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.