There was a man sitting at the desk in front of me. It was night and the room was dark, a darkness only broken by a ray of moonlight that found its way through the open window and a candle that was lighting whatever the man was doing. A glance outside said that I was in a room overlooking a deserted street in a city that was in deep sleep. Other than the occasional cry of some bird and some far away drunken song that sometimes wafted in through the window, there was scarcely a sound other than the sleepless scratching of pen on paper emanating from the man hard at work in front of me.
I walked up until I was standing just behind him and cleared my throat in an attempt to attract his attention. He didn’t do so much as glance at me! On looking at what he was doing, I failed to understand a word for it was definitely not any language I knew, even though the script was the Latin script. I could rule out English and German for sure, but there were too many other options. As he continued to write, I was a little surprised to see some known algebraic symbols. Even though the notation was archaic, it was something related to solutions of some equations that I had seen in my college math classes! This man was clearly a mathematician with what I thought were impressive powers of concentration, for even after I cleared my throat more loudly, I received no response.
“Excuse me?” I said in English, loudly enough for him to hear, but still there was no reaction. I tried to poke him, or push his chair, or pick up one of the many papers, but my fingers seemed to pass right through everything. I could move nothing, change nothing, and he took no notice of me. Wherever I was, it appeared as though I couldn’t interact at all with physical objects in this world, and from what I could see, no noise I made reached the man in front of me.
“Don’t try to attract his attention, you won’t be able to do it!”
My initial shock was quickly replaced with relief, for the voice was of my guide! She had been standing very close to where I had originally been, but the long shadows had hidden her too well. I could still only see her silhouette and she made no attempt to move into the light.
“Welcome to Paris,” she continued, “You seem disoriented. That’s natural, happens to everyone the first time they experience it, though I must say you are taking it rather well! Until you remember how you ended up here, let me fill you in. This is the year 1832, and it is the month of May.”
Even after everything that I had seen or heard, I still couldn’t believe that this was possible. But what choice did I have?
I started putting two and two together. We were in Paris and there was a young mathematician probing the secrets of algebra. It really wasn’t very difficult.
“So that… that’s Galois?”
“Yes, that’s him.”
“We can’t affect anything in this world right? I tried to move stuff, but my hand seemed to pass through solid bodies! He doesn’t even seem to know we’re here!”
“We can’t change events in this world, we can only observe. if you travel back in time, you cannot change anything that happened. You can’t interact with objects or people and no one will hear any sound you make, except other time-travellers like yourself. Imagine everything here is a hologram, you will just pass right through any object.”
“That’s exactly Stephen Hawking’s chronology protection conjecture, right?” I asked, while observing my leg which seemed to appear directly out of a table. It was a strange feeling! I hadn’t even noticed that there was a table where I was standing. The question was of course rhetorical. I had only recently read about that conjecture. My companion must have known this, for she didn’t answer.
Before I could ask any of the many questions in my mind, we were interrupted by a groan from Galois, as the candle went out. He quickly got up and relit the candle. There was a picture of a woman on his desk that I hadn’t noticed before, and he seemed very upset that in the darkness he had caused the picture to fall on its face. After correcting it almost reverentially, he gathered some sheets together and continued to work. He seemed to grow more restless as time went by, repeatedly glancing at the clock that hung on the wall. It was four in the morning.
“You can go closer, like you did before. He can’t sense your presence, remember?”
I did. There were sheets of paper all over the floor of the room, every piece of paper filled from corner to corner with mathematical symbols only some of which I could vaguely recognise. There was a smaller desk just beside the desk on which Galois continued to work, and on it was something that seemed strangely out of place in what was definitely the abode of a young mathematician – an old fashioned gun, recently oiled and ready for use. It was now that I fully understood what I was about to witness in a few hours and why I had been brought to this particular day in the life of a mathematician I admire so much.
My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of breaking glass. Somehow a bottle of ink had been overturned and was now lying in pieces on the floor, and there was ink all over some of the sheets. Galois looked close to tears but that only stayed for a moment before his steely determination came back. After quickly cleaning the mess and opening a new ink bottle, he started writing again. I could now totally understand his urgency and a feeling of dread was spreading slowly throughout my heart. I wished I had never come here, for it would be difficult to witness what I would surely witness.
I decided to explore the room a little bit more. Everything around it had an air of neglect which is difficult to describe. It was as if the room was frequently uninhabited. There was stale food in unlikely places. The books, shelves and papers in the room were all almost uniformly dusty. I couldn’t pick anything up, of course, which was a shame, for there must have been documents there that could’ve given more of an insight into the great mind which I could see at work in front of me.
My guide had been entirely silent for the entire time I was roaming around the room. Now I heard movement from her side. She was looking out of the window and from the amount of light it appeared as though dawn was approaching. For the first time I could see her in some sort of illumination and she looked remarkably human, except that there was no hair on her head and she had larger than usual eyes which she had slowly turned towards me. Not for the first time, I felt like I was being X-rayed.
“You are surprised to see what I look like,” she observed. Correctly, of course.
“Yes. I have read articles on astrobiology that say that the portrayal of extra-terrestrial life forms in films is sort of wrong because it is unlikely that aliens would have human like forms. Yet you look so remarkably human!”
“What you read is true, but we have no fixed form. We can imitate any physical object or life-form. We can’t do it on a fine enough level to imitate hair, though, the result of which is there for you to see.”
Before my already bewildered mind could process this completely, I became aware that the continuous sound of writing that had stayed with us throughout was now gone, and the only noises to be heard were coming from the city outside that was slowly waking up. I looked at the man and he seemed to be looking at the picture on his desk. He had a piece of paper on his desk and he seemed at a loss for words.
Presently I heard another kind of sound entirely. Footsteps.
“His seconds must have arrived,” said my guide. Galois must have heard the steps too, for his manner became decidedly more rigid. He glanced at the clock, and let out a small sigh. The steps had now reached what I imagined would be the staircase outside the door. Soon, there was a knock on the door and he got up to answer it. There were a few words in French, and I looked at my guide, nonplussed.
“You don’t know French, do you?” she asked, half-mockingly. “Let me translate. They told him that it is now time to go, and he asked for five more minutes.”
Galois proceeded to arrange all the papers into piles and neatly packaged them. After sealing the packages with a little bit of wax from the candle and his own ring, he addressed each of them separately. There was one package that was much larger than the rest and this he addressed to one Auguste Chevalier. The rest appeared to be individual letters. After putting all the work of the long night aside, he picked up the last piece of paper and quickly wrote a few lines, keeping it very close to himself while he wrote it. His repeated glances at the picture in front of him were enough to tell me that it was she that the letter was meant for. He finished writing it at almost the same time as the next knock on the door. He sealed this last letter too, and then went to answer the door again, returning with a man slightly older than him. He showed this man the results of his night of labour.
I hadn’t noticed when my guide had left the window to stand beside me.
Galois finally spoke.
“I have written addresses on all these packages, please get them delivered, won’t you?”
He was speaking English all of a sudden!
“No, he’s not. I am translating for you in real time,” whispered my guide, strengthening my assumption that she could read minds. “But listen to what they are saying.”
“This letter is the most important of the lot,” Galois continued speaking, handing the last letter to the other man. “Get it to her and ask her to remember me, please?”
“I will give it to her with my own hands, Evariste. There is the one big package, can I ask who will receive that?”
“Monsieur Chevalier. It contains my life’s mathematical work condensed to a few hundred pages. I do hope he is able to understand the work that I have done and ensure that it reaches the proper people.”
“Don’t worry about that, Evariste. I will personally ensure that your work isn’t lost, and I will help M. Chevalier do full justice to it. The world shall know about your contributions to mathematics.”
He didn’t say anything in reply, but the look in his eyes showed that this statement meant a lot to him. He started going around the room, pausing at various points and trying to take in as much of it as possible. His air was that of a man who was seeing his own home for the last time before going away on a long journey.
“I tried to write everything down, as far as possible. I don’t know if I did a good enough job. I hope there’s someone who profits from all the mess,” he said.
“Let’s go. It’s already time,” replied the other man. I thought his voice shook just a little.
“You might think a man who is going to his death could enjoy one last look at his quarters without being asked to hurry up!” replied Galois, simultaneously picking up the gun. There was no humour in the voice.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“We have had this conversation before, Emmanuel. It is a question of my honour, and I shall go and face that crooked fool even if it means my death, which it probably will for he has unfortunately always been a much better shot than I could ever be.”
He took one last glance at the room before speaking again.
“There’s nothing of value here… except that picture. Send it to her along with the letter please.”
“As you wish, Evariste.”
With that they left the room, locking it as they went. Perhaps fittingly, the candle went out again just as they left the room.
“Now what?” I asked my guide.
“Do you want to see how it finally ended?”
“I don’t want to, but I am too far in to not see it.”
“Come on then.”
A horse carriage had stopped just below the window. I guessed they were going to the rendezvous on that carriage, and evidently my guide thought so too, for sje jumped onto the roof of the same and I followed suit. After some time on the cobbled streets of 18th century Paris, we arrived at a small clearing just outside the city, where there were already five men waiting. Galois and his friends quickly got out of the carriage and walked towards the other people while we followed closely behind. There were hardly any words exchanged. The man who appeared to be the leader of the other group first shook hands with Galois, and the other people shook hands with each other. Then they marked off two lines about thirty metres from each other and this was double checked by one person from each group. Galois and the other leader took their positions at the two marks. They both had guns in their hands.
The man who appeared the oldest in the small congregation then spoke.
“Are the contestants ready?”
They both nodded their heads.
“Bow to each other, please.”
“Let the duel begin.”
The other man fired first, and missed by a whisker. Galois fired next, but missed by a fair margin. From the look on his face, he knew at that very moment that he had lost his chance.
One more shot was all it took and suddenly Galois was buckled over clutching his abdomen. Blood dripped from the wound, and it wasn’t long before he collapsed. His friends rushed to him and tried to block the wound, but it was pretty clear that all attempts to save him were in vain – the shot was too good and there was no hope of saving him using the medical knowledge of the century I was now in.
It wasn’t long before Evariste Galois departed this world.
While his friends carried the body away, my guide and I remained at the spot where he was shot. None of us spoke for a very long time. I couldn’t read her mind, of course, but I guess we were both wondering about the tantalizing possibilities of what could have been – thoughts that invariably come when someone that brilliant dies that early.
“You know what, I always wanted to visit this day because I thought I could maybe change the outcome by, I don’t know, somehow stop him from reaching the appointed place. Watching while the events happened made me feel so helpless!”
“Yes, it is heartbreaking! To see it happen in front of your eyes and yet being powerless to stop it from happening!”
No one spoke for a few minutes, until she broke the silence again.
“This is enough for today I guess. Let me get you back to your timeline. Next time let’s choose something less bloody.”
The infinite possibilities that this opened up was enough to take mind away somewhat from the brutally sad event that I had just witnessed.
“So I will be seeing you again.”
“Yes, of course. I will get in touch. But now, close your eyes and hold my hand and let’s go back to where we came from. You shouldn’t be here longer in a different timeline.”
I complied, and for the second time in my life her long fingers closed around mine. There was again the impenetrable darkness and feathery lightness that I had felt while starting my extraordinary trip to Paris. Soon, however, I found that I had reached familiar surroundings, the same secluded spot in the grounds of my building from where we had left. I was alone and my hand was clutching only air – my guide was gone. As I absentmindedly made my way back to my room, deep in thought about Galois and the events that I had just witnessed, it occured to me that he had been younger than me when he died. He was barely old enough to be called a man! If it is true that at the point of death our whole life flashes in front of us, it must have been a brief but brilliant flash for the tragic figure of Evariste Galois.