Imaginary Numbers

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The Hotel

Driving away from the university, where a sweaty Armand Duval stood on the cement steps waving them off, the professor retreated into his own world. Their last conversation stuck in his head. It occurred in secret while Vivienne examined a vending machine in the hallway with a childlike curiosity. Both men were confused by the sudden foreign language she had spoken, and other than that, they gleaned very little about her origins. Armand was convinced that she was a foreign national trying to start a new life in Europe. Recently, the news had been rife with Middle Eastern refugees trying to sneak into France, and although her English was nearly flawless, she certainly did fit the description with her copper skin, black hair, and ambiguously foreign eyes. Despite having a mastery of six languages between them, neither of the men could discern the alien tongue she slipped into under hypnosis. The guttural sound had thrown them off, and they settled on Lebanese, a country with historic ties to France. She had mentioned Galatea, which the professor explained was the mythic statue built by Pygmalion, which the artist fell in love with. Yet, she claimed to be no Galatea. And the scene she described fits well with Italy.

In the end Armand wanted to explain his theory to the girl himself. They walked over to Vivienne, who looked astonished at the mechanics of the vending machine. They found her with her hand in the drawer. Surprised by the two men, she asked them how it works, and what the purpose of such a machine could be. She told them how she saw a student retrieve a chocolate bar. “It’s like magic,” she said.

After the professor bought her a water bottle, describing step-by-step how to operate the machine, they became more serious, returning once again to the office, which at that point had started to cool down. Armand explained how there was no reason to suspect she was repressing memories subconsciously. In fact, he referred them both to a colleague in neurology, who was willing to do an MRI to see if she had suffered physiological damage to the brain. He placed his hand on her shoulder and asked her in a deliberate way whether she was running away from something. She shook her head unsurely.

That last conversation ran through the professor’s mind. He was aware of the media coverage of illegal refugees entering Europe, but he just couldn’t believe that this innocent girl with her naïve way and pristine smile could be so devious as to concoct such a scheme. He was also concerned about the unexplained heat she emanated during the hypnosis. It certainly was unusual. Ultimately, he had agreed with Armand that further study is needed. Tomorrow they would go see his contact in the neuroscience lab.

“That was interesting,” Vivienne spoke up. “Armand is a nice guy.”

“It certainly was interesting.” The professor was still in his own world, driving through the narrow streets on autopilot. He turned his head to look at her: a being affecting such calmness and care, a person of such sublime beauty. She made eye contact with him and they both smiled. He felt sorry that she had to experience this trauma, and then realised that he believed in her honesty—she was no fraud, no refugee, or impostor.

“Vivienne,” he said, driving towards the last luminous patina of sunset on the horizon, a golden line that faded quickly into the deep blue of night, “do you know the language you spoke back there?” She looked out the window, watching other cars pass by in the opposite direction.

“I haven’t been completely honest with you,” she confessed. The professor turned down the jazz playing in the background.

“About what?”

“Well, earlier today I heard a similar sounding voice in my head.”

Hands on the wheel, the professor turned onto a smaller road leading further into the centre of the city. “What kind of voice?”

“Well, it was a man’s voice. It said ‘apó poú eísai?’ in a deep, rough voice. It was the only thing I could hear clearly. There were other sounds and other sentences, but I tried to block them out.”

“Why would you try to block them out?”

“Well, you looked worried at the time, and I wanted to help you.”

“Vivienne,” the professor said, laying his hand on her knee, “I am here to help you. Don’t you worry about me. I want you to tell me if you hear any other voices, okay?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Please call me William.” He placed both hands on the wheel, and turned into an underground parking lot. “Well, this is where we stay tonight.”

“Why did Armand call you Charles?” she asked.

“It is my first name, but my family always called my William. I went to school with Armand, and in school they simply used the first name on my records.”

“I like William more,” she said and reclined the chair as he glided the car into a spot next to a cement pillar. The professor smiled.

“Very well.” He turned off the engine and said, “The hotel is supposed to be one of the best in Rouen.” She followed him through the dark parking lot into the elevator that would bring them to the lobby of the Hotel.

“William,” she tried out his name and bit her bottom lip sheepishly, “I can understand that language, but I don’t know what it’s called.”

“Oh, well, that’s good.” He buttoned up his jacket and straightened his back. The floor number was counting up from P2 to P1 to L, and the elevator dinged, revealing a luxurious red carpet, high paneled ceilings with hanging chandeliers and an art deco counter, behind which a uniformed woman waited. “I suppose it’d be a greater help if you could tell me what the language was; however, if you understand it, it means that at the very least that wasn’t the voice of God.” He grinned at her, and steped towards the counter where he checked into two adjacent rooms.

“Are you hungry?” he asked. “The concierge said they are serving dinner until 9 o’clock.” She nodded, and watched curiously as a bellboy in a flat-topped hat loaded their baggage onto a golden dolly and bowed before towing it away. She made the poor boy nervous. He blushed under her gaze, but snapped out of it when the professor placed a coin into his hand.

“Shall we go?” The professor asked, and led the way to the dining room, a well-polished wooden room with a silver service, and waiters running around carrying a large assortment of fragrant dishes.

They sat at a small table with a white tablecloth, and the waiter winked at Vivienne as he filled up her glass with ice water.

Merci,” she said, trying her French. The professor ordered a bottle of wine, and they both stared at the menus in silence for a minute.

“Do you see anything you like?” he asked, peering over the frames of his glasses.

“Uhh… To tell you the truth, I’ll just have what he’s having,” she said, pointing to a man spooning melted cheese off the top of his french onion soup.

“Soup. Very well. Anything else?” Vivienne drained the last of her water, and shook her head. The ice rattled around the empty glass as she put it down.

“This is great water!” She beamed and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. The professor cast a glance at the neighbouring couple to check if they saw her unsophisticated behaviour. He handed her a linen napkin, then took a sip of his own water.

“There’s lemon in it. That’s why it tastes different.”

She looked around, soaking up the rich atmosphere. Everything in the room glistened, shined, or gave off delicious scents. The wooden walls were deep red, and the faces of the customers all looked so lively and happy. Deep fried in the sound of sizzling meat, there was boisterous laughter bubbling from a group of men. Her face was glowing and her smile shone as brightly as the chandelier.

“Great! Thank you so much, William. For everything. I don’t know what I would do without you. Everything feels so unfamiliar to me.”

He smiled, creasing the skin above his nose. Little wrinkles formed at the corner of his eyes. “It’s my pleasure, my dear. I just want to help you find your feet again.”

The waiter came, and poured a tiny bit of wine in the professor’s glass, a grandiose orb of thin crystal. The professor swiveled it, allowing long teeth of sugar to drip off the rouge coating; he sniffed it, inhaling deeply, sipped, then nodded to the waiter, who filled Vivienne’s glass first. She imitated the entire process: swivel, sniff, taste, nod. Then she smiled widely. The professor ordered in French, handing back both menus.

“Am I like Joan of Arc?”

“Pardon?” The professor raised both eyebrows.

“At the statue, I heard her name. She heard voices from God, right?”

“Well, yes.” The professor took a sip of his wine. “But that is conjecture, my dear. I am a scientist, I need evidence. Proof. It means that I will follow the trail towards the most logical conclusion—something that fits perfectly, or something that we can prove three times in succession. I believe we will arrive at the truth and it will illuminate your identity. To truth,” he said and held up his glass. Behind him, a babble of voices joined a cacophonous river of conversation, which impressed itself on the awkward emptiness of him holding up his glass in vain.

“Vivienne,” he said and pushed his head forward, motioning to the lonely hanging glass. “Vivienne, you’re suppose to cheers me then.” He picked up her hand and placed it on her glass. “You know…” She remained silent, but wore a face revealing her desire to be part of an intricate social ritual. Finally, she followed his lead, picking up her glass and they toast—klink klink!

“I want you to tell me about your work, professor.” He licked his lips; the brightness of the chandelier reflects off his round glasses, obscuring his eyes.

“Well,” he said, “it’s long and boring.”

“But I want to hear,” she said.

The waiter returned with a bowl of steaming French onion soup.

“I study the beginning of life. My research specifically deals with how life can spontaneously spring out of nothingness. Scientists have forever examined how fruit flies appear whenever an apple rots, or how maggots manifest in the flesh of a dying animal. This problem is called ‘abiogenesis’. It refers to things like that, but also to the very beginning: the alpha factor which created life on earth out of a primordial sea of goo.”

“It sounds interesting. Got any theories?” She held up her glass and they clinked the glasses again. She took a few big gulps and finished her glass.

“Most recently,” he explained, refilling her glass, “I have been studying biological matter found on meteor fragments. Do you know what that means?”

“No.” She shook her head, tossing her hair left-right onto her face, onto her eyes and nose.

“Well, it means rocks from space. I study the bacteria or viruses left behind when those rocks hit the earth, and how that impact effects the potential for creating new life.”

“What usually happens after a meteor strike?”

“Actually, most of the time it causes diseases, usually plagues or influenzas. Sometimes it just explodes and destroys massive areas. They are very dangerous.”

“So why do you study them then. It sounds so gruesome.”

“Good question.” He sipped and she held up her glass again, happy to clink once more. The tone rings through the room. “Uh… Well, some people believe a meteor was the source of all life. There is some evidence that an icy rock fell from the sky and inseminated the liquid oceans we had. We may never be certain, but the elements and chemical processes that occurred most likely created the first proto-organisms, which later evolved into complex life.”

“That sounds very beautiful,” she said, spooning some fiery hot cheese into her mouth. “This is good!” She said with a full mouth.

“It’s famous here.” When the waiter came with his steak, the professor asked for a jug of water to be left on the table, expecting Vivienne to chug her glass of wine and move onto the lemon water.

“Professor—I mean William,” she corrected herself, “How can you eat that?”

“You don’t like steak?” Her face was all scrunched up, and she stuck out her tongue a tiny bit. “Are you vegetarian, my dear?”

“Don’t you feel bad eating another animal?”

“Not particularly.” He cut a piece of the rare steak and chewed vigorously. “It’s really good.” She looked away and focussed on her own food instead of validating him.

“It just makes me a bit sad. That’s all.”

“So you are vegetarian, then. That’s good,” he said gesturing with his fork. “I consider that one of the best clues we currently have.”

“Well,” she said, leaning forward, elbows on the table, “we also have the landscape with the ruined amphitheatre, the language, and the word on that boat.”

“Ah,” he replied eagerly, “I see you’ve been contemplating your dilemma!” She drank the remaining lemon water and refilled her glass. “In fact, you are correct. We do have a series of clues that all point towards the Mediterranean. I believe that we are looking at either Lebanon or Turkey. Maybe Cyprus or another small island. Perhaps Malta, given how well you speak English. The name of the boat was clearly Italian, but I could name my ship Nebuchadnezzar, if I want.”

“Pardon?”

“I simply mean that although the name on the boat points to Italy, we need to keep in mind that there were no identifying marks that refer specifically to that area of the world. No flag, or ensign, for instance. But we cannot rule anything out just yet.”

“Thank you,” she looked up, the hovering crystal of the chandelier shining in her dark eyes, “I mean, I couldn’t do this without you.” The professor wiped his mouth with his napkin, and before he could get a word in, Vivienne added, “But I still think it’s cruel for you to eat another animal.” They both smiled.

“Next time I will order a salad then.”

“To salad!” she said and help up her glass.

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