Professor Hamlin had absolutely no idea what a momentous shift his life was about to undergo, or how swiftly this dramatic change was going to happen. Quite the contrary. As far as he was aware, everything was under control and going very much as planned.
He strode briskly down the wide, empty hall, thinking of the papers sitting in a neat pile on his desk. They were his focus now, but only for a short time—assuming he could find the necessary motivation to wade through them. Once they were marked, he would have an entire semester of research to savor and enjoy. He noted the clicking of his heels on the terrazzo floor as the retort echoed crisply down the empty hall. The sound had always appealed to him for some reason. Maybe a little more so at this exact moment, with the positive mood he was in, as he savored the transition from his busiest term to the appeal of working out of the classroom. No more students; no more teaching; no more daily deadlines for the associated preparatory work. That line of thought led him to almost regurgitate the words of a song from back in the day that reflected a similar sentiment—no more teachers, no more books, no more something, something—Alice Cooper, or Pink Floyd, or something along those lines. He wasn’t motivated to chase after the tune as it flitted through his memory and disappeared just as quickly. In either case, a truly wonderful scenario, he concluded.
This project would have him living in a temporary camp on the edge of the Likouala Swamp in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was the largest area of its kind in the world. The region was still rather undeveloped, which was a rare and desirable bonus. For him, as a biologist, this constituted a dream come true. His focus would be to establish a foundation of data based on current levels of life, both in and out of the water. This, in turn, would be used to set up an environmental conservation program before any development encroaching on the area could do irreversible damage. With the blessings of the local government and the United Nations Environmental Sustainability Council, the research was set to proceed smoothly. He was passionate about the work. When it was completed, the results should help to sustain a vulnerable ecosystem indefinitely. He hoped to spend the rest of his career writing and lecturing about it.
And all of that could be accomplished even if he didn’t find evidence of dinosaurs. They supposedly still existed there, according to several pseudo-scientific wacko web sites and anti-evolution organizations. He knew they were all crazy. He also knew that William Buckland dined on puppies, Jack Parsons like to dance naked around a fire in his garden, and Nikola Tesla fell head over heels in love with a pigeon. In science, crazy didn’t necessarily mean stupid or wrong. Besides, he liked to keep all his options open. Verified evidence of a prehistoric creature would put his name in all the science books. In research terms, he would be a rock star.
He would miss Deborah terribly, of course. There was time for one more round of berating her into tagging along for part or all of the expedition. Surely she could continue to progress through her thesis while there. Besides, he would be available for consulting purposes if the need arose. At the very least, she could fly in for a couple visits while the work was progressing. Love was an amazing thing, but four months was a long time to be apart. He really didn’t think she could hold out that long.
“Sir?” The voice was necessarily loud in order to be heard above all the other noise.
Hamlin snapped awake and immediately felt the pains that came from sleeping in an unnatural position for too long. The hum of the plane’s propeller driven engines left no doubt as to where he was. At least they were still in the air. There had been some doubt about the wisdom of flying in these weather conditions. He rolled his head in order to work out some of the kinks.
“You had asked us to wake you before landing, correct? We’ll be there in a few minutes. There’s some blowing snow and a bit of a crosswind, so it might get a little dicey.”
“I did. Thanks. And thanks for the warning. That gives me time to brace myself and throw up.”
The co—pilot smiled and started back toward the cockpit.
“There’s twenty bucks in it for you if we make it down in one piece.” He had to yell to have any hope of being heard in the noisy plane. He got an over-the-shoulder look in response.
“Don’t worry about it, sir. This plane was designed to land in any condition or terrain. We’ll be fine.”
The plane had also been designed primarily to carry cargo and was anything but comfortable.
“I should warn you,” Hamlin said, taking advantage of the fact that he had captured someone’s attention temporarily, “in the event of a crash, I probably won’t die well. There’ll be crying and yelling, begging and pleading. And I’ll likely soil myself. We have to think about the rescue workers. They would be quite traumatized by my remains.” Hamlin grimaced. What rescue workers? They were over Antarctica.
“Just relax, sir. We’ll be on the ground in no time.”
Hamlin grunted as he changed his position for one that would hopefully, but not likely, be more comfortable. “I know we’ll be on the ground. Gravity takes care of that. That’s inevitable. It’s the condition we’ll be in that concerns me.” By now the co—pilot was gone. He transitioned from public ranting to a monologue without audience. He wondered exactly how cold it was going to be down there. “Safely on the ground. You left out the word safely. The way you said it could mean something like ‘splattered all over the place.’ That would still technically qualify as being on the ground.”
The plane banked rather sharply, or so it seemed to him. What kind of pilot would take a job flying this type of route anyway? The best of the best? Or maybe these were pilots who liked a challenge. The co-pilot certainly talked and looked like he had a military background. That might be good. Maybe he graduated from Top Gun. The C-130 was a military plane, after all. Why hadn’t he taken the time to resolve these questions before getting airborne?
There was a small porthole for viewing, which he stumbled toward in the false hope he could make out the landing site. Everything was grey and incoherent. They were probably flying through a blizzard. They could have been upside down for all he could tell—another unsettling thought. If he did see anything, it might be disconcerting anyway. Shouldn’t he be fastening his security belt? He shuffled back to his seat and grabbed the strap, fumbling to get it properly latched. He fancied that the plane changed from a level course of flight to a downward descent. That meant the moment of truth was fast approaching.
The craft creaked and groaned, seeming to be making a show of how it was laboring against the laws of physics. That brought visions of a fiery wreck into his mind. The descent that had been initially smooth was now disrupted by several sudden sharp bumps.
“Think positive thoughts, old man.” The flight smoothed out once again. “Good, that’s good.” Suddenly the plane banked sharply and simultaneously felt like it was driving over a rough set of railroad tracks. “Oh, that’s really not good.” His stomach decided to join in the protest.
Would he suffer if the plane plowed into the ice below, or would it all be over quickly? His hands gripped the mesh that lined the seat and he wished for something more stable. It was a totally delusional thought, however. His hand strength would affect no change to the outcome if they plowed into the ground. He heard and felt the landing gear drop and lock into position. The next movement was easy even for him to interpret. It was the wheels coming into contact with the ground. There were bumps from the runway but not as bad as he had feared they would be. He could now feel the plane slowing down. “Oh, thank God.” He started to fumble with his seatbelt. They hadn’t come to a complete stop, but he figured if the airplane police wanted to hustle him back to civilization for forty lashes with a wet noodle, then let them do it. He wandered over to the window again and was rewarded with a brief glimpse of a light somewhere in the distance. He started to pick up his meager luggage and organize it by the door.
His office door was ajar. Unusual but not alarming. He pushed against it with the palm of his right hand and it opened smoothly. He entered this familiar place without hesitation or reservation. Sitting in the solitary chair against the far wall was a young lady. She stood as he noticed her.
“Can I help you?”
She extended her hand and he shook it in reflex. She looked to be around twenty—no doubt a student.
“I apologize for showing up unexpectedly. I tried to call earlier but couldn’t get an answer.”
Hamlin walked behind the massive walnut abomination that was his desk and sat. “No problem. We were short staffed today. What can I do for you, miss…?”
Hamlin forced himself back into the moment despite all the other thoughts swirling around his head that threatened to distract him.
“Oh, wait a minute. I do know you. I had you as a student last semester, correct?”
She smiled, revealing a mouth full of perfect teeth. “That’s right. Introductory Ecology. I carried a B average.”
“Yes you did. Which begs the question, why are you here now? Surely it’s a little late to complain about your grade.”
“Oh no. I got the grade I deserved. I liked the course but knew it wasn’t the direction I was going. I could have applied myself more.”
“Well, B is a good grade for someone who isn’t really trying. Maybe you missed your true calling. Nonetheless, we’ve now circled back to my original question. What is it that brings you into my office today?”
She fidgeted before answering. “I guess you’re pretty busy.”
He waved his hand toward a stack of papers. “I have a lot of marking to do. Excuse me if I seem abrupt.”
“I understand.” She seemed to be in deep thought. “I’m not sure where to begin.”
Hamlin furrowed his eyebrows. “You’re not doing some sort of marketing research or anything of the sort, are you? Did Professor Johnston put you up to this? If so, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you.”
She seemed to set herself in some semblance of order. With the previous uncertainty swept aside, she leaned slightly forward and made solid eye contact.
“I’m not here for myself. I’m here for my boyfriend. He’s in your class this semester.”
Hamlin didn’t care for where this was going.
“Oh? And who would that be?”
“Mark Gallagher. Do you know him?”
He knew him. Mark was a bright enough kid but spent too much time having fun. With girls, booze, and the kind of partying that only happens when you’re away from home distracting him, classes just got in the way. He was hopelessly behind in his grades.
“If Mark wanted to discuss his progress in my class, he should have come in person. I’m afraid I can’t discuss his status with anyone but him.”
Her facial response turned sour. “Look, Mark thinks he is really close to making it in your class. If he does well on the exam, he feels that he’ll probably pass the course. And he really needs it. If he fails, he either drops out or starts over again next year.”
The professor shook his head. “Why didn’t he think of that sooner? It’s not like he isn’t smart enough. All he had to do was apply himself. A little bit of effort on his part and this all could have been avoided.”
“But if he fails, it’s a whole year wasted!” She was getting emotional now, her big eyes a little teary. She was a cute one, there was no doubt there. But she was just enough on the plus side of a perfect figure that Hamlin couldn’t imagine that she was going to have a serious, long-term connection with Mr. Popular, unless he was underestimating the ethical component to his part of this relationship. Or maybe he was getting cynical in his old age.
“And so what did you think you could do? Come in here and convince me to violate every moral I have by changing his grade? Should I pass him because it bothers you that he’s not doing well? Is that what you expected to happen? Because if so, you were very much mistaken.” Hamlin was getting pissed.
“If he fails or drops out, I’ll probably never see him again!” At this, she started with genuine sobs.
Hamlin nodded. “And there it is. Well, that’s no surprise. I suspected that was what this was all about. I suppose he told you he loves you but if he fails it will tear your relationship apart. He’s just using you—surely you can see that. And, by the way, there was never any chance that this little scheme of yours was going to work, just so you know. It’s not even particularly well thought out, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and attribute that to him. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave. This is totally inappropriate and a complete waste of my time and yours.”
She sniffed and nodded slowly. “I guess you’re right. I’m sorry to have bothered you.” She stood awkwardly.
“Don’t let a casual relationship dictate your life. You can be or do anything you want. If this character cares about you, he’ll find a way to overcome his mistakes without putting you or your passion for each other in harm’s way.”
She had no immediate response.
“I’ll mark him on the merit of his efforts, just the same as everyone else. After that, it’s up to him. I wish him well, as I do for all my students, but quite frankly, statistics prove that a large portion of first year students will drop out for one reason or another. Hard work puts the odds in favor of success, and that’s a lesson he needs to learn. Correct?”
She stared silently. “I’ll do anything to help him pass. Anything.”
Hamlin really didn’t care for the insinuation. “Look, this conversation has gone as far as I’m going to allow. He can deal with his own problems. You’re a smart girl. Focus on your career and on making good decisions. Good day, Miss Cooper.”
She followed his lead and stood up. She turned without another word and exited into the hall.
“I don’t know how you can be so smart and so gullible all at the same time,” he said after her, although she could no longer hear. He picked up the phone from its receiver. The moment it was in his hand, a tall distinguished looking man walked in through the still open door.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Didn’t know you were on the phone.”
Hamlin put it back in its cradle.
“I’m not. Good timing. Besides, I was just going to give Deborah a ring to let her know I’d be home a little late. No big deal. How are things, Brian?”
The two men had a long and pleasant conversation. Both were feeling good about the end of the semester.