Coming-of-age in Space

23 Nov

Dr. Mead Quort was both an educator and a practicing psychologist aboard the huge industrial vessel named the Enterpriser.

The advanced manufacturing ship was engaged in bulk item trade in the outer zones of the Sunflower Galaxy, making long journeys between planets with varying industries, resources, and products to sell. It was under the command of Captain Nedge Wia, a short, small woman able to administer production of a space community of over 5,000 inhabitants.

Quort was in charge of the academic activities of the young, including their preparation for professional roles and responsibilities on board the Enterpriser. But he also was expected to apply his knowledge and training as a counselor when that was called for in the case of a specific youth facing personal problems. That was a part of his job that was especially important to him and he was willing to spend considerable time dealing with individual young people.

It was a meeting with Captain Wia in her office that first brought to his attention the potential difficulties facing the youth named Danton Pile.

Mead Quort sat on a squab while the worried commander stood upright behind her chromium desk.

“I have been in conversation with our Production Director, Jacob Pile, about his son, Danton. The young man is his only child and has recently finished his basic schooling. He appears unready to enroll himself in any specific educational program under your department.

“The boy is moody and unsettled, according to his father. There is no concrete career plan in his mind, and he cannot make any decision about what he wants to be or what to do with his life.

“Jacob tells me that he is seriously worried about Danton.

“Could you see and try to counsel and advise him? It would take a heavy load and concern off the mind of our Production Head. The boy needs some degree of guidance from an outside person like you, Mead.”

The latter waited a few seconds before he gave his response.

“I will call in the lad and see what I can do,” he said with a smile.

Captain Wia gave a nod, then Mead Quort rose and left.

The Enterpriser had a population of skilled geneticists and nano-tech physicists able to create new plants, animals, and material substances according to the needs of a wide variety of different inhabited worlds across the vast Sunflower Galaxy.

The enormous size of the void-crossing vessel allowed for colossal experiments and testing. Production and assembly was possible on a grand scale within the gigantic bays of the ship. The business agents of the Enterpriser purchased raw materials across the galaxy, then sold its wares on scores of scattered planets.

Jacob Pile, a heavy figure with satin white hair and gray eyes, had never devoted much of his busy time to his only child, the bright but lonely boy named Danton. All at once, as he realized that his son was perplexed and confused over his future, he found the time to focus on the young man who was acting like an uncertain dreamer drifting without a course to follow.

He invited Danton to share dinner with him in the Enterpriser’s prime restaurant.

“I am deeply worried about you, son,” began Jacob as soon as both of them were finished eating their tank-grown salmon. “What is going to become of you? What profession will you enter and learn? There are so many possible fields we have here aboard the ship. Since you have, up to now failed to make any choice on your own, I feel obliged to make it for you, Danton. I have decided to bring you into the Production Division as a basic recruit who serves a limited time in each of the planning and design sections.

“What do you say to that? You are certainly educated sufficiently to function as a subordinate apprentice with experience in a number of different production units that we have. First of all, I am going to send you to work in construction materials. After that, you should be ready to chose a second area to work in, at least for a limited time.

“What do you say to my plan, son?”

Danton forced himself to form a grin about his mouth. “I will have to see how things turn out for me, sir. Who can say?”

The indifferent young recruit found himself working under experienced designers of structures made of materials never seen before on planet Gobi.

Danton was able to see for himself the practical application of what he had learned in his classes covering nano-chemistry and molecular physics. “We will be introducing graphene and micro-carbon to native construction,” explained the designer put in charge of his earliest work. “Your immediate assignment will be in the creation of flexible, transportable large tents for the nomadic population living on the planet’s numerous desert regions. Specifically, you shall be involved in testing and comparing a variety of different nano-textile substances that are known and available to us.

“Good luck with the assignment, young man,” said the superior scientist in charge of building materials and compounds.

Danton came to feel boredom and vexation with his new, repetitive tasks. He carried them out with indifference, barely succeeding at what he was ordered to accomplish.

He was glad when this assignment ended for him within three weeks of mental torture.

“You have been re-assigned to bio-ecological design,” he was informed one empty afternoon by his unit leader. Relief came to the mind and thoughts of the stultified youth as he left the materials section.

His new chief was a rangy, skinny planner named Soko Rimny who appeared to be of a different type of character from the other experts in planetary planning. There was a sympathetic, more human ring to what he told Danton from the beginning.

“Our options are by no means infinite,” he murmured lowly, in an everyday tone. “We have to figure out how to do the best we can with what already is available, both here on board and down on the surface of the planet we have to reshape and reassemble.”

“That sounds like a very practical approach, sir,” responded Danton.

“Only such an attitude will allow us to make the most radical of possible changes. We will have to apply our brains and resources smartly and wisely. My hope is that surprising results will materialize and be attained by sticking realistically to the pragmatic and plausible. That is how dreams come about, you shall see.”

Danton gave a bright smile, inspired by the vision of his new supervisor. Bio-design was an exciting section, he had to tell himself.

Dr. Mead Quort continued his weekly sessions with the young man who had such difficulty in charting any personal course to follow in life.

The counselor began to notice immediate changes in the actions and feelings of the one he was attempting to treat. Danton seemed to be losing himself in the problems of animal design and genetics.

“This is something I never thought could grab my attention so strongly,” confessed Danton to the psychologist. “There are endless questions that arise in the construction of specific combinations of both DNA and RNA. It is not an easy operation to edit the genomes of existing species that we know and have available from other planets.

“I am mastering the operation of complex synthesis machinery whose final product is a multitude of new synthetic genes. Such structural biology at the sub-molecular level is not easy to plan or map out.

“It has become necessary for me to steep myself in advanced biomolecular chemistry and genetics of an entire group of differing animals. Solutions have proven extremely difficult to reach, I have to admit.

“My respect and admiration for scientific pioneers like Dr. Rimny grow with each day of work that I complete with him.”

Mead gave a sigh of relief. “It is good to hear that you are progressing forward as an active participant in such a significant endeavor, my friend.”

Jacob Pile shared his good news with Captain Nedge Wia when he sat down to share breakfast with her in the officer’s refectory one early morning.

“My son’s entire mood has changed,” he reported with reflected pride. “He no longer seems so lost and disoriented. I believe his attitude has been reshaped by direct work action over in the biosynthesis program he is busy in.

“In fact, he does not want to leave and go on elsewhere. Danton has requested permission to remain with this Dr. Soko Rimny in designing some kind of desert beast that the Gobi nomads could make use of.

“It is a somewhat strange interest, but it has completely captured the time and the interest of my son, and I can’t make any complaint about the matter. I told him to continue and dig deeper into genomic designing, wherever this interest might lead him.”

“I’m so glad to hear this good news,” said the Captain with sincere delight.

Soko, feeling genuine trust in his new assistant, revealed to him the special goals he had in the desert project assigned to his unit.

“I have an idea what may be best for the deserts of Gobi: an artificial animat instead of a genetically natural species of animal. Do you understand what I am thinking of, Danton?”

The latter, shaken somewhat upon hearing this, groped for an answer to his superior’s question.

“An animat combines the organic with the artificial. It is on the boundary of both biology and electronic physics, I believe. Synthetic materials help to structure the living thing, and the animat’s neuron transplants are connected to cybernetic nano-chips of carbon and silicon.

“It must be, by its complexity, very hard to create. Many different sciences would have to join together in order to put it together.”

“Yes, it is a risky kind of venture, an inter-disciplinary adventure that can end in ruin and failure.

“But I wish to try it and produce a desert animat for Gobi. What do you say to aiding me do it, Danton?”

“It will be very exciting, sir,” answered the apprentice with glee in his voice.

Will this animat be some sort of synthesized biorobot? Danton asked himself as he walked to his father’s office in the production wing of the Enterpriser. It seemed to him that he was working on the creation of an innovative, breakthrough entity unlike either the purely bionic or cybernetic.

Under Soko, I work at the juncture of a multitude of differing fields and technologies. This is where biocybernetics, neurobionics, and nano-genetics meet and fuse together. The result remains unforeseeable, a gamble that encompasses the unpredictable and unknowable.

What are we going to end up with? he puzzled as he entered his father’s inner sanctum in order to report on his current activities and his personal mood.

When the two of them were seated, Jacob made a revelation to his son.

“I have discussed your steady progress with Dr. Quort, asking him whether the time has arrived for you to proceed on to another project in a part of our Production Division still new and unknown to you.”

Danton sensed himself beginning to shake. “I would prefer to stay where I now work, sir. It is a fascinating program we are involved with, a new being to serve the nomads of the desert down below us.”

The eyes of Jacob grew bigger as he experienced surprise. “I did not expect you to be so intrigued by what you are at present involved with.

Very well, then. Continue on, as long as there is real benefit to you, my boy. Yes, keep at this activity with all its good effects on your mood and attitude. I am well satisfied with your progress on it.”

Soko, always taking great care to explain the technical details of bionic design to the young apprentice, outlined the new, unprecedented features of the new, specially designed animat meant to serve the inhabitants of the deserts on Gobi.

“The Enterpriser staff has never gone so far in terms of originality of innovative creatures,” he explained to Danton. “Without making it into a biobot with a basically physio-chemical character, the plan calls for the genetic engraving of the most important attributes of our animat. In other words, it will be at its heart a living creature with strong neurobionics and biocybernetic powers and abilities.

“I would term it a synthetic camel, but it extends far beyond that old species of desert animal. Its intelligence has been augmented, raising it to the level of the horse, the dog, and the cat. This animat will have the strength and endurance of a bull or an ox, but also amazing capacity to think fast and perform difficult, complicated tasks.

“The synthetic camel will be much more than a beast of burden or a carrying, transporting companion of nomads. My plan is to make it the central factor in the economy and society of Gobi, in every way possible.

“It will be strong, controllable, smart, and completely obedient to human beings. No other planet that we have redesigned will have the benefit of such a versatile, useful animat as this one we are going to offer. What do you think of it, Danton?”

“I am overwhelmed, sir,” the assistant was able to reply with fervent trust.

Captain Wia was boiling mad when she hurried into the office of Jacob Pile with a noteholder full of reports and documents.

The Director of Production looked up at her with surprise. “Is anything wrong?” he asked in sudden panic.

“I would say so with confidence, Jacob. What is this business about planning a synthetic kind of camel animat for Gobi? How far has such a project advanced? I have come down here to order that it be halted as soon as possible.

“I myself was unaware of anything like that going on, or else I would have nipped it in the bud. It cannot continue. All records and traces of such activity on the Enterpriser must be destroyed. I cannot permit anything similar to be undertaken in the future.”

“I don’t understand,” muttered Jacob in a slightly trembling voice.

Nedge Wia made a sour grimace and explained. “Our design vessel is forbidden by our original charter from going anywhere near the creation of artificial, synthetic biorobots. That lies beyond what is permissible, even if a client planet should request such an object be built for it.”

“But this will not be a mechanical or cybernetic robot of any sort. It will be a living creature similar to a natural animal, but modified and enhanced to give it many more positive attributes.

“This animat will be able to accomplish many times more than any evolved animal anywhere in our galaxy. It will act and think in a state of genuine life. It will be many times more than any possible machine that operates by robotic codes or programs. Don’t you see that, Captain?”

“Our charter prevents us from indulging in designing and constructing units so close to possessing genuine animal life. I’m sorry, but we have to scrap all that may have been done so far.”

The commanding officer pivoted around and made her way out of the office, leaving Jacob shaken and speechless.

He had to inform both Soko Rimny and his own son about this matter.

Jacob decided to summon Soko to his office to give him the news that there were to be no animats in the redesign program for Gobi.

As soon as the bio-engineer was seated, the Production Director began with a question. “How is your project coming along?” he asked point blank.

“It is rolling along with only a few minor problems up to now,” replied Soko. “I am surprised at how much progress we have made so far.”

His superior looked a little away from him as he delivered his main message.

“It is unfortunate that the Captain has given me a firm order to close down what you became involved in. It will have to end immediately, and not have any continuation whatever.

“We are obligated to leave Gobi without any kind of animat at all. That is the irreversible decision that has been reached, based on the contractual principles by which our ship must operate on this planet. Do you understand?”

Soko gaped with his mouth wide open. He tried to say a word, but sensed himself helpless. What was there that he could do now?

“That is final, sir?” he managed to inquire with effort.

“As final as can be,” solemnly answered the Director of Production. “There is nothing that I or anyone else is able to do about this question.”

The two stared at each other in absolute silence, until Soko rose and made his way out of the office without saying another thing.

Danton learned of the closing down of the animat project from his immediate superior when the latter returned to their section of the experimental hall.

“It is nothing but a terrible tragedy,” muttered a crestfallen Soko. “We were accomplishing something which might have revolutionized life on the desert lands of Gobi. The circulation of what was achieved would have spread our name over the entire galaxy and ensured even greater successes in the future for the Enterpriser.

“Now, all of that has been lost through bureaucratic pettiness.”

Danton, shocked at what he was hearing, was unable to say or do anything. He stared at the designer with stony stillness.

Soko suddenly turned completely around and quickly exited without saying another word to the young apprentice.

Danton soon wound up his final minutes on the animat program and left for his own single room in the middle region of the Enterpriser.

He was glad that it had not been his father who told him what had been decided. That would have placed him in a very uncomfortable situation where he might have reacted and responded with unguarded emotions.

Best not to have to confront the Director of Production at all, in any manner whatever, he judged and concluded.

Danton had just unlocked the door to his pad when a familiar voice spoke to him from behind, compelling the youth man to make a turn around to directly see his visitor.

He was correct in identifying the voice of Dr. Mead Quort.

“I decided it best that I be the one to inform you of an awful event that just occurred. It is something that no one could have ever have conceived as happening on this ship of ours.

“The bionic engineer under whom you worked, Soko Rimny, has taken his own life. He took a potent poison that killed at once. It was fast and nearly painless. He had the toxic substance hidden in his own apartment and no one knew or suspected such a thing.”

Mead paused for breath, looking directly into Danton’s pale, bloodless face. It was evident that the shocked youth felt more faint with each passing moment of time.

“You are still in your early years,” continued the counselor. “There are many surprising, unforeseeable things you may witness or learn of in the years to come.

“A person has to steel himself or herself for the unexpected tragedy, the sudden horrible end of a life or a project one is working on.

“There is no blame involved. Most of life is like that, Danton. It happens and nobody has any explanation. None of us has any real, genuine rationale we can make for what we see or experience.

“We are compelled to lump such terrible events and go on from there the best we can under the circumstances, my friend.

“It is part of growing up and coming of age.”

Mead stopped speaking, seeing that the eyes of the other were full of a flood of emotion-incited tears.

He decided it would be best to leave Danton to himself as he coped with the loss of the man who had brought him into active participation in a project whose future had been suddenly dashed.


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