Chapter 9: Paradox lost
...... In the morning light from the window of subdorm-8, Alex checked how he looked in his just borrowed clothes. "You know," he said, "grey shorts look a lot better than brown."
...... Kip chuckled. "ESAP has RFID readers at the classroom doors to take attendance. I don't think Amdexter has them. But if they did, then whenever you went into class, you'd be me. I could be in two places at once."
...... "No you couldn't," said Wolfgang. "Not unless he wears your underwear and shirt too. All the tags have to match."
...... "I'll just borrow the shorts, thank you," said Alex.
...... "Keep 'em for a few days, if you want," said Kip, hand-licking his hair into submission. "Maybe we can convert you to being a physicist like us."
...... Paul seemed startled.
...... "Really?" said Alex. "I can keep them for a few days?"
...... "Sure. Laundry pick up is Sunday night, so you can keep 'em until then."
"I've heard of conversion by the sword," said Paul, staring down at his book-bag into which he was stuffing the texts for his morning classes. "But this is the first time I've heard of conversion by the shorts." Closing his bag with a flourish, he looked across at Kip and announced, "And, as for being a physicist like us, I don't intend to be a physicist."--Kip and Wolfgang jerked their heads to stare at him--"I'm going to be a mathematician."
...... "Really?" Wolfgang appeared almost stunned. "Why on Earth would you want to do that?"
...... "Because...." Paul pressed his lips together, pausing, as if reluctant to expose himself to ridicule. "Because mathematics is perfect," he blurted out. "Logical. Beautiful." He stood as if at attention. "If physics were like that, there wouldn't need to be an ESAP."
...... "Does Dr. Ralph know," said Wolfgang in a serious voice.
...... Paul lowered his eyes, his rigid posture weakening to a slouch. "I don't know," he said in a small voice.
...... "Maybe you should go see him." Kip chuckled, clearly trying to lighten the mood. "Maybe he can cure you."
...... But Paul stayed somber. "Maybe I should talk to him about it. Maybe I shouldn't have been allowed to go to ESAP."
...... "Don't be ridiculous," said Wolfgang. "Mathematics is almost as important as physics."--Alex could tell that Wolfgang didn't really believe that.--"Anyway, mathematicians should study physics too."
...... Kip hefted his book bag. "Come on. Let's go to breakfast."
...... Due to his borrowed clothes, Alex felt
entitled to eat with the greys. And he did so. After breakfast, Alex continued
to pal around with the greys until the start of classes. Logically, he knew
he should have gone back to his dorm to switch back to his own clothes, and
be a brown again. But I really like being a grey.
...... Late in the afternoon, Alex did head back to his dorm to change. But he could still pretend to be a grey; after classes, kids were expected to change out of their school clothes. His attire wouldn't give him away.
...... As Alex padded into his dorm row, he was glad to see he had it almost to himself. Only Woodchuck was there. It was funny how he'd begun to think of Charles Wood as Woodchuck--and even thought of him as sort of a cartoon woodchuck: big teeth, eager expression, sort of pudgy. Funny how a nickname can define a person. Alex wondered if that's what Kip meant when he said 'the map is not the territory'.
...... "Why are you wearing grey shorts?" said Woodchuck as Alex changed out of them. "Are you transferring to ESAP?"
...... I wish! Alex rubbed a hand down the side of the flannel shorts, as if he could absorb greyness through his hand. "Well, my IQ results had just come in, and...and they say I'm smart enough for ESAP." He took a quick breath and rushed on. "And my dad said I should enroll there. But I told him I didn't want to because I didn't want to be a scientist."
...... "Wow!" said Woodchuck with wide trusting eyes.
...... "My dad said to just wear grey shorts for awhile," Alex went on. "He said maybe that would get me to change my mind."
...... "I hope you don't," said Woodchuck. "You're my only friend here--and I really hate Todd. He's a bully."
...... "Yeah," said Alex. "I hate him, too."
...... "Did you hear about his new business?" Woodchuck glanced at Todd's locker. "I don't mean his selling stuff."
...... Alex shook his head.
...... "Now he says kids can just pay money instead of doing punishment lines. He's charging a dollar for each ten lines."
...... Alex threw a glance at the ceiling.
...... "It's true," Woodchuck insisted. "He's getting ESAP kids to do the lines. He said ESAP kids are dirt poor. They need the money. They're so poor, they're happy to copy lines for money."
...... "I wonder how much of that money winds up in Todd's pocket."
...... "Probably a lot." In jeans now, Alex grabbed his notebook, waved to Woodchuck, and went outside. Not that he really had anywhere to go.
...... Clutching his notebook as a shield, Alex meandered to the carousel. He checked his watch: 45 minutes to lunch. Then he sought out Bucephalus, opened his notebook and began to draw.
...... A little later, alerted by hunger, Alex hurried to the Founders refectory, and got there twenty minutes late. He could still eat, and did, but it meant he'd missed his new friends; subdorm-8 tended to wolf down their food and run. Werewolf down their food.
...... After lunch, Alex strolled over to the playing fields. He wasn't interested in any of the sports or games going on. For the first two weeks of school, as the athletics schedules were not yet in place, Saturday games weren't compulsory. He wandered around, bored and lonely--and then thought he might try to hang out in the ESAP snack bar. A lot of ESAP kids had seen him in grey shorts. Maybe that alone would get him in.
...... The snack bar was crowded. Alex walked in and nobody questioned him. But nobody talked to him, either. His subdorm-8 friends weren't there. He shrugged at the sign SNACK/2p, went to a vending machine and, surprised that it was free, got an apple. Then he sat down and worked on his Bucephalus drawing. He sketched a kid on its back. He drew slowly, immersing himself in the rich, well-populated world he'd created with his pencil.
...... "Hey, look, Wolfy."--Alex looked up and saw Kip and Wolfgang coming to his table--"He's hanging out at Snack Bar." Kip chuckled. "I guess conversion by shorts works." Kip waved a greeting.
...... "Maybe it's just the free snacks," said Wolfgang. Then he called out, "Hi."
...... "Hi!" Alex snapped closed his notebook. "But where's Paul. I thought you guys traveled as a unit."
...... "A unit," said Kip. "Cool. Like a system of identical particles. Effectively interchangeable." He and Wolfgang sat.
...... "Paul's in a meeting with Dr. Ralph," said Kip, "confessing to having mathematician tendencies, I think."
...... "Dr. Ralph?" said Alex.
...... "Like your school's headmaster," said Wolfgang.
...... "Hey wait," said Kip, glancing toward the door. "The unit is again complete."
...... Alex turned and saw Paul plodding slowly toward them. He seemed downcast, his expression serious, his head canted slightly downward.
...... "I wonder what's wrong," said Kip, just above a whisper.
...... "Maybe," said Wolfgang, "Dr. Ralph said ESAP is only for physics kids."
...... Kip gave an 'I don't know' shrug.
...... Paul reached their table and plopped into a seat.
...... "Does Dr. Ralph have a problem with you wanting to be a mathematician?" said Wolfgang.
...... "No, it's not that." Paul stared down at the table. "He said that mathematics is, like, great and there's often not much of a difference between mathematicians and theoretical physicists."
...... "Then why," said Kip, "do you look as if a dragon just breathed fire on your calculus book?"
...... Alex smiled at the comment. Paul didn't.
...... "Dr. Ralph agreed with me that physics is messy," said Paul. "But he said that mathematics isn't perfect, either. He told me the hangman's paradox and he said he'd have Dr. Linda talk to me. She'll teach me a much more important paradox, the Russell Paradox."
...... "I've never even heard of the hangman's paradox?" said Wolfgang. "What is it?"
...... "Okay," said Paul. The word seemed like a switch--extinguishing Paul's melancholy. "I'll tell you."
(For Paul's explanation of the Hangman's Paradox, click here)
...... After describing the paradox, Paul shook his head, slowly. "I'm like really worried about the paradox Dr. Linda is going to show me tomorrow."
...... "Why is it so important to you?" said Alex.
...... Paul looked up, his eyes were bright, maybe even moist. "I believe in mathematics. It's...it's sort of my religion."
...... Alex wanted to laugh but knew enough not to.
...... Just then, Dr. Ralph himself rushed into Snack Bar. He went to the front, raised his hands for quiet, and made an announcement. "Guys, I need your help." He spoke in a worried voice. "Paradox has escaped from the dorm. I'd really appreciated it if you'd go out and help search the grounds for him."
...... Alex leaned in over his table. "Paradox?" he whispered.
...... "Our dorm cat," said Kip.
...... The boys expressed sympathy and an eagerness to help, and Dr. Ralph laid out a plan. "...and spread out," he said at the end. "He's afraid of crowds."
...... The boys in Snack Bar headed for the door, subdorm-8 and Alex included.
...... "If you find him," called Dr. Ralph to the departing boys, "bring him here. This'll be our command post."
...... As they emerged into the sunlight, Alex suggested, "Maybe we should get some of the Amdexter kids to help."
...... "If Dr. Ralph had wanted them to," said Kip, coldly, "he would have asked them."
...... "Okay," said Alex, pointing in the direction of the Amdexter buildings, "I'll hunt over there. I know the territory." He hoped his eagerness would show that he was worthy to be an ESAP hunter.
...... "Sounds good," said Kip as the unit dispersed.
...... Alex cut across the Heisenberg Commons and then swept around the front of Founders, then through the overgrown grass between Founders and the chapel. It could easily have hidden a cat. Alex shuffled his way through making noise. He sang since it felt less silly than repeatedly calling out 'here Paradox'. He swung around the back of Founders and then trod diagonally across the Founders Quad. But the quad was so well manicured and orderly that even a cat couldn't have gone unnoticed. Alex slipped between the corner of his own dorm and the gymnasium and out to the parking lot. Still no cat. He noticed a little shed just outside the lot and padded over to it. He wasn't so much looking for Paradox now as wondering what the shed was for.
...... Just then he saw a slink of fawn-white against the green grass. Paradox! Alex froze. The cat had come from behind the shed. Paradox stopped and looked over his shoulder at the shed. The cat seemed as curious as Alex about the metal structure with its high window and keypad combination lock.
...... "Paradox," Alex said in a soft voice.
...... The cat swiveled his head toward Alex but didn't come to the boy. Alex took a slow step forward. The cat held its ground. Alex continued forward and then swooped up the cat in his arms and hugged him. The cat purred. He seemed glad to have been found.
...... "Yeah, cat," said Alex. "I know. It's just the way I felt when I ran away from home."
...... Alex ran his cheek over the cat's soft fur and again felt envy of ESAP. Slowly, all the time petting the cat, Alex walked to Feynman Hall.
...... As he drew close, kids saw him and what he carried. Many called out congratulations and all of them followed him back to Snack Bar.
...... Dr. Ralph was pacing when Alex arrived. "Oh, you found him."--Alex transferred the cat to him--"Thank you. Thank you a lot." Dr. Ralph then looked at Alex quizzically. "You're not one of us." Then he smiled. "Are you?"
...... As Alex tried to think of a response, Kip piped up. "He's a guest. His name's Alex Griffen."
...... Dr. Ralph, holding Paradox, chuckled. "A very welcome guest. I'm pleased to meet you, Alex Griffen."
...... Alex gave a sad smile.