Episode 2: Jaxon

episode-2-jaxonJaxon Maike was wearing headphones, trying to drown out his parents’ argument with the sound of brass bands, so he didn’t notice the messenger mech until it flew straight into his face and collapsed. He pulled the headphones off in case it was still going to give him the message.

“Well it would be possible to keep this place clean if you didn’t insist on buying . . .”

Jaxon clapped the headphones back on. “Blast!” He must have missed whatever the mech was saying before it crashed. He should have stayed at school after classes finished, but the lure of dissecting a castoff screen had tempted him back home. He ran a hand through his scruffy black hair. Well, he would have to see what he could do about the mech. It looked like a good quality model: couldn’t have been too badly damaged.

He slid back the clip at the back of the bronze head to open the mech and pulled out the battery. His multimeter was on the desk and he connected its electrodes across the battery to measure its voltage. That looked fine. Something must be wrong with the mech itself. He set the multimeter to measure electrical resistance and connected it in place of the battery. The dial whirred up to max and the multimeter’s warning light came on. Jaxon disconnected quickly. If electricity couldn’t flow through the mech, no wonder it wasn’t working. Hopefully the problem was just a wire that had come loose. He rummaged on his desk for a screwdriver that would fit the screws in the mech’s head.

Jaxon had just got the cover off when the first clock in the house began to chime. He winced. It was a pleasant enough sound until the second clock began to ring the hour at a discordant pitch. A third clock chimed in and then a fourth. If his mother would just let him open them up and tweak the frequencies — not that that would ever happen.

He began tracing out the path of the wire from the battery compartment. The break was obvious when he found it: a cable that had somehow frayed and rubbed through. He would tell the mech to report that to its owner. It wasn’t the kind of damage one would expect. At least it would be easy to fix. He was somewhat relieved not to have to solder someone else’s mech. It wasn’t that he couldn’t use a soldering iron, but soldering was finicky work and a drop of solder in the wrong place could be disastrous. He cut off a strip of insulating tape and joined the ends of the wire carefully. When he was done, he connected the multimeter across the battery terminals again. This time the resistance measured as reassuringly finite.

“Well, that wasn’t too complicated,” Jaxon said as he fastened the cover back on and replaced the battery. He pulled his headphones off as he clicked the mech’s heap back together. The flat had gone quiet again, to his relief.

The mech whirred back to life. “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.”

“Jaxon, what’s going on in there?”

“Nothing, Mom. I just got a message I need to go respond to.”

His bedroom door swung open and his mother glared at him. A stranger wouldn’t have guessed how pretty she could be, Jaxon thought. “What do you mean you need to go respond? Send a message back with the mech.” She nodded curtly at the creature perched on his finger.

“The mech’s a bit faulty and I think it would be better to take it back personally. I won’t be long.”

“A bit faulty? Jaxon, have you been fiddling around with other people’s tech again?” The pitch of her voice rose.

“All I did was to tape up a wire.”

“What’s the trouble?” His father loomed in the doorway.

“Jaxon,” his mother said, pointing, “has received some kind of message and because he’s been tampering with the mech he feels the need to go and explain in person.”

His father frowned. “What kind of message is this?”

The mech whirred obligingly.  “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.”

His father’s glower deepened. “I don’t have time for this kind of nonsense, son. Explain to me why you have been tampering with Academy property.”

Jaxon sighed. “But I haven’t, Dad. The mech just arrived, but it had a loose wire which I had to fix before it could deliver its message. It was definitely meant for me, though. It flew straight at me to get my attention. And now I’m going to the Academy to explain what happened and accept the place they’ve offered me. You should be glad enough to know that I’ll be out your precious space so soon.” He regretted saying the words almost as soon as they left his mouth. His stomach clenched at the change in his parents’ faces.

“You are going nowhere until you explain to me what’s really going on.”

Jaxon looked at his parents and glanced down the hallway. Then, clutching the mech to his chest, he dodged between them and ran out the front door and down into the gaslit streets. He might be short, but he didn’t think his father could catch him, even if he dared something as undignified as running through the streets.

A few people called out, but Jaxon didn’t stop running until he stood panting at the lift shafts. He hadn’t yet caught his breath when the lift arrived, but he was one of the first onto the platform. he watched the small crowd warily as he waited for the gears to start up. If there was nobody in pursuit by the time the lift left, he was probably safe. He didn’t see anyone he recognised.

Despite this, he felt uncomfortable when the lift had cranked its way up to upper echelon, where there were no side streets to duck down. The vast open space didn’t seem so  pretty when you needed somewhere to hide. Not, he reminded himself as he walked, that he needed somewhere to hide. He was on a legitimate — prestigious, even — errand to the Academy. And he was going to be a student at the Academy, if this wasn’t all some horrible mix up. His father wouldn’t have a chance to arrange some frustrating lower echelon office apprenticeship. Jaxon actually smiled.

The Academy, when Jaxon reached it, was more imposing than ever. It seemed to scowl down at him, asking if he really thought he might be worthy to study there. His father certainly didn’t think he was. Jaxon frowned. He couldn’t even guess what half the pipes and cables on the outside of the building were for. The Academy slogan twinkled on the wall between mechanisms: Knowledge Through Truth. Well, he would go down and tell the doorkeeper the truth about the mech, and one way or another he would be gaining knowledge. Jaxon gulped. He hoped he would like what he learned.

“Good evening, sir. Uh, there was, uh, a problem with your mech, but –”

The doorkeeper smiled widely. “Oh don’t worry about that. They’re all rigged to crash one way or another. Like to make you put a bit of effort in to make sure you really want to be here.” He winked.

“Then I really have a place at the Academy?” Jaxon was sure he looked like a fool, but he could hardly believe it.

“ ‘Course you do, lad. As long as you give me your name to mark off here.” The doorkeeper looked at him enquiringly as he pulled a list out of his pocket.

“Oh, I’m Jaxon. Jaxon Maike.” He peered over the doorkeeper’s shoulder into the Academy itself. “I don’t suppose I’m allowed to come in now?”

“Afraid not, lad. Your paperwork will all arrive by the evening post tomorrow, but I’m not allowed to let you lot in until your induction.”

Jaxon sighed. He should have known that would be too good to be true. “I don’t suppose the paperwork could go to my school instead of home? It might be more reliable.”

“More reliable?” The doorkeeper looked at him quizzically. “The postal service is usually reliable.”

“It’s not the postal service, sir. It’s just, uh, my, uh, parents might, um, not remember to give it to me.”

“Ah, it’s like that, is it?” The doorkeeper looked thoughtful. “Well if you prefer I’ll have it sent on to the school. Which district are you?”

“Burgundy District, sir.”

“Alright, lad.” He made a note on his list. “Would you like an official looking letter for your folks? Sometimes that helps.”

“Is that possible? If I have to go back home, then, well.” Jaxon pulled a face.

“I’ll write you the letter, lad, and see if it doesn’t turn out better than you think.” The doorkeeper stepped back inside and busied himself at a desk in the hallway for a few minutes. “Here you are, lad,” he said on his return, handing Jaxon a thick piece of parchment stamped with the Academy crest in a wax seal. “The mech test is a little informal, to be fair. Give this to the folks with the Academy’s apologies for the confusion and see if that doesn’t smooth things over.”

To Jaxon’s surprise, it did seem to smooth things over. At least, his father read the letter and grunted. Since he didn’t say anything for a good while after, Jaxon assumed he was free to go and went to bed happier than he had been in a long time.

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Episode 1: Melinda

episode-1-melindaMelinda Mirreme was curled up behind the backmost table in Kasper’s Koffee Bar, sipping from a mug of Kasper’s finest brew as she slowly sketched out a design in her notebook. “Calculate the area when I add this extra layer to the snowflake, Poly,” she instructed her canary-like mech, Polynomial Time. “There’s got to be a fairly obvious pattern to how it changes.”

Poly floated down from the charging point above the table and perched on the edge of Melinda’s mug to peer at the sketch and accompanying equations. “One and eleven twenty-sevenths the original size, Melinda.”

“Huh.” Melinda wrote that down. “What else? Oh, Poly work out the change in the area from the last time.” She didn’t hear the answer, being distracted by the arrival of a messenger mech, not unlike the one she’d modified to create Poly. The mech itself was a common enough sight, but nobody should need to send her a message by mech now. She checked her watch — still hours before she was expected back home. Metal clanged and she looked up to see the mech collapsed on the table. “That’s odd.” Melinda squinted at the table. “A quality bronze mech like that shouldn’t run out of charge halfway through an errand.” But when she lifted the mech to the charging port Poly had been using it remained inert.

“Does it work for you, Poly?”

The little tin mech obligingly flew up. “It works, Melinda. Mmm, tastes good.”

“Alright, then there must be something wrong with this mech. I wonder whose it is.” Melinda found the clip at the back of the creature’s neck to pop open the head and remove its memory tape. She unrolled the top of the long paper ribbon and ran her finger over the series of ridges that had been scored into it. “Poly, check my transcription, please. I’ll write ones for the ridges and zeroes for the gaps that have been left untouched. And we’ll group them by eights. Got that?”

Poly drifted back down to perch on the coffee mug. “I”ve got it, Melinda.”

“Zero, one, zero, zero, zero, one, one, one; and zero, one, zero, one, zero, zero, one, zero, and; zero, one, zero, zero, zero, one, zero, one. Well, they all start with zero so far, which is hopeful. Pity it doesn’t fit in your head for you to translate it directly, isn’t it?”

“I am not unhappy to maintain these memory tapes, Melinda.” Poly twitched its wings.

“There there, I’m not going to switch anything out. Not that you’d know the difference anyway. Now let’s see how quickly I can get the rest of this tape down before you dredge up the Ascii codes from wherever I left them in your memory.”

* * *

Melinda dropped her pen and stretched, inspecting her double page of ones and zeroes. “I think I need more coffee before we carry on.”

“Coffee is the elixir of life,” Poly replied solemnly.

Melinda laughed. “Do I say it that often?”

“My natural language learning algorithms think so.”

“You spend too much time with wannabe mathematicians.” Melinda fished in her jeans pocket for another coin and spun the dials at the side of the table, selecting black with sugar. “Hop off the cup Poly, or you’ll get coffee in your circuits,” Melinda said just before the dark, steaming liquid came hissing out of one of the pipes that ran from the kitchen all over the coffee bar.

“Now,” Melinda said, sipping her coffee left-handed, “be a dear, Poly, and tell me what these Ascii codes translate to as ordinary letters.”

“Gee,” Poly said, and Melinda noted down the letter. “Arr, Ee, Ee.”

Presently Melinda had written out

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.

Melinda squealed loudly enough that a number of other patrons turned and stared. A dreadlock-shrouded face appeared from the kitchen to ask “Is everything alright out here?”

“I’m going to the Academy, Kasper!”

Kasper grinned widely. “Well, that’s exciting enough, to be sure, but no need to go shrieking your head off.”

“Sorry.” Melinda poured the rest of her coffee down her throat. “I have to go up and tell them I’m coming!” She looked around at the rest of the coffee bar. “Sorry,” she repeated.

“Ah, that’s alright.” The man at the next table smiled at her. “Can’t say most of us wouldn’t have done the same. Good luck!” He nodded respectfully.

Melinda contemplated this as she walked out to the lift shafts. This didn’t make her a mathematician — there was so much more she needed to learn — but her neighbour in the coffee bar had almost treated her like one. Life was going to be different. Different, but exciting, she decided as she waited for the big brass lift that would take her to Mechatropolis upper echelon. A politician she recognised from the newspapers pushed past her as the lift platform arrived. She wondered if he would have been more careful had she been wearing a mathematician’s gown. Probably not if it was just a student’s gown, she decided. Not that it mattered. She would take Analysis classes and have proper Mechatronics lessons and study Algorithm Design. “This is going to be epic, Poly,” she said as the lift’s huge bronze gears turned and glinted in the gaslight.

Where the middle echelon was a network of gaslit streets, the upper echelon stretched out open and seemingly unconstrained. Huge light tubes attached to the ceiling illuminated the lift shafts and the signpost indicating the Academy, the City Hall and the Space Port. Closer to the Academy, the shadows changed; there were more structural pillars here, with gentler light tubes snaking around them. She paused at the front to take it all in. The Academy building stretched up right to the roof — the surface, really, since nothing else lay between the upper echelon and open space. She’d heard that the ceilings of the Academy’s top floor were all made of glass, to allow for better study of space. Pipes and gears crept up the walls, occasionally sneaking in through a window or terminating in a complicated contraption. Messenger mechs fluttered past, into the building or the narrow mech vents leading to middle echelon. Melinda sighed. It was glorious, and she was going to be part of it. She strode forward and greeted the doorkeeper.

“Hello, my name is Melinda Mirreme. I came to return the messenger mech and accept the place at the Academy.”

“Good afternoon, Miss.” The doorkeeper looked at the mech in her outstretched hand. “Heh. You got the message out without repairing the mech? Don’t see that often. Well, congratulations. You can expect a letter by tomorrow’s evening post latest, which will tell you all about your induction and so on.”

Melinda peered past him into the hallway with its rows of doors and occasional desks piled with documents.

He smiled. “Now, I know you’d like to look around, but I’m afraid I’m under instructions to send all of you lot back home for now once I have your names. Melinda, yes?” He pulled a list out of his pocket and made a tick. “Looking forward to seeing you at induction, Miss Mirreme!”

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