Prose Header

Dr. Whitfield's Dream of Recycling

by Channie Greenberg

When the windows rattled, the greater number of students looked up. So far, no one in the flashbulb section of the hall was in danger of failing. On the other hand, many of those seat-holders were going to pass with less than stellar grades.

Dr. Laura Whitfield barely gave the shaking glass a second glance. She had been showing a PowerPoint presentation so that she could daydream about sending herself and some subset of her students to Jupiter, where sentient lobsters were the alpha species and where diamonds rained down on the planet’s surface.

Per the former, the professor had observed, using her souped-up, personal, Orion 9x50 achromatic telescope, a large, fancy tool-using crustacean. Per the latter, Jupiter’s lightening-filled clouds transformed methane into soot and diamonds.

The professor guessed that the space lobsters had no use for the gems or that a trick of refraction had caused dust motes to appear as jewels. No North American Astrophysics Society postings had ever mentioned Jupiter as a source for metastable allotropes of carbon. In balance, sentient lobsters were regarded, by her peers, as correspondingly improbable.

Back in the lab, after class had ended and the source of the cracked classroom windowpanes had neither been sought nor given, Dr. Whitfield tried coaxing Hugo Bata, her newest teaching assistant, out of his bod pod. Bata’s wealthy parents had bought him that contraption to measure his corporeal composition, in general, and to encourage him to drop pounds, more specifically.

Bata, though, was less interested in the machine’s air displacement plethysmography than in the way that the apparatus impressed upon him. Once encased in that miniature chamber, he no longer experienced a need to pull down benzodiazepines. More exactingly, he no longer considered himself threatened by his environment.

That young man claimed that his bod pod beat both EMDR and conference-call support groups in combatting his panic attacks. Just an hour or ten in his shiny contraption made him feel forgetful, disoriented, and clumsy. He loved that device.

Ordinarily, Dr. Whitfield sucked in her breath when Bata emerged. Almost always, Bata shoveled out unhappy diatribes when asked to leave his machine.

The professor held that a skinfold test ought to be used to measure body composition and that cognitive restructuring ought to be used to cope with agoraphobia. She never figured out why someone who became anxious in unfamiliar places was working with a physicist interested in space travel. That day, on the contrary, not only did Bata refuse to budge, but Whitfield, too, seemed stuck.

Dr. Whitfield couldn’t accept that, yet again her findings had been rejected by a certain academic journal. Whereas it had long since become apparent to her that garden-variety academics were unable to appreciate natural miracles — those others were wedged between cultural norms that embraced delayed gratification and their immediate and persistent need to ingratiate themselves to folks on their tenure committees — she failed to understand why her colleagues couldn’t admit to seeing the Jupiter lobster captured on her images or why they insisted that her films were doctored.

Granted, when she was a fledgling professor, her mind had been filled with visions of plum assignments and with related sugary compensation. As a young scholar, she had published with neck-snapping frequency. More mature in career, as well as just chronologically older, Whitmore disbelieved the fact of her colleagues’ ongoing distrust of her research on outer-space critters. The funders of the major science grants, for instance, had told her, “Lady, no one cares about life on Jupiter.”

It hadn’t helped when she had answered, with much bravado, “I do.”

The money-huggers, one after another, had merely smiled, nodded, and ended their Skype sessions with her, telling her she was not a deserving candidate. Repeatedly, she had received little or no funding.

Despite those setbacks, Bata, who believed in Whitfield’s dream of flying through the Solar System and who believed in the Jupiter lobsters, had provided solace. His new refusal to leave his pod crashed Dr. Whitfield. She rapped on the pod’s shell with force.

Whitfield had met Bata at an astronomy convention. She had sought quiet from all of the high-falutin’ arguments of her peers in an urban pocket park situated adjacent to the conference’s hotel. There, she had closed her eyes and had lingered on a bench. Feeling refreshed, she had gotten up, had stretched, and then had begun to pilfer posies. She had wanted those flowers for her hotel room.

Hugo Bata had thought otherwise. That undergraduate, who had won a sponsorship to attend the conference, had been overwhelmed by the crowds of attendees. Hence, he had likewise left the proceedings in search of quiet and had likewise entered the small park. When he noticed Dr. Whitmore lifting blossoms from the parklet’s raised beds, he had yelled at her to stop.

Whitfield had stopped, dropped, and run. Her flight had been in vain; the mini-oasis, which was entirely fenced in, had just one access. Turning, she had confronted Hugo Bata.

Opening her mouth to accuse him of who-knows-what, she had noticed that he was slumping. He was also shaking and sweating. Large beads dripped from his forehead onto his nondescript nose. His headache had eased after he had broken from the noise of the conference’s crowd. Once outdoors, his anxiety had peaked.

* * *

Whitfield had meet Bata at an Astronomy convention. She had approached the shuddering young man and spoken to him in a soft, even tone. While neither a biologist nor a physician, the professor understood anxiety; a hyper-vigilant response to the stranger’s panic episode would not be helpful. Twenty minutes of soothing words later, the professor and the undergraduate had walked, together, back to the meeting.

Following that congress, the two had exchanged emails and had continued to do so for the next year and a half. Laura Whitfield sent the young man pictures of her Jupiter findings. He responded with enthusiasm. When it was time for him to pick a graduate program, he chose hers.

In turn, the professor quickly snatched him up from the department’s many applicants. As well, she directly intervened with enough of her peers that two different committees offered stipends to Hugo Bata.

Dr. Whitfield’s investments yielded dividends. When, at last, she was able to focus on the construction of an interplanetary rocketship, Bata helped her supervise her laborers. Smart, reliable Hugo, who was also resilient in the face of government and reconnoiter graft, saved the project many times over. As a bonus, he provided the professor with useful calculations about Jupiter’s atmospheric diamonds.

* * *

Back in the current moment, Hugo Bata squeezed his eyes closed in response to his mentor’s knocking. He wanted to be left alone. Dr. Whitmore, though the least venal of academics, was a dreamer who gave herself too freely to adventurism. Sometimes, such as the present, he lacked patience for her impractical approach to science.

The next day, Whitfield ignored him when he entered her lab. She was not angry as she didn’t hold grudges, but she was preoccupied with responses to the notice that she had distributed to various government and academic electronic bulletin boards.

The notice had read:

Pilot sought for Earth to Jupiter Shipping Route. Primary responsibilities and essential duties include: reviewing, updating and correcting bills of parcel; flying ship to Jupiter and then back to Earth; guarding ship against stowaways, and performing other, miscellaneous tasks on an as-needed basis. Candidates need to hear normally, to be able to see nearby objects, to have accurate color vision, to have the means to hear faint signals, and to speak clearly.

Bata, who was reading over Whitfield’s shoulder, broke into tears. Whitfield had asked him to show up to discuss rocket personnel, but her notice made it seem she would hire an outsider as her captain.

The graduate student had wanted to skipper the mission despite the fact that he had neither a pilot’s nor a driver’s license. Although space was vast, a ship was a confined space, thus safe. What’s more, he was Whitfield’s top aide, if her words were to be believed. Additionally, the professor needed help “translating” her photos of the Jupiter lobsters into imaginative, computer-aided art. Bata had earlier helped her post those images, as “fictitious” art, on an online gallery.

* * *

When Hugo Bata finally calmed down, having gained the professor’s attention in the worst possible way, he ran for his bod pod. He felt worse than he had even relative to his adolescent hormonal surges. Simply, his leg muscles were spasming, his stomach was clenching, and his head stung so much if felt as if he was wearing a crown of nettles.

He no longer cared that some artsy sort, maybe a curator, had asked the professor to send an historical account of her work as an artist and had invited her to send enough samples of her “vision” of Jupiter to create a full exhibit. He no longer cared that, in the preceding half-hour, more than one hundred applicants, at least six of whom were actually qualified to try to fly a spaceship, had emailed his boss.

All that mattered to Bata was that with the lab’s windows open, the sounds of the university’s springtime carnival, and the referential sounds of the people attending it, could be heard, and that the resulting cacophony, combined with his perceived rejection by Dr. Whitfield, somatically compressed him.

Days later, after the campus had been cleared of the detritus of the festivity, Bata returned to work. He dipped into his bod pod only every six hours and then only for fifteen minutes at a time. He had accepted Whitfield’s “decisions” for staffing her spacecraft.

Not only did Hugo Bata not accompany the professor on her rocketship, no one else did, either. In the end, the flight was designated “unmanned” and Whitfield, herself, became a stowaway. The federal connections of the professor’s sister, who had helped fund the project, had deemed the vehicle unsafe for human transport.

On her return flight, Whitfield used all of her cargo space to store sack after sack of Jupiter lobster eggs. That payload had been a surprise, and the layout of her vessel had not been designed to accommodate it.

Bata never got to see those treasures, though. During the interval spanning Whitfield’s launch and her return, he had become a physics professor at Kim II Sung University. Whereas, relative to North American standards, his salary was paltry, what Bata didn’t earn in taxable income, he more than made up for via regularly scheduled — that is, required — “gifts” from his students.

Bata didn’t mind the constant surveillance of the state, either. Scrutiny created, for him, an extended sort of bod pod.

As per diamonds, Whitfield came home with none. She was happy to have escaped with her life. Jupiter’s menacing apex species were twice as tall as any human and many times more powerful. It was a miracle that those crustaceans’ pinchers hadn’t make short work of her spacesuit.

All things being equal, she was unwilling to actualize a second trip to Jupiter. If space was lethal, its denizens were more so. She planned to limit herself to raising Jupiter lobsters on Earth and to seeking grant money for their maintenance.

In a short amount of time, Whitfield resented babysitting those alien lobster fry. She was furious, too, that her friends and family had significantly aged while she was in flight. A scandal that had followed her from decades past and that had been publicized based on the presumption that she was irresolvably missing, similarly, had soured her homecoming.

Dr. Laura Whitfield wished she still had Bata working for her. He had been a font of consolation. At least that fellow, George, who worked for the yellow paper that had purchased Laura’s homecoming story and photos, was newly part of her life. That Balkan transplant and alleged specialist in time dilation claimed to be a Methuselah of sorts. He even referred to himself as being three hundred years old.

Laura estimated him not to be a day over thirty. He looked too good in his button downs and blue jeans to be a centenarian or older.

She’d just have to wait to see Bata at the next international physics conferences. Maybe, during a break, she and her former graduate students could sip soda together and reminisce over their first meeting in a pocket park and over their years of collaborative work. Maybe, if she offered to buy him the newest bod pod, he’d take a leave from his current university and accompany her on a speaking tour. If his loyalties remained intact, she might even introduce him to her young lobsters.

Copyright © 2016 by Channie Greenberg

Proceed to Challenge 687...

Home Page