Flash: The One Constant of the Universe

Image courtesy of toonsteb at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We tested for the speed of light today in class and got 25 different results. This is a bit unusual but not impossible. I work with middle schoolers after all. Normally only about half the class has problems and the results do fall within a workable range. So we ran the test again and got 26 different results, since I participated during the second trials. None of the results equaled the one constant in the universe.

Moving on, we posted the results to our online classroom area for the world to see and get feedback, part of our learning about being part of the scientific community, and went over tonight’s reading assignments and homework. Front-row Candice, as opposed to mid-row Candice and left-side Candice – Candice was a popular name eleven years ago -, raised her hand and interrupted my white board writing, “Ms. O?”

My name, Onwuatuegwu – no direct relation to the Major, is a hideous mess for most Anglo-Saxon speakers, so I go by O for brevity and sanity. “Yes?”

She pointed at the projection screen where I had posted the results of our failed experiment. Over a dozen replies had already popped up and more appeared every second. Some of the responders were providing the typical corrections of “was the equipment clean” and “are you using the same measurement scale”, while others were asking about the particular conditions of the test “room temperature?” and “what elevation are you at?”. The ones that sent a shiver down my back said they were running the experiments themselves, and also failing.

This is a darn simple experiment specifically crafted for my sixth graders. Adults with proper equipment should not be having problems. One of the responders had a prominent technical university tag attached to his name.

Then the post disappeared.


I looked out over the eager faces and excited voices, while my stomach bottomed at my feet and rebounded. “Settle down, bring forward your lab results, copy down the homework, and get things together for the next class.”

Properly brought to order the kids did as they were told while I ripped the attendance sheet out of my booklet, and, after thinking about it, ripped the one before it and the three after just in case impressions were left and threw them into the steel trashcan. Taking stock of the lab results the children just brought forward, I considered and just threw them in with the attendance sheets.

A couple of my favorite brown-nosers in the front row asked, “What you doing Ms. O?”

“Just you never mind.” The bell rung, saving me several more questions, as the class exited in mass for whatever come up next on their schedule. I pulled out my remote from my top drawer and turned off the fire alarm for the room. It made the fire chef twitch but was better than having them show up to the seventh and eighth grade physics and chemistry classes every week. I then dumped accelerant into can and lit it on fire.

The principal came running in while the next class started their trickle. The science labs were an add-on to the general school about a decade back and took a while to get to. He huffed a bit before he could talk.

“Emie, what’s going on?” He stared at the flames in the can. “You weren’t scheduled for any fire experiments today.”

I pressed my lips together. “Something’s come up. You might want to evacuate the school, say you got a bomb threat or something.”

“Bomb threat, evacuation?” Robert got closer, whispering so the fifth graders didn’t pay much attention to the two adults but sat enthralled at the dying flames.

“Yes. Trust me?” I looked at him with begging eyes. “Please? We don’t have much time to get the kids to safety.”

If this had been Silvia, her cell phone would already be out and activating the code, but she retired two months ago and Robert was only an interim replacement.

“Is it a bomb threat?” he asked firmly.

“Would I lie about something like that?”

He snapped his phone off his belt and typed the code, setting off the fire alarm and activating the school buses. Fortunately it was last period, so most of the school buses were already onsite. He spun off, running again, while I gathered the children which had arrived and made our way to the back-forty then around the building to the buses. In my mind I reviewed the posting, ending my contemplation positive I did our normal procedure of listing children only by student #1 and student #2, etc. in the results.

Less than four minutes later, the first bus pulled out. Leaving my duty station, I made my way back to the classroom with the sound of helicopters and sirens ringing in my ears.

The fire had died away while I was gone, but a few sparks were left in the bottom. I dumped more papers I had been meaning to take to the recycling bin on top, restarting the flame, then stirred the ash on the bottom with my classroom meterstick.

Three members of the police force popped their head into my room during the sweep to see me sitting on the flipped-over blackened trash calmly writing.

“Ma’am. You need to come with us.”

I shook my head. “Sorry boys, not yet. I need to get all this down before I forget.”

“Ma’am, we insist.” He said gently, positive I had dropped all my screws instead of just having a couple loose. They started toward me. But two steps behind them, I saw the people I had been waiting for since the post disappeared.

Black suits, black ties, white shirts and “We’ve come to help” expressions written all over their faces in greasy pencil, ready to be permanently sculptured into their insincere façades with plastic surgery. The lead man, gray tinging dark military cut curls, interrupted my would-be rescuers. “That isn’t necessary.”

The SWAT helmet rotated. “The hell. This is a closed campus.”

“And we are closing it.” He flashed a badge and even I could read Homeland Security from where I sat. “Get out.”

“Sir, I don’t care if you are god him—“ The police officer stopped midword, obviously listening to voices not in this room. Likely his version of a police deity.

The badge smirked. “Get out.”

I don’t know what expressions existed on the faces of the police officers behind their helmets, but they retreated. One turned around just before exiting, looking my direction. The skin around the edges of his uniform the only one in the room showing dark skin other than my own. I smiled like I do at my students and waved him off. His fist tightened, knowing I was protecting him instead of the other way around, but he left.

“You’ve given us quite a mess,” reported the Homeland Security badge carrier.

I shrugged. “If the results are true, we all have quite a mess. And if you are here, they are true.”

“Don’t be smart with me, teacher.”

“Don’t worry. I understand who is capable of learning.”

Behind him, one of the other suits snorted. I made a note of who it was. Like I said, I understand who is capable of learning, and I like to keep track of them. Those are the dangerous kids.

The blinking red light of the fire alarm changed to the white all-clear, but I didn’t hear any of my fellow teachers returning. The phone I left beside the notes I had been writing blinked and “all students confirmed off campus,” and I relaxed a little.

“Where is today’s attendance sheet?”

I lifted the trashcan and let the white ash shift in the air conditioning. In the end, I just dropped the whole book in. I had copied the grades over the weekend into the online parent site so it wasn’t a big loss. If I made it back, all the students would get “A”s for Monday and Tuesday’s assignments.

“You don’t think we won’t find out who was in the class?”

Smiling, I straightened my notes. “I’m sure you can, but by then whatever is happening will be nationwide news and a little small-town class isn’t going to matter even if it was the first recorded occurrence.” While working bus duty, I had also worked google-fu with my phone. No other hits existed, but I don’t know if that was an extremely good security bot or if we were actually the first. Two emails popped up on my phone as I waited for the Badge-man to respond – one from the scientist who had messaged on our thread and another from an ex-student of mine at NASA. The first lines also appearing beyond the email addies, you know, those teasers to let you know what the message says and get you to open up the whole thing, confirmed everything my gut had been saying.

“This obstruction of justice will be prosecuted.” He waved at the squad of black suits behind him.

I nodded and waited as the snorter and the one with an extra gun in her boots came forward.

Yes, I noticed the gun. I emigrated from Nigeria during a time of, how shall I put this, extreme prejudice. My parents, extended family, and village were not available to come with me. I gave the snorter the notes and then held out my hands for the over-prepared woman to zip-tie. She flipped me around precisely, like a short-order cook cooking pancakes, tying my wrists behind my back – but didn’t pull the zips so tight it hurt.

Just so long as the children were safe, my job was done.

Words 1,617, First published 11/18/2018