The Pulse: Paris & Tokyo

All Shook Up

On the Podium

At precisely 2 p.m. Kenneth began to speak. The lecture hall was three quarters full, which was impressive given that a famous scholar was also giving a presentation on the Louvre exhibition, Artifacts from Uruk. Kenneth looked into the crowd but couldn’t stop thinking about the fight he just had with Martine. Was it a fight or a warm-up to something else? He could never tell.

He saw that she had decided not to attend the lecture.

Scanning the audience he could make out a sea of olive green cardigans and light blue chiffon dresses. A froth of grey-white hair floated above them, like lines of cirrus clouds in an evening sky. In the middle of the room he saw a man in an orange vest, but his body seemed to be humming or buzzing. Kenneth felt faint, and wondered if Martine had doubled back to La Maison de Verlaine. Or perhaps she'd arranged to meet him at Le Bateau Ivre. They were probably on their second bottle already, like drunken sailors. Why did he talk to her at lunch with such condescension? Why didn’t he just tell her he was in love with her?

Thløn saw the human at the podium, a confusion of blue and silver light, talking about a man called Pascal. There was a God. There was no God. From his head a shaft of blue light shot westward, a blink of light really, travelling a mere 220 meters, into the breast of a woman who was about to walk through a door. But the man on the podium couldn’t see the beam.

No human in France had felt the Earth move. 2.13 hours ago. 4 kilometres beneath the surface. The island called Honshu shifted another two meters to the west. 

As soon as Kenneth started to speak, he saw the light on his cellphone blinking on the lectern. Below it: “MARTINE.”  Why on earth would she call me now? She knows I’m just starting my lecture. It must be an emergency.

Kenneth begged the forgiveness of his audience, and answered the phone. “What is it?”

“Antoine got the contract!”

“You called to tell me that? Don’t you remember that I’m in the middle of — ”

Bon Dieu! Half the audience is senile. The other half probably doesn’t know what a cellphone is.”


“He's invited me to Japan. Should I go?”

Madame Dupont was sitting in the front row and could see everything Kenneth was doing. She was on the far end of the row, and could almost see what was on his little screen, as he danced back and forth on the podium. She was sitting right next to the exit, and he kept looking at the door. When he looked over — nervously, like the White Rabbit — it was like he was looking at her, but right through her.

She couldn’t believe what lightweights they were sending over from Oxford these days.

Kenneth Hamilton was supposed to be a serious scholar, and his theory was supposed to provide a new way of looking at probability. But so far all she heard was him talking on his cell phone, and then after that a distracted lecture, as if he was still thinking about what he'd just heard on his phone.

Madame Dupont wouldn't have allowed one of those things in her classroom. She would certainly not insult her audience by carrying on a private conversation at the front of the class. At the very least he could have the decency to pretend it wasn't a lover’s spat.

And what was that accent, anyway? It sounded American.

Alikiko & the Devil

Alikiko couldn’t believe her eyes! Spread out on the pavement before her, like that colourful yellow road in the movie, were sparkling originals of what could only be the recent work of Hachemon Nakata.

The man who was scrambling to rescue the drawings from the wet streets had thick black hair and strong, agile hands. Ghostly white. He tilted his head toward her, and she could see that he wasn't Japanese. All her instincts united at once to rescue the etchings of the helpless gaijin.

The drawings were spaced out along the sidewalk, and lead her — one, two, three — to the edge of a stairwell, at the bottom of which she saw at least two other drawings, bright purple and black, with glittering silver and red fringes. She could recognize that style anywhere — it was just the way Nakata drew the edges of the angel’s wings in The End of the World, when darkness fell over the face of the deep hole that the evil doctors of technology had dug for mankind.

She hurried down to rescue the drawings. Their edges were starting to take in water, and ripples of colour were starting to soak inward from the borders of silver and glittering crimson.

Alikiko knew that such beauty was skin deep, like the rash that broke over her skin whenever her parents were on one of their temporary separations. She also knew that beauty isn’t a permanent thing. It will fade, like everything else in this floating world. She thought: Cherry blossoms fall, smearing the crimson edges. Rains of early Winter. 

It almost merited a haiku, Antonio Lestatique grimaced, as he shifted closer to the stairwell to see if she had taken the bait. Hook, line, and sinker. She gulped when she looked up the stairwell and into his eyes. They were like whirlpools!

Well-versed in the arts of dissimulation, Lestatique cried out, “Nakata will kill me! He hasn’t made copies.” He rushed toward her down the steps.

Somehow, Alikiko felt this must be her fault. She bowed so low to pick up the pages at the bottom of the stairwell that her nose almost touched Lestatique’s shining black Italian shoes. They had silver buckles. She could smell the fine leather. She was tempted to touch them to see if they were as soft as they looked. She summoned her best English, and said "Please to put in my backpack so they will not getting we—"

When the earthquake struck. At first she wasn’t sure if it was an earthquake or a subway rumbling under her feet. Yet she knew that she only hoped it was a subway. She knew it was something far worse. She felt like an abyss was opening up beneath her. At the bottom there was no grand apocalypse, no spunky girls with super-powers, no colourful glitter, and no silver lining.

This was the true horror. In a flash, she remembered 2011. When the Sendai quake hit, all the kids hid under their desks. The teacher didn’t say a word, but just hid beneath his desk. Everyone was petrified. She remembered looking across the legs of the chairs and tables at her best friend. She was clutching her pencil case, which had a Hello Kitty figure on it. It was bright pink.

This time she was alone on the pavement with a stranger, grasping for colourful fantasies of Ragnorak and Apocalypse while the world was shaking all around her. Nakata’s vision of death and catastrophe seemed ridiculous next to this. He made catastrophe seem grand and mythic, when in fact it flattens your feeling, and reduces your world to the square metre beneath your feet.

She handed the drawings to the strange man and said in Japanese “I'm sorry for your lost.” She swam back into a school of terrified students, huddled together in the middle of the street.

Off the Pedestal

Martine was glowing inside. She knew it would put him off his game. The mention of Jean-Marc might even put him over the edge. Now, if she could just get him to step down from his pulpit and realize that his theories weren’t even convincing to the grey-haired retirees in his audience. Then she would be getting somewhere.

Who really cares if we can predict ranges of possibility? Or is it probability? One seemed as unlikely as the other. How can you live life while calculating the effect of this and that every twenty seconds? Surely for once he could just use his intuition to figure out what made sense. How else could she marry him?

Madame Dupont wasn't impressed with the performance so far. Even if she could accept his odd premises. She could supply six equally probable premises. But then again, the way he spoke -- those short sharp English cadences — reminded her of Conrad and of how often she was willing to accept his premises. Yet even if she accepted those of Professor Hamilton, there was still the fact that we can seldom see, and we can almost never accurately quantify, the variables. Pascal may have believed in mathematical certainties and axioms, but all of that was before Heisenberg and quantum mechanics. Before spectrographs and dark matter. Prediction was for charlatans and priests.

She couldn’t get the images out of her mind, the ones she saw just before she left her apartment. Even the Japanese, with their finely calibrated Seiko watches and terabyte robots, couldn’t see it coming. 8.9!  However carefully they built, the buildings could all get swept away in trembling, flooding, radioisotopes, and fear. Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie. It brought her back, once again, to Pascal.

She thought to herself, the Earth trembles to remind us what we are. 

When Kenneth finished his main argument, Madame Dupont put up her hand. “I find your theory very fascinante, professeur. But also very speculative. Please excuse me for saying this, mais il me semble, it seems to me that you have made the fundamental error. Vous supposez que the essentialist systèmes operate sui generis, as if they were séparées one from the other. If you use the premise that individual volition is linked to some structure essentialiste, you must therefore consider that this essentialism has some agenda of its own. Can you, dans ce cas, séparez the particular intuition from the universal, the mythic intuition?”

The grey cloud shifted to the left side of the room as the heads of the audience turned in the direction of the elderly lady next to the exit in the front row. Even the octagenarian on the far side of the wide lecture hall — the one who never strayed from looking directly ahead of him — craned his rigid neck to see who was saying what many of them were also thinking. They were all so close to death that such thoughts were becoming second nature. That is, second nature in regard to the life to come, since the first nature of this life was now crumbling so completely.

Madame Dupont continued: “If the dictates of other systems were at work — kyanite or qu'importe quel mineral you imaginez it to be — who is to say that these other systèmes may not act similar to — or in correspondence with — the old mythic and religious systèmes of essentialism? I suspect that we may have made the full circle. From l'ancien myth of the soul infinie to the modern myth of la dimensionalité infinie of the soul.”

Kenneth looked down at his cellphone. It wasn’t blinking. But there was a bright blue stone on his finger. It seemed to pulse. Or was that his heart?

He realized he was in a classroom, in front of an audience. Everybody was looking at their cellphones. He had no idea what the lady in the front row had just said. He thanked her for her observation and stepped down from the podium.

Emerging into the courtyard, Kenneth ran into his colleague Stéphane.

“Ken! Did you hear about the earthquakes? Holy Mother of God!”

It was at this moment — as the pulverized earth was turning beneath him at its usual 30 kilometres a second — that Kenneth resolved to ask Martine to marry him. 


Next: Total Collapse

Back to Top

The Pulse: Table of Contents - Chart of Contents - Characters - Glossary - Maps