Project Hail Mary

Page 10

I grabbed a fistful of beanbags off my desk. “What is the actual name of the North Star?”

“Polaris!” said Jeff.

“Correct!” I threw a beanbag to him. Before he even caught it, I fired off the next question. “What are the three basic kinds of rocks?”

“Igneous, sedentary, and metamorphic!” yelled Larry. He was excitable, to say the least.

“So close!” I said.

“Igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic,” said Abby with a sneer. Pain in the ass, that one. But smart as a whip.

“Yes!” I threw her a beanbag. “What wave do you feel first during an earthquake?”

“The P-wave,” Abby said.

“You again?” I threw her a beanbag. “What’s the speed of light?”

“Three times ten to—” Abby began.

“C!” yelled Regina from the back. She rarely spoke up. Good to see her coming out of her shell.

“Sneaky, but correct!” I chucked her a beanbag.

“I was answering first!” Abby complained.

“But she finished her answer first,” I said. “What’s the nearest star to Earth?”

“Alpha Centauri!” Abby said quickly.

“Wrong!” I said.

“No, I’m not!”

“Yes, you are. Anyone else?”

“Oh!” Larry said. “It’s the sun!”

“Right!” I said. “Larry gets the beanbag! Careful with your assumptions, Abby.”

She folded her arms in a huff.

“Who can tell me the radius of Earth?”

Trang raised his hand. “Three thousand, nine hundre—”

“Trang!” Abby said. “The answer is Trang.”

Trang froze in confusion.

“What?” I asked.

Abby preened. “You asked who could tell you the radius of Earth. Trang can tell you. I answered correctly.”

Outsmarted by a thirteen-year-old. Wasn’t the first time. I dropped a beanbag on her desk just as the bell rang.

The kids leapt from their chairs and collected their books and backpacks. Abby, flush with victory, took a little more time than the others.

“Remember to cash in your beanbags at the end of the week for toys and other prizes!” I said to their retreating backs.

Soon, the classroom was empty, and only the echoing sounds of children in the hallway suggested any evidence of life. I collected their homework assignments from my desk and slipped them into my valise. Sixth period was over.

Time to hit the teachers’ lounge for a cup of coffee. Maybe I’d correct some papers before I headed home. Anything to avoid the parking lot. A fleet of helicopter moms would be descending on the school to pick up their children. And if one of them saw me, they always had some complaint or suggestion. I can’t fault someone for loving their kids, and God knows we could do with more parents being engaged in their kids’ educations, but there’s a limit.

“Ryland Grace?” said a woman’s voice.

I looked up with a start. I hadn’t heard her come in.

She looked to be in her mid-forties, wearing a well-tailored business suit. She carried a briefcase.

“Uh, yeah,” I said. “Can I help you with something?”

“I think you can,” she said. She had a slight accent. Something European—I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. “My name is Eva Stratt. I’m with the Petrova Taskforce.”

“The what?”

“The Petrova Taskforce. It’s an international body set up to deal with the Petrova-line situation. I’ve been tasked with finding a solution. They’ve given me a certain amount of authority to get things done.”

“They? Who’s they?”

“Every member nation of the UN.”

“Wait, what? How did—”

“Unanimous secret vote. It’s complicated. I’d like to talk to you about a scientific paper you wrote.”

“Secret vote? Never mind.” I shook my head. “My paper-writing days are over. Academia didn’t work well for me.”

“You’re a teacher. You’re still in academia.”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “But I mean, you know, academia. With scientists and peer review and—”

“And assholes who get you kicked out of your university?” She raised an eyebrow. “And who got all your funding cut off and ensured you never got published again?”

“Yeah. That.”

She pulled a binder out of her briefcase.

She opened it and read the first page. “ ‘An Analysis of Water-Based Assumptions and Recalibration of Expectations for Evolutionary Models.’ ” She looked up at me. “You wrote this paper, yes?”

“I’m sorry, how did you get—”

“A dull title, but very exciting content, I have to say.”

I set my valise on my desk. “Look, I was in a bad place when I wrote that, okay? I’d had enough of the research world and that was sort of a ‘kiss-my-butt’ goodbye. I’m much happier now as a teacher.”

She flipped a few pages. “You spent years combating the assumption that life requires liquid water. You have an entire section here called ‘The Goldilocks Zone Is for Idiots.’ You call out dozens of eminent scientists by name and berate them for believing a temperature range is a requirement.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Your doctorate is in molecular biology, correct? Don’t most scientists agree that liquid water is necessary for life to evolve?”

“They’re wrong!” I crossed my arms. “There’s nothing magical about hydrogen and oxygen! They’re required for Earth life, sure. But another planet could have completely different conditions. All life needs is a chemical reaction that results in copies of the original catalyst. And you don’t need water for that!”

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out. “Anyway, I got mad, and I wrote that paper. Then I got a teaching credential, a new career, and started actually enjoying my life. So I’m glad no one believed me. I’m better off.”

“I believe you,” she said.

“Thanks,” I said. “But I have papers to grade. Can you tell me why you’re here?”

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