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"It's insane," he says. "It doesn't even make any sense. How can an app stop you getting into trouble for not listening?"

I consider laying it all out for him, explaining the combination of voice-to-text conversion and predictive text searching. But he doesn't know much about any of that stuff anyway, so I just tell him it's all confidential at the moment.

"Patent pending," I say. "But the idea's a peach—don't worry about that. It's the programming that's the problem. Turns out only one person in the whole school could do it."

"How come you don't just pay a real programmer, then?" he asks me, and I laugh.

"Are you serious?" I say. "Do you know how much that would cost? I'd have to rob a bank."

I consider explaining the copyright issues to him as well, but it would be a waste of time. He's totally lost in muffin heaven for the moment. He holds his handiwork up to the light and turns it around, occasionally biting into it, and I start to feel envious. The sausages are all chewy and they won't go away. I let out a little groan, and Sandy suddenly comes back into the real world and asks me why the one programmer in school isn't enough.

"How many do you need?" he says.

"Two," I reply.

"What for?" he asks. "Why can't you do it with one?"

"Because of who the one is," I explain. "I need two so's I can ditch the space cadet and just work with the normal."

He stops abusing his muffin and looks a bit stupid for a minute: it takes him a while to unzip the data I've sent him. Then he gets it.

"Who's the space cadet?" he asks, and I look around the canteen and over his shoulder at the geek table, where they're arguing about a pack of cards one of them is spreading out. Then I look at the table of popular girls, putting on lipstick and admiring their hair in tiny mirrors. I turn round in my seat to look behind me and watch a sad group of teachers all staring down at their plates and saying nothing to each other, and I see a big gaggle of first-years generally behaving like primary school morons, throwing bits of food at each other and shrieking a lot. Then I see her. Sitting at a table on her own and staring into the distance with what I'm sure she imagines is poetic intensity.

Elsie Green.

I turn back round to face Sandy and use my thumb to point at her over my shoulder.

"Her," I say.

Sandy follows my directions, and I watch his eyes wobbling about until they finally lock on their target. Then his eyebrows go up.

"Greensleeves?" he asks.

"Greensleeves," I reply.

He gives a low whistle. "Game over," he says.

"Could be," I say, and suddenly unable to carry on with the sausage and onions, I push them aside and grab one of Sandy's muffins. They taste good. They taste really good.

I should have taken hospitality instead of history.


FOUR

That night, back at home, the Regular Madness kicks off for a while. It's been brewing up for a few days, I suppose, but it still takes me by surprise. As usual, everything starts off calmly enough: I'm sitting at the table with my originators (Mum and Dad, to give them their formal titles) and all three of us are just quietly eating dinner. Dad has stripped down to his undershirt, rolling pinches of tobacco up tightly in little pieces of paper, making a pyramid of fresh cigarettes for later on. Mum is still wearing her suit from the office, telling a story about someone else who works there, I think. I'm not really sure. I catch bits and pieces now and again, and it seems to be about a woman who lost a lot of money for the company by pressing the wrong button on a computer.

Something like that. Anyway, that's all that's really going on. It's nice and peaceful. And then, suddenly, the heat turns on me. Mum asks me the million-dollar question.

"How were things at school today, Jack?"

I don't even look up, just nod. "Fine," I say. "What happened?" Mum asks.

"Well..." I tell her, inside my head, "I had a real cosmic brain tingler, the one I thought would free me from having to sit here answering these questions for much longer. Then it turned out the only person who could help me with it is someone it's dangerous to go anywhere near. And who hates me anyway. So the whole thing went up in smoke, and now I'm back here answering these questions for the rest of my life."

But all I say through my mouth is, "Nothing much. Just the usual." Which is obviously nowhere near enough for Mum.

"What subjects did you have today?" she asks, and right at that moment I can't even remember most of them.

"I had maths last thing," I say, and realize instantly that I should have thought about it for a little bit longer. If I'd said English, or history, Mum might well have left it at that. Just nodded and told me that was nice. But she's big on maths. She sees herself as something of a maths expert, even though most of the stuff she got
at school in the olden days isn't even the way we do it anymore.


This excerpt ends on page 18 of the paperback edition.
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