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Surely You're Joking, Dr. Wolenczak

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Excerpt from Touching Intelligence, Dr. Lucas Wolenczak. New York: Penguin, 2074. Reprinted with permission

I was a brat when I was a teenager. All teenagers think they know everything, but I actually did know everything--at least everything about algorithmic linguistics and networked learning nodes. At the time, being sent to seaQuest felt like a punishment, which I laugh at now. Who punishes their kid by putting them on a cutting edge research vessel, one where a berth was a highly prized cap to a successful UEO naval career? Who punishes their kid by putting them in the only place on the planet where they could continue their research? With access to their very own dolphin, even?

Teenagers are idiots, though, even ones with two pHD's.

I know seaQuest is why most of you picked up this book. At least half of you flipped past the first three chapters to get straight to this one. If my father were still alive, he'd be horrified to think that an account of his groundbreaking thermo-electric project as described through his son's eyes was something that would be thumbed past. But I also know at least some of you were assigned this reading for book reports, and somehow energy policy never makes a thrilling class presentation.

Everybody knows the highlight reel of seaQuest's exploits by now: the Library of Alexandria, the rescue of the Martian capsule, the Liberte. Other people have written about all that, and probably better than I could. (I personally greatly enjoyed President Hitchcock's Neptune Ascendant, and not just because it was so flattering to me. Either she was unaware of my debilitating crush on her when I was sixteen or she chose not to mention it--either way, I'm eternally grateful.)

So I'm instead going to write about the sorts of things that never make it into history books. I can feel my editor rolling her eyes right now. Did you know she tried to talk me into a ghostwriter? I told her that after three decades of undergrads, I'm pretty sure I know how to hold an audience. Well, I suppose you'll be the judge of whether I should have listened to her on that front.

My first memories of the seaQuest were of being lonely, which is hilarious on a ship with 1,500 crew. But it was true. I was 16 and the youngest person on the boat by a decade. I had the Internex, sure, and I chatted on it when I could, but you wouldn't believe how intermittent the signal can be in a deep-sea submersible. They may run the fiber optic cable down there, but unless I hijacked a WSKR to go splice into the line, that didn't do me any good. We could get a sat signal, but only near the surface. My point is, the only people I had to talk to were adults, and most adults don't really want to talk to a sixteen-year-old know-it-all, unless it's to give an order.

I did have my friends, though, and one of those was Lt. Ben Krieg, the ship's supply officer. This is where you'd expect me to say that he was like a father to me, but he absolutely wasn't. He was like the older brother that snuck you Playboys when the parents weren't looking. And I mean that literally. Space is tight on a submarine, but he kept a small horde of actual Playboys, as retro as that was, and was happy to pass them around whenever anyone asked. He also had a collection of video disks that I wasn't supposed to know about, but I was sixteen and a hacker. I knew about everything.

I think he liked my company because he'd never quite grown past thinking like a 16-year-old himself. He tried to point me past some of his mistakes, but you haven't lived until you've been given the birds and the bees talk from a horny, divorced supply officer.

Like I said, though, I had the Internex. And you can download a lot of stuff with only occasional access, especially if you knew how to partition the ship's main hard drive and hide stuff underneath the hydraulic maintenance program. No one looks through there, and if they needed to, Captain Bridger usually asked me to help, which gave me plenty of time to shift it to behind the hydroponics irrigation system.

I've been on Ben for years to write his memoirs. He always says that if he wrote them down, then he wouldn't be able to get free drinks from people who want to hear them. I swear, the man hasn't paid for a drink in fifty years. I think the real reason is that if he put them in a book someone would have to fact check them, and nothing Ben's ever said would stand up to fact checking.

If you ever run into him, ask him about the sea monster. I heard it a day after it first happened, and it was an impressive story then. In the sixty years since, it's only gotten better. Just make sure to ask him what happened to all the Krieg light after. And tell him I sent you.

On the other end of the fun spectrum was Commodore Jonathan Ford, though he was Commander then. He was one of the youngest first officers in the UEO, and you don't get to that position that young without being a tightwad, one way or another.

Ben and Ford had--well, I don't know if I'd call it a prank war if only one side was engaging in pranks. It was more like, Ben would prank Ford, Ford would try to get him thrown off the boat. At this age, this whole endeavor seems like career suicide, but at the time it was hilarious. And who knows, maybe it was meant to be career suicide. Ben certainly seems much happier as a restauranteur than he ever did as a submariner.

There was one time Ben's prank almost caused an ecological disaster, though. Well, I shouldn't say Ben's--the guilty party or parties were never identified or brought to justice. (Though we all knew it was Ben.)

First, some background. The mess staff on the seaQuest always made sure to label the entrees: kosher, vegetarian, etc. They even had little signs that said, "This item contains seafood," that they would put next to the haddock or the fried shrimp. Even submariners sometimes have shellfish allergies, though not a few of these signs disappeared and showed up in new crew members' bunks.

One morning, we went into the mess to find that the water coolers had fish swimming in them, with helpful signs saying, "This item contains seafood," underneath.

This would have been all fine, if Ben--excuse me, the "perpetrator"--hadn't gone one step further. Keep in mind that Ben's superpowers were a sophomoric sense of humor and the ability to get his hands on any item at any time, no matter how absurd.

The fish, you see, were Slippery Dicks. That is their actual name--you can look it up. Goldfish would have worked fine for the prank, but I guess Ben just couldn't resist the chance to rib Ford for drinking Slippery Dick.

The problem is that the Slippery Dick was endangered. They apparently used to be common, but ever since the bleaching of the coral reefs, the little buggers fall squarely onto the UEO's endangered species list. This means that UEO personnel are prohibited from interfering with them in any way, which includes handling them to remove them from water coolers. Anyone who touched the Slippery Dicks risked their commission.

(It also includes handling them to put them into water coolers, but as the person who executed the prank was never identified, no commissions were harmed. Funny that Ford didn't seem to pursue his investigation too vigorously, though.)

Per UEO regulations, only certified ichthyologists were allowed to relocate endangered fish (even out of water coolers). seaQuest had a complement of ichthyologists, of course, but wouldn't you know, no one had been checking this certification when making the hiring decisions. I would blame Kristin for this one, but to be fair, handling Slippery Dick was never in seaQuest's charter.

So no one on the seaQuest could remove the Slippery Dick from the mess hall. I should also add that it is against UEO regulations to allow members of an endangered species to die when action could prevent it. Who came up with this catch-22 in the regs, I do not know, but there it was and so Commander Ford was sure to follow it, every flawed word, comma, and semi colon.

The solution, then, was to fly in a certified ichthyologist to meet us on our tour in the Pacific. At the time, the nearest heliport was Nauru, and you can imagine that they don't keep a whole heap of ichthyologists there. The upshot was it would take 72 hours at least before we could solve our Slippery Dick problem.

In the meantime, the little buggers were in entirely inadequate aquarium facilities. Water coolers not being known for their filtration and aeration systems.

It was at this point that I was drafted to help an impromptu engineering project of jury rigging a bubbler that could be inserted into the water cooler without unduly disturbing the fish. We ended up cutting the top of the coolers open with a welder, and using a modified rebreather. That was all well and good, but if you were actually going to keep Slippery Dick in a tank, you'd need something much larger than a water cooler. This meant that the fish…polluted it rather quickly.

I had an idea of rigging a pumping mechanism that would circulate the water continuously through an external filter, but Ford decided that that would be too intrusive for the fish. No, instead he decided that the pump needed to be operated by hand. Every fifteen minutes. Until the fish were removed. And the person who needed to perform this task was Commander Krieg. Everyone else was needed at their regular posts of course. And as Ben's official job was morale, it fell under his purview to make sure there were no fishy mortalities that might sadden the crew. (Hitchcock, at least, thought they were cute, though I doubt anyone else did.)

I did try to relieve Ben around the 48 hour mark, but Ford just happened to swing by at the time and chase me off. By the time the fish were relocated, Ben could barely lift his arms. Ford gave him shore leave after, and I think this was the only shore leave Ben ever got where he didn't go to shore. He dragged a stack of MREs into his quarters and we didn't see him again until two days later.

For the rest of the tour, if you wanted to get a rise out of Ben, all you had to do was say Slippery Dick. You usually wouldn't get past "Slippery" before Ben's hand was over your mouth and he was whispering, intensely, "We will never speak of this again."