A Gem among Gems
As soon as Ink left, the members of series seven turned to look at Rose expectantly. Being alone with a stranger was definitely something that had never happened to them before — Rose could tell from the way that they steadily inched closer to each other, until they were huddled together in front of her. She laughed, they were so effortlessly adorable… but at the same time it broke her heart to know that eventually they would be separated from each other, and that she was going to play a part in that, even if she did have good intentions.
“Pearls, why don’t you talk amongst yourselves for a minute. I’ll be with you very soon.” She sat on the floor again and closed her eyes, focusing on her plan. The pearls did as suggested and soon their chatter could be heard throughout the room.
Rose went over the elements of the test in her mind.
First and foremost she was going to have to be subtle: the last thing she wanted was to give these Gems the idea that she was going to be choosing one of them through a test, and so introduce them to feelings of hostility towards one another, or make them feel pressured. She supposed that it wasn’t really a test, just a little something for her to confirm what she already pretty sure of.
Then there was the question of what form the not-test would take. She wanted something that was easily conveyed, that would make any differences between their ways of thinking obvious. Asking personal questions could be interesting, but if the nervous pearl was trying not to be noticed then she would give the kind of answers one might expect from a pearl. That wouldn’t do.
Since their capacity to consider things beyond the facts was something that Rose was trying to gauge, an exercise in creativity might be appropriate. Getting them to draw or write about something that didn’t exist would probably work, but she wanted to pose the task in a way that would appeal to their nature — that would be difficult with a subject with no basis in reality.
A puzzle was probably better, one that could be easily solved, but in a variety of ways… No, what Rose was trying to get out of them wasn’t the answer itself — actually, the answer was almost irrelevant — but originality in the thought used to find it.
‘Come on, come on, come on,’ she thought, willing herself to think of a workable idea, ‘try to see things through their eyes.’ She’d have to if she was going to prepare something that served her purpose, but that was easier said than done as nearly everything knew about them she had learned that afternoon. ‘Goodness,’ she thought to herself, ‘I wonder if anyone else has ever put this much thought into choosing a pearl…’ Somehow she doubted it very much.
She liked the idea of a puzzle, or a problem… That was it! She would create one with one logical solution and see how they individually approached it.
Once she had decided on the form of the exercise, its specifics came to her very quickly. It was now just a matter of describing it to them.
She opened her eyes.
“Pearls.” she addressed them firmly but gently, not needing to raise her voice to capture their attention.
“Yes, ma’am.” they acknowledged simultaneously.
“I was wondering if you might be able to help me with something.” Instantly they perked up, all eight of them verbally expressing their readiness to assist Rose as best they could.
“Great, I was hoping you would.” she smiled at them. They smiled back but remained silent, listening a bit more intently for whatever was coming next.
“What I’d like you to do is have go at a small problem I’ve been presented with. It’d really help me out if I could see how someone else tries to solve it. Could you all please get something to write with and write on and then I’ll explain it to you.”
Rose had expected them to go and retrieve stationery from somewhere, but instead they each took on a meditative expression and made a series of personal hand gestures. Within seconds their gems were all glowing and shortly after that, eight notepads and eight pens were drifting out of interdimensional storage. As quickly as it had begun the light show ended.
“Ah,” said Rose, laughing to herself, “well now that that’s taken care of, please listen carefully.”
Rose described to them a situation where three different substances were extracted in different proportions, by plants on five different planets in the star system. The substances were sold by the unit in their given proportions as fuels, and there were restrictions on the number of units each plant could sell. She also gave them the prices that the fuels were bought for on Homeworld, costs associated with separating the fuels before sale and other information.
“All that said, how could we go about making the most money? I’ll give you some time now to see what you can come up with.”
With that, she allowed the pearls to carry out the task. As they worked she looked at each of them in turn; she saw so much potential in them and their strange ways, and she wondered what they would do if the place was suddenly closed down (for a fleeting moment she had the loveliest idea that they might all like to go back with her, but perhaps that was just wishful thinking).
All of them had their heads down and appeared to be totally focused on the problem. If they were like this with every task given to them — which wasn’t difficult to imagine — then it was mystifying why people would pay so much to have them carry out mundane tasks (though they did make those tasks look good, maybe that was where the money went…) when they could be taught how to do things of much greater complexity.
Movement to her right brought Rose back to the room: the pearl she was hoping to rescue from the Nacrarium had stopped writing and was looking straight at her. Her face suggested that she was on the verge of saying something, but as Rose opened her mouth to ask if anything was wrong, the pearl lowered her head and went back to writing. About five minutes later she stopped again and put down her pen with an air of finality. ‘Is she finished, or has she given up?’ Rose wondered, intrigued as to what she was going to do next.
The pearl took a pensive, sidelong glance at the others, and with a determined look on her face brought up a holographic model from her glowing gem. Rose immediately recognised the model as a section of the star system, with Homeworld at one edge of the spherical diagram and one of the outer planets and its terraformed moon at the other; between these were two of the planets that she’d described in the problem. The nervous pearl appeared to be estimating the distances between the five objects, an action that made Rose smile. The other pearls seemed not to care that one of their number was doing something that they weren’t, because after looking at the source of the light they went straight back to what they were doing.
Whatever it was she had been trying to figure out had obviously been figured out, because the hologram receded into her head. Rose thought that the pearl looked rather pleased with herself, which she took as a promising sign.
She waited another few minutes before deciding that it was time to see the results.
“Pearls, you can stop writing now, thank you for doing this for me. I saw you all concentrating very hard, did any of you manage to find a solution?”
“No, ma’am. We’ve never seen anything like that before; I didn’t even know where to begin. I’m sorry that I couldn’t be of greater assistance.” said a pearl with red eyes. The others quickly followed with words to the same effect. After the rest had spoken, the pearl that Rose had such high hopes for anxiously made her contribution:
“Actually, I found a solution, ma’am.”
Although she had a faint smile, she looked terrified at the same time: every so often she would run a hand through her hair — achieving nothing except untidying it — or change her position slightly, only to change it back seconds later. It was obvious there was more to what she’d just said than she wanted to reveal, but from her flustered appearance Rose knew that it wasn’t going to be long before she found out what it was.
She was genuinely surprised to hear that the pearl had found a solution; she had expected her take on the exercise to be unique, but if she really had come up with a correct answer then she would have to find out more about her.
“You did?” Rose asked, “Well done. May I have a look?”
“Ummm… yes, certainly ma’am,” she said, holding out the sheet of paper to Rose. “The basic solution works, but I’m sure it could be optimised further —if I had more time.” she added hastily.
Rose had barely started looking at the pearl’s answer when she spoke again.
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
“I’m so sorry to interrupt, but my solution might— will be a waste of your time… for what you’re trying to achieve.”
“What makes you say that?”
The pearl blushed.
“I… ahh… I don’t mean to offend you, but the whole problem is…” she hesitated.
“Is...” said Rose with an encouraging smile.
“…Well, it needs to be reformulated if you want to maximise profit effectively. My solution works, but if you apply it to the system as it stands your gains will be at least three orders of magnitude smaller than they could be… In its current form the very idea is virtually self-defeating.” As soon as she had spoken the words her eyes went wide, and she clapped her hands over her mouth. The other pearls stared at her in disbelief. Rose had to try her hardest to stifle a laugh.
“Oh dear, I see… So what would you advise?” she asked. This was what Rose had been waiting for.
The pearl probably would have looked less shocked if Rose had slapped her, but it didn’t last long. As though she was rebooting, she exchanged astonishment for a thoroughly businesslike demeanour, and after a pause to collect her thoughts she began lecturing to her students about the problems with the problem.
Rose had thought the whole test through carefully, and had chosen two substances out of the three in such a way that almost anyone could see they were least profitable if sold as fuels. This apparent oversight allowed for a much simpler, more obvious solution to the task, and gave her an alternative way of testing the pearls if for some (bizarre) reason they had encountered optimisation in their learning. It was this flaw that the nervous pearl had noticed and was now correcting (in a most comprehensive fashion, Rose had to add).
She listened carefully to what the pearl had to say. With every word the pale Gem was getting more and more enthusiastic: it was as though she genuinely enjoyed explaining the correct answer to her captive audience. Her logic was undeniable, and the delivery of her arguments was clear and confident — Rose was seeing a totally different side to the ever more fascinating pearl.
When she’d concluded her explanation, she fell quiet. A split second later she seemed to have realised something because her expression changed to one of abject terror, as though she’d made some irrevocable mistake.
There was absolutely no mistake; Rose now had no doubt that this was the pearl for her, and she felt enormously proud of her for some reason she couldn’t quite explain.
“Hmmm,” Rose said, unable to stop smiling, “In that case I’m very lucky that that you’re here. Your insight, it’s truly invaluable... I can’t thank you enough for bringing this to my attention.”
The pearl blushed again, two intensifying patches of turquoise that rapidly coloured her cheeks. Her fearful look was buried under a contented smile — totally unable as she was to show anything but pride in response to what Rose had said.
“Thank you, ma’am. I’m glad that I was able to help.”
“I’d still like to see the working that the rest of you did.” Rose said, turning to the other pearls. She had decided which pearl she was going to take to the surface with her, but if there were any other hidden gifts within their group then she wanted to know about it: each of these pearls mattered to her, but any with an atypical way of thinking would be more useful in the eventual liberation of the others.
The pearls were all too happy to hand over what they’d done, and it only took Rose a few moments to run through their results. It turned out exactly as she’d expected: they’d all decided that the necessary pieces of information could all be assigned a symbol, but they simply had no clue what to do with the symbols once they got them; for all their focus they’d only managed to rewrite the question, their attempts to solve it were just systematic applications of all the mathematics they appeared to know already. By contrast, ‘her’ pearl had started to do what she herself would have done; Rose hadn’t solved the problem herself, but the pearl’s method was exactly right (up to the point she’d got to), so Rose had confidence that her answer was too.
‘Wow,’ she thought, taking another look at the nervous pearl. She had managed to generate a correct answer in ten minutes, Rose wondered what she would achieve in ten years, or ten centuries, with her mind free to pursue any subject it wished… She considered telling the pearl how impressed she was, but decided against it because of her reactions so far: a compliment like that might make her dissipate her form…
“I’m going to call Ink now,” she told the group. “I just wanted to thank you all again for your effort, and tell you how nice it’s been to meet you all. I couldn’t have a better impression of you. I really hope that you’ll be happy on the surface when you leave here.”
They all smiled now.
Rose pulled on the solid stone door, poking her head through the gap and looking around for Ink. She looked relieved to see Rose and grinned, knowing what her reappearance meant.
“Ink, you can come back in now. I’ve made my choice.” she announced proudly.