Praxit and his friends have been jumped by Davor and the poppers while visiting the Truly Autonomous Zone. Who’s going to win the brawl? And what is Enu up to?
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Episode 12 begins:
“Looking good, Prax,” said Azza-lea. “Your baby mecha is sobering up.”
It didn’t feel that way to me. After yesterday’s intense simming in construction mechas and BasicMechs, and especially the LitheMech, the baby felt like a broken hunk of junk. Sure, the arms were maybe a little more in sync, and the feet weren’t trying to drift away like bored drones, but it was still janky.
“I think we can advance a little closer, rather than following him at this distance,” said Coda.
“I think if you’re in group comms range you’re in danger,” I said. But even as I said it I could tell the baby was more stable. “So how far are you making me mech this stupid baby?”
“CakeStand. It’s not the nearest mechafe in this direction, but it’s the best. Their range of pastries is vast. Almost handmade. My treat. It is your birthday after all.”
“I’ve got a cake light!” said Azza-lea
“Tell me it’s a new one. Not that old one that plays…”
“It’s the best!”
It was the best — in the worst way possible. The music was so cheesy, all old-timey squealing guitars and honking saxophones, like straight out of the 1980s. The sensor didn’t work well, so it was really hard to blow enough to make it stop. And, to top it off, it was still loaded with the picture of me from when I was a sad little six year old. Azza-lea refused to change it. It had pictures of all us from when we were six and Azza-lea demanded we use it every birthday. It was a pretty funny tradition. Unless you’re in the eating place blowing madly into a bowl of green gelatin while all the learners are looking, wondering what the heck you’re doing and why is terrible music playing.
“Just how far is this CakeStand,” I said.
“I’m going to need arm surgery by the time we get there,” I said. “This thing…the proths—it’s like playing four games of tug-of-war at once.”
“Why don’t you try talking to it,” said Azza-lea. “It has a voice interface. Maybe you can tell what it to do?”
“Walk like a normal mecha, you stupid baby,” I said, but nothing happened. Coda laughed.
“See, it doesn’t work,” I said.
“Not like that. Be nicer. When I want Mr Snork to do anything I talk nice and gentle to him,” said Azza-lea
Mr Snork was her pet pig. It was just a plain grey pig, not a fancy pure-breed like the Osorio’s had, but it was really smart. I’ve seen her ask it to fetch her minitab. It ran up the stairs to her room and came back holding it gently in its mouth. And all it wanted was a scratch behind the ear. Mechas don’t have ears. Or feel scratches.
“Fine. I’ll try again. Walk straight. Please.”
Nothing changed. I was still wrestling with the proths.
“Start with just little things. And talk gently, nicely, to it.”
Talk gently? Mechas don’t have feelings like pigs do. They run programs. They have circuitry. Whatever.
“Okay, baby,” I said. I visualised how I wanted to move and then tried translating that into directions that matched up with how I was instinctively moving the prosthetics.
“Let’s just move our feet straight out, that’s it, bring the knees up higher, keep it all moving straight in front of us, that’s it.”
Hmmm. It seemed to be working? The proths weren’t resisting so much.
“Now the arms. First the left, just a gentle swing in time with the right leg. Now bring it back, and bring the right arm forward.”
“Go on, Prax. No-one’s in comm range. It’s worth a try,” said Coda.
“I am trying,” I said.
“We can’t hear it,” said Azza-lea.
“Well, I’m coaxing it, and it might even be working,” I said.
“I bet it’s filtering voice commands out of group comms. It’s saving us from the tedium of your control chatter.”
“You’re walking is already better. I told you so.”
It really was working, except it made it hard to hold a conversation at the same time. I coaxed it along and once it was stepping regularly and the arms were moving mostly at the right time I said to it “That’s it, let’s just keep this rhythm for now.”
It worked. The voice interface was smart enough to understand what I meant. I stopped talking. The baby wasn’t fighting the proths. It was so much easier. Still a bit wonky, but the strain of wrestling every limb was gone.
I was able to talk the baby into walking faster, and faster, until we were moving pretty close to a normal walking rate. It made for a jerky ride. It felt like I was walking through an earthquake. But it was such a huge improvement a wave of relief washed over me. Walking to school on Monday would be okay. It wouldn’t be a passage of humiliation and embarrassment. If I spent more time coaching and directing the thing, it might even be completely normal by Monday. Then it would just be ugly and dumb looking, instead of ugly, dumb and clumsy.
CakeStand was super busy. There were mechas standing along the ring road. All the mecha ports were taken by ten and twelve metre mechas. I guess the place wasn’t popular with kids. There were only two ports free. They were in a prime spot, right next to the road, but they were marked reserved.
“These must be for us,” said Coda, striding up to the first one.
“Figures,” said Azza-lea, taking the one next to him.
“Sorry, Praxit. You and your little green mecha will have to stand on the street. We’ll see you in the lobby.”
Like every other mecha port in New White Horse, and every one on the Earth and the moon, the mecha ports at CakeStand weren’t designed for short, fat mechas. I de-meched in the street and walked up the stairs, like I had arrived in a basic shuttle, while Azza-lea and Coda docked their mechas. Their feet never even touched the ground. They strolled from their cockpits, along the elevated walkway to the lobby, where they waited for me to arrive.
“It looks even busier on the inside,” said Azza-lea.
“Never you mind,” said Coda as the server, a blonde woman with a name badge saying “Galah” came up to us.
“Right this way, Mr Ghosh,” she said and we followed her to a table by a window that faced out over the industrial ring and to the wilderness beyond it.
“Mister Ghosh?” I said.
“Thanks for making reservations,” said Azza-lea.
“I didn’t,” said Coda. He brought his shoulders up and acted like he was studying the menu screen, scrolling past picture after picture of cupcakes. “Father bought CakeStand recently. Every CakeStand is now part of GI.”
GI stood for Ghosh Industries, his Dad’s company. I guess Coda could now walk into any CakeStand in the city, in the world, and get the VIP treatment.
“So when I said it was my treat, it is really my Father’s treat. He said, Praxit, that you deserve to order whatever you like. ‘Shower him in cake,’ he said.”
“What? Me? Why?”
Coda stopped scrolling through the menu and looked at me.
“Because he under-estimated you.”
“He under-estimated me? When did he under-estimate me?”
“Yesterday. During your sim rampage. He lost a lot of money on that final round. He even upped his wager when he saw you were in a LitheMech.”
Azza-lea was astounded.
“Your Father was betting on sims?”
“A little discretion, Azza-lea. We’re in public. Lot’s of people bet on sims.”
“But that’s illegal.”
“It was just a wager between friends.”
I wasn’t as surprised about the betting as Azza-lea, but I was kind of surprised he was betting against me. It brought back flashes of “dim lord”. The players you’re up against don’t want you to win. That’s a given. Having someone you know wanting and hoping you would lose, that just made me feel bad.
“Turn around the frown, my friend. It’s just business. Dad would even wager against me if he thought it would pay. In fact he has. I’ve lost many little bets to him. He’s very good at winning. Like you. That’s why he said to shower you in cake. So pick a cake, a pastry, anything.”
My instinct was to order the biggest, most expensive cake I could find on the menu screen. But the guy owned the place. He owned every CakeStand. He wouldn’t notice. Forget him, I thought. I scrolled past the cupcakes into the full-sized cakes looking for something we could all share. I tapped on a multi-layered chocolate cake that had thick belts of chocolate ganache between the layers and even more on top. It was called “The Chocolate Overload”.
“That is so good and so bad,” she said.
“Why bad?” I said.
“Because I will want to finish it and there’s no way I can eat a third of a cake.”
“If there’s any left you can take it home,” I said.
“Awww. But it’s your cake.”
“It’s our cake.”
“Praxit, if that statement has not already given us diabetes, then I’m sure the cake will,” said Coda. “Excuse me a moment while I go and make sure it is perfect.”
He left the table. Azza-lea and I admired the view. I told her about riding out of the city last night, and being surrounded by trees. I pointed in the vague direction of the roadhouse, but there was no sign of it or the road from CakeStand.
“Sometimes, during flight club,” said Azza-lea, “when I’m in a dive and all I can see below is the trees and rocks and creeks flowing here and there, I imagine crashing and just being lost and not being able to make it back to New White Horse. Then I pull up and there’s the city all bright and pretty and my whole body just quivers and shakes it off.”
“You’d be fine. It’d be like an adventure veerie. You’d live out of your cockpit. Catch fish in the stream…”
“It’d be awful. I’d be so far away from everyone. There’s not even drones out there. It would be so lonely. And scarey.”
“Scarey? Nothing can hurt you out there. The only resurrected wolves are on the other side of the continent.”
“Scarey because it’s so dark and crowded but just so empty of everything but trees and trees forever.”
“Trees forever?” said Coda, sliding back into his seat.
“She’s afraid of trees.”
“Sounds like she’s afraid of forests. I am too. They are rather spooky. Guess who I saw, sitting at a table over by the kitchen?”
“Are they famous?” said Azza-lea.
“Not really, but you know them.”
“Do they play mechrosse?” I said. He was looking so pleased with the game it made me worried about the answer.
“No! It’s Coop. Good old Coop. Turns out it’s his birthday today.”
“Good old Coop? I guess he’s okay,” said Azza-lea.
“108 and powering onwards. He’s celebrating it with Moira, the invigilator.”
The way he said “invigilator” I was sure he knew what had happened. I leaned out and scanned the tables in the direction Coda had appeared from. I couldn’t see Cooper, but there were walls and booths in the way. I hoped that meant he couldn’t see me either.
“You didn’t tell him you were here with me, did you?” I said. I could just see Cooper’s red, saggy eyes widening at the mention of my name and him turning to the invigilator and going “So, did you look into Praxit’s 94?”
“No. I don’t think guides like to think much about us learners outside of regulation hours.”
While we waited for the cake Azza-lea showed us videos of yesterday’s melee squad competition. Her and Jaiyeh and Lashana are so impressive. They did this one final strength move where Jaiyeh’s YogiMech finished standing on one hand, its left leg pointing straight up with Lashana balancing on top of it, on her toes upon Jaiyeh’s foot, with Azza-lea’s mecha standing on Lashana’s upstretched hands. That’s impressive, just getting into that position. The thing is, the moment before they hit it, all three of them were in motion, spinning and somersaulting through the air. They each came out of their move, reversed jets, and froze, forming that incredible column. And they came second.
“Definitely a robbery. And in broad daylight,” said Coda. He grinned at Azza-lea.
“I think I hear my favourite song,” he said.
I groaned. I could hear it, too. And it was getting louder. The guitars. The saxophone. Galah, our server, walked up with the cake, grinning, Azza-lea’s precious cake light on top of it. She must have slipped it to Coda when I was standing the baby. Customers at the other tables turned to see what the noise was. There a was bit of laughter, a few claps.
Galah put the cake down in front of me. It was a full-sized cake, like a wheel of chocolate. On the top, below the cake light flashing fireworks and a picture of little me looking glum with too much hair, were big, greeny-brown letters spelling out “Happy Birthday Praxit”.
“Start blowing before our eardrums bleed,” said Coda.
I blew and blew and blew into the little ring at the top of the light. Had the thing finally failed? It wasn’t stopping. I was getting dizzy.
“You are fifty this year, aren’t you?” said Coda.
Azza-lea laughed. What a mean trick, setting my birthday to fifty. I kept blowing and blowing. Every year you need to blow more into the cake light. Then, after you’re fifty, the lights need less and less blowing. Otherwise people like Cooper would pass out face down in their cakes.
The terrible music cut out. Azza-lea clapped. Half-hearted cheers came from the table behind me. I was either blushing from embarrassment or exertion.
“I was very specific about the colour of the writing,” said Coda. “I hope I got it right.”
“It’s very appetising,” I said.
“I hope you were less accurate about the flavour,” said Azza-lea.
“You will have to taste it,” said Coda with a grin.
Galah, with a large knife and four quick slices, had a perfect wedge of cake in front of each of us. It tasted amazing. Even the awful icing decoration. CakeStand were famous for how delicious and almost handmade all their cakes were. I’m sure it should have blown my mind except I was still thinking about Cooper and the invigilator. Should I eat fast and try and get us out of here? Should I eat slow and hope they leave before we do? I really didn’t want to see them.
What was I going to do? I could still see that stupid 94 shooting up like a shuttle out of that chart on Cooper’s screen. Toxic, stupid Enu. If only I had other scores that were even close to that. I swallowed cake. It was so smooth and chocolately. I should be enjoying it, but I couldn’t. I needed another good score. And there was only one way to get it that didn’t involve basic Enu.
We ate and we ate. Azza-lea and I drank bubble tea while Coda ordered a hydroponic coffee, black, no sweetener, no soy.
“Mmm, delicious,” he said, taking a tiny sip when it arrived. “My father says CakeStand has the best coffee out of all the mechafes. I think he’s right.”
Then he slid the cup to the side and didn’t touch it again.
Azza-lea rolled her eyes at me. I just grinned and made loud sucking noises with the last of my bubble tea. Then I had another, smaller slice of cake. So did the other two. After that, I couldn’t help myself. I had another piece, but it was even smaller than the second. I picked up the knife to cut a fourth piece and Azza-lea was like “No! You’ll be sick.”
I wasn’t going to let that stop me, but just then the cake stopped looking like food and started looking like a lump of chocolate and sugar. I’d had enough. I put the knife down.
As soon as we all sat back, stuffed and happy, Galah appeared and took the cake away, returning with it in a pink box. She hadn’t it to Coda, who handed it to me, and I handed it to Azza-lea.
“Vivi will love a piece,” I said.
Vivi was Azza-lea’s little sister. Her family had two kids, but both her parents worked in media in the city. Two high incomes made raising two kids out in the rings easy. No way would Azza-lea have a YogiMech if they were living on basic.
“I will also cover the charges for table one fifteen,” said Coda to Galah as she was leaving. “Tell them it was a birthday gift from me.”
“You’re paying for Cooper?” I said.
“That’s so sweet,” said Azza-lea.
“It is sweet,” said Coda, “but it is also useful. He won’t forget it. If I ever have any stream issues I am sure he will be most helpful.”