Melinda dropped the last pair of jeans from her suitcase into the cupboard on her side of the room. “That just about does the unpacking.” She sat down on her bed and pulled up the suitcase onto the crisp white duvet. “Time to turn Poly back on.”
“Time to do what now?” Bryony asked as she tried to find space for yet another brightly coloured garment. Melinda thought it was some kind of shirt, but she wasn’t sure how the straps would work.
She turned away from Bryony’s wardrobe and found Poly’s box in her suitcase. “Poly is a mech I made. Well, bought. I saved up forever to buy a basic model that I could tweak. I added some code snippets I worked out and found in the library. Poly’s useful for calculations and kind of amusing. At least I think so.” She clicked Poly’s head back into place. Gears began to whir inside the little mech.
“That’s awesome.” Bryony turned to watch. “Can you send messages and everything?”
Melinda made a face. “In principle. The original model was a messenger mech design, but the tweaks mean Poly isn’t entirely, um, stable.”
“No, you’d never fit a horse inside me.”
Bryony jumped. “What?”
“Old Earth books seemed like a good way to feed her learning algorithms at the time.”
“The ability to make a pun, or play on words, is an advanced feature of my natural language algorithms.”
“It would be even more advanced if ‘stable’ still had two meanings,” Melinda said. “A stable used to be something to do with an animal called a horse. I haven’t figured out how to persuade Poly that the joke isn’t funny.”
“I see.” Bryony slowly went back into motion, unpacking another brightly coloured swirly thing. “Is it always so, um, perky?”
“It’s more interesting this way. At least, I think so. I can tell Poly to be quiet when you’re around if it bothers you.”
“No, it doesn’t bother me as such. Not yet anyway.” Bryony winked. “I wasn’t expecting it, was all.”
“It pays to expect the unexpected,” Poly chimed in.
Bryony laughed. “I daresay it does, at that.”
Somebody knocked loudly and the door swung open. “All ready, ladies?” Kelly Jean surveyed the room.
“Ladies and mech,” Poly corrected her.
Kelly Jean didn’t seem to notice. “We thought we’d pick you up in case you need help finding the common room, you know, but you’d better be quick — what is that?”
“That is a flying mechanical, Kelly Jean,” Bryony said. “Did you never see them at home? I’m not sure the school system allows for that sort of deficiency.”
“Mechanicals are covered under several sections of the Mechatropolis school syllabus,” Poly informed her. Melinda felt the blood flowing into her face. She didn’t want to get into a fight.
“Quiet now, Poly. I’m sorry, I had the algorithms set rather permissively,” she said to the girls in the doorway.
To her surprise, it was Quintessa who broke the silence. “Is there a particular reason the mech knows the school syllabus so well?” she asked, still standing out in the corridor.
“It was useful when I was studying for exams. I get lazy about looking things up in books when I can just put it into Poly’s memory banks, I’m afraid. Shall we have a look at the common room, then?” She picked up her key and walked out, past Kelly Jean.
“So that mechanical — Poly — is yours?” Quintessa asked. “It seems quite clever.”
“I implemented some natural language learning algorithms I found in the library. It works better some times than others. Poly has no sense of context.”
“Actually, I think it’s surprisingly good for a mech.”
“Which isn’t saying much.”
Melinda was relieved when Bryony and Kelly Jean joined them, although they walked to the common room in stony silence.
“Hurrah! More people!” Ivor shouted when they arrived. “Tell Ken to stop taking forever with these cards and let us play particle snap.”
Melinda blinked and looked around the room. On her left, several armchairs and big cushions were arranged around a fireplace. The right of the room was taken up by three big wooden tables, one of which the boys had colonised. Ivor, Marc, Ken and Jaxon were sitting around the table, peering at a viewing screen and a deck of cards.
“Are you fighting already?” Kelly Jean asked.
“I guess they can disagree without getting into a fight,” Melinda said.
“Bless your heart, we’re not fighting,” Ivor said. “We’ve found an excellent set of playing cards. Show them, Marc.”
“It’s not all that exciting,” Marc said. “But it’s kind of cute. They’re fundamental particles instead of just being numbers and such. So this is an electron.” He waved a card at them. “And this is–” he paused to read the card “–this is a red up quark. Like you get inside atoms, y’know.”
“So what do you do with them?” Bryony asked.
“Play snap!” Ivor said immediately.
“If Ivor would give me a chance, there’s a set of rules for what you’re actually supposed to do here,” Ken said. “But I guess you can play snap if that’s what everybody wants to do.”
“What if we play snap while you finish reading the rules, Ken? Then you can explain it to us afterwards.” Bryony walked over to the table and sat down.
Ken shrugged. “Yeah, okay.”
Melinda took a deep breath. “I think I’ll just have a look at what else is in that cupboard while you guys play.” She’d had enough arguing for one day already.
The cupboard contained a selection of book chips, she discovered. Most of them seemed to be textbooks and references like An Introduction to the Differential Calculus or The Handbook of Physical Constants. At the bottom of the collection were a few novels.
She moved on to the next shelf as Marc said, “No, this is a blue up quark and you have a blue down quark, so you can’t snap.”
“This is so annoying,” Kelly Jean said, but the game seemed to go on.
The next shelf down had a collection of jigsaw puzzles, chess sets and Go boards. Below that was a jumbled collection of scientific apparatus. She found a jar of iron filings, all clumped up against the side where the bar magnets were stacked. There were a bunch of other jars, holding a variety of crystals and powders. Near the back she found a box full of wires, lights and switches, with breadboards to connect them all up. There were other boxes of components. Melinda grinned when she found one full of transistors that had already been wired up to form logic gates. Those would be fun to play with at some point.
“Oi, Melinda!” Bryony tapped her shoulder. “Are you playing?”
“Oh, yeah, um, I guess so.” Melinda closed the cupboard regretfully. “There’s some cool stuff in there, though.”
“It’ll still be there tomorrow, promise. C’mon.”
Ken was dealing when Melinda found her place at the table. “It’s not really very complicated,” he said. “The cards represent the fundamental particles that make up most of the universe. We know from school that atoms are made from electrons, protons and neutrons. Protons and neutrons are made from quarks. The exact combinations are on the screen there. You use the cards in your hand in steps. The game builds up to making a helium atom, but you can get points for things you make along the way.”
Melinda had just combined her cards to make hydrogen when Buhle and Verashni arrived. “Hey, hey, hey, what’s going on here?” Buhle asked.
“Ivor found a game,” Bryony said.
“Actually, Jaxon found a game,” Ivor said. “I just popularised it.”
“Come see.” Bryony beckoned the newcomers over.
They were playing a second round when the dinner bell began to clang and Mrs McKinsey appeared at the doorway. “No broken bones yet? Very good. Pack up quickly or you’ll be late for supper.”
Author’s note: If you think the card game from the Academy common room sounds interesting, you can try it for yourself. You can download the rules and printable cards for free here.