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]