For His Own Good: Part 1

Dr. Strazinsky stood in front of the class, staring down at the pile of paper in his hands. Then he looked at me, making me wonder what I’d done.

This was my Calculus III class, one of the few prerequisites I hadn’t comped out of. I was only taking it during my Junior year because of some annoying scheduling issues between my double major in electrical engineering and chemistry.

The professor took a long breath and looked out at the class. From his appearance, I guessed that he had to be in his thirties, but he felt older. I didn’t know whether it was the tan suit jacket with tie and slacks, or the slightly balding hair.

Whatever it was, if you were hoping for a young, charismatic professor, this wasn’t your guy.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like him. I did like him. He seemed smart, knowledgeable, and good enough at explaining the material. I didn’t need anything else in a professor.

He looked directly at me again—making me wonder what was going on, back down at the papers, and then back to the class. Then he began to talk.

“I know that no one enjoys taking a quiz on the first day of class, but I like to know what people actually remember from Calculus 2. As a class, you did well—well enough that I’m comfortable starting without too much review. So, we’re going to go over the quiz. Feel free to ask about anything you want, but I’ll go over the quiz in order.”

About a quarter of the class raised their hands. Dr. Strazinsky blinked but pointed to a blond guy wearing a blue and gold University of Michigan t-shirt. 

The guy said, “What was up with that last question? I had no idea where to even start. I’ve never seen that covered anywhere. That’s not part of this class, is it?”

The prof shook his head, smiling a little. “Don’t worry about that question. You’ll never see anything like that again. It’s not part of this class. It’s not part of any class you’ll ever take in this university. I put it on the quiz to see how you’d try to solve it and not because I thought you could find the answer. It’s not something an undergrad should be able to solve. Most PhDs don’t have the necessary background. So, don’t worry about it. In fact, don’t worry about this quiz. It won’t be part of your grade.”

Then he passed back the stapled piles of paper.

As the stack of quizzes passed from one person to another, my stomach began to ache. I’d thought back to the last class, trying to remember the question, but I couldn’t. Nothing in it had seemed hard and the last question hadn’t stood out from the crowd.

Maybe, I told myself, I hadn’t noticed it. If it were on the back of the last page, it would have been easy to miss. I’d done that sort of thing before.

Except then I thought about the looks the prof had been giving me. I hadn’t missed it. I’d probably answered it strangely. Using the implant the Xiniti had installed in my head, I’d been investigating advances that aliens had made in math. Even with the implant, I didn’t have the background to understand all of it, but I’d made a good beginning. I’d have made a better one if the Xiniti were more interested in physics and less interested in war.

Off the top of my head, I decided that all I’d have to do is explain some of the shortcuts I’d taken or maybe offer a proof for one or more of them.

Then I got the quiz back. I flipped it over to look at the back of the last page. It was blank. I hadn’t missed the last question.

I opened it to the last page and looked at my scribbled answer. It seemed simple enough. The question asked the reader to solve for the value of a variable assuming other values that the question defined. 

Then I recognized where I knew the equation from. It was a type of equation used in calculating the distance a jump drive would send a spaceship. I’d learned a lot about them early in the summer when I’d taught myself the basics about jump drives.

It wasn’t impossible that someone on Earth would come up with an equation like this. The math needed to put something into practice often predates a need to use it. At the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder how it had gotten on my quiz.

It was only at that point that I noticed the words, “See me after class,” written next to the answer I’d written on my paper.

It appeared that I was about to find out.

16 thoughts on “For His Own Good: Part 1”

  1. Great start to the new act!

    I did notice one edit:

    “The math needed to put something into practice often predates and need to use it.”

    Maybe instead:

    “The math needed to put something into practice often predates any need to use it.”

    or:

    “The math needed to put something into practice often predates the need to use it.”

  2. Ahh the college stunt of putting ‘unsolvable’ problems on a test to see if some genius will solve it because they didn’t know it couldn’t be.

  3. I had almost forgotten Nick has a “secret identity” with the long alien arc, so it’s interesting to see some secret identity shenanigans coming to the fore in this new story.

  4. Jim, that was an utterly contrived, utterly cheesy cliffhanger. It felt practically insulting….

    1. I almost always overestimate how far I’m going to get on a given night. So I don’t know what the ending is going to be until about 30 minutes before it happens. If you’re curious, here’s how this ending happened:

      12:20 am: I’m optimistic that I’ll get to the point where Nick talks to the professor and gets an explanation as to why that equation was on the quiz. The post is at that point at 660 words. All I have to do is stay up till 2 am at max.

      Shortly after that, I fell asleep on the couch, tablet on my lap.

      4:30 am: I wake up. I’m still at 660 words, but I try to make the minimum of each post 750. So, it’s not good enough. Plus, I don’t want to end the post mid-sentence. I decide to see how far I can get before 5 am.

      4:50 am: I’m past 750 at that point, but recognize that there’s no way I’m going to get to talking with the prof and getting some explanation without writing for another hour or more. How am I going to wrap this up for the night?

      5:08 am: Stopping before talking to the prof means that I don’t have to start describing a new scene that, let’s be honest, will be partially forgotten by some readers by Thursday. As such, I try to end on a sentence that feels like an endpoint, but also clearly says that something’s coming–which is all I ever do. When it’s joined up with the next post as part of an unbroken chapter (its ultimate destiny), it won’t even be a cliffhanger.

      Knowing that, I hit “Publish” and head upstairs to sleep in my bed for part of the night.

        1. The point that any given post ends can basically be decided in three questions:

          1. Is it at least 750 words long or preferably 800-1000?
          2. Can I cut it at a spot where it feels both like an endpoint and points to the next post?
          3. Do I want to go to bed now?

          If I say yes to all three, I’m done, making all cliffhangers (un?)happy accidents. If I can say yes to questions one and three, sometimes question two is optional.

  5. Thanks for the response, Jim. So that unfortunate break wasn’t a deliberate decision to ‘tweak’ the readers (you encounter those reading online, and I hate them with the caustic passion of a thousand alkali suns), and my righteous indignation is utterly deflated.

    1. The reason for many breaks (and also delays) amounts to, “I want to go to bed.” For better or for worse, readers are often a secondary consideration.

      The thing about cliffhangers is that they’re irritating. They’re the equivalent of, “Hey, want a treat? Does it smell good? Great. I’ll give it to you tomorrow.”

      And then you take it away.

      The thing that sucks about writing a serial in that sense is that if you’re doing things basically right (by which I mean creating tension), every stop point feels like a cliffhanger.

      Many times when people have told me that I’d created a good cliffhanger, I never intended it to be a good or bad one. It’s mostly the point where I decided to end the update.

      The one thing I do try to do for sure is to end at a point where I know what’s happening next. Staring at a blank screen is not fun when you don’t have a plan.

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