Episode 5: The Academy

episode-5-the-academyMelinda felt thoroughly buttoned up in the fit-and-flare black trousers and crisp white blouse that had been deemed appropriate for her induction into the Mechatropolis Academy for Mathematical Sciences. Her mother would have liked her to wear a dress, but Melinda felt inelegant in dresses. They were too prone to flap about or fall strangely and, if she was honest, didn’t prevent her from turning cartwheels until she’d already embarrassed herself. She was dressed nicely enough by her standards. Everything would be hidden under the plain black student’s gown soon enough, anyway.

She looked down the Academy’s main hall to the row of inductees assembled along the front row. Most of the girls, her mother would be pleased to see, were wearing neat black dresses. There was one other in slacks. The last in line — Melinda had to stifle a giggle. The last in line had meticulously obeyed the formal black and white dress code. White satin gleamed against her dark shoulders and met a cascade of black braids flecked with different colours. As the dress fell the colour faded until, just above the floor, it came to a wide, black hem. It was pretty and reasonably tasteful, Melinda thought, although clearly not what had been intended. She would like to get to know that girl better. The boys were predictably boring from this distance, although one enterprising fellow had procured a top hat. Melinda was about to make her way down the narrow stairs that wound between the seats when someone beside her sighed.

“I’m not going to fit through there, am I?” The speaker was about her age, blond, suited up and seated in a hoverchair.

Melinda glanced from the hoverchair to the narrow stairway. “No, I guess not. Isn’t there a way in from the front?”

“Probably. There’s usually something if you’re creative enough.” He shrugged. “Hopefully I can persuade someone to let me in before things get going.”

Melinda frowned. “Surely that won’t be a problem?”

“Well, I hope not. But–” The boy took a deep breath and put on an official face. “New students are to enter the Great Hall via the doors at the back, as per protocol. Additionally, I have misplaced my key and can’t be bothered to find it for the likes of you.”

“That’s ridiculous! Can I help?”

“Not really. It’s just a case of getting somebody who can do something about it to listen. Don’t worry, I’ll get down there one way or another.”

“Well okay, then. But I’ll try to make them wait if it comes to that. Who do I tell them we’re waiting for?”

“Ken Delaney.” He proffered his hand. “And you’re?”

“Melinda Mirreme. Pleased to meet you, Ken.” She grinned and shook his hand.

“I’ll see you on the other side, Melinda,” Ken said, nodding to the front of the room. Then he glid his chair back out of the hall.

Melinda headed down the stairs and along the row of new students. The girl with the incredible fashion sense was at the end. “Nice dress.”

“Thanks!” The girl grinned and briefly turned her attention to Melinda’s outfit. “Not your style, though?”

“I don’t have the skin tone to pull it off like you do.” Melinda glanced down; the contrast between her caramel-coloured arms and white shirt wasn’t nearly as dramatic.

“Hmm. I’m going to have to make you try it on now, you know. I’m Bryony, by the way.”

“Melinda. Pleased to meet you, Bryony.” She found a seat on the next chair along. There was another chair after that and then the row ended abruptly, a good metre before the aisle began.

“I guess there weren’t enough of us to fill up the row,” Bryony said, “but you’d think they’d at least make it symmetric.”

“No, I think it’s a space for Ken. He’s–”

Bryony interrupted before she could continue. “Oh of course, I should have thought of that. I wonder where he is, actually. I wouldn’t have pegged him as likely to be late.”

“He’s trying to get them to open up the bottom doors to get his chair through. D’you know him already?”

“Oh, I met him when we came up to return our mechs, but I don’t really know him. I know Kelly and Mark from school. That’s the girl in the poofy skirt and the guy left of the top hat.”

“That’s nice. I don’t think anyone else from Verdant got in. I sorta knew Mary Evans from the year above me, but I shouldn’t think I’ll see much of her. But hopefully we’ll all get on well pretty quickly.”

“Mmm.” Bryony didn’t really reply. Before Melinda could think of anything more to say, another boy came racing down the stairs and collapsed into the last chair. He looked at his watch, sighed with relief and ran a hand through his already-failing-to-lie-flat hair.

“No, you’re not late,” Melinda said. “And we’re waiting for one more person anyway. I’m Melinda.” She smiled and held out her hand.

“Jaxon,” he said, shaking the proffered hand. “Glad I’m not the last, although I’m sorry for that poor sucker.” He ran his hand through his hair again. “Did they tell you how many we’re expected to be?” He looked at the empty space beside him. “We seem to be out of chairs.”

“No, we haven’t been told anything yet. Just to come in the back doors, sit at the front and wait for instructions. But I met one of the others at the top and he had to go get them to open up the bottom doors for his hoverchair, so I guess the space is for him and then we’re done.”

“That figures.” Jaxon scuffed his shoes against the springy red carpet that covered the front of the Great Hall.

They sat in silence for a few minutes before a door at the front left swung open. Ken glid through, followed by a bearded man in the knee-length red gown of a qualified mathematician, who nodded gravely to the assembled students. Ken found his place at the end of the row as the mathematician walked to the centre front of the room with a measured stride.

“Good morning, students.” Melinda was too awed to respond before he continued and the others were similarly silent. “I am Mathematician John Dustborn. Some of you may know me as a quantum field theorist and many of you, I expect, will study under me this art of predicting the unpredictable; the mastery of chance and causality; some of the deepest secrets of the universe. However today my responsibility to you is as the mathematician leading the two hundred and forty third class of the Mechatropolis Academy for Mathematical Sciences. You stand in a long tradition of students of the mathematical sciences. Each of you enters the Academy with a great gift; a gift that cannot be taken away from you and that will allow you to do things almost inconceivable to humanity. With this gift comes a powerful responsibility. Some of you may have already begun to realise this.” He paused and gazed down the row, making eye contact with each student for a few seconds. Melinda shivered. She wasn’t sure she had any particular gift. Should she feel responsible?

“I hope that all of you will develop that sense of responsibility through your studies at the Academy. Indeed, if you do not, you may find that the Academy is no longer willing to support you, for the Academy’s first duty is always to the people of Mechatropolis and to humanity. However.” He smiled for the first time and suddenly looked less intimidating. The wrinkles around his eyes reminded Melinda of her grandfather. “However, I do not anticipate that things will come to that. Each of you has a rather remarkable mind and is not afraid to use it. That is what has brought you here; indeed, the lack of fear is in itself remarkable, not to mention commendable.” He looked at them hard. “Do not forget this ability as you embark on your course of study — you will find it insufficient to do what you must to please your tutors here. We know that you are capable of learning and expect you to do so. With a well exercised intellect and the knowledge base of the Academy at your disposal, you may find, as many of us do, that your capabilities seem more constrained by the hours of the day than by any deficiency in yourself. Good! But remember that this is a gift, not a commendation. You have a responsibility to Mechatropolis and to humanity. You might abuse your gift in contradiction of this responsibility. Do not believe that the Academy will support, or indeed, allow, this. You are here to learn and to expand the bounds of our knowledge to the benefit of humanity.” He smiled again. “You will also have a great deal of fun.”

They went through the order of proceedings for the ceremony that afternoon and then Mathematician Dustborn led them from the Great Hall into the student wing of the Academy building. In an open, pine-floored workroom he introduced Mrs McKinsey, a tall woman with greying hair scraped back into a bun.

“Well, good morning to the lot of you,” she said. “I run the student domestic affairs around here, so you’ll all be seeing me around in the next few years, some more than others, no doubt. After your induction we’ll see about putting you into rooms and so on, but for now we need to sort out gowns for all of you. I’ll see to alterations while you’re at lunch, if necessary. You can sit down over there,” she said, gesturing to a group of chairs in a corner, “while I see about fittings. Now, who’s first?” She consulted a clipboard on the table beside her. “Adams, Bryony.”

Mathematician Dustborn had slipped away as Mrs McKinsey was speaking, so feeling a little abandoned, Melinda found herself a chair and sat down to wait. Her watch told her it was already half past eleven. If they went straight to lunch from here, that would probably fill up most of the time before the induction ceremony at two.

“Mirreme, Melinda.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Melinda walked over to Mrs McKinsey’s rail of gowns. “It’s actually Mirror-mee, not Mirreem. The spelling’s a bit funny,” she said as she had her measurements taken.

“Do correct me if I get that wrong again, dear. It does sink in eventually, but there are quite a few of you jumbling about in my mind, you know. Hmm.” She contemplated the measuring tape. “I think I’ll have to take something in at the waist for you. Try this on.” She pulled a wide-sleeved black gown over Melinda’s blouse and fastened the bronzed catch at the front. “Yes, that’s the right length,” Mrs McKinsey said, tugging the hem of the gown where it sat against Melinda’s calf, “but we can’t have you looking so billowy. “Lift your arms, please.”

In a few minutes Melinda had been tucked and pinned and was sent back to her seat. She wished she had Poly or her notebook with her, but not long after she had resigned herself to attempting complicated mental arithmetic, Mrs McKinsey said, “Alright, that’s the lot of you. Jaxon Maike, Melinda Mirreme –” She pronounced it correctly this time, to Melinda’s satisfaction. “– and Quintessa Modicena need to come back after lunch so I can fit again. The rest of you can go straight to the Great Hall. But your head of class will help you with that. Where — ah, there you are, Ricardo.”

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Episode 4: Ken

episode-4-kenKen Delaney was reading at his desk when the messenger mech flew into his lap and turned off. Presumably something had broken, although it was odd that it would be timed just so — almost as if somebody had planned it. He shook his head briskly. What nonsense! Nobody would have a reason to crash a mech. Something must have gone wrong. He pulled the lever on the arm of his hoverchair to roll back a little and held up the mech for inspection. It was a well built bronze mech with the standard clip on the back of the neck and — he held it up to his face for inspection — it had the Academy crest stamped on its belly.

Well, that was something. He didn’t suppose the message could have been intended for him — actually, it seemed very likely that the message had been intended for him, but he didn’t want to get his hopes up and be disappointed. Clearly the mech had been malfunctioning. At any rate, if he fixed the mech it might get him noticed at the Academy. Selections must be happening soon and although he wasn’t quite sure how the process worked, it couldn’t hurt to show yourself to be useful. Besides, it would be an interesting job. He ran the chair back to the desk and flipped open the switch on the back of the mech’s neck.

The mech imploded with a loud pop.

Footsteps thudded across the hallway and Ken’s sister appeared at the door. “What happened? Is everything okay?”

“I — I dunno. Rose, what would you do if the Academy sent you a message and the mech exploded on you?”

“The academy sent you a message?” Rose’s eyes widened. “That’s awesome!”

Ken sighed. “Well, it would be awesome if I’d heard the message instead of destroying their mech.” He pulled a face.

“You can’t have destroyed the mech, Ken. What happened?”

“It just collapsed.” He shrugged. “And when I opened it up to check if there was anything obviously wrong, well.” He gestured to the pile of metal scraps on his desk.

“Well, you hardly broke it then. They ought to check their mechs for faults like that before sending them out.”

“I suppose so. Look, Rosie, I’d better go up and see about returning this. Will you tell Mum and Dad where I am if they get back before me?”

“’Course I will. Do you need any help clearing that up?”

“Nah, I’ve got a box I can scrape it all into here somewhere.” Ken began to rummage in his desk drawers.

“Okay, then. And Ken? I really hope it’s good news.” She grinned and went back to her own room.

He had a small pile of half-used pens and notebooks by the time he found the tin box he’d been after, but the remains of the mech slid in easily. It had broken very cleanly and the propellers still seemed to be intact. In principle it might be possible to repair, but not without a welding machine or some kind of similarly heavy tech. He put the box into a rucksack with his keys and glid across the dark wooden floorboards out onto the streets of middle echelon. He was glad he didn’t have to wait long for the lift when he got there. He wasn’t afraid of the lifts, exactly, but he hadn’t liked them since the accident. He distracted himself on the journey up by trying to figure out what the mech’s message would have been.

It seemed overwhelmingly likely, although he couldn’t be certain, that the message had been intended for him. He didn’t think he had anything the Academy could want; he was only sixteen. He was pretty sure he couldn’t have done anything to upset them, so presumably they wanted to make him some kind of offer. That was the most likely thing, anyway, he reminded himself. Not necessarily the correct one. But if they were making him an offer, the overwhelming likelihood was that it was some kind of offer of a place, even if it was only a contingent one. He expected there to be some kind of test; not everyone who did well at school was invited to the Academy.

He sighed with relief as the lift doors slid open at upper echelon and waited impatiently for the handful of other passengers to clear so that he could manoeuvre his hoverchair out. He knew the way to the Academy, but he stopped at the signpost just to be sure. A girl about his age was doing the same thing. With the brightly coloured flecks in her mass of long braids, tie-dyed t-shirt and frayed jeans, she looked more like an art student than a scientist, but Ken thought it worth asking anyway, “I don’t suppose you got a message from the Academy?”

She swung around to face him, and her braids flew back. “Yes I did actually. You too? So I guess we’re classmates.” She held out her hand. “I’m Bryony Adams.”

Ken shook the proffered hand. “Kenneth Delaney, but call me Ken. I suppose yours didn’t explode, then?” They started moving towards the Academy.

“Well.” Bryony looked dubious. “It didn’t explode, as such, but I had to jury-rig a battery to get it running again.”

“Huh. I wonder if they all do that. Mine exploded properly though. Would’ve had to jury-rig a welder to get it back together.”

“Yikes! How’d you figure out to bring it back to the Academy, then?”

“Well, there’s a stamp on every mech to ID the owner if you know where to look, so I realised it was an Academy mech, and even if it wasn’t some kind of offer, which seemed kind of likely, since we all know term’s about to start, it seemed like a good idea to bring it back. I’m half-regretting trying to check the battery, which is how it blew, but I think that was unavoidable.”

“Hey, I jury-rigged a new battery without thinking twice. Don’t look so worried. The Academy values innovation, right? Probably they’d revoke the invitation if the mech broke and you didn’t try to fix it.”

Ken stared at her. “Yeah, that’s it. And I didn’t fix mine either, which is bad. But maybe it was enough to figure it out. I don’t think that’s solvable.”

“Uh, what?”

“Sorry, thinking out loud.” Ken stared at the Academy building in the distance for a while. “I bet all the mechs they send out break somehow. Fixing the mech is kind of like an entrance criterion. If you just took it to the post office or something, it’d be returned and you’d never know what you’d missed. But if you get it running again, then you’ve got the kind of mindset they’re looking for. It fits too well.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s likely. I mean, it’s possible that both of our mechs just broke spontaneously, but Occam’s Razor says the simplest solution is most likely to be true. Impressive reasoning, Ken. I wouldn’t have thought of that.”

Ken frowned. “I didn’t fix it, though.”

Bryony laughed. “Seriously, I have never met anyone who worries as much as you, kid. I didn’t fix mine either, really. I bet nobody does more than get the message out of them. You totally did that.”

“I guess so. Well, we’ll see.” They travelled the last couple of hundred metres to the Academy in silence.

“Hi there! We’re here to return your mechs and say, ‘Yes please, of course we’d love to come to the Academy.’” Bryony grinned at the doorkeeper.

“And a good evening to you too. Both of you, huh?”

“We met on the way up,” Ken explained. “I’m afraid it’s sort of, um, fragmented,” he said, pulling the tin out of his rucksack.

“I’d love to know how you rigged the battery on this thing,” Bryony said, reaching into her tote bag for her version of the mech.

“Figured out that they rigged ‘em, did you? That’s sharp thinking.”

“Ken figured it out, actually. So when do we get to start?”

“Don’t let her steal your thunder, eh, lad?” The doorkeeper winked at him. “If you’ll give me your names I’ll mark you off on my list here. All the paperwork will be in tomorrow’s post and tell you everything you need to know about your induction. Not allowed to let you in until then, I’m afraid.”

“Bryony Adams and Ken Delaney. Is that right, Ken?”

“I’m probably down as Kenneth, but yes.” He watched the doorkeeper intently, willing his name to be on the list.

With a flourish the doorkeeper made two ticks. “You’re in, Ken and Bryony. Congratulations!

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