Saturday, April 12, 2008

Canyon's Call by Kate Burns

"Therefore, it is merely a simple equation to factor in the residual chromosomal matter, adjust the variance for the instability factor and voila! You come up with the characteristics of nearly any known species. Of course, it has to be an extinct species but still, the equations are useful--and exciting, I think. And they will be part of the mid-term so I suggest you learn them well. Very well," Professor Mitchell said from his position near the podium. In the pit at the front of the immense lecture hall he strode back and forth as he spoke, the ends of his white lab coat flapping behind him. He looked more like a comic book rendering of a mad scientist than what he actually was--a scientist who felt compelled to teach. The mad part of the "mad scientist" label was debatable, but without bearing on his lecture.

Nearly a hundred graduate students, also dressed in white coats, took notes furiously on their laptops. For a long moment the only noise in the room, aside from Professor Mitchell's heels against the scuffed linoleum floor, was the sound of clicking as fingernails tapped keyboards. There was also the collective whoosh of held breath suddenly released as the pertinent information was noted.

A hand went up near the center of the room and the professor used a broken ruler to point to it.

"Yes? A question?"

"Um, yes ... Professor, what about living species?"

A groan went up from the crowded room. Feet scraped against the floor and bodies pressed against seat backs. This could, they knew, be a long exchange.

"Miss Reed? Is that you?" The man craned his neck, searching for a face to accompany the voice he knew so well. It was a voice that haunted his dreams. A constantly questioning, eternally probing voice. It was a voice that belonged to the type of student every teacher yearned for--or dreaded. This student filled both categories for Professor Mitchell. He loved her thirst for knowledge yet feared she would--someday in the very near future, perhaps--ask a question he had no answer for. "Where are you, Miss Reed?"

The hand went up again and the crowd around her parted as if they were the Red Sea and the Professor was Moses.

"I'm right here, Professor."

Smiling at the sight of her, the man nodded and tapped the broken ruler against his temple lightly. "So you're not sitting in the front any more, then? I've chased you back to the center of the classroom?"

Carrie swallowed, offering a faint smile.

You and that damn ruler--yeah, you moved me back, all right. When you broke that thing on the desk I nearly had a heart attack. Who the hell could know that you'd get so frustrated by one question? And it was a silly question, really. Mitochondrial properties under stressful conditions--that was all I asked about. I guess I found out how they react, though--didn't I? And who knew that ruler parts could fly so far and so fast. I doubt that the maintenance guys will ever get the seven-inch bit out of the ceiling tile.

"Ah, yes ... I can see how you might be inclined to move further back, mingle with the other students, as it were. Yes, in light of the recent..." he looked down at the piece of wood clenched in his fist and shrugged his shoulders, "classroom incident, I can see why you would feel a bit more secure in another location. Now, I take it that you've got a question, Miss Reed? A concise question?"

"Yes, Professor."

The classroom gave a collective sigh.

"Well, then, what is it? I can tell that your classmates are just as anxious as I am to hear what today's question will be. So ... enlighten us." He crossed his arms and leaned back against the podium, feeling as if he was standing before a firing squad of one. Someday the lone shooter would fire at him and he would not be able to deflect the intellectual bullet. Hopefully this wasn't that day.

"I'm just wondering whether or not the same equations apply to living species," Carrie said, forgetting about the ruler for a moment. She had questions--he had answers. The ruler could go to hell. "You've indicated that this set of circumstances applies to extinct species. I'd like to know if this correlation can be drawn among living species, as well. Or is there another set of equations that apply to identifying a species not yet extinct?"

Grinning like a cat with a goldfish locked in its jaws, Professor Mitchell unfolded his arms and took a step forward.

"If there are, Miss Reed, no one has made known their existence yet. To the best of my knowledge--and it is vast, I assure you--there are no equations to be used in the identification of a new species that is not yet found its way to extinction. So the answer to your question is no. There are not another set of equations that apply to identifying a species not yet extinct." Letting the air out of his lungs slowly, surreptitiously, and without allowing the grin threatening to overwhelm him show on his otherwise-scholarly looking face, the professor turned his back on the classroom as he took a step toward the blackboard.

That move, innocent and filled with such satisfaction at his successful answer, nearly cost him. Dearly. A moment was all it took for the best pupil he'd ever had to formulate a second question. A more difficult question. One that he did not have an exact answer to, but rather an educated guess. A hypothesis, if you will.


His spine stiffened as he stopped walking. The air in the lecture hall was so still that a paper airplane would plunge to the floor before it flew two feet. When he turned to look at the class, his face was arranged in a neutral pose.

"Yes, Miss Reed?"

Carrie noticed he gripped the ruler so tightly that his knuckles were white. She swallowed and lifted her gaze, meeting his eyes with more courage than her wobbly stomach allowed. "Well ... you've covered extinct species in your lecture. Very well, I thought," she said quickly. He nodded, a small twitching at the corners of his lips his only response. Carrie continued, "And my question involved species currently living. Again, you've given us the answer to that one so really, those two areas are clear. But..."


She took a deep breath and asked the next in a quick burst. "What about species undiscovered? Those unknown to us at the current time? Suppose a new species is discovered--will the same formulaic equations apply? The same principles--will they be the ones scientists use?"

Professor Mitchell grinned. Dropping the ruler remnant on the podium, he leaned forward conspiratorially, as if sharing a secret. "That, Miss Reed, is a question all scientists wonder from time to time. But yes, those of us who wonder it believe the same equations we use on extinct species will apply to those yet undiscovered. Class dismissed."

There were shuffling noises in the lecture hall, sounds of laptops being snapped shut and hurried whispers as the professor turned and began to pack his notes into his worn leather briefcase.

A bit of hushed conversation reached Carrie's ears as she made some final notes appear on her screen.

"...wants to find a new species before she dies."

"You're right. I think it's the only thing she wants."

As she pressed Save and waited for the small computer to shut down, she allowed herself an inward smile. There was a small glow deep within her, warming her as surely as a campfire chases a chill.

Yeah, I want to find a new species. My two goals--to discover something new and to find someone to share the discovery with. What else could a scientist ever want?