09 October 2010


I have added links to some of the vignettes and story arcs. You'll find it at the right-hand side of this page, under the heading STORIES. Most A few of them link back to my personal blog, which is where I first started telling tales about my job in the exciting, fast-paced star travel industry.

Some of you who arrive via websearches or blog links may not be of the same political opinions as those you will occasionally find me expressing elsewhere on that blog. I hope that won't keep you from enjoying the yarns. Bear in mind that somewhere aboard Lupine, or at least somewhere along the Hidden Frontier, is someone with notions about politics and humanity that are almost exactly like your own.

Update: For those of you who (like me) prefer to read a complete story, everything linked to as a story arc or vignette is self-contained, with one exception: "Adventures In History" has yet to be completed. But it contains a lot of historical background for the Hidden Frontier and doesn't come to a cliff-hanger.

08 October 2010

Frothup: Dropping In, Part Five


He yelled, I stopped. Sure, somebody barks out an order like that, my first impulse is to get my back up — and so's yours, probably. Nevertheless, I stopped and kept my mouth shut. Most of my working life and leisure time is spent in surroundings filled with ways to be killed or injured and when someone says "Stay put!" you stay put and survive to find out why later.

"Why" was quick to arrive this time, as a machine that looked like a cross between a "bobcat" and a forklift trundled by right behind my confronter, carrying a large sub-assembly of pipes, strange modules, high-pressure fittings and fat cable bundles. Farther back, the source of the rumble and squeal revealed itself to be a traveling crane carrying an unfamiliar-looking lander, looking like a streamlined mobile home, slightly burned around the leading edge. The large structure fronting on the street was just the first of a series of big peaked and arch-roof buildings scattered around the vast space. There weren't a lot of people visible for the size of the enclosure but every one of them was in motion, including the guy who'd stopped me.

The forkloader ground on past and he folded his arms, took a step back and gave me a once-over just short of insulting. I looked him over right back, head to toe, a great lump of a man over six feet tall, strong-looking, with close-cropped sandy hair, a slightly prehistoric aspect and as my gaze returned to his face, a very faint and engagingly wry smile. "Okay," he said, "You must have half a clue. Or none at all."

"One or the other," I agreed. "Roberta Ecks. From Lupine. You've got one of our squirt-boosters...?"

His smile got a little wider. "Oh, that thing." He took a gadget like an oversized cell phone from his pocketed and keyed something in. "We put it over in 14-H. This way."

We wended our way through the place, which was a little more organized-looking from inside the maze, to one of the arched buildings. The big doors were closed; he led me through a smaller door next to it. Inside was shockingly...not neat, exactly, but despite a profusion of tools, toolboxes, work surfaces, materiel, cables and hoses, there was a complete absence of junk and debris. It was brightly lit and the very few trip-and-fall hazards were well-marked.

Dominating my view, a well-worn Glocke-type shuttle easily 70 feet in diameter; beyond it, impact bags stowed, swinging from a massive overhead hoist by stout slings through new hoisting eyes in her hardpoints, was Lupine's failed squirt-booster, a long, shiny half-a-boat shape. The big guy headed towards it and I followed.

There was a worktable up against the side of the ship, where a stocky fellow wearing an untucked shirt and sandals was working at a laptop computer with an expression of intense concentration. He must have been wearing shorts, but his shirt-tails were so long there was no way to tell. He turned and looked up as we got closer, shirt swinging open to reveal he was wearing a T-shirt underneath it, also untucked and nearly as long. I still couldn't've told you if he was otherwise clad. For all knew, I was among the sans-culottes. He nodded at my guide and said, "Heya, primitive. She's who they sent from the Earth ship?" The way he said it, it sounded like maybe I had fleas.

The big guy started to say something; I stepped up and held out my hand. "Roberta Ecks. Chief 'Drive Tech, Lupine," thinking, 'Earth ship' me, willya? Some of these guys, you have to get almost toe-to-toe with 'em before they'll even give you a chance to prove you know what you know.

Other than a certain tightening around the eyes and mouth, his expression didn't change. "Okay. I'm Raub. Thought I'd get a head start but the software's, unh, locked up as tight as the hardware." On the screen behind him, the login sequence was, in fact, just finishing; I ignored it and gave him my very best Big-Sisterly, I-know-what-you're-up-to Hearty Grin.

"Great! Glad to meetcha, Rob. And...," I turned but the big guy was already halfway to the door. I noticed he was wearing a glove on only one hand.

Raub chuckled. "It's R-A-U-B. And don't mind him, he's kind of a Neanderthal. Awfully good tech, though. --I've seen the report your pilot filed. Anything else I should know?"

"Breaker trip when we took a lightning hit, not much more to say. Let me finish the software unlock and get the hatches open and we can have a look."

* * *

I started a standard diagnostics routine. As for not actually having had to log myself on, I ignored it and he didn't bring it up but, typical Edger tech, he'd managed to get into ship's systems all right, though there's no serious effort to secure them; that could create a safety hazard. Physical isolation is the primary security. I suspected he could have beat the physical locks, too, but I didn't give him the chance, just climbed up the stingy flip-down foot- and hang-holds and unlocked the hatch. Inside, we made our way to the 'drive module, snugged in at the squirt-booster's center of gravity. It doesn't have to be at the CG but it simplifies things.

Access is via a junior-sized pressure door with a decent lock. Can't have some nitwit mistaking it for the washroom the ship hasn't got! It smelled half-wrong, hot electronics with a whiff of Old Fireplace. We swapped looks; it wasn't a good sign. I gave him a quick, hands-on, hand-waving rundown of what did what; he took it in with a raised eyebrow and a faint smile. Engineering approaches vary between us and the Far Edge and a single squirt-booster has very little redundancy in the 'Drive systems. It doesn't have to; they are never deployed singly. Edgers, at least the ones in space or working on space-travel hardware, still regard it with a mixture of amusement and horror.

I set to work getting access to the HV supply for the 'Drive and asked Raub to check on the diagnostic. There's about enough room for one tech to get the modules out — as long as no one else is in the compartment.
* * *

Some circuit breakers — especially cheap ones — are just fuses with a fancy lever. The first big overload that comes along, poof! They never work again. Believe me when I tell you that's not what they put in spaceflight-rated equipment. No, we get the good stuff. Nevertheless, the breaker on that HV supply sure felt dead. By the time had the module unfastened, wrestled out and nearly opened up, the Edger tech was back, carrying the laptop.

"This can't be right," he said, "it's backwards." And so it was. The lightning transient showed up as a series of overrange indications and false faults — but the breaker had tripped a full two seconds earlier. Sure, it's not very long, but unless you believe inanimate objects can react to future events, it's too long. Still, there's one chance and the Edger came up with it the same time I did: "How's your logging software handle simultaneous inputs?"

I grinned. The Edger term for any software from our side of the border is "flabware." They're convinced it's all flashy graphics over not much substance. "Crudely. But not that slowly." The code is just looking at inputs one after another, tic-tic-tic; if 1 through n go flaky all at once, it still takes finite time to look at 'em and they'll be time-stamped differently. But not by a whole second, let alone two! There are slicker, more accurate ways to do this; for instance, subsystems could latch and timestamp their own data, but it just makes the whole mess more complicated. "Either something went nutty in the log, or the timing's just coincidence."

The possibly-pantsless Edger gave me a long look. "Funny sort of coincidence."

I didn't have any useful reply to that, and for once managed to avoid saying it. I turned back to getting the side panel off the supply. The breaker's right underneath it, top left corner. There was a nasty black smear of soot on the inside panel and the breaker had a nice burned hole in the side; it even looked a bit melted. Which is funny but not amusing: plastics, composites, used in these applications are not supposed to melt or burn very easily.

It didn't look good. If this was a component failure, it was a fleet-grounding defect, at least 'til we figured out why. I said a rude word, earning a surprised glance from Raub. His eyes widened when he got a better look at the breaker. "Jeesh, what're you people making parts out of now?"

For that, I had an answer, "Nothing that should've done that, at least not all by itself."

It really didn't look good. I fiddled the breaker off and on a few times. It just flopped back and forth.

There was a melty spot visible on the front of the breaker in the ON position, down at the bottom. The Edger tech noticed it, too.

I may not be the sharpest spoon in the drawer, but the front of a circuit breaker is just a big chunk of plastic. It's not all that close to the parts that can fail-with-drama. I took another look at the whole mess and then took a mental step back. There was a way to check this out without leaping to conclusions. "Raub, I need to make a call. You guys cool with cell phones?"


06 October 2010

All Part Of The Service

"Engineering to Jump Control. Engineering to Jump Control."

Lupine had completed the long run-up to a significant percentage of the speed of light and was leaping out of Frothup's star system, at long last; it'd been fun but I wasn't gonna miss the place. As is usual during a Jump, all us on-shift Engineering types were hanging out in the Shop, listening to the intercom. We get the "big loop," anyone keys up anywhere in the 'comms, we'll hear it.

This voice wasn't over the intercom but the plain-ordinary dial seven-oh paging system...which is locked out during FTL and maneuvering operations. Locked out, that is, except for the control rooms and a very few other critical locations.

Not that I that that deeply about it at the time; I was nearest the hatch and was already in motion when the Chief said, "Bobbi..." from his vest-pocket of an office. At that, I hit the entrance to Jump Control right behind Gale Grinnel, one of the old-timers and a man who won't let his left wrist tell his right wrist the time of day. He hadn't been in the Shop when he call came in -- must have been closer to Jump Control, though.

I've described the place before, kind of a cross between Mission Control and the bridge of a very large oceangoing vessel; the Star Pilot him or herself sits front and center, at a distressingly tiny set of controls; in the worry seat today was Lorena, Kent Good's spouse, something of a Den Mother to the assorted clutch of a pilots and right hand to Randall, the big boss pilot and head guy in charge. And I have seen her freeze a Navs boffin with a single icy glare after a clumsy remark about "women drivers." To her right sits the Navs Lead, sorting possible scenarios and lining them up for the next move; next row back is a couple of Imaging techs who are mostly sorting the incoming data so that what shows up on the big screens at the front of the bridge is optimally useful, a couple more Navs types straining to stay ahead of what might happen, and Power Room's on-site tech. The back row accommodates E&PP's remote tech, ditto from Stores and Cargo, plus space for trainees and the officer officially on watch. And down in the front row, on the pilot's right, is one more station: Jump Coordinator, in charge of all tasks not directly related to getting into or out of a superluminal condition in one piece. Among other things, he's got the main 'comms console.

That'd be the one he's pointing disgustedly to, while looking daggers at Gale and innocent li'l me. The one with exactly one light on it, instead of the rows and rows of alphanumeric displays and LEDs that shold be lit up.

A lot of Jump Coordinators are retired pilots; not everyone has the nerves to do the the job for year after year. Others are pilots on reduced duty, or picking up extra income working overtime; or they are, to be indelicate about it, cock-ups who might be Genuine Certified Star Pilots but who Randall won't trust in the big chair.

Yeah, guess which variety we've drawn? He's not happy about it, either, and looks even less happy when Gale ignores him, pulls a tiny "green tweaker" screwdriver from his jumpsuit sleeve pocket (he's old school that way), and jabs it in the RESET hole in the primary intercom panel. The last little yellow LED goes out, with a "cluck" from every earpiece that earns us a hasty, annoyed glance from Lorena; then they all light up, a tiny fireworks display, most of 'em go out and come back on one-by-one as proper labels and indicators.

The JC looks flabbergasted. Gale turns and gives me a tiny grin and we both step out into the passageway and start back to the shop. "Darned kids anyway," he mutters, "It used to be just one lousy partyline -- and that didn't work most of the time." Behind us, I could hear the JC start to splutter, think better of it and stop. Even the larger egos have to bend to moment -- there's ten miles of starship, thousands of lives and billions of dollars in cargo riding on every Jump; get it wrong and you're a shooting star in someone's sky -- if you're lucky.

By the time we get back to the Shop, the usual discussion is in full swing: Why Doesn't Engineering Sit Console During Jump? We're in time to hear the Chief's judgment: "You're not operators! Our job is to make their jobs easier -- and to stay out of their way the rest of the time!"

He's right, of course -- half-way to outracing light is no time to start tearing the widgetry apart unless it's absolutely necessary. You don't ask a mechanic to look under the hood of your car while you're headed down the highway!