Petra was surprised when the email from Professor Stanford showed up in her inbox. The fact that the email requested she meet him for an interview the following morning was even more surprising. She even dared to let herself become a bit excited before quickly growing suspicious. What if she was receiving this email as a joke? What if somehow Stewart or one of the other upperclassmen who liked to give her such a hard time had hacked the system and sent her an email under Stanford’s name as a trick, to make her show up at his office and look like an idiot? But she dismissed that idea almost as soon as it crossed her mind. None of them were bright enough to pull off something like that. These were anthropologists; they didn’t have those kinds of computer skills.
Her second fear was that she was in trouble. Perhaps she had violated some unwritten code about who was and wasn’t allowed to apply for assistantships. What if she was being kicked out of school for breaking some rule she never knew existed? But that, too, was a silly thought. Why would she have received an email from Stanford himself to discuss something like that? Surely he was too busy going through real applications to spare the time to lecture her for having submitted one.
So, with the email saved to her phone to use as justification for her presence, the next morning she made her way to the social sciences building and rode the elevator to the fifth floor where the faculty offices were. She made her way down to the corner office at the end of the hallway and tentatively knocked on the door.
“Enter,” came the voice from within.
Petra took one last, deep breath in an attempt to settle her nerves, and then turned the doorknob and pushed. She had never met Professor Stanford before, let alone been in his office, so she didn’t quite know what to expect when she walked in. What she found was a scene that looked so cliché she felt she had walked onto a film set.
The room was filled with stacks of books and disks and artifacts, filling the shelves on the walls and spilling onto the floor. Stanford was sitting at the large desk in the middle of the room, amongst the mass of mess which he seemed so comfortable to be a part of. He was leaning back in his chair with his feet propped on his desk, barely finding room between the stacks of disks which Petra could only assume were the applications he had received for his assistantship position. There was something about the air of him that made Petra think he had hurriedly gotten himself into this striking pose just for her benefit when he heard the knock on his door.
“Hello, Professor,” Petra said as she closed the door behind her. “My name is Petra Hannigen. I received an email asking me to come meet you this morning.” She pulled out her phone to bring up the email, but Stanford simply waved his hand in her direction, signaling that he didn’t need to see it.
“I’m glad you were able to come by, Ms. Hannigen,” Stanford said. There was a stuffiness to his voice, an arrogance, an air of importance. “Please, have a seat.” He gestured to nowhere in particular.
Petra glanced around the office without locating a single chair in the room other than the one Stanford was occupying. “That’s okay,” she said. “I’d prefer to stand.”
Stanford lowered his eyebrows as he studied her. After a few uncomfortable seconds of scrutiny, he took his feet down from his desk and sat upright in his chair, folding his hands in front of him on his desk. “I was surprised to come across your application among all the others,” Stanford said, getting straight to business. “It’s not often a first-year student dares to do something so bold.”
“I’ve never really been good about performing within expectations,” Petra said in response. She hadn’t meant for it to come across in the over confident and conceded manner it had, but from what she had heard of Stanford, she figured he would at least appreciate her bluntness.
And apparently her response struck a chord. He raised his eyebrows in amusement. Perhaps this girl would be able to give him a worthwhile answer after all. “So why did you submit an application?” He couldn’t help but ask it directly.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Petra asked in response. “Even a first year student knows it’s a great opportunity, one that’s never been offered before. Anthropology is about fieldwork. If I want to be an anthropologist, I have to get myself out in the field. And the field doesn’t get much more out there than space. If society is about outward expansion, then we as anthropologists need to start moving our work outward. After all, that’s why we’re all here, isn’t it?”
Stanford had to admit he was impressed, but he didn’t have to admit it out loud. Better to let her wonder. “I have nearly five hundred students across multiple departments applying for this position,” he said. “Many of them are upperclassmen and have previous fieldwork experience in a variety of fields. Some even have publications under their belts. Why should I give it to you, an inexperienced, first-year student?”
“Because,” Petra said, eyeing the stacks of applications, “you don’t want to go through all five hundred of those, especially if you can find someone worthwhile in the first few.”
Stanford wrinkled his nose at the piles covering his desk. “You’re right. I don’t,” he said. This student seemed to be a perceptive one, much brighter and more aware than most he had dealt with in the past.
“I’m more than qualified for this position,” Petra continued. “I might be new here, but I know I have the ability to do this job. You’ve looked at my application even if you haven’t viewed all the others or else you wouldn’t have asked me to come in, so you know I’m telling the truth.”
It was true Petra’s application had been impressive, especially for someone her age, but Stanford wasn’t quite ready to give in to her just yet. “I have been through your application,” he informed her, gesturing to the files spread across his desktop, as if to stress that he had already read through several others as well, making hers just one of the stack. “I have to say, I’m impressed with what you’ve been able to accomplish at such a young age. You speak four languages, have high marks on your standardized tests, and have completed several hands on research-based projects. And on top of all that, you seem to be the youngest student ever accepted to this university. I double checked it with the school’s admissions records. That makes you a pioneer.”
“I do what I can,” Petra said, not sure what an appropriate response to such a statement would be.
“So tell me, Ms. Hannigen, why did you choose to study anthropology?”
So now the real interview was beginning. This was it, her chance to prove that she was capable of doing this. It was the real deal. “Culture has always been something of interest to me,” she said. “My mother was from South America and my father from North America. I grew up with cultural conflicts all my life.”
“This study will be looking at difference much greater than those between the North and South,” Stanford said. “Human culture has consistencies all over the globe. We’re talking about a new race entirely here.”
“Right, I understand,” Petra said, slightly irritated that he seemed to be undermining her understanding of one species versus another. “Interacting with a new species will be an even greater challenge than trying to communicate with someone from another continent, even if that is difficult for some of us here to imagine.”
Stanford looked a bit startled. “Was that a stab?” he asked. It wasn’t often someone was willing to respond to him with such a snarky comment.
“Sorry,” Petra said, honestly a bit regretful at having let that slip out. “I didn’t quite mean for that to come out the way it did.”
Stanford nodded his acknowledgment, or approval, Petra couldn’t be sure which. “Go on,” he said.
“I understand the importance of learning what exists in other star systems before we embark on a true movement of outward expansion. I know that cultural misunderstandings can lead to all kinds of bad situations. And I want to be able to collect the knowledge people need to make this next step, this transition that the human race is insisting on making, as smooth as possible. The more we know before we begin, the easier this will be on everybody involved.”
These were smart and heavy words coming from someone so young. Stanford felt there was more behind this speech than simply trying to impress him in hope of getting an assistantship; these words were spoken from experience. But even he knew it would be inappropriate to pry into that matter on their very first meeting. Still, given her tone, he couldn’t help but ask, “Do you not approve of outward expansion?”
“I just think we need to be careful not to jump into something before learning everything we can about it.”
It was a terse response. Something personal, then. And she had made it clear she didn’t want to talk about it. Stanford decided to change the subject.
“And what do you know about me?” Stanford asked instead. “What do you know about what I do?”
“You study alien cultures,” Petra answered. Wasn’t that obvious? “And apparently collect souvenirs along the way,” she added, gesturing to the overrun bookcase.
It took Stanford a moment to recover from that. Souvenirs? These were artifacts from ancient civilizations all over this side of the Milky Way. How dare she belittle his collection like that. This interview was beginning to make him wonder if perhaps he’d been a bit harsh in the past when discussing other professors’ work with them. He knew he had dished out his fair share of off-handed criticisms regarding the relevance of their research, but he wasn’t used to being on this end of such quips. He didn’t much care for it.
“Yes, obviously I study alien cultures,” he said, sounding slightly annoyed, which he was. “It says that on the door you came in through. But have you read any of my work?”
“Yes, I have,” Petra said. She had done so while preparing her application. She had wanted to see if there was anything in there that might help her out, give her a one up on getting a feel for Stanford’s personality to create a write-up that he would appreciate. Apparently it had worked. “I read the work you did on the Centauriites. It was your first big piece, I believe. It was well done; though, based on what I’ve read by the Centauriites themselves, you did seem to miss a few of the finer points regarding their coming of age ceremonies. Still, that kind of misinterpretation is to be expected in a first-time study such as that.”
Missed the finer points! Stanford thought. That study was groundbreaking! “Oh?” was all he could manage to get out.
“Don’t get me wrong, the study was accepted, as it should have been, because it was something so new, so innovative. As we both know, nobody had ever done anything like that before. Nobody had anything to compare it to. But let’s be honest, those first studies always get accepted no matter how well written they are.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Stanford cried, holding his hand out to stop her from saying another word. “My study didn’t get published just because it was new. I put years into that study, learning everything I could from the Centauriites regarding their culture. It’s not my fault if they held some things back.” Stanford wasn’t sure why he suddenly felt so defensive. He had nothing to prove to this young, inexperienced student.
“Sorry,” Petra said a bit perturbed by Stanford’s childish outbreak. “I didn’t realize this was such a touchy subject for you. Obviously, our constant contact with the Centauriites has added to our knowledge of their culture. I thought everybody was aware of that.”
Stanford snorted his irritation at the very idea. “What about your off-world experience?” he asked, trying to move the conversation along to something she couldn’t turn into an insult.
“The usual I suppose,” Petra said with a shrug. “Obviously I’ve not been out of orbit. The furthest I’ve been was for a stay at the Moon Colony.”
Ha! Now it was his turn. He’d show her that he could be snide and clever as well. “The Moon Colony, eh?” he said, with a smugness that sounded just a bit too rehearsed. But then he forgot what he was going to say next. Oh, he knew this one — something about the Moon Colony being for sissies who weren’t willing to take risks…
“Yes, the Moon Colony,” Petra repeated.
“Oh,” Stanford said, deflating a little with the loss of his quip. “Well that’s good I suppose. How long were you there?”
“Long enough to know what it’s like to have to adjust,” Petra said. And again Stanford got the feeling there was something more to her response that she wasn’t quite willing to share on this first meeting.
“That will help I suppose. If you get the position, I mean.” Stanford quickly added that last statement before the girl started to get her hopes up. He didn’t want her to think she’d gotten it just yet. She was getting close though. She was the only student he had ever met in all his years at the university who had not only been able to handle his taunting, but had been able to beat him at his own game. It made him think that having to spend so much time with her throughout the research process might not be such a dull and irritating thing after all.
“So what else do you need to know?” Petra asked. Stanford couldn’t tell if her nonchalant tone was due to over confidence or loss of spirit at the way the interview had gone. In actuality, it was because Petra had caught Stanford’s slip. She had a pretty good feeling she had made the impression she had been hoping for.
“Your schedule this semester,” Stanford said. “What’s it look like?”
“Introductory courses,” Petra said. “Mostly repeats of my final year of prep school. I’d have no trouble doing the work in my own time and taking the tests through the computer.”
This time Stanford could undoubtedly hear the confidence in her statement. And why deny it? She had a right to feel that way. In the first fifteen minutes of meeting her, she’d been able to accomplish something that most others hadn’t been able to achieve in years: she kept him interested and on his toes. He swiped her application files back onto the disk and removed it from the sensor on his desktop. He would have to take it down to Leitner’s office to go on record. The rest of the application disks could go straight in the trash.
“I suppose then, Ms. Hannigen, you better meet back with me at seven-thirty A.M. next Monday morning.”
“Why?” Petra asked, a hint of real confusion on her face. “What’s at seven-thirty next Monday?”
“That is when our craft will be ready to take us to the planet Nochva: home of the Voyn.”