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A Professor Vanual Tale

by Brad Andrews

“Professor Vanual to the main commons, please.”

I looked up, surprised at hearing the captain’s voice, and as I rose to leave my laboratory I heard him repeat his summons. I wondered why, because I wasn’t due to see the captain for another five hours, when our next survey was scheduled to begin. I couldn’t remember that he had ever asked to see me during off hours. Was something wrong?

I entered the commons to find the Alpha Command crew and almost my entire research staff waiting for me, surrounded by drinks and food. Everyone seemed to be merry and amused with the exception of the captain, though he was at least displaying tolerance. My surprise arose even more.

The captain and my first assistant approached and announced: “Professor, on behalf of the crew and research staff I offer you my congratulations on this the anniversary of becoming what you are today, what you were meant to be, and what you are best at.”

Realization dawned on me at this traditional compliment and accompanying party. It was two hundred years ago to the day that I had transited to my adult role as a member of the Academic Caste. The captain handed me a festive-looking drink, “To you, Honored Professor, and to your continued good works!”

For a moment I was speechless, not only because I had completely forgotten the day, but especially because of the captain. He and I did not exactly dislike one another, but as I said earlier, in all of the time that he and I had worked together I had never had a social drink with him. He and I saw the world quite differently, addressed it in our own ways and — I am sure that this is the worst for him — share command of the good ship Research Hull.

His previous posting had been a task force commander of five Fast Frigates, he had been chosen on this longest of study missions exactly because of his experience and quality. But still? To go from a fleet officer with five of the navy’s best to ferrying a group of scientists for a couple of centuries in a now lightly-armed retrofitted cruiser must have been difficult for him. It would have been difficult for anyone.

“Captain,” I raised my glass to him “I don’t know what to say, except thank you,” and here I raised my voice: “Thank you all for this most pleasant surprise!” I unfurled my proboscis into the drink and enjoyed it deeply. I felt my carapace brighten in surprise at the fineness of the drink. I realized that it was from a private stock aboard, a member of the crew’s sub-caste were alcohol creators with a long and sturdy history, and again I looked at the man I knew that was responsible for this rare pleasure.

Humbly I said “Captain, thank you, you did not have to share your...”

Here he cut me off. “Professor, none of that! Enjoy your day!”

The two of us looked at one another with our sub-set eyes, which are used when an emotion or something private was being expressed. The two of us at least shared a bit of respect for one another.

Deeply gratified I did enjoy my drink and also bowed towards the captain. That was enough for him, and he allowed my research team to surge forward as they began to offer their good wishes.

It wasn’t long until someone asked — again tradition — how I became a professor. All adult caste members have their own story, their Transition to their fate, but it was only on the 200th anniversary that each tale is ever publicly recounted. I closed my eyes and thought back to that time.

So this is what it feels like to be crushed, I thought. When my vision came back I felt like I was listing. Easy enough to explain as the Remold Bulkhead I’d designed had come down on me and flattened almost the entire left side of my shell and four of my newly grown adult legs, and I could feel third-row eyes inspect my shell to see if they could pick out any remaining blemish.

One of the greatest desires of spacefaring races, as far as interstellar shipbuilding went, was adaptability. Being able to change or modify your ship while in transit was a difficult thing. What you could do was very, very limited. Essentially it was cutting holes through, for example, recently emptied fuel bunkers and then decorating the interiors as comfortably as possible.

I told my audience, “I set out to change those old procedures. My early days in space were spent as a junior ensign in the engineering crew on a long-range Navy transport. I had, myself, cut holes into recently emptied fuel tanks and had been one to inhabit the smelly, spartan spaces. I wished for something better. Hence, I invented ceramorganics.”

I noticed that a surprisingly large number of the assembled crew and research staff were not aware of this fact. I could see a number of them mentally creating lists of questions for me, each of them itching to discuss the origins of such an important and now ubiquitous material. However they kept their silence for now, as this was my story.

I looked to the captain and his fine alcohol and with his certain assurance refilled my glass and continued. “The only thing that saved me was my still somewhat adolescent carapace. Rather than the hard, somewhat aged shell of the adult you see today, my soft shell simply bent with the weight.” I could remember the sensation and the pain clearly to this day as well as the lasting damage.

“The bulkhead had liquefied a nerve cluster as well as a motor-control node.” I had, over time, compensated for the injury, and one would never know of my handicap unless informed or were here now.

“Lying there, stunned, I extended one of my primary eyes as far as it could go to try and ascertain just what had happened and how badly I had been hurt.”

The room, I told them, had changed very quickly to its ‘Bunker-Mode.’ As I surveyed it, I could tell that instead of frozen and shut down it was actually reverting back to its original Stateroom configuration but very slowly. “That was all I needed to know. It was the Scale Generator, the software that determined whether it was remolding a wall or a section of hull superstructure.”

Getting into the spirit of storytelling and with the fortification of the captain’s excellent drink I began to warm to the story.

“With ceramorganics, you see, rooms would be able to change quickly, while acre-sized sections of the ship proper would by necessity take much longer. But that would have to wait until the room changed back and I was freed from its inviting embrace.”

There were smiles all around.

“It was a frustrating wait, that hour, one of the longest of my life and I recall it clearly to this day. I was nearly unconscious when the bulkhead lifted from me. It was only when I realized that my shell was trying to pop back into place that I knew it was over.

“I could clearly hear the rescue drones enter the room, one attending to me and the other clearly there to keep an eye on the room and offer warning if it decided to come back down on us again.

“The drone performed a quick assessment and realizing that I could not be hurt much more than I already was, decided against stabilizing me and instead just grabbed me and pulled me from the room out into the normal corridor.

“The last thing I remember before waking in the med-unit three days later was the odd sight of my legs still lying there on the floor.”

I was quiet for a moment, it had been a long time since I had thought of that day, and it had been longer since that I had actually spoken of it.

“My recuperation took nearly three months, but I filled that time of physical therapy and pain with thoughts and calculation. It took me less than a day to discover the causes behind the accident.”

Here I reached for the fine drink again, my carapace showing amusement, and made a show of the seven timepieces I wore. “You all know of my passion, I dare say obsession; yes, you can call it that.” I noticed my colleagues smiling. It was actually a hobby of mine: I created small, highly accurate clocks and this obsession began all those years ago.

“The accident was due to bad timing and simple clumsiness on my part. It was not the Scale Generator after all but improperly entered command codes. I had been overly tired and was undergoing physical changes I was still learning to coordinate. I pushed the wrong button.

“I had set the action codes too early, and to compound the mistake I then brushed up against the sequence pad and put everything out of order. The room remolded early, out of the planned order. This simple mistake nearly cost me my life and certainly my confidence. My sense of embarrassment was extreme, and I very nearly resigned, simply unable to forgive myself for my mistake.”

I was now quiet for a moment, reliving the shame I had felt, then the stupidity of nearly throwing it all away and finally the decision to explain the mistake and create the unassailable safety protocols that to this day govern adaptability programs on self-remolding starships.

“It was a combination of the physical trial from the accident, my admission of guilt, and the subsequent safety protocols that led my peers to believe that I was ready to transition.”

I paused and took in those around me, glad to be sharing this day with them, and silly as it may seem, allowed for a bit of tradition myself: “So, on this day, two centuries ago, I became what I was meant to be, what I am now, and what I will always be: Professor Vanual.”

Copyright © 2007 by Brad Andrews

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