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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Episode 3: Bryony

episode-3-bryonyBryony Adams was in the lab, performing another titration to calibrate her new indicator, when the mech arrived. It perched on the lab bench, said “Gree-”, made a fizzling sound and collapsed.

Bryony turned off the burette tap. “Well, that’s something new.” She looked up at the big grandfather clock at the end of the lab. She hadn’t been working for more than fifteen minutes yet. The mech could wait where it was, on the end of the varnished wooden bench, so she went back to her glassware. She’d rotated the burette so that she could titrate right-handed — or was that titrating left-handed, since although she was turning the tap with her right-hand, you used your non-dominant hand for that? She wasn’t sure, but it didn’t really matter. She focused on letting just a tiny drop fall from the burette tap and watching the colour of the solution in the beaker below. With the final drop, the solution changed from violet to a pinky red. Bryony whooped and climbed onto the lab stool. The liquid still filled too much of the long thin pipe for her to take a reading from floor level, but it was simple enough to read off the height from atop the stool. When she had recorded the number in her notebook, she reclaimed the mech from the far end of the bench.

She certainly wasn’t expecting a message. In fact, she was a little surprised that anyone wanted her so urgently that they’d send a mech. She supposed she’d better have a look at it before carrying on with the titrations, though. Perhaps it just needed charging. Nothing happened when she connected the mech to the charging point under the lab bench, so she picked it up and popped its head open.

“Yikes!” The battery cell had cracked open and gooey liquid was leaking out of it. Bryony pulled open the cupboard beneath the bench and grabbed an empty beaker to dump the leaky battery into. Then she used an old rag and the end of her spatula to get the rest of the goo — at least what she could see of it — out of the mech’s head cavity. Fortunately it didn’t seem to have got as far as the memory tapes. That would have left things pretty much unsalvageable.

It was bizarre that anyone would let a mech go out with a battery in condition to crack like that. Didn’t people have safety procedures for that kind of thing? The battery must have been ancient. It wasn’t a standard issue postal service mech battery either, so replacing it wouldn’t be trivial. Not that it would stop her from rigging something to last long enough to figure out what was going on.

All a battery really did was to stimulate the flow of electrons through the circuit. She could make something close enough to work for now. She rummaged in her stripy tote bag for a pencil. Then she took another beaker and some aluminium foil from the cupboard below the bench. She walked down the lab to the storeroom at the back to find salt. The dials on the lock turned smoothly and the door swung open. She wasn’t sure if she was technically allowed to have the code, but Mr Andreyev didn’t mind her using a reasonable amount of supplies for her experiments. The salt was on the first shelf from the door; Bryony took the hefty brown sack back to her lab bench, carefully locking the storeroom door behind her.

She dissolved the salt in a beakerful of water. Bryony wondered how often she thought of dissolving as breaking something into its electrically positive and negative parts, as she stirred the salt water. Not much more often than she wanted make an electrolyte solution for a battery. Batteries made salt water a lot more interesting. She tore off a long strip of aluminium foil and folded it over the side of the beaker. The carbon pencil went into the salt water on the other side. By dint of holding the mech upside down in one hand and splaying the fingers of her other, she managed to connect the makeshift electrodes to the battery connection points in the mech’s head cavity. The mech’s eyes glowed dimly and a faint grinding sound emerged from its interior.

“Oh plagues and pestilence! How many of these things am I going to need?” She did some mental arithmetic, wiped her hands dry on her tie-dyed t-shirt and pulled three more beakers out of the cupboard. Several minutes and several pencils later, the lab bench held an enormous, if not especially powerful battery, electrically connected by long strips of aluminium foil. She would have to replace that for Mr Andreyev, Bryony thought, since it was rather more than a reasonable amount. Not that it mattered! Her curiosity about what the mech would say had been growing. With no little excitement, she attached her battery’s electrodes to the mech. Its eyes lit up. Gears whirred inside. Faintly, but unmistakably, it began to deliver its message.

“Greetings, student. This message serves as an offer of a place at the Mechatropolis Academy for Mathematical Sciences. We await your response with the return of this mech.”

Bryony whooped loudly enough that she almost expected half the school to arrive and demand to know what had happened. Disappointingly, nobody appeared. The Academy! It was the kind of thing people dreamed of. And she was going to be a student mathematician — just as soon as they had her response. She was halfway down the laboratory when it occurred to her that leaving the bench in its current state would bring down the wrath of not only Mr Andreyev, but of any self-respecting person who saw the mess and potential for chaos.
Bryony calmed down a little in the course of her tidying up, but she was still whistling cheerfully as she began the walk to the lift shafts and, from there, the Academy.

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