27 February 2013

Wait, What? Working On A Starship

     The call was for Big Tom; the starship Lupine was well out of Jump, inbound to Farside City, snug on the unEarthly side of the Moon, and at the start of first shift, the ship had just been caught up to by the first Mad Russian ("Express Delivery Service," a/k/a "BisPosEtKom," or what FedEx would look like if they went faster than light and were run by ex-Soviet Space Force courier and fighter pilots -- no, it's both better and worse than you think).

     "Engineering, Roberta X speaking...."

      "Is Big Tom working today?"

     "Yeah, he's right here" I moved the handset away from my mouth, "Tom, it's for you--"

     The voice in my ear protested, "I don't need to talk to him, just tell him his '42' is at the mailroom."  And he hung up.

     I repeated the message to Tom and asked, "What's a '42'?"

     He grinned.  "It's a secret."

     C. Jay was at the desk next to me, deep in e-mail from some Earthside manufacturer who hadn't bothered to ansible out any service bulletins; he had a lot of catching up to do. "Somebody sent Tom The Answer to Everything."

     In the corner at the Calibration bench, old-timer Gale Grinnell looked up in annoyance from where he had some kind of data transcoder laid out in pieces and was poking through it with a 'scope.  He'd served aboard Lupine when she was a warship and and thanks to various time-dilation effects ended up so far out of sync that he has never gone back home (by the calendar, he's well over 70; by his calendar, he's barely past 50) and he figures everyone else in Engineering is in a conspiracy to waste his time.  He gave me a dark look and muttered between clenched teeth, "Probably a damn' stripper.  Foolishness."

     The boys rose to the bait.  C. Jay, "Ooh, a stripper.  '42' could be gooood.  Or it could be bad."

     Big Tom: "Yeah.  It's probably her shoe size!"

     Gale just grunted and went back to his scope-probing, while I endeavored not to blush.

     Undaunted, C. Jay speculated onward, "Shoe size?  42?  Oh, man, a clown stripper!"

     Tom and I both expressed revulsion, but not for long.  From The Chief's tiny office opening off the back of the Engineering Shop there came a determined and somewhat censorious throat-clearing.  "Tom.  That forty-two-inch monitor is for the EVA monitor wall in the Environment & Physical Plant console room.  They're in a rush to get it before the outside work really starts."  He'd been moving as he talked and was at the hatch to his office by the last word, fixing all of us with a gimlet eye.  "Seems they got too involved skylarking and one of the techs put an elbow through the old one.  A-hem."

     Tom headed out.  The rest of us got back to work.

*  *  *
     Via the big dishes at Farside City, we're close enough to dear old Earth's original Internet (with seven herbs and spices) that a web search is possible if you don't mind  the answer taking a bit over a day to come in.  "Clown stripper" sounded like a real bad idea, which could only mean one thing: someone was already doing it.  Ew.  Sure enough, there's a video hit: Ew.  (Link is sans nudity but probably NSFW.)

15 February 2013


    Aboard the USSF William Mitchell, inbound to Trinity's Star, autumn of 1981 back home, around about oh-dark-fifteen.


     Silver-haired and gone just a bit fleshy, he sports a cookie-duster mustache that would make a WW II British fighter ace envious.   He walks with the least hint of a limp but somehow still projects an impression of keen-eyed health, often with a ghost of a smile lurking in the corners of his eyes.

   He isn't smiling right now.  He looks—  He looks for all the world like a college professor about to administer a test and hoping his charges have learned all he's tried to teach them: a kind of annoyed-hopeful foreboding.

     There's a cane tucked under his left arm and a fat file folder in his left hand.  He's walking down a narrow corridor, metal walls, metal-grating floor, low metal overhead nearly covered in piping and conduit.  He comes to a doorway — a hatch? — spins the wheel at the center and steps through silently.  Inside, lights are dim red.  Bunks line the walls, four high, two rows deep with another half-row row in the back center.  A small table and a half-dozen latched-down chairs take up the open space left.  It smells like sleep and the sound of gentle breathing and quiet snores provides a counterpoint to the muted hum and rush of the ventilation system.  Every bunk visible is occupied.

     He spares himself time for a quick, fierce grin and turns to the bunks at his right, right hand taking the cane from under his other arm, and raps vigorously on the upright supporting the nearest corner, producing a shattering clang-clang-clang!  "Wake up, geeks!  Waaaaake uuuup!"

     The result is immediate: a few startled grunts and a general scramble to get out from under covers and vertical, side-by side in front of their bunks as rapidly as possible.

      He flips on the white light, sudden and bright and while his hapless charges may be squinting, not a word or sound of complaint is heard.

     "Well!  Are we all bright-eyed and ready for our cornflakes, or what?"

     The "geek" nearest him — one of the four occupants of the bunk he used as an impromptu bell — blinks though thick lenses and says, hesitantly, "Um, 'Or what?' Cornflakes don't usually come with paperwork."

     "Well-spotted!  'Or what' it is.  Billy Mitchell will be emerging into real space in two hours; Intel says there will be Edgers on the far side, probably military, and we drew the short straw.  Get up, get fed and be in the tank room in under a half-hour; we'll ride it out in the cockpits and drop our drones on emergence."

     The room is silent for a beat and then from the back of the room a voice: "Whoa.  Whoooooa..."

      The young man who spoke earlier pushes his "birth control" glasses up.  "Sir?  We've never done this—  For real.  I mean, when there was gonna be anyone—"

     "That's right, you haven't.  You've run simulations.  You've ridden out Jumps hot into friendly space, into empty space.  You're not going to get any more ready for 'for real' than you are right now.  Tank room.  25 minutes."  And he leaves, cane, mustache, file folder and all, closing the hatch behind him, spinning the wheel and— Stopping.  Listening.

     And he hears a cheer.  Maybe a little ragged, but a cheer.  Ed nods and heads back down the passageway, heading for the "tank room," where eleven teleoperation cockpits await ten two-man teams and one officer: him.

     Ed's done this before, but never in command of a green crew.   He did it time after time, when you went out there and did it in person, in realtime, and he wishes he still could.  This is next best.  His wife claims it's "better." Well, maybe.  His thoughts return to his crew of "remote pilots," the end result of a harsh selection process, and he smiles to himself again, a small and somehow wolfish smile.  Green, yeah, but he's run them through sims, he's pushed them through Jumps, he's pushed them to the edge and right on through, or as close as you can come when the price of failure is a "Game Over" and an after-action review of why.  They're ready.  They can do this.

     It's the job, and they're going to do it.


     In memorial, Maj. Edward J. Rasimus, USAF (ret.) 1942 - 2013  (Biographical link, automatic audio, NSFW!)

14 February 2013

Remote Operators

     They're essential personnel on any large starship, drift or space station.  You'll find them anywhere asteroids are mined or cargoes are transferred in freefall or microgravity.  Half crane operator, half pilot, one-third computer games junkie and 100% space crew, they're usually referred to as "flying crane pilots" or "remote operators" and they're a weirdly assorted lot.

     When you see a skinny geek with bad digestion striding along with that "pilot" look in his eyes, or a smiling, tiny young woman in a powered wheelchair talking shop with a squirt-booster driver or a rigger, you've found yourself a remote op.  On a civilian starship like Lupine, you're sure not going to be able to ID them by their collar pin: they won't wear them.

     There is one, modified from the USSF "tin wings" badge, a cartoon robot astride an equally cartoony rocket, with a hand silhouette behind the whole thing, but about the only ones you can find are undersized replica version in the dusty back corners of souvenir shops ("Collect the whole set!") and pictures in a couple of textbooks.

     Of course there's a story behind it, going back to the later parts of the covert War between USSF/NATO and the Far Edge.  There's no shortage of various kinds of "pilot" on the Hidden Frontier, from the esoteric Jump Pilots or Star Pilots (more like playing 3-D billiards while solving calculus problems, having bet your life and that of all your shipmates on the outcome) to the more-usual kind of "piloting" at the controls of small short-range ships and squirt-boosters; even that is mostly flying a decision tree rather than the kinds of hands-on-the-controls, instruments and seat-of-pants "piloting" most planetbound people think of when they hear the word.  The  only kind of space-piloting that consistently comes close is operating very small tugs, flying forklifts not much more than a main reaction motor and a set of directional trimmers with about as much "cockpit" as a real forklift and an arrangement to couple it to whatever it's pushing.  The operator wears a pressure suit and it's dangerous work.

     So dangerous that about as soon as it became practical to stick a set of TV cameras in the thing and move the operator inside, everyone did.  It's still risky but an ill-considered move doesn't cost a trained operator's life.

     It worked so well that USSF cast about for other ways to move the highly-skilled away from danger, while remoting their skills to where they were needed.  A starship -- a warship -- entering an unknown solar system emerges from Gobau-Heim-Droscher space and drops "scouts" while still moving at a significant percentage of the speed of light; the starship decelerates while the scouts zoom on, radar and optics alert for any sign of danger, radioing back Doppler-shifted reports and, eventually, using their rudimentary Jump and reaction drives to slow and return to the mother ship.  It can take months and it's lousy duty, a tiny ship with a tiny crew, running right up to her own radar with the slight but ever-present chance of encountering something with insufficient warning to evade.  As the War wore on and the two forces found each other more often, the little scoutships were armed.  It didn't take much -- at such high velocities, intersecting the opposing vessel with a bag of trash would to terrible damage and a scattering of high-density cannon shells, even worse.

     Naturally USSF decided to teleopeate the scoutships.  Light-speed lag and all.  Even with the most sophiticated decision tree to ease the job, it took very specialized training to create plots who could fly a ship based on speed-of-light-lagged, time-compressed telemetry, but it seemed to work.

     At least it appeared to be working until two USSF long-range carriers (the Mitchell and the Doolittle), entering the same solar system from vastly different vectors at almost the same time and found the Federation of Concerned Spacemen-settled world Trinity, an agricultural world with a ship-building facility on one of its three undersized moons.  They dropped armed scouts, the FCS -- Mil/Space -- ship-building base scrambled their own armed "bells," and in the ensuing mess, one of Mitchell's scouts impacted Doolittle, with the loss of all hands; Mitchell herself limped out out of the system under attack, the carrier and her remaining remotely-operated scout spacecraft fighting a valiant but impossible battle right up 'til Jump, abandoning two unmanned scouts but managing to recover one.  The two left behind were captured by Mil/Space and one of them survived the war, still serving as a "gate guard" at the Mil/Space facility on T3 (there is very long story on the naming and renaming and re-renaming of Trinity's moons, deeply connected to the Troubles there, but this isn't the time to tell it).  Also lost in the exchange was one of Doolittle's manned flying cranes, which had been engaged in replacing the ship's belly radar dish when the scout hit.

     USSF tried to issue medals to the pilots who'd been remotely flying Mitchell's scouts.  They refused. Point blank.  To a man.  They were threatened with disciplinary action -- and still refused.  They were unanimous in maintaining that had the scouts been manned, Doolittle would not have been destroyed and the action might well have been victorious for Earth.

     Censured but unmedalled, too highly-trained to be drummed out, the scout-ship remote pilots took to not even wearing their "tin wings" (about what you'd expect -- astronaut wings with a robot at the center) and as the story of the disaster at Trinity spread through the USSF fleet, so did their peers.  After a few more and fortunately lesser accidents, USSF gave up on teleoperated scouts, but by then refusing to wear wings or accept decorations had become a tradition among the specialty.

     And to this day, on earth's side of the fuzzy "border" between the FCS Edgers and us, remote operators won't wear the pins that identify their trade.  You'll know 'em when you see them -- or not; but no matter if you do or you don't, they'll be there, in their funky little cockpit-carrels, not running into things.  It's a point of pride.