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Chapter 3


Edmund stayed in Cambridge for a total of three month. He didn’t hold a farewell party, and did not even show up for the final, only leaving a problem on the blackboard at the end of the last lecture.

He smiled down at the crowd in the lecture hall as he elegantly shook the chalk between his fingers. “You have two options – pass my final, or solve this before the exam and call me.”

Edmund’s final was hellish, failing the majority of us. When the grades were posted on the billboard beside the library, I squeezed through the crowd, only to find my name listed as the first one failing.

I grabbed Edgar’s collar, shaking him. No, no, it was impossible, I had solved all the problems in the final!

“Maybe your calculations were wrong somewhere.” He had to put down his painting brush, raising both his hands in defeat. “You should go to Professor Wilson and check your final exam.”

However, Edmund had already set off for Plimpton Institute. He had left on the day of the final, and had the teaching assistant distribute the exams for him.

Our teaching assistant was a short, shy girl, whose height only reached my shoulder. She found my final in the pile of exams, and the list of grades that Edmund had sent her. She told me with a frown, “Alan Caster, right? Your attendance is zero percent.”

The exam and attendance each accounted for fifty percent of the final grade for Edmund’s course. I felt wronged. “I remember attending several lectures, so how could I get zero? Was something calculated incorrectly?”

She took back my exam with an expression of pity. “Professor Wilson said that the grades could not be changed.”

Edgar patted my shoulder. “You have been retaliated against. What did you do to him?”

I did nothing but kiss him once…

Uncle cared a lot about the grades that the school sent him. Those numbers had a direct relation to my allowance. Therefore, there was only one path left for me to take.

“There is only one thing I can do,” I said as I gave Edgar a miserable look. “If I fail this course, I will be strapped for cash.”

Knocking on Linton’s door was the last thing I wanted to do, but I had no other choice.

He lived on the top floor of a students’ residence hall. The door was left ajar. I pushed it open, but saw nobody inside, and the window open. In front of the window was a desk painted light blue, but the color was peeling off. There was scratch paper randomly piled on the desk, which was blown into the air by the sudden gust of wind. I grabbed one in my hand and saw a bunch of scrawled numbers and equations.

A fountain pen was lying on the notes, along with an opened ink bottle. I kicked on the bed’s frame and dragged someone out from underneath. I desperately said, “Linton, we have to collaborate.”

The young man from under the bed was in an even more desperate condition than me. He looked as if he hadn’t shaved for a week, and his hair resembled wild grass. He asked the landlord for bacon and coffee, and after gorging on the food, he finally looked a bit healthier. He adjusted his glasses and said, “Alan, it’s unsolvable.”

Linton and I had attended the same high school, and our acceptance letters had arrived on the same date. He had always been the best student at our school, and a math genius too. He had once proved a famous theorem on his own. One of his habits had been squatting next to the field and watching people playing football, and calculating whether the ball would score based on the the angle and strength of the kick.[1]

One day I had happened to pass by as he was yelling, “In!”

“Miss,” I said.

It did miss. Linton asked me why, because according to his algorithm the ball would definitely score.

“Because there was wind,” I had answered idly.

Ever since that time, we had been rivals. His overall grades were the best in the school, and I could only beat him in math. But until we graduated, he had never surpassed me in my field.

I got zero for attendance because of Edmund’s revenge, and Linton failed purely because he had missed too many lectures. When I got stuck on a math problem, I usually would squat in front of the library and watch the girls walk by, waiting for inspiration to strike. Linton’s method was much more extreme – he would crawl under his bed, blocking all of the lights out with a bedsheet, and would then contemplate the problem in complete darkness. He would refuse to come out until he found the answer.

If the problem was very difficult, then he would stay under his bed for an entire day, skipping whichever classes that he had scheduled.

“How long have you been there?” I asked.

Linton tore off a strip of bread, replying, “I don’t remember. Maybe since Tuesday.”

I thought, three days….

He shrugged and turned around, staring at me before saying, “The problem Professor Wilson wrote on the blackboard is related to Waring’s problem. Alan, I know what you are trying to do, but I am telling you, there is no way that we can solve it on our own.”

I knew that Edmund had written a two-line problem on the blackboard, but I hadn’t realized that it was Waring’s problem.

It was a theorem proposed in 1770 by Edward Waring about the power of positive integers. No one has been able to prove it for two hundred years.

I later sat in the library despairing. I had flipped through all the books related to Waring’s problem, but was still at a loss. Edgar came to comfort me and tried persuading me to give up, even offering to lend me next month’s living expenses.

I ridiculed him, “Where are you going to get the money from? By selling your paintings?”

To my surprise, he nodded earnestly. “At the very least I can sell my paintings. You are unable to earn any money, and are even destroying your body. You’d better come back with me. A world-famous theorem won’t be proven so easily by a mere sophomore student.”

“You look horrible. If you keep behaving like this, then you won’t be able to model for me anymore. I don’t want to draw skeletons every day,” he said.

At that time, I had been sitting in the library for two weeks, and my scratch notes created a pile that was half a foot tall. It may have been due to a misspelling, but it became apparent that there was a slight difference from the classic Waring’s problem under the conditions Edmund gave us as the calculations progressed. This led to a key number missing at the end.

There was a six-digit number missing. I was at a loss.

I wanted to call Linton and see what’s his opinion(there was a telephone in his apartment), so I went to a phone stall. The six-digit number occupied my mind, and I somehow dialed it in as a phone number.

After a short wait, a sweet and quiet woman picked up the phone. “Hello, this is Plimpton Institute.”

I froze in the stall with the receiver in my hand. I heard her asking, “Who are you calling for?”

“Professor Wilson,” I said.

“There is no Professor Wilson here.” The receptionist sounded confused and told me, “This is the direct line for Consultant Garcia.”

“Is there no one there named Edmund Wilson? I remember that Professor Wilson had said that he would be working there.”

“Are you from Cambridge?” She chuckled, possibly because I was behaving so much like a student. She began speaking to someone else on the other end of the line, “Mr. Garcia, a student actually managed to find us. Should we ask him to come as soon as possible?”

I heard Edmund’s voice reply, “Ask what his name is. If his family name is Caster, then tell him that he’s dialed the wrong number.”

When the receptionist asked for my name, I swallowed, trying to keep my voice from trembling. “Linton. My name is Linton Brown.”

The next afternoon, I got on a free ride to London and found the Plimpton Institute, which was located in the suburbs.

It was June, the prime time of summer, and old pagoda trees were flourishing on the sides of the road. After getting out of the car, I walked along the road until I reached the Plimpton institute which was at the end. It was a bit hot, so I unbuttoned the first two buttons on my shirt as I walked. From the iron gate, I could see the old, red-brick building inside. Green ivy was hanging off of the short walls, swinging gently in the warm afternoon breeze. Among the countless manors in the suburbs of London, this place didn’t look any different.

If not for the armed soldiers standing guard at the gate.

I told them my name, and after a short wait, a woman wearing a shirt and jeans led me in. She had a pretty face and was rather plump. It was uncommon for women to wear jeans and a shirt, so she left a deep impression on me.

“My name is Annie, and I am Mr. Garcia’s assistant.” I could tell that she was the woman who had answered my phone call yesterday. So, she was not a receptionist but an assistant.

Annie guided me through the main part of the manor and into an independant red-brick building. “Mr. Garcia is our chief consultant. He will be here in a bit to speak to you in person.”

She opened the door of an office and asked me to wait inside.

Ten minutes later, Edmund walked in.

When he opened the door and saw me, he paused and said with a frown, “Alan, you are not supposed to be here.”

I was shocked as well. “Aren’t you the Professor Edmund Wilson who created Functional Analysis?”

He untied his tie and hung it on the back of the chair. “To be exact, I am sometimes Edmund Wilson, and sometimes Edmund Garcia. It depends on whether I am in academia or the Plimpton Institute.”

Edgar was right. Edmund had been in no way expecting a math major in his second year at Cambridge to be able to prove a math problem that had existed for two hundred years. He had inserted a code in the riddle, hoping that someone could find it among the numbers and figure out its usage.

Which is to say, he didn’t give us a math problem but a cryptography problem.

However, Edmund did not give me a chance to explain any of this, and immediately threw me out. The pretty assistant guarded the door, so I could only watch him dealing with the paperwork on his large desk, but couldn’t approach any farther.

“You promised to allow us to pass the course if we were able to solve the problem!” I protested.

Edmund didn’t even bother to raise his head. “You have now passed the course. I will call the school immediately. You can leave now.”

“You had no right to give me a zero for attendance – that was blatant revenge!”

His pen paused its writing for a second. “I don’t remember anything about you that was worth avenging.”

And after saying that, he didn’t even speak a single word to me.

When he left the office, it was already dark outside, and the evening air was hot and humid. He seemed to be surprised to see me still there, standing against the wall.

“My dear, I felt that you were not willing to let me go, so I stayed.” I leaned against the wall, tapping my foot. “Since my parents were code-breakers, I can more or less guess that this is not an ordinary institute. This place probably belongs to our intelligence agency, and is something akin to a cryptography research department. You were in desperate need of qualified men, so you went to Cambridge in order to look for talents. And now, you see, I know where your secret institute is, and have even visited inside…”

Edmund said softly, “Continue.”

He stared at me with that pair of jade-green eyes until I felt a chill rise from my back despite the midsummer heat. I stopped speaking.

He sighed and said, “Come and dine with me.”

There was a nice, bright dining room on the second floor, probably for the chief consultant’s use only. I hadn’t done anything today, and asked for a ham omelette and some toast. Edmund had been working the entire day, but he ate little, and instead drank three cups of black coffee.

“That stuff is bad for your stomach,” I reminded him. “I remember that when I was little, my mom used to drink a lot of black coffee, and as a result she often had difficulty falling asleep at night because of stomachache.”

Edmund put down the cup and smiled. “Your eyes are exactly like Ms. Caster’s, especially when you are serious. I have met her before; she was a great expert in cryptography.”

I had no idea that Edmund had met my mother. When I mentioned my parents in our first meeting, he hadn’t appeared to be familiar with them.

Edmund seemed exhausted. I asked him, “Do you have dinner this late every day?”

He leaned back against his chair, looking up and covering his eyes with a hand. “Enigma, it is so hard to break.”

He finally said, “Alan, you are correct. This place belongs to the Secret Intelligence Service[2], and we call it the cryptography institute. To the outside world, this is the Golf and Chess Association. It is difficult to predict the German’s moves. In order to not allow the tragedy of war to repeat itself, we have to break this important code. The Poles acquired one of their machines, and the Russians were able to retrieve an old cipher book, but neither of them succeeded in breaking the code. Now, the copy of the Enigma’s cipher and corresponding notes have been sent to us. Britain can’t afford to let this chance slip, so we are indeed in need of talents.”

So, it was arranged for Edmund to teach in Cambridge for three month, in order to find promising code-breakers for MI6. He had planned to have two selection methods: the first was being in the top three for the final, and the other was to discover his contact information hidden in the problem.

I did quite well on the exam, but Edmund, perhaps getting annoyed of my pursuit, had given me a zero for attendance. However, he hadn’t expected me to persistently follow him here.

It was too late for me to go back to Cambridge that night, so Annie had me stay in a room at the manor. The next morning, Edmund personally drove me back. It was a luxurious black limousine, and although I couldn’t remember the name of the model, I did remember how there were not many private cars on the street at that time, so we were very conspicuous. The drive back made me feel as if we were on a date.

When we arrived in Cambridgeshire, he suddenly told me, “Alan, you must forget everything I said yesterday, as if you have never heard anything.”

He parked the car in front of my dorm’s building. After I got out, I knocked on his window. “Edmund, I love you. I am serious. If Enigma is truly that difficult to crack, I am willing to share your burden.”

He smiled, his eyes curving up into a crescent moon. Suddenly, he got out of the car through the opposite door, and walked around the car towards me. Before I could react, he pushed me against the car window.


Footnotes:

[1]The original was about rugby, but according to my research, there’s no rules about scoring by throwing the ball into a goal area(but you can kick it), so I changed the description a little bit.

[2]Commonly known as MI6


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