Today is the day of the aptitude test that will show me which of the five majors in the Faculty of Science I belong in. And tomorrow, I will log into the CORS bidding system and decide on one. To decide the mode of thinking and friends that will shape the rest of my life.
My eye has always been drawn by the gleam of a perfectly grown crystal, the moment when clear phenolphthalein indicator solution turns pink after adding the last drop of base, the brilliant flare of a burning magnesium ribbon. And yet symmetries are described using math, spectra are understood using atomic physics, and even the most ordinary breath or heartbeat is powered by a complex series of chemical reactions.
I wish, selfishly, to be able to learn about all of those.
We have been told that there is nothing to prepare for, but I find myself sitting on my bed late the night before, the waxy textbook paper shiny under the glow of the table lamp. The test does not affect our eligibility in any way, but I fear hearing that I do not have the aptitude for chemistry-- or, worse still, that I do not have aptitude for any of the sciences.
The next day, I stand outside the testing room and expect to see a room of tables and chairs, lined as neatly as tiles, filled with rows of test-takers. To my surprise, the tables in the room are shaped like hexagons, chairs all facing the center, and there is only one person inside. He spins around in his swivel chair when he hears me knock, and gestures for me to come in.
"Beatrice?" His voice is deep, and it rumbles.
He rises in a brisk movement, and I have to look up to meet his eyes. "Tris," I say.
"I'm Four. I'll be the administrator for your test."
The laptop in front of Four is standard issue: grey with a sticker on it, but his fingers are deft and careful as as he attaches wires to the console, to himself, and to me. My skin tingles slightly at the point of contact.
Four passes me a vial of clear liquid. "Drink this."
"What is it?" I ask. "What's going to happen?"
Four shrugs. "You have to drink to find out."
I close my eyes, take a breath, and drink the liquid in one go. It slides down my throat as smoothly as water.
"Be brave, Tris," he says, as the room begins to swirl so rapidly that I have to close my eyes.
When my eyes reopen, I find myself in an empty laboratory that smells of bleach and ethanol. There is a lab bench in front of me, but it does not have bottles of chemicals or even a tap. Instead, there is only a pencil and paper on my left and a pipette filled with some clear solution on my right.
"Welcome, I am A," a male voice says, but there is no one to be seen. "Please choose."
"Why? What will I do with them?"
No reply. I am about to ask again, when the objects vanish, leaving the tables empty.
Suddenly the doors to the lab open and a black dog bounds in, mouth open so wide that I can see its teeth. I am backing away slowly when it makes a sharp turn towards a row of cages that have somehow appeared next to the door. It sits in front of the cages, sticking its tongue out and panting.
"How would you test if this species of dog is red-green color blind?" asks A.
It's an unexpected question, but an interesting one. I pause for a while, thinking, before I begin.
"I would need a hundred dogs that have been trained to fetch white balls. I would then split the dogs into two groups. Those in the first group will be brought one by one in a room with one red ball and one green ball. If the dog brings back the red ball, I would give it two treats; if it brings back the green ball, only one. This will be done a few times for the dogs to become familiar with what they should do.
The second group of dogs will go through the same procedure, except that they get only one treat regardless of which ball they bring back, thus serving as a control. I would then do a t-test on the results to see if the number of red balls brought back are significantly different between groups."
The scene dissolves and I am back in the original room.
"Which of the five did I get?" I ask, once I see Four.
"Beatrice, your results were inconclusive on that."
"Inconclusive?" I wonder if I have failed the test. Perhaps I should have picked the pipette, or even the pencil. Those would likely have narrowed down the options to one of the majors.
"However, your response indicates that you have an aptitude for interdisciplinary science and research." Four says, a faint smile curling his lips. "People who get this kind of result are called SPS-gent."
I remember hearing about the Special Programme in Science, and its multidisciplinary modules and research opportunities. But "SPS-gent"?
" 'SPS-gent'? What kind of word is that?" I blurt out.
"It's a combination of SPS and 'emergent'," Four says."Or 'agent', if you like James Bond movi--"
"We're scientists," booms A's voice, cutting Four off. "For the arty-farty stuff, go to USP."
Then the scene dissolves, into reality this time.
"You will still have to choose one of the five majors on bidding day," Four tells me. "But if you are willing, if you are prepared, then come to the SPS room on the night after bidding ends."
Something flares in my pulse at those words. They sound like a challenge, but also a promise.
"Welcome," begins the dean on bidding day. "Welcome to the NUS Faculty of Science. Welcome to the day where we honor the democratic philosophy of our ancestors, which tells us that every scientist has the right to choose his or her own way in the world."
"Centuries ago, our ancestors stared out into a world filled with unknowns and determined that it was the fault of human ignorance of the laws and designs of Nature. They divided into factions that sought to tread different paths towards knowledge."
"Those who sought rigour formed Mathematics. Those who sought optimal inference from data formed Statistics. Those who sought to understand life formed Life Sciences. Those who sought the rules of matter formed Physics. And those who sought the transformations of matter formed Chemistry."
"Working together, these factions have lived in peace, each contributing to a different facet of knowledge. And today, bidding day, is the day each of you choose which faction to call home."
The Ivy League universities conduct their choosing ceremony in historic halls with solid stone pillars and soaring ceilings. Each freshman slices his or her palm and lets a drop of blood fall in the receptacle symbolizing their major. The physicists have a funnel shaped like a spiral wishing well, where the blood spins round and round before falling through the center; the chemists have a bowl of hydrogen peroxide solution that fizzes when the blood contacts the liquid.
Here, we click an arrow of a drop-down box and feel the plastic of the mouse press against palms that are slick with sweat instead of blood.
"Are you sure?" asks the dialog box.
"Ok," I click. The mouse just requires the touch of a fingertip, but my falling finger feels like an anchor chaining me to this course of action.
"MAJOR: CHEMISTRY" appears on the screen.
The next day, I step into Lecture Theatre 27 for the first lecture of the semester. Rows and rows of red chairs rise to about four times my height, with clusters of people dispersed from the third row from the front all the way to the back. I look up and down, wondering which seat to best lose myself in, when I hear a snatch of conversation with the word "SPS".
I remember the aptitude test from the previous day and what Four had said, and sit near them, hoping to find out more.
"I heard that program is damn hiong," the person is saying. "Like five modules not enough like that."
"I know right," another voice answers. "I was talking to some seniors who told me all about the slack mods: for Dynamics of Interpersonal Effectiveness, you just have to turn up once a week and participate in the class discussion."
"And I hear the girls from Arts are pretty hot too!" They both laugh.
I suddenly feel very stupid, listening to them. I barely know how I will deal with the regular classes in this new environment. What is the point of taking on such a time-consuming activity?
And yet, I don't want to give up learning about science, investigating a topic because I want to rather than because I have to.
If I am willing, Four had said. If I am prepared.
That evening, I stand outside the SPS room and wonder what it is like inside: shrouded in black walls with the glow of orange light strips along the walls, or ceiling to floor glass windows with the light of the blue sky pouring in.
I do not know anyone who has chosen to enter. I hope I am not the only one.
"--tionright?" a voice says from my left, so quickly that I can barely catch the words.
"Sorry?" I say, turning to see some fingers waving near my face. They belong to a tall girl, with hair cropped short at her neck, like she moves too quickly to want to deal with long hair.
"This is the place for the SPS initation, right?" she repeats.
"Yeah," I say, my heart lifting. At least there are two of us in this together.
"I'm Christina, by the way," she says, as we walk through the doorway.
My shoes tap against the wood as I step in, taking in the rows of white tables laid with textbooks and laptops. I step through a glass partition into what must be the library and look at the whiteboards. One is filled with equations, while the other has a calendar that includes the date of the Venus transit, complete with a little doodle of a planet.
Outside the library, there is a table with snacks and a fridge.
'Beware,' says the sign on the fridge.'Abandoned food will be eaten/experimented on (not necessarily in that order)'.
In front of that, there are cream sofa chairs arranged in a rectangle. I cannot help but stare at the white stuffed dog that has its thumb stuck permanently in its mouth.
"Year Ones?" one of the guys on the sofa says, looking up at us. He notices what I'm staring at. "His name is Wolfram."
He reaches over and places the dog on his lap, making space for us.
Jianxiong chats with us for a couple of minutes before we are told to go into the seminar room.
This is a place where even a soft toy has a name, I think, as we walk. It is not just a stopping point between classes, it's where they live. I should be worried that this is a place that will distract me from my studies. Instead, for the first time since I stepped on campus, I feel that this is a place that could be home.
"As one of the head student mentors of SPS, I will oversee your initiation," says Four. He presses his clicker, and a SPS logo with "Live Curious: Be Challenged" under it appears on the screen.
"First question: What does SPS stand for?"
Four's gaze sweeps the room. Most people avoid looking in his direction, but my eyes end up finding his, and then it becomes too awkward not to reply.
"Special Programme in Science," I say.
"That's what we tell the public," Four says, a slightly sadistic grin spreading across his face. "Here, SPS stands for Special Programme of Suffering."
"Anyone wants to guess the motto?" Four continues.
"Not 'Live Curious'?" Christina mutters.
"You're not wrong," Four says with lazy amusement, having somehow overheard Christina. He presses his clicker, and "No One Suffers Alone" appears on the screen.
"In SPS, no one suffers alone," Four says. "It's very simple. If you're supposed to do something as a group, you suffer as a group. If your groupmate is suffering, you either ease their suffering or suffer with them. If people in other groups are suffering alone, point it out to their groupmates-- who should be suffering with them."
"What if no one is suffering?" Christina asks, showing a mathematician's tendency towards logical elimination.
"This is SPS." Four gives a smile that shows his teeth. "There will always be suffering."
For our first semester, all of us take a class meant to introduce us to research and scientific tools. This includes learning to program with Mathematica.
I have never programmed before, but it seems exciting, typing lines of code that flash green against a black screen, or pressing a button and having a time-lapse animation play before the audience's eyes.
On the first day of Mathematica class, I discover that the classroom was where Four administered the initiation test. I am early, so I reserve a seat for Christina and turn on the computer. I open the program and leave the cursor blinking on the empty page, as I listen to the conversation at the next table.
"Have you seen the bouncing ball question?" says one person. "Such a trivial exercise, all you need to do is to plot the closed-form solution to the equations of motion."
My last physics class was almost a year ago. I think back and recall the formulas discussed then, but surely there must be some kind of input box for us to feed the computer the solution? I hope that his tablemate asks some of these questions.
"That's cheating-- the whole point of this exercise is to numerically integrate the system forward in time," comes the reply, before the speaker opens his own Mathematica window. "Anyway, I modified mine to account for planetary scale interactions: here's a fully elastic asteroid collision that's now going into orbit over the Earth."
"How is that assumption even realistic?"
I look back at the cursor. It continues blinking at me, as if expecting me to whip up a solution equally quickly.
"I don't assume you have any background," the lecturer says. He does explain what he's typing as code appears on the screen, flashing different colours according to its role. "Copy this code into your screen, and then press ctrl-enter."
"It's not so bad," I say to myself, and type in what I see on the screen, and hold down the keys, expecting to see a red circle appear in front of me.
Instead, a list of error messages appear, and the screen seizes up, the cursor icon turning round and round.
"I don't know what went wrong," I say, staring helplessly at the screen.
Christina, whose ball has appeared on the screen in dizzying rainbow colours, pokes her head over my screen. "You missed a bracket there," she points.
I look up at the screen, at the many, many steps before we will be done with today's lesson. Four was right about the suffering part, I think.
By the time the next lesson begins, there are two less people in the class. They have left the programme.
I could leave, as well. Leaving SPS has no academic consequences other than the lack of a certificate of completion. It is not as if I would have to scavenge for food in the NUS canteen like a beady-eyed mynah.
But I don't. I was prepared for this when I made my choice. Besides, when I next head to the row of tables where the SPS freshmen are, everyone is looking at the latest version of the Dropbox file with updates to the discussion. In the buzz of ideas and explanations, Mathematica assignments don't seem like a problem I can't overcome.
In that way, I make it to the second semester.
"Now I understand how the naming system works," says Christina, as we discuss the modules for the semester. "Discovering Science is for discovering suffering; The Cell's not so much about biology as it's about closing us up in the lab."
Discovering Science requires us to work on a literature review in small groups, and Christina and I have proposed to work on Turing structures. These structures are patterns that appear in perturbations to a chemical solution. Christina likes the idea because Turing was, in the end, a mathematician.
"Also, pretty pictures!" Christina had said, scrolling down a page on how tiger stripes can be explained with a similar equation.
The nature of our topic makes it harder than expected to get student mentors needed to supervise our group.
"I asked the chem seniors, but most are in organic labs," I say.
"I tracked down the one math senior," Christina says.
"Did he agree?"
"Turns out he's on exchange."
A week later, we're discussing our lack of progress when Jianxiong enters the SPS room with a plate with a mound of beehoon on it.
"Is that buffet for us?" Christina asks, as Jianxiong sits at the food table, below the Mona Lisa portrait with stick-on beady eyes.
"As members of the Science community, it's our duty to prevent wastage of food," says Jianxiong, placing a large forkful of food into his mouth.
"Like ants clearing the animal bodies," I agree, remembering a documentary I watched.
"Ooh, another 'S' word," says Christina happily. "Special Programme of Scavengers."
We head outside to the buffet in front of Lecture Theatre 31 and scoop out bowls of the jelly cubes, and sit with Jianxiong.
"How's the lit review going?" he asks.
"We still haven't found a mentor," Christina says. Most of our classmates have found mentors before the beginning of the semester.
"That's a little late to start," Jianxiong says. "I could be your junior mentor, but it's best if you also have a year four senior mentor to help you guys."
He pauses, thinking. For a while, there are only the sounds of his chewing and the scrape of his spoon against the disposable plate. "Have you tried Four?"
"Four?" My head jerks up involuntarily. Four is at his desk at the corner of the room, brow furrowed as he types into his laptop.
"Doesn't he do microbiology?" adds Christina.
Jianxiong frowns. “Don't you know why we call him Four?"
We shake our heads.
"He's done four different research projects, covering areas across the sciences. One on some quantum-inspired bioinformatics algorithm, one on evolutionary game theory, one on organic synthesis. It's only his final year project that's on microbiology."
"Wow." Christina is impressed. "But he's still scary. Let's go ask him now, Tris, so that you can protect me.”
I share Christina's fear. But at the same time, I'm relieved that Christina doesn't want to be alone with him.
"Good. Everyone is on time," Four says, appearing at 12:59pm in the SPS library for our first meeting. "Respect for everyone's time is very important."
Four is smiling, but it's not reassuring. Christina once remarked that Four only has three kinds of smiles: the smile before he does something sadistic, the smile when he's doing something sadistic, and the smile after he has done something sadistic.
Four takes a marker and draws a line across the whiteboard we'd just cleaned. "Who can tell me when your report is due?"
"Week thirteen?" I guess, remembering some dates from one of the briefing sessions.
"That's for your presentation, which we shall worry about then if you make it till then." Four makes a mark on the line and writes "Report: Week 12 Monday".
"I expect to see a first draft by week seven and a second draft by week ten," continues Four, marking on the board as he speaks. "You also have a mid-term presentation the Saturday just before recess week. And here we are, in week two."
By this time, Four has stopped smiling. His eyes are hard and stony as he speaks. "There are groups who have been presenting two or three papers a week for two weeks. But from what I see, you two have not started on anything."
"We have found papers," Christina says, looking straight at Four's eyes, ashamed but also a little indignant. I do the same, to back her up. We may not be the most prepared group, but we are not lazy or worthless.
"I think we should hear what they have found," says Jianxiong. "It's their first meeting, they still need time to get used to things."
Four looks at Jianxiong, Christina, then me. His gaze is cool, assessing. My stomach churns, but I do not look away. "It's their first meeting," he says, turning back to Jianxiong. "Which is why I have to make sure they know how much they have left to do."
"So," Four drapes his left elbow over the back of the chair as he leans back, gaze passing from Christina to me again. He taps on the table with lazy flicks of his right wrist, and I can't help but notice how long his fingers are. "Show me what you've got."
"We came across this article about why matter has patterns, called the question of morphogenesis-- like tiger stripes or zebra spots," Christina begins.
"Turing modelled it as a mixture of chemical solutions diffusing and reacting with each other to form patterns," I continue. I was really excited when Christina first sent me the article; I'd never thought of coat patterns in this way, as snapshots of the back and forth between black and white pigments.
"There have been experiments using malonic acid and bromine that produce these types of patterns." Christina presses play on her laptop, and we watch as rings and curves of a different colour form and disappear. "The paper also talked about gastrulation-- how a bunch of cells knows where to form a head and tail. And there was some oscillator theory and some Einstein model which we tried to Google but don't really understand." Christina says.
The idea was Christina's, as were many of the first articles. When it came to clarifying the terms and questions she had raised, I threw myself collating and summarizing the information: not just to do my fair share of the work, but in the hope of finding an area where I can make my own contribution.
I place copies of some of the papers on the table for Four and Jianxiong to see. They are my copies, because Christina's has doodles of Einstein's wild hair next to "Lengyel-Einstein model", a pendulum in a grandfather clock next to "Hopf oscillations", and a ball on top of a hill next to "linear stability analysis", not to mention many "???"s and "wtf is this?"s.
Four's posture changes once he starts scanning the papers. He sets both elbows on the tables, scanning the papers before passing them to Jianxiong. This is the first time I have seen Four when something truly commands his attention, his gaze so intense it seems the paper might catch fire.
Four leans back once he passes the last sheet of paper to Jianxiong, and my stomach begins to unclench, releasing the tension I didn't notice it was holding. "What you have now can be used for your introduction. You need to go deeper into the mathematical theory, as well as learn about the simulations and experiments. I suggest you two go about these concurrently."
Christina and I exchange a look. "I can look into the theory part," she begins warily, still uncertain how to react to Four's shifts in mood.
"I'll take the simulation and experiments,"I say.
Jianxiong seems to sense our trepidation. "Don't worry if you don't understand everything the papers say," he says, smiling encouragingly at us. "Try looking at the old papers, or reviews that assume little background on the part of the reader."
The first lab session of The Cell does not feel out of the ordinary for me. Just like the chemistry lab sessions I went through in the previous semester, we are given a short briefing and told to start the experiment.
Every group has a student mentor on hand to supervise, but they have made it clear that they are not there to babysit us through the experiment.
Four has his back to the side-table in an easy slouch. He's clearly in his environment as he looks over his group, watchful and lazily amused. Our eyes meet briefly before I hastily look back to our table, where Christina is standing uselessly in front of our group's table of apparatus.
"If I liked experiments, I would have chosen physics," Christina wails. She flicks through the lab protocol for The Cell again, crumpling the edges of the paper with her grip. "How am I supposed to understand this nonsense?"
I have lost count of the number of times I went to Christina when I wanted to smash my computer in frustration.
"It's giving me the one hundred lines of recursion error again," I'd say. "Why can't it just tell me what's wrong?"
Christina would then look at the code, check a couple of variables, before saying, "It's not a big problem, you just need to clear this variable before restarting the loop."
It's strange, now, to have the roles reversed.
"Let's take it one step at a time," I say. "Fit the tip onto the micropipette like this..."
When Christina has leaned over to start the machine that will give us the optical density reading, I feel a hand on my shoulder.
"Well done," Four says, and then he's gone, walking back towards the group he is mentoring.
Each week, we take pictures of the whiteboard in the SPS library at the end of every meeting: those with the mentors, as well as those with the two of us-- a record of the time in blue ink splashed on whiteboard.
There’s one filled with the terms of Taylor's expansion and the linearized system of differential equations, together with a graph to illustrate numerical integration. When Jianxiong first taught us about it, all I could do was take everything down, but now I recognize enough to explain what it's supposed to do.
"You're expected to be able to answer questions on any part of your report, not just the part you wrote," Jianxiong had explained.
"Since I will be your internal examiner, I can say that you will have to be able to answer these questions," adds Four, eyes gleaming, lips stretched in yet another smile.
Another filled with dots and arrows of a chemical mechanism for the oscillating reactions.
Another with scribbled words in bubbles linked lines that snake across the board, a chaotic mimic of a mind-map.
"And we still have the mid-semester quiz for The Cell tomorrow, damn," says Christina as she cleans the top of the latest board, the sky long ago faded to black.
Four is lounging on the sofa as we stream out of the seminar room. “How was The Cell quiz?” he asks, when he spots us.
"It was fine," I say, suddenly feeling shy.
"What did you put for number seven, the one about the number of water molecules in a cell?" says Christina.
"B," I say, furrowing my brow as I try to remember. "I just picked the answer that felt right."
"You can work it out," says Four. "Assume that the cell is on the scale of a micrometer and a water molecule is on the scale of an angstrom, which gives ten to the power of twelve."
"Makes sense," I say.
"That's what Lester-- our group's physicist --said as well," says Christina, glancing at Four before looking towards me. "Do you know what our biologist said to him after that?"
"He memorized it?" I guess, and we're all laughing, Four's eyes flashing in amusement.
Christina wanders off after that, likely to repeat the joke, leaving me and Four there.
"It’s the first time I've seen you smile like that," says Four, looking directly at me. I swallow hard but don't say anything, just watch as he swings himself out of the sofa seat and heads back to his desk.
I wish I were taller. My build would be graceful, instead of childish, and Four wouldn't talk to me the way he would to a younger sister.
We spend most of the two weeks after that on the draft of our report. Four demands that it be sent out forty-eight hours before the meeting, and we reach the deadline with five minutes to spare.
"You completed the first draft of all the sections," Jianxiong says before Four enters the SPS library. "That's a good start."
Jianxiong and Four make a good team, I realize, acting as the good cop and bad cop in turns. Where Four's instinct is to be strict, Jianxiong's instinct is to motivate.
I smile a little as I shift in my seat. Despite Jianxiong's attempts, I can't shake the feeling that I'm standing under a sky of dark clouds and rumbling thunder.
Four pushes open the glass door in a swift motion, and I think of lightning streaking across the sky.
"I am going to do a magic trick," Four announces, flipping the pages of the draft he's holding.
"Without asking either of you, I can tell you that this section was written by you,"--Four points at Christina--"and this section was written by you,"-- before pointing at me. "And then you copied and pasted it into one document and sent it over."
Christina and I exchange a guilty look. We hadn't realized it would be so obvious.
"One moment I'm reading about the differential equations, and the next about reaction mechanisms, and then back to numerical methods, with no transitioning whatsoever," Four continues. "Do you think you're writing a duet?"
Four's tone is not kind or gentle, but it lacks the cutting edge he'd used in our first meeting.
"We can do that for the presentation," Christina quips, almost without thinking. Four's lips quirk, and I grin. He can still be terrifying, but not in this moment, when his smile is more indulgent than intimidating.
The next week, when The Cell requires us to analyse cell mean square displacement using Mathematica, our group turns to Christina and smiles expectantly.
“Finally, your area of specialty,” I say, nudging her. For all that Christina has learnt to pipette and take optical density readings, she has been suffering quite a bit this semester.
"I'm a math major, not a Mathematica major," Christina tries to sound irritable, but she’s fighting back a smile.
In the next few weeks, we continue editing the report.
"Labels should be below figures, not above," Four says, as we scroll down a document marked all over with highlights and comments.
"The graph labels are too small."
"Your section header font size is inconsistent across sections."
It feels like forever before we get to the References. No one looks at references, I think, eagerly anticipating dinner after the meeting.
"What's wrong with this?" Christina asks, pointing at a highlighted period at the end of an abbreviated journal title.
"It's been wrongly italicised," Four points out, smiling smugly, and my stomach sinks.
Our suffering peaks in the last week of the semester.
"In conclusion, the Turing model offers a spatial description of the different chemicals in the BZ oscillating reaction, which agrees qualitatively with experiment," I hear myself say, the adrenaline pushing away the hazy fatigue from having slept only four hours the previous night. I redistribute my weight on my court shoes, and look out at my classmates in their collared shirts, pencil skirts and pressed pants. Above me, I am vaguely aware of the dust swirling in the beam of the projector.
71 presentation, check.
'From the random motion of the E.coli mutated to have no flagellummmmmmm' says my computer screen.
I force my eyes open and remove all the extra 'm's. Just one more line to the conclusion.
"It is possible that all cells undergo random motion. However, random motion may not be observed when directed motion is more significant."
The Cell report, check.
Reading week comes next. It's the first time in over half a semester that we've had an unrushed meal together.
"What do we talk about now, other than work?" Christina asks. "No wonder inbreeding is so common in SPS-- it took away all our social life."
Unbidden, the image of Four appears in my mind, attaching itself like barnacles to a pillar.
"Not to say that we don't get entertainment in our lectures," Christina says, to fill in the silence. "We had this girl who wore a sheer top and a black bra to lecture..."
It would be strange to talk to Christina about a guy. We talk about what the other people in SPS are getting up to, now and then. However, in those conversations, Christina often wears the same expression she does when she's watching the seniors play a board game she doesn't know the rules to.
On the other hand, she's in the best position to know what I'm talking about. And we're right in the corner of the dining hall, right next to a potted plant, with no one within a table's distance. It feels like a different time and place, one where I can give in to the temptation to share a secret.
"And the lecturer only realized what we were all laughing about when he looked up from his notes,” Christina finishes.
Instead of changing the topic, I ask,"Can you be a girl-- you know, talk about girl stuff?"
Christina raises an eyebrow, but gamely puts up two fingers in a 'V' sign and cocks her head to one side, pulling her lips so wide her teeth show. "Sure, I'm an adorable little girl!"
I swallow. "It's about Four..."
"Four?" I thought you said you were going to talk about girl--" Christina's mouth hangs open for a brief moment as she realizes what she's saying. "Oh, you mean like you... that you like..."
"I know it's stupid," I interrupt, because even letting Christina say it seems to make things even more real. "I know I'm just a junior in his eyes."
Christina doesn't reply immediately. Her gaze drifts to a spot behind my shoulder, like she's powering calculations there with the force of her concentration. Somehow, I am reminded of Four, and my heart twinges a little.
"Not really," Christina says. "He's our grader: if he dated you, then people would accuse him of favoritism. The contrapositive also holds, of course."
I can't disagree. Four may be infamous throughout SPS for his high standards, but he has never been a second late for our meetings nor has he ignored a single draft that we sent their way. He would hate to be accused of favouritism.
"It would, after all, correspond to a violation of his principles on the purity of torture and the sanctity of sadism," continues Christina.
"'Sadism also starts with a 's'," I say, and Christina laughs in reply.
After our exams and the grade submission, we arrange a dinner with Four and Jianxiong, both to thank them and to celebrate.
I put on a dress, because I can: chemistry labs demand that students wear long pants and covered shoes, and it's nice to do something different.
Four did a good job in training us to be punctual. I'm outside the restaurant ten minutes before our meeting time, looking up and down the narrow street half-filled with parked cars and lined with shophouses.
Four is the next person to arrive. I watch his dark eyes flick from signboard to signboard, until he catches my eye and smiles in recognition.
"You're early," Four says. "Nice dress, by the way."
"I had a good teacher," I reply, and he smirks at that, just as I see Christina waving and Jianxiong appears from the side.
After dinner, when Four is bringing our money to the cashier, Christina puts on what she thinks is a straight face.
"I have a sudden-onset stomachache that necessitates my immediate removal from the scene, except that it will subside the moment I am out of your line of sight."
Before I can tell Christina off for talking nonsense, Jianxiong adds,”I need to play DOTA with my grandmother.”
Jianxiong’s straight face is no better than Christina's. If he is playing along with Christina's plan, he must think there is a chance that Four likes me as well. My face flushes at this thought.
"Be brave, Tris!" Christina says, miming a calling action before she turns and leaves.
"Where are the others?" Four asks, when he returns.
"They...had to go." I think about what Christina said, and add, "It's a pity, I thought we could have dessert or something."
"I know a good place," says Four, and we head further down the street, lit by the orange-yellow of street lamps, the white fluorescent lighting from the shops and the red blink of car rear lights.
There's a large group at the counter, watching hopefully for a large table. There is a space for two though, right at the end. I squeeze into the wooden stool at the corner, for once grateful that I'm so small.
"Will you continue as a mentor after you graduate?" I place a spoon of the durian shaved ice into my mouth, savoring the cold, creamy sensation. It makes sense that Four would choose a place like this: where we have to mark our order with a tiny pencil stub and bring it to the counter, but where the food is unquestionably good.
"Not immediately -- I'm working as a research assistant this year while I apply to grad school," replies Four. "Would you want to be one?"
"I'll apply, but I don't think I can reach your level," I say. Four is incredible, even by SPS standards.
"Why should you be just like me?" Four asks, looking straight at me now. "From what I've seen, I think you'd make a good mentor."
"Less mean, for sure." I should feel encouraged, but it's mixed in with disappointment: I am just one of his students-- one of his kids, as the mentors sometimes say--nothing more.
"I'm not always so cruel," Four says, which is true. His smile is easy, relaxed, now that we're casually talking and joking with each other. "Although it is interesting to watch how people react."
"They get scared and work harder," I say, speaking from experience. "What else?"
"Not necessarily. Some people wilt under pressure, some become defiant-- although these people generally don't ask me to be their mentor," Four says. "You, on the other hand: pressure makes you stronger--it's fascinating to see."
I've seen Four watch his other mentees at the final presentation, smirking before he throws a difficult question, watching with vaguely indulgent pride if his mentees rise to the challenge. The way Four is focusing on me now-- my eyes, my nose, my lips, is very different.
"I don't think I've been that fascinating," I say. "I just did what I normally do."
"I will admit that I do have a bias in this regard," Four says. "One that did make impartial grading trickier this semester."
"Well, you aren't really our mentor any longer," I say, with a small smile that sparks off a grin on Four's face.
Epilogue: Fifteen Months Later
Now that I've joined the ranks of the mentors, I get to lounge on the sofa seats and watch as our new initiates stream in, wide-eyed with trepidation. Wolfram is on my lap, fur back to its creamy white colour after this semester's washing.
"Hi," Christina walks up to me, eyes open too wide to be genuinely excited, and sticks out a hand to shake. "I'm a first year student who wants to do SPS and chemistry."
"Hi," I play along and take the hand. "I'm a third-year math student."
"I'm still quite unsure about SPS. Sadface. " Christina puts two fingers to her lips in imitation of a sad emoticon. "Why should I join SPS?"
I can't help but think back, to a time before hours of hunching in front of computer screens or crowding around the SPS whiteboards. The memories return in flashes: my reluctance to give up the other fields of science to focus on one, the moment when I was told to choose between the test tube and the pencil and instead asked about their intended purpose, the shine in Four's eye when he'd given me another choice.
"I should tell them to run," Christina says, dropping the fake first-year persona. She flaps her hands at the door. "Save yourselves while you can!"
"How could you?" I say, pretending to be horrified. "We're supposed to encourage them to stay."
"For what?" Christina's tone has changed to curiosity.
It's hard to answer. It's true that SPS has brought us no lack of difficulty and struggle. And yet, after each tough problem or confusing paper, we still chose to continue, and I believe it was for something worthwhile.
Across the room, the SPS logo projects onto the board as this year's head mentor prepares her presentation. I'm reminded of the first day, when we'd heard the talk on what SPS was meant to be, and suddenly the answer is clear.
I look up at Christina and smile. "For the sake of suffering," I say, and watch as her smile grows to match mine.