After the learning place is out Praxit gets competitive in his favourite sim and tries to pretend everything is fine.
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Episode 5 begins:
We came out of the doors onto the main steps. Kids were heading in every direction. A line of mechas was trudging in step towards the transit pad where once in its centre their jets would kick-in, the backwash spilling through the heavy steel grill to the dispersal chambers underground, the mecha flying them home, to the city, or just a short hop to the nearest mechafé.
I couldn’t see the little green baby for all the proper sized mechas in motion, but I was relieved to see that Davor and the other poppers were already gone. I wouldn’t have to face them this afternoon.
My minitab buzzed in my pocket. The message was from an ID I didn’t recognise: “DeviceA0F3”. That’s not even a person. I was about to block it out of reflex, figuring someone’s shoe got hacked to spam, but the preview read “Your 94 wasn’t free.” I walked away from Azza-lea and Coda, over to the red brick wall of the building where no-one could sneak a peek, and opened the message.
“Your 94 wasn’t free. You owe me. If you want your cheating to remain our secret you’ll get the data I need. I want who your Dad works for and who sold him the mecha. Play it smart, sim lord. And if I were you I would delete this. You’re the only one leaving evidence.”
I deleted it as my empty guts twisted and twisted a nasty acid burp up into my mouth, stinging my throat. I swallowed hard. Basic Enu.
“Hey, Praxit,” called Coda. I turned back to him and Azza-lea standing on the edge of the steps. Beyond them mecha after mecha blasted up from the transit pads. The sky was full of hundreds of coloured shapes, glinting shapes, of mechas in flight pose, flying in equally spaced formations along TravNav’s preset paths towards inner rings or onto the city, towards mechafés, sports fields, or just the transit pad nearest their house. It was always amazing to me and I’ve wanted to be part of it so badly. I was no closer to joining in. Really, I felt like my chance of ever joining in was crumbling away.
“Azza-lea’s frantic schedule is interfering with my plans for your birthday,” said Coda.
“We’ve got a comp coming up,” said Azza-lea.
“So it’ll just be the two of us,” said Coda.
I lied. “I can’t,” I said and waved my minitab. “Dad has plans for this afternoon and I can’t get out of them.”
“Don’t look so down, Praxit,” said Azza-lea. She squeezed my arm. “We’ll do something tomorrow.”
“Can’t tomorrow,” said Coda.
“I’m out Friday. We’ll do something super fun on Saturday,” she said. “I promise. Oh look at you. I feel like I’m quitting on a veer puppy.”
“I’m fine,” I said. I put on a smile. “I’d rather be doing something with you peeps, that’s all.”
“Saturday for sure. I’ve gotta jet,” said Azza-lea. She gave me a hug, fist-bumped Coda, then took off down the steps.
“I’m jetting, too,” said Coda. “Show that baby who’s the sim lord.”
He held up his fist. I went to bump it and he slapped my hand away, making me turn, and punched me in the shoulder, the same one Azza-lea had hit. I think he bruised a bruise and it hurt.
“Old and slow now, Prax. So old, so slow.” he said, then laughed and headed down the steps.
It got a smile out of me for a moment, but it faded along with the pain in my arm. I watched Azza-lea climb up to the shoulder of her YogiMech and unlock the cockpit with her handprint. She waved at me as the canopy lifted. I waved back and she hopped in. The mecha was in motion before the canopy sealed and she gave me a giant thumbs up as she stomped out of the stand to the pads, her forearm ribbons fluttering. I headed down the steps on foot while she shot up into the sky on jets, then TravNav took over and her mecha spun 180 degrees and sped her away to melee practise, the ribbons now trailing and whipping behind her.
Coda was sitting in his dazzling white NovaLeet with the canopy up when I walked by. He was talking to someone on his minitab. The group comms wouldn’t kick in until he closed the canopy, so it was kind of a public form of privacy. He was so engaged in the call he didn’t notice me as I walked by, but that was fine. How many times do you have to say good-bye?
There were still a dozen or so mechs in the stand, but none near the baby. Even standing alone it looked smaller than ever. The way its oversized cockpit sat low on the shoulders and a bit forward, I realised, made it look dejected. Mechas are supposed to look like they’re ready to take on the world, backs straight, cockpits up. But no, the baby looked exactly like how I felt. The guy who sold it to Dad said it was the perfect mecha for me. What would he know? But if it was perfect for me then go ahead and stick in the tubes, glue on the veer set and declare my life officially over.
I ran my hand over the leg, scratched at the surface with my fingernail. It wasn’t polished, but it wasn’t rough. It didn’t feel like paint, but it didn’t feel like alloy, which is always super smooth. The EM fields that give active alloy strength also mean that if you somehow manage to scratch the surface they will smooth out over time and fade away. Was it really green all the way through? And why didn’t it activate when Enu knocked on it? Did I have a super distinctive knock going on?
I took a step back and punched it. Where I punched it, well, okay, it was the groin area. And then I punched it again, in the same spot. It came online, the servos started up. Was there such a thing as knuckle prints? And if there were, who would put a knuckle print reader in that spot. But there was nothing there, just green alloy.
As the hand lifted me to the cockpit I remembered what Coda had said. Show that baby who the sim lord is.
“Hello, Pilot Practise,” it said.
“Praxit,” I said. “My name is Praxit. Prax-it. P-r-a-x-i-t.”
“Hello, Pilot Practised,” it said. I groaned and wiggled the prosthetics and eyed the traffic on the street as Coda shot up into the sky like a bolt of lightning returning home. His was the only mecha heading away from the city. His family lived in a compound cut into the wilderness around Haeckel Hill, out beyond the industrial ring. Very private and very lush. They had an amazing swimming pool.
The canopy snapped shut. It was time to start a new sim. It was called “Get home without tripping over”. Challenge level: Global Tier players only.
On the street it was the period between learning places emptying and workers heading home. No-one’s in a rush at this time of the afternoon, especially not bored kids, so I ended up with a noisy posse trailing me.
I get it. The baby’s small, a disgusting colour and walks funny, if you can call it walking. I didn’t need to be told these things over and over again and I didn’t need the blaring group comms. I focused on getting the feet to hit the road where I wanted, the arms to counterbalance the legs, which was c-o tricky, and tried to ignore my followers. Shout insults at me during a sim because we’re thirty seconds in and you’re already losing and I won’t even hear them. But those c-o kids, trying to out-do each other with their funny comments and their laughter, they were making me lose my mind.
“You’re all so funny, now cut out the laughter,” I yelled.
The right foot landed further out than I expected, making the whole mecha lurch, forcing me to swing up the left arm to stop the movement turning into a stagger that would take me into the path of oncoming mechas.
“Group comms disabled,” the baby said and the cockpit emptied of sound.
I was madly juggling hands and feet, so until I got the thing walking properly upright again all I could do was wonder. Group comms are like arms or legs. They are part of the mecha design, part of GLRC’s cockpit technology. You can’t turn them off. It would be like turning off jets when you’re a kilometre above the ground.
“Group comms status,” I said.
“Group comms disabled.”
“Well, enable them.”
The voices of the kids in the mechas trailing me flooded back in. It wasn’t like they were really talking to me. Shouting at me, sure.
“Disable group comms,” I said and silence returned. Well, silence except for the sounds of the baby’s movement transmitted through the frame. Some mecha’s, like Coda’s NovaLeet, have a special cockpit mounting so you can’t hear even a neck servo whine. Personally, I like to hear what’s going on, but this absence of group comms felt too weird.
“Enable group comms,” I said. “And can you make it quieter?”
The laughter and taunts returned, but at a level that didn’t stop the signals from my brain from reaching my hands. And maybe, just maybe, between my brain and my hands, I was building a technique for piloting the baby. Compared to this morning it was more like juggling than wrestling, but juggling drones that had deliveries to make. Put a foot down and it wanted to be up. Lift a foot up and it wanted to kick the other leg. Move a hand back and it wanted to backhand whatever was next to it. And all of those moves I had to catch and counteract, while trying to direct it where I needed it to go.
I’ve seen toddlers trying to walk and now I know why they need so many naps. I was glad when I reached my street. I took the corner pretty wide but still had to slow down to a shuffle. Once I was across the intersection lines I left the other mechas behind. They were geo-fenced out because it was a private street. Kids are fenced out of everywhere that isn’t a public space or one of their registered areas, like home or a learning place. The group sounded pretty young, so they would probably all head home now their source of fun was gone, or they would go play in the green ring. There was an area nearby that generations of kids had dug and carved and piled trees into what was known locally as the TAZ – the Truly Autonomous Zone. No guides in industrial mechas, no parents, no rules. Also no jets. Can’t be burning the place down.
I noticed the Osorios’ mecha dock was empty. I know they worked from home, so they probably jetted their MesoDrifters to the city to eat or see a live performance.
Turning, especially tight turns, was still a challenge, so the easiest way to get the baby onto the mecha pad was to walk backwards onto it. And the easiest way to do that was to try and walk forwards, then do my best to steer as it inevitably staggered backwards. It worked.
I flexed my hands open and closed, rolled my shoulders and jiggled my legs. Who said meching isn’t exercise?
The canopy opened and I stepped out onto the hand.
“Shutdown, you big baby,” I said.
“Goodnight, Pilot Practised,” it said as I was lowered to the ground.
Goodnight! It wasn’t even four in the afternoon. The sun wasn’t going to set for hours yet. The spring days are long when you’re this close to the Arctic Circle, and the summer days almost endless.