Up In Smoke
Wait a second--doesn't our editor have a degree from this university?
"That will be all for today."
Professor Thomas Bentley Hawthorn's digitally-enhanced voice boomed from the speakers like a battery of heavy field artillery. His towering high-resolution features hung before the audience in the jammed lecture hall. The Professor's every grease-pot pore and bristling nose hair were faithfully rendered in Olympian 3-D by the holo-projector. At the back of the huge hall, a much smaller and positively ungodlike Thomas Bentley Hawthorn shuddered. He was particularly unnerved by the nose hairs.
"Have a pleasant weekend," thundered Hawthorn's virtual self.
Row upon row of blank faces took in the final remark. As the image faded, the class began the ritual of closing their portacomps and packing up their things. Like a massive herd of fresh-faced zombies they would stumble to the next class, the library, the lunch hall, or wherever fresh-faced zombies went at the end of the day. Hawthorn beat a hasty retreat. It was foolish of him to be there in the first place. Professors never attended their own lectures anymore. One cry of recognition, perhaps a desperately-shouted question, had the potential of shaking the other 13,000 shuffling undergraduates out of their daze. The thought made Hawthorn shiver: 13,000 students with their inquiring minds suddenly awakened and a real-life professor in their midst. That was how poor Kitsworth had met his end, trampled and crushed by his own Early American History class shortly before the midterm examination.
A rushing torrent of student bodies poured into the university's great underground concourse. Hawthorn ducked through a side exit and bounded up a short flight of stairs into the melanoma-causing overlight of day. There were crowds here too, trampling over the trash-strewn waste that had once been a rather pleasantly green university commons. At least outside there was more air to breathe, though its freshness was questionable.
"Hey, watch it!" a bag lady said, giving Hawthorn a little shove. She was fat and filthy, with a round flabby face lacerated with sores from being outside too long. The route to Hawthorn's office made it necessary to cut through the throng lined up outside the Student Services Building. The tired and bedraggled line of students and tramps snaked for half a mile. The woman was one of those who subsisted around campus in a great parasitic hobo camp. If anybody ever wondered why so many students would cram the university to receive so little in the way of an education, they only had to look beyond its gates at what was simply called the Camp. The Camp was populated by those left in the dust by the economic shift of the 1990's. The well-off students had taken to paying residents of the Camp to stand in line for them.
"I am very sorry, Madam," Hawthorn said with a guilty little bow.
"How sorry?" She crossed arms that would be thick even without the battered old winter coat she was wearing. Hawthorn began to fish in his pockets. Suddenly, a huge broken-toothed smile spread across her face.
"Hey! I remember you!" she said. "History 257. Great course. I always liked the stories about back when people had stuff, y'know."
"Yes, yes, good to see you again," Hawthorn said hurriedly. He pressed what coins he had found into her chubby, dirt-crusted hand and fled.
Beyond the Student Services Building was the B. G. Dingle Animal Medical Research Building. Its great brick smokestack was belching the remains of that day's batch of animal research subjects. A single activist had deposited himself resolutely in the doorway. Two campus security guards were beating him with their crowd control bars.
"Murder is not progress!" the young man shouted just before a club came down and obliged him to choke on his own teeth. Nobody in the rushing crowds seemed to notice.
Hawthorn came to the century-old Hampstead Humanities Building. Bless its narrow windows, hardwood paneling, and gray stone heart! Unlike the gray behemoths built on university campuses in the final quarter of the previous century, old Hampstead was what a university building should be. It even smelled right: chalk dust, old wood, and stone. Stone has a smell completely unlike concrete. His office, a tiny island of peace and solitude away from the throng, was in Hampstead's basement level. It had one high window through which one could see the constant shuffling of thousands of feet.
"Lights on, computer on," Hawthorn said wearily as he peeled off his overcoat. The computer sprang to life with a list of questions distilled from a thousand student queries filed through University net. As Hawthorn sat down, he noticed that the questions had already been answered. He scrolled through the answers on the screen. Each ended with his trademark closing "Cheers! TBH."
"Funny," he muttered to himself. "I don't remember doing those."
There was a knock at the door. This made him jump because nobody ever knocked on his door. It was a feeble knock and for a moment Hawthorn even suspected that a student had found his office. He shivered. Others had been trapped for days bereft of food or facilities when the student hordes had found their hiding places. Reluctantly, Hawthorn cracked open the door. What he saw on the other side outdid even the wild possibility that a student had found his refuge.
"President Throckmorton!" The president of the university was an ancient woman, probably in her nineties. Hawthorn hadn't seen Throckmorton in years. He had never seen her outside the administration building. Tiny and frail, with frizzy gray hair and a heavy knit shawl, she was leaning on a simple wooden cane. When she spoke there was still authority and assurance in her voice.
"Professor Hawthorn," she said. "May I come in?"
"Of course," Hawthorn stumbled backward to get out of her way. "Can I get you anything? There is a coffee machine down the hall. I think it still works."
"Do you have tea?"
"I think it just has coffee. It's just down the hall. I can--"
"Sit down, Professor Hawthorn."
"Yes, Madam President."
She eased herself into a chair that nobody had sat in for at least a decade. The leather and wood groaned a little but, thankfully, the chair did not collapse under the president. Even while seated she stooped forward on her cane as if the enormous weight of responsibility for the university never left her shoulders. The president examined him for a long time with a curiously sad expression.
"I am assuming you have tenure here at the university," she said in a weary tone.
"Yes, of course, Madam President. As you know, there were no non-tenured positions left in the department after the last budget cut," he said.
"I just wanted to be sure. It's important that I am sure on that," she said shaking her head and casting about as if she was looking for something. Then her eyes came back to Hawthorn's. "It's important because of what I have to tell you."
It was all quite unreal. The president of all the university in his little office, apparently about to confide some great secret.
"Have you ever wondered what it was like to be President of all of this for the past dozen years?"
"Not really, Madam President. I suppose it has been a remarkable challenge--"
"It's been hell!" she interjected. "Funding perpetually cut back, mandated admissions increased, and most years tuition has been frozen or cut. No qualified university professors since the shortage began in '96."
"Well, you did institute some very creative measures to deal with that."
"Yes, you could say that." For some reason she seemed to almost smile.
"Yes, I remember," he said eagerly. "Cut mandatory retirement. Bloody bold move."
The president looked morose again and gazed at the passing feet outside the window. "That's how it started."
"I don't understand."
"Smithers was the first. Do you remember Smithers?"
"Oh yes, French literature. Fine old fellow."
"It was weeks before anybody noticed him missing. They found him at his desk, just down the hall from here, all stiff and dried up. Quite a mess with all the dust and cobwebs."
"Good Lord! It must have been terrible."
"It was. But not as terrible as what followed," she said in a distant voice. Her gaze shifted from the window to the floor. "We couldn't lose Smithers."
"He was good."
"No, I mean he really was irreplaceable. We had several thousand students in his class. Nobody to replace him, nobody we could afford anyway. So..."
"So we didn't replace him." She looked hard into his eyes. What Hawthorn saw there made him go cold inside. "He's still teaching, at least on vidi. All his lectures were on vidi. Nobody ever found out he's dead, nobody that matters anyway. His salary has been rolled back into the general operating budget."
"What? That's preposterous. What about the body?"
"Well, you may recall that we completed the new medical incinerator that year."
"My God!" Hawthorn cried. He started to say something and then pull up short when a thought stopped him like a baseball bat to the kneecaps.
Smithers was the first.
It suddenly occurred to him that the Faculty Club had become decidedly less populated in recent years. Hawthorn's mouth dropped open and his eyes slowly widened with realization.
"There were others?" he asked with dawning horror. "Johnson? Willoughby? Stevenson? The entire old guard?"
"Up the stack, every one. Of course, they were all in the arts, the humanities, and the softer social sciences. Technological research and development must carry on for the good of society, not to mention the directed research grants we get out of it. Fortunately, there isn't nearly the teaching load in the sciences since we have consistently failed to interest undergraduate students in hard science for the past thirty years."
"It's diabolical! You're speaking about respected faculty! They deserved a better end than that."
"But they were already dead," said the president. "They just would have gone into the ground."
"So they ended their illustrious careers as alternate energy sources for the university!"
"Please, you have to understand." She leaned further forward on her cane. "We couldn't just cut their courses. That would be a violation of the government's student accessibility policy. We couldn't just write them off. There was nobody to replace them. Many of them were in externally-funded chairs."
"No, I don't understand," said Hawthorn sternly, forgetting all pretense of honoring the old hag. A whiff of panic was also beginning to enter his voice. "How could they not be missed?" he asked, casting his eyes furtively around the room as if to check that some of them weren't hiding under the dusty furniture. "Certainly we are more than an automated, degree-granting factory. My God, woman! The interaction between professor and student, the challenging of young minds with new ideas and old wisdom, is what sparks critical thought. How can we have progress? How can we have civilization without--"
The president closed her eyes and was still for so long that Hawthorn was beginning to suspect she might have blown a cerebral artery. But then she took a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly. She shook her head and regarded him sympathetically.
"The essay component in all courses was cut in '98, the students see you only through a holo-projector, and nobody has office time for inquiries any more," she said softly. "Where is this critical interaction?"
Triumphantly, he pointed at his computer. "There! I still have an important interactive link with my students through net."
"Ah, that was a tricky problem," she admitted. "But our programmers were able to construct expert systems based on thousands of the deceased professors' previous answers. We are quite sure the students can't tell the difference. I don't even know if they would care."
Again Hawthorn started to say something but was brought up short by the recollection of the answers that had mysteriously appeared on his own computer screen.
"Cheers . . . TBH," he muttered and gave the president a quizzical look. As his eyes began to widen with realization and horror she looked away in embarrassment and fumbled with her shawl. There was a knock at his door, stronger and more insistent this time. "Come!" called the president. Two brawny Campus Security officers burst into the office. One of the guards held a great black bag, made of a rugged plastic material, with a long zipper down the front.
"In order to maintain the quality of education at this institution we have had to institute another series of resource modifications," the president was saying in formal monotone. "Unfortunately, we have had to move to a new more active phase in our budget curtailment strategy. You may proceed, gentlemen."
As the two burly men lunged forward, Hawthorn could clearly see the words "Medical Waste" emblazoned on the big black bag. Before he could even think of reacting they had grabbed him by the arms. The President rose slowly and turned to leave the room.
"Wait!" he begged, struggling. "You can't do this!"
"It's the only way, Professor Hawthorn. We simply can't afford to lose you. Unfortunately, we can't afford to support you either."
"But this is completely unnecessary," he said trying to sound reasonable though his voice was growing shrill with fear. "I could just leave. I'll never tell. I promise."
"Too risky," said the president as she left the room shaking her head. "If the resignation became public, it would raise all kinds of questions. We might be accused of violating your tenure. Besides, you're better off this way. Where in the world would you go?"
"Help!" One of the president's expressionless goons produced a large syringe filled with a pinkish liquid. "My God! Somebody help me!"
"Don't bother," the president's voice echoed in the hallway. "There isn't anybody left in the building. You're the last. We're closing it up to save on maintenance."
She turned to give him one last sad and lonely look.
"It's too bad you don't know anything about biochemistry," she said with a sigh. "We can always afford a few more scientists."
John Sloan (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes for Western News, a campus newspaper published by the University of Western Ontario. He also contributes a weekly newspaper column on microcomputers to the London Free Press. John lives with his wife and daughter in neither a cozy flat nor a rambling old house. He does not own a cat.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 John Sloan.