12 November 2017

Armistice Day

     "It's over!  It's over!"  The radio and ansible operator came shouting out of his cubicle and bounced down the passageway to the Command and Control compartment of the FCS-chartered Observation Starship Freya.  He rounded the corner past the Captain's quarters and slapped the hatch frame, "Skipper, it's over!  They made a truce!"  There was a faint mutter from the other side of the curtain; Freya's commanding officer had been asleep.

     The duty pilot and astrogator gave the radio op wary looks.  It was widely belived that all dittybops were half-crazy to begin with and a few years ago when the massive, awkward FTL communicator was installed, the odd sounds it picked up only supported the theory.  Before they could speak, Captain Bonham slid back the curtain that screen his tiny quarters from the bridge and leaned out, rubbing his eyes, to ask, "What's over? We run out of eggs already? Dammit."

     Freya had been skimming through the edges of the Linden/Lyndon solar system for three months shiptime/half a year realtime already, fast passes through while monitoring USSF/NATO radio traffic and as much passive ship-spotting as they could manage, alternating with FTL "hops" to reposition.  The ship was superluminal at present, which allowed the FTL-comms ansible to operate.  Normally, this meant only routine traffic and occasional personal messages, nothing that merited excitement.  "I knew those powdered eggs weren't gonna last."

     "No, Skipper, the War!  The War's over!"

     "What?"  Bonham blinked.  "Over?  Who won?"

     An alarm sounded at the Navs position, yellow light flickering in syncopation with the beeps.  The astrogator and pilot both ignored it.

     The radio op waved the flimsy again and it fluttered from his hand in the low acceleration.  "We did!  Um, I think.  It's over!"

     Captain Bonham reached out and gently retrieved the slip of thin paper.
     NR0112 CK 80 1989NOV11 0900UTC ALLSHIPS ALLFORCES AUTHENTICATORS ORANGE/RETICULAR/OOGAMOUS. AGREEMENT CONCLUDED BETWEEN FCS AND US/NATO ENDING HOSTILITIES EFFECTIVE 2300UTC THIS DATE. STAND DOWN IMMEDIATELY. AT 2300UTC ALL STARSHIPS TO RETURN TO HOME PORTS AND AWAIT FURTHER ORDERS. ALL OCCUPIED AND CLAIMED-CHARTED ASTRONOMICAL BODIES TO REMAIN ASSIGNED AS-IS ON THIS DATE SUBJECT TO FREE AND DEMOCRATIC DETERMINATION BY PRESENT INHABITANTS. ANY FORM OF OPEN CONTACT WITH EARTH EXPRESSLY PROHIBITED. USSR PLUS COLONIES STALINA MIR AND NOVY MOSCOW ARE NOT SIGNATORY.  COMMANDING OFFICERS TO CONFRIM COMPLIANCE ON RECIEPT. OOGAMOUS/RETICULAR/ORANGE AUTHENTICATORS ENDIT ENDIT

         The war was over.

*  *  *
     General Gerald Filiaggi, CEO of Mil/Space and — after round after round of consolidation and takeovers — effectively in command of all military forces deployed at the behest of the shadowy Federation of Concerned Spacemen, sat at his desk and thought wistfully of cigars.

    Even after decades of operation, the enivironmental budget at the Mil/Space shipyard and HQ on Trinity'S airless moon A was tight and he wasn't going to allow himself a luxury his staff couldn't share.  There was a fine Cuban cigar in a tiny glass humidor on his desk, smuggled off Earth in defiance of good sense and wartime necessities, and he glared at it.  Something was up at Linden/Lyndon, that much was obvious, but exactly what wasn't clear.  The USSF carrier Lupine had briefly docked with intelligence/surveillance/scout carrier ships Vulpine and Caprine and a number of lesser vessels, and all had departed on different vectors.  Vulpine had definiely left for the indpendent settlement of Smitty's World — Filiaggi made himself not use the term, "pirate base," since the too-clever Johannn Cameron Harper Smith had managed to make himself and his barren, frozen world essential to both sides over the last decade.  That ship and its vector worried him.  A delegation from the FCS Board hes been meeting with representatives from Earth under Smith's auspices for months, but that was all he knew.  They made periodic reports that said nothing of the talks.

     Filaiggi scowled at the cigar and grunted.  The FCS were a bunch of wooly-thinking eggheads, who treated the military as hired help.  Of course, Mil/Space was hired help; the FCS Board was firmly determined not to be a government, and outsourced every function that it could not manage to avoid. 

     The computer terminal to his left clucked twice and lit up, neon-orange letters rapidly filling the screen:
     NR07734 CK81 RELAY VIA FCS LOKI AUTHENTICATORS WEAVERBIRD/QUENCH/ORANGE QUOTE 1989NOV11 0900UTC ALLSHIPS ALLFORCES AUTHENTICATORS ORANGE/RETICULAR/OOGAMOUS. AGREEMENT CONCLUDED BETWEEN FCS AND US/NATO ENDING HOSTILITIES EFFECTIVE 2300UTC THIS DATE....
     Fourteen hours — now twelve — was an insanely short period of time.  The ansible couldn't reach any ship in realspace and at any given time, most of the FCS fleet and its charters weren't in FTL transit.  He swore quietly, then reached for the intercom.  "Joyce?  You see this?  Get Loki to confirm, that's Maurer in command, and once he does, have them Jump out and relay it again over my name."  His assistant murmured confirmation back but Filiaggi barely heard it.  The FCS negotiators, sworn to secrecy on the subject, had overlooked something.  Earth didn't have the ansible.  This deadline was insane. There was no way USSF was going to be able to notify all their starships and installations by the deadline. "Hang on, hang on — Hold that message. Tell Loki to stand by.  I need to add something."  The Ops summary was in his inbox; the points of contact had been stable for weeks, both sides just watching and waiting, no real action.  He had a fair sense of who was where, but it was going to take detail work.  Maybe they could even get the USSF ships to back down.... He reached for the intercom again, and stopped suddenly.

     "Snookered," he said to himself.  "The clever boys have been snookered and they damn near swept me along."  He flipped the intercom switch.  "Okay, here's the deal: add this to the message: tell everyone, all ships, anything NATO or USSF can observe, hold position.  Take no action. Ships are not to return to home ports until we send out a courier."

     The intercom asked a question.

     "Because it's a setup!  No, not the peace; you see everything that passes my desk, Joyce; there isn't any point to more fighting.  They're done and we're done; we're out here and they can't haul us back — and they know we won't mess with the Earth.  It's a stalemate. But their damn armistice timetable is a setup and the FCS eggheads fell for it.  USSF isn't run by complete idiots.  They have to suspect we've got faster-than-light communications and I almost confirmed it."

*  *  *
     Freya and her sister ships hung on for weeks, kept to their schedules and avoided conflict. It was a mess; but what mattered was, the inconclusive and spiteful War was over. Over, as the USSF negotiators had insisted upon, at eleven p.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month; but it was months before word reached every part of the far-flung frontier, carried on the faster-than-light spacecraft of Mil/Space and USSF.

     It was another decade before USSF managed to build ansibles of their own.

14 May 2017

The Scream

TRANSCRIPT OF TESTIMONY, DISCIPLINARY HEARING, STARDRIVE TECHNICIAN 1ST CLASS R. HUMKEL, USAS LUPINE.
  QUESTION CONTENT REDACTED FOR PRIVACY, SEE USSF A/83:1(a)

Q:
A: Yes, I know why I'm here.  But I didn't think the new guy — Chris — was going to take it so hard.  It isn't anything that hasn't been done to any of us in Engineering.

Q:
A: Sure, they did it to me.  You get a green tech, they have a lot to learn.  I didn't start learning how little I really knew here on Lupine.  It was years ago, when I hired in as Third 'Drive Tech on the old Billy How.  That's the USAS William Howard Taft, a little freight hauler, former U. S. Space Force like most of them.  I heard she was scrapped in '97 or '98.

Q:
A: Pretty much the same deal; it was my first job as a full Tech and I was pretty full of myself after saving my previous starship, the tug Schramm when the Tech First fell ill and we lost a phantasmajector tube in the RF pump for the stardrive.  See, those old tugs—  What?  No, I guess it's not important.  Anyway, I thought I was hot stuff, made some undiplomatic comments to Mike R. — he was the Number Two Tech — about how badly they ran the 'Drive.  He didn't say much, but when we headed into the next Jump, the boss had me checking out the anisble, and didn't I get a warning about what not to listen to!  So I did, of course.  I didn't sleep well for a month.

Q:
A: Chris rubbed me the wrong way a little; there aren't many women working as stardrive techs and he — well, I thought he was a jerk. The way a lot of the guys are, talking down, that kind of thing.  But it was nothing to the way he treated Jonny Zed and Gale Grinnel.  Sure, Jonny's a little, well, um, he's unique.  And that Gale, you'd think words cost him money — except for "Leave that the f—- alone."  He says that a lot.  But they've served aboard since the Lupine was a Space Force carrier.  Jonny was one of the first techs down on Lyndon!  Sure, they're grumpy and they have their own ways of doing things, but both of them have been fixing stardrives since before I was born.  Gale taught me how to tune up the high-power amplifiers.  The old tetrode ones are touchy and—  Oh, sorry.  Did I get too technical again?  Anyway, they both go way back to real fighting parts of the War.

Q:
A: Oh, that, yes.  It's the time dilation.  You'd have to ask them, but I think Jonny's been at it for forty years subjective, about seventy-five years as the clock ticks.  Gale's got almost as much time in, either way.

Q:
A: Chris was rude to them.  He was making fun of Jonny Zed to his face when I came on duty that morning. We'd been ramping up delta-V for a Jump for a couple of months, everyone was a little on edge and you know how Jonny gets.

Q:
A: You don't?  Haven't you talked to him yet?  He tells stories.  Sometimes they're a little, a little overstated.  You'll see.  Anyway, I'd tuned up a new final in the B side of the RF pump the day before and we were due to Jump sometime on the first shift.  The Chief was kind of irked with me about it, he had been saying the old final had plenty of hours left but nope, the emission went flat when I tried to run up the heater voltage.  That's tech-y, too, but it's important.  The Chief is not a people person and he was really giving me that fishy eye that morning. I wasn't too surprised when he stuck me with the ansible warm-up.  When he told me to bring Chris along and show him the process, I figured he thought the guy needed taken down a peg.

Q:
A: As near as I can read him, the Chief thinks we all need to be reminded of where we stand in the food chain, every day.  But some days, some of us need it more than others.  Restarting the ansible is just one of those fiddly jobs he hands out to whoever is on his, um. His list.

Q:
A: No, you can't leave the ansible running in normal space. It won't work, of course, but the problem is it makes for huge amounts of interference to comms and it kind of bollixes running the 'Drive low to reduce our realspace mass. Plus the final in it is only good for x many hours and it's a lot of work to change out, so why waste it?

Q:
A: I really can't explain the startup job without getting tech-y.  The timebase comes from the ship's master clock but it's a soft lock — the details, are, um.  I probably can't make it make sense quickly.  You start it up after the first little Jump and make sure the multipliers didn't get a step off or start squegging, and bring the output amplifier up slowly once they've settled down.  The newer ones will do it all on auto, it's not that difficult, but we're still running a Beamathon 4200, and they're—  Well, they won't self-start.  The 4200s were built on a military contract for USSF and they're designed to be super-rugged over being easy to use.  You could beat on the thing with a hammer and it would still run!  But start-up's about a half-hour job and you have to ride the Jump out in the old comms room, in lousy seats that I think must be original with the ship.  I would have brought a bite guard if I'd known I was going to get stuck with the job.
     I took Chris down the passageway to the comms room. It's close by the Engineering shop, about far enough for him to ask where as I reached the hatch.  It's kind of a junk room — orderly, lashed-down junk, the Chief is really strict about that and if you've ever ridden through a bad Jump, I don't have to tell you why.

Q:
A: I'm getting to that.  Ansibles don't tune like a radio.  It's like there's just one channel.  And that's because for any given Jump level, there really is only one channel.  So — every Jump is really a climb up and down through several levels, or dimensions, right?  I mean, approximately.  And some of them are actually dangerous; the physics is too different.  You jump in and right on out.  Seven-A is one of the bad ones and it's one of a few where the regs say ansibles should be off or in standby: not even in receive mode.  Some levels, I can't say which ones, are for USSF Fleet comms, but seven-A is—  It's different.

Q:
A: Of course I've listened! Like I told you.  Everybody who ever got stuck warming up an ansible has. And you wish you hadn't.

Q:
A: I'm getting to that.

Q:
A: So, Chris and I got settled in the lousy old operator’s chairs, and I made sure he could work the old-style five-point harness.  Then I talked him through the start-up, checked the YIG ovens, and ran it up as far as Standby.  I had him show me the step-by-step and he had it pretty well already.  By then we could check sync lock — it was good — and there was nothing to do except wait for the Jump to start.  So I ran down the "Don't Listen" list with him and we got the five-minute warning for Jump.  That was my cue, I figured, so I reminded him to keep the ansible in Standby until we were out of seven-A, said I needed to check something in the Shop, and left.  I put the intercom on to the Shop on my way out, just a quick tap on the button, so we'd hear whatever he got up to.

Q:
A: I went back to the shop.  Three minutes left, everything secured, everybody sitting down and either strapped in or just about to.  There was a seat left near the intercom and I snagged it.  Gave C. Jay and Big Tom a raised eyebrow and waved at the com panel.  I made sure the microphone was turned off and told them, "Could be interesting.  Told the new guy to make sure he kept the ansible warm-up but not full on until we were past seven-A."

Q:
A: Sure we all figured he'd listen!  Nobody objected.  Look, it's been done to most of us — or we did it to ourselves, really. Seven-A is one of the bad ones, too; it's probably just a series of encrypted comms relays left running, but it sounds like a guy screaming, over and over.  Sends chills right down your back.

Q:
A: Yes, I expected it would give Chris a scare. Yeah, I get it, "It's a new day," but I never thought of it as hazing.  Neither did anyone else in Engineering.

Q:
A: The Chief?  What did he think?  That's above my pay grade.  I was talking about the other techs.  The Chief didn't think it was funny afterward, I can tell you that.

Q:
A: You already know Chis did listen.  Probably because I told him not to.  When he started screaming, I ran back to the Comms room, and I took a hell of a bouncing, around, too, since the ship was still headed deeper into Jump space.  Big Tom and C. Jay were right behind me.  When we couldn’t get him to stop — and he'd started trying to slug anyone who got too close — Big Tom held him in the chair and I called the medics.

Q:
A: No.  Are you serious?  Nobody ever told me his father was on one of the ships that went missing during the war!
     Do — do you think Chris is going to be all right?