Chapter 17 – It’s All About the Quasars, Baby (Part III)

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She waited for the girls to seat themselves before gradually descending back into her own. The sway-backed leather seat seemed to swallow her whole.

“Today I received the most astounding surprise,” Fedora said. One of her spider hands scrabbled for her spectacles—a strange pair of glasses that looked entirely out of place on her thin face with their thick black rims. She squinted at the screen and tapped through a few menus. “Ah yes, there it is. It looks like all of the grades submitted for your midterms—I mean, Elaine’s midterms—came back woefully insufficient. I couldn’t guess why, you’ve never been such a poor student before.”

“My academic record should speak for itself,” Elaine said abruptly. She spoke with a distracted air, looking at the screens above Fedora’s head. “I don’t recall anything about midterms that challenged me at all. Perhaps in Advanced Computational Engineering and Operating Systems, there was one question about pipeline computing that almost stumped me.”

Fedora tsktsked at the computer screen and shook her head. “No. Your professors submitted failing grades for all of your midterms. To a one. I must say, it’s beyond the pale. A computer glitch of some sort? Although they’re not all zeros. It’s simply that each one is a failing grade.

“If you like, I shall contact your professors personally first light tomorrow and have them—”

“Are you rendering a doublet analysis for quasars based on radio-luminosity effects?” Elaine asked, looking up at one of the screens.

Frog scowled at her and hissed under her breath. “Pay attention, she’s trying to help you out here, you know.”

Fedora leaned back in her chair for a moment, a strange expression on her face; she removed her overlarge glasses and looked at the rotating lattice of dots and numbers.

“Yes, yes, that’s what it is,” she said. “We’re using data taken from the Sloan Digital Sky-Survey and comparing it to radio observations using the VLBA. It’s a joint survey analysis attempting to prove the dark matter halo hypothesis for quasar clusters. You see, these clusters are so dense that their gravitation bends the light in the region as it passes through them. We can’t see the dark matter directly; but we can detect it by looking at how it affects the light coming out. The study is groundbreaking and in fact might give us some insights on how supermassive black holes are formed…”

She paused for a moment and shrugged. “But you’re not here to listen to an old woman go on about quasars, we’ve got your academic conundrum to unravel. I think the cure for this Gordian knot will be the sword of academic preservation. You’ve become the victim of some sort of SNAFU or bureaucratic mix-up. I’ll have your professors pull their own records and compare it to the grades that I have on file that should turn up the error.”

“Could I take a look at the grades?” Elaine asked, she pulled the Enoch from her hip and flipped the cellphone open. “I’d like a digital copy, if I may. I need it for my records.”

“Oh, sure, let me bring them up.” Fedora pressed her glasses back on again and tapped away at her small laptop for a minute, constantly shaking her head as she did so. Elaine recognized the expression, that of staff not fully comprehending the underlying obtuse nature of some proprietary piece of software lurking within ASU’s creaky mainframes.

Elaine glanced at Frog, who smiled momentarily and mouthed, “Oh.” She nodded and wandered over to one of the nearby screens.

“I work for the College of Education as a technical consultant, Doctor Fedora.” Elaine stood from her chair and walked over to the astrophysicist. “I am extremely well versed in the system, if I may. You’ll be right here to watch me if there are any privacy or security concerns.”

“Oh,” the professor said. “I don’t understand why someone couldn’t have written this with people in mind. After all, we have to use it. Go ahead.”

Elaine set the Enoch down on the table and put her hands on the keyboard. Her phone, programmed a moment before to connect to the computer and start accessing files, lit up its Bluetooth and interrogated the laptop’s operating system. Her fingers slid over the keyboard as she navigated through the academic records program, picked out one of her classes, and then selected the midterm results.

Frog took that cue to become extremely interested in one of the wall screens. “Does this letter designate a specific type of quasar?” she asked.

Hearing a student asking a question proved too tempting to the jovial astrophysics professor and she quickly lost her attention in what Elaine’s hands happened to be doing at the keyboard. She wandered over to the screen that Frog had taken an interest in.

“Oh yes,” she said. “In fact, that designation represents an iron quasar…”

With Fedora distracted, Elaine went to work as quickly as possible. She loaded up the entire class roster and let the Enoch slurp up every report from her professor. As she listened to a rather rousing explanation of bright line spectra and emission line analysis, she navigated through the records for all her classes and made sure to clone all the data as-is directly from the grade tool. The entire process took her less than three minutes—nearly the exact amount of time that it took Fedora to give a long explanation of quasar red-shift replete with numerous memorized facts about the quasar in question.

Finished, Elaine disconnected the Enoch from the laptop and erased any trace of her access. She nodded to Frog, who let Doctor Fedora go on through a highly summarized version of one of her lectures on the types of quasars and why they’re important to astrophysics. She had landed on a long description of how she’d helped identify a particular quasar named IRAS 18508-7816, “via identifying strong Fe II emissions in its spectrographic profile.”

During the conversation, Frog brought up the possibility of using quasars as a sort of coordinate’s system for galactic travel and that sparked another tangent in the astrophysicist’s talk about how the distant and bright objects were currently used to help determine the distance and location of other extremely distant objects—the math, she proffered, provided considerable work on larger mainframes than even ASU had.

After another minute of exposition Fedora paused when she noticed Elaine standing next to her listening raptly.

“Oh, I didn’t notice you there,” she said and crinkled her brow. “Did you get what you needed?”

“Thank you, professor,” she said. “I’ve retrieved everything I needed.”

Fedora beamed at her and clasped her pale hands together. “Glad to hear it. You always were my favorite student. I think that we’ll get this one sorted out in no time at all. I really do apologize for any inconvenience. It really must be a mistake.”

“I do not doubt you will rectify the situation,” Elaine said. “I really must return to my other projects.”

“Thank you again,” Frog said as she trailed out the door. “I would really love taking your class again, and I enjoyed your explanation of how you identified IRAS 18508-7815.”

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