Academia — A Free Short Story

Let the free stories roll!

Today I add my next tale. I started off with a science fiction origin story two weeks ago (click here for Patient Zero) and then went for the personal trauma last week (Click here for The Last Message). This week I go back with the science fiction genre in a fun story I have set in the same universe of my current work in progress, a novel tentatively titled St. Carl of Mars.

Tomorrow, Joe Shaw gives us the next edition of his Devil meets a divorcee story and Kathy Kexel is up for Friday. We have added a few other writers, including Derek Elkins who went on Monday (Click here for A Night Out) and Robert Cely to the stable, so be looking for their pieces as well.



By Jamie D. Greening

The academic flagship Biblioteca came out of cruising speed and took a low orbit around the planet BH-34. A transport vehicle hovered over the southern pole. As soon as communication was established between the two, the Bibliotecaopened its loading bays and received the taxi. Andrew Stratskin, a native of the plutonium mines on Saturn, stepped out.

A middle-aged woman stood alone in the hangar. “Stratskin, please follow me.”

He wiped his sweaty hands on his pants. Stratskin wore the traditional gray plaid pants and matching coat with a red tab shirt underneath. On his head was the traditional triangular mortar board worn by academic candidates during their committee interview. This was the last hurdle between him and his dream of becoming a full-fledged scholar. If his research was approved, the Biblioteca would become his new home and he would be a credentialled member of the academy. The rest of his life would be dedicated to learning, teaching, and discovery. 

If he did not attain approval, he would have to go back to Saturn and start all over, which could take years, assuming he had the emotional fortitude to do it. Most who weren’t approved left academia forever and took up jobs in the low-esteemed industry of television and movies. No one ever made money or became famous in movies. Failure to get approved in his interview was a career death sentence. 

“Here is your interview room. They are waiting for you,” his escort walked away with no further words.

Stratskin took a deep breath, counted to four, exhaled, and then walked in. Three people sat in the room. His advisor, a man named Professor Carmichael, stood up to welcome him. “It is good to see you in person, Stratskin. Our conversations have been good, but in person is always better. I want you to know however this turns out, you are to be congratulated on writing a thorough and riveting study.”

“Thank you,” Stratskin said. “I found the material interesting. I think I could spend another three years on it.” 

“Maybe you should,” Said the woman who sat on the left side of the glass top table. “There has not been enough research done on this topic. At least not to my liking. Everyone is either too interested in the Greek antiquities or overly involved in The Conflagration. We could use rigorous study about these smaller epochs.” She smiled at him, but it was the kind of smile which made him nervous. The smile said, “I may engage in playful banter with you or I may devour your weak arguments like a tiger eats deer. It all depends on my mood.” Did her jab at needing rigorous study mean she found his presentation weak? Doubt crept in. 

Carmichael extended his long arm, “This is Professor Nguyen of the University of New Rome on Mars. She is in residence here on the Biblioteca working on her next book. Nguyen is an expert on Earth history between the Roman Empire and The Conflagration. I asked her to be a part of your committee because of her interest in the field.”

Nguyen nodded.

Carmichael pivoted and smiled at the third person in the room. “This is Professor Lee. He is the Dean of North American artifacts on the museum vessel Palestine. No one knows more about the material evidence of your preferred time period than he does, so I asked him to be a part of your review committee.”

Profesor Lee did not move or change expression. 

“Have a seat here at the head of the table, Stratskin.” Stratskin sat down. Carmichael continued. “We have all read your work and made several notes. We don’t think this will be a long interview because you have been very thorough. We met this morning over breakfast and came to several conclusions. To start, we’d like for you to give us the summary point of your work.”

Stratskin sat up straight like his mother told him to. He wiped his hands on his pants again. “My thesis is the COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, was the underlying impetus which eventually hurled humans into space colonization. Without the virus, we might not ever have left earth.”

Nguyen squinted her eyes. “Yes, we saw that in your opening. In a paragraph or two, summarize the events, as you understand them, of the COVID-19 plague.”

“Well,” Stratskin said, “The virus started, originally, in Asia. We don’t know where, but it quickly spread across the planet. The hardest hit people group in the first two waves were in North America, a people who called themselves American. The virus made three passes around the planet before herd immunity kicked in. It was on the second pass around when the leader of the Americans, a man named George Washington, ordered the quarantining of the scientific and industrial leaders in a place called Pentagon. Given the name of the place, and our knowledge that ‘penta’ means five, we believe this was a five-province region in the west where the virus had been mitigated earlier. The concentration of scientific and financial means created the social and material matrix for the building of the first off-planet living vessels before the third wave came.”

Stratskin paused, but no one interrupted so he continued. “My research indicates the third wave was so disastrous the only organized civilization left was these Americans in the west.” 

“Wait a minute, Stratskin.” Professor Lee spoke with a deep register. “We have an artifact in our museum from around this same time. Dating these things is difficult because of the radiation contamination, but we have identified the leader of the Americans as being a man named Fauci. The artifact is an image of him standing in front of a podium, and on that podium is a seal that represents the leadership tribe of these Americans. I have always accepted he was the leader, yet you are convinced it was this man named Washington. Defend your claim.” 

Stratskin fought the urge to get defensive, yet he needed to stand firm. “I have seen that image. It is the only proof of this man called Fauci, and I find it difficult to make a generalization from what might have been a one-off moment.” He cleared his throat. “By contrast, the oral and epigraphical documents that have survived repeat over and over again the name of Washington.” He suddenly noticed the glass of water on the table. Assuming it was for him, he took a drink. “Most information about the Americans was destroyed in The Conflagration. But numerous times historical documents refer to phrases like, ‘Washington says’ and ‘This in from Washington.’ Plus, there is a giant etching in the hills of the western part of the American continent that we believe to be a portrait of their greatest leader, George Washington, and his three sons. We know a person named George Washington existed and was considered the greatest leader of the American tribe. It makes sense he was the leader during the greatest crisis, the Covid-19 Conundrum.”

“If George Washington even existed.” Professor Lee said. “I have my doubts about the Americans. They were a brief flash in the pan, a highly superstitious people prone to worshipping many gods such as Lincoln, Apple, and Football. Washington was probably just another mythic god they bowed to on key holy days.”

Stratskin didn’t back down. “I agree with their pantheism tendencies. I also agree the holy days in July and November were of outsized importance. However, that doesn’t mean Washington never existed or he was myth. Myth is often based on fact.”

Nguyen smiled again. She twirled her hair. “You may be right, or wrong. We will never know, really. However, that has little bearing on your three main conclusions. The first two are almost cliché so they are not worth working ourselves over.”

“I’d hardly call them cliché,” Carmichael said. He raised his eyebrows and looked at Stratskin.

Stratskin squirmed. “I understand your point, Professor Lee. It is widely accepted the first interplanetary vessels were built and launched in the context of the COVID-19 plague and the human population shrank to roughly half its size with the largest amount of deaths coming from the European regions. But still, these facts were important to establish for the overall thesis of COVID-19 creating the desire to leave the planet.”

“You went farther than that, though, didn’t you Candidate Stratskin?” Lee tapped on the table. “You make the incredible leap from the facts of leaving Earth to the reason for the exodus.”

“I did,” Stratskin said. “Pestilence and plagues are a part of life in all its expressions. This is true of humans, animals, and plants throughout the universe. The difference was humans were the first species in history to see the possibility of extinction and then find an ultimate solution. By spreading throughout the solar system, starting with Mars, we safeguarded the race from extinction by disease.”

“You hypothesize a parallel I find curious,” Carmichael said. “Our histories teach humans left Earth because of a yearning for exploration and discovery, and parallel that with the discovery coming out of the Middle Ages of new continents. Our tradition teaches us about the noble human spirit and the boldness of our conquests. But,” Carmichael shook his head, “that is not your parallel.”

“No, not discovery. Need drove humans to the stars.” Stratskin felt rightness flow in his veins. Whether he was approved or not, he believed what he’d written was true. The belief and passion now came out of his mouth. “We were afraid. We were needy. Like hunter gather humans chasing migrating herds to stay alive. We were more like humans leaving changing environments to temperate climates. In short, we are made for survival. Leaving Earth was another repetition of our innate reaction to fear and change. It has happened repeatedly in our past, and it will happen again. We’d fought the disease and won, but we knew we might not win next time, so we opted for flight.”

“Again?” Lee said. “You say it will happen again? I find that hard to believe given the vast growth of the human species and our technological sophistication. That is not a part of your research paper, and it is bold claim.”

“That’s right. I omitted speculation, as I view that as something less than academic. It is my belief, born from research, that no level of advancement can guarantee security or protection from disaster. Systems decline and things happen. The Americans probably had no reason to believe they were in any danger until they were right in the middle of it. These are my beliefs, and not the facts. When I was in primary education aboard the academic vessel Nicea, Professor Wentrick instilled within us the practice of only reporting fact.”

“I studied under Wentrick, too.” Nguyen was smiling again. “His tests were hard, weren’t they?”

“Especially the pop quizzes.” Stratskin nodded and took another drink. 

“I hated those pop quizzes,” Lee said.

Now a smile appeared on Stratskin’s face at the thought they’d all studied under Wentrick. He opened his mouth to say Wentrick’s classes were the hardest he ever had, but he learned more from him than any other. He never got the chance. Carmichael stood up, “I think that is all we need. Go on outside and you will be escorted to the lounge. We will notify you shortly of our decision.” 

A sense of relief washed over him as he rose from his seat. “Thank you for your time and your attention. He nodded in each of their direction and then left.” 

When he arrived at the lounge, he found a seat by the viewing window and looked down upon BH-35. It was mostly water, with only two small continents close together on the equator. He’d come here as a final place of solitude to prepare for the interview. His mind replayed it. He thought of seventeen different things he should have said. He had just convinced himself to pack his bags for a return to Saturn when Carmichael walked in.

“Welcome to the faculty, Professor Stratskin.”  

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