Blaise Pascal and the Adders of Apraphul


Grantville Power Plant, November 11th, 1634

Bill Porter staggered out of the staff lunchroom in the Grantville Power Plant as if he’d been cast out against his will or was in fear for his life . . . or possibly both. He caught sight of Julie Drahuta walking serenely down the corridor and held up his hands as if surrendering to her.

“Julie,” Bill whispered, “Julie, just wait a second, okay? Wait a second. Jesus Christ, don’t go in there. It’s crazy. I can’t believe it and I was there.”

“What did the boy do now?” Julie smiled.

“The boy? Blaise? Nothing. Everything. It started with that damn pressure flutter in boiler number two. It was there before the Ring of Fire. Blaise is pumping out solutions to electrical engineering math problems faster than he can read the damn book and, right in the middle of everything, he’s figuring out the harmonics of the flutter in boiler two like it was nothing and now he’s in the staff cafeteria . . . “

“Hey, Bill.” Nissa Pritchard walked up to her boss with a smile as bold as brass on her face. “Is it true? In the cafeteria? Is it really him?”

“Yes, Jesus Christ, yes,” Bill gasped. “Don’t piss him off.”

“No need to get huffy.” Nissa shook her head and walked past, entering the door leading to the cafeteria.

“What’s wrong?” Julie asked.

“Wrong? Blaise is figuring out how to make a computer. Hell, tell the kid we can’t go to the moon and we’ll be there a week after Thanksgiving. I am afraid to ask the kid to solve problems because he’ll do it. He’s got an idea for a hydraulic adder but he really wants it to be pneumatic. He thinks water is too messy. Rod was playing a joke on the boy . . . “

“A joke? You know what happens when people mess with the kid? He doesn’t understand it and he ends up hanging from church steeples or trying to electrify cats or trying to make his own hydroelectric plant.”

“I talked to Rod about what he did, Julie. Look, it was an April Fool’s joke from a Scientific American issue about this analog computer supposedly dug up at a site on a South Pacific Island called Apraphul and used by Pacific Islanders to navigate with. It was all hogwash, I mean look at the name of the island and the month the magazine was printed, April, but the kid tried to make one, well, a dozen, okay, forty-nine and he’s all ticked . . . . Right, but that leads him to a hydraulic computer. Jesus, why didn’t I think about that? Anyway, he needs more room so I get some old chalkboards rigged up in the cafeteria. Easier to watch him with a pot of fresh coffee, right? Anyway, he’s in there creating hydraulic computers amongst the microwave ovens and coffee machines.”

“You let Blaise near a microwave! Jesus Christ, Bill! I wouldn’t let him near a picture of microwave in a book after what he did!”

“Easy, Julie. He’s being watched and he is following directions. He passed the safety course and he walks around in the main generator room like a priest in the Vatican . . . always under supervision. He’s cool. I even punished Rod for jerking the kid’s chain by making Rod personally responsible for escorting the kid. Rod is running himself ragged trying to keep up.”

“But a microwave? Matheny is still pissed about that one.” Julie sighed.

“Hey, he fixed it right? Anyway, Blaise almost has an Adder working!”

“An Adder?”

“Yes, Julie, it’s a fundamental unit of a computer. We could have a computer up and running in no time. To hell with Silicon Valley. We could make a working computer out of stuff he got here. We don’t need photolithography and silicon disks. Hell, we could get the Europeans to understand this. Sure, it would be bigger and slower but it would work. Then, I go in this morning and . . . “

“Hey Boss!” Rod Shackleton rushed up to them both, holding a box. “I got these pastries. Think he’ll like ’em?”

“Who knows what he likes? Take ’em in! And find out what Blaise is doing in there. You left him alone too long.” Bill waved at Rod to hurry up. Rod rushed to the open door and hurried inside. There was a loud burst of French, then a more quiet discussion ensued.

“They’re writing on the walls now, Julie,” Bill shook his head.

“Blaise knows better than that.” Julie made to go around Bill but Bill held up his hand.

“Do you know who’s in there? He just shows up as if it ain’t a thing. Poof! Allan Sebastian is just following along as if he’s lost or something.”

“You mean he’s here already?” Julie frowned. “I thought he’d settle in first. It’s a long way from Toulouse. He just got in like what, twenty hours ago?”

“You knew!”

“Of course I did. Someone comes into town asking about Blaise, I get curious.” Julie shrugged. “For all we know, Blaise is a secret weapon. All by himself. It could have been Richelieu’s secret plan to blow the place up by giving the kid all the electricity he could want.”

“You knew that Pierre damn Fermat was coming and you didn’t tell me?” Bill almost shouted. Bill Porter was not a man to shout without reason and this was almost a reason.

“He’s Pierre Fermat, not the pope,” Julie smiled. “Besides, Allan knew. Allan is a math teacher.”

“Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat are in my staff lunchroom,” Bill gasped.

“I think you can drop the ‘de’ thing. My guess is Richelieu isn’t going to let him keep it after this little escapade gets out. I’ve been reading up . . . “

“Pierre. Fermat.”

“I. Know. Bill. I am going to put them up at my place for now until they get settled. She’s pregnant. They have this incredibly incompetent maidservant with them. God, my son Joseph could do better.”

“She?”

“Mrs. Fermat. You know he was, well, is married. Finally, some famous person who isn’t eleven and hanging by his neck from the church steeple. Thankfully, the ‘False Messiah’ thing worked out. Shabbethai Zebi is in there with Blaise, right? You realize how hard this is? I got a False Messiah in the power plant and Mary Timm in a basement cutting glass. And Blaise Pascal in a room with a microwave. God, who’s gonna die first?”

“Shabbethai is in the corner reading a scroll.” Bill shook his head. “Jesus Christ, Julie, it’s like an episode of Laugh In! Who the hell is going to show up next? Descartes?”

“He’s too old to move out of Amsterdam. Besides, I don’t think . . . “

“Excuse,” Jacqueline Pascal said politely as she led Logan Sebastian by the hand past them both. “In here?”

“Yes, Jackie, Blaise is in there and busy. I’ll be in in a minute.” Julie waved. “Don’t start without me. And keep your brother away from the microwave!”

“Start?” Bill shook his head, almost whimpering. “What’s Blaise going to start?”

“Logan didn’t want to wait any longer for Blaise to ask her to the Thanksgiving Dance so Jacqueline decided to act in loco mommy and bring the two together,” Julie said. “Jacqueline treats her brother like he’s a lost puppy.”

“I hope Allan knows, because he’s in there.” Bill pointed and, as if on cue, Allan Sebastian, Blaise Pascal’s second mathematics teacher, poked his head out of the crowded staff cafeteria.

“Hey, Bill, you’re needed.” Allan waved then hurried back inside.

“Jesus, Julie,” Bill whispered, “I’m needed in a room with Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat.”

“Pierre was very adamant about the ‘de’ thing. I think he’s interested in teaching in Grantville,” Julie told Bill.

“We don’t have a college here yet.” Bill shook his head.

“I think he wants to teach middle school,” Julie said.

“Middle school!” Bill shouted. “Pierre de Fermat teaching middle school? Are you out of your cotton picking . . . “

“That would be grand, just grand,” a voice from behind them stated joyously. “Pierre Fermat teaching. What could be better? Is the man within, my good man?” John Pell bustled past Julie and Bill. “What could be better for the children of Grantville than Pierre Fermat teaching mathematics? Have you read his history? Is the man here? Ahh, I hear French!”

Bill snatched the radio from his belt. “Whoever is watching the front gate, would you warn me when civilians come traipsing onto the power plant grounds? Who is on guard duty?”

“Calm down, Bill.” Julie watched John Pell enter the staff lunch room. “I brought them.”

“You . . . “

Pardonnez-moi, Monsieur Porter.” A well-dressed man walked out of the staff cafeteria, glanced once up at the overhead lights then held a book open under the light. Jacqueline Pascal was right behind him.

“I don’t know all those big math words and Blaise is under the sink trying to take apart the drain,” Jacqueline grumped, her small arms crossed over her chest.

“Jackie! You promised!” Logan shouted from the door.

“In a minute! My brother is not going anywhere. That is his lucky wrench. Just take it away from him if he tries to leave,” Jacqueline shouted back then smiled up at Pierre Fermat. There was an exchange of very polite and fluid French at the end of which Jacqueline, looking very polite and very put upon, looked up at Bill. “He wants to know what these ‘S’ things are and why there are three of them.”

Bill peered at the open textbook as if it were one of the original, extant copies of the Bible and he was a bishop asked to explain an obscure passage to Jesus.

“Tell him it is a triple integral. You integrate three times,” Bill began softly. Julie waited politely as Bill Porter made a few more comments which Jacqueline translated as if under firm but polite duress.

“Be nice, Jackie,” Julie told the girl.

“I am, but mathematics is not my ‘thing.'” Jackie sighed. “I am under a lot of stress right now.”

There was another polite exchange and Pierre Fermat bowed slightly and thanked Bill, in French.

“He said thank you,” Jacqueline told Bill then turned to follow Pierre Fermat into the staff cafeteria.

“Julie,” Bill whispered, “I just taught Pierre Fermat integral calculus.”

“Now I think you’re full of it. Hell, Blaise needed at least a week to teach himself calculus and he’s a genius. I don’t think even you could teach Pierre Fermat this integral calculus stuff in a few sentences, even with Jackie’s help.”

“You don’t understand,” Bill shook his head sadly. “A whole new computer is being created in there. We’re going to have functioning computers, not some kludge or the last laptop. We can make a fax machine, for Christ’s sake. Low speed internet . . . It’s like being in the garage with Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and the other guy when they invented the Apple.”

“Bill!” Allan stuck his head out into the hallway. “We need you.” Allan Sebastian was distracted by something happening in the lunch room. “Blaise! Put the wrench down! You’re making a mess! And answer Mr. Pell’s question. Bill! It’s been a little while since I did triple integrals. I could use some help. Pierre is a little insistent and he’s being distracted by Shabbethai who’s translating the Torah. In Greek. Out loud. We need to keep everything on track, Bill. This is going to be big!”

“That other guy wasn’t Bill Porter, was he?” Julie smiled.

“Logan!” Allan went back inside the staff lunchroom. “Stop kicking Blaise! Why? Because I’m your father and I said so, that’s why!”

With that there was a huge, shattering crash.

“My Adder!” a very recognizable voice screeched in the midst of the sounds of disaster.

“You splashed muck on my best Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt!” came the girlish reply followed by a flurry of loud, angry French.

“I better get in there,” Julie muttered. “God alone knows what will happen next.”

Bill stood in the corridor, outside the staff cafeteria in the Grantville Power Station and wondered, himself, if God knew what would happen next.

The Sebastian House, November, 24th, 1634

“I should kill you right now, Blaise Pascal! Right here!” Logan Sebastian could be quite loud but not nearly as loud as the boy standing in the doorway. The green silk pants he wore fairly screamed their wavelength into the room. The red lace that flowed at his throat was lost in the garish incredibility of the waistcoat. “God! He looks like someone ate a whole paint store and threw up!”

“Logan Sebastian! You apologize right now!” Mrs. Sebastian shouted back at her daughter. Mr. Sebastian had to leave the room for the perceived safety of the kitchen. He just couldn’t look at his former student and maintain an appropriate, fatherly bearing.

“I brought you my first Adder.” Blaise Pascal held out a large box-like object with as motley a collection of tubes dangling from it as could be imagined.

“Why don’t you get some water for his bouquet, Mom! I am certainly not wearing that on my dress!” Logan shouted back at her mother.

“No water.” Blaise looked sadly down at the device. “It still leaks but less now. Monsieur Porter was right. I should use air instead. It changes the parameters . . . not even up-time Americans solved equations of the turbulence. It is that many times cursed ‘chaos’ again. Fah!”

“Ahhh!” Logan screamed as she ran for the safety of her room. “All he cares about is math! I’ll kill him!”

“Logan tells me she would murder me if I didn’t come with her to the dance and now she wants to murder me because I am taking her. Solving the synch parameters of a gang of generators is easier than figuring out girls. I would rather try to integrate a chaotic equation, triple integrate even, than this.”

There was a burst of laughter from the kitchen. It ended quickly.

“Boys!” Jacqueline pushed in past her brother with a small bouquet of flowers. “I told you she would want flowers. Your Adder looks like something flattened in the road then thrown away.”

Blaise watched his sister head for Logan’s room with the flowers, his Adder still clutched in his hand. Compared to the peach-colored lace at his cuffs, the Adder appeared conservative.

“Blaise,” Mrs. Sebastian began carefully, “where did you get those clothes?”

“Father sent me here with some formal clothes, but I outgrew them. I had some extra funds so I ordered a new outfit. Do you like it? I liked all the new colors so I had my clothing made with one of each of my favorite colors.”

“It is . . . ” Mitzi wondered if Madame Delfault had to be locked into a closet. Mitzi couldn’t imagine how the boy’s governess allowed him out of the apartment dressed like this. “Well, do young men dress like this in France?”

“Most normal people have one favorite color, Blaise!” Jacqueline shouted from the hallway leading to Logan’s room. “They don’t like the whole spectrum! They would throw you into the Seine if you showed your face at a ball dressed like that. And they would do it from a closed window!”

“I wish I had a camera,” came the comment from the kitchen.

“Allan? Shush! While your sister gives Logan your flowers, tell me about Adders,” Mrs. Sebastian inquired politely of Blaise Pascal, the boy who was taking her daughter to the Thanksgiving Dance; assuming Logan didn’t kill her erstwhile “date” first.

“Mom! We’ll be here all night talking about math!” Logan charged out of the hallway, holding the bouquet Jacqueline had brought to her. “We are ready to go, Dad! Blaise, can you wear a cloak or something? Halloween is long past. Dad? Where are you?”

“Allan? Are you up to this?” Mitzi called toward her husband, who was still hiding in the kitchen.

There was no answer from the kitchen other than odd, strangling noises.

Allan Sebastian, to his credit, could accept that his daughter was going to a dance with the Blaise Pascal and that Blaise had taken precious time from his dreams of working in the power plant and building a working computer to go with her; regardless of the threats. Blaise would have seen no hardship in hiding in the power plant.

What Allan was having trouble accepting was the clash of pre-teen, West Virginia couture with a seventeenth-century French genius who believed in an utter and total desegregation of colors. His outfit would have had Liberace running for the safety of a plain brown monk’s robe and a life of religious contemplation in an undecorated stone cell.

All Allan could think of, standing in the kitchen, was the term “File Type Mismatch.”

****

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