06 December 2018

Hidden Damage

     Of course, it took one of the Power Room electricians to find it.

     And of course, it was the ternary degausser.  The degaussers don’t run very often but they’re absolutely essential.  They’re after the output of the [CLASSIFIED], five hundred feet right after the big ion trap, and cycle on whenever the induced magnetism of the support structure exceeds a preset level. There’s a neat little magnostrictive oscillator to detect it, and—  But that’s too much geekery already.  The blamed thing kept tripping the breaker and the riggers and I hadn’t been able to figure out why.  I was sure the problem had to be in the wiring or hardware out on the boom; there’s a lot of stress on everything out there and we’d replaced the transformers for it just last year. The most recent breaker trip was nasty enough that it glitched the stardrive -- and it was pure luck it didn't happen at a critical time.

     Dr. Schmid, the Chief's boss, decided we needed an electrician and I figured he was right.  The degausser secondaries run a couple of hundred Amps through the coils.  Power Room’s got test gear that’ll read that high; we don’t.  The primary current’s only 19 or 20 Amps per leg, at 480 Volts, and even that’s enough energy to make plasma arcs on a bad day.

     Ron, the electrician, was whistling a tune I didn’t recognize when he showed up at the Drive Room in one of the little electric service vehicles, loaded down with tools and supplies.  There were a couple of riggers waiting with me, already in their pressure suits except for gloves and helmets.  Ron’s first words after introductions were, “So what’s going on with this thing?”

     “It keeps blowing the breaker,” I told him.  “We haven’t been able to find any wiring problems and every check I’ve had the riggers make out at the transformer looks okay.  I’m mystified.”

     “Well, let’s set up to see what happens and give it a try.”

     The riggers finished suiting up, Ron handed out clamp-on ammeters and we got set up: riggers in vacuum out on the boom, checking at the first junction box and the transformer, me inside watching the degausser controller and contactor in their explosion-proof box, with the door open, and the electrician at the breaker panel around the corner and a few steps down the passageway.  I had the controller off, so the contact wasn’t going to pull in and we’d just be checking the wiring from the breaker to it for this first step.  Just turn it on and right back off, unless it tripped first.

     He shouted “Here we go,” reset the breaker and something went “POP!” like a firecracker.

     I yelled, “Dammit!” right afterwards. 
     My radio clicked and on of the riggers asked, “What was that thump?  I felt it through the conduit!”

     Ron had come over to where I was by then, and asked, “What was it?”

     “I don’t know.   Not the contactor closing; it’s pretty quiet.”

     “You want to try again?”

     I said sure, told the riggers to listen close, and sure enough, the same thing happened.  “Pop!”

     So, we’re clever, we checked the wiring from the breaker to the contactor, unhooked it from the breaker and pulled it out of the conduit, laid it out on the floor.  Nothing.  Twenty years old and the wires looked brand new.

     Ron looked at me.  “You sure that contactor’s off?”

     “Should be.”

     He said, "Mm," and we traded a look.  “Should be” often isn’t and we both knew it.

     On close examination, the contactor -- a big relay -- seemed fine.  The contacts are fully enclosed for safety, so you can’t see them, but the moving part, the armature, has a little tab that sticks out and that was clearly in the de-energized position and moved freely.

     Ron whistled a couple of bars of something vaguely classical while getting an ohmmeter out of his toolbar.  “I wonder….,” he said, more to himself than to me.

     Three measurements later, we weren’t wondering.  Three sets of contacts in the thing and one was open just like it should be, one was closed…and one read a few hundred Ohms instead of zero or infinity.
      I went to look for a spare contactor on the parts inventory.  He started taking the old one apart.

* * *
     Ten minutes later, having come up dry on a replacement, I walked back to see how things were going and Ron handed me a set of contacts.  No bigger than dimes, scarred and blackened.  “They weren’t quite welded together.  I pried them apart.”

     I looked them over.  “Ugly.  Inventory shows we should have three replacement contactors, the whole thing, new in the box; note says the last one got used in ’97, right before I started.”

     “These’ll clean up.  How’re you fixed for sandpaper?” 

     In the end, it took fine files to clear up the worst set. In a half-hour, we had them all smooth, shiny, and moving freely.  With the contactor back together and wired up, he returned to the breaker, I radioed the riggers to watch their meters, and told Ron, “Power up!”

     He hit the breaker — and there was no pop.  I wanted a minute and tapped the manual override button.  The contactor pulled in with a muted “clunk,” followed by the riggers checking in on the radio:

     “Twenty Amps at the J-box, over!”

     “Degausser’s humming like normal.  Twenty Amps. Over.”

     “Thanks, guys.  Stand by.” I raised my voice.  “Ron, you hear that?  Looking good!”

     He walked around the corner smiling.  “It must have single-phased every time you reset the breaker!”

     I gave him a rueful grin, “Yeah, and arced like a son of a gun.”

     He nodded.  “The worse set of contact were wedged in at a kind of funny angle.  It can’t have been good.”

     I told the riggers to button everything up and head for the airlock.  I cleared the manual override, but the degaussers stayed on, with the flickering red light of the “magnetization detected” indicator lit up.   Ron and I closed things up — gutter covers on the breaker box, the lid of the explosion-proof enclosure for the degausser contactor and controller — and about the time we finished, the red light went out and the contactor released with a soft thump.  No arc, no popping sounds.

     It’s easy sometimes to leap to a conclusion and become too attached to it.  If I’d suspected the contactor myself, it wouldn’t’ve taken much effort to open it up and check, or put an ohmmeter across it.  But I hadn’t.  It took a fresh pair of eyes — and a lack of preconceptions — to find the problem.

24 October 2018

The Problem With Captains

     It was the problems with the data-loggers on the old Billy How that clued me in that the ship's new owners were going to be difficult to work for.  Cincinnati Group was something well beyond frugal and had installed a Captain and XO who came aboard determined to show us a thing or two about how starships should be run.

     See -- or maybe you don't; it's been decades and all of the technology has changed -- back then just as now, everything having to do with maneuvering the starship was recorded.  Intercom chatter, control inputs, telemetry, inertial navs, all of it was saved and at that time, that meant magnetic tape.  Some tracks were digital, some analog; one track was nothing but a clock.  The idea was that if anything went wrong, you'd have a record of it and with any luck, enough information to put things right.

     They were fiddly beasts.  Billy How had six of them in two groups of three, one set in the rack room* just off the Command deck and another down in Engineering/Power, the combined space for the Jump exciter, reactor controls, and suchlike. The two-inch wide tapes spooled slowly, each one holding twenty-four hours of recording on one big reel, and we "bicycled" ten reels of tape through each set of recorders.

     They were supposed to spool slowly, that is.  The set up on Command had gotten squirrely, racing through a tape in a few hours during the Jump in the Kansas II system.  Once we were back in normal space, I dug into them,  running the setup procedure from the manual, and they weren't behaving as they should; the speed control, a lovely complex setup with tachometers on the drive and reel motors and a triple phase-locked servo, wouldn't stay locked.  The signals from the tachs were ragged, and when I went to look for replacements, all I found were a few empty boxes with a note from three years before: "Order more ASAP."  Before my time as Chief but I should've checked already.

     By the time I'd got that far, we were close enough to get a reply back from Kansas II in a few hours, so I messaged the chandler Cincinnati Group preferred to deal with and had a price back on replacement parts by the start of my next watch.  They weren't cheap.  Between all six units, we needed eighteen of them; not all the tachs were bad, but at least half had failed the rest probably weren't far behind.

     The new Captain was in his quarters just off the Command bridge.  "Cap'n Wheat?  About the loggers, I'm going to need some parts."

     Gregory Wheat was a young man as starship captains go, only a few years older than I was at the time.  He looked up from the papers on his desk and frowned, "And what parts would those be, young lady?"

     I kept smiling.  Captains get a lot of leeway.  "Tachs for the speed control.  About half ours are worn out and I'd like to stock replacements for the remainder.  So eighteen, at just over seven hundred dollars per deck."

     His eyebrows went up.  "You want...over four thousand dollars worth of parts?"

     "Didn't have any replacements in stock, sir.  That's on me; I missed the empties on the shelf."

     "Why don't you have another look at those recorders, see what you can do.  I'll get back to you."

     I kept on smiling.  "Yessir."

     I took the old tachs apart and cleaned them up again -- they're optical, and any grime on the moving disc will mess them up -- but it didn't do much good.

     Shortly after chow, the Captain called me up to the bridge.  "I'm going to get you some help.  The Kessler is at Kansas II.  It's a Cincy-Group freighter a bit larger than us.  I was XO there and they've got a real sharp Chief.  He'll come aboard after we reach K-two and help you with those loggers."

     I was thinking he wasn't going to be much help if he didn't bring any tachs with him, but you don't say that kind of thing to the guy in the worry seat, so I nodded and replied, "I'll look forward to that."

*  *  *

     The trip in was uneventful.  Once we were parked in orbit around Kansas II, Kessler sent a squirt-booster over and I met their Chief at the airlock -- a dapper young man, who was not, in fact, carrying any replacement tachs.  We shook hands and exchanged names -- Jim MacAlheny, he was and I asked if he had any luggage.

     He laughed.  "No, just me and a green tweaker."  The ubiquitous pocket screwdriver -- we all carried one back then; it was practically a badge of office.  "I'd better check in with the Old Man."

     I told him, "Okay; then we can see about the tachs on those loggers."

     The Captain was in his quarters; I waved the Kessler's Chief in ahead of me, and Capain Wheat stood up, his hand out.  "Jim!  It's been too long.  How're you doing?"

     "Greg, you've come up in the world!"

     "Yes, well -- close the door.  We've got some catching up to do."

     With that, he shut the hatch in my face.  I went back to Engineering; there was plenty to do.

*  *  *

     Jim didn't  show up again for several hours.   I kept myself busy checking the replacement parts stock; finding one set of empty boxes had me worried there were others.  I didn't realize the next watch had come on until my number two stuck his head in the storage compartment.

     "Chief Bobbi?  Cap'n Wheat's on the 'com for you.  Says he wants you up on Command."

     I gave him a smile.  "Always good to be wanted, right?"  I wiped my hands and got moving.

     The Captain was at his desk and Jim was in the visitor's chair.  I squeezed in and Captain Wheat told me to close the door.  He gave me a look I couldn't quite read. "Jim tells me those tachs are shot."


     "Well, why is that?"

     "Age, sir?  Those loggers run all the time.  It's a wear part."

     That got a frown.  Beside me, Jim said nothing, his expression neutral.  "Well, why didn't you say so?"


     "That we needed tachs."

     "But sir--"

     "I had to fly Jim over here at great expense to the company, because you didn't know how to fix those loggers!"

     "Sir, I said--"

     "I really hope this does not set a pattern, Roberta.  It does not bode well."

     Jim still said nothing.  I gave him a quick glance, silent appeal.  Nothing.

     "Yes, sir.  It will not set a pattern."

     "Indeed.  Jim has ordered the parts we need.  I trust you will be up to installing them?"

     I was boiling mad.  But you don't get mad at starship captains.  You can't.  "I believe so, sir."

     "You believe?"

     This was well past tolerable.  Nevertheless, it's a long walk home and there's not much to breathe along the way.  "I can and I will.  Sir."

     "See that you do.  Thank you."  Captain Wheat waved a hand in dismissal.

     "Sir."  I opened the hatch and got out, shaking mad.

     And that was when I realized working for Cincinnati Group might not be a long-term career for me.
* Yes, "rack room," or occasionally "rack compartment," looking not very much different from a modern-day server farm.  I was Chief on the freighter Billy How before things were quite so digital, though even then, the early '90s, it was well begun and any fool could see the trend was only going to grow.  Still, the end is the same; then it was mostly screwdriver adjustments with oscilloscopes and meters to see the result; now it's all keyboards and screens for the same job. 

     "Rack" is an overused word.  Small to medium sized equipment gets installed in racks nineteen inches wide and standardized to a pattern that goes back to late 19th-Century telephone equipment; when we had computer and audio tapes aboard starships, they got "racked" on the machines instead of "mounted" and "re-racked" instead of rewound.  You even sleep in a rack -- well, you do if you're a regular grew member; as Chief Engineer I rated a compartment of my own, much too handy to Engineering and nearly large enough to turn around in.  Somehow the meaning is clear in context -- and the galley never serves rack of lamb. 


12 November 2017

Armistice Day

     "It's over!  It's over!"  The radio and ansible operator came shouting out of his cubicle and bounced down the passageway to the Command and Control compartment of the FCS-chartered Observation Starship Freya.  He rounded the corner past the Captain's quarters and slapped the hatch frame, "Skipper, it's over!  They made a truce!"  There was a faint mutter from the other side of the curtain; Freya's commanding officer had been asleep.

     The duty pilot and astrogator gave the radio op wary looks.  It was widely belived that all dittybops were half-crazy to begin with and a few years ago when the massive, awkward FTL communicator was installed, the odd sounds it picked up only supported the theory.  Before they could speak, Captain Bonham slid back the curtain that screened his tiny quarters from the bridge and leaned out, rubbing his eyes, to ask, "What's over? We run out of eggs already? Dammit."

     Freya had been skimming through the edges of the Linden/Lyndon solar system for three months shiptime/half a year realtime already, fast passes through while monitoring USSF/NATO radio traffic and as much passive ship-spotting as they could manage, alternating with FTL "hops" to reposition.  The ship was superluminal at present, which allowed the FTL-comms ansible to operate.  Normally, this meant only routine traffic and occasional personal messages, nothing that merited excitement.  "I knew those powdered eggs weren't gonna last."

     "No, Skipper, the War!  The War's over!"

     "What?"  Bonham blinked.  "Over?  Who won?"

     An alarm sounded at the Navs position, yellow light flickering in syncopation with the beeps.  The astrogator and pilot both ignored it.

     The radio op waved the flimsy again and it fluttered from his hand in the low acceleration.  "We did!  Um, I think.  It's over!"

     Captain Bonham reached out and gently retrieved the slip of thin paper.

         The war was over.

*  *  *
     General Gerald Filiaggi, CEO of Mil/Space and — after round upon round of consolidation and takeovers — effectively in command of all military forces deployed at the behest of the shadowy Federation of Concerned Spacemen, sat at his desk and thought wistfully of cigars.

    Even after decades of operation, the environmental budget at the Mil/Space shipyard and HQ on Trinity's airless moon Alpha was tight and he wasn't going to allow himself a luxury his staff couldn't share.  There was a fine Cuban cigar in a tiny glass humidor on his desk, smuggled off Earth in defiance of good sense and wartime necessities, and he glared at it.  Something was up at Linden/Lyndon, that much was obvious, but exactly what wasn't clear.  The USSF carrier Lupine had briefly docked with intelligence/surveillance/scout carrier ships Vulpine and Caprine and a number of lesser vessels, and all had departed on different vectors.  Vulpine had definitely left for the independent settlement of Smitty's World — Filiaggi made himself not use the term, "pirate base," since the too-clever Johannn Cameron Harper Smith had managed to make himself and his barren, frozen world essential to both sides over the last decade.  That ship and its vector worried him.  A delegation from the FCS Board had been meeting with representatives from Earth under Smith's auspices for months, but that was all he knew.  They made periodic reports that said nothing of the talks.

     Filaiggi scowled at the cigar and grunted.  The FCS were a bunch of wooly-thinking eggheads, who treated the military as hired help.  Of course, Mil/Space was hired help; the FCS Board was firmly determined not to be a government, and outsourced every function that it could not manage to avoid. 

     The computer terminal to his left clucked twice and lit up, neon-orange letters rapidly filling the screen:
     Fourteen hours — now twelve — was an insanely short period of time.  The ansible couldn't reach any ship in realspace and at any given time, most of the FCS fleet and its charters weren't in FTL transit.  He swore quietly, then reached for the intercom.  "Joyce?  You see this?  Get Loki to confirm, that's Maurer in command, and once he does, have them Jump out and relay it again over my name."  His assistant murmured confirmation back but Filiaggi barely heard it.  The FCS negotiators, sworn to secrecy on the subject, had overlooked something.  Earth didn't have the ansible.  This deadline was insane. There was no way USSF was going to be able to notify all their starships and installations by the deadline. "Hang on, hang on — Hold that message. Tell Loki to stand by.  I need to add something."  The Ops summary was in his inbox; the points of contact had been stable for weeks, both sides just watching and waiting, no real action.  He had a fair sense of who was where, but it was going to take detail work.  Maybe they could even get the USSF ships to back down.... He reached for the intercom again, and stopped suddenly.

     "Snookered," he said to himself.  "The clever boys have been snookered and they damn near swept me along."  He flipped the intercom switch.  "Okay, here's the deal: add this to the message: tell everyone, all ships, anything NATO or USSF can observe, to hold position.  Take no action. Ships are not to return to home ports until we send out a courier."

     The intercom asked a question.

     "Because it's a setup!  No, not the peace; you see everything that passes my desk, Joyce; there isn't any point to more fighting.  They're done and we're done; we're out here and they can't haul us back — and they know we won't mess with the Earth.  It's a stalemate. But their damn armistice timetable is a setup and the FCS eggheads fell for it.  USSF isn't run by complete idiots.  They have to suspect we've got faster-than-light communications and I almost confirmed it."

*  *  *
     Freya and her sister ships hung on for weeks, kept to their schedules and avoided conflict. It was a mess (and Freya did run out of powdered eggs); but what mattered was, the inconclusive and spiteful War was over. Over, as the USSF negotiators had insisted upon, at eleven p.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month; but it was months before word reached every part of the far-flung frontier, carried on the faster-than-light spacecraft of Mil/Space and USSF.

     It was another decade before USSF managed to build ansibles of their own.

14 May 2017

The Scream


A: Yes, I know why I'm here.  But I didn't think the new guy — Chris — was going to take it so hard.  It isn't anything that hasn't been done to any of us in Engineering.

A: Sure, they did it to me.  You get a green tech, they have a lot to learn.  I didn't start learning how little I really knew here on Lupine.  It was years ago, when I hired in as Third 'Drive Tech on the old Billy How.  That's the USAS William Howard Taft, a little freight hauler, former U. S. Space Force like most of them.  I heard she was scrapped in '97 or '98.

A: Pretty much the same deal; it was my first job as a full Tech and I was pretty full of myself after saving my previous starship, the tug Schramm when the Tech First fell ill and we lost a phantasmajector tube in the RF pump for the stardrive.  See, those old tugs—  What?  No, I guess it's not important.  Anyway, I thought I was hot stuff, made some undiplomatic comments to Mike R. — he was the Number Two Tech — about how badly they ran the 'Drive.  He didn't say much, but when we headed into the next Jump, the boss had me checking out the anisble, and didn't I get a warning about what not to listen to!  So I did, of course.  I didn't sleep well for a month.

A: Chris rubbed me the wrong way a little; there aren't many women working as stardrive techs and he — well, I thought he was a jerk. The way a lot of the guys are, talking down, that kind of thing.  But it was nothing to the way he treated Jonny Zed and Gale Grinnel.  Sure, Jonny's a little, well, um, he's unique.  And that Gale, you'd think words cost him money — except for "Leave that the f—- alone."  He says that a lot.  But they've served aboard since the Lupine was a Space Force carrier.  Jonny was one of the first techs down on Lyndon!  Sure, they're grumpy and they have their own ways of doing things, but both of them have been fixing stardrives since before I was born.  Gale taught me how to tune up the high-power amplifiers.  The old tetrode ones are touchy and—  Oh, sorry.  Did I get too technical again?  Anyway, they both go way back to real fighting parts of the War.

A: Oh, that, yes.  It's the time dilation.  You'd have to ask them, but I think Jonny's been at it for forty years subjective, about seventy-five years as the clock ticks.  Gale's got almost as much time in, either way.

A: Chris was rude to them.  He was making fun of Jonny Zed to his face when I came on duty that morning. We'd been ramping up delta-V for a Jump for a couple of months, everyone was a little on edge and you know how Jonny gets.

A: You don't?  Haven't you talked to him yet?  He tells stories.  Sometimes they're a little, a little overstated.  You'll see.  Anyway, I'd tuned up a new final in the B side of the RF pump the day before and we were due to Jump sometime on the first shift.  The Chief was kind of irked with me about it, he had been saying the old final had plenty of hours left but nope, the emission went flat when I tried to run up the heater voltage.  That's tech-y, too, but it's important.  The Chief is not a people person and he was really giving me that fishy eye that morning. I wasn't too surprised when he stuck me with the ansible warm-up.  When he told me to bring Chris along and show him the process, I figured he thought the guy needed taken down a peg.

A: As near as I can read him, the Chief thinks we all need to be reminded of where we stand in the food chain, every day.  But some days, some of us need it more than others.  Restarting the ansible is just one of those fiddly jobs he hands out to whoever is on his, um. His list.

A: No, you can't leave the ansible running in normal space. It won't work, of course, but the problem is it makes for huge amounts of interference to comms and it kind of bollixes running the 'Drive low to reduce our realspace mass. Plus the final in it is only good for x many hours and it's a lot of work to change out, so why waste it?

A: I really can't explain the startup job without getting tech-y.  The timebase comes from the ship's master clock but it's a soft lock — the details, are, um.  I probably can't make it make sense quickly.  You start it up after the first little Jump and make sure the multipliers didn't get a step off or start squegging, and bring the output amplifier up slowly once they've settled down.  The newer ones will do it all on auto, it's not that difficult, but we're still running a Beamathon 4200, and they're—  Well, they won't self-start.  The 4200s were built on a military contract for USSF and they're designed to be super-rugged over being easy to use.  You could beat on the thing with a hammer and it would still run!  But start-up's about a half-hour job and you have to ride the Jump out in the old comms room, in lousy seats that I think must be original with the ship.  I would have brought a bite guard if I'd known I was going to get stuck with the job.
     I took Chris down the passageway to the comms room. It's close by the Engineering shop, about far enough for him to ask where as I reached the hatch.  It's kind of a junk room — orderly, lashed-down junk, the Chief is really strict about that and if you've ever ridden through a bad Jump, I don't have to tell you why.

A: I'm getting to that.  Ansibles don't tune like a radio.  It's like there's just one channel.  And that's because for any given Jump level, there really is only one channel.  So — every Jump is really a climb up and down through several levels, or dimensions, right?  I mean, approximately.  And some of them are actually dangerous; the physics is too different.  You jump in and right on out.  Seven-A is one of the bad ones and it's one of a few where the regs say ansibles should be off or in standby: not even in receive mode.  Some levels, I can't say which ones, are for USSF Fleet comms, but seven-A is—  It's different.

A: Of course I've listened! Like I told you.  Everybody who ever got stuck warming up an ansible has. And you wish you hadn't.

A: I'm getting to that.

A: So, Chris and I got settled in the lousy old operator’s chairs, and I made sure he could work the old-style five-point harness.  Then I talked him through the start-up, checked the YIG ovens, and ran it up as far as Standby.  I had him show me the step-by-step and he had it pretty well already.  By then we could check sync lock — it was good — and there was nothing to do except wait for the Jump to start.  So I ran down the "Don't Listen" list with him and we got the five-minute warning for Jump.  That was my cue, I figured, so I reminded him to keep the ansible in Standby until we were out of seven-A, said I needed to check something in the Shop, and left.  I put the intercom on to the Shop on my way out, just a quick tap on the button, so we'd hear whatever he got up to.

A: I went back to the shop.  Three minutes left, everything secured, everybody sitting down and either strapped in or just about to.  There was a seat left near the intercom and I snagged it.  Gave C. Jay and Big Tom a raised eyebrow and waved at the com panel.  I made sure the microphone was turned off and told them, "Could be interesting.  Told the new guy to make sure he kept the ansible warm-up but not full on until we were past seven-A."

A: Sure we all figured he'd listen!  Nobody objected.  Look, it's been done to most of us — or we did it to ourselves, really. Seven-A is one of the bad ones, too; it's probably just a series of encrypted comms relays left running, but it sounds like a guy screaming, over and over.  Sends chills right down your back.

A: Yes, I expected it would give Chris a scare. Yeah, I get it, "It's a new day," but I never thought of it as hazing.  Neither did anyone else in Engineering.

A: The Chief?  What did he think?  That's above my pay grade.  I was talking about the other techs.  The Chief didn't think it was funny afterward, I can tell you that.

A: You already know Chis did listen.  Probably because I told him not to.  When he started screaming, I ran back to the Comms room, and I took a hell of a bouncing, around, too, since the ship was still headed deeper into Jump space.  Big Tom and C. Jay were right behind me.  When we couldn’t get him to stop — and he'd started trying to slug anyone who got too close — Big Tom held him in the chair and I called the medics.

A: No.  Are you serious?  Nobody ever told me his father was on one of the ships that went missing during the war!
     Do — do you think Chris is going to be all right?

05 May 2015


I. Lines

     Picture a line stretching down the block.  Oh, not a totally grim line -- the weather's good, near seventy, and the people are brightly dressed, contrasting with the concrete and block of the buildings, the gravel and concrete of the streets -- but a serious one.  Picture more lines, many more, a world of lines, a place where if you didn't work for one of the big outfits, or on a robot farm, or at the "School," an occasional missed meal was just how it worked.  But how can you begin to know what it was like if you don't know why and how?

     The world was called Ryall.  It wasn't good for much -- halfway through a glaciation, which meant the temperate zone was a belt around the Equator a little over five hundred miles wide.  But it was warm enough to grow crops and raise animals, the local weeds were neither poisonous nor allergenic, it had metals and fuel, and best of all, it was well behind the straggling, uncertain "front" between the Far Edge refuseniks and the Earth-based NATO forces searching for them.

     Once the Edgers realized they hadn't fled far enough and Earth wasn't willing to let them be, the University of Ryall, until then an otherwise struggling institution that by chance had an excellent 'Drive physics program, was cultivated as a major research institution by grants directly from the Federation of Concerned Spacemen (the shadowy Edger non-government) and its various military contractors, most notably "General" Filiaggi's Mil/Space.

     The population swelled as the War years dragged on, with people looking for a safer place (especially after the disastrous attempt to reclaim "Peace-And-Prosperity," the planet better known as Linden and, later, Lyndon), various professions and trades following work, along with farmers, administrators, manufacturers and the Far Edge's commercial military organizations.  Agriculture struggled to keep up.  Distance made luxuries (smuggled from Earth or P&P, built or grown on Trinity or Frothup) expensive and uncommon and by the time the War idled to a stop in 1989, Ryall was a distinctly difficult place.  Government was small, hard-pressed, and inadvertently oppressive.  Mil/Space and defense contractors dominated employment.  Thirty-plus years of war and rumors of war had left more than a mere mark; FCS was reportedly considering intervention, as it had done twice before elsewhere to rein in too-powerful local governments.

     A decade earlier, it had already been a hard, gray place for a long time, a place more than a world, and one with a job to do and little time or resources to spare for nonsense--


     He recognized her as they both stood on one of the endless lines that had come to dominate life in Landingport, lined up for a chance to purchase onions or cheese, lined up to register or reregister for a work permit or a housing permit or a travel permit, lined up for inoculation or delousing, lined up because you saw a line and didn't want to miss out -- or face arrest for not lining up.

      Even though she was an unperson these last seven years, her poetry deemed wasteful, unnecessary, he recognized her. "Aren't you Sara-the-bard," he asked, but it wasn't a question. Students had called her that, back in the hopeful beginning, before walls had gone up around the School, before passes and air-raid drills and Security. "You're her, you are," he exclaimed, incredulous, delighted.

     She never made eye contact. "I was," she said, almost whispering, and turned away.

III. A Gap In Space

    Mathematics and poetry sound like an odd combination of talents to most people.  Yet they're often found co-existing, happily or not, in the same mind.  Oppenheimer translated Hindu epics; Ada Lovelace struggled to subdue her "poetical nature," and Dodgson, well, you already know him as Lewis Carroll.

     Sara-the-former-Bard was one, or perhaps two, celebrated for poetry, valued for insights into multidimensional physics too abstruse to explain, insights she'd loved for the beauty they revealed, insights applied physics and engineering had turned into windows into terror.  Or so she feared; compartmentalism had slammed down and all she knew of the most recent developments was rumor.

     (This is the opening of a planned novel, set on the same world as my short story, Things Lost Under Bridges.)

19 April 2015

One Evening On Kansas II

    I was living on Kansas II at the time, having parted company with my previous starship under less than auspicious circumstances.  Don said he had a surprise for me, but we needed to be on the road an hour before the sun was down.   Occasionally brilliant and often-annoying Don, who was then my fiancĂ© and now, damn him, is nobody to me, our timelines torn apart by his choice and my travels.  He’s much older now.  I’m not.

     But at the time, our life together was as rosy as the Eastern sky, Kansas II having a very nice magnetic field but the temerity to spin the wrong way.  We were driving more or less south, where wheatfields give way to unimproved Nature at a wide, meandering river.
     The road ends at long bridge across the river.  The bridge ends in a lift section, a nice, ugly Chicago-style bascule drawbridge that normally stays up. There’s a warning sign.  To lower the bridge, you’ve got to put at least hundred kilograms (plus or minus – KS2 runs to 0.98 G) on a sidewalk slab in front of the bridge for ten minutes. 
     They can’t make you read the sign but aside from muddy water below, sky overhead, a long bridge ending in wheatfields behind and raw, rolling, red and green pseudo-veldt on the other side, there’s nothing else to see:
Beyond this bridge, the land remains as it was before humans settled Kansas II. Cross at your own risk.  Persons who are allergic to whirlweed or who have not yet had and recovered from planetary fever should not cross.  Emergency services are not available.  Buffalion, trap-door weasels and all other native animals are not to be molested.  The larger species can injure or kill an unprotected person. BUFFALION TRAILS AND HERDS ARE PARTICULARLY DANGEROUS.  AN AUTOMOBILE WILL NOT PROTECT YOU.  If you encounter a buffalion herd, move away immediately at ninety degrees to their direction of travel.


     It took both of us to start the bridge-lowering process.  I stood next to Don, reading the sign and wondering if he’d decided to take me out here and leave me.
     “Not exactly a friendly place you’ve got here, I told him.
     “What, the sign?  It’s an idiot-filter.  They don’t even keep the numbers updated; those are from two years ago.”  He grinned at me.
     I didn’t find it reassuring.
    My doubts must have showed, since he frowned and continued, “Really, it’s okay.  People come here all the time.  I’m surprised we haven’t seen anyone yet.”
     “And it’s a surprise,” I reminded him.  Can’t you at least hint?”
     His grin returned, impish, charming.  “Nope.  But you’ll like it.”
     I never could resist that grin.
     Once the bridge started down, we got back in his truck – a tiny SUV, a Bonzai or something, I never was very good with the names of cars – and drove on for another couple of miles.  A kind of gray shape started to loom above the rolling grass(like) land, and as we got closer, I could make out some specks or blobs on it.  Eventually the land flattened out more and in the dimming light, I saw it was a huge slab of rock, slightly tilted, rearing up out of the ground, maybe thirty feet high at the highest part.  There were a half-dozen trucks packed close to the steeply-rearing side.  The blobs on top were people, in pairs and one larger group.
     The ride smoothed out.  I looked lower.  We were crossing packed, bare earth – well, Kansas II dirt, anyway.
     “Don, this is a buffalion pathway, isn’t it?”
     “Un-huh.  Don’t worry.  They never get too close to The Slab.”
    We suddenly started getting jostled again, as the ground became rougher.  It stayed bumpy all the way to the very base of the rock, where he parked and turned off the engine.
     “There’s a picnic basket and a blanket in back,” Don said, “Help me carry it up before it gets too dark.”
    “Maybe.  Don, what is this?”
     “This?  It’s a geologic anomaly.”
     “Not what I meant.”
     He gave me that grin again.  “C’mon.  This’ll be fun.”

     We settled down at a relatively level spot, after a tricky scramble up a narrow but well-worn path to the top.  People were scattered across the top with plenty of room between them and for a while, we were busy unpacking dinner and eating.  By the time we were done, it was nearly full dark.  Don checked his watch, a quick flash of light on the dial.  “Almost time.”
     “Time for what, you scoundrel?  Shouldn’t you be telling me at last?”
     “Won’t have to.  Lay back and look up.  See the stars?”  He had laid next to me. Pointing, he said, “There’s the Lion, and just this side of it is the Hexagram.  See how the stars make a pattern of six lines?”
     I did.
     “Okay, watch just to the left of it and up—"
     Already, twinkling stars had started to look odd to me: stars ought to burn steadily.  I kept watching.  Suddenly, a line of light sprang into being almost where I was looking and raced across the sky!
     There was a low murmur from the people around us.
     The first streak was followed by another, and another, and another.  A meteor shower!  It was like popcorn popping; there’d be a few, and then a pause and then more, and then maybe a lot more and then nothing for a time.  With each one, we were oohng and aaahing as if it were fireworks.  In a way it was.
     I was laying there, comfortably snuggled up next to Don, watching the meteors in a kind of dream-like state, when I heard the sounds.  A kind of dull thud, then a bell-like tone and a softer thud. 
    Another set of noises answered, the belling slightly higher in pitch.   Then another, closer and lower: Plop! BONG! Pop.  It was a little worrying, but I didn’t hear anything from the other people around us except the occasional sigh when an especially impressive meteor drew a line of fire on the night sky.
     Overhead, the meteor shower continued, maybe a little more sporadic, while the strange sounds seemed to move around us, each bell in a different pitch, a sonic counterpoint to the light show overhead.
     “Don—“ I whispered.
     He rolled a little, hugged me and whispered back, “It’s okay.”
     I pushed up on my elbows and looked around.  I could barely see the nearest couples and they didn’t seem alarmed.
     Meanwhile, the chorus continued, accompanied by an occasional streak overhead.  I was just relaxing again when a huge, deep BONGGGG! rang out, echoing around the slab, and then the night fell silent.
     I realized I was holding my breath, waiting for the next bell-sound.
     “Bobbi, you can breathe,” Don said, very quietly.  “That’s the last one.”
     “What – was – that?”
     He grinned again. I could hear it in his voice.
     “Trapdoor weasels.  They do that.  Nobody knows why. ‘Bed check,’ I reckon.”
     They’re not weasels at all, but a large, spider-like creature that’s a nasty ambush hunter: they build their burrows across Buffalion runs and open the “trapdoor” after most of the herd has passed, hoping to trip up the young, the old and the weak.   They’re a pest on settled land, sometimes pathetic (their methods don’t work on tractors and trucks) and sometimes not; a new nest of them can do a lot of harm to cattle, horses or even sheep.  They’re about as ugly a thing as you can imagine.  I’d never liked them.
     Until that night.

     Don left me a year later for a younger and, as he by then was devastatingly pleased to tell me, much girlier girl.  Most men don’t like it when you’re better at small home repairs than they are.  It turned out he positively loathed it.  I don’t know if it was rewiring the second-floor bedrooms or replacing the water heater that did it, but somewhere along the way I’d stepped on his mojo too often, too unheedingly, and no amount of my (very good, if you ask me) home cooking and (ahem) native charm could repair it.

     But I’ll always have the memory of the meteor shower and the trap-door weasel belling and your little-boy grin when you shared it with me, Don, you sonuvabitch.

01 December 2014


     It was only a drill.  It felt all too real.  The starship didn't buck and shudder but it certainly sounded as if we were returning to what we still try to claim is "normal space."  To judge from the pops, groans and subsonics, it was a middling-rough transition, something like a high-speed elevator rumbling to a stop while a troupe of luggage-testing primates hammered brand-name suitcases into the sides. It got under my skin even though I'd helped install the speakers that did it.

     The visible-light-plus screens at the sides of the monitor wall in Jump Control flipped from hazy gray through an instant of shocking, multi-hued brightness to a black field with a few lights; a couple of marks lit up in tentative violet as Navs matched observation to expectation.  On the main screen, the Jump emergence schematic was replaced by a three-view of the planetary system with our inbound track highlighted white against flat black, a fading fan of probability trumpet-belling out around it and our destination world's orbit in bright green.  A few more details were picked out in varying hues and degrees of transparency, indicating the trustability, source and age of the data.  Composite radar should be mapping onto it bit-by-bit, or pixel-by pixel, and scrolling numbers at the of the image presumably told the Jump pilot more than mere pictures—

     Suddenly, the main display picked up a red border and a new track appeared in the same shade, much too close, coming sunward in at a shallow angle just off our track and much, much more slowly—

     Alarms sounded and Star Pilot Jennifer "Sunny" Grimm said, "Shit!" in a tone of voice very unlike her usual calm pilot-chant.

     Starship Lupine was fixing to do a Casey Jones.

     I heard a distinct click as Sunny whacked the emergency-avoid button at top-center of her Jump
presets.  A timer came to life at the top of the screen, starting with 00:00:15.00 and began counting backwards, as Sunny's Exec Pilot keyed the all-call: "Jump! Take Hold, Take Hold, Jump in ten seconds..."

    Emergency-Avoid is a non-optimal solution.  Continuously updated by some simple-minded software to bounce the ship as into (and back out of, light-minutes away) Jump on whatever course is nearest to 90 degrees to the resultant vector of any flagged tracks, and overseen and fudge-factored by whichever Navs types have been tapped for the job you hope is never needed, it is a least-bad option, too dangerous to be left to automation.  Human reaction is slow, dreadfully slow but the official line is that anything within the first twelve hours of a typical emergence that's too close or too fast for a human at the controls to avoid and not a near-miss is inherently non-survivable.  We'd never even know, flashed to a cloud of gas in mid-thought.

     This is not a comforting notion. Casey Jones's fireman had the option of jumping.  We've got to make the whole locomotive jump.  Lupine was going to slam her stardrive on, wrapping up in a pocket universe and hammering back out in the time of three or four quick breaths.

       It was only a drill.  I was riding this simulated emergence as the "Engineering Liason," a brand-new innovation from the bulging brains at the Duluth corporate HQ of The Starship Company.  Instead of riding it out with the other on-shift techs in the Engineering Shop fifty feet down the passageway and around a couple of corners, I was sitting in the back row of Jump Control with an alpha-geek from Navs and a couple of low-level Imaging specialists.  Five-way harnessed to a cross between a pilot's ejection seat — minus the "eject" — and a dotcom-millionaire's dream of an office chair, all I had time to do was tense up, push my head against the headrest and wonder how bad this would hurt if it was really happening or if things would just—

     The count hit "00:00:00.00" and the overhead lights came on.  Walt Randall, Lupine's Chief Pilot, slid open the transparent "patio door" hatch in the bulkhead to our left, radiating his usual bear-like bonhomie. "Nice sim!  Nice job, everyone," he said.  "Sunny, okay?"

     She shot him a hurt look.  "I wasn't expecting that!"  She'd run five more sims before that, replays of old, old Jumps and re-emergences from Lupine's extensive files.  This one—  You'd think a near-miss that close would be legendary, at least in rumor, and I'd never heard of it.

     CP Randall grinned.  "You're good but you get way too comfortable.  We're both going to be due for recert when we get to Earth."

     "Or when we reach Kansas Two," she reminded him, "Unless they've changed our course routing?"

     "If so, nobody told me.  Yeah, K2, the U.S. Space Force can recertify us at the base there."  Lupine is civilan starship these days, hauling cargo and passengers in a vast loop from one inhabited system to another, but pilot certification is still handled by USSF.  Most of the officers and crew are as ex-military as the ship, thanks to the "peace dividend" after the end of the Lukewarm War, the prolonged, messy conflict that occupied the first forty years of star-travel.  It's one reason star travel remains classified and the public has been fed a steady diet of disinformation from Kenneth Arnold to TV shows and Air Force "investigations."


     In nominal reality, USAS Lupine was just about at the end of transit from the covert NATO member (and ex-Far Edge) planet they'd tagged "Frothup" to Trinity, a well-settled Far Edge world with a Mil/Space base on the largest of its three moons.  Sure, we're all best pals now. We have been since the Agreement of 1989 between the U.S. (plus the rest of the clued-in NATO countries) and the "Federation of Concerned Spacemen," the latter the not-very-closest thing the Far Edge has to a government, but it doesn't keep me from worrying. Mil/Space is a private company, with a well-deserved reputation for punching above their weight — and without warning.

     In addition to three moons and a nest of Space Marines, Trinity has somewhat byzantine internal politics, the latter thanks to a long-running three-way religious conflict that seethed through most of the years of the Lukewarm War between NATO and the Edgers.  There were cautions on on the ship's Intranet already, warning us to not do anything to provoke the locals — no discussions, no religious symbols on clothing or jewelry, no politics, just stick to neutral topics.  "Smile and ask about the weather," we were advised.  Right. On a starship, "weather" means there's an Enviro problem and it needs addressed ASAP. After twenty years aboard, all I really know about weather is that I don't much care for it, but how much effort does it take to say, "How about those clouds?"

     When The Chief, back to something like his old self after a close call at Frothup, assigned me to "ride liaison" for the actual emergence at Trinity's solar system, I objected on grounds of having sat through four hours of sims with Sunny's crew three days earlier.

     "Exactly why I'm putting you there; you're the freshest.  C. Jay and Gale ran it week before last and the rest of your peers haven't yet."

     I gave it one more try, pointing out that as Chief Stardrive Tech, my proper place was in the Engineering Shop, ready to leap into action if the 'Drive faltered. It fell flat before his skeptical look, raised eyebrow and all.

     "You'll be all of fifty feet farther away in Jump Control, where they won't need you if anything goes seriously wrong with the Drive.  Don't waste my time.  0900 tomorrow, be there."  And he turned his attention back to the display in front of him while I stood up and stepped out of his minuscule cubby, back into Engineering.  As I cleared the hatch, he cleared his throat and said "Don't be late," which was both a zinger and not unexpected.  The clock is not my friend.

     You could go cross-eyed trying to unravel The Chief's motives.  On the one hand, he needed to "show willing" to this notion of sticking an Engineering tech in Jump Control.  On the other, he wasn't all that willing, so why not send me, his department's sole female?  And with the added bonus that I am, slightly grudgingly on his part, the lead Stardrive Technician, meaning if the thing acted up badly enough, I'd be the tech putting on the highly-shielded suit and venturing into where nobody lasts very long when the 'Drive is more than ticking over.  While I like to think of myself as a rose among thorns, The Chief considers me more of a thorn  in his side.  Then again, he thinks of all of us that way.


      0900 is not my usual start time.  The physics of Jump can't be bent to accommodate anyone's schedule; when it's time, it's time, or you don't end up in the right place.  Or, possibly, anywhere else.  That would be bad.

     I wasn't late.  Coffee, toothbrush, hairbrush, low ponytail (you really don't want to be bouncing a knot of hair off your headrest), clothes, and I was down the slidewalk and in my fancy chair in Jump Control, still blinking away sleep.  Walt Randall and his front-row crew of Navs boffin "Jump Co-coordinator" setting up presets and an "Exec" pilot handling all high-priority non-Jump decisions were in place. I was all the way on the back row with the trainees and spare spares, next to a muttering geek from Navs who looked as if he'd slept there and a burly Power Room electrician-reactor tech. The rest of Jump team were belted in by the time I'd set up my intercom panel, listening to Jump and Feeder Pilots plus Power at full volume, Exec Pilot on but faded down so I could tell if he was talking, and a two-way connection to the Engineering shop.  I tested the latter, pressed the CALL button, "Calling all Morlocks!"

     All it got me was an irked-sounding "Ack," either from Gale Grinnel or Big Tom's dead-on impersonation.  I wasn't about to ask and wouldn't've had time to; a light blinked on the panel in front of me as Randall came on the intercom, all-circuits.

     "Good morning boys and girls!  Ready to punch this through?" 

     We all counted off and flipped our go-tallies from off to green, one by one. I had a bit of stage fright as it got to the back row:

     "Kopje, Powerplant Three. We're good"

     "Stockman, Navs Five, in place."

     Missed my turn already.  "Eh- Ecks, Engineering, we're go."

     I don't even remember who finished in Jump Control.  It was green all the way and the final "Go" came down from Acting Captain Cardenas, in his office several decks up. 

     Randall left his intercom mic on and his Jump Coordinator added the all-ship PA, so we heard him in headset and echoed a tiny bit later from the passageway, "All hands, secure for Breakout.  Fifteen minutes. All hands, secure for Breakout.  Fifteen minutes."  The joking tone was gone from his voice. The PA clicked off and Randall kept on speaking, consulting with the Navs lead to his right, setting up the one-button alternatives.  I only heard his half of the conversation; pretty much everyone in Jump Control needs to hear the Jump Pilot but not one another.  Unless you have a for-sure emergency to report, you keep mum; the Jump Pilot calls all the shots. 

     Five minutes on, the Jump Coordinator hit the PA with the next warning, accompanied by passageway lights blinking and punctuated by hoots from the general alarm: "Ten minutes!  Ten minutes to breakout!  Secure all, secure all, secure all."  JC site to the left of the Pilot, handling all the non-piloting command functions, direct liaison between the front row of Jump Control and minor items like Life Support (Environment & Physical Plant) Security and Command Admin (Captain, 1/O, 2/O, whichever one's in the worry seat).

     Beside me, the Navs guy shifted in his seat and muttered something, working the keyboard with one hand and trackball with another.  One channel on his intercom panel lit up red as he keyed his mic and spoke a few words, then laughed and slapped his trackball hand on the console.  For a member of the Navigation staff, this constituted normal-type behavior — he'd probably thought of a joke about an unobvious convergent series or something.  I glanced the other direction to catch Kopje looking daggers at him.  It takes all kinds but sometimes a little distance makes it easier to take.

     Three rows up, Randall seemed happy with his option line-up and the big screens were showing a spiny schematic of our projected breakout process, with a predicted (and equally schematic) three-view of our destination star system down one side.  It would move to the main screen once we'd snuck and bounced our way back into normal space and start filling up with color-coded traffic information as the middle two rows of radar, optical and comms and beacon techs collected and assembled it.  We're moving pretty quick at breakout, aimed for emergence relatively empty and "flat" space, far enough away from the system's star to reduce spacetime flickers and ripples that make the process bumpier, far enough to shed velocity in a nice, easy trajectory — and close enough that it doesn't take a year to reach our destinations world.  Scuttlebutt has it Randall's a truck driver compared to gifted pilots like Sunny Grimm, but he gets the job done and keeps the breakage within reason.

      We were at the five-minute mark now.  The EP gave the warning, accompanied by overhead lights blinking all over Lupine.  Kopje was leaning into his safety belts, intent on the Power Room displays in front of him as he murmured into his microphone to some even more hapless tech manning a distribution board somehwere down among the fusion/magnetohydrodynamic reactors.  The first few seconds of Breakout, the [CLASSIFIED] can draw staggering amounts of current, so the Power gang tries to shed as much non-essential load as they can ahead of time.

     Me, I tried to think of what could go wrong.  Finally hit the switch for RF/Reaction and got — naturally!  — Jonny Zed, replying with a snork that sounded suspiciously like I'd caught him in mid-snore.

     "Re-ax! Wha'cha want?"

     "Hey, Jon.  How're your engines looking?"  There are eight clusters of maneuvering engines around the ship, RF-pumped ion engines that deliver a surprising amount of thrust.  While the Power crews run the big Fusion-over-MHD primary realspace engines that provide a reasonably consistent "down" and power the ship besides, the comparatively-small ion engines, like the Stardrive itself, are Engineering's worry.  I was starting to worry, too, as Jon was taking his time replying.  Breakout was a couple minutes away and the handover from routine-ops Drive Control to Jump Control overrode my intercom:

     "Jump, this is DQ.  You have control, Walt."

     "DQ, I have control.  —Ready for this?"

     Jon's reply to me came in on the heels of Walt's cheerful inquiry, "Bobbi?  Portside, Number Three, it's showing a fault."

     "Have you tried resetting?" I asked.  You don't have to tell most operators but Jonny Zed is a special case.  He has served aboard Lupine longer than I've been alive, ever since she was a USSF carrier — since the first pressure hull was bolted to the first truss section, if you believe him — and his habits run in well-worn grooves.  His motto seems to be the neck that is never stuck out never feels the axe.  Nevertheless, he can be relied on to do the right thing when it is absolutely necessary, if there's no one else to do it. It's kept him around all these; he might be onto something, at that. I talked him through the reset and the little ion-pump's high-power RF source came right back up. Ever since we solid-stated them, the RF sources for the ion rockets have been well-behaved.

     And then it was time.  I'd  been ignoring the steady chant in my headset while working with Jon; fast on the heels of his last words came Walt Randall's, "We're committed!  Stand by for Step One of two....five, four three, two, one—"

     It may not have been one of his smoothest; even strapped in, I felt an instant's float followed by a slam sideways and then back into the padding of my seat.  The visible-light and radar displays lit up like fireworks.  As usual, the initial thumping was followed by an earthquake-like series of aftershocks as the starship's sheer mass and slight flexibility damped the jolt.  This is main reason for Lupine's enormous size; where a smaller ship would rattle like a pebble in a can returning to normal space from such a deeply-folded, unthinkably-fast bubble in spacetime, ours just goes thud a few times and lumbers on.

     There were still a few more unfolding steps before we were back in the shared continuum, but for all they required more skull-sweat from the Imaging and Navs teams, they were comparatively small, mere speedbumps.  The closer our first bump had been to the planned breakout, the smaller they would be and the more quickly they would happen.

     Someone from Enviro started a report on the general intercom channel, something about a broken water pipe that chopped off in mid-word as the speaker realized he'd hit "All-call" on his panel.  The Power tech next to me had been holding his own quiet conversation as we bounced through and noticing that called my attention to my own display.  Sure enough, the "History" graph for the [CLASSIFIED], or part of it and never mind just what, showed a huge power spike, not quite to redline, and incoming voltage had dipped to almost-brownout under the load.

     I hit the button for Drive Control, "Eric, you see that spike?"

     "Sure did.  Hey, I'm just a passenger 'til we get through.  My board's all green; we're looking good."

     I was thinking about waking up Jonny Zed when Randall did it for me on all-call: "Arms and legs inside until the ride is over, girls and boys, we're fifteen away." 

     Behind his voice, you could hear the by-the-book warning, "Take hold, take hold, fifteen for breakout, take hold," and a slightly-delayed echo from the passageway speakers. 

     "Ten, nine — this should be an easy one — five, four, three, two—"

     It wasn't.  The ship bucked and fell, or so it felt, and then shivered sideways.  The optical and radar displays — proxies, really — are stacked on each side of the primary displays.  They'd flared briefly as space got unfolded. Now, in the set that showed visible light, a starfield had replaced the sparkling gray haze of a Heim-Droscher-Goubau pocket universe.  We were back in the real world, a step ahead of schedule.   The Imaging row was suddenly very busy, all purposeful motion and terse conversation.  Comms was staring at a wide-spectrum waterfall display, looking for the local beacons and whatever routine radio traffic there might be.  It would be hours before we heard anything from Trinity proper; the excess energy of Breakout makes a starship briefly one of the brightest (and, at radio frequencies, loudest) objects in a stellar system, second only to the local star or stars, but light crawls along at finite speed.  In the meantime, the automatic beacons would respond to the static of our emergence with the latest data — local time and date, locations of the planets, moons and other orbiting rocks along with whatever shipping was in motion. Time of arrival vs. beacon ID would let Lupine's navigators locate where we were in relation to everything else.  With luck, we'd get the first beacon ping in a few minutes. Behind the noise burst, our own transponder was already streaming data, too — ship name, registry, destination, pilot's name and certification, last Jump starting location, current velocity and vector (if known), a long and largely automated list of items as worked out in the Agreement of 1989; I'm sure working it out had made the diplomats and legal lights glow with pride but really, most of it might as well be noise.

     My screens looked good and if anything was wrong, Eric in Drive Control would have caught it way ahead of me.  Up front, Randall and the Navs lead had their heads together in some off-the-intercom discussion.  I took at look at the displays in front of the Navs back-bencher next to me and saw he was stepping through calculations too fast to follow up.  His face bore the blinkered, half-frowning expression of the deeply geeky at full throttle. 

     The 'Drive-emergence schematic "tree" had dropped off the main monitor, replaced by a "confidence" three-view of single star in glowing white intersected by a pair of hazy discs, the two planes of planetary orbits, along with a white blob on a solid-changing-to-dotted line for us.  It's really just a visualization helper, the actual info is in the various orbital element sets handled by navigators and showing up as a scrolling column of alphanumeric designators and orbital-element numbers at the side of the main display.  You don't so much fly a starship in realspace and real time, you just aim it and look for trouble to avoid while you get where you're going.

     Starships plan Jumps to enter a system well off the plane of the ecliptic; Trinity is one of the places with more than one "plane" but there's still lots of mostly-empty space.  It's that "mostly" that keeps everyone in Jump Control busy long after we're back in normal space.  Any minute now, Randall or the Jump Coordinator would sound the all-clear and the rest of Lupine's crew would return to normal routine.

     Yes, any minute now—

     Comms came on the big loop as the markers of a pair of system beacons popped up with shrinking, hazy globes of uncertainty around them and a new set of numbers appeared, rolling up the right side. "Urgent!  Beacon predicts possible intercept.  Navs has the numbers—"  And the screen got a nice red border, followed by a fuzzy-trumpet vector as Navs turned the numbers into an image.  A crawling known-position vector turned into a dotted extension that became tangent to Lupine's projected course on all three views.  It turned red and the screen picked up a red border.  Then a series of time-stamped points popped up on each vector, confirming the beacon information: Lupine and the object were going to be in the same place at the same time, a little over fifteen minutes from right now.

     The Jump Co-Ord saw it before I did and was already on the PA, three shrill whoops of the collision warning followed by, "This is not a drill.  Stand secure," followed by the siren and the same warning again.  374 crew, nearly a hundred live-aboard contractors and over 250 paying passengers had a whole new set of worries.  At least the passengers had the advantage of not knowing enough to be especially worried.

     Navs and Jump Pilot Randall were already setting up a new set of alternates.   The ship was decelerating at three-quarters G at what, from this far out, was essentially right at Trinity's star.   The realspace propulsion is not rapidly steerable, and if we angled off too far, it could take weeks or months to get back “in the groove,” headed to a timely rendezvous  with Trinity.   Or we might not have sufficient time to change our vector enough; don’t ask me, that’s what they pay Navigators to figure out.  An Emergency-Avoid short-Jump now, headed into the complex gravity wells of a planetary system, outrunning the already lagged information from the beacons, could make a bad situation worse—  It was the kind of problem Jump pilots train to solve and why they generally burn out early.  Present company exempted.

     "Present Company," Senior Pilot Randall, had barely broken concentration to glance up from the screens in the front-row console where he and the Navs Lead were setting up for whatever came next.  The Imaging and Navs techs we all bent over their consoles; Enviro's tech appeared to have a plumbing schematic on her screens and next to me, Kopje was paging through fusor data like he expected an answer to pop up on it.

     All the Stardrive parameters were green except for [CLASSIFIED] magnet temps and they were dropping fast; the stress on them is one of the limiting factors in how rapidly a ship can get back into the shared universe and Randall had pushed it hard, accomplishing in two steps what probably should have taken at least three.

     General Quarters rang out and Randall's voice came over the intercom and PA, "Zero-G in one minute.  Secure all.  Zero-G..."  SOP should have had everyone still secure from Jump and all the more so after the collision alarm, but there are always the few who figure it doesn't mean them, or assume they're as good as dead and if so, why bother to strap in? 

     Freefall is why, and there were always a few people who needed to relearn the difference between mass and weight.  On a ship with as many aboard as Lupine, the medical staff counts on working overtime after any zero-G and the longer it lasts, the more patient's they'll have.  Me, I made sure I was strapped in tight and briefly regretted the little I'd had for breakfast.  Zero-G doesn't agree with me and the feeling is mutual.

     Randall must have started reducing drive before he'd made the announcement because I started to get that falling feeling long before the minute was up.  I found myself yawning and trying it get my ears to pop; it gets my sinuses right away, despite all the doctor talk about "gradual fluid shifts."

     The displays were still filling in.  It looked like we'd picked up another couple of beacons and more traffic details were being filled in.  My intercom pinged in my ear and I looked down to see the button labeled IMG 4 blinking. Time to earn my keep.


     "Ramirez. Is there anything I should know about the forward receive array?  I should be seeing a marker from this blip, according to the info we've got."

     "Not as far as I know, Amy.  You're seeing lots of other RF, aren't you?"

     "I am. It's mostly S-band, though, and the marker is L-"

     I'd brought up SESAG while we talked, Significant Equipment Status at A Glance, and there wasn't anything about any antenna on it.  I closed it and started a search on TASKER, for something small that hadn't got posted.  "Doesn't look like we have any problems listed.  Is it an NDB on the far side of the object from us, maybe?"

     "Could be," IMG 4 sounded uncertain, "But Edgers are usually careful about that."

     I tried to sound reassuring: "I'll check with the guys in the shop and let you know, okay?  Is there anything on L-band?"

     Nobody in the Engineering Shop knew of any undocumented trouble with the L-band forward, either.  IMG 4 rang back to tell me she had a couple of faint markers elsewhere in L-band I told her the array was probably okay.

     While I had worked on that — and tried to ignore my growing headache — the display had been changing, details filling in, projections changing color from the oranges and yellows of uncertainty to greens and pale blues, big no-go zones showing around the installations coded for Mil/Space and a couple marked as orbital mining.  It kept filling in with  traffic-projection data from farther and farther away, reassuring unless you knew how much of it was not real-time, growing like a sped-up field of flowers.  Something else was changing, too; when I got my own display back to the home screen, the tallies for the port/lower and starboard/upper ion engines were indicating gentle thrust. I wondered what Randall was up to. It wasn't going to change our vector without throttling on the fusion primaries.  Not my worry; I scanned the readings and the ion systems were running fine.  Jonny Zed was looking after them in RF/REAX and he might be stubborn, opinionated and prone to the most amazing malapropisms, but after a lifetime of starship tech-ing, he was more reliable half-asleep than most people manage awake.

     Quiet conversations continued around me, half-heard, E&PP still fighting their plumbing issue, made all the worse by zero-G, the Power liaison beside me deep in some technicality about start-up and apparently talking to his opposite numbers in Structural and Cargo.  I heard him say something that sounded disturbingly like, "I don't care if it hare-lips everybody in the distribution room!" and decided it would be politic to see what what happening on my other side—

     The Navs geek, Stockman, was being very quiet, looking raptly at a screen full of nothing but numbers.  Maybe he felt my gaze; he looked over at me and whispered, "Isn't it amazing?  He really is a fantastic pilot."

     I tried to look like I understood, but it wouldn't've made any difference.  His attention was back on the display in front of him.

     Randall hit the all-call and PA once more, "Thrust in fifteen seconds.  Jump in thirty seconds!  ...Ten...five..."  He had the sequence preset but didn't count any more, intent on the display.  Thrust hit abruptly and the passageway lights blinked out, along with some brief, many-voiced chatter on the intercom.  It felt like more than three-quarters of a G but as I was thinking that, there was a burst of static, a nasty jolt, the thrust cut out and we were back in normal space — but where?  The "confidence" three-view had changed but the red border remained, bearing a huge notation: PROJECTED DATA ONLY.

     Thrust died as abruptly as it had begun and my headache came back, too.  Or maybe I'd forgotten about it.  Contrast only makes zero-G worse.   

     The three-view pictures looked backwards compared to how they'd looked before the Jump.  Trinity and its moons had been over _there_ and now—  It wasn't a mirror image.  It didn't make sense.  The Navs guy was muttering to himself over and over, "Come on, come on..."

     What was his first name?  "Tim?  What's up?"

     He kept his eyes on the big screen.  "If it worked, it's brilliant."

     "What is?"

     He sighed.  "Keep watching.  You'll see."

     It was an answer.

     All my stuff was in the green.  The power graph for the [CLASSIFIED] had the usual huge spike and the Stardrive final had had a couple of amplifier modules trip and reset but power out over time was a nice smooth curve up and back down. The summary windows for the ion drives showed port/lower and starboard/upper were on.  Welcome to mirror world.  Me, I just make sure they're ready.

     Kopje had a screen full of red tallies and was working his keyboard; he didn't look worried but he was busy. I punched across the channels on my intercom control, hearing nothing too out of the ordinary.  At least one of E&PP's plumbers appeared to have an unusual command of invective, colorfully applied to a running status report of the former water leak.  I listened with appreciation; it kept me from worrying and he knew a few terms that were new to me.

     Someone in the Imaging row overrode the intercom feed, "We have a beacon — make that two beacons. We're getting data—"

     I love modern computers.  The guesswork warning about "projected data" vanished from the big screen as he spoke and as a whole new jumble of numerical data scrolled up, the relative position of our starship and Trinity's star* adjusted slightly in the three-view.  At that scale, if you can see it, it's pretty far, but given the nature of the Jump, it looked like pretty close figuring.  I turned to Tim the Navigator but he was focused on his own screen, where similar-looking numbers were filling up.  His gaze was blank but he his fingers were intertwined above the keyboard and he was biting his lower lip. 

     On the big board, traffic details were still filling in.  Trinity and its moons were  once again looking busy.  There was a sigh from the front rows as a green bar scrolled up among the numbers and the red border winked out.  Next to me, Tim said "Hah!"

     I wasn't catching it.

     "See?" Tim asked me.  "He rolled going into the Jump and we're one-eighty around Trinity's plane...  

     Suddenly, it made sense.  A little.  "So we're still on track, just from the opposite side of the orbital plane?"

     "Exactly as planned."

     There's a "handedness" rule to vector translation in and out of Jump; it's one of the interesting little twists that sets the bar so very high for Navs staff.  Simple vectors clean up the math, which is why most Jumps start and end out in "flat" space where comets nest, and with the starship headed steady on at constant normal-space acceleration. (Edger starships cheat at this.  Just how is well-kept secret.) A skillful, prepared or desperate pilot can use the effect do some very tricky maneuvers indeed.  That's what Randall had done; the accuracy of his resulting path would show if he'd relied on talent or luck but it knew which I'd bet on.

     There was a quiet cheer up front that cut off suddenly when Ramirez at Imaging Four come on the intercom, all-call, "That's everything?  That's it?  Where's the bogey?.

     Next to me, Tim did a kind of jump-in-place against his seat belts. "She's right."

     Lupine's previous course was on the screen, easy to tell from the other traffic, away from everything but a few fixed beacons, ending abruptly where we'd Jumped, but the intersecting path of the "bogey" was nowhere to be found.  

     "I have a query on it in the queue," Ramirez said.  For whatever good that might do; beacons stream data constantly, system time, known and predicted positions and vectors for everything in the system from planets to research satellites, lists of comms freqs and — Edgers being Edgers — time-stamped market prices for a long list of commodities.  It's automated and the information is as up-to-date as possible.  But inquiries take twice as long at best, and if the servers on the beacon don't have what you need, it gets bounced inwards to crewed installations, where a human being tries to answer. That can take hours or even days. 

     I leaned over to Tim.  "How long to the beacon?"

     "Looks like we're close — call it seventeen minutes."

     We were interrupted by the Exec Pilot on all-call and PA again, "Thrust in two minutes!  Secure all, thrust in two minutes, secure all."  The timer had blinked to life on the main screen and was counting backwards from 2:00:00.

     My board was green, nobody was calling for Engineering to go re-engineer something on the fly.  There was nothing to do now but wait.

     To pass the time, I eavesdropped shamelessly on nearby conversations. Kopje had called up Trinty quotes for various grades of water and was in a conversation with his lot about getting rid of stored high-pressure steam, which didn't make much sense until I considered that MHD-over-fusion balances thrust vs. power extracted from the plume; you don't routinely throttle a fusion plant as such, since shut-down and restart takes days at best.  When Randall had dropped primary thrust, the Power gang had to dump the power somewhere, like turning water into steam. Dumped into the MHD plume downstream, it would add to the thrust, saving power.  A good maneuver, possibly a costly one if good water was expensive in the space aound Trinity.

     The return of weight came as a relief, even though it made my nose run.  Me and a lot of people; there's a a little cubby stocked with tissues between every workstation, and a suction trash receptacle just below it.  It's not there for decoration.   

     Various sound-effects rang out as the Jump Control crew reacted. Despite those TV shows — you know the serieses I mean — space travel is not always pretty.  As the noise died down, one of the comms techs spoke up, "I'm getting the 'Ack and welcome' from our original emergence."  So the Edgers knew we were here; or at least some of their beacon servers did.

    "Time hack?" Randall asked.

    "In the queue —  40 minutes lag, more or less."

     We'd get a better fix on our position relative to the beacons from that datum.  As it was,  the Jump pilot's reaction to the information suggested it was much as he had expected.

     I could see the fuzzy globes and flower-shape of the beacons and a various objects in motion start to shrink and brighten as Navs info built up, looking like a nature film of some strange growth run in reverse.

     Jump Pilot Randall leaned over to the Exec and held a short, off-mic discussion before turning his attention back to the confidence display and the scrolling column of numbers beside it.

     The Exec came on the intercom all-call first.  "We're going to call restricted standby for crew and passengers.  Jump crew, Power, DQ,RF/Reax, you are _not_ released.  Walt wants you on-station until we get our bogie sorted."  He didn't wait for discussion, just clicked over to shipwide PA, "Attention!  Restricted Standby as of now!  Light operations may resume.  All large masses must remain secured.  Passengers, please remain in your quarters for now.   We are safely within normal space, inbound to Trinity but minor maneuvering may be necessary."  He dropped off the intercom and repeated the whole drill on the PA again.

     That's not quite "Restricted Standby" really means.  It's just short of "battle stations," about as close as a nominally-civilian vessel like Lupine gets.  I wasn't surprised to hear the Chief's voice over my headset, accompanied by a blinking PVT marker above his name in a formerly-blank button on my intercom panel.

     "Bobbi, sitrep?"

     "Sir?" (I'm not fluent in Buzzword.)

     "What's the situation?  Jump Pilots don't invoke RS."

     "Randall did."

     The Chief replied with a frustrated sigh.  That's never a good sign. He dropped the connection without saying anything more, which is a definitely bad sign.    

    Time passed.  The Navigator next to me busied himself with some assignment, helping apply the ongoing beacon info-dump and whatever other information was coming in via optics and both active and passive radar to refining Lupine's position relative to our destination at Trinity and the various other objects in the system, from planets to down to, I suppose, loose bolts.  In the front row, a whispered three-way conference between Jump Pilot Randall, the Jump Coordinator and the Navs-Lead "feeder" had ended in him placing a hushed call with an actual and bright-red handset: hotline up to whoever was sitting in Command, presumably still Captain Cardenas
     I've mentioned before that starship Captains are more manager than navigator or pilot; most of them started out as one or the other, every last one I ever served under was a former U.S. Space Force officer and most of them are still USSF reservists.  Calling Command at this point, on top of a declared RS, suggested calamity.

     I couldn't figure it.  We were in the clear, emergency-avoidance successfully averted. Drives were idling, thrust was steady...  I looked at the rows ahead, hoping to catch sight of a blinking red icon on someone's display, but all I noticed was a taped-on sign at one of the Life Support (E&PP) positions that said, "ALWAYS MOUNT A SCRATCH MONKEY BEFORE TESTING."

     I was gnawing on that aphorism when Stockman elbowed me, stage-whispering, "Hey!"

     "Hey what?"

     He stared at his display.  "It's still not there."

     "Um, what's not?"

     "The bogie.  Ramirez is right, it's not on the Traffic feed any more.  And if the beacon on it was occluded earlier, we should be receiving it now."

     "Huh."  I couldn't think of anything else to say.  We were in the clear, as far as I knew, but a vanishing spacecraft or chunk of rock or whatever was worrying.

    The incoming datafeed suddenly sent a lot of blank space, followed by clear text:


     Jump Control got very silent except for Walt Randall's side of his hotline conversation: "You see that?  Those bast-"  He fell silent, then replied, "Yessir.  Understood."  And he hung up the phone.  "Unbelievable."  He hadn't keyed the intercom but his voice carried in the hush. "Unbelievable.  Three-hundred ninety-eight people and they want to run a test?" He was pretty loud by the last word. We all waited to see what he'd say next, but he just handed control back to DQ and has the Exec give the all-clear.

     Edgers!  Lupine was safe and headed in to Trinity.  It had only been a sim.
* You'd recognize the star's name, probably.  Which is why I can't tell you.