28 April 2009

Another Day, Part 9


The next day, I'm up, knockin' around in what passes for a kitchenette about this flying junkyard. My 400 square feet costs extra -- standard housing allowance for a tekkie rents a nine by twelve cabin with private, zero-G-ready bath, built-in bunk (zig-zagged with your next-door neighbor: one side gets an upper bunk, the other a lower), built-in desk (with telephone, looking nothing like yours at home), built-in dresser, built-in closet (zig-zagged with your other neighbor) and just about enough room to turn around once you bolt down a tiny fridge and a comfortable chair.

Me, I would just as soon have more space; standard-issue was a big step up from a 'Drive Engineer's berth on the Schramm but that was just about indescribable to anyone Earthside who hasn't served aboard a submarine, or so they tell me. So my 20x20 has a bunk-in-a-cubby like the standard but there's room for two walls of bookshelves (with mandatory retaining bars) and something kitchen-like on the far wall: tiny microwave, an actual sink (with zero-G lockouts and a extra tap for near-boiling water), a smallish fridge, cabinetry and countertop including a breakfast bar. No range -- there's a section of countertop where one can be swapped in but you would not believe the extra cost, especially what it does to one's insurance rates. Still, maybe someday-- Or not; what I have now suits me very well.

I was pondering the thrills and excitement of recent events (sounds better than "horror and tragedy" even though that's closer. It's the frontier. People die -- and you don't get used to it) while watching coffee drip through the Chemex (probably another item that'd drive my insurance up if I'd bothered to ask) and the microwave count down to hot oatmeal. The last especially noteworthy happening during my time on the Lupine was when one of the ship's librarians had smuggled a Slow Loris aboard and the critter had, in its methodical way, wandered off and vanished. No harm, no foul that time: the little prosimian had turned up in the break area for the Central Power Room, being tickled and fussed over by a group of electricians and fusion techs to their mutual delight. The group was blissfully unaware their new friend had poisonous elbows; the librarian was reprimanded and fined but the Captain spared the Loris after meeting it. It now resides in a well-appointed garden cage in the center of the small hardcopy portion of our library, looked after by a group of trained volunteers, including the smuggler.

No such fairytale ending this time, just a dead stranger who'd been closer to the 'Drive field array than I was comfortable thinking about. She'd had a tattoo on one forearm, a design that had looked familiar. Where had I seen that stars and rifles pattern before?

The microwave went bing! as realization dawned: Far Edge Marines. It's not something seen much this side of the nebulous intersection between the Earthside sphere of influence and the advanced but elusive Far Edge, but there's trade and contact at settled planets throughout that overlap. In my second and third years on Lupine, the ship had made the long swing out as far as La-a ("La-DASH-a" and don't ask; there's no parsing the planetary naming process at the Far Edge) and back, and F. E. Mil/Space (it's just our side calls 'em "Marines") had been recruiting heavily; the logo and their motto ("Peace Through Strength") had been all over. Our mystery corpse had been a Space Marine! --Or, less likely, involved with one. It's not a mark to bear lightly.

Oatmeal and coffee forgotten, I went to the phone and called Sheriff Mike's office. Rang right through to him; I babbled my clever observation.

"And y'think I might've missed that?" he replied.

I stammered something, caught up in belated wit. Mike's ex-USSF and second-generation at that; in his office on the bulkhead opposite his desk there's a large photo poster of the ruins of the never-finished Lunar missile base the Far Edgers took off from and his computer desktop image is the ice plain on Ganymede where the only real battle between USSF and FE troops was fought, inconclusively for all but the fallen. The latter group included Mike Senior.

I managed, "But-- What's a Space Marine doing on the Lupine?"

"There's the question, Nancy Drew. Maybe I should give you a hand with the Stardrives?"

"...I had that coming, Mike. Okay."

"I know y'want to help. It's my headache."


17 April 2009

Another Day, Part 8


Maybe I should have said, "Not that complicated to misdiagnose?" One of the two; while anticipating the Chief's wrath, I went back to put the cover over the Isolated Supplies board and looked directly above it to see a pair of fat filter capacitors, screw-terminal ones, with the screws, well, gee: a bit unscrewed. Hanging at angles, the lugs that should be held down are instead supported by the wires that connect to them and looking a little burned. It's not all that obvious if you're looking in from the outside but from less than a foot away, how did I miss it earlier? And how long has it been this way?

"Hey, Jon, I think I've found something -- hand me that Philips, willya?" Sure enough, the screws are wobbly-loose and for no good reason. We haven't changed out the components or the subassembly they're a part of since this PA was installed, five years ago. Whatever, those caps are across the heater supply and the connections should be tight.

So I proceed to torque them down and Jon and I button up the cabinet, set everything back to normal and power it up with no signal applied. Whoa! Heater voltage is way up there, much higher than it had been. A good sign but we had to shut down, open the back and change to a lower voltage range. Fine, twenty minutes of my life I didn't need anyway.

On the next go-round, things are looking up: voltage in the right range, though we still have to run it a little high to make the control logic happy, and the no-signal Phantasmajector current is So Fine. I trip the Buffer Amp breakers back on, applying signal, and start inching up the power control, 10 percent, 20, 30...all the way up full idle, 50 percent, with the other two PAs throttling back automagically to Almost Nil. It holds. It's happy. Phantasmajector collector current is right on the money. You know what this means? It means the Chief is probably not gonna put a lot of effort into his, "This could have been done a lot faster and more directly" lecture, is what; also we're now that much less likely to find ourselves as-good-as marooned between very distant here and even more distant there, the avoidance of which is what we in the starship biz like to think of as a Plus.

It's a funny feeling, a combination of relief, wonderment and the sincere awareness that this is something I should've caught weeks earlier.

But there's no time to bask in it; Jon looks at his watch and proclaims, "Hup! I should've been gone half an hour ago!" And he's gone in the time it takes to work the hatches. From the sounds of his egress, I'll find the outer hatch undogged.

I reduced the number 2 final back to nominal power and turned to number 3, which hadn't been getting near 100 percent. 80's the rated gotta-fix-it level; I pushed it to 50% with front-panel controls while the other two throttled back, then reached for the intercom handset and punched for Drive Control. "Gary...Oh, Eric? Get ready for a little glitch, I'm gonna drop the signal to two and one so I can run three up a bit more. Can you give me a fifty, no forty-percent duty cycle on the 'Drive waveform?"

"Okay, that's pre seven, isn't it? Yeah, there it is. Standing by."

"On my mark....mark," as I reached out and flipped the IPA breakers for 1 and then 2. Number 3 power came up but stopped at 75%. It felt as if the deck wavered ever so slightly underfoot and I heard Eric mutter, "...c'mon," then he spoke up, "Pre six. Fifty percent."

"Thanks, Eric, sorry 'bout that. Hold on just a sec--" I took the tweaker screwdriver from my pocket and turned up RF LIMIT adjustment on #3, watching the output rise past 80...90...95. "There. I'll turn it down and you can go back to normal once I get the other two back on, ready?" as the power fell low enough to get the other two finals online and Eric replied, "Whenever."

"Okay, on go: three, two, one, go." He must have hit the switch while I was flipping circuit breakers; there was hardly a glitch as we came back to three finals online and nominal idle signal to the CLASSIFIED. I took another couple of minutes getting the outputs balanced.

With all three stardrive PAs back to normal, I pull a set of readings (nice little vampire software looks at the remote control data and grabs it right into the utility portable), add notes on the problem and the solution and readings from the five meters that don't have telemetry outputs, the ones in the High Voltage section we read through a transparent window (heater voltage of course among 'em), enter that in TASKER, forward a copy to the Engineering redundant docserver, print it out (hard drives crash; active storage gets EMPed or bit-flipped by stray cosmic rays) and add it to the Maintenance Log clipboard. Might as well give the next tekkie -- or me, if I'm sleepy enough -- a head start. Plus there's still the Triennial Inspection. Never know exactly what logs and such they'll want to see.

Securing the drive compartment takes awhile. All the tools, books, materials and supplies have to go back in their clips or cubbies. I do a quick walk-through, including checking the side compartment where the RF driver for the aft octet of ion maneuvering engines resides and on back along the pressurized sections of the CLASSIFIED and their connections to the huge power dividers and waveguides that feed power to the 'Drive projector array. It all looks nominal and I've just time to take the official Engineering electric car crawling back down the service passageway and bop up to the Engineering Shop to sign out. The main room's empty. According to TASKER, Handsome Dave finished his day in the portside squirt-booster bay, initializing some new escape pods (coolness!) but bedarned if I know where the rest of the guys are off to. I hear a chair creak from the Chief's miniature office and walk back to the open hatch. He looks up from his monitor and almost smiles, "Nice catch on the Number Two HPA, Bobbi."

Yowza. Caught me off guard. "I don't know why I didn't find it sooner, Boss."

I hear footsteps and voices behind me and the Chief harrumphs, turning back to his paperwork with a louder, "See that you do in the future!" as Conan the Objectivist and his usual shift mate enter the shop, hauling some blamed bit of dusty, malfunctioning electronics.


That's 8-on for me, a sweep through Drive Control to trade an inquiring look for a reassuring nod with Eric on my way out of the Tech Core and onto slidewalks, five miles back aft to my apartment.

Where I lay awake and wonder about the mystery Sheriff Mike told me to ignore. Who wanders into the hot stuff unaware? It's posted in five languages and simple cartoons, repeatedly, way before you're in any danger. And it's not something that could be done to the victim; she had to get there under her own power.


15 April 2009

Another Day, Part 7

Just now, I'd rather listen to Jon than follow my own thoughts to the dead end about how a stranger ended up dead on the hull in a stolen pressure suit. Four and a half minutes later, Jon is wrapping up, "...So there's a huge flash, half the lights go out and Steve is standing there, holding onto just the fiberglass handles of his cutters. The cutter part is plain gone! He looks at that and he says, 'Doggone it!' and he--"

"Throws them so hard they make that dent in the wall?"

"Yep, right over there!"

"Steve's my hero, Jon." Except when he's the Don't Be That Guy guy, that is, which he was for much of his stint aboard. "Ready light's on, it's time." "Okay..."

I step up to the rig and push BEAM ON and the ka-THUNK! sound of the vacuum contactor, followed by the quiet, emphatic Tick! of the step-start dropping out, slaps the room and the POWER OUT meter quivers and leaps up to 95%. I've stepped back -- it makes me nervous, starting the finals up and Jon turns to me, happy, "Fixed!"

"Fixed? We know whats not wrong and it's back on, Jon, but there was no reason for it to have shut down. Something's not right. I'm thinking the lower limit for Back Heater OK's set too high; we'll set it a step lower."

"Isn't that inside?"

"In the HV section, you betcha. We'll let 'er run a bit, then shut down, open up and have a look."


After a half hour and another of Jon's tales, it was time to have a look inside the rig -- this yarn was a rehash of the time the Lupine and sister ship Vulpine caught first sight of the Far Edge mothership SeeYa! (if radar and fuzzy optics count as "sight") since her abrupt and unannounced departure from what was supposed to have been the U.S. Space Force missile base on the Moon (and didn't that take some fast talking to smooth over with the Russians, not to mention our NATO allies). "Sight" was all it was, a distant, fading contact in the Linden system, where they'd once again had radio contact with a burgeoning settlement. By that point, the fleeing Far Edge revolutionaries? Refuseniks? had a very nearly reliable squirt-booster system, but the USSF was still having to do brute-force de-orbits, flaming ballistic re-entries ending in parachute landings with their handful of shuttle craft and were having a good day when half of them landed relaunch-ready without needing extensive repair. Jon had been on the second lander down, which darn near augered in; last I heard, the wreck was still in the Star City museum. The story's a little different every time he tells it but even discounting the wilder bits, it's some adventure.

But all good things come to an end, or in this case get cut short in the middle of his amazing hard-way discovery that basic homebrew vodka has no discernible taste. I dropped the final into OFF, Jon swore yet again that after having launched with a hangover in a lander cobbled together from the best parts of three others, nothing would ever bother his digestion again. Meanwhile the Stardrive cycled down, high-speed blower howling to silence followed by the OFF tally lighting up, it and LIQUID COOLING OK the only two indicators on the Christmas Tree still lit.

Walked around to the back of the cabinet, popped the Control Power switch which frees the mechanical interlock to the big rotary HV-shorting switch and flipped that switch while turned away: it's behind a clear window so you can be sure it's made contact, five places, and there can still be a little charge in the power filters. If so, there will be what Tweed terms "a small flash." Yeah, right, small -- last time it happened, I had sunburn on the backs of my fingers. Stepped back to the Power Control cabinet where the contactors live (the High Voltage Supply proper, in its bath of hot oil, is in vacuum in a blister on the hull and even though that means it takes a pressure suit to work in it, I'm good with that, something about not wanting to be sprayed with transformer oil heated to its flash point) and snapped all three — Main, Control, Beam -- to off and engaged the lockout. No need to tag it ("Under Repair, leave your mitts off! Signed --") unless we have to leave it. Next step, pull the back panels and Tweed figured they shouldn't make it easy, lest we try it while the power's on: 16 screws per panel, three panels, and that still leaves the top quarter of the thing behind the cabinet-purge fans and the big shorting switch. Jon and I take a panel each and go to it, electric screwdrivers growling, the handy-dandy toe rail a danger to knees as we work our way down, stashing the screws in plastic bags as we go. Only need two panels off for where we're after, which doesn't take too long. Jon stows the panels in clips between the Power Control while I unclip the shorting hook and poke around at the bits that had better not be live. They're not.

Stuck my head in and unlatched (thanks, Tweed. For once) the cover over the Isolated Supplies Board, lifted it off and dead center on the circuit board thus revealed are two rows of jumper pins, labelled "HI LIMIT" and "LO LIMIT," with voltages indicated next to each pin. "LO" is on -- wait for it, wait for it -- the lowest setting. Of course.

It's not that complicated a thing to diagnose; a component has drifted in value. The ones we can check with power off, not so much, which leaves the exotic and wonderful compared-to-what reference, a two-lead component the civvy version of which you can buy at your neighborhood electronic emporium* and the 'Drive-field hardened version of which I have right... Riiight... Um. Not here. Not there. And after checking the database, we haven't stashed any with Stores & Cargo, either. The Chief will have Comments. They will be short, pithy and will not employ any words you could not say to Girl Scouts but it's gonna remove my hide in strips nonetheless. Oh, happy day.
* What, you don't have one? The homeworld gets stranger and stranger to me with every year.


05 April 2009

Another Day, Part 6

So the inner hatch opens -- and these are the oldest type on the Lupine, slightly-modded 1950s submarine-style, with analog gauges and brute-force idiotproofing: if pressure's not equal on both sides, they won't open. So it's not like, say, a door in your apartment. Not even close. Opening (and closing) takes some effort and time, the four dogs scraping free, the bolts backed out by the gear and wheel (which is why there's a nice little "trip bar"to hook your toes under on at least the floor side of such hatches and a grab rail on the side opposite the hinge, too, or you wouldn't be able to open them in zero-g) and then a nasty "schluck" as the seals break.

Followed by Jonny Zedd, puffing like a steam engine but grinning nonetheless. "Helloo, Bobbi! Have you got it figured out?"

I gave him The Look, slightly modified on account I was glad for the help. "Well, maybe, but we're gonna have to hang a 'scope on a couple of spots on the Analog-Digital Interface board to find out -- hey, did you close up the outer hatch? -- and it's behind the Logic and Control board. It'll take three hands just to get in there..."

Jonny turns to check the hatch; over his shoulder, I can see the bolts are engaged but the dogs, not so much. So he sets them and makes a production of closing the inner hatch as well. I understand his casualness but we are at the end of a long corridor. While it is unlikely we'd end up trying to breathe vacuum, I'd still rather not have to try.

While he's finishing, I start in on the #2 'Drive Amplifier: unlatch the "door" that carries half the meters, the "Christmas tree" display and local control buttons. The door is about four inches thick and on the back of it, there's another set of latches that free up the back panel to swing away, revealing the tops of two circuit boards, each about two feet square: Logic And Control on the front-panel side and Analog-Digital Interface on the back. ADI has a nice collection of connections, fiber-optic, coax, data bus and such and up in one corner is the fiber lead for Back Heat OK and the IC that buffers it -- the hard-to-reach corner, naturally. Oh, and if you shut the door assembly with the back unlatched, it hangs up on the cabinet and takes careful finagling to open again. At least it's not surface-mount. Something to be said for conservative design! However, there would also have been something to be said for not having to have my head stuck in between two very critical PC boards, unable to see the local control panel.

Jon's done and peers over my shoulder. "Which one is bad?"

"I don't know if any of them are, yet. Should be an IC test clip stored on the 'scope cart, would you get it?"

He rummages and finds it, a gadget like a wide clothespin, studded with test points; I clip it over the IC, allowing me to hang the scope probe on the pin I want to look at. Jon takes up position on the control side and steadies the door without having to be asked, I get the ground and probe tip attached and we both look at the scope. Flatline. The signal asserts high and the amplifier's off, so that's right.

"Hit BACK HEAT, wouldja?" I ask. (Have I explained the "heater" is the glowing filament inside the phantasmajector tube? It is. Except we can't see it, since the tube is made of ceramic and metal and nestled inside the tuned cavities, so the "glowing" part is kind of a matter of faith, plus the tube would not work if it didn't).

"You got it."

No change. "Try HEATER ON."

" HEATER ON. See anything?"

For an answer I turn the 'scope a bit so Jonny can see it. Fat nil is what there is to see.

"Is the tube even gettin' heater voltage?"

Fair question, the answer to which is behind door #2, the tall door that closes the larger half of the amplifier cabinet, behind which is the phantasmajector, on a cart and wrapped in trick RF plumbing -- and behind that, there is a Plexiglas window through which can be glimpsed the various meters operating at the -36,000 Volt Beam supply, including Heater Volts. I pop the latches and we take a look: 6.4 Volts, normal for this tube. So why...?

Sometimes dumb wins. Why ask why when you can just turn it up? I have Jon drop us back to BACK HEAT, take the screwdriver from my back pocket, and run up the Back Heat voltage (counterclockwise, I have to remind myself, which is not the usual direction of "up"). I see the 'scope trace wiggle, turn into a series of square-wave pulses and then steady at about five volts, just as Jon calls out, "Back Heat light just went green!"

"Drop to STANDBY and we'll get unconnected."

He does, we do, and in a trice -- for a certain large value of "trice" -- the IC clip is off, the halves of the control door are back together, the door's shut and we're in BACK HEAT once more. I punch HEATER ON and half a minute later, the FULL HEAT led goes green, too. Hey-la! And then it flickers. I say a bad word and inch the Full Heat voltage up a bit, too. "Five minutes, Jon, then we can hit the go-button and find out. Could be loud."

"Loud? You don't know from loud. Why, I remember the time Vanderhooven cut through a 208 line up here and about threw his cutters through the bulkhead...."

It's an old, familiar story but we've got five minutes to waste while the beast warms up. Might as well hear it again.
The dent's still there, if you know where to look.


03 April 2009

Another Day, Part 5

So. Jonny Zed, on his way. 'Cos the Chief couldn't find a Labrador Retriever to send, maybe? But even he remembers where the shunt-trip buttons are: big, red, DO NOT PUSH THIS BUTTON buttons that kill the three-phase 480 Volt main to the 'Drive generator* by convincing a 500-Amp circuit breaker that it's been tripped. At least, I think he does.

(This is actually unfair; sure, the man naps on duty but as I have mentioned in the past, Jonny Zed is a U.S. Space Force legacy with over fifty years in 'Drive Engineering; he was on the second U. S. Moonbase team, after Team One, "Project Hoplite," decided it made more sense to use all those nice, shiny parts to build a really big FTL ship instead of a missile base. This was back when leaving Earth was a one-way trip and it's all part of how we got where we are today, with a delicate balance-of-worry that keeps the Hidden Frontier hidden, a distant and not-entirely reconciled Far Edge doing who-knows-what, and tekkies like me helpin' slop freight from one world to another. But I digress; the point is, the man comes by his propensity to find the easy jobs and doze off a lot the hard way, years and years of frettin' and sweatin' over dangerous junk aboard kludge-ships I would warn my worst enemy not to fly on and he survived it).

There's a bright side to everything and this time, it means I have plenty of time to dig through the manuals while Jonny scares up another little electric car (Engineering only gets to keep one, the one I got here in) and makes his way sternward, complaining all the while.

I have my own complaints, presently led by the crummy way Tweed organizes their documentation. Or more like fails to; while the old, kludgy RCA 'Drive gens were massive, tricky to set up and trickier to keep in adjustment (and that was the third-generation stuff, tricked out in baby blue, silver and midnight blue, touted as "stable enough for remote control!" Mostly), the docs package was fantabulous -- blueprints twenty feet long and thick books filled with accurate line drawings, photographs, tutorials and carefully worked out step-by-step how-to-do-N instructions.

Tweed, on the other hand-- They do not appear to have wanted to spend any precious CAD time on the manual, photos might as well be soul-extracting taboo, procedures appear to have been written by engineering interns without sufficient security clearance to lay hands on the actual device and the schematics--! Oh, the schematics. Hundreds of 11" x 24" pages, comb-bound, with only the weakest attempt at an index and in no way arranged by ten-digit drawing number. Following any signal through the books means paging back and forth, leaving a trail of sticky notes stuck to the page edges, bearing cryptic notations like "FULL FILS = I1, X6-4 to J37-21 via P23, see 443 09873 223, sht 3 of 16, D 5." Tracing for troubleshooting that would have (literally!) been a short walk with the RCA "blueprints by the foot" approach becomes a maze of page-flipping far out of proportion to the simplicity of the actual circuit. --In this case, five ICs, a fiber-optic status link, one solid-state relay and a beer can sized contactor mounted on a DIN rail manage, somehow, to sprawl across a half-dozen different drawings, all containing fragments of a hundred other control, metering, status and signal circuits. Fun it is not; I have added color-coded stick-on tabs with drawing numbers and note after note on each drawing to indicate where each input and output is coming from or going to, but every new failure mode means starting over and adding a new layer of it-goes-here notations.

Luckily, the present failure crosses familiar turf once we get past the BACK HEAT OK proving; I've traced out half of that same circuitry before. It's a start.

By the time I get the books out and have identified the relevant pages in the big book'o'schematics, a half-hour has gone by and I am just wondering if I have time for cuppa tea when glonking noises followed by the outer hatch being undogged, opened and pulled to -- dog the hatch, Jon! -- announce my "helper" has arrived. Such timing!

* "Generator" is a misnomer here but it's the term we use for the whole RF assemblage, from exciter to three massive Phantasmajector power amplifiers and their combining network that feeds the less-complicated but CLASSIFIED that hooks to the 'Drive Field array on its mast at the tail of the USAS Lupine and can wrap the ship up in its very own packet of spacetime and push us superluminal.