Three brilliant students. The world’s best supercomputer. What could go wrong?
Mathilde, a brilliant student at l’ENS, Paris’ best research university, wants to simulate a new Big Bang. But Charles Simonetti, the professor who almost caught them messing with the supercomputer, is suddenly calling her – right when she’s supposed to be helping Oliver score…
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Chapter Five: Floriane
What does he want? she thought, Is this about Mark?
It couldn’t be. If he knew anything, they would have been caught back in the lab a few days earlier, not now. Unless we left something there? She shook her head. They had meticulously gone over the room before they left, and just to be sure, Oliver had even checked on it the next day.
She dropped a few steps behind the boys and picked up.
“Allo?” she asked. It felt weird speaking French after so much time spent with Oliver and Szymon.
“Mathilde. I need to see you. Can you come by my office?”
“Now?” It was 8 p.m. On a Saturday.
“Tonight, yes. I’ll be in until midnight or so.”
“I have a thing now, with some friends from school,” she said, “Maybe around 11? And what’s this about? Is it important?”
“See you around 11 then,” he said, and hung up.
That was strange. He had pointedly ignored her questions making her racing heart beat even faster. But then again, it didn’t sound as if he knew about their nocturnal visit to Mark either. Unless he wants to ask me about it first, before he spills the beans to the administration?
The entrance of the closest subway station, Rue Monge, was a green wrought iron arch rising up in futuristic neo-classic curves. Paris’ subway stations, as always, looked simultaneously modern and ancient.
“Ollie, wait,” she said as he headed straight to the gate, “I need to buy a ticket.”
“Me too,” said Szymon.
“You don’t have a yearly pass?” asked Oliver incredulously.
“I ran the numbers and given how little I travel, it made no sense,” she answered, reaching the ticket machine and rolling the heavy metal bar to make her selection.
Oliver groaned and Mathilde rolled her eyes. She didn’t even try to explain – he wouldn’t understand. Oliver’s attitude to money was disinterested at best, which was easier to do when one’s parents were bankrolling all education costs. He just wasn’t able to get that for Mathilde and Szymon, worrying about money was something they had grown up with.
The gates opened with a pneumatic hiss, and they walked down into the curved vaults of the subway, jumping on the first one headed to Place d’Italie.
“Ever notice how gloomy everyone looks on the subway?” said Szymon, looking around him, “Is it a French thing, or an everywhere thing?”
“It’s called tirer la gueule,” Mathilde said, “Pulling a face. It’s the French national sport.”
“Guys,” cut in Oliver, “Can you please, for once, try to fit in?”
Szymon and Mathilde put on exaggeratedly deadpan expressions, crunching their eyebrows together and trying to look unimpressed by everything. As soon as Oliver turned away, they exchanged a look and burst out laughing.
They changed lines twice and finally arrived to Parmentier. As they walked out of the station into the chilly night, Mathilde stole a glance at the 3D posters on the walls detailing the history of how Mr. Parmentier had brought the potato to Europe and made it mainstream.
The large stone facades, made gloomy by lonely streetlights, towered over them. Oliver handed them both a bottle of wine from the plastic bag he had been carrying.
“OK, game plan,” he said, “We go in, we say hi. I’m gonna play it cool at first and keep my distance. You take care of the two lapdogs, and that’s when I’ll make my move. Got it?”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Mathilde, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep them busy.”
They found the door quickly, following the muffled sound of music, and rang the bell. Floriane opened with a smile.
“Salut Oliver!” she said with a bise, and gave Mathilde and Szymon a quick wave, “Come in!”
Mathilde had to hand it to him: she was pretty. Her long blonde hair was held in place by a braided band that brought out her clear blue eyes. She wore a knee-length white dress that seemed to draw light to her as she moved around the room.
To Oliver’s credit, he wasn’t easily outdone either. He took off his Ascot and worked the room like a true charmer, a bise here, a handshake and a pat on the back there. Despite having only arrived in Paris six months ago, it looked like everyone there was a lifelong friend of his.
“Which ones are the lapdogs?” Szymon leaned in to whisper. They hadn’t moved from the entrance.
“See the two near the window, in dark blue dresses?” she motioned with her eyes.
“The one that looks like she’s about to tear someone’s head off is Laura, and the short one with the black hair is Clara.”
“I’m gonna mix those names up,” he shook his head.
“Just follow my lead,” she took a step into the room, “But first, let’s get a drink. We’re going to need it.”
They walked to the table, and she poured herself a whiskey coke while Szymon reached for the Sprite. Before she could grab Szymon with her, one of their classmates, buzzed and overenthusiastic, walked up to Szymon and began talking. Szymon smiled painfully and looked at her for help. She gave him a wide grin, a discreet tap on the back and walked away. It might be easier to keep the lapdogs busy if she didn’t have to manage him at the same time.
“Salut,” she said as she approached.
Laura slowly looked her up and down from head to toe, cocked an eyebrow and raised her fingers in a half-wave without a word. Well, I knew this wouldn’t be easy.
She just didn’t play well with girls. She gave off a tough, tomboyish feel instead of being pretty and dainty – an adverse reaction to her upbringing. It worked great with boys, for whom her sharp features and fierce personality combined into a unique charm, but she simply lacked the femininity to buddy up with girls. All her closest friends were, and had always been, male. In any other situation, she wouldn’t have cared, but tonight she needed to play nice if she was going to help Oliver.
“You’re in the Lettres major right? You have philosophy with Mme. Morose?” she asked.
“Yeah, why?” Laura coolly turned to face her.
“I saw her on campus yesterday looking like a mess,” said Mathilde, “You know what happened?”
“Poor woman,” said Laura, her eyes lighting up a little, “I heard her husband left her.”
“What?” jumped in Clara, “I heard something about a miscarriage.”
“No, that’s Marion, but that’s a rumor.”
Bingo, thought Mathilde. Gossip was always a great way in. Laura and Clara began to excitedly go through the latest ENS gossip, including a whole history of recent choppes, the university term for who had made out with whom. They quickly moved on to discussing the people in the room. Mathilde kept them going with a few well-placed questions and received detailed feedback on everyone’s flaws, quirks and failed relationships. She felt her heart twist a little as they briefly dissected Szymon before moving on to more interesting targets.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Oliver make his move and sit down on the couch next to Floriane. She kept the conversation going for a few more minutes, making sure that Laura and Clara had missed it, and pointing to her empty drink, slid back to the table next to Szymon.
“I swear,” he said as soon as she approached, “If another French dude tells me he can speak Polish, and all he can say is Kurwa and spasibo, I’m just going to leave.”
“Isn’t spasibo Russian?” she asked.
“EXACTLY!” he took a deep swig of Sprite-rosé.
“You think you’ve got it rough? The only French you foreign students seem to be able to tell me is Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, which is just plain creepy. I never know if they’re quoting the song or trying to choppe me.”
Oliver suddenly appeared next to them and grabbed two plastic cups.
“What’s the matter? Got shot down?” she asked him.
“Nope, everything is going perfectly,” he grinned, “Just getting the lady a drink.”
He looked around for a bottle opener and started to twist it into the cork of a nearby bottle of red wine.
“You see Szymon,” he said, “A girl like Floriane knows she’s hot. If you compliment her, she’s going to look down on you. You just placed yourself beneath her. But ignoring her doesn’t work either. If you do that, she’s not even going to notice you.”
Szymon looked confused. “So what do you do?”
“You give her fake compliments. Notice her little headband? I’ve been calling her Pocahantas all night. It pisses her off to no end, but it’s not mean, so she doesn’t know how to react. She doesn’t know if I like her or not. A girl like that is not used to feeling that way. So she’s starting to work and try to please me.”
He poured the wine in the cups and walked off with a wink. “Toodles.”
Szymon watched Oliver sit back down next to Floriane, who laughed and playfully punched him in the arm.
“You have to admit, he’s good,” he said to Mathilde.
“Bullshit,” she said, sipping from her cup, “It’s a numbers game.”
“Don’t listen to the crap he just spouted. Some of it is true, but mostly he’s doing exactly what we plan to do with Mark II.”
“He’s going to build a video game with her?” he grinned.
“Yes, but it’ll be a universe where everything is pink and cute and has bunnies.”
“And Indians apparently.”
“No but seriously,” she continued, “Look at it this way. When we finally get the code right, we’re going to launch the universe. And most likely, the first thing it will do is fail.”
“The quarks aren’t going to combine or the whole thing will collapse on itself or nothing will happen at all.”
“The trick is, we’re going to do it a ton of times. Each time, we’ll tweak the variables a little. It might take ten tries, or a hundred tries, or even a thousand tries, but eventually we’ll get our universe.”
She pointed to Oliver. “That’s what he’s doing. He hits on everything that moves. Sometimes it sticks, like now, most times it doesn’t. But do it enough, tweaking it along the way, and you’re bound to succeed eventually.”
“He’s a perfect case study for machine learning and genetic algorithms,” she sipped from her cup.
“But it’s not just that,” he said, suddenly serious, “He’s so confident around other people. You can’t fake that.”
“Well, he’s a single child from a rich family,” she said, “He’s used to being the center of attention.”
“You’re a single child,” he pointed out.
“Yeah but it’s different,” she waved dismissively, “And anyway, whatever the case, you can fake confidence. In my opinion, it’s all a question of whether or not it’s worth the time and effort.”
When the clock hit eleven, the crowd of students started to move towards the exit, intent on heading to a club. They found themselves regrouping on the street outside, splitting up into groups of four to order taxis.
Oliver approached them, an arm around Floriane’s shoulders. “Are we sharing a cab? We’re going to l’Evenite.”
“I’m going to head home,” she lied, “I’m getting pretty tired. But you should take Szymon.”
“What-?” asked Szymon.
“Don’t worry,” said Oliver, putting his other arm around Szymon’s shoulders, “Let’s make it a boy’s night Szy! Just you and me and this pretty lady,” he added with a peck on Floriane’s cheek. She giggled.
“Ollie, take good care of him ok?”
He gave her a wink, and they headed off down the street, Szymon looking back at her in confusion. She opened her phone and ordered a cab. Now the hard part: dealing with Simonetti.
Simonetti’s office was on the top floor of the eastern wing of l’ENS’ main building. Only a few lights were on, bathing the corridor in a dim glow. She walked on old creaky wooden boards towards his door, easily recognizable from the light shining out from under it.
Charles Simonetti was seated behind his desk, grading papers, books piled high on either side. His signature black leather jacket was on the chair behind him, and his black hair salted with streaks of grey was ruffled and messy. He looked at her from under thick eyebrows.
“Come in Mathilde,” he put down his pen, and beckoned her forth, “A few things have come to my attention and I’ve become quite concerned about what you’ve been up to this past week.”
Her heart raced. Does he know? And if he does, can I convince him to overlook the whole thing?
“Skipping classes, not showing up for lab studies,” he continued, “I do wonder what you’ve been working on that requires so much of your attention.”
“What is this about?” she asked cautiously.
“Mathilde,” he said, crossing his hands under his chin, “Not answering my texts either?”
He smiled. Mathilde felt a small wave of relief pass through her, followed by another, warmer one. She walked slowly around his desk, trailing her fingers on its surface. He turned in his chair to face her.
She stopped right in front of him and pouted her lips. “Is that what this is about? You’re worried that I’ve forgotten about you…?”
“Of course not,” he grinned, and with a perfect practiced motion, pulled her to him. Their lips met instinctively, and her skin tingled at the soft rasp of his three-day beard.
“You know,” she whispered, toying with one of his shirt buttons, “We’ve never done it in your office before…”
He grabbed the back of her neck with one hand, and kissed her again.
~ End of Chapter 5 ~
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