25 December 2008

A Distant Yuletide Evening

(A Christmas story)

His streetcar went clanging away to the next stop and the end of the line. The three-story apartment building where he lived had holiday lights festooning balconies in front of a few apartments and greenery draped on the railings of a few more. Not much decoration, none at all around his — even in this, its fiftieth year, the settlement and settlers didn't have a lot to spare on frivolity. What caught Joel's attention was a cat crying somewhere nearby as he plodded up the drive. There weren't a lot of cats, either; the population had started small, smuggled-in to begin with, and some of the local animals kept the feral population near zero. The first flakes of a fresh snowfall were swirling through the twilight — nothing unusual for the long, harsh Winters of the planet nicknamed "Blizzard" by the earliest settlers but it made the source of the sad sounds all the harder to locate.

"The kitty's stuck in that tree, it's been up there almost all day!" It was one of his apartment-building neighbors, one of the newlyweds in the adjoining apartment. She'd be too embarrassed to speak if she ever figured out how easily sound got through the utility connections, Joel mused, and probably not very relieved to learn his solution, once the hubbub had become tiresome, had been to start keeping earplugs handy near his bed.

Right now she looked worried. Pointing earnestly up at the "tree" — more of a giant fern, looking something like a flattened pine — she said, "The guy upstairs got mad and threw his kitten out the window. It doesn't know how to get down! My Husband's out of town, can't you Do Something...?"

Joel grunted. Even here on the unknown frontier — the starship program and the Settled Worlds established in the 1950s in response to the threat posed by modern nuclear and biological weapons were still classified, hidden from nearly everyone Earthside — even here, there were plenty of people who would rather talk and feel rather than do. "They also serve, who only skin their knuckles," he muttered, grinning to take the edge off.

"Oh, I knew you'd help!"

The fern-trees weren't very strong for their size but Joel was light enough to climb the larger ones. This one was small enough to be questionable and, of course, the kitten was shifting around nervously near the end of a higher branch. And still wailing. Joel set his toolbag down on the porch, away from the damp and the increasing snowfall, and began to climb.

The tree swayed badly as he climbed to the second-story level. This had the benefit of causing the silver-gray kitten to stay put, clinging for dear life. The flip side was that the little cat was even more frightened by the time he got close enough to reach out. It hissed and retreated to the tip of the branch, now sagging down and back towards the slender trunk. Joel backed down a couple of branches, leaned out as far as he dared towards the hissing, spitting kitten, reached for it and took a pinprick paw-swipe in response, then scooped up the now-furious animal. "Got it!" he announced, trying to climb down with the frantic kitten clutched to his chest.

Slipping a few times on the way, he succeeded in returning to solid ground without any major damage to himself or the cat. "There you are," he said, holding the baby cat out to the young woman.

"Me? I don't want a cat! I was just worried. Anyway, it belongs to the man upstairs. But thanks for getting it down." She turned and headed for her door.

"...Unh...?" Joel replied, climbing onto the porch as the door to her apartment shut. And locked. "Great." Still holding the squirming cat, perhaps a bit tighter than necessary, he shuffle-kicked his toolbag down the porch to his door, changed his hold on the cat, fished his keys out one-handed, opened the door, shoved the toolbag inside, made a frantic two-handed grab to retain the kitten. He hooked a foot around the door and pulled it shut, looking down at the cat as it swung to. "Time to take you home, I think."

In two years living in the concrete-block apartment building, one of the first set of buildings made from local materials on Blizzard and originally a barracks, Joel had never been to the higher floors. A set of stacked, interlocking modules, the layout of each floor — and originally, of each apartment — was identical. Outside stairs linked balconies to the first-floor porch, two apartments side-by-side on the East and West sides, one in the center on North and South. The "guy upstairs" in question was a recent arrival, a man he'd never met. This didn't make him especially unusual; turnover in the building was high and Joel was anything but outgoing. Careful arrangement of Christmas lights along the new guy's section of the balcony, no name on the door; he knocked and waited. Nothing. Knocked louder and eventually heard a stir. The door opened a crack and a bleary, annoyed-looking young man looked out. "What do you want?" he asked.

"Is this your cat?" Joel held up the cat, which obliged by trying to bite him and mewing.

"Not any more! Damn thing pulled the drapes down on me when I was sleeping! It ruined my couch! It's hyperactive!"

"Uh, it was in a fern tree, the one up by the porch...?"

"Yeah, well, cats climb trees. So?"

"Neighbors said it was crying up there all day?"

"It cries a lot. I threw it out!"

"But it was your cat...?"

"Was. You want it? It's yours. Good luck." He shut the door.

Joel looked down at the cat. It hissed at him. "Oh, well," he said, and headed for the stairs.

He hadn't bothered to lock his own door; he shifted to a one-handed hold on the kitten, opened the door, look a step and fell sprawling over his toolbag. The cat escaped as he put his hands out to break his fall and scurried away under the couch. "Da-yum!" Joel yelled as he hit, but nothing felt too damaged. He turned, sat up, and kicked the door shut with half a smile, "I'm an idiot." He turned back to the couch, where, leaning down, he could see two eyes glinting in the far corner. "Fine, you. Stay there."

* * * *

A can of tuna (imported) and a bowl of water had proven enough to lure the kitten out from hiding long enough to growlingly bolt down a third of the food, be briefly sick, take a long drink of water, eat a little more and dance away when he went to wipe up the mess. He'd half-filled a plastic dishpan with dirt hacked from the straggly plantings along the porch and set it near the couch, hoping the kitten would take the hint. Stretched out on the couch, half-listening to the evening news on the radio, he'd reread the Christmas card from the elderly aunt who was his only living relative (and convinced he worked for a oil-exploration firm in some hard-to-reach tropical jungle back on Earth). After ten years, the homeplanet seemed less and less real, drifting away into an improbable nightmare. A bookish, mumbling loner, he'd had a cat back on earth, a gray-and-black tiger-striped tomcat named Ralph. That cat had been his constant companion and the terror of small animals and lesser toms for miles around for years, until the day it stopped coming home. He'd found the little body next to the road a few days later, stiff, unmoving, hit by a car along the road he drove to school every day and vowed, fiercely, Never Again. No More Cats.

Graduation, tech school, military service, the house fire that took both his parents and a short, flawed career in uniform later had found him in the office of an annoyingly-vague employment agent, signing a long-term contract. Months later, he'd been dazzled to find himself aboard a starship, furious to learn "long term" meant "lifetime" and found resignation turning willy-nilly into fascination as he learned more about his new home. The years since arrival, he'd found over-full with work, moving from site to site, installing and maintaining a mad assortment of radio communications equipment, fifty-years worth of military surplus, low-bidder lots and local improvisation. No close friends, no ties back "home" and that home increasingly strange and foreign; the Hidden Frontier retained an element of crew-cuts and "squareness" long-vanished on Earth. Always short on workers and long on things to get done, each world determined to become as self-supporting as possible, the challenges and the society they formed were like nothing contemporaneous on the home planet. His employers rated him adequate, occasionally even brilliant. His neighbors barely noticed him at all.

A noise caught his attention, the kitten carefully making a hole in the improvised litter and he thought, now, this. Outside, the snow continued to fall. The automated streetcar had gone clanging blindly back not long before, the sound eliciting a worrying flurry of panicked scratching from under the couch as it swelled and then faded. Calmer now, the kitten finished its business and made to climb the couch. He started to reach and thought better of it, watching through half-shut eyes as the little cat made its way to the cushions at his feet. Newscast over, the radio began a program of holiday music, schmaltzy old Christmas songs, as the cat, step at a time, climbed up onto his legs and made slowly for his lap, pausing to look around at every sound. Making its way to his lap, it turned around three times, sat down and began kneading at his waist. He moved a hand carefully, stopping as the kitten stopped kneading to look. It settled back down and began to purr.

Looking over at the card and then out the window at snow, now whirling down faster and thicker, catching glints of the colorful lights as it fell, he reached again for the cat, carefully, petted it and it sighed and started to purr louder. "No More Cats for me?" he thought. "No more cats for me on Earth."

(All I saw was a skinny, happy guy getting food for his cat, after I wangled a day-off trip down to Blizzard's landing-site "city," Frostbite Falls. I made up all rest. --Geesh, I wondered why the guys in the Eng. Shop were so highly amused at me wantin' to see the sights: snow, funky flat evergreen-analogs, a robotic trolley system right outta Loonie Tunes, and a whole lotta Metabolist-style semi-prefab buildings on rolling terrain, and that's it. Oh, and some scary native critters, but I never saw any. Kinda Christmas-y, though.)

Merry Christmas to you all and may all your dreams be as warm and happy as a sleeping kitten!

Roberta X aboard the Starship Lupine, Somewhere Out There. Way out there.

18 December 2008

On A Starship, Success Is Its Own Punishment

Bet it's that way where you work, too.

We were in the outbound runup from Vineways. I strolled into the Engineering Shop at something near the usual time, for a wonder. Said, "Howdy," to the First Watch gang -- Jonny Zed and C. Jay -- and the "earlybirds" on Second Watch, who come in three hours early to maintain continuity (all the "mission-critical" positions are covered that way, a tricky juggling act for the Chief to schedule but he's always got at least one fresh techie in Maintenance and Operators in Drive Control and the Power Room who aren't completely focused on dinner and a warm bunk. At least that's the theory). As soon as I could grab a phone, I called up Stores & Cargo to check on my order: "RX? Yeah, we'll have your tube and...cavity? We'll have 'em at Engineering by this time tomorrow."

I thanked them and hung up as the Chief emerged from his Inner Sanctum (a private office about the size of a shoebox. But it's got a hatch an' everything, which is nothin' to sneeze at), fixed me with the beady eye and asked after the squirt-booster drive that got added to my task list the other day.
"I've found the problem but ran outta hours before I could fix it last night, chasing the bad ion engine. --Parts for that 'll be here tomorrow."
"Fine. Go fix that drive, then. Today."
Ooops. A good day for the soft answer that turneth away wrath, I do believe; made same and a hasty, quiet exit.

* * *

There is this about the maintenance bay for squirt-boosters: There's no one to bug you. Or lend a hand, but there are plenty of tools and supplies. It's a bad day when these critters don't work. Not a fatal one, usually -- minimum complement for any trip up or down is two and, yes, one alone will do the job. We're not paranoid, it's just that we don't get paid if the freight goes splat. Downside, there's precious little concession made for maintenance access.

A standard squirt-booster is a cubist's version of a lemon wedge, twenty feet long, eight and a half feet high and four feet wide. For passengers, there are fatter versions, usually a pair of wedges sandwiching a tarted-up freight box full of fancy seats. In each wedge, there's a very simplified stardrive engine in it along with some very basic reaction-drive for fine maneuvering and it seats six -- or four big guys, or eight people who really, really want to get from Point A to Point B. Especially if they like roller coasters. The Conestoga wagon settled the American West, but these beauties are what's still settling NATO-allied planets. Even the Russians fly a copy; Edgers take a whole different approach, cribbed from the guys who beat everyone else to the moon. In many ways, it's more flexible but it's got side-effects.

How does a squirt-booster work? It very nearly doesn't. You strap 'em to a collection of standard freight containers (ours are a little different, mostly a matter of mods to the basic 8 by 8.5 by 20-foot box) and for planet-to-orbit, blip the drive. That small a mass, that close to a planet, there's not much control, but you can match a hovering starship in a single bound or hit orbit with a couple of quick zots and use the drive's vector-shifting tricks for gross maneuvering. --Very gross for the passengers, if any, since you go from rightside up to sideways to whatever; but it does the job. Trips down are nastier; a typical four-by-four drop is four containers, four squirt-boosters tucked in the corners, a wad of crash balloons, some ribbon parachutes just in case and a big ol' ball of foamed ablative. Blip the drive to deorbit, fall and flame, flutter the 'chutes, then jink and jitter around with the drive to get over your landing zone; kill the remaining velocity with the reaction drive and bounce down on the crash balloons. Needless to say, the LZ is nothing more than a large, wide-open field. Very large. It's complex but cheap and modularly scalable. As far as I'm concerned, the pilots who run 'em are either gods or insane. Probably both.

The unit in question, however, has developed a nasty tendency to do nothing at all about half the time when it's supposed to go blip. There's always another unit backing it up, but it adds an unpredictable lurch to the motion; the system's automated but nothing's fast enough to do a complete correction when it fails over. This annoys the pilots, plus there's a small but non-zero chance of lurching into the ground it fit happens at the wrong time they don't like, either.

Yesterday I ran it down to intermittent RF from, yes, another verdammt drive modulator -- simple as a hammer and not itself the cause. RF signal leaves it fine, occasionally does not get to the power amplifier; there is one piece of coax about twelve feet long between them and all I had to do was check it. Every inch. Which I did last night and found a suspicious flat spot.

Today, once I get the suspect section free of the clamps and two layers of spiral-wrap, it's obvious there's more than a flat spot; there's a tiny rectangle punched in the cable, too! Right through to the inner conductor. Maybe a tool slipped when the thing was assembled, maybe someone got clumsy while fixing some other broken bit, but I'll have to cut the line, install a connector, and add a new piece in place of the bad one. Fussy work but straightforward. (Translation: I loathe the connectors and coax used for this application; you can count on ruining one and having to start over at least once, every time).

A mere three hours (and one dropped and lost forever SMA "barrel" coupling -- at least it fell out of the squirt-booster) later, it's working reliably in test mode; I untangle myself from the cramped innards, gather up tools and use the terminal to log it back in service before putting the cover plates back on. Yay, hooray, another problem solved. It had sure made for an interesting ride down a few days ago!

The neck you save may be your own. It does add a touch of personal interest to the work.

Which reminds me, I found part of one of the old RCA ion engines stuffed in a storage locker while fixing the booster. We haven't used them in years! There's a plastic cover over the more-delicate bits, so it's a plain-looking item. Probably someone rebuilt it, years back and it has never been needed. It's definitely been in use -- see the typical erosion of the flange in the 8 o'clock area, which is next to the compensating electrode in a complete unit. The last octet of RCAs was replaced in '95, about ten years too late according to the old-timers.

14 December 2008

What Color Is The Sky On Your Planet?

You'd about think it would have to be blue, wouldn't you? At least, it would be anyplace you could breathe the air. Well, not. "True most of the time" is not equal to "True all the time."

Were this anyone else's blog, the title'd point to some nice example of contra-survival behavior; but as you know, I work on a starship[1].

I made planetfall in person the other day, which is about as rare in my department as a seven-toed cat: it happens but not so often it goes unnoticed. Didn't set out to; there was a nasty set of shifts coming up for the outfit ("PingSun," I think they're originally Taiwanese) that subcontracts to run commo from Earth -- e-mail, TV shows, videos, mostly a big ol' datadump for what passes for ISPs, "cable TV" (it's all wireless) and the like on the various settled worlds. As soon as we drop subluminal, it's a big deal for them to get the latest news, letters, movies, and so on -- you wouldn't believe how gaga some of these places went over "Friends," for pity's sake.

No accounting for taste and after all, I get to spend time back on the homeworld; they don't. Anyway, dropout was scheduled for 0200, ship's time (EST -- Greenwich isn't our home port)[2] and PingSun is busily upgrading everyone's comlinks; for complex reasons (i.e., the Starship Company is tweakin' 'em), we have to change out the gear inbound, do the "rush-urgent" feed, then they do a firmware upgrade on relay satellite(s) (if any) as we cruise in and make orbit. "Make orbit" is space-opera talk for a majorly tricky bit, as we keep the drive ticking over at low level along with the realspace drives for the costliest "artificial gravity" I can think of. Once we (and the worried sorts in the Control Room navigating this mess) pull that off without going splat, the PingSun crews land with the first batch of cargo, install a mess of hardware in a tearing hurry, and are done in time to catch the last squirt-booster up and change the shipboard gear out for the new stuff while we make ready to leave. They test the new-style link on the way out of the system, and we punch through to the next world with it in place. Nobody visits the Drive Room under full power, so next inbound, we do it all over again. Oh what fun. ("Test on the way out? What if it doesn't work?" you ask. In that case, next time 'round, the PingSun tekkies are still flyin' with us; somebody has to wait an extra week to catch up on "CSI: Toledo" and there is much apology and frantic repair. Not my worry!)

Thus at 0200 we find Our Heroine in a transport pod as far up the main boom as one can safely get, about a mile away from the Drive Room. Me, Andy Ha from PingSun, and cubic miles of cargo hold -- kerogen from Smitty's World (we paid too much, unless this stop's buyin'), toasters from WalMart Extraplanetary, gensets and knitting needles and...I don't really know, other than the fuel sludge; I made up most of that list. But you get the idea. Whoever is in the pilot's throne is smooth as buttered silk but I still feel a little sideways shift that suggests we're no longer apart from the Greater Reality. Sure enough, my pager beeps and the message pops up, DRIVE COLD; I key the gate (plain chain-link, we should invent things we can buy from Tractor Supply?) and we zoom the rest of the way.

The usual travails ensue. I helped Andy with the two-person parts, then had my own project, swappin' out a drifty YIG oscillator on the low-level side of the drive (gee, thanks, Millimetrewave Communications, it's not your Boston selves on the line if our drive modulator hiccups at a critical moment). I put the standby drive modulator online -- a quick, queasy not-quite-jolt as the vane switches in the waveguide flip over, fast compared to their dirtside versions but only barely fast enough -- open the panel of the main unit, find all but one of the connections holding the RF tray in place, loosen up the thumbscrews, slide it gingerly forward and mutter "Yikes, dammit," as the last connection -- submini semi-rigid co-ax cable -- starts to deform. Where's that 5/16" wrench? Loosen the SMA connector, gently push the cable out of the way and remove the tray. Then it's a couple more SMAs, a DE-9 and two 3-48 flathead screws. (The whole place is a mad mix of SAE, NC, Metric and BA fasteners, sorry, Captain Kirk). Reverse the process with the new one, stuff the old one in the packing with the "5" I marked on it last time I changed it out and a nice, nice note I'd already written to the manufacturer who told us there was no way we'd have four failures this trip. "Never" in the starship tech trade has been proven by direct experiment to last two weeks.

Slid the reassembled RF tray back into the drive mod, connected all the cables, shut the front panel, flipped the ON switch and it came up...little LCD on the front panel reporting insanity and all the fault lights lit! Dear, dear, damme.... Open the panel, look, look... Oh! The ribbon cable I forgot to plug back in, the one that connects the RF tray to the front panel. Yeah, that'd be kind of a problem. Power off, look it all over again to kill time and let the supply ramp down, plug it back in, shut panel, power on, boot -- success! Yayy me, I didn't kill it dead.

Went around the corner to check on Andy, who has a laptop out and plugged in to his collection of widgetry, staring intently at the screen. "Think I'm about done," he says, eyes never straying from the display.

I grabbed the phone and punched the big yellow button marked Drive Control. Ring...ring... "What, out for a smoke?"[3] Ring...
"Master Control."
"It's RX, Drive Room, I'm switchin' back to the main drive mod."
"Saw ya on the security cameras. Think there might be a big glitch? Pilot and Nav on duty'll notice, y'know."
"Yeah, but either it'll be so quick they'll get over it, or I'll have way bigger worries."
"'Yeah, but' if you clear it first, I won't!"
"Then you clear it, hey?"
For an answer, the Drive Control (DQ, I dunno why) Tech keys his intercom: "Russ?"
I can hear the pilot's reply -- he's pretty bored about now, it's a long steady deceleration at this point, "What's up?"
I hiss, "It's on the log -- parts swap in the drive," and the DQ op is, for a wonder, listening.
"Drive work, check the Ops log. Might be a glitch, especially if it doesn't work."
Russ is usually easy-going and this morning's no exception: "Go for it. We'll bump up the thrust on the insystem if we have to."
I asked DQ, "Ready?"
"Just a sec...okay."
I say "go!" and hear him repeat it on the intercom. I hit the toggle to transfer back to the main drive mod, there's a shift like the first hint of an earthquake as the switch vanes flop over, and the repaired drive mod's on, steady as can be. "That's it, DQ," I say; he says okay and hangs up.

Andy's packing away his tools and computer as I turn around. "Bit of a bump -- again," he says. He knows about our issues with the YIGs; I give him a sour smile and start putting away my toys.

On the ride back to the populated parts of the ship, he asks if I'm workin' a full shift that day. I'm not. The Chief thought it would be funny to give me a graveyard job going into my day off. I admit to having the day off and he says, "You wanna ride down with me later today?"
"To Vineways?" I ask like a goof -- it's where we're headed. "Sure!" I've never seen the place. It has a nifty long catalog number that wouldn't mean anything to you -- port city's called Vineways, so's the planet and the locals refer to themselves as "bibbers." (Yeah, I see what they did there).

Made planetfall about midafternoon, Andy headed out on his errands and I checked the place out. Such as it is:
There's the main uplink/downlink antenna, a few of the lights of "downtown" at the left; I am standing in the middle of one of the bustling thoroughfares. The sky's not so blue; the habitable zones are very far North and South and the main port's at the North of that area. Not a lot of axial tilt. Days segue from "sunrise" to "sunset" without much in between. Days, it looks like the middle of nowhere, at dusk.

--That's too harsh; one of the Security officers I've known for years -- let's just call her "T," so her boss doesn't get after me -- and some paper-shuffler she's hanging out with rode down in the same cargo drop; he'd been there before and led us to -- of all things! -- a sushi bar. We covered a table with exotic local items and some familiar tank-grown ones; I figure as long as you have wasabi, you can't go far wrong. T's beau taught us how to make origami frogs that really hop and I decided "paper-shuffler" was too mean a term, make that "office worker." When we were wrapping up, the host showed up with glasses of plum wine. Very nice and mine went straight to my head.

...At which point my pager went off (Motorola's got a special place in my heart. A very special sort of place). RX, NEED YOU EARLY SHIFT TOMORROW. With the Chief's initials.

A stardrive's tech's work is never done. Consolation, I didn't miss anything: the next day dirtside, it was sunny, cold and snowing horizontally. The "hardy pioneer" life is overrated, even when it includes sushi.
1. USAS "Lupine," in fact, irreverently known to the crew as the "Bluebonnet" (or something worse back before the starship companies were spun off from Uncle Sam and started running mixed crews) but there's a doggy on the ship's letterhead, sure enough.

2. It's an interesting thing that every nation that ran starships had their own little string or loop or cluster of settled worlds. It all got started after WW II, after Dr. Feynman made an offhand remark to-- Well, long story; the stardrive got Manhattan-Projected only more so and the settled worlds were supposed to be a hedge against the Cold War going too hot to recover from. As of now, about a third of the Western ones could make a go of it alone, another third would likely survive by "going Amish" and the remainder, long odds against. We know the Russians got kicked off one by their "settlers" and have had to make terms with most of the rest; there are at least two hardcore Red Star holdouts they don't talk much about. We're running cargo for the Brits these days, the last of their fleet was scrapped in '98; the French stopped talkin' in 1966 when de Gaulle backed out of NATO's combined command and the Chinese...who knows. They've got the technology and the boffins report some activity.

3. Except not. I'm told there were ashtrays on the very first starships. The Russians still have 'em -- and a lot fewer computers than we have, too. And more uniforms and saluting. Ew. On the other hand, give J. Random Russian Starship-Crew a set of bargain-bin tools, some duct-tape and handful of junk, and they can keep anything running. Might not be pretty to look at but it will be running.