscar, which looked even to creator Jimmy Wang "like a pile of garbage."

Off they went like little animals. Grundle moved surely around the board and began its methodic retrieval; Oscar raced down the other side, grabbed one block and turned around. Grundle was collecting its seventh block when the collision came. Grundle tried to get home, but Oscar had been equipped for moments like this with a 75:1 gear ratio. Grundle went nowhere.

Oscar and Grundle went head-to-head again in the finals. Grundle was known far and wide for its consistency, but, as though unhinged, Grundle simply turned to the wall and stalled. The crowd roared its approval. "Justice prevails!" someone shouted. Marisa and Micael turned to Cliff and said, "What happened?" Cliff spared them the technical explanation. "We lost," he said.

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