The Spaceman

Starting very young as a cabin-boy, he had risen by due degrees from cabin boy to assistant positions in almost every role in the ship, and quickly rose to a level where he found happiness, contentment and work with which he was comfortable. Then....

Planetfall that afternoon had been textbook perfect as the Vigilant delivered her cargo to Vestry, the fourth planet orbiting Tabby's Star, and Max still wore his slightly scruffy Spaceman's tunic. He kept his new one – its folds as full and stiff as though it were made not of alpaca but of spun gold – for formal ceremonies. The Vigilant was a ship much given to pomp and ceremony, and now he wore only his second best when at his cleaning duties. He wore it with complacence for it was the dignified symbol of his office, and without it – when he took it off to go planetside – he had the disconcerting sensation of being rather undressed, as though caught out with only his underwear. He took pains with it; he pressed it and ironed it himself. During the sixteen years he had been a Spaceman on the Vigilant he had had a succession of such tunics dating all the way back to his first Spaceman's tunic, but he had never been able to throw them away when they were worn out and the complete series – neatly vacuum-wrapped in plastic – lay in the bottom drawers of his wardrobe.

 

     Max enjoyed the Space faring life, and though his duties were menial – his official job title was Janitor, 'Spaceman' being a general honorific routinely applied to anyone not an officer – he felt appreciated and at home in the ship. He rarely even left the ship when in port.

 

     Max busied himself quietly, polishing the transparent aluminum cover on the hold control panel, putting away the barriers and restraints used to secure the cargo, as he waited for the First Mate to finish at the Cargo Workstation so that he could tidy up in there, close, and head to the galley. Presently he saw him exit the Workstation, cross the cargo deck and turn down the catwalk next to the hold.

 

     "Why's he dallying about?" Max said to himself, "He knows I want my grub!"

 

     The Captain had been but recently appointed, a ruddy-faced energetic man not even forty, and Max still regretted the loss of his predecessor, a Captain of the old school who inspired his men with confidence, a silvery voiced soul not too good to dine with his crew on many an occasion. He liked his ship to be just so, proud and shipshape, but he never fussed; he was not like this new man who wanted to have his finger in every pie. But Max was tolerant. The Vigilant was an excellent ship and the crew was top notch. The new Captain was on his first command and couldn't be expected to fall in all at once with the ways of this fine ship.

 

     When the Mate had walked down the catwalk sufficient to address Max without raising his voice he stopped.

"Spaceman, will you come into the Forecastle for a minute. I have something to say to you."

 

     "Very good, sir."

 

     The Mate waited for him to come up and they walked up the Catwalk together.

 

     "A very smooth unloading, I thought sir. For a moment I feared the breakbulk would pose problems, but things went quite smoothly despite the uneven stacking."

 

     "They very often do," said the Mate, with a little smile. "After all I've had a good deal of practice with them."

 

     It was a source of subdued pride to him that he could manage even disorganized bales and pallets quickly and efficiently. It was a skill that not everyone in his position practiced, one often deferred to local stevedores who do not properly respect the ship. Many First Mates would not deign to touch cargo, but the Vigilant's Mate was proud of his close personal touch. The local stevedores could take it once on the dock, but they would not dirty his ship. Max respected his attitude about such things and well knew that it pleased the Mate to be complimented on his talent. He was a man not afraid to get his hands dirty and do a job properly.

 

     The Mate preceded Max into the Forecastle. Max was a trifle surprised to find the new Captain and his First Officer there. He had not seen them come in. They gave him pleasant nods.

 

     "Good afternoon, Captain. Good afternoon, sir," he said to one after the other.

 

     The Captain was a young man for a Captain, younger than his First Mate, who had been on the ship much longer, almost as long as Max had been a Spaceman. They were sitting now at a handsome table that had belonged to the old Captain, evidently not suited to the taste of the new master, and which had been expelled from the Captain's Quarters to the lesser status of furnishing the First Mate's Quarters. The Mate sat down in the vacant chair between them. Max faced them, the table between himself and the others, wondering with slight uneasiness what was the matter. He remembered still the occasion on which the Steward had got in trouble and the bother they had all had to hush things up. In a ship like the Vigilant, they couldn't afford scandal. On the Captain's face was a look of resolution but the others bore a slightly troubled unease.

 

     "He's been pushing them," said Max to himself. "He's persuaded them to do something unpleasant, and they don't like it. Mark my words."

 

     But these thoughts did not appear on Max's clean cut and distinguished features. He stood in a respectful but not obsequious attitude. His deportment was irreproachable. Max was not an educated man, but he had learned well the lessons to be learned in space service. No one would call him a smart man, or an intellectual, but there was little about a ship of which he was wholly ignorant. Sixteen years was a long time working and observing on a ship like the Vigilant.

 

     Starting very young as a cabin-boy of a merchant-vessel, he had risen by due degrees from cabin boy to assistant positions in almost every role in the ship. When the vacancy occurred in the Vigilant he applied and was accepted as a junior Spaceman, and quickly rose to a level where he found happiness, contentment and work with which he was comfortable. He sought no higher rank. He was tall, spare, grave and dignified. He looked the part, at least like an actor of the old school who specialized in such parts. He had tact, firmness and self-assurance. His character was unimpeachable.

 

     The Mate began briskly.

 

     "Spaceman, we've got something rather unpleasant to say to you. You've been here a great many years and I think the Captain and the First Officer agree with me that you've fulfilled the duties of your station to the satisfaction of all concerned. You are respected by the entire crew."

 

     The two officers nodded.

 

     "But a most extraordinary circumstance came to my knowledge the other day and I felt it my duty to impart it to the officers. I discovered to my astonishment that you are digitally illiterate, unable to use the most basic of computer systems. Not even a phone or tablet."

 

     The Spaceman's face betrayed no sign of embarrassment.

 

     "The previous Captain knew that, sir," he replied. "He said it was of no consequence. And it isn't strictly true. Perhaps I am not, as you might say, well versed in the fine details of digital life, I do understand the apps used onboard, the screens and buttons one encounters daily on manifests and orders. When I find something with which I need help, I ask someone to help, which is what we all do when we need a little help. As long as I recognize the screens and buttons necessary to my job, the Captain considered more than that unnecessary. Is it not?"

 

     "It's the most amazing thing I ever heard," cried the new Captain. "Do you mean to say that you've been a Spaceman on this ship for sixteen years and never learned to click and surf? Good Lord man, how do you manage your online presence? How do you control your digital footprint?

 

     "I went into service when I was twelve sir. The cook on my first ship tried to teach me once, but it didn't take, and then what with one thing and another I never seemed to find the time. I've never really found the need. I think these young fellows waste a lot of time on social networks and surfing the web when they might be doing something more useful. I know enough to do my job, and do not need more."

 

     "But don't you want to know the news?" asked the First Officer. "Don't you ever want to send email?"

 

     "No sir, I seem to manage very well without, in fact I seem to find rather more news than I can comfortably follow and my friends are always helpful when I do need to see something. I would rather talk to my friends than a computer."

 

     The two Officers gave the Mate a troubled glance and then looked down at the table.

 

     "Well, Max, I've talked the matter over with these gentlemen and they quite agree with me that the situation is impossible. A classy ship like the Vigilant cannot have a Spaceman, even a Janitor who is not computer adept. Such skills are simply necessary."

 

     Max's thin, sallow face reddened and he moved uneasily on his feet, but he made no reply.

 

     "Understand me, Spaceman,” the Captain said, “I have no complaint to make against you. You do your work quite satisfactorily; I have the highest opinion both of your character and of your capacity; but we haven't the right to take the risk of some accident that might happen owing to your lamentable ignorance. It's a matter of prudence as well as of principle."

 

     "But couldn't you learn, Spaceman?" asked the First Officer.

 

     "No, sir, I'm afraid I couldn't, not now. You see, I'm not as young as I was and if I couldn't seem able to wrap my head around it then, I don't think there's much chance of it now."

 

     "We don't want to be harsh with you, Spaceman," said the Captain. "But the Officers and I have quite made up our minds. We'll give you three months of intensive training and if at the end of that time you cannot pass the common core computer skills assessment, I'm afraid you'll have to go."

 

     Max didn't like the new Captain. He'd said from the beginning that they'd made a mistake when they gave him the Vigilant. He wasn't the type of man they wanted with a classy ship like this. And now he straightened himself a little. He knew his value and he wasn't going to allow himself to be put upon. He dug in his heels.

 

     "I'm very sorry sir, I'm afraid it's no good. I'm too old a dog to learn new tricks. I've Spaced a good many years without such knowledge. When anyone needs specialized knowledge, they consult a specialist, and I am no different. Without unduly praising myself, I don't mind saying I've done my duty well. Passing some arbitrary training course would not improve that and I see no point spending the effort."

 

     "In that case, Spaceman, I'm afraid you must go. We shall give you a generous severance in recognition of your excellent service, the Vigilant is not miserly, but you must go."

 

     "Yes sir, I quite understand. I tender my resignation."

 

     But when Max with his usual politeness had closed the door upon the First Mate and the two Officers he could not sustain the air of unruffled dignity with which he had borne the blow inflicted upon him. He shuddered and his lips quivered. He walked slowly back to his tiny quarters and hung up on its proper peg his second-best Spaceman's tunic. He sighed as he thought of all the grand voyages it had seen. He tidied everything up, put on his coat, and hat in hand walked down the catwalk. He locked the hatch behind him. He strolled across the spacedock, but deep in his sad thoughts he wandered aimlessly; he took a wrong turn, perhaps several wrong turns.

 

     He walked slowly along. His heart was heavy. He did not know what he should do with himself. He did not fancy the notion of starting over with a new ship; after practically being his own master for so many years, for the Captain and Officers could say what they liked, it was he that had kept the Vigilant shipshape in every way that mattered. He would find it demeaning accepting a recruit's position in a new ship.

 

     He lived simply and had saved a tidy sum, plus his severance from the Vigilant was rather comfortable too. He need not seek work immediately. He did not wish to simply live on his savings without doing something meaningful and he was uncertain how long he could survive without income anyway. He admitted he was not, and had never claimed to be a very smart man. The math was quite beyond him, and life seemed to cost more every year. He had never thought to be troubled with such questions.

 

     He sighed deeply. Max was a non-drinker, an abstainer, although with a certain latitude; that is to say he sometimes liked a glass of beer with his dinner, or even a nice glass of wine. It occurred to him now that a nice cool beer would comfort him and thus he looked about for an establishment where he could find a quiet drink. He did not at once see one and walked on a little. It was a long street with all sorts of shops in it, but there was not a single tavern or restaurant where one might relax and have a quiet beer.

 

     "That's strange," said Max.

 

     To make sure he walked right up the street again. No, there was no doubt about it. He stopped and looked reflectively up and down.

 

     "I can't be the only man who walks along this street and wants a beer," he said. "I shouldn't wonder but what a fellow might do very well with a little bar here. A quiet establishment where a man might relax."

 

     He gave a sudden start.

 

     "That's an idea," he said quietly.

 

     He considered the matter from every point of view and next day he went along the street and by good luck found a little shop to let that looked as though it would exactly suit him. Twenty-four hours later he had taken it and soon, less than a month after he left the Vigilant forever, Max was the proprietor of a small but classy establishment.

 

     At first he felt it was a dreadful come-down after being a Spaceman on the Vigilant, but he had decided that being a Spaceman didn't mean so much. Mostly his duties had been simply those of a janitor, unconnected really with Spacefaring, save that his cleaning and scrubbing had taken place on a Spaceship. He reasoned that you had to move with the times, the Spacefaring life wasn't what it was.

 

     He was barely open a month when someone told him of the unfortunate fate of the Vigilant. He mourned his friends on that fine ship for a while and then dismissed worries about things he could not control.

 

     Max did very well. He did so well that in a year or so it struck him that he might open a second location. He looked for another long street that lacked an establishment such as his and when he found it and a storefront to let, took it and stocked it. He hired a manager to attend to daily operation of his original location and poured his energy into the new one. This was an even bigger success, as word of the fine service and genial clientèle of his original place had passed around.

 

     It occurred to him that if he could run two he could run half a dozen, so he began walking about the city and whenever he found a long street that had no such establishment and a shop to let he took it. In the course of ten years he had acquired no less than ten locations within the city proper and all were thriving. He routinely went around to them, inspected each and made sure his manager was keeping his high standards, collected the transaction records and carried them to the bank, where he often asked assistance to take care of those financial matters beyond his understanding.

 

     One morning when he was in the bank attending to his duties, the cashier told him that the manager would like to talk with him. He was shown into an office and the manager shook hands with him.

 

     "Max, I wanted to have a talk to you about your money on deposit with us. Do you know exactly how much it is?"

 

     "Not to the penny, sir; but I've got a pretty rough idea."

 

     "It's a very large sum to have on deposit and I should have thought you'd do better to invest it."

 

     "I wouldn't want to take risks, sir. I trust it's safe in the bank. I am a simple man, not given to taking chances."

 

     "You needn't have the least anxiety. We'll draw you up a portfolio of solid gilt-edged securities with no risks whatsoever. They'll bring you in a much better rate of interest than merely sitting in the bank."

 

     A troubled look settled on Max's normally serene face. "I do not understand stocks and shares and the like. I'd be forced to leave it all in your hands," he said.

 

     The manager smiled. "We'll do everything. All you'll have to do next time you come in is just to place your digital signature on the computerized documents."

 

     "I could do that, I think,” said Max uncertainly. "But I am not a financial man. How should I know what I am signing?"

 

     "Not to worry, I will give you some web sites you can read that will make it all clear." said the manager.

Max gave him a disarming smile.

 

     "Well, sir, that's very kind of you, but it really won't help, I'm afraid. I don't have, or use a computer."

 

     The manager was so surprised that he jumped up from his chair.

 

     "That's the most extraordinary thing I ever heard!"

 

     "You see it's like this, sir, I never had the opportunity to learn how until it was too late and then somehow I just wouldn't. I got obstinate, set in my ways."

 

     The manager stared at him as though he were a prehistoric monster.

 

     "And do you mean to say that you've built up this magnificent business and amassed a fortune without being able to surf and click? How do you manage your business, how to you Tweet, and Facebook? How do you Google? Good God, man, what would you be now if you had been able to?"

 

     "I can tell you that sir," said Max, a little smile on his serene features. "I'd be the Janitor on a doomed Spaceship."