Jaxon 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.