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?"