When class let out, I waited for everyone else to leave—which also meant waiting for five people with questions and others who wanted to add or drop the class. By the time that was done, the next class was already beginning to file into the room with their professor.
Dr. Strazinsky looked over at me as I stood there. “Would you mind walking to my office before we say anything about your quiz?”
I thought about it. “Sure.”
It wasn’t as if he was attempting to lure me back there so that he could murder me—probably. Deep in my psyche, I couldn’t rule it out even though a more realistic part of my brain knew that was ridiculous. Even if he did want to murder me, his office in the math department was next to every other math professor in the university’s office.
Plus, even though I looked like a typical college student wearing nothing more than a backpack, jeans, and a t-shirt, the clothes, and backpack transformed into a thin layer of powered armor. I referred to it as the stealth suit to distinguish it from my main armor. I’d been improving it throughout June, July and August.
Part of me wondered if that whole line of thinking was paranoid, but I’d spent the first month of summer break fighting in a war zone. Planning for the worst seemed like a reasonable way to avoid it.
We didn’t talk as we walked to the math department. Neither of us were much interested in making small talk, I assumed—that or I’d missed his attempt to make conversation because I was too deeply involved in my own thoughts.
The math department was an open room with a desk for the secretary in the middle, a wall of mail slots for professors that stood behind her and counters with a copier, and other departmental resources lying everywhere. Posters about math, academic scholarships, and off-campus programs covered the walls except for the professors’ doors. The doors showed the professors’ names as well as cartoons featuring math-related humor and whatever the professor felt compelled to announce to visitors.
Dr. Strazinsky’s was bare except for his name, a piece of paper showing his schedule, and few XKCD cartoons. He opened the stained wooden door and I followed him in, sitting across the desk from him.
Unlike some profs, his office felt organized. The books were all on bookshelves instead of threatening to consume the desk and the chairs. Photographs of his wife and children sat the corners of his desk which was clear except for his laptop.
His diplomas hung on the wall above the smaller of his three bookcases. He’d gone to the University of California—Berkeley as an undergrad and to Princeton for graduate school.
I wasn’t up on the standings of US mathematics departments, but I suspected that those two were in the top tier, making me wonder what he was doing here. Grand Lake University was in the top third of US universities, but I doubted any of our programs were in the top tier.
I supposed that the merely good graduates of great universities needed to teach somewhere?
Dr. Strazinsky cleared his throat. “I suppose you’re wondering why I wrote what I did on your test.”
“A little.” I tried to sound innocent and upbeat. Keeping my responses short would reveal as little as possible.
“You answered it correctly and not only that, you used a shortcut that I’d never seen before. If you’d pull out your quiz, I can show you.”
I put in on the desk and he pointed to where I’d shown my work.
“There,” he said. “When I thought it through, I understood why it worked, but I don’t know how you know why it worked.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. My grandfather was an engineer and he tutored me in math when I was younger. He taught me a lot of shortcuts and I might have built on some of them.”
That much was true, but I couldn’t lean on that too hard or he might make a connection between the original Rocket and my grandfather—which wouldn’t take a big leap to connect the current Rocket with me.
He looked at me, taking a short breath. “Is your grandfather still alive?”
I shook my head. “He died three years ago—before my senior year of high school.”
He exhaled, his head tilting downward a touch, becoming visibly less tense. “I’m sorry to hear that and please don’t take this wrong, but that’s a relief. That means that he wasn’t the man who created the equation I used. During graduate school, I did some work for the government, mostly the FBI. Sometimes they recover journals or plans by supervillains who are technical geniuses and they need someone to figure out what they were working on. I’ve helped with the math.”
He stopped, smiling as if that explained all of it.
“Uh,” I paused as if struggling to figure out what to ask, “how does that connect with the quiz?”
He blinked. “Oh. With permission, I sometimes use bits of what I read in tests and quizzes. I modify them a little so that I don’t give away anything important, but if I need a hard question to separate the best grades from the next best, I use one of them.”
That surprised me. It didn’t seem likely that the FBI would be okay with random bits of future technology being shared with the world. That meant that Dr. Strazinsky was either lying about having permission or lying about why he was doing it.