“What is your greatest fear?”
“The robot stops working in the eleventh hour.”
I am from Team Rigel. The year is 2014. And the arena is alive.
Mini NERC left us with pieces to pick up from the very floor we began our work. We started from scratch again. Perfectionists as we were; leaving no stone unturned and no spare BJT un-burnt.
Our final exams ended in a week and there it was; our sixth semester successfully completed. Two weeks to go till the final drumroll of NERC. There was anticipation, the general fear and the familiar adrenaline rush. We were back in the arena before we knew it. It felt like we never left. Funny how sometimes it still feels that way.
I look through the left window of the hall. The highway is as indifferent as ever. I watch people saunter along the pavement, and buses and hi-aces drifting along, like the wind. Peshawar Road is forever changing yet it looks like any other day. Just like here.
But in here, we’ve been hiding from the sun for far too long. And in this case, literally. We’d enter the department in the morning, leave it under nightfall.
This is the small summary of our days and nights. Heck, I wouldn’t be doing anything else if I could. This is our arena-calling.
Fourteenth of July, I notice new faces. Teams arrive in the College. It’s finally happening. The arena reeks of new activity and robots. Guys, this is war.
Sixteen of July, we move to the auditorium. The arena is fresh and waiting to be rubbed, bumped and hit. It also means more code tweaking and head-banging in the wall. We obediently follow suit.
I face the auditorium, the seats are empty and the lights are out. There are two neat columns of (rows and rows of) seats colored blue and red. Maybe you begin to see the arena everywhere. The stage sports the arena, a couple of College teams and one classy pedestal fan. There’s no electricity; dark, hot and hopeless, alright. The flashing blue and green signals resume as we climb the stage and throw our baggage on the floor.
A little nod to my teammate who takes the robot and the code in his able hands for the zillionth time because unlike me he still could tell the difference between AND and OR operators, and remember what we are doing. I kind of lost track in the middle. Okay, I would lose track, alot. I retired to just admire the stage, flashing lights and the colliding robots. I used to be normal-and-functioning a time ago.
July the eighteenth, it is the weighing-and-measuring-the-robot day. The department’s corridors shines like glazed paper – and I wonder what are they using these days – and smells heavily of protocol. I walk through the hallway of the first corridor and barge into MTS-05. This is where my friends and I camped in when we were in the décor team for NERC ’12.
I remember vividly, the fear of wondering what my NERC would be like, I would dread it and wonder about mere survival; it was a big deal. It still is, as I look at the art-inflicted walls and oil-sprayed floors, I wake up to 2014 and know that it’s the team and the people without which all this would have been like the red arena. Because the truth is, they’re even better than the blue one.
We make it to the Heats-day. The crowd sits in the auditorium, scattered and attentive; sleepless nights and June’s humid days doesn’t dampen any spirits. There is a general murmur and the occasional outbursts of manliness. I sit with my team on the right side of the auditorium and try to keep cool. The commentary/comparing doesn’t make sense to me and everything just fuzzes my brain. I make a mental note to ask my team how they are still sane and keeping calm. My teammate asks me what my favorite color is and I cross out that mental note because I figure he’s a goner too. But boy was I ever wrong.
An hour later we are on the stage. We all take our usual places.
Dr. Faraz asks, “Ready?”
Ghazanfer assures, “Ready,” and the timer starts.
Path C is lit by the green signal. The whistle blows and he turns it on. It is just like practice. The robot glides through Zone 1, rolls into the slot, bowls those damn pins, rolls out with effortless ease and runs to the exit through Zone 2.
Record timing and no misbehaving. I hear the crowd erupt in applause but it’s still fuzzed out. I reckon it’s the shock. The color retains in the auditorium and I can breathe again. Out of the hundred and one things that could go wrong, nothing did. Everything was right. It was perfect.
We stay a bit long; sit with the audience, blending perfectly. Share some nervous laughter about those hundred and one things, and marvel at the robot’s timing. We watch other teams’ heats. There is some kickass bowling and some howling from the crowd. I leave the auditorium before nightfall.
A day before the NERC, June the twentieth. This sentence is too heavy to be dissected so I’ll leave it at that. The security goes a bit bonkers too: your water bottles and food is a potential security threat so you dispose everything outside the auditorium if you want in. And I am afraid, we did want in.
The results are announced at 3.30 pm. Dr. Faraz asks about the presence of different teams by announcing university names who came for this year’s NERC. The auditorium sports a larger crowd today.
He asks, “UET LAHORE?” Some people cheer. “AIR UNIVERSITY?” Cheering in response and hand-raising. “GIKI?” More cheers and hands follow suit. List of teams and colleges’ names are announced finally – “College of E&ME?” I laugh and raise my hand, amidst a lot of applause, hand-raising and cheering from our department’s crowd.
That moment was overwhelming: the sense of belonging and feeling like home here, was a milestone that we achieved. It is one of the best things that NERC gave me.
The flow chart is displayed. We beat everybody’s timing. I see our name on top. It was surreal. Bizarre. So Rigel is on the first position; 32 teams battling for the title and all that jazz.
We start after the NERC dinner. I couldn’t taste the food nor listen to any talk. The mind would transport to the same place, the same code and the same signal. And as the wind would disturb the water’s surface of the pool, and as the crowd would erupt into another applause, as another song would be sung and echo off the pool-side’s walls and a timely blackout would mark its attendance, I’d wonder about tomorrow and how it would change everything. And that there’s no changing that. You know that verse from “If” by Kipling? It goes like this:
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools
It sums it all up.
After managing to let a sky lantern in the wind – and setting fire to the previous one – we head to the auditorium round about eleven pm. I find that despite NERC swinging on our heads like a double edged sword, our year’s worth of work hanging by a thread, the department wants to do a dress rehearsal for the crowd’s entertainment tomorrow. I gape at the absurdity of the situation as faculty ushers us off the stage and proceeds with robots doing gangman style and make witty dialogue (they were cool, yeah but then we deal with robots all the time). There was a flying quadcopter too but hey, don’t judge me if I don’t forgive easy for that night.
When we finally have the stage to take some runs, my team isn’t there. I go to the back of the auditorium and see them with the robot. Waseem is holding the top, hinged open, torch in the other hand, Ghazanfer is checking something to do with the circuit and dread finds me very conveniently. I ask and I hope he says koi masla nahi hai.
“Kya masla hai?”
“H-Bridge jal gaya hai.”
Anwaar enters through the door leading to the Ante Room and says something that my mind doesn’t register. I look at the ceiling and I ask why. The ceiling looks like a replica of this swimming pool that I saw in a city. I loved its length and depth. This one looks just like it: inverted but infinite. The moment’s realization horrifies me but when I look at the majestic cascading steps of plastic and medallions at the ceiling, the problem seems less terrifying. But then, you should ask the one who was fixing the electronics.
There is another blackout. We succumb to the Ante Room for light. Windless, humid night, the clock spinning out of control; it’s 1 am, 2am, 3am and finally quarter to four that we head back to the arena. The night before NERC, our H-bridge decides to do what it never did; fail. Again and again. I’d ask my teammate but I think he lost count too. I wonder how he didn’t lose track or his mind or just set fire to it after constantly replacing BJTS, checking H-bridges, closing the top then reopening it because a wire would be disconnected or the BJT would burn out.
We came a long way.
I look at the robot and then I look at my teammate. Both are trying to get their way. The robot keeps giving up on him but he doesn’t give up on it. This was the defining point. We hit bottom; raw, merciless bottom. Now there was nothing to be afraid of. I owe it to the team. And if you’re reading this, know that you got us through it all.
We manage to take a couple of runs and staff arrives by 5am to throw us out to sweep the arena with lubricants and shashka to make it clear as crystal and smooth as silk; It is a big screaming “beat that!” in our faces. We gape in horror for a moment, shrug, and then surrender.
June, twenty-freaky-one, today feels like living in the red arena: painful, unpredictable and ridiculous. This is the last stop of this roller-coaster we boarded back in September.
We are in the auditorium. After loads of needless waiting outside of the auditorium and silent swearing at being treated as potential security threats, made to leave our baggage behind, denying us entry without the NERC card – irrespective if we had our College IDs or not – that some people never even heard of and being treated like crap we finally were allowed to head back in. I thought somebody was going to punch somebody; that I might initiate the offensive.
Guests and students begin to file in. I see my grandparents in the crowd and I am so happy to see them here; all the talk about NERC and all those nights coming home late and all those missing out on things, they’d finally see what I’ve been working on and I could tell they were just as thrilled.
Head to head matches. This is blunt knocking-out. The team at position 1 competes with the team at position 32. The team at position 2 competes with the team at position 31 and so on.
We are first to go but the team up against us never arrive. I wonder what went through their mind. I am sure they rubbed their noses raw for their robot but I kept wondering why they didn’t come. You should always give it a shot. Those guys were good. I saw their robot in the arena. It had a helluva speed. Because their team didn’t arrive, we qualify for the top 16 teams.
Firefly, we missed you.
I see my friends compete in the arena as we wait our turn. A shout-out to Team Gravity for their amazing, amazing work! You make me immensely proud.
There’s another favorite team of mine: Toad. I have seen their team work; the leader’s a genius. The robot runs beautifully like a horse. I think I hear silent neighing in my head when it moves. It gallops.
I watch J-Bot and Invictus compete with each other. Both robots belong to the same team. They worked on two robots. I believe our one was enough to rob me of my nights’ sleep and peace, they managed, maintained two. A shout-out to them too.
It’s funny how life works. I mean what were the odds?
The anticipation builds up, and I can feel the pressure rising. I can hardly contain my cool. I look ahead and see my teacher talking to a student. He says quietly, “Allah malik hai.”
It’s our turn. Our first match of the day. We’re up against Shockwave. It’s just like practice. It’s just like practice. I keep telling myself. I am afraid to believe that we can make it through because if we fall, it’s gonna hurt a lot more. But I believe it; I believe it all the same. Because I and my team owe this much to the robot. We have to believe.
“Robots ready?” Dr. Faraz asks.
This is it. This is it.
The whistle blows and I see our robot glide in the Zone 1 like it always does. I see it roll in the slot like a pro, like it always does. I see it eject the balls, bowl the pins and then I see it reset and bang head-on with the wall instead of rolling out of the slot.
It collides with the wall again on the second retry. We take another one. Shockwave is shocked and so are we.
But this is NERC. It’s all guts and no glory.
The time quietly ticks. I can hear somebody call our name from the crowd. I can hear some comfort being screamed at us. I can see it all fall. Shockwave takes another retry. We take yet another one. The time elapses when they are at a checkpoint ahead of us. The match is over. It’s a knock out.
I stand up and it feels like, it feels like when you heave yourself out of the water and it pulls you down the harder you try to get out. When you do get out and feel the pull release you, you are relieved that it is over. You are relieved that you are now free. You can be.
“We can have our lives back now,” I make a joke. My team is still in disbelief but I guess after all this, after everything, I’d say it’s okay to be. I look at the auditorium. I look at how far we had come. How far we have come. I watch other contending teams climb the stage as we descended from the back stage’s staircase. This was hello-goodbye.
We take our seats; disperse in the electrifying crowd of the final day. I shout words of comfort, and cheer with our batch mates for the competing teams in the arena. I watch a couple of knockouts with my grandparents who tell me that we were amazing. I laugh and thank them. Yes, we were.
But I don’t repeat what I did in the Mini. I don’t leave the arena. I don’t decide to fall. I stay with the team and watch the battle simmer till the very last knockout.
This is an abrupt ending. But I didn’t write this. Though I still say it makes for a great story. What happens in the arena is beyond you and me. The arena was a great teacher. It taught us to get up after we fell, bumped into walls and collided with one another. It taught us to get up after we bruised ourselves, and to put up a brave face. It taught us to be great sportsmen and gave us enough heart to cheer for others even after our own fall. It taught us that we can do our best, we can be our best but we are still human, and there are things that are beyond us; we need to let it be. It taught us how to play, and how to play it right and how to fight. It taught us that no amount of spare BJTs is enough. It taught us that everything can be over in 3 minutes or less. It taught us that even when the game is over and the battle fought, there is much to look forward to and fight for.
It took me weeks to leave the arena though I can’t admit if I have truly left it. Because I love the arena and I loved the year that I dreaded so much. It is because of that one thing. That best thing about this roller-coaster ride: a great team; a team like ours.
“The nice thing about teamwork is that you always have others on your side.”
This one is for you guys.