25 January 2009

In Space, It's Hard To Ignore The Phone

Today should have been a day off. I still haven't got out my nightgown, let alone my quarters, yet I've been working most of the last four hours.

It all goes back to the Power Room gang. Lupine Power & Light, as they are often known -- and they do sell commercial power to the various subcontractors and merchants; even the functions of the ship proper generate a paper trail akin to billing. They have taken our recent string of power issues (UPS crashes, fried service transformers and other sorts of barbecue) very much to heart. Their most recent project has been a huge upgrade to the distribution system from the central fusion/MHD reactor, ripping out the last of the late-50s infrastructure and bringing the whole thing up to modern standards. Yay, hooray and it should have been transparent to the end user, most especially us.

By "should have been," I would be saying not so much. By "us," I mean the Command/Control core, where the Engineering Shop, the rack area, Drive and RF/Reaction Control and Master Control are to be found, where Navs, Imaging and Signals have their primary tech offices and where, one deck up, Officer's Country can be found, all panelling, hushed voices, carpeting, incongruous displays and gazillions on the line. The important stuff's all triply-backed up, right?

Right. Except for the few bits that aren't. You install a new thing in an old rack and don't check out where it's powered, could be later on there are tooth marks where you sit down. Or maybe on someone else, whoever else it fails on.

If you get bit, then fake your way out of it and leave the next shift to get burned, you'll learn there are worse things than tooth marks and once the heated wrath of the Chief has singed you to the bone, quiet, gentle Dr. Schmid is waiting, an otherworldly look in his eyes, as noble as Dr. Guillotine. 2/O and the big boss of Navs and Engineering and a man whose time, he refrains from pointing out, is not to be trifled with. What he might say or do, one should never find out firsthand.

...Let me draw a curtain across that scene, for it doesn't -- thank the Fates! -- concern us, not this time. Suffice to say, there was a big ol' glitch on the power and a couple of near-critical items took nasty hits that took 'em down, one of them a trick little Tweed "intelligent controller" that helps keep us from tearin' the place apart with the realspace drives; and here we are, inbound yet, with some fine maneuvering a few days away. So that was A Bad Thing.

What was worse was just patching around it and leaving it for the next guys along with a pile of other, less-critical fubars while making no particular note. By the time my phone started beeping, dayshift was looking lunchwards and the perps were snug abed -- unless the Chief had hold of them by then.

So I've been online, digging up files and notes: workarounds, software to reload and how we ran without it. That last gets us back to Navs some and piloting a whole lot -- looks like at least half the star pilots have eased this contraption into orbit without such invisibly automated help and a quarter of that group date back to before the thing it replaced...which I have located in a Stores & Cargo index and sent for. Might be a bit more zero-G this planetfall than folks have gotten used to.

I've also spent time on the phone with Dr. Schmid, talking through resetting another important item the night-shift guys left about half-right and I've volunteered to just head on down to C&C twice. "Better take what's left of your day off," he said, "It looks like there might not be any more of them for awhile." Ow.

What I'm wondering is, just what the dickens else messed up that the overnight crew had so little time to spend on these things? --And why didn't they start callin' for help when it happened?

I may be adventuring among the distant stars but from where I'm sitting right now, it sometimes bears a stunning likeness to Peoria.

P.S.: And after a morning spent that way and a middlin' nice mid-day spent reading and housecleaning, I'm on the phone again -- seems the Drive Control operator just tried to call up some seldom looked-at telemetry and the whole subsystem crashed. Yum.

24 January 2009

0900: Planetfall, Linden/Lyndon

Actually, 1000, but I'm chronically slow, especially when I don't want to be. Time to take a break from the dry facts they never told you about, scribbled down while I waited for the good folks at the annoying-tests department of Lupine's clinic to finish up whatever they were doing, lunch most likely.

It's said exciting situations usually aren't while they're happening, that "adventure" is somebody a long ways away in a lot of trouble. Like many such nuggets of wisdom, it's true and it isn't.

I've mentioned Linden/Lyndon/whatever they're calling it this time; it's not my favorite port of call and at that, I'd only ever been down once before today. Just the local TV and Web is bad enough.

There are some stunning successes on the Hidden Frontier. I've mentioned the insufferably proud Junior Jayhawks of Kansas II, though without much detail about the agricultural and industrial success that entirely justifies their pride, let alone the buffalions that make some parts of the vast, flat prairie so very interesting. And I wrote a Christmas Story set on proud, slightly goofy Blizzard, a cold place but rich in natural resources and with a keen appreciation of Jay Ward. Linden/Lyndon is success, too. Of a sort. Possibly too much so.

It was the fourth habitable world found (at least by the NATO powers) and the third settled. The climate's pretty good, the local land life not especially varied or aggressive toward humans; "terraforming" has been no big deal, about like settling Ohio. Or Texas: some challenges but the settlers rose to meet them. And had kids. A lot of kids. And indulged in civic involvement most majorly. They had a large and steady influx of settlers through the Sixties and went in for referendum and ballot initiatives and such in a very big way. Local government has been more than a bit...variable. Sometimes there's not much. Sometimes there are a lot, with a lot of rules and fines and forms, fees and taxes and tariffs. If you take shore leave, usually you have to change all the money into whatever they're using at the time -- Linden Reserve Notes, Kennedy Hours, gold certificates (good luck tryin' to redeem 'em) and you can count on not taking your change back -- there's always an "exit tax" or a steeply slanted rate of exchange (plus fees) or some darned thing. The economy runs in fits and starts; we can sell a lot of cargo but sometimes they haven't much to swap for it -- and nobody but nobody takes paper money, checks, drafts or letters of credit from any business or government agency there.

The locals don't seem to be starving and the general ambiance reminds me of California's central valley; but it's not a stable place and they don't get nearly so many settlers these days.

The squirt-booster landing field is run about like any other enterprise on the planet -- one trip it'll be filled with officious officials, next time run by bumbling amateurs, or all but abandoned. We and our sister ships have given up counting on the locals, and set up meteorological and, well, surveillance installations in the buildings near the field. Each ship sets up one, maintains it, makes their own arrangement with the locals; we can all tap into all of them and we'll do emergency repairs on the others if need be. It's clumsy but it works. Mostly -- sometimes the locals steal them.

We first thought that was what had happened this time but the reality was more complex. Our camera and weather station is d-e-a-d. As in off the air. As in we got an ansible call from the KSAS Wildcat* to let us know the building, a primo 15-story apartment tower with shops and parking on the first two floors which connect it to a 10-story office building that had all been under serious renovation on our last stop, and a goin' concern when we installed the stuff, was dark. Gutted. They'd tried to get in but the place was buttoned up tight -- or tight enough to keep an honest man out, they'd seen firelight in a couple of windows -- and they'd been unable to get a hint of the current ownership, if any. Ever since we dropped back into the more-or-less normal universe, we've been tryin' to find the present owners, pay up, maybe get the power back on -- managed the first trick three times, each time the outfit has raised a fuss about back rent, then become evasive when we've asked for documentation. It now appeared the renovation had failed and the building was in receivership -- when what passes for the planetary government had managed to go belly-up again, including the courts. Unh, oops? Things are a little unsettled down at Star City.

The Chief has been hopin' to just get down there and grab our stuff. There's, I don't know, about half a million bucks (as of the last time I spent any) worth of hardware strapped to the top of that building, doing nothing, and he wants it in hand before we move on to the next step. The Chief's boss, the Dir of Eng, Ops and Nav, Dr. Schmidt, he is not so sure and has spent a lot of time with the Purser and her tame lawyers, radioing back and forth to our supposed semi-landlords. Yesterday, at long last, even he gave up.

We've been talking contingencies and making plans for weeks now, ever since Wildcat's message; Handsome Dave did the original install seven years ago with a crew of locals and he'd dug out his photos. --Pretty plush building, back when! But not a nice place for us: there's no rail or parapet on the roof. You step out of an elevator penthouse onto a four-foot ledge, walk ten feet, and turn the corner to the main expanse of the roof. Electronics package is inside a closet at the top of the stairs, easy to get to. Met stick and radio link are on masts fastened to the penthouse wall but the camera, well, that's at the far corner of the roof, on a four-foot pole. Fifteen floors above the blacktop, no rail, no parapet, no nothin'. Stylish.

Good news: there's a lot of blacktop. Remember the squirt-booster pilot who gave me a nice long talking-to about not impugning the capabilities of his faithful steed? Yeah, him; he swears he can set us down right next to the building. Bad news, main access was on the second floor and our pix from orbit show the outside stairs to that entrance are gone.

Nevertheless, we gathered in the Eng. Shop well ahead of 1000 this morning. Handsome Dave showed up last with a rueful expression. "Might be off; I reminded the Chief that Big Tom and Kent can't do any heavy lifting right now and he chewed me out and asked why we even bothered to show up."

General complaint ensued; we'd all dug out our coats, jackets and jumpsuits (early Spring where we're headed) with the ship's logo on them, along with various and sundry other items (hey, a one-hand opening pocket knife is a tool, not a weapon and it's just plain handy to have one in each pocket; and an 80-lumen flashlight is practical. Okay, the pointy bits on the lens end are kinda much but it was on sale...).

"Okay, okay, let's see, C. Jay, Lance, Morris, Bobbi, me, that's enough to get all the gear; Butch stays in the booster with whoever we get from Security--"

"That'd be me," from the door. Mike, head of Ship's Security, think of him as the Sheriff. He's limpin'. "As long as I don't have to run, anyway."

Turns out he slipped in the shower this morning, doesn't think it's all that bad, and Dr. Schmid (Ph.D.), Lupine's 2/O and thus Director of E, O & N wanted somebody with some rank to accompany our little picnic. It's a good sign. Dave heads off in search of the Chief, last seen heading for the Dir (etc)'s office while the rest of us mill around, grab tools and gab about methods of entry. C. Jay shares out some nifty headband lamps and hands me, a bit slyly, a hefty hammer handle sans head. By the time Dave's back, thumbs up, we're ready, and we all troop off to the squirt-booster bay, where a simple double waits, about the size of a city bus. On the way, Dave tells us the Chief's staying aboard: "He wanted to go, his boss won't let 'im." We mull that over and I, at least, wonder if this might be a little riskier than it seems. Is this trip really necessary? It's too late to wonder!

After the usual clank and confusion, we're on our way down, a disorienting experience. True to his boasts, Butch sets us down neatly, the 'drive cutting off a mere 25 feet up and we squish down on the crash balloons right in front of the place. Grey sky, grey day, traffic streams by a half block away but there is not a car in the lot nor a soul to be seen.

While the rest of the crew set up a ladder to the balcony at the old main entrance, Dave and I made a quick sweep around the building looking for an easier point of entry -- him in close and me hanging back, looking around. A big, empty parking deck connects "our" tower to the office tower, which is just as empty. On the outside edge, a spiral stair winds up two floors; the ground level is fenced off but the gate gapes open, a chain and padlock laying in a puddle next to it. The only openings we see have heavy plywood bolted over them, the ends of the bolts pounded over: no access there.

When we complete our circle, C. Jay is already on the balcony, calling down a warning about ice in the shadowed spots; I hand up gear and then follow him up. The door's locked but a big plate-glass window next to it is broken out; Morris has cleared the jagged shards with a wrecking bar and we head in. It's right at the middle of a long side and the elevators are off to our left. Stairs should be right around here, no?

No. Dave shakes his head at our quizzical looks. "Never saw 'em at this level." So we set out past the the former leasing office, and into a kind of maze: storage rooms, doors all ajar, the floor drifted with old magazines, heaps of clothing, Beta tapes (caught on big out here, go figure). It's unlit and the sightlines are poor, with blind corners and tight spaces. It makes my skin crawl and I am not the only one -- headband lights are on and anyone with a hand light has it on , too.

The group splits and reforms, down one hall after another, into an unexpectedly wide corridor with padlocked overhead doors at the far end and more mazelike halls branching off. No stairs. One of the guys, I can't tell who, mutters, "Great set-up for a first-person shooter game," which is true enough except that in here, losing would mean more than having to start over. Something else bothers me and I finally put words to it: "There can't be any stairs hiding here, the walls don't go all the way up!" The storage cubicles have mesh ceilings and their walls stop a good two feet shy of the ceiling. I shine my light around to confirm it: sure enough. No walls other than outside walls, no stairs.

Back out through the maze to what was once the leasing office -- "Look out, that panel's full of nails," and so on, slicing the pie around corners and wishing Linden/Lyndon wasn't quite so Illinois about guns. Dave and C. Jay headed down a level (looking, I guess, for mystery stairs that bypass a floor), Lance and Morris head deeper into the office hoping for a floor plan. It looks like news footage of a war zone -- ceiling tiles and wires hanging tangled overhead, glass all over the bunched and sodden carpet, desks overturned, drawers open -- but about as the downstairs guys give up and head back, I hear "Aha!" and Lance comes out to the lobby holding a roll of drawings. Five minutes later, we're all certain there is no blamed access from the office/storage levels to the apartment floors above. I'm pretty sure the fire codes back in the States and Europe wouldn't allow it, but here, it's another matter. The fire stairs are on the ends of the building and they don't stop at this floor!

Back down we all go, across the parking lot and up the spiral stairs to the topmost parking deck; we trudge up them, cross a bit of concrete and up one flight to -- a door with a sheet of plywood screwed across it. Dave's already working at it with a screwdriver when I arrive but a wrecking bar makes short work of popping three sides free. The door thus revealed, nice shiny glass, is not deadbolted but the crashbar's latched. Another job for the wrecking bar, a very gentle pry, and it pops open.

Revealed, concrete stairs, one flight down and 23 up. The fire door to the first floor we pass (4) is open and it looks like people had been moved out in a hurry. At the next landing up, there's a shopping cart on its side and the fire door is closed, trash neatly bagged beside it. The guys had been yakking but now we trade looks and get less noisy; there's another shopping cart on the next landing up and as we pass it, the radio Morris is carrying squawks, "Everything all right?"

He turns it down and replies but I think I hear scrambling sounds above; we press on. All the way up, there are some signs of recent habitation. On most floors, the fire doors are open on hallways just as cluttered and abandoned-looking as the first. It's the few that are shut-but-not-latched that worry me. At the top floor, we march to the center of the building, where the open doors of a very empty elevator shaft gape, the counterweight hanging at the back. Just beyond that opening, a narrow stairway winds up into darkness. "We can go that way," Dave says, "Or over here--," as he walks into an apartment across the hall. The main room is huge, lit by a floor-to-ceiling window but I start to ask if sightseeing is a good idea, stopping when he heads up a stairway: it's a two-story apartment!

The room at the top of the stairs defies expectation. It's got floor-to-ceiling windows on each side, one looking towards downtown and the other out to the suburbs but what dominates the room is huge bathtub, at least ten feet square and two feet deep, tucked into a corner. Along one wall, at the far end from the taps, there's a little marble-shelved passthrough about two feet square; I walk around the corner and up a step: the passthrough opens into a small WC/vanity, with a medicine cabinet set and hinged so anyone reaching though the passthrough could reach in. Dave laughs, "Helluva place to keep the soap, hunh?"

Just past the bath is a door into the same dark staircase we'd seen below, winding on up to the roof. C. Jay takes the lead and when the door at the top proves to be stuck, braces himself and kicks it open gently. Just as the pictures showed, it's a narrow walkway and a long way down. There's no place to tie a rope or clip a cable, just a couple of antenna poles in some flimsy-looking brackets I wouldn't trust.

Dave, Lance and I file out onto the roof and around the corner. Dave's got the collapsible ladder, and we lend a hand extending it, locking the sections and standing it up so he can get the weather instruments and antennas from the elevator penthouse roof. C. Jay and Morris will tackle the electronics package inside, Lance and I head towards the camera -- at some point, I managed to volunteer for it. It's not that bad unless you really dislike heights but there are puddles on the roof and a brisk, gusty breeze. I huddle down, duckwalking as I get closer to the edge: it's a lot harder to do a trip and fall when you're starting low! Right on the corner, there's our "non-penetrating mount," a steel frame about four feet square with a pole in the center topped by a medium-sized camera on a remote-controlled pan and tilt head. The base should be full of concrete blocks but they're all missing. I restrain myself from going to the edge and looking over to see if they're below, squatting down instead on the edge of the mount's frame and looking at what holds the pan & tilt to the pole: a "coffee can" a heavy steel can with six fat setscrews, all a bit rusty but worth a try. Down below, sirens scream by and wail to a stop, out of view, and I hear Dave on his radio: "Any company on the ground?"

"Nope. Little action on the highway but it's not us."

I don't have the right size wrench but I've got an adjustable. Lance is hacking away at the cables -- "It doesn't have to be neat, hey? Oh, dammit," as the wrench slips, but the setscrew had turned. I back it out, five to go, get the next one and realize I'd better do the two closest to the corner of the roof next, which I proceed to do, mostly by feel. Fifteen floors didn't sound like much but even looking out instead of down, it's not a small distance. Okay, next two, the "coffee can" wobbles free and I get my arms around the camera housing and lift. Swelp me, if this thing is too heavy, I'm droppin' it, I'd rather be yelled at by the Chief than splatted here-- It comes clear and Lance leans in to take some of the weight; we walk it back towards the elevator penthouse to hear, "Heads up!" and a small high-gain antenna hits the roof in front of us.

Back at the stairs, C. Jay and Morris have the electronics package out and are bumping it down to the elevator level; Lance and I strap the camera to a length of strut and head after them like Great Cyber Hunters. Once we're down, they head back up and return shortly with Handsome Dave and a pile of assorted Met. and RF goodies. As we're sorting and packing for the trip back down, I see C. Jay dart a glance down the hall to the stairs, then he trades a look with Morris as I hear a faint clanking and muffled voices. "Anyone else hear that?" Jay asks, as we all fall silent. Yes, it's faint but something's coming.

"There's another set of stairs at the far end," Lance says, and we pick up our burdens and head that way. I grab the collapsible ladder -- it's got a shoulder strap -- and one end of the strut holding the camera; Jay and Morris have the bulky electronics housing and Dave's got a fully-loaded knapsack. We get to the far end in record time and sure enough, more stairs, the first flight well-clogged with discarded clothing; but down we go. At the first landing, I have to swap shoulders, the ladder's tangling with the camera, but I do it on the fly and down we go. Most of the fire doors on this side are closed.

It's an endless descent, round and round, stairs down half a floor and then a landing, followed by more stairs, over and over. My right knee starts to burn and the burn becomes a fiery ache; we start to fall behind. Lance says to Dave, "She's startin' to slow up."

I pant back, "You wanna carry the ladder awhile?"

"You've got the ladder, too?"

"Didn't. Wanna. Leavitt."

Dave tells me, "Set it down on this landing, I'll grab it." I'm happy to comply.

Five more floors, we climb down, down, past a covered door, hey! One floor too many! But we've about caught up with the first pair and this is the route they're taking, so we follow. There have been water leaks down here, potable water I hope; it doesn't smell especially bad. The floor is slick with drifts of pulped ceiling tiles on ragged, mildewed carpet and we have to cross full length of the building. About halfway, I hear both radios: "Company out here, couple unmarked SUVs just pulled in." Grrrreat.

We get to the end, trudge up one flight to the door, out, down and Morris puts out a hand. "They're at the base of the spiral steps. Sittin' talking."

Dave has come down by then and says, "Let's just wait. I could use a breather anyway." Me, too, but darned if I'll admit it.

After about ten minutes, the radio again, Mike from the squirt-booster, "They haven't given us or the the building any attention. I think it's just a hook-up. You might as well head out."

So, off we go, and sure enough, the occupants of the two SUVs (Ladas, f'pity's sake) don't even glance our way. If they're game, we're game, so we ignore them as studiously, get across the lot to the booster as Mike pops the hatch, load up, strap it all down, strap in and the pilot gives us and our cargo the once-over. "All ready? Bunch of pirates!"

We grin back like schoolkids, he punches the Go button and we bid sweet, lovely Lyndon (Mike says they're back to that, now) a less-than-fond farewell. I don't know who or what was headed up the stairs as we headed down and I'm just as happy not to.

All the gear we've grabbed has to be refurbished before it can be reinstalled anywhere -- but not back to that building, not if they'll listen to my advice or that of any of us who went after it. All in all, not a bad day's work and we were back aboard by 1400. Naturally, the Chief groused about lost time and had plenty else for us to do the rest of the watch.
* Yep. Kansas II has a merchant fleet -- okay, one ship, and they bought it used. Still, even I have to admit, not too shabby.

23 January 2009

Starship Lupine Exterior View

(Much busy, so here's a descriptive tidbit to tide you over).

At first sight, the Lupine resembles nothing so much as a junkyard sculpture of a horseshoe crab. The ship is so huge that the fine details are lot once you're far enough away to take it all in.

Originally a combination colonization/freighter/carrier vessel, one of three in the United States Space Force fleet, built back when the vacuum tube was king and the only power source up to the job of folding space to outrace light was not one but five modified Navy-type nuclear reactors,[1] it was intended to pursue the fleeing ships of what came to be known as the "Far Edge" after they swindled the USSF out of their planned Lunar missile base. By the time she was complete, it was already too late, but USSF had to find out the hard way. "Better safe than sorry," especially when your quarry possesses the means to wipe out the Earth several times over.

That, as it turned out, was never the problem. But it was a heady time, when the "black" budget swelled to unaccountable levels and a trip to space was, like as not, one-way journey. Very few people have realized that the primary goal of Project Mercury was perfecting reentry techniques: a late-1950s squirt-booster would get you to Earth orbit and beyond but landing on a celestial body was a much trickier prospect; the airless Moon allowed for "bounce-down," cushioned by JATO[2] units and vast airbags but return to Earth was problematic, as the Sgt. Snodgrass Crater in Nevada testified.

At closer range, Lupine is more "junkyard" and less "arthropod," a collection of various sized structures interconnected by corrugated tubes, vast M.C. Escher arrays of scaffolding and a myriad of random what-is-its, shoved along by acres of MHD and ion rockets underneath.
1. "How did they condense the working fluid and shed waste heat?" you ask, and considerin' that USN has entire oceans (or at least seas) to cool theirs, it's a good question. The answer, like a lot of things from the early days of the USSF, is unsatisfactory. A lot more water in the loops plus vast radiating area, for one thing; and the even more vast framework of the ship to heat up, as well. At full steam on a long jump, this meant things were...toasty...aboard at the end of it. They'd make orbit and shut as much down as possible, shining brightly in the infrared. Not at all stealthy but in a fighting-type situation, the .mil squirt-boosters would have been dropped off shortly after returning to normal space and before deceleration, so they'd be moving at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, while the carrier vessel lagged behind.

2. Some readers want me to say "RATO" but here's the deal: we're talkin' about folks back In The Day who had just finished whuppin' Nazis. Germany had RATO units, fueled by flesh-melting T-Stoff; the United States had JATO units, running on good ol' American know-how (also solid rocket fuel). The Brits had real jet engines in theirs but in any case, JATO is what the USSF boys called 'em and so will I. Wikipedia says we're right enough.

Adventures In History, II

[Where was I? Oh, right, sitting in the waiting room of the Lupine's clinic, run, as near as I can tell, by Molasses-in-January Medical, scribbling down notes about the prehistory of the Hidden Frontier. That's the problem with blogging after the fact -- you lose sync].

As the Sgt. Snodgrass Incident made clear, there were serious navigation and piloting issues, especially near any other mass. Jumps certain (or nearly so) to arrive in open space or atmosphere were safe enough; but close-in, there were often anomalies and even when there weren't, the problem of getting a short enough Drive pulse, on the proper vector, was nearly insurmountable. Very early inertial navigation equipment was an obvious answer, but still too crude. The precise control needed for close-in maneuvering and landing remained elusive. Human reactions couldn't do the job.

For longer "flights," the obvious answer was to work out every step well in advance and automate the process. IBM' s SSEC went online in '48 and by 1950, was producing "jump presets" on the same heavy-duty punched tape used in SSEC's Table Lookup Unit; sadly enough for Snodgrass, the accuracy of the system was not all that great.

In June, 1950, it suddenly became clear to Outer Hebrides Agronomy Project management that time was running out; as Korea burst into war, something had to be done and if not an atom-bomb base on the Moon, then what? At news conference that November, President Truman mentioned using atomic weapons in the conflict, at which point even OHAP's DoD bosses began to feel the urgency for faster results.

Meanwhile, the flight-testing program had attracted unwanted attention -- reports of the vehicles jinking around madly, colored lights in the sky and so on had started something of a fad and not even major disinformation efforts by various three-letter agencies and Service branches were keeping it entirely contained. A heavy schedule of flights -- for instance, what would be required to build and supply a Lunar base -- was risky; control and navigation issues on landing made it essentially impossible. And power plant problems appeared to seal the deal; the massive energy demands of the Drive could not be sustained by battery banks. From great pressure, however, arises great results (or massive failure).

The solutions to most of these well-nigh insurmountable opportunities was just around the corner. In early '51, Sperry-Rand's Univac 1, smaller and lighter than IBM's SSEC, hit the market, followed in a year by IBM's own 701. In December, '51, the small atomic powerplant at Arco, Idaho came on-line, with Pentagon rumors of a battleship-ready reactor to follow. As these pieces came together, first on paper and then as working models, it appeared the vehicle would do everything "flying saucers" supposedly could -- except land. Or navigate accurately near a large mass, which comes to the same thing but has other implications, too. As you will learn.

[to be continued]

21 January 2009

Adventures In History

So, having made it through a less than optimal re-emergence into rational — or at least normal — space, found and fixed a nasty problem with the stardrive remote controls, run only somewhat afoul of the Chief (who is back and seems be in a slightly improved mood: bless and keep the ship's dentist, who has improved all our lives), it's all just totally marvy as we muddle our merry way inbound to Lyndon/Linden, whichever they'll be callin' it this time (unless they've changed it to something completely different and are fighting over it. Again).

All just totally marvy for everyone but me, anyway. We get days off. No, we don't shut the ship down for the weekend ("Everybody hold your breath, now!") but you get a couple days from every seven and generally as a set. The Chief works a more-random schedule, the better to keep us on our toes; as it happened, he and I had both been off for the previous couple of days.

So this morning the Chief emerges from his lair holding a hardcopy as several of us hardworkin' techhies are in the midst of a discussion of Zedd-speak, in which no one is ever singled out but somehow, miraculously, "somebody" always undoes Jonny Zedd's Great Works, as in: "Somebody came along after me, took the labels off all them wires, and tangled them all up!"

"As long as you're enjoying that, here's some more fun for you," he said. "You're off to blow into a tube!"

The printout covered e-mail between him and, yes, even here they call it HR. Three days ago, I had 48 hours to report to the ship's main clinic for a random alcohol screening. Too bad they only told my boss. While he was at the dentist. The day before his (and my) two days off. Complain I might but the hardcopy makes clear that he took the fall for this one and I'm in the clear — as long as I head to the clinic right now.

C. Jay grins at me. "Don't feel too picked-on, last week they tapped the Captain for the same thing."

I smile back, "The diffo bein', he takes dinner an' lunch with high-rollers, while my people are all Temperance!" (Not entirely true, mostly they're just Methodists; but it comes to much the same thing: if I have four drinks a year, I'm havin' a wild, wild time). Still, I recall this morning's vending-machine chocolate-chip cookies, made fresh on board, and I am hoping they didn't get too heavy with the vanilla. That alcohol all bakes out, doesn't it?

So here I am, sittin' in a mildly grubby waiting room with a couple other folks, crew or subcontractor employees, filling out of-all-things paperwork. Actual paper, with an actual pen, which they will take, keyboard in, and chuck down a recycle chute to return, eventually, as a new form. Or perhaps washroom tissue, which is much the same thing. At least the thumbprint reader has a USB cable and not an inkpad. Though - thumbprint? That's new. Do they think I might send my imaginary twin? Oh, well.

Sitting. Waiting. And wondering how we got here. I'll bet you do, too. So why not jot down a little history?

It must have all seemed simple enough at the time. Having developed what was rapidly apparent as the capability to destroy all human life, some Manhattan Project scientist and engineers formed the Atomic Scientists of Chicago and started warning everyone about the terrible dangers. A few -– a darned few – were already in the process of dealin’ the Soviets into the game. The Franck Report circulated, ideas were bandied about, and not much was actually done.

But eventually, some of them did something else. It all started – as I have previously mentioned -- with a chance remark by Richard Feynman to a group of free-range intellects at Alamogordo, a group that included a couple of theoretical physicists and a mathematician you never heard of. In fact, now you can hardly find them in the declassified material, let alone any of the history books, and with good reason. (As far as I can tell, Dr. Feynman never knew about the stardrive, his role in inspiring it, or the off-planet settlements; at least officially. Unofficially, who can say? There was very little escaped him).

It started out as a joke, really, a cute conceit that couldn’t possibly have been true; but enough of an idea that a young physicist from that bunch chasing a PhD would sit down with the mathematician, look into it and see farther than he expected.

In early 1946, the first thing that happened after he tried to publish was it all got classified (as the “Outer Hebrides Agronomy Project,” no less) followed by Uncle Sam throwing money at it with an eye to weapons applications. There are some, but they’re not especially practical outside space opera. Still, it’s a living; ask anyone in the biz.

In the larger world, time ticked on; in June of ’47, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists first featured the Doomsday Clock, hands set seven minutes away from a final midnight. And nearly a month later, a very small and colorful bubble of indescribability popped from a lab to a mountainside in no time at all, or at least faster than the photon flies, and blew a hole bigger than a city block. Also every fuse and breaker in the lab, just like in the movies; except instead of hopping up and down shouting “Eureka,” our heroes, such as they were, gave each other sheepish looks and wondered how onerous the paperwork was going to be. It wasn’t until a month later that they started to see that something other than a big mess had occurred.

Precise aim over short distances proved a problem, nor was the War Department (look it up) especially interested in using a couple of rooms full of fussy electronics to do what one plane-load of conventional bombs or modern field artillery could do better, nearly as quickly, and at far lower cost. When it developed that “up” was an easy direction and it was possible to enclose and move material objects, you didn’t need to be Kenneth Arnold to see the possibilities.

And meanwhile, Atomic Doom was in the news. In September 1949, the Soviet Union showed they could take a hint – or borrow blueprints – and surprised everyone except a few spies with their first bomb test. By now, you’re thinking some far-sighted visionary would have seen the possibilities and set out to settle the stars!

You’re right and you’re wrong. Another thing had happened in ’49: American Legion Magazine published a science fiction story by a writer named Robert A. Heinlein. You may have heard of it; it’s called "The Long Watch." One thing it features is an atom-bomb missile base on the Moon. By ’49, the War Department had been subsumed into the badly-named National Military Establishment (“NME” – I told you to look it up!), which changed monikers to become the Department of Defense. By any name, they weren’t especially interested in science-fiction yarns – but flyable hardware was another story. The director of OHAP read the story and read his superiors as well. He spun them a yarn about "seizing the high ground" without any explosive German rocket scientists or their even more-explosive toys and by that year’s end, isolated parts of Nevada were witness to some of the oddest hardware ever flown. If “flown” is the proper word for welded-together bits of Navy vessels, remote-controlled, loaded with Diesel generators and shock-mounted electronics, hopping on giant shock absorbers, flickering from here to a not-too-distant there in a twinkle of colorful light and surprisingly little sound. It had quickly become clear that the enclosed volume of a stardrive field did not smoothly scale up as power input was increased: there were distinct steps. Stages. Wastebasket-sized, car-sized, city-block size and perhaps even larger, but nothing in between. Clear, too, was that the larger the field, the farther the jump in a given time. It also became clear than no matter what the specs said, if you dropped a klystron from very far up, it made a mess – and gensets didn’t fare much better. Still, when it worked, it was quite a sight, research vehicles lurching along like a plate skipped over a lake.

The astute reader will have noticed I’m not naming names or mentioning map co-ordinates. You can bet the few clues I have dropped are red herrings, too. I can tell you a little about the pre-history of the Hidden Frontier, put together from what they tell us and a bit of rumor and guesswork, but not all that much. Just as well; I’d as soon not give the kids at NRO, NSA and their more-hidden sister agencies too much extra work.

Research continued, progressing to smooth shapes that fit the developed drive field, oblate spheroids; control got better, too, though anywhere but up still posed problems, problems that went “boom!” Nevertheless, it was inevitable that one of the researchers would go for a joyride. In the late Spring of 1950, an Army noncom named Snodgrass was the first man in space. We know because he radioed news of his success. Unfortunately, it doesn’t count, as he failed to meet FAI requirements when he muffed his return: one hop too far on the way down. I hear the crater can still be found if you know where to look.

[to be continued]

12 January 2009

"Who's Flyin' This Thing?"

Dropping out of transluminal travel is a nerve-wracking affair. I suppose it shouldn't be; we've done it often enough and the mathematics that purport to describe the process are smooth and elegant. At least that's what the Navs boffins tell me.

In practice it can be a bit...bumpy. They're pretty sure crossing the barrier is what did in the first experimental starships lost once they'd got the mass/power/field volume relations worked out. It doesn't have to be bumpy and that's a good thing -- a starship big enough for an economic cargo-to-power ratio is very large indeed, the ten-by-five miles by a thousand feet of my own dear Lupine being an average example, at which point "bumpy" is something more than a reason to keep the good china in a padded box.

Skill is what makes the difference between large pieces coming off and a transition so smooth the passengers never notice and Stores & Cargo barely do. To do the job properly takes at least an hour and up to three on our longest hop. It's no time at all compared to the weeks and months spent doing what amounts to outracing light[1] but a very long time if you're riding it through. Star pilots who can get the job done are star pilots indeed, combining a superlative grasp of seven-space behavior with excellent reflexes and the "people skills" it takes to coordinates a command deck crew and my boys in Drive Control and RF/Reaction Power (watched over by DQ outside transition times), especially under the critical eye of the captain or any of his XOs. Power room's fully staffed for this as well, mostly a holdover from the days of having a bank of Navy-type fusion reactors, our pair of triply-redundant fusion/MHD powerplants being both dependable under acceleration and not especially amenable to wrench-turning fixes on the fly.

Suffice to say good star pilots are rare. Genuinely outstanding ones are jewels indeed and all manner of personalities and types are made welcome if they've got the chops.

Such is the case of Sunny Grimm, chief pilot (but so very not boss lady -- nobody herds those cats) on the Lupine. A kind of life-sized, brunette version of Walt Disney's Tinkerbell, away from the bridge she talks like a double-speed playback when she says anything at all, usually the kind of delayed-reaction insights that detonate in the hearer's mind after the conversation's moved on, to her great delight. Barely 30, she's the youngest pilot in the entire commercial fleet (or at least the English-speaking side, the Russians and French still play it cagey about details). Originally trained by dear old Uncle Sam for the tiny military fleet left after privatization, her overwhelming aptitude for the job bid them ignore an essential unfitness for Service life...at least for a few years. When the Starship Company "found" her (Uncle Sam: "Hire this one, now. Um, please." SC: "Oh, yeah!"), she'd been let loose on the most prosperous planet of the Hidden Frontier (Kansas II -- aka Dullsville -- and don't the Junior Jayhawks just love to tell you all about the place) . And yeah, while female star pilots aren't unknown, there's a little heroine-worship on my part. Hey, the menfolk in Engineering are even worse!

The Starship Company did not so very much mind her breezily bohemian style and sensibility nor blank inability to comprehend what needed to be saluted when, so long as she could glide their wallowing vessels in and out of rational space without smashing the cargo; it was pure gravy if she could, at least on occasion, do so without making so much as a wineglass jiggle.

In the pilot's throne, front and center of the bridge, facing not a canopy but a wall of displays, graphics and marching columns of numbers, her high-speed hummingbird mumble slows and steadies to crisp precision, no command wasted, no time spent on anything but getting it done. It is not that nothing ever goes wrong or that Sunny never makes a mistake but that when such things do happen, her reaction is the right one, with no looking back in dismay. This is why bridge crews dote on her, vying for assignment, and why other star pilots, a notoriously proud and competitive lot, can be found observing at the back of the bridge or even "ghosting" her transitions on the simulator.

* * * *

Today's return to normal space was not going at all well. Sometimes it happens; not even the most skilled avoid every wonky patch of spacetime or recalcitrant bit of hardware. The three big phantasmajectors in the stardrive had been randomly overloading and cycling back on as drop-out time approached. "There's no impressing machinery," I said to nobody in particular in the Engineering Shop as we listened to the intercom while Drive Control handed off to Sunny and the bridge crew. Transitions are an all-hands affair for us, too, save whoever's in sleep cycle.

"Annnnd -- we're on line, DQ, thanks. Stand by on A, we'll load preset 12, Navs, are we go? Okay, load preset 12 in A, on my mark...mark. Ready B? One minute away from our window, oh! Reset B! DQ?"

Drive Control: "Not takin' the reset."

My toys, still acting up. Not what we in the biz would call a good sign. Yes, dear old Doggie[2] is A Starship, the most hyper-advanced tech you never heard about; but the fact remains, she first outran light before the Beatles (remember them? Mom's music) hit the pop charts and our super-duper Buck Rogers stardrive systems are cobbled together from the technology of several generations. It didn't start out that way; but when this ship was new, she carried 12AT7s and 6AU6s by the ton and the Navs computer alone took up nearly the space of a city block, three decks high, and was used as an auxiliary heat source. Back then, scurrying space-force lads in spiffy jumpsuits saluted one another smartly and everything was spit & polish, stencilled and baby-blue. It didn't last; the tech changed even quicker for them than it did for you and, eventually, so the the economics.

One of the stickier bits these days is a set of converters tucked in a rack bay off Drive Control, mediating between the techie-intensive DQ console, the delicate and precise Bridge systems, and the simple-as-a-hammer 1970's-vintage stardrives themselves. The converters work great most of the time -- the clever Canadian engineers at Horton Microsystems Ltd. can be counted on to come up with the right widget for the job, one of the very best windfalls from the tech-sharing between the Commonwealth and the States after the Crown could no longer afford to go it alone with starships and colonies (will they ever learn?) -- and when they don't work so great, a software reset from DQ usually does the trick. But the wrong kind of hiccup from the stardrive finals can lock them up so bad the only fix is PBF: force a reboot.

I was nearest the hatch to the corridor and managed to be on my way out it when Sunny asked over the 'com: "Engineering? Reset B, 30 seconds 'til decision. TD, Commit on A, now." And not a shiver as the preset ran its course, stepping A down and us closer to the more usual sort of reality. There's no quick way to do it; when we beat light, we sneak in and we sneak out.

It's not like missing the mark means we'll be a brief flash of bright light or smashed into a pile of goo. There's more than one way in and out of a stardrive field. Pilots and Navs sit down ahead of a transition and set up a series of scenarios, "presets," based on the best data, and they keep updating and adding to them right up 'til it's time. On the other hand, having to change a worked-out transition on the fly is when things are most likely to get...bumpy. Or worse.

I stepped as smartly down the hall as any of the Space-Force bravos of yore, strode through Drive control past Jonny Zed, near-somnolent over the RF/Reaction controls and got a wave from Eric, surrounded by the horseshoe-shaped console of Drive Control. Rounded the corner, up to Rack 94, cage 4, card 2 (not that any of us have 'em, like, memorized), opened the front of the card cage, yanked the card, waited just a tick and plugged it back in. Cluster of little leds went red, then, one by one, green, all but one.

"...Sixteen, fifteen, Preset into B? Ten, nine, eight, it's back!" as that last led went green, "Load B, okay? Commit on B! Three, two..." The ship fluttered the least bit as Sunny hit the Commit button and automation took over, phasing B and taking it down a big step on her, "Zero. Stand by for C in a minute-fifty, preset, mmmm, preset seven." I heard her from the various 'com positions as I was walking back through DQ (Jon at least appeared to nod) and making my way to the shop.

Big Tom lifted an inquiring eyebrow and I nodded, "Yeah, locked up."

I heard a "Feh," from the Chief's tiny office off the back of the room and Tom gave me a He's Not Happy Look. "Some excitement," he said, "That thing's gotta be settling down now. "

You'd've thought the Fates were waiting their cue: over the intercom, the tinny, twittering alarm of a 'Drive final dumping, the phantasmajector DC supply crowbarring and recycling (what's 37 kV at a few hundred Amps between friends?), followed by Sunny's mildly annoyed, "Need a reset on A, plea-- Reset C! About a minute away, okay, I see A back..."

It's always a long walk home; I turned and ran to the rack bay, trading a wry grin with Eric, who turned back to his console with a frown. Unplugged the #3 card (for C, oh how clever we are), slammed it back in and waited. No light...? Red LEDs came on. And stayed red. And stayed red. I reached up to do the idiot thing (if it didn't work once, it probably won't work twice,) hesitated and reached for one of the hot spares in the card cage, just as one green flicked on, and another, and...another.

"Ready on C? Preset seven, reload? No C. Engineering? We're gonna need C; next window's a couple hours off."

The final two leds went green, hey, it's talkin'!

"Got C, loaded, fifteen away." I just stayed put. It takes some exercise to keep my figure but I'd just as soon have it in the gym, when I'm planning on it. And just as well: "Ten, nine, another reset on A," I didn't even wait on DQ, just shucked the card out and back into its socket a little too fast and got away with it, green, green, green. "six, five, I'm committing," another shipwide shudder, not too bad but unusual for Sunny, "three, two, one, zero. And we're back in normal space. Systems checks, please...?"

It's fairly routine from here and unless somebody left a rock in the way, the bumpy parts are past. I headed back to the shop. Eric was busy with his checks but Jonny Zed looked up, blinking, asking, "So, Bobbi, what's up?"

"Do you even hear the pilot, Jon?" I shouldn't be so mean; Jon's a legacy, one of the original crew. But still, and even though RF/Reaction's pretty much a sinecure at transition, the new gear mostly runs itself, y'oughta at least be able to fake alertness, no matter how many times you've lived through the procedure.

"Welll, you've got no call t-" The rest of his reply was cut off as I slid the hatch shut. Some folks miss all the fun and then get huffy about it.

That many glitches in the drive is unusual even for us. This was a long jump but not that long. So I know where I'll be spending my time the rest of this inbound leg once we get the stardrive levels low enough to get into the Drive Room -- and I'm liable to be changing out a large and expensive tube or two once I get there.
1. Researching what and how much to say about the stardrive, I was tickled to find it's been rediscovered. Some clever lads -- probably Uncle Sam's boys -- have convinced the fellow to spin the theory just a bit, so it looks like a "you can't get there from here" proposition, but you can bet Dr. Alcubierre knows the real score.

2. You look like one of the bright ones; I'm sure it's obvious.

07 January 2009

Sometimes, It Is Easy. Other Times, Er...

You've got to hand it to Stores & Cargo: any time you don't want 'em to be, that bunch of slobs is efficient. The very morning promised (and the morning after I'd wasted my post-dinner relaxing time enduring a twenty-minute lecture in the lesser of the Lupine's two bars from a half-sozzled squirt-booster pi-lut annoyed at my hand-waving oversimplification of how their jarring little toys "fly," geeeesh, it's just a darned good thing he's pretty handsome), there were two only slightly scuffed and dusty boxes waiting, bungee-corded to the perforated wall just inside the Engr'g. Shop with my name scrawled on them: one (1) 9017 power grid tube and one (1) Y100 broadband amplifier cavity, 9017, for use with. Oh, huzz-ah.

Checked in with the Chief -- him in a slightly better humor this ayem, for a wonder -- and he allowed as how Big Tom was available to lend a hand. This is good (you just about can't swap out the awkward cavity single handed) and bad (we kid Tom with friendly, caring, slanderous questions like, "Were that puppy's legs attached when it was handed to you?" and "Broke an anvil again?" It's not quite true). But there's not all that much to break on this job. Mostly.

We were still outbound at that point -- under thrust but the stardrive throttled back; it's safe enough to work in the drive room until we prepare to go transluminal. Off we went, in the doofy electric car I've mentioned in the past, and a mere 45 minutes later, we were undogging the hatch to the Drive Room. The little (about big-fridge size) RF driver for this octet of ion engines is tucked in an out-of-the-way corner next to the triple phantasmatrons of the stardrive, one of the louder compartments but not terribly hard to get at. We'd talked through the process on the way up, so I rang down to Ops/Drive Control, told 'em what alarms to ignore, and we set to. It went quickly; I started the test gear warming up (solid state but thermal drift is a still a PITA for the first half-hour) and we had the cavity out and the new one mostly in before we hit the first hitch: the thing hangs from a vertical panel on four 1/4-20 studs, the business ends of bolts about as big around as a pencil, and the threads on one of them were mashed. What screws down onto it is an aluminum spacer with internal threads -- except it wouldn't. I spent ten minute trying workarounds; installed, this stud is in a spot you can't actually see without removing the entire assembly and starting over and it seemed most likely the soft aluminum was what was out of whack. No such luck, couldn't start a steel nut on it either, no room to run a die down it.... They're way oversized for the app; after weighing the time against the possible negative outcomes, we just left the thing off. The spacer is one of two holding a little mind-your-fingers cover over the incoming 3800 Volt supply; one spacer can do the job alone, since the cover backs up to a forced-air cooling connection and can't be twisted to expose the hot stuff, not to mention the whole thing is buried inside the locked cabinet of the RF supply.

That settled, we finished up the installation (fighting the teeny-tiny hardware that hold the grid /screen supply connector, what were they thinking?), I popped the tube into its socket (that round gizmo pointing at you in the photo above; you're looking down at what is the top of it when installed) , fought the dozen Dzus fasteners that hold the cover into lock, and set it to warming up. Yay, nothing shorted out on start-up and after ten minutes, we applied high voltage, set the idling current, flipped the switch to put RF through it, and it came right up. Took very little tuning and tweaking and sha-zam, it was right as rain. Could it be Big Tom is good luck?

This never happens. Except that once.

...And for my next magic trick, after several days of routine splice this, reboot that, add n through x to the second assistant drive tech's display, yadda-yadda, things did not go nearly so well.

I have mentioned (have I not?) that the RF supplies for the octets of ion-drive maneuvering rockets are a mix of solid-state and tube, whatever the starship company comes up with, generally trending towards the no-adjustments-needed solid-state stuff over time. "No adjustments needed." Ha! Control of the newer versions is stupefyingly complex compared to the older tube-type finals. There's a fancy little box to do that. The amplifier itself, oh yeah, that's just a honkin' big brick with gain, hasn't got Knob One. But the controller? Spare me! Menu-driven, minimal controls, maximal settability. (Hear the foreshadowing ticking?)

We'd had one go dead out at starboard/forward, a section of the ship where hardly anyone goes, a long nasty walk to a locked hatch with a big reminder: PRESSURE SUITS MUST BE WORN BEYOND THIS POINT. It's dusty, too, which is another reason for the suit. (Built in the late 50s, they're very nearly sure the asbestos abatement was successful. But just in case...?) And it's about five feet between deck and overhead out here, since it's near the edge of the field interface under full stardrive. There's plenty of safety margin, they tell me.

One of the control units had been getting flaky and shortly after we skipped out of rational space, it just plain died. Nothing coming back on telemetry. Nowhere near the stardrive room, so no reason not to get a preset spare from Stores & Cargo and put it in. Since I'd had just great success with the last ion drive problem opportunity, it fell to me. Oh, yay me.

Still, no big deal, just the aforementioned nice walk, checking in with Security along the way since they do like to know why we are waking them up by making motion alarms go off. Got out to what amounts to a star traveling basement or attic, had the replacement in no time flat, powered it up and -- de nada. Nil. Nuttin' "Pre-set?" Did I say "pre-set?" Every blamed setting in the thing had either never been entered -- check the tag, "refurbished," it says -- nope, they'd all been lost last time it went in for repair. So I spent the next four hours on the horn to my peers in the shop and to Drive Control until, finally, every last fiddlin' parameter was right and it popped right up, "lock" light on, working just as it should in every detail and, I swear, snickering somewhere deep inside itself.

--Also? I don't care how advanced they get, all pressure suits, space suits, whatever they call them, they all chafe and reek after a couple of hours. It had sure better build character.

The observant reader will have noted I still have not accounted for the "0900" written on my left hand. That's 'cos the associated project has been put off. But stick around; it's coming up soon!