.:VirtualSalt

The Million Dollar Girl
A Novel

Robert Harris
Version Date: October 11, 2008



Chapter 1

The sun was low in the sky as the jetliner angled itself steeply on its climb-out from the airport. In the cabin, some of the passengers were adjusting their seats, while others reached for the reading light or the air nozzle to make themselves more comfortable. A few were already absorbed in the in-flight magazine or a newspaper. One continued to work a crossword puzzle that had been started in the terminal. Only fifty or sixty passengers were aboard the wide-body on this early evening in June, so several began to contemplate putting up the armrests and stretching out across the seats. One or two people checked their watches and wondered whether a meal or a snack would be served. On the flight deck the crew was finishing the post-take-off checklist and making a few adjustments. The cabin darkened as the plane entered the clouds.

“Passing one one thousand,” the copilot noted. “Speed two six zero.” In a few moments, the warm, golden light of the sun flooded back into the cabin as the airliner passed through the top of the clouds. Both passengers and crew took a few moments to look out over the cloud cover.

“As often as I see this, I never get tired of it,” said the flight engineer, looking forward between the captain and the copilot.

“Me too,” agreed the copilot, looking up momentarily. “A gold Christmas ball over a blanket of cotton.” Then he added, in a somewhat more formal tone, “Autopilot engaged.” Now he took a longer moment to lean forward and look around outside.

The captain finished putting away the departure chart and settled back into his seat. He pointed out a distant plane above and to the right, on a path to cross behind them. The copilot nodded as he saw it also. “The sky is still pretty big,” he said.

“Yes,” said the captain.

Suddenly, there was a loud thump. One of the rudder pedals shot back, throwing the captain’s leg against the seat. The huge airplane veered to the right. All three engines went to idle, causing everyone on board to swing forward a bit as the plane slowed faster than their bodies. In the rear of the cabin, two flight attendants were hurled to the floor as it partly gave way under them. The sudden decompression of the airplane caused the galley elevator door and the door to the cockpit to blow open. Hearing the door slam open, the flight engineer looked over, surprised that he could see into the cabin area. He watched as a floor hatch in the fourth row blew off and hit a passenger. Several ceiling panels fell. The air turned white as a condensation fog formed. He swung his head back quickly, to search his instruments for an understanding of what was going on. But before he could focus, the decompression sent a blast of air spraying dust and debris all around the flight deck and into the eyes of the crew members.

“What happened?” shouted the captain over the rushing sound. “Something hit the windshield?” But as he reached out, the windshield was still intact. An alarm bell began to ring, just as a horn sounded.

“Fire in number two,” yelled the flight engineer. “And cabin pressure warning.”

“I’ve got it,” said the captain, grabbing the controls and disconnecting the autopilot. “Autopilot disconnected.”

“Air speed indicator has failed,” yelled the copilot.

“I’ve only got minimal elevator control,” said the captain. “It’s heavy. Help me, Pete.”

“We’ve hit something,” said the flight engineer, still shouting above the noise.

“We’ve lost, uh, lost an engine,” said the copilot, loudly.

“Which one?” demanded the captain.

“Number two engine must have blown,” answered the copilot. “We’re losing altitude too fast.”

“Yes, two,” said the flight engineer.

“I’ve got no rudder! It’s jammed!” yelled the captain.

“Master warning. Engine fire,” the flight engineer announced.

“Do we have hydraulics?” the copilot asked.

“No,” the captain yelled with frustration.

“I read hydraulic pressure is okay,” said the flight engineer, staring blinkingly at his gauges between wipes of his gritty eyes.

A disheveled flight attendant stumbled halfway into the cockpit. Hanging on to the doorframe with one hand and wiping her eyes with the other, she said, “The aft lounge area has collapsed. There are no oxygen masks deployed.”

The image of a desperate crew froze on the screen. In a few moments, the lights came up in the room. Fifty-four students blinked, stretched, and rubbed their eyes as they accommodated mentally and physically to their return to a lit classroom.

“Okay, class,” said the professor, who had now made his way to the front. “You are the captain of this airplane. What do you do? Quickly, you must act. What are you going to do? Your plane is in major trouble and you’re losing altitude fast.” Professor Miller hoped the sense of urgency created by the film would not be lost by a long wait time for an answer, but he was not necessarily hopeful. A hand went up in the second row. The girl was smiling brightly at him. “Yes?” he said. “And you are?”

“Julie Carmichael.”

“Yes, Julie. What would you do?”

“Radio for help?” Professor Miller wondered whether Julie was one of those girls whose statements always have question marks attached to them.

“Well, of course you would at some point want to contact the ground and alert them to your emergency, but no one on the ground can help you right now. What would you do right now?” He was looking at the class in general when he spoke the question, indicating that Julie’s opportunity to answer was over. Professor Miller always tried to put a favorable spin on even the most tangential—or inane—answers, in order not to discourage students. But once he decided the student was not near enough to a fruitful avenue, he cut his losses and changed students. Seeing another hand, he pointed toward the middle of the room. “You in the green coat. Your name?”

“David Simmons,” the student said. Then, without waiting for another cue, he continued, “I don’t think this is a very realistic scenario. The loss of all those controls is virtually impossible with the amount of redundancy now on airplanes.”

“Thank you David. That’s an interesting comment, but this little scene is not a Hollywood fantasy. It is a reenactment of an actual incident in 1972. This situation is historical, very real.” David looked unconvinced, but said nothing. He made a short note in his notebook computer, then returned to working on some programming code, unseen by Professor Miller.

A girl in the back row stopped chewing her gum just long enough to say softly to no one in particular, but with unmistakable derision, “Like I’m going to be a pilot and need to know this stuff.” The two or three people who heard her smiled wryly. The girl resumed chewing and continued to write a letter she had just begun.
“Anyone else?” asked Professor Miller. This time he had to wait longer. Seconds ticked by. There was a bit of squirming. “Sophomores,” he thought to himself. “I’ve got to talk Chuck into giving me more grad classes.” Finally, another hand went up. “Yes?” he said, acknowledging the hand with a lift of his head rather than taking the trouble to raise his hand and point.

“Um, this may sound dumb,” the student began. Professor Miller felt like wincing, but he showed no response at all. “But, how can we do anything when we don’t even know what’s wrong? I mean, even the crew doesn’t seem to know what is wrong or what to do.”

“Exactly!” shouted Miller, with possibly too much drama and a slightly fake gesture.

The drama and the affectations of gesture were recent additions to the professor’s manner. Just over a year ago, he had published a critical thinking textbook that had so far enjoyed a meteoric success, selling just short of a hundred thousand copies in its first full year of adoptions. As a result, Miller had begun to view himself in a new light. He had begun to ask students to refer to him as Dr. Miller rather than as Professor Miller, even though his level of education had not changed—he had been a Ph.D. for ten years. But now he had begun to feel like a suave, dynamic, even elegant intellectual, a success at writing, at teaching, at life itself. In fact, not only did he view himself this way, he had begun to watch himself while he was teaching, examining his words, attending to his gestures, practicing his facial expressions. Unknown to him, however, the result was not altogether happy. Miller had little acting talent and no fixed idea of how a great professor should act, other than to be arrogant. The result was that he had begun to play himself. His mannerisms often seemed forced and his words too carefully chosen for their effect as words rather than for their power to convey meaning. He was not as irritating as Professor Gordon in the English Department, who recalled every word at least twice in order to replace it with another, thereby requiring nearly a minute to produce every sentence. Nor was he as pompously pedantic as Professor Shaumwicz in the Philosophy Department, who had carefully selected from the English language the most obscure polysyllabic Greek-root abstractions he could find and struggled mightily to squeeze them densely into his conversations and lectures. But, in spite of Professor Miller’s freedom from these failings, the general response of his students was not one of profound awe, as perhaps he had expected.

“Even in a dire emergency,” Miller heard himself say in a slow, carefully paced way, “the first activity that must be performed is conceptualization.” He paused to allow the students time to write down his words. Hardly anyone seemed to be taking notes. Nearly everyone was looking at him, their faces reflecting varying degrees of puzzlement. Miller wondered whether the problem was an inability to spell conceptualization. He turned and wrote the word on the board and then underlined it for emphasis. “Before you can act in any important way, before you can even make a decision, you must answer the question, ‘What’s going on?’ Until that question is answered, you cannot proceed even if you want to. Cognitive stabilization is the first step in analysis, in thinking, in decision making, in thinking critically.” He paused to write cognitive stabilization on the board. Seeing the words he had written so far pleased him, as he thought how impressive they would look to a stranger who might come in after the class was over. He decided not to erase the board when he was finished.

“The better you can think,” he continued, “the faster you can analyze a situation. That means that learning how to think critically could save your life.”

The students listened politely, and several more began jotting down a sentence or two. For students whose note-taking habits frequently convert an hour of lecture into four or five brief sentences, a sentence or two in this instance is a compliment to Professor Miller. He was secretly dissatisfied, of course. Here he was sharing the benefit of his great learning and profound insights with students who seemed incapable of grasping how fortunate they were to sit under his tutelage. How could any sane person not be writing furiously, to capture all the ideas he was sharing? What exactly would they use to study with on the night before an exam? A couple of sentences?

“Do you see the importance of this?” he asked, with a slight edge in his voice. “You may be facing an emergency, such as a fire, an earthquake, or as in our example here, an impending systems disaster. Or you may have a decision-making problem on your hands that allows you plenty of time to think. In either case, the question, ‘What is the situation?’ must precede the question, ‘What should be done?’” A hand went up. Professor Miller raised a hopeful eyebrow. “Yes?” he asked.

“What does precede mean?” the student asked. Two or three other students tittered quietly.

“It means to come before,” replied Miller, not wanting to lose his rhythm. He decided instantly not to write the word on the board because that might reduce the impressiveness of the concepts already there. If a stranger thought he was teaching the word precede, the perceived level of the class would be reduced.

“You can see, then,” he continued, handing them their conclusion, “that a poor conceptualization, a poor understanding of what the situation is about, will result in a poor decision. Then, no matter how much effort you put in, your outcome will be poor.” He wondered if he had used poor too many times in a row.

The presentation went on for the period, with Professor Miller commenting about how many people had died in sinking ships and even automobile crashes because they failed to appreciate the gravity of the situation rapidly approaching them. “They died, wondering if they should do something,” he told the class. Conceptualization was often difficult, he noted, because the available information is frequently ambiguous or even contradictory. The solution he promised for a later meeting was to “disambiguate the situation through a series of hypotheses and tests.” On the board he wrote situational disambiguation because it looked more sophisticated than disambiguate the situation. He also jotted down hypothesis evaluation. No hands went up to query the meaning of these terms because the lectures were promised for a later time. Many students were thinking that it was pointless to learn something until it was required. Another promised lecture was on the value of “the pursuit of disconfirming evidence.” The board welcomed this term, too. Finally, the rustle of papers and the gentle slapping and banging of backpacks, books, and other materials alerted Professor Miller to the end of the hour.

“This course not only will show you the value of quick thinking, but it will help you learn how to discover your options and grab the best one in each case,” he concluded. “We’ll also cover the standard material about fallacies, syllogisms, and the like. For next time, please read in your text pages 17 through 54, and be prepared to answer the questions at the end.” A few moans and groans could be heard. “And remember, if you don’t know how to think, you don’t know how to live. Reason is the golden key to life.”

Two students stayed after class. One was David Simmons, the young man who had called into question the credibility of the scenario in the film. The other was a young woman from the front row who had been quiet all period.

“After you,” David said, deferring.

“Thanks. Hi, Dr. Miller. I’m Gina. Your class is going to be really interesting.” Her voice was soft and rather girlish. Now taking a good look at her for the first time, Miller noticed how attractive she was. Fresh-faced and well endowed, Gina had a winning smile, her even teeth showing readily through her full lips.

“Do you think I will be able to do well?” Gina asked. “I mean, you use words like disambiguate and conceptualization and stuff.”

“I’m sure you will do all right,” he said. “Since you have remembered the words, you can look them up if you don’t know them.”

“Can I come to you for help if I get stuck?” she asked.

This is a real cutie, he thought, noticing her unusually long eyelashes as they batted beckoningly at him. “Uh, yes, yes, I have my office hours posted,” he said after a delay just a fraction of a second longer than it should have been.

“Thanks. See you next time,” she said sweetly, and sauntered out of the room. Miller watched her long, curly, honey-blonde hair bounce back and forth as she left. He felt like shaking his head to clear it. Had she been wearing perfume?

“Yes, David, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. I just wondered. You said that the scene you showed was based on a real incident. What really happened?”

“The cargo door blew off and the decompression caused the cabin floor to collapse, and damage the controls.”

“Cool,” said David. The boy walked out of the room nodding his head with satisfaction. Professor Miller wondered why David had not asked about the outcome—what happened to the passengers and crew. Perhaps he had forgotten to ask.

The girl from Audio Visual arrived to retrieve the video equipment.

“Did it go okay?” She smiled warmly at Professor Miller. After all, he was good looking and friendly, and—for a professor—reasonably well dressed. She liked his sweater.

“Yes, fine,” Miller said. He tried to remember her name for a few moments so he could use it, but nothing came to him, so he simply collected his notes and stuffed them into his new leather briefcase. “Thanks,” he said as he left.

“Sure,” the girl said, wrapping up an extension cord. “Anytime.” She tried to load the last word with meaning.

+ + +

On many campuses, after an 8 A.M. class like Critical Thinking, a handful of students drag themselves over to the student union to get some coffee or espresso, so that they can finally wake up and face the day. Thus it was on this day that just a few minutes after nine, several members of Professor Miller’s class sat in comfortable lounge chairs around a long coffee table just inside the double doors of the student union, known as the Cave. The fireplace area was already filled by early risers who had not yet gone to a class. They were waking themselves up first with coffee and chocolate and a discussion of some horror film most had seen the night before.

Miller’s students were busy pouring little packets of sugar and chemicals into their paper coffee cups. The student union had ceased to serve coffee in ceramic cups a year or two earlier because the cups had gotten into the habit of taking indefinite vacations from the building and the cost of buying new ones every term was prohibitive. The student customers of the Cave had always been rather vague and casual about the difference between “for here” and “to go,” with the result that most of the ceramic cups had found employment in dorm rooms or campus apartments. The new rule was, Everything in paper cups. Drink it here or take it with you; we don’t care anymore. And who knows? Through their frequent patronage at brand-name coffee houses, perhaps students have gotten so used to the taste of coffee in paper cups that anything served in ceramic or china would seem to have an odd flavor.

“Why can’t we have real, liquid, half and half?” one of them asked, scowling at the package of artificial creamer. “This stuff is made with coconut oil. That’s artery cement.”

“Well, they figure you’ll live long enough to pay off your school debt and then they don’t care,” another said.

“The question is not why they do not serve cream,” said a girl with a distinctly British accent, “but why they do not serve coffee.” She made a face while looking at the cup. “This is the last cup of this liquid I will ever purchase.”

“I’m Jennica,” said a blonde with friendly eyes, turning to the girl who had just spoken.

“My name is Markayla,” said the girl.

“I’m Markayla’s roommate, Amy,” said another of the students.

“You’re the one who was taking all the notes,” said David Simmons, who was part of the group. He was speaking past Amy and looking at Markayla.

“How can you remember what was said if you do not take notes?” Markayla asked rhetorically.

“What do you think of Miller?” David asked of no one in particular.

“He’s okay,” Amy said.

“He’s good looking,” Jennica added.

“Yeah, but a guy with a perm is sort of over the top,” Julie Carmichael said, raising her eyebrows.

“Plus, he seems like he’s acting. He seems to be listening to himself.”

“That was a cool movie. Too bad it ended so soon and he started talking. I was beginning to enjoy the critical thinking class.”

“How can you enjoy anything that comes at 8:00 A.M. three times a week?”

“He said he will teach us how to think.”

“Yeah, but what if you already know how to think?”

“I think he’s perfect,” someone said. But it was not someone in the group. It was Gina, sitting in the next booth, stirring a coffee and talking on her cell phone a little too loudly, as many cell phone users do. “Yes, just right,” she went on. “He knows everything. Just the type.” At this point, Gina, who had been looking around the room as she spoke, noticed that the students in the booth next to her had begun paying attention to her conversation. “Okay, Judy,” she said. “Good luck with the repair. I’m sure the guy will work out for you. Bye.” Then she hung up.

“Want to join us?” said someone in the group.

“I’d be glad to,” said Gina, looking at her watch, “but I’ve really gotta run. Thanks anyway. See you in class.” Somehow her warm smile made the refusal seem kindly.

“Who was she talking about?”

“I saw her give Jeremy a look over when she came in,” said Jennica, nodding her head in the direction of a booth where Jeremy sat. “If he hadn’t been with Jodi, Gina would have gone over, I’ll bet.”

“Well, he’s certainly one of the best looking guys on campus.”

“If they’re that good looking, they have to be evil. I’ll bet he goes through girls like popcorn.”

“Oh, and those big, juicy grapes you can’t have are just so sour, aren’t they?”

“Shut up.”

“Miller thinks Gina’s pretty hot, too,” said David. “He raised his eyebrows after class and had one of those smiles. I was there.”

“I’m glad we have a good-looking prof,” Jennica said. “It will help make a long, boring class a little more bearable.”

“I hope we get more films,” David said.

“I hope someday to have a decent cup of coffee,” Markayla said, putting the cup down for the last time and giving it a little shove of rejection. The cup scooted back a little.

Two or three of the others gave Markayla an odd look.

“Don’t ask,” Amy said. “She’s just like that.”



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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com