Melinda 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.
“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.”