30 May 2010

Frothup: Dropping In: New Chapter 1

Blast it, Frothup was cold, at least at Aberstwyth port. You'd expect that on Blizzard or Vineways but it's easy to forget that some planets have seasons. Frothup's are mild enough in the settled regions but when your warmest garment is a zip-up sweatshirt, a blustery 40 degrees — 18 local, a sure tip-off the place wasn't settled by USSF transportees — is cold enough.

I'm ahead of the story already. Times I set foot on the dirt, I usually ride down in a cargo flight, well after all the crash-urgent goods have moved and Engineering has settled into in-port routine. Not today; with new and seriously-different Stardrive power amplifiers to learn, install and get certified, there was no time to spare. Oh, not that they'd actually give up a payin' seat, but I was squirt-boostering down first-available standby, first passenger flight that came up with enough spare mass margin to get me in.

It was still likely I'd have to wait and the first rule of travel is, Bring Something To Read. Despite a couple of interruptions, my comic book was getting interesting; the plucky young hero had just saved the day and his boss, a gorilla, probably wasn't gonna eat him. (And I thought my job had hazards!) In the real world, the slightly scruffy passenger waiting room off Lupine's starboard squirt-booster bay, the PA system went bong and muttered, "Technician Ecks, report to Gate Six. Technician Ecks to Gate Six, please."

Yeah, yeah, sky-blue courtesy phone t'you, too. And I'd finally got myself slouched comfortably, too! I climbed to my feet, hoisted my carry-on bag onto the seat I'd just quit, stuffed the graphic novel in a side compartment, grabbed the bag and started off. Sixth bay of eight and I'd sat down near Gate One, where the slidewalk lets off. The passenger area is not all that big — no more so than a factory town's bus station, Earthside, or maybe a large subway stop — but it is long.

It's airlocks into every squirt-booster and no cheating on the door; E&PP's Safety crew doesn't care if it takes longer, locking through four or five at a time. The seal between the Lupine's lock and the squirt-booster's hatch is only 95% reliable, as they'll point out at great length if you're fool enough to ask; it's rare they'll explain that most failures in that five percent are trivially tiny leaks. The real risk is that they're assembling and moving big, massy transports on the other side of the bulkhead and if the hatch on that side gets smashed, with the airlocks, damage is limited. Or that's the theory. I reached my ride as they were herding the last batch through the lock and squeezed in, making apologetic sounds. Pressure was equal on both sides so it's not that big a deal, one hatch shuts and green lights illuminate next to the blue "air okay" indicators above both hatches; open the next one and the hatch you entered through is locked closed, complete with a big red light that wavers in intensity (long-short, long-long-long) just in case you're both illiterate and color-blind. The fancy lights — LEDs — are a decade-old upgrade; when I signed aboard, the indicators were still direct-reading gauges and mechanical "flags." Either way, it's a social ritual akin to taking a busy elevator; you're closer than you'd like to be and so's everyone else.

No sooner described than done; the hatch opened and we filed across the seal and through another open hatch into the squirt-booster. They're ungainly, unglamorous vehicles, long, skinny shapes with two flat sides connected by a smooth curve, tapering at each end. They're strapped to stacks of cargo containers, or to each other, or just fly solo, depending on need. Passenger versions are set up like a commuter jet, seating three across with luggage racks overhead on the high side, low along the curved face and a narrow walkway that splits each row into a pair and a single.

I didn't even glance at the crowd sorting themselves into the amusement-ride seats; at my left was the hatch to the control room and in it stood Butch-the-pilot, with a toothpick in his teeth and a half-grin on his face. "Well, well, well," he said, "Look who went tourist," and winked at me.

"Like heck," I told him, "I'm headed down for school. Official business."

He nodded and waved me to one of the two "jump seats" up against the bulkhead, nearly as all-enveloping as the passenger seating. "Yep, so they tell me. Sit down close, maybe I'll let you look over my shoulder later."

Not such a bad deal, that; it's highly automated fly-by-wire, with rules of precedence that make the ones for trains look lax, but it's still genuine flying, with an actual view outside. I love it; I enjoy even an ordinary passenger seat. It is, however, not for the squeamish. Even a state-of-the-art squirt-booster is a wild ride; the newest in Lupine's fleet is running hardware and software three years old. Which is another reason they haven't got portholes for the passengers — even the video display is heavily smoothed, just like a fancy camera, and it's a new thing to have it on during even part of the descent. Ascent's another story — blink-blink-blink, with three corresponding lurches and you're up where skies are black and the fallin's easy. Plus or minus a blink; a good navs system can do it in one Jump but the jolt's too rough. Conversely, if it's a tricky orbital match, crummy navs software or just old, there may be quite a lot of Jumping, falling, reorienting and Jumping again. And don't even get me started about the glocke-y, microJumping, mad-German-science jitterbugs the Edgers prefer! No matter the vehicle or the rev of the control/navs software or Drive, it's generally pretty fast: Here to There in under an hour, waiting-for-clearance included.

Landing is different. Squirt-boosters are more efficient grouped and just like locomotives, you only need a driver in one of 'em. Four-up is a typical package: four big cargo containers, strapped together in a diamond (one on top of two on top of one, in set-down attitude), with the longways cucumber-wedge shapes of the squirt-booster strapped in the corners. That would mean two be will upside down and two will be backwards during deceleration and one module gets both...except the seating is modular, normally handled in 3-seat by 4-seat sections with a narrow little aisle. Those can be further reconfigured into columns of four in line, which is what gets slid into the two upside-down wedges — very rarely; passengers dislike it. The "landing gear" is just fat airbags backed up by skids, deployed very late in the landing process. There's been at least one rollover, scary but harmless. (C'mon, people, it gets slammed through the thickness of an entire atmosphere!) Stick a saucer (heat shield) on the aft end of the fat-cucumber assembly and there you have it but for one last, creepy step. Pilot, of course, flies from the rightside-up, forward-facing squirt-booster and the other three are slaved to that one. Copilot gets to fly backwards in the other topside section. Just in case. They tell me it's quite a view.

The cockpit is equipped with two seats nevertheless and plenty of room, making Butch's offer even better than you might think. Another batch of passengers cycled in and filled the remaining seats. Butch told me, "I'll call you once we're foamed up," gave the steward who was sorting them out a minimal high sign and ducked into the cockpit. I was already in the jump seat farthest from the steward's control panel and had the padded bars down and the five-point harness clicked together before you'd read half of my desciption.

Steward was a skinny guy I didn't recognize with an E&PP patch on his coverall and a row of "merit badges" showing specialties underneath. I can't read 'em all but I recognize first aid with CPR and defib training, Fire/Hazmat/Pressure and Security Auxiliary; he had plenty more besides. It's not exactly a serve-drinks-and-soothe job, another place where E&PP's hands-on "general specialists" are found.

I'm going to describe the trip in some detail. The Hidden Frontier is still officially secret and this is supposed to be "fiction," but this is way cool for all it is usually not fast-paced action or even gripping interpersonal conflict (but stay tuned — you'd think just swapping out a 'Drive final amplifier would be cut'n'dried but my job is never that easy).

You're probably wondering about the term foamed up. And that'd be the main reason there aren't any portholes: With the cargo containers and squirt-booster units all strapped together and loaded full, the next step is a big lurch and a short, swaying ride to be covered in ablation material: foam.

Older systems used jettisonable shields and hand-assembled shells; the very first reliable ones ended in a parachute drop and they're still used for small, cargo-only drops to remote locations. For passengers and most cargo, that was replaced by microJumps and clever 'Drive tricks. The last five years, better control software and smaller, more nimble 'Drives incorporating Edger (Glocke-derived) tech have simplified even our more-conservative landers. —Edgers have been jittering in and out of atmosphere for decades now and only rarely leaving big, smoking holes in the landscape; our side of the line, streaking down in a ball of flame might seem worse but for all that it remains a brute-force solution, hundreds of thousands of commercial trips have resulted in only three known accidents, neither on Earth. (USSF? Don't look at me; they don't publish stats. You couldn't get me in one of their early landers at gunpoint, though: getting shot is safer).

Even before the ride down, preparation is unnerving enough when you can't see it. In the cockpit, pilots admit to finding the process claustrophobia-inducing. The display at the front of the passenger cabin shows calm, pastoral scenes but it doesn't fool anyone; the assembled squirt-booster/cargo container bundle swings gently from four "sacrificial" lifting eyes while Our Highly Trained Staff (also known as the riggers who have most irked their supervisors) slap jettisonable covers on the cockpit windows and spray layer upon layer of quick-curing ablative foam over the entire vehicle. A mere 20 or 30 minutes later, they're done and duck out just before your transport gets shuttled into one of the big airlocks; the inflight movie has already started.

I'm joking. Our passenger drops, they play soothing music, mostly to hide the interesting sounds, while the screen at the end of the compartment the passengers face shows a shifting, soft pattern of mostly greens and blues or the formentioned highly-smoothed outside view, once there is one. Any frequent flier aboard is already engrossed in some kind of personal-playback device; while the spraying is getting done, the steward checks to make sure the useful little projectiles are secured. Company policy once banned them altogether — a "personal" cassette player masses enough to do serious damage — but that mostly resulted in greater stealth rather than compliance. Better believe starship crew were early and serious adopters of the no-movin' parts versions and the smaller, the better.

So why did they worry? Why do I, even now, hope the steward's carrying duct tape and knows how to use it? (Yes and yes, btw). See, it's like this: after they stuff our ride into the best-fitting airlock (and play scavenging games with the air left once the pumps have hit their limit), the outer hatch opens and a nifty hydraulic ram pushes the squirt-booster stack on out — and immediately down. It starts out slowly, 'til you're free of the idling 'Drive field and then, ah, then the fun starts.

Big starships take up "forced geosynchronous orbits," with the Drive ilding to keep effective real-space mass low. Essentially, hovering on the big fusion-over-MHD main realspace drives. It's not without risk, anything in actual orbit at that level that intersects is movin' fast enough to make a mess, but it does have some advantages: for instance, as soon as the squirt-booster is clear of the ship and the 'Drive field, it drops just like a rock, heat-shield end first. The feeling is precisely one of being in a vehicle that is pushed off a cliff, which is pretty much what just happened.

I don't care how many times you've done it, it's still a surprise. Into the can you go, the air hammers and hisses away and you wait for final clearance. Then there's a series of mechanical noises, the thing gets slid for what seems a long way (it isn't; the ram is very slow) and, suddenly, the noises stop and you're falling, strapped in a chair, laying on your back in an echoing near silence, broken only by the low thrumming of life support and an occasional tick or thump from the various systems.

It doesn't stay that quiet for long. Once you've "dropped over the edge," the first sound is usually everyone taking a deep breath and if there's an ijit or ijits aboard, they'll announce themselves with a nervous laugh or a whoop better suited to a roller coaster. Didn't have any of those this trip but the inevitable weak tummy didn't take long to make itself known. The steward glanced at an unlabeled annunciator panel facing our seats, where a steady red light had given way to a blinking amber one, unbelted and went to work. The first drop's usually the longest and the gentlest; the pilot's getting his last met and traffic info before things heat up and loading the numbers into his presets, while the steward deals with any messes, or panics and hands out airsickness bags to anyone who looks a bit green. There are usually plenty of takers; I already had that imminent-head-cold feeling of zero-g and was pleased I'd slept too late for breakfast. On the panel, the yellow light steadied up and I heard a quick double knock on the hatch into the cockpit; I looked up and saw the status tally on it change from LOCKED to OPEN.

Don't have to ask me twice. I grabbed a handhold with one hand, popped the latch of my five-point with the other, shrugged out and refastened it (a crummy job one-handed but you can do it) and had the hatch open and myself through. There are good reasons you don't waste time moving aboard a squirt-booster.

Butch was still poking at a touchscreen and frowning; he waved at the shotgun seat and I spidered my way in though the dimness and belted up. The lighting is set to ramp up slowly; by the time the cockpit window covers are popped, it is bright enough to make ease the transition but most pilots prefer to start out in the dark. I think they feel too closed-in otherwise, but it's just a guess — I've never thought to ask. There was finally a little noise other than residual whoosh and hum of lifesupport: a thin, high screech as the upper atmosphere became thick enough to matter. Butch made a last few keyboard entries, shoved it back in its slot, fiddled the covers over the preset buttons on his right and left armrests open and shut, sighed and relaxed. "Don't plan on a picnic," he remarked.


"High overcast and drizzle. If you've been missing blue sky the last three months, don't blink on the way down."

"Mm-hm." I wasn't paying as much attention as I should have; even in these days of glass cockpits and advanced automation, there's a fascinating amount of instrumentation and I don't spend as much time with it as I'd like. A decade back, Handsome Dave decided he'd had enough of the nominal "day" shift old-timers; when a quiet directive was passed around instructing us to treat Jonny Zed "as though he was a valuable member of the Engineering Department," it was the last straw and he very nearly jumped his contract. As it happened, this was just after the Starship Company had started installing Beamtheon Mark IV 'Drives in the squirt-boosters and they had vast and convoluted problems from the outset. I don't know how it was managed but the next I knew, Handsome Dave had a bench in the Vehicle Maintenance shops at the aft end of the starboard squirt-booster bay. He's spent most of his shifts there ever since. Good for him but the rest of Engineering has to work all the harder to stay current. All of which goes to explain why I was starin' at the display when I should have been learning about the weather — not that it would have done any good.

While I stepped though read-only maintenance screens, we fell on. Things were about to the first fun stage; the assorted disconcerting noises had been getting louder, accompanied by increasingly violent shaking. I was starting to feel like my sinuses were clearing, a sure sign of increasing weight. On the main display in front of Butch, a little animation showed our past and projected trajectory, with a little icon at a discontinuity. Next to it, a countdown ticked inexorably backwards, only without the ticking. Butch opened the covers over his presets and got that six-things-at-once piloting look. As the count hit zero, it felt like something picked the vehicle up, slammed us around and all of a sudden, I was weightless again. The shaking changed character and started to slacken but I knew it would be back, worse than before.

If you're Isaac Newton, we just broke an immutable law of nature; the ship wraps itself up in a low-order Jump field, rotates the field projector, and pops back into real space "falling" in an orientation related to the direction the projector was turned. (I can handwave my way through the math but you really don't want me to). Falling any direction but down doesn't last, of course, and it's a huge jolt; but if you have the tummy for it, it sure is fun!

The kicker is, the location where your little private bubble of space-time rejoins the one most folks use is only approximate 'til you actually do it. The smaller and quicker the Jump, the greater the uncertainty. (Contrarily, a very powerful 'Drive field will do you in about like a ride inside a microwave oven, so every Jump a squirt-booster makes has to be small and fast). The closer to the ground you use this trick, the more likely you'll star in your very own crater: air's compressible but dirt and water, not so much. So we travel in a series of "sonic" booms, around half of them the real thing and the remainder the louder thunderclap created when the squirt-booster phases back into real space. The pilot's job is to end up over the landing area, falling at a rate the very limited-burn-time rockets can bring to a gentle landing. A good pilot can set down within a city block or less of his goal. Butch is really good, usually able to land right on the mark. On the other hand, this isn't like an airplane; unexpected wind, bad weather, lousy navs or just plain bad luck can require trading accuracy for a survivable set-down. There's no such thing as a touch-and-go! There's no good second chance; "up" is the safest direction to go but the minimum safe Jump is far enough and deceleration cap limited enough to make a soft landing questionable on the second try and highly unlikely on the third. As a result, "landing fields" for squirt-boosters are very large open areas; a quarter-mile square is a small field and most are between a half-mile and a kilometer square. (Even bigger for Edgers; their pulse-field "bell" shuttles are a lot more maneuverable but have been known to pop into realspace a bit lower than the surface of the landing area. This can be very loud).

—I wasn't thinking of any of that at the time; I was grinning and trying not to shout "Whee!" After the first Jump, we "fell" up awhile, slowed and started down again. It's a strange feeling. The heatshield RFI was down to nothing; there was plenty of time for another position fix from the Lupine. Butch looked at the numbers, satisfied. "Where we should be."

The next drop, we broke the sound barrier, a strange feeling; the shaking gets worse and worse and then — the ride becomes eerily smooth. A bit of that and then another little Jump and vector adjustment; we went subsonic and sped up again. It's deadly serious stuff...and the best roller-coaster ride imaginable.

What was up does come down; eventually we were low enough, slow enough and the ablative foam was sufficiently burned and blown away that Butch triggered the release control, allowing the canopy covers to shred away, revealing the promised blue sky and fluffy clouds.

As also promised, it didn't last. Those clouds were a solid pillow underneath us and comin' up fast.

We fell into the clouds and things grayed up. I was grinning like an idiot; I know I have gone on and on about the process (it's still not quite routine, which is why it's so rarely fatal) but it's big mean fun. "Not quite routine:" I was watching the display as the next hop-point approached, hit, and we dropped out of the here-and-now with a jar and—

And right back in, with a lurch that left the little ship feeling heeled over to my left. Rain lashed across the canopy, obscuring a dim gray limbo beyond, briefly lit by lightning accompanied by a peal of thunder. On the main displays, several icons went red and I looked over at Butch, who was already busy. I called up the basic STATUS display, found an OL flagged red for the #4 squirt-booster unit, "upside down" on the corner below us. I paged through to the detailed info, and it looked like the thing had lost power barely into the last Jump. Back out to the top screen and there 'twas: we were falling at an angle to our intended path, and too fast.
There wasn't much I could do besides keep my yap shut, so I did. Butch was still busy when I glanced over but he looked more annoyed than worried. He punched in some more numbers, reached over to the control stick at his left and said, "Here we go."

[To Be Continued]