20 February 2009

A Short Hop

"Emily? Emily, do you hear me? --You did say she's on comms three, right?" The EVA Supervisor turned slightly towards the Comms op, who had already keyed his mic to reply.

"Three, yep."

I heard it as I walked by the open door to the bridge, headed back to the Engineering Shop from the washroom (transitions don't bother me much but the regular plumbing shuts down at the five-minute mark and I'd rather avoid the zero-G version). Coming in to our next stop, the ship needed to make a short "hop" to end up near the right place at a vector our conventional drives could alter to drop us into planetary orbit. So the bridge was fully crewed -- looked like Russ was the pilot for this one, a guy who had the demeanor and appearance of a English Lit. prof or a minor poet; a calm and quiet fellow, hardly the image of a dashing star pilot. From the tone of the EVA Super, he was going to need that calm, too. The only "Emily" I could think of who was likely to be outside was an Environment and Physical Plant Tech -- and just now was not a good time to be on the hull.

By the time I got back to the Eng. Shop, the guys had punched around on the outside camera array and pointed one at her; she was grinning and waving, then pointed at her mouth -- no, the mic. Comms monitor was up, too: "Emily, can. you. hear. me? Engineering to Bridge, please!"

Big Tom leaned towards the 'comms panel, punched the key with "EVA" glowing on the display above it and said, "Yes, she can, but her mic's dead. Looks like she's secured, ask her."

"Emily, have you strapped down? We're about five away from the jump."

On the monitor, she nodded and pointed to the wide straps crossing her pressure suit. She must have realized the nearest airlock was too far away when the ten-minute warning went out, and headed for one of the safepoints, an oversized chair-like widget with suitably scaled-up restraints. It's not that much more rougher out on the hull than inside during a hop but it can be enough worse that you don't want to rely on a simple tether. --Also enough worse there's a count from an hour prior; there's always somebody who gets caught nevertheless, but rarely outside the ship.

Tom punched the router controls and then keyed the 'comms again, "Vid on your number six monitor, EVA." He rolled his eyes at the rest of us -- EVA Super can call up the hull cameras directly but many of them don't bother hunting through for unplanned locations.

EVA: "I see you, Em," receiving another wave and a worried but cheerful grin in return.

I wandered out the shop and back down the hall to the window looking into the bridge. The sliding hatch was still ajar.

"All right, everybody, quiet down." This from Russ, who was frowning at the displays in front of him, "This isn't a big jump; your EVA is secured, E&P?"


"Set systems for jump, we're coming up on five away about..." On the small display in front of him, a square turned red; klaxons sounded throughout the ship followed by the canned announcement, "Five minutes! Five minutes! Secure now!" as Russ finished with a satisfied smile, "...now."

"E&PP reports sec-- awcrap. EVA, Em was on the graywater recirc line for Starboard Forward, right? I've got a whole section of solenoid valves red."

"EVA. Checking...you got it in one."

"Russ, we're gonna get some sloshing on vector changes, maybe a lot if this tank valve's really open."

The pilot frowned again. "How bad?"

"The tank's twenty kay, at...call it two-thirds full. Baffles in it, but the run to the purifier is just about a straight line down the long axis."


"We've got maintenance shutoffs --GV S7 and GV S8, for sure. S7's best."

"EVA, how close is Emily to those?"

About then the four-minute warning sounded (same klaxon, similar announcement, all general-illumination blinked twice (for the hearing-impaired and gripe all you like, it's a good idea). I flipped down one of the jump seats along the hall and buckled in. That put the bridge out of my line of sight but I could still hear:

EVA: "Em, we've got valves showing open. You're near..."
E&PP: "S7"
EVA: "S7, right? ...No? S8? Can you get there and back in...three and a half minutes?"

It was at that point, if you happened to be sitting EVA, that it all began to go well and truly pear-shaped. There are voices one expects to hear on the Bridge during Stardrive work -- mostly the Pilot, followed, at a respectful distance and volume, by terse acknowledgments, updates and the occasional alarum from the workin' crew: Navs, 'Drive Control, Realspace Drive. You do not want to hear from E & PP, as things wrong in their domain are usually along the lines of sewer lines experiencing unexpected reversal* or unplanned depressurization; you never want the Power Room gang speaking up, since their next line is likely to be, "lights out!" and you don't want to hear from my lot, either, considering we'll probably be telling you the controls or the 'Drive or the electric realspace drives are on the blink. But most of all, most of all, you do not want to hear from Upstairs. City Hall: Command staff.

Most of the time, they stay out our hair and we stay out of theirs. Dr. Schmidt's up there all the time, of course, and the Chief Pilot gets invited up for dinner 'pon occasion, but it's all admin, "interfacing" with the Starship Company and schmoozing with passengers. Scary stuff. But tradition is tradition: whenever we jump, whoever's in the hot seat stands his or her watch in the Bridge proper. Just our luck, this little leap was smack in the middle of the 8-to-12 trick. Yes, sailors, that ossifer, though we abbreviate it 3/O. Let us all recite together that most irritating yet needful traditional responsibility of the Third Mate: Safety Officer. On a starship, it's almost a sinecure: there are so many Safety tasks to be done and a whole section of E&PP to do them; but the young gentlemen do tend to take it seriously.

Click! Lazy EVA was still on a speaker not a headset, so I could practically hear the brass in the rarely-flipped switch, "EVA, Lt. Luna** here. Am I hearing you have a solo crewman on the hull, with a defective radio?"

As EVA began to stammer, Pilot (and Boy-Scout-to-the-rescue) Russ Hanks spoke up, "And we're coming up on three minutes 'til jump, with a serious stability issue, sir."

EVA: "Um, yessir, Greggo's suit got downchecked at the last minute and Steve's out with a twisted ankle; it was supposed to be a quick job."

3/O: "EVA, you will see me after the jump. Russ, what are our contingencies if we miss this window?"

"Navs?" Russ asked, "It'd be another day, right?"

"Call it twenty-three hours. And a harder vector change on the other side."

EVA, unfortunately enough: "Where's Em?"

The pause that followed was....gravid. Electric. I had made my mind up to head back to the shop and even in the process of unbuckling and standing, I heard the Third Officer's inhalation, "..."

--Interrupted by Big Tom's voice over the 'comm, "Your number five monitor, EVA, on her way to S8." Saved by the intercom!

"Oh! Okay. Emily? Just get Ess Eight shut off and get back to the safepoint. I'll give you a count from, um, two and a half, mark."

...At the three-minute mark, by my wristwatch. I'm a sucker for drama; I sat back down. Hull-crawling is not my strongest skill; if I'm in vacuum, I'm working around the 'Drive mast and ion engines, mother-henning riggers who think they're baby-sitting me. Even to do that much, you have to have had the classes on what's where, especially airlocks, safepoints and landmarks. The dear ol' Lupine is, after all, larger than some counties; suited up, with a radio, plenty of air and the safety lines secure, there are still plenty of ways to die on the hull, inches away from air and light and people inside, if you don't know what you're about. The graywater plant and the fat pipes that feed it is a landmark (if you'll pardon the term!) because there are safepoints all around it. The thing's one of many retrofits, installed with E&PP's typical dour pessimism. Cutting to the chase, Em couldn't have far to go.

Russ spoke up, "Load preset five-A, Navs; that'll buy us another half-minute. I'm going to need quiet on the bridge from here on out, even if your hair is on fire if it's not on task it can wait."

EVA: "Two minutes, Em. --I think she nodded, Russ. Em? Remember, big gestures."

"Two-and-half away, on vector and tracking. We will go with five-alpha; give me six, six-baker and ummm, 8 on my C, D and E; set up B for a full abort. DQ, Insystem Drive, you copy? Might get a little busy."

"DQ aye."

"Wha--? Guh, In-Sys, okay." Oh, that Jonny Zed, would you not just know he'd be on-duty for this one. Good of Russ to wake him, really.

"Em's at the valve! She's... Oh. It doesn't look like it's moving-- Okay, there it goes."

Fine, I figured, that's that. I'd've bet one of the big ol' Lyndonfins all the thrills were over, Em will spin the big worm-drive reinforced butterfly valve shut, ending (or at least greatly reducing) the risk of surging graywater negatively affecting stability,*** not to mention fountaining up in half the showers and sinks. Plenty of time to get back to the Engineering Shop and join the guys in making mock of the whole mess. I stood up--

--And saw the glow from various displays that usually shines into the corridor from the Bridge go out and every widget in earshot went "bhwoooooo" as the cooling fans in 'em spooled down. In the utterly howling silence that followed, Russ, who never swears, said, "Oh. Sheeet. Bust it -- this Jump is not happening." Followed, of course, by the general hubbub that breaks out when things go awry. I could still hear Russ, asking Navs to update the scenarios for the next window, and then his voice both directly and via intercom and paging speakers, "Engineering, Power: techs to the Bridge."

The Bridge looks like a cross between Mission Control and a TV control room, dominated by a wall of displays, two of them huge ones, one usually showing the ship's present position overlaid with the postions and trajectories of every known, detected and predicted body (ship, planet, blob of stuff, etc.) in range and the other likewise for the (intended) point of arrival after jump. A couple of Imaging techs on the bridge, backed up by a lot of computer, sensor gear and support staff keep them up to date. The same displays show other data as-needed and are flanked by a couple of dozen smaller ones. Each position has its own array of specific displays and controls, with the Pilot's area front and center, flanked by a couple of Navs types; other positions are behind that row on three higher levels.

There's a Power Room tech on the bridge, two rows back. He can see what each of the three fusion/MHD reactors are doing and the realtime load distribution. Port and Starboard reactors back one another up and the main propulsion, control and environment systems run from Central, with Port and Starboard as their backups. Major systems like, oh, the Bridge have dual power supplies on everything, running from separate UPSes to float 'em through switching from Central to P or S: there is No Way any single point of failure can kill the bridge systems. Except one just had.

...That's what I was thinking, only more like ThereIsNoWayThisCan'tHappen-NormalLightsStillOnWTF? while running towards the electrical room and UPS compartments aft of the Bridge. Fast as I was, Conan the Objectivist had beat me to it and had the hatch open to the #2 UPS, his hand on the emergency bypass switch.

"Dead! And it didn't bypass itself! I'm flippin' the bypass now--" Followed by a ker-chunk! The output metering came up and current looked awfully high, right at the rated limit.

Guy from the power gang stuck his head in the hatch -- "Hey! Okay, it's you guys, but dog-gone it, power's our worry."

Yeah, yeah, like I'm not an adequate jackleg electrician. I shot back, "It was just about everybody's worry, Slim, the Bridge went dark a couple minutes before Jump."

"I noticed. You know we had a rebuild scheduled for the Number One UPS?"

"Guess not."

Conan chimed in, "Yeah, saw it on the ops orders -- for day after tomorrow."

"Okay, unh, look, we've got some new guys on this--" (I'm not surprised, it's a crummy job) "--and they decided to get a head start; looks like graveyard shift last night, they moved all the bridge loads over to Number Two--"

I gave him a Look, "Leaving the entire effing Bridge on a single UPS? Which has crashed, but hard?"

"Er, yeah. We gotta change this back. Has Engineering added anything new in the rack bays and not told us? That UPS should have held, even by itself. An' can you help here? I'm not askin' you guys to cover anything up but the way I figure it, the sooner we get power back to normal, the better it's gonna be for everybody."

Ain't that the truth! I spent another hour helping, as more and more of the Power gang showed up and took over, then went back past the Bridge -- dark and mostly quiet, though Russ was still at the pilot's console, intent on displays, no doubt for the next Jump window -- and into the rack bays, to see what needed rebooting, recalibrated, reset or solidly thumped to get everything ready for our next chance. Worked my way into Drive Control, tech on duty waved (Hi, Curtis) , and Jonny Zedd looked up from where we was nodding over the Insystem Drive panels, "Hey Bobbi, that Lootenant Luna, he was really a-jumpin' at the bit about missin' our window!"

Jumping at the bit. Yeah. Right. "You don't say, Jonny. You don't say."

It's always something but some days, it's more things than seems probable and way more than you'd ever want. Buck Rogers had it easier!
* Per C. Jay: "I opened up the washroom door and there was the most disgusting fountain I had ever seen." Ew.

** Honest, it really is his name and he has already heard all the jokes, okay? Off-duty Gerry's as nice a guy as you'll meet. For an officer.

*** As in, "The ship may lurch around and emerge into rational space some significant distance away from the intended location." Which could suck. Possibly hugely.

05 February 2009


The only light in the Engineering Shop came from the corridor hatch and the Chief's cubicle. We were variously arrayed on chairs and workbenches, facing the big monitor. On the screen, flames shot from the windows and doors of a large industrial building. As the camera zoomed out, a column of smoke could be seen streaming though the partially-collapsed roof. In the foreground, a figure in overcoat, boots, gloves and helmet reached for a fence, touched it, convulsed, and fell. The camera panned over to center on him, revealing heavy wires -- power lines -- drooped ungracefully down, draped over the fence and off to the burning building. As the title appeared, LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP, narration started up:

"That firefighter survived, but you may not. Look Before You Leap! Industrial Safety Is No Accident!"

In front of me, Jonny Zed snorted and whispered to the guy next to him -- C. Jay -- "What's that got t'do with us?"

Jay shook his head, meaning pipe down, Jon, but to no avail. Jon kept on, "We haven't got any overhead power, that wouldn't work. We just need to get the power we need when we need to get the power we need."

Jay stifled a laugh, turned and gave me a help me look over his shoulder. I leaned in and hissed, "Jon, the Chief's givin' us the eye. Aren't we in trouble enough already?"

Indeed we were. The UPS debacle had had repercussions throughout Power and Engineering and while the official word was Disaster Narrowly Averted, a Lead Tech in Power had been busted down to plain ol' Electrician and a couple of them had been dropped back to Probationary Apprentice -- and everybody but everybody was gettin' another round of How Not To Screw Up And Kill Us All training. --Say what you will, it might be a little hokey but it beats having to walk home.

"Walking home" was looking a little more likely than usual; our hastily-refigured short hop had gone off without a hitch, though palms were sweatier than usual throughout, but when we'd set the stardrive finals back to idling, one had crashed. I spent the better part of an entire shift messing with it, got it working -- and then it shut down hard just as I was fixing to leave the Drive Room and would not come back up. I'd had some of the parts I most suspected on hand and ordered the rest from Stores & Cargo, but that was gonna take a day. The Chief was Not Happy at this and not all reluctant to show it. I was a bit unhappy myself. Stardrive finals are fiddly things and I was hoping the big phantasmajector tube -- the newest of the three! -- had not given up the ghost.

But for now, the second in a series of required meetings. LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP! It was a pretty interesting video. The first two or three times. I sure hope S&C gets those parts here early.