by Phil Temples
The road to success is always under construction. — Lily Tomlin
It’s a Sunday morning just before 10:00 a.m. The bright morning sun is doing no favors to my hangover as I walk through the mall parking lot to open the store.
I call it “the store” but it’s not a store in the conventional sense. Someone on the town council got the brilliant idea that the town should have a “maker space.” They cut a deal with the mall’s management for approximately 2,400 square feet of vacant storefront. A bunch of college kids were hired to staff it.
It’s a win-win-win: nearly a quarter of the mall is currently vacant; the management company gets to plug a hole and, in the process, net a hefty tax write-off. The town gets a wonderful community project that they can brag about to the voters. The third win? I get a part-time job helping kids build things.
The mall is already filled up with foot traffic, despite the fact that most of the stores are still closed. It’s probably the attraction of the Dunkin Donuts that opens at 6:30 a.m. It’s a sad indictment of the property management company or the economy — or both — when a coffee joint has become the anchor store.
I walk over to the security gate and put in my key to unlock it. As I do so, I see out of the corner of my eye a father and son sitting on a nearby bench. The two look strange. Both are hairless. I’m guessing the father has shaved his head in support of the son who’s undergoing chemo or something.
They both have prominent, protruding foreheads. It gives them a Neanderthal appearance. I recall from physiology class that a rare condition called acromegaly can cause excess growth in the bones and soft tissues of the body. Yeah, probably acromegaly. It no doubt prevented their hair from growing out.
C’est la même chose pour moi. I’m certainly not one to judge people by their appearance, given the fact that I am of Middle Eastern descent and certainly look the part.
I open the door. The man picks up his box full of parts. He and his son approach and ask if this is Makerspace. “Indeed it is,” I tell them. “Welcome.”
I introduce myself to the father. He says his name is Xafroid and his son is Zeenix, but I can call them “Bill” and “Junior.” I can relate to that. I get tired of the dirty looks when I introduce myself as Akhmed so I usually just call myself “Adam.” Today I introduce myself using my real name. No dirty look from Bill. He seems friendly. So’s the kid.
It’s laudable that Dad wants to stay and work with his son on their project. Most of the adults simply drop off their kids and expect me to do the babysitting. I get Bill and Junior set up at a table and I tell them I’ll check back in a few minutes.
A few of the regulars start to come in. Johnny Del Rose and his mother are here. Johnny’s been working on a really bitchin’ radio-controlled drone. It’s equipped with eight motors and sports a color television camera along with a full 300-megabyte/sec data downlink. Johnny’s applying the finishing touches to it today. It’s almost ready for a test flight.
Beth and her older sister arrive. Beth claims her usual spot. Beth is creating an interactive video game using an Arduino computer and other components. I usually spend a few minutes with her to get her started. After that, she’s off to the races. Her sister, Jo Ann, doesn’t hang around. She usually goes shopping at Old Navy. Jo Ann gives me a sly wink as she heads out. She’s definitely a foxy girl, but I’m pretty sure she’s not yet of legal age; I’m not interested.
A few other kids arrive. I’ve met all of them except for one new girl named Tricia. Her mother says she’s six years old. I decide to start her out with something basic, like a “bridge to nowhere.” The idea is to construct a bridge that can span a one- to two-foot expanse using basic materials like woodcraft sticks, hot glue, and then test and record the bridge’s strength using small weights. If the kid comes up with some clever strategies for reinforcement struts, proper spacing and whatnot, the bridge can support a fair amount.
Just as I’ve finished explaining the concepts to Tricia and hand her the hot glue gun, I hear Bill say, “Excuse me, Akhmed.” I walk over. He explains that he needs some items.
I’m looking down at the collection of parts spread out on the table. They’re obviously electronic components of some sort, but I recognize none of them. That’s surprising to me, given the fact that I’m an engineering major.
“Any chance you have a plasma induction welder? I forgot mine.”
“A what?” I ask.
“Um, never mind. How about a... I think you call them ‘soldering irons’?”
“Sure, I got a 20- and a 100-watt model. You’ll need some solder, too. Rosin or acid core?”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary. I have some ceramic binding polymer with me. Oh, one more thing. Do you have a breadboard?”
I nod, and head back to the storeroom in search of an iron and breadboard.
What the heck are they building? And what in blazes is ‘ceramic binding polymer’?
* * *
An uneventful hour goes by. Two families come in. They both ask what it is we’re doing. I explain the concept of Makers and hand them literature. One family is quite unimpressed, and they leave quickly. The other family says they might come back next week. I’m only halfway paying attention to them. I have one eye scanning the tables to see if anyone needs help. But I’m especially curious to know what Bill and Junior are up to. After Tricia destroys her bridge for a third time with excess weights, I walk over to the father and son’s table.
“What’s up, guys? How’s it going?”
I can see the entire breadboard comprised of Bill’s parts in their various shapes and colors. One item looks like it could be a doppelganger for an old-fashioned RCA nuvistor. Another component looks a bit like a small diode but it has a wicked-looking heat sink surrounding the base. All the parts are interconnected with some sort of enamel-colored material that must be conductive. And, smack dab in the middle of this mess is a big coil-like doohickey.
Bill explains that everything is going great and that they’re nearly finished. “But, what is it?” I ask.
He says, “That’s a secret.” He flashes a grin at Junior. “If you’d like we can demonstrate it to the group.”
He asks if we’re wired for 220 volts in the room. I look down and I see that he has a four-wire, 220-volt power connector attached to a cord that he’s jury-rigged into the breadboard. It doesn’t look particularly safe, but he’s got some kind of dried “goop” sealing up the connection. I’m guessing it must have insulating properties.
“No, Bill. Just 110, I’m afraid.”
“How many amps can we pull before we trip out the breakers?”
He seems serious.
“Hang on.” I walk back to the closet and open the breaker box panel to check. I return. “This half of the room is on a separate 100-amp breaker. Is that enough?” I half-chuckle at my rhetorical question.
“Well...” Apparently, it isn’t. I see him thinking for a moment. “If we step up the voltage here” — he points to a large star-fish shaped component — “by a factor of ten, it should decrease our current requirement substantially. Yes, that should work!” He turns and pats his son on the head.
The kid looks embarrassed by all the attention. I walk away puzzled at what this contraption is that it would pull so much power. I grok bridges made of sticks and radio-controlled drones. But this is way out of my league.
* * *
It’s almost noon. Several of the parents have come back and collected their child prodigies, but Johnny and Beth remain. They, too, are curious about the device sitting on the table in front of the dynamic duo. Bill announces that it is ready to try. He waves everyone over.
I’m having serious thoughts about safety, and whether to allow this experiment to continue, especially since I haven’t the foggiest idea what it’s supposed to do. But Bill assures me that it’s completely safe. Just the same, I grab some goggles, hand them out, and insist that everyone wear a pair.
Bill nods to Junior. Junior reaches out and throws a switch. All of a sudden, I see this donut-shaped bubble radiating out from the short vertical antenna that’s attached to the breadboard. I feel the bubble engulfing us. Then my ears pop, like I’ve suddenly gone up fifty stories in a high-rise elevator.
In the blink of an eye, everything’s suddenly changed. We’re no longer in Makerspace. Instead of fluorescent lights overhead, there’s a brightly lit desert sky. I see a mountain range in the distance. Everything that was swallowed by the bubble in the room seems to have re-appeared alongside us.
Beth looks terrified. She’s whimpering. Johnny removes his goggles and stands there with his mouth wide open. “Whoa!” he finally exclaims to no one in particular. Bill and Junior are beaming; the kid gives his dad a high-five.
“Ah... what just happened?” I ask, in the calmest voice I can muster. I’m about to piss in my pants.
“Oh, this.” Bill makes a sweeping gesture at the circuitry on the table. “It’s an elementary polyphasic matter transponder, of course. Junior and I built it using proverbial ‘stone knives and bear skins.’” He turns to Junior and says, “I win the bet!”
After the moment of frivolity passes, Bill takes in his surroundings. He looks genuinely puzzled. “This is... not... exactly... where we’re supposed... to be.”
“YEAH? Well, where the hell are we? Huh, Bill? HUH?!” I’m losing it. All I can think about now is kidnapping charges, getting kicked out of college and, quite possibly, jail time.
Bill pulls out a map from the box and begins to perform some calculations. “According to this... we should have appeared near Las Vegas.” He does some more scribbling. Then he pulls out an old-fashioned compass and reads it. “As near as I can tell, we’re about 120 miles south-southeast of Mesquite, Nevada.”
I can’t think straight. I’m suddenly taking deep, quick breaths. I’m hyperventilating. Bill realizes that I’m about to be hysterical. Grabbing me by the shoulder, he takes firm control of the situation — and me. His grip is painful.
“Hey, Johnny,” he says calmly to the other kid. “I think now would be an excellent time for you to send up your drone on its maiden flight.”
Copyright © 2016 by Phil Temples