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.