“Hey! Look at this,” I called. “It works.” I steered my robot around an apple core I’d placed on the floor.
“Way to go, Trev,” Nick said as the robot ran over the apple core, smearing apple mush across the floor.
I shook the controls. “It’s not as easy as it looks.” The robot tipped over and lay there, whirring on the floor.
“This is all such garbage,” Nola said, disgusted. “I thought we were going to actually learn something in this course.”
“No. I meant something more...important,” Nola said.
“This camp is supposed to be fun,” I said.
My cousin Nick, our friend Robyn and I were spending part of summer vacation at the University of Calgary. Our parents figured we’d had enough TV, video games and loafing in the sun, so they stuck us in a university day camp. It was cool, actually. We used computers to program robots, learned how to use electricity to build a minicar and a bunch of other neat stuff. The only drawback was Nola, one of the girls in the camp. She was way too smart—a total know-it-all. She was even worse than Robyn.
“You guys are so lame,” Nola snorted. “You just don’t get it, do you? We’re here at a major medical research facility and we’re playing with robots?”
“So?” Nola said. “I can still be interested, can’t I? These people are looking for the cure for cancer. There are all kinds of discoveries being made here.”
“She’s right.” Meredith, one of our instructors, overheard Nola’s last comment and paused in her circuit of the room. “There’s some fantastic research being done at this university. I’m hoping to be accepted here as a graduate student.”
“You don’t go to school here?” I asked, surprised.
“Not anymore. I did my undergraduate degree here, but I’ve been working for a company that’s involved with research work in the Faculty of Medicine.” She smiled at us.
“What kind of research?” Nola asked.
“Well, I’m not involved in the big stuff, but the university does everything from testing new treatments and drugs to developing new medical procedures.”
“But what kinds of drugs and treatments?” Nola persisted.
“You mean it’s kept a secret!” Nola said with some fire.
The instructor looked at her in surprise. “Well, we can’t tell people that a pill derived from the earwax of llamas cures acne, unless we know for sure that it works, right?”
“No, but there are other reasons things are covered up,” Nola said.
The instructor frowned. “You think so, do you?”
“Look, I know the kind of stuff that goes on. People don’t always play by the rules, you know.” Nola frowned. “I’ve read about cases where research teams learn about ancient medicines from third world countries. Then they take out patents on those remedies.”
“So?” Robyn raised her eyebrows.
“So,” Nola said, “that means no one else in the world can legally produce those medicines. The researchers sell them for huge money to big corporate drug companies. They’re only interested in getting rich.”
“That might be true, but I can assure you that the university’s policy has more to do with public safety than biological piracy,” said Meredith. “Maybe you should think about what you’re saying.”
Undaunted, Nola eyed her calmly. “I do.”
Meredith shook her head and moved on to the next group of kids. Nola turned her attention back to her computer.
“What was that all about?” I whispered to Robyn. I tinkered with the wires on the back of the robot, trying to correct the steering problem. Robyn just shrugged.
“I have no idea,” she said. She twisted an elastic band around her ponytail and pulled it tight. Tall, athletic and freckled, Robyn didn’t usually take guff from anyone. I was surprised Robyn had actually let Nola sound off like she had.
Does earwax from a llama really cure acne?” Nick asked, thoughtfully rubbing a zit on his chin.
“How do you know?” Nick demanded, as I steered my robot along the floor. “Maybe she just let top secret research out of the bag.” He shifted his lanky body, trying to find a comfortable spot for his long legs under the desk.
“Get real!” Robyn said.
I let out a yelp as sparks emitted from the back of my robot. “Help! It’s on fire!” I fanned the smoking machinery with my ball cap.
“Stop! You’re making it worse,” Robyn yelled. “We need a fire extinguisher!”
A spark landed on my cap and a fresh flame caught hold. I beat it against the tile floor. It was my favorite hat, and I wasn’t going to let it go without a fight.
“Look out!” Meredith yelled, as the robot exploded in a spray of metal parts. She barreled through the group, carrying a fire extinguisher. She pulled the pin and spewed foam everywhere. In a matter of seconds, the lab was covered in a thick layer of white.
“Rats!” Meredith looked like she wanted to say something much worse, but she managed to control the urge. “We have to evacuate the building, kids.”
“But the fire’s out,” Robyn shouted above the persistent jangle of the alarm.
“It doesn’t matter!” Meredith hollered back. “It’s procedure. Everyone get in line and follow me. The fire exit is through my office. No one is to use the elevator, understand?”
We filed through the office area past the lab. Last in line and still clutching my ball cap, I brushed past mountains of papers and books on Meredith’s desk. The edge of a bright yellow file folder caught on my jeans and slipped to the floor, spilling the contents.
“That’s just great,” I muttered. I scooped up the handwritten notes and tucked them back in the file, then shoved the yellow folder back under the piles of paper on the desk. I realized that if the fire had spread, this whole office would have gone up in flames. Any research that was being done here would have been lost.
It had only been seconds, but I glanced up and realized that I was alone in the office. The rest of the class had already reached the stairwell.
A pair of eyeballs peered over the edge of the desk. I froze in shock.
They were human eyeballs...that were still attached to a human head.
I suppressed the urge to yell as a guy popped up from behind a desk and started toward me. Something metal gleamed in one hand. He had a scruffy goatee, a nose ring and a tattoo on his upper arm.
The spit in my mouth dried instantly. My feet were moving before my brain gave the command to run. I sped out of the office and down the stairs, slamming the door behind me.
Breathless, I caught up to Nick and Robyn on the lawn.
I looked, but I could see no sign of Tattoo Guy. “Tell you later,” I whispered, as the wail of sirens reached us. The fire trucks roared up to the building, lights flashing.
“Oh, no!” I shoved my ball cap on my head, the visor pulled low.
Nola viewed me with amusement. “That hat has a hole burnt in it,” she said.
“I know,” I answered. “I don’t care.”