6. Illustrant

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Baptiste stood at the front of the classroom. He looked out on the dozen, empty chairs peeking at him from the shadows, and he savored the moment while it lasted. Soon the day would begin, the day his mother always said would come.

The previous teacher, Mrs. O’Toole, told him this was her favorite part of the Vocation. The beginning of the semester, a new start, full of so much potential waiting to be unlocked. He could see the appeal in it, that sliver of time when everything had played out flawlessly in one’s mind without being ruined by reality. Yet as a man of science he preferred truth to dreams, practice to theory. Why he had decided to become a teacher, then, was anyone’s guess. It was too late to back down now. The students were due soon, and their minds needed to be filled with knowledge.

“Sunn, lights at half power,” he called out. The soft lights at the ceiling’s edge came to life, revealing to him the entirety of the classroom. He already knew the room well from his time as a student. It was a perfectly round room some fifty meters wide, with a domed ceiling perfect for displaying lessons in tremendous detail. So many kids looking for their Vocations had stared at that ceiling, hours spent gazing up at simulations of polluted bloodstreams, mass extinctions and all those other clinical ways to explain away the screaming Hell their people had run from. Baptiste was, in a way, lucky enough to have been born on the Ark. He’d been spared from the memories that haunted so many on board. All he knew of their original home was from books and stories, all of them with tragic endings. Ironic, he thought, the man teaching Earth Science had never set foot on it.

He turned now to face the front wall. “Sunn. Please show me the ocean.”

An ocean blinked into being. It filled every inch of the walls with its bubbling and churning life, billions of gallons spreading out into dark blue. Baptiste craned his neck to see the surface bobbing overheard, just out of reach, as if he were a swimmer drowning in the grip of its cold, dark miles.

“Perfect.” He took a few steps back to allow for some space at the front of the room. “Now I need a full-sized female Great White…here.” A Great White- Carcharodon carcharias, as they were properly known- appeared at the front of the classroom. Its thick, white and gray body hovered three feet off the floor, swaying slightly as if swimming against an invisible current. He walked around to its front to inspect its scarred and pointed face. The shark smiled with its pink lips drawn back, revealing rows and rows of serrated teeth leading down to its massive gullet. Then he walked back around to its side.

He’d decided to start the year with something dangerous and exciting. To catch the kids’ attention early and hold it as long as possible. If he was going to win any of them over to a science Vocation, if there was any way at all, it was through sharing his excitement for the subject. Standing so close to the shark, he could swear it was staring at him with those lifeless, black eyes, yet he knew it was only a simulation, a hollow play of light hanging on the air like an unspoken secret.

Well, not entirely hollow. He held up his right hand with the fingers together, forming the shape of a blade. “Sunn. Dissection mode.”

Baptiste plunged his flattened hand into the side of the shark, making a deep incision. He felt no warmth, no wetness as he trailed a bright red line down the length of its body, then down and back up to the start. When he’d made a large enough section to surround all the major organs, he removed his hand and peeled back the section of light.

The anatomy of the shark was laid bare to him, all pinkish-gray with interconnected bags of flesh and vein. He refamiliarized himself with the layout of the shark’s innards so he wouldn’t find himself at a loss when it came time to teach them. He didn’t need that kind of embarrassment on his first day, knowing full well that kids won’t let a person live down a thing like that. He quickly found the spleen and heart just behind the gill slits, then moved the bumpy uterus aside to get a better look at the liver.

Just as he was reaching for the kidney, a knock came at the open door. Baptiste recognized the bearded man in his doorway as an Allcleric, the red and black clothes being a dead giveaway. He didn’t have much experience with the Allclerics, men and women who acted as Priests, Rabbis and every other religious teacher rolled up in one. They offered spiritual guidance for those who needed it on the voyage, and they held the responsibility of carrying the word of God through the cosmos.

“Sunn. Reset Great White,” Baptiste called out. In a blink the shark became whole, the organs hidden once again.

“I don’t mean to interrupt,” the Allcleric said.

Baptiste waved off the apology, stepping away from the shark. “It’s fine. Please, come in.” The Allcleric took a few, short steps inside the classroom. He stared at the Great White from a distance.

“Frightening creatures,” he remarked.

“Also beautiful. Imagine a killing machine designed so perfectly it barely changed over millions of years, only shrinking to match the available food.”

“Just the same, I’d rather not stand too close to one.”

Baptiste chuckled. “Of course not. But that’s the great thing about science- the closer you look, the more beauty you see.” He wanted to add that unlike the lessons the Allcleric taught, they also held up better to scrutiny. But that was an old argument, and one he wasn’t interested in rehashing.

“I appreciate the passion you show for your work, Professor,” the Allcleric said.

“Please, you can call me Baptiste.”

“Ahh. Baptiste.” He said the word with reverence. “My name is James Crick, I don’t believe we’ve properly met.”

“I can’t say that we have.” He shook the man’s hand. “We don’t get many Allclerics down here on Seven.”

“Yes, well, somehow we ended up on Four.” There was a hint of something in his words. Distaste, perhaps, for the Psych Doctors who shared Deck Four with the Allclerics and their church rooms. Crick wasn’t an easy man to read, but Baptiste picked up some hidden anger there.

“I guess the idea is they heal the head and you heal the heart,” Baptiste offered. The Allcleric’s face warmed at his words.

“That’s a wonderful way of looking at things. I might just use that- with your permission, of course.”

“Of course.”

Sensing an awkward moment, Crick shifted the conversation. “Mrs. O’Toole was a wonderful woman. Her and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but she did a wonderful job educating the children here. As one of her former students, I’m sure you can agree.”

“She’s one of the reasons I’m here.”

The Allcleric smiled before continuing. “I was wondering, Baptiste, now that you’ve taken over the science department, how willing you will be to expanding your syllabus.”

Baptiste raised an eyebrow. “I haven’t even started yet.”

“Yes. Of course. In the future, I mean. Down the proverbial road.”

“Oh.” Baptiste cleared his throat. “Well, I’m always going to stay up-to-date with the latest findings. It’s the nature of science to adapt to new facts, new theories. Though to be fair not much has changed in a while.”

“The sciences have run stagnant,” Crick suggested.

“I wouldn’t say they’re entirely dead. The Astronomers occasionally come up with an interesting find. The same with the Geologists. Whenever we conduct a mining expedition they seem to come across a new mineral or artifact. Those cubes are fascinating. Then there are the Cytologists and the Geneticists, there’s been some wonderful work in that field, with-”

“I was thinking more along the lines of my field,” the Allcleric politely interrupted.

Baptiste paused a moment. “But you teach religion.”

“Precisely. It would be wonderful if we could work together to illuminate the people on this ship, explain to them not just the how but the why. To offer them new, expanded viewpoints that allow for the spiritual as well as the scientific.”

Baptiste felt himself growing annoyed. Classes hadn’t even begun and he was already having to defend his syllabus. He took a deep breath, attempting to remain calm. “With all due respect, I think it’s better if we stay out of each other’s curriculums.”

“Forgive me if I’m over-stepping, but this is the very argument Mrs. O’Toole and I had for years. Don’t you think that science and religion can walk hand-in-hand? That the existence of one does not negate the other by its very existence?”

“I actually do, but-”

“Then what’s the issue with sharing that feeling with the others?”

“Because I don’t deal in feelings, Allcleric, you do.” No sooner had the words left his mouth, Baptiste regretted saying them. The look on the older man’s face said that he’d taken the outburst personally. Baptiste didn’t want to cause too many waves, especially on his first day, so he shifted to the other concern on his mind. “I’m sorry, it’s just that…I’ve heard some…things recently. Rumors about a religion being practiced on the Ark.”

“I’ve heard them myself for years. The cult that worships Blackwood, that practices a mixture of science and religion in a way that destroys both. But then there are always rumors on the Ark, no? That’s what happens in any place with so many closed doors. Which is precisely why I’m trying to open a few of those doors, to bring the conversation into the light and illuminate the minds of the people.”

“I can appreciate what you’re saying, I really can. I’m just afraid your timing might be a little off.”

Now Crick seemed to be the one losing patience. “You shouldn’t let your fears sway you from teaching what you want to teach. To do that is to fail your students.”

Baptiste took a step back. “I’m teaching exactly what I want to teach. And if you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare to do exactly that. My students should be here any moment.”

Crick smiled. “Of course. Thank you for seeing me.” Before he left he stopped at the door. “Your name. Baptiste. It’s typically paired with Jean, as in Jean-Baptiste, in honor of Saint John the Baptist. Do you know why your parents didn’t do this?”

Baptiste thought of his mother, gone all these years, and of his father, alive yet just as gone in some ways. “Maybe they weren’t trying to honor anyone,” he said. “Sometimes people just like a name.”

Crick smiled again, though less warmly. “I see. Thank you again, Baptiste.” This time all the previous reverence for the word was gone, as if it had lost its meaning. The Allcleric exited with no more pauses, leaving Baptiste by himself, alone with his Great White shark made of great, white light.

A sudden crash rang out. Baptiste jumped, startled by the loud noise. Something big had been knocked over near the front of the class. When he ran to look, he found one of the extra chairs had tipped over from its resting place against the wall. He checked for what might have knocked it over, maybe a mouse or a strong breeze from one of the air vents, but there was nothing there. No sign of anything that might have caused it. He looked back at the Great White shark floating above and behind him.

“Was that you,” he asked. The shark grinned back at him silently, its rows of crushing and rending teeth glinting with inner light. At that moment the students started filing in through the door, screens in hand as they talked and joked with one another. Baptiste stood to face them. One of the girls let out a yelp at the sight of the unexpected shark swimming at the front of the room.

“Save the screams for later,” Baptiste said with a mischievous smile. “We haven’t even started yet.”

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