09 April 2011

Frothup: Dropping In, Part Nine


Irrational turned out to be mostly something I do know: applied geekery.

A little study over another vending-machine breakfast got me on the right bus in a series of buses and three transfers later, I debarked a couple blocks away from the factory, along the portward-facing arc in the industrial district, just a little north of the city's east-west centerline. There was a pretty park across the street, bright with in early-Spring growth, ground mounding up towards the center. I admired it as I walked along; Lupine's little pocket park and planters along the passageways don't amount to that much greenspace and Enviro & Physical Plant's greenhouses are all Authorized Persons Only, for a number of good reasons.

A sign over the first gateway I passed read "Memorial Park" and the hill or bluff rising at the center, across nearly a block of greensward and low plantings, suddenly took shape as the outer arc of a circular feature: it was the crater left when Cut & Run crashed. Right across from the Irrational Numbers plant and office. It looked too pretty to have been the center of so much suffering.

Nothing is completely safe and though I doubt all the details will ever be known, most infamous disasters have no single cause, no easy villain Instead, they follow the Titanic Rule: the ocean-liner's tragedy was the result of multiple factors. [Too fast for conditions, poorly-equipped lookout, brittle steel, inadequate rivets, "watertight" construction with designed-in failure and inadequate lifeboats, to name a few.]

In most such disasters, take any single item off the list and the death toll drops precipitately. The true wonder is that nothing as bad has happened before or since out of hundreds of thousands of Edger Glocke-ship landings, no few of them surreptitious smuggling at Earth (and probably even now, Agreement of '89 or no, Edger ships not considering themselves party to a contract they didn't sign). Edgers have screwed a few ships right into the ground and so have NATO/Russian crews; but never as badly as here on Frothup.

It was in that somber frame of mind that I climbed the steps to Irrational's main door, just as a large, driverless truck pulled out of a gate next to the entrance, the legend "Aw Boo Moo Pow" on what I guess you'd still call the driver's-side door. Um, "Aw Boo...?" all right, then.

The lobby was unremarkable, if you ignored the far wall, papered in a regular black-on-white pattern of two-inch tall numbers. In front of the wall, a desk; behind the desk, a woman of that indeterminate middle age I still think of as older than me, despite what my mirror reports.

She was on the phone, finishing one call as I entered and switching to another line with a remarkable bray of "Irrational Num-bers," in an accept that combined an Upper Midwest rasp with the slight over-enunciation typical of most Edgers. She gave me a look that implied I was underdressed for the lobby, tucked the handset under her chin and averred, "Deliveries go through the gate, loading dock, South side. Follow the signs," returning her attention to the telephone immediately after.

I just stood there and waited, studying the wallpaper. I found "3.1415" at the upper left and it started to make sense, in a Far Edge way. Finishing her call, she looked up and realized I was still there. "Can I help you?" she asked, in a tone that implied that she couldn't, wouldn't and I was dim for not realizing it.

"Um, Miz...Mandelbrot?" (That's what the sign on her desk said, YVONNE MANDELBROT, OFFICE MANAGER. The Fate's jest or more Edger humor?). "I'm from the Lupine? To meet Findlay Michaels?" Couldn't keep the questioning tone out of my voice. I felt as if I was back in grade school.

She gave me a doubtful look, but only said, "All right," and turned back to her phone. There was some trick to the thing; her voice was barely audible most of the time. I caught "Earth...says she's...Oh." She hung up and gave me a less-unfriendly look. "He says he'll be out momentarily. Please have a seat." And at that, she tuned her attention back to the phone, looking more like Margeret Hamilton than ever.

Findley Micheals showed up to collect me before I'd read the wall halfway (...1134999999837... and who saw that coming?) and led me back through the office-type offices to what was obviously Engineering space, workbenches and parts racks, test equipment arrayed on carts and emptier space past that. On the other side of the corridor, a row of offices.

Mike stopped at a shut door of translucent glass and tapped, then opened it even as someone on the other side sang out, "C'mon in!"

Within was a still-life pandemonium. It was a small office — still three times the size of the Chief's tiny cubbyhole aboard Lupine but where the Chief's extreme degree of neatness and order makes a preposterously-small space look nearly reasonable, this room felt tiny.

Whiteboards took up most of two walls, with jammed-full bookshelves below them; the far wall had floor-to-ceiling shelves, heaped and cluttered with an assortment of books, loose paper, test equipment and unidentifiable electronic assemblies. Overflow was piled in the corners and had spilled onto the floor.

To our left, a desk, and turning from the desk, a merrily-smiling, craggy man, with dark, curly hair and bright blue eyes. He wasn't much over five feet tall but he seemed to fill whatever space was left, leaving barely enough room for Mike and me to stand. "Come on in," he repeated, "You must be the young lady from the Earth behemoth we're improving.!"

Mike grinned. "She is. Roberta Ecks, meet Doc Daugherty. Doc's our chief design engineer for the solid-state 'Drive amps."

Doc beamed even wider, holding out his hand and adding "And systems, don't forget, they're no real good without a combiner."

We shook on it and I said, "Right. Glad to meet you." He didn't seem any crazier than any other RF design type I'd known; in fact, he reminded me a little of the boffin who'd tried to drum the rudiments of Stardrive theory into us at USSF, twenty years ago. That memory was what made his name click. "Just a minute: the Daugherty?," I asked, "The CLASSIFIED Daugherty Shunt?"

He could't've grinned any wider but he ducked his head in a semi-bow. "The one and only. I've always thought it was good of your side to remember my name."

It was like casually running into Marconi, or at least Philo Farnsworth. The Daugherty Shunt doubled bootstrap efficiency of a CLASSIFIED and improved transition stability even more; it was what made huge commercial starships a practical proposition instead of a chancy gamble.

I've even read papers arguing the Daugherty Shunt played as big a part in ending the War as the Agreement of '89. I don't know about that. I do know that by shortening travel times and making it possible for a really large starship to re-emerge much farther into a solar system without shaking itself to pieces, it had simultaneously made large-scale trade much more practical and the War suicidally deadly: imagine a carrier like Lupine popping up well inside the Solar System, launching a swarm of high-velocity attack ships and missiles, and dropping back into a 'Drive bubble. At a significant fraction of the speed of light, the damage would be done practically before Earth could react. Or any Edger system, station or ally — Smitty's World, La-A, Frothup, Witherspoon, whatever.

NATO/USSF had the technology within months of the Far Edge's first use — whether by espionage, a captured or defecting Edger starship or some other means has never been told. —At the time, nobody knew why the Edgers had not struck first. USSF would have been surprised, had they not been too busy capitalizing on their good luck (or clever intelligence work). After the peace, it became clear that even at war, the Far Edge depended too much on technology and "biologicals" — plants and animals — from Earth.

Daughtery didn't stop the war but his innovation had certainly made both sides blink. And there he was in his cluttered, fusty office, a rumpled little guy with a slightly crooked smile, an ordinary-looking engineer. History, right in front of me. I don't know if he noticed but Mike picked up on my sudden awe and stepped in, "We're proud of Doc. Wait'll you see what he came up with for this project." Doc nodded. "I don't know why nobody else ever thought to scale them up."

Oh my life: from awe to befuddlement in two lines. "Scale what up?" I asked.

"Gysels!" they said in near unison.

It didn't clear anything up. That was all they'd tell me at the time; Mike arranged to meet Dr. Daughtery in the final-test area after lunch and took me on a quick tour of the plant. We didn't get into the semiconductor fab wing at all, of course, other than the shirtsleeve QC and a quick peek through three layers of windows and down the line of gleaming white and stainless steel machinery. Not a person in sight — "Fully automated," Mike said, "With one tech keeping watch inside in six-hour shifts; they take a break and do six on the QC console outside, too."

Sounded like a long day to me but with a two-hour lunch and Frothup's plus-size days, it still left plenty of time.

The rest of the factory was nearly as automated, a little less so near the end of the line. Final Assembly still have more machines than people and the overall pace seemed pretty slow. I asked about that too.

"It's not high-volume. We're still supplying three-quarters of the FCS and independent ships, but we still run in batches; past the initial sub-assemblies, one crew follows a 'Drive assembly all the way through."

I asked about spares and replacements — turns out that's done in very small batches, based on maintaining a small stock level. "Things change too quickly to tie up a lot of dead storage." It makes sense if you've got a factory handy; a starship in flight has to be able to fix whatever might go wrong and so we end up carrying a "dead storage" full stock of spares. Even the old Radio Corporation and Beamathon companies worked that way: starships started out with what they needed and restocked-as-used, on their predictable returns to home port. It might be dead storage to the manufacturer; for us, it was the stuff you'd better have if you didn't want to end up dead.

We even got in a quick look at Lupine's new 'Drive finals, a dozen cabinets full of solid-state modules, pushing over 100 kiloWatts from the combiner hidden behind them into a dummy load.

There were a pair of big momentary switches on long, heavy cables, which Mike said were used to simulate transients, and hit one of them. Bang! Half the cabinets cycled off and back on, barely a blip on the power-out meter.

He handed the switches to me and I asked, "Like this?" gave them a simultaneous double-kerchunk-kerchunk. That time, the room lights blinked; but the 'Drive final came right back up as if nothing had happened.

Mike's eyes were a bit big as he admitted, "You know, I've never killed both sides at once; we've never built a final that ran this much power."

I nodded but pointed out, "It's going to take a hit like that some day when we're flying. I'd just as soon find out if there's a problem while it's still down here."

He said he could see my point. He still didn't look especially happy about it.

By then it was lunch time. Mike had a surprise in store for me there, too; we walked to a by-gosh supermarket (what, you thought it was all freeze-dried space food? Didja miss the soybean fields between city and port?) a block and a half away, "Hi-Frontier." Tucked off to one side, just past the deli section, a half-row of hot-food counters and what food! Childhood Sunday-dinner stuff, turkey rolls, meatloaf and pork roast, a lot of rice dishes, corn, soybeans, green beans. We eat all right aboard Lupine, Enviro and Physical Plant's agronomists grow an astonishing lot of tasty veggies and even manage chickens, a few hogs and, yes, guinea pigs (they're actually pretty good), but Hi-Front's lunch counter put them to shame. I stopped Mike half-way into a kind of apology for such an everyday lunch, "...since we had to reschedule at the last minute."

I don't know if he believed me when I told him he couldn't have done better with a month of planning, but it was true.

After a hasty meal by local standards — a little over an hour — it was back to the final test area. Doc Daugherty was approaching from the other end of the hall as Mike opened the door; I was watching him and until Mike said, "Son of a snake!" I didn't look into the room.

When I did, it took a moment to grasp what I was seeing. The cabinets were still there, but empty. All of the amplifier modules were gone. Lupine's history-making solid-state 'Drive finals had been stolen.

Author's note: you will find that sequence of six nines well into pi; as is so often the case, Richard Feynman was there first. I love his plan for it.