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.