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Swiss Professor Robinson III

The room, my office, was moving!

I could feel it sliding out of its place in the building. The rails hadn’t been cleaned in all the years I had been in this office. I could smell the friction heated dust. At this rate I would tip out of the side of the building and splash right into the lake by the engineering building.

I hated the idea of water that I couldn’t see in. Eutrophicated and murky water filled our little pond and I’m told water snakes and snapping turtles as well. Duckweed to get tangled in if you dived into it. Some student (possibly under an influence?) almost drowned about a decade ago by doing that. There was a fountain in the middle of the lake too (not a big thing, just something to keep the water from breeding moskitoes). I had a deep fear of being sucked into the intake of that. I also wasn’t sure if there was an intake to something else down there. In short, I would rather have took my chances with the blasting steam out in the hall than the cold water of the Sunless Sea below.

The motion of the room was slow enough that I wasn’t panicked yet, although I wasn’t sure how to escape this. I couldn’t jump from the third story down, that I knew. Ever since a desperate mech. eng. student killed himself that way, we always made the freshmen calculate the amount of force that would produce on them if they did it, the compressive strength of tissue, cost of pallative care if they survived, etc. etc.

I knew the steam jet in the hall would burn me to death almost instantaneously. At that temperature it would be well over scalding temperatures and I couldn’t get out of range of it before I fainted from the heat.

The office itself was self-contained, so I couldn’t pop a cieling tile and climb out that way. If I could throw a line across the water to the trees on the other side I might have enough time to—

The office shuddered and jerked out by a fraction of a step. A few papers slid off my plastic desk. I remembered looking in the plenum space once and seeing… two handles on either side: brakes!

At once the idea occurred to me. If I released the brakes at the same time, the steam would force the office off the rails and across the lake. I would have to take my chances falling down, but the woods were thick and I should be able to shelter in place somewhere. Then, even if the office landed on the door, I could make shift to escape and then get whatever help I needed.

Looking around, I decided to use the copious amounts of student papers as cushioning under my desk, so I threw them on the floor and pulled them off shelves to make two mounds on either side where the hard mental drawers formed the sides of the little crawlspace I would use.

Cieling tiles! I could use them too. I climbed up a bookcase and started popping them and pitching them down to the floor. I got as many as I could and was quite dusty quite quickly. The steam was making the inner wall burning hot to touch. I was partially afraid it would set fire to the dust or some papers that I knew must have fallen down behind the bookcase.

Balancing on the frame that supported the tiles, I crawled over to the corner that had one of the brake handles. It was a plastic handle like you would see on a playground. You know the ones where you have to haul yourself hand over hand? It was that kind of handle. I took it and pulled down. No movement.

Was it stuck that badly? I pulled away from the wall to see if that would budge it. Nothing. I tried to calm myself and think, but the heat was seriously affecting me. I pulled desperately in every direction, but it felt like it was welded to the wall. The wall had yellow and black on it, like a warning label. A… warning label?

I had been staring at the wall with my eyes about to come out of my head from the straining, but hadn’t actually parsed it. There was a faded warning sticker: “INSERT PINS AFTER INSTALLATION”

Pins? Wasn’t I trying to remove them?

I wish I could explain how my mind went from being confused to being sure that the pins were safety catches on the brakes. I just happened that I went from not knowing to being sure. I felt along the space between the brake rod and (smoking) wall and found a little dowel like affair. On the other side of the rod was a little loop. I pulled on it and it drew out. The plastic that formed it was starting to deteriorate from the heat. Did the maintenance crew not hear the massive noise it was making?

I pulled the handle down and it instantly released. The entire office shook a little. There was just the one on the other side. I should tie a string to it so I could take cover and release it from there.

Thinking about this in the dim past, I have to wonder how I managed to do all this as fast as I did. I’ve estimated the amount of time it would take that much steam to completely cook the office and its contents and concluded fear must have given me more adrenaline in those narrow minutes that I had gotten during the term of my life to date. Somehow I swarmed up the bookcase, threw down all the tiles, fought with the one brake, set up the other one, climbed down, and walled myself into my desk-fort before I would have been heat-struck.

I pulled pulled the string as hard as I could and felt the brake release.

POP is the only onomatopoeia I can think of that describes the sound I felt as the office let loose. The gushing steam in the background died away within seconds. The unaerodynamic outside of the modular office set up a horrible spin. The room fell end over end at what felt like 15 RPM. In other words, a complete spin every 4 seconds. Fortunately I hadn’t eaten my lunch or I would have lost it. I have only the vaguest memory of being curled in a ball with my eyes shut and moaning.

That memory doesn’t feel like it happened between ejection and landing though. My memory arranged itself so that instantly after I loosed the brake, I woke up.

Note to readers from the author: I will continue this later, but the last sentence does not mean this was all a dream. The story will directly continue from this point.

Swiss Professor Robinson, II

The continuing story of the accidentally exiled professor:

I knew they were working. I knew what they were working at. They thought they knew what they were working at.

While I was in my office, upstairs in the so-called mechanical pent house, the doughty maintenance crew was at work on the building steam lines. Summer vacation is of course when all the major but postponable work on a college gets done by the physical plant. We – meaning humans – could swelter more safely than we could freeze. Even in the heat of the summer, the buildings wouldn’t get as dangerous as they would in the depths of winter.

The steam worked last winter, but I knew the distribution looked like spaghetti upstairs. You know how cables and cords get scrambled in a networking closet, or even behind a PC on a desk? Their hoses did the same thing over time, somehow, and now the physical plant decided to fix them for good. I had seen the planned new manifold of pipes and valves on paper and agreed that it would be much safer.

Many people don’t know that high pressure steam is one of the best ways of moving energy around. In some places, like factory complexes or prisons, the buildings would have no heaters themselves, but used steam from a centralized source. The country called Iceland is notoriously heated that way, almost completely, from their volcanical steam. Our campus buildings and sidewalks were all heated via steam in pipes. The steam would be split into smaller lines, and smaller ones, and these would heat fins that had air blown over them. In the summer, chilled brine or glycol would be used to cool the air.

At least, most places would do that. We didn’t have a central chiller, the engineering building had an underground storage tank called the Anbar that water was allowed to settle in and cool off in before being pumped up. Nice bit of engineering. The hole in the ground was an old storage room that we then flooded. That was decades ago, when I first was on the staff.

Since my office was on the third floor, underneath the “pent house”, I could hear some sounds. The heavy or the loud filtered through the floor and ceiling.



And then, a scramble. I don’t know how I could tell through the sound-deadening layers of concrete and steel, but something had happened upstairs.


The atmospheric pressure dropped suddenly. They – I’m guessing now – had accidentally let off a live steam line that somehow aspirated air out of the building. That is my only explanation for the sound and the pressure change. Someone probably got fired because of that. Somehow the steam into the building wasn’t turned off and locked out, which is a complete contravention of every safety rule.

My door slowly swung shut and latched quietly, like a student had just left my office. Click-chunk I could hear the shouting upstairs much more clearly now.

“It’s stuck! I can’t move it!”

“Then vent it! Open all the other lines!”


Then came a series of hissing sounds from different parts of the building. Evidently they were trying to take as much pressure out of the line as possible by feeding steam to everything that was hooked up to take it. You and I are probably wondering why they didn’t have the central plant cut the steam line off now, or for that matter, before they started working on this. I don’t know. I’m not in a place where I can ask them.


Out in the hall, one of the radiant heaters overhead failed and a huge blast of steam started shooting down at the floor. Instantly student posters on the walls started soaking up the moisture. The ink ran so fast I watched in fascination. I should have been calling Security over this, but really, I was too caught up in it. I suppose I can’t blame the maintenance crew for letting their excitement take over their minds.

What I can, and do, blame them for is getting the compressed air and steam lines mixed up earlier on. The building has compressed air service for experiments and laboratories, and also to operate the modular offices. Each office is a little self contained module that is inserted into the building frame. Power and air connectors mate and the office is then ready for use. If an office needs to be moved or replaced, it can be pushed out by the compressed air system. The top contains rails that a special crane hooks into and then moves the office to its new location, or, if it is completely trash, sets it down on the ground for later removal.

After the heater pipe had burst and the steam jet had started to melt the linoleum I heard more scrambling upstairs.

“Here, try this one!”

“Give me a hand…”

“Lift the catch first!”

Then, three voices at once: “There!”

In about 3 seconds a fan of steam shot up from the floor right outside my office. A huge roaring made me temporarily deaf. The hall windows in my office fogged up at once so I couldn’t see a thing. Instead I felt a strange linear motion. I was moving…? But everything in sight was still!

I felt, in my stomach, a fear. I think, for the second time in my life, I thought I was going to die within seconds.

Swiss Professor Robinson chapter I!

At least one person liked my previous description of my classroom daydreaming “Swiss Professor Robinson” (Dr Slater of the Nerd Nebula) so I will try and write something about it.

I am a professor of engineering. Nevermind what kind of engineering, you’ll find out if I finish this account and it ever finds a publisher.

Anyway, I am a professor with a— what WAS an — office in Slater Hall. That’s the engineering building at my college. Room 331. I was assigned that on joining the department and promised I would be able to keep it as long as I stayed a professor there. Now though… I think I’ll be able to keep it forever.

A truce to these annoying flash-forwards! I am an engineering professor. I teach and research at college. My office was/is Room 331. Office hours are posted on the door and in the syllabus. Class cancellation, withdrawal and academic honesty policies are per the department/college guidelines. Anyway…

In late May I was in my office after a hectic semester (have I ever had a semester that wasn’t hectic? I mean, my office was always trashed after 14 weeks.). I had submitted the final grades to the Registrar and been notified they were accepted. My responsibilities for the past semester were officially over. I had escaped teaching a summer course in introductory engineering when the class didn’t attract enough students.

This was true of an alarming number of courses being offered over the summer. The college was in the middle of a wide rural area with the nearest really decent sized city several hours away in any direction. Engineering is no exception to the academic rule that the rich get richer. As fewer people attend, prospective students see fewer fellow students to hang out with, and so don’t apply here. This causes fewer classes to be offered, less mony brought in and so on down the dreign. To attract even professors to this hole in the ground is harder than it once was. No one wants to live a day away from culture.

About half the campus would be deserted this summer as an economical measure. Professors would be allowed in, but no classes would be held in those buildings. In the mathematics department, the professors obtained permission to use some old loading dock in one of the administration buildings as a cube farm. They moved their essential office matter over there and had the communication lines rerouted. Their normal building then completely shut down over the break. There was a grim feeling that the building might never come back.

Slater Hall was on the far north of the campus, about a 5 minute walk from the nearest building that would have any life in it during the summer. We could expect the custodial staff around on Fridays to polish up before the weekend, when truely nobody came in and the campus was totally deserted.

It was infact a Saturday when I was in my office. I had forced an entrance by pulling really hard on a door with a weak latch and effected an entrance. Yes, professors DO hear what students say during breaks. Ofcourse my office I had the key to. I found exactly what I wanted: my very marked up handbook of design coefficients and factors. I had been working out a problem at home and realized I would need some factors of safety in order to arrive at a reasonable answer. I knew I had calculated them before and noted them down in the handbook. I could rederive them by taking up maybe 15 pages of work at most or sneak into my office and try and find them.

I will admit to, while there, being distracted by other textbook, reference book and materials that I had long ignored in the hurry hurry super scurry of the professorial life. The ones that were from when I was in college were especially memorable. That particular problem, 4.37, took hours to figure out! I remember Timmo the class clown using it as his Halloween costume… That and Paul came in dressed, well, distinctively…

You, I think, get the idea. I was completely distracted in an absolutely empty building. Not safe. Not safe at all.

Swiss Professor Robinson (backstory)

During an idle moment in a college lecture I was attending, a few thoughts came together:

  • The professors’ offices in the building were all modular.
  • The professors’ offices all had one outside wall.
  • The professors’ offices were all parallelepipeds.
  • One of the professors was a rather old hippy type dude.1
  • I had read several versions (including a very interesting one written for, if I remember right, autistic children) of the Swiss Family Robinson.
  • The area around the college was rural-ish. There were forests and swamps within walking distance if you wanted them. Several state forests were within driving distance.

The upshot of this was I had a plot of story generate itself in my mind:

Professor Robinson was in his office when the building’s modular control system was accidentally activated. Previous work had mistakenly attached a high pressure steam line to the (isolated) compressed air line. His office is violently ejected from the side of the building and sent flying through the air for – say – a few kilometers? Anyway, a long distance.

After traveling this distance, the office crashes to earth, some trees and other undergrowth soften the landing so he survives, though the office is predictably a mess. Getting out of his office, he finds himself totally lost and needs to survive with his messed-up office’s contents, his wits\knowledge and the forest surrounding.

Sounded interesting to me, but then again, the lecture was quite boring. I don’t even remember what it was, or the subject matter. I remember it being something that was very simple for me, rather than impossibly complex. At least I know I passed the class.

  1. I only had this professor for one assignment one semester and have nothing against them.