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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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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