21 June 2019

Working On A Starship

     In which I tell tales that are only a little bit fictionalized:

     It finally happened.  After years of budget-deferred maintenance and hard use, the old auxiliary stardrive on Billy How is starting to fail.

     That's the starship William Howard Taft to the likes of you.  It's a bulk hauler, United States Space Corps surplus like most of the NATO spacecraft on our side of the Hidden Frontier, with a long, distinguished and penny-pinching history.  Not that I blame the owners; the profit margin is tiny, especially competing against the newer containerized haulers.

     What she lacks in size and flexibility, Billy How makes up for with inadequate speed and inefficiency.  The aux 'drive is a good example.  Built early in the vague and clumsy War between the U.S. and the breakaway "Federation of Concerned Spacemen," her stardrive was built before our side had figured out how to "feather" the 'drive to reduce the effective realspace mass of a spacecraft.  The high-voltage power supplies, modulators and phantasmatron tubes in the 'drive finals were built to punch a hole in space fast and rough, and not to idle at low level for months at a time.  In a short pulse, the 'drive were as powerful as all but the very largest carriers, like Vulpine, Caprine and Lupine, but they were never meant for continuous duty.

     So when we learned how to copy 'drive-feathering from FCS starships, ships like Billy How with Gen 2 stardrives got "realspace auxiliary 'drives," low-powered, simplified, mass-produced "stardrives" that could shunt off mass to never-never land without ever tipping the vessel into Jump space. .  They're not as efficient as the FCS version, not even close, but it's still a huge saving in reaction mass.  And mostly they just sit there, off or on; you dial in the mass-correction and they just run, with none of the fiddling and finagling that  it takes to get into and out of Jump space with the real stardrive.

     That unglamorous invisibility is part of the problem: nobody thinks about 'em.  The aux 'drive is a magic lump, out of sight and out of mind. The Captains all take the aux 'drive for granted; the owners balk at spending any money on them.  If you're in Engineering like me, you do your best to keep the spare parts stocked, keep the fine adjustments peaked up, change the air filters and argue for upgrades when they ship gets refitted.

     Billy How's aux 'drive got solid-state finals 23 years ago -- ooh, transistors, how 1990s! -- and there they stood.  I'd requested, budgeted, made reports, argued, shown the brass what was what, given them my best guess about how likely it was to go up in smoke, and they hadn't wanted to spend a dime  on it. When the old-school microcontroller that provided a nice touchscreen interface for control and monitoring conked out four years ago, the Captain had me reconnect the manual controls instead of spending eight thousand dollars on a replacement.  After all, there was a scheduled refit coming up before very long.  (How long is "before very long?"  Don't ask me; that's above my pay grade.)

     The touchscreen system used to gave us a pretty good look into the innards of the aux 'drive, monitoring and logging thousands of parameters.  The manual controls and meters provide a lot less detail.  So when one of the nifty transistorized, sealed power amplifier modules started to flake out a couple of days ago, it took a couple of shifts to figure out just what was going on.  The predrivers had become very fussy, needing more and more adjustment to keep them at maximum power but out of over-temperature or overcurrent failure, and at first the problem looked like more of that.

     It wasn't.  The power amplifier module -- all of a thousand Watts -- could be restored from the fault condition by a full, ten-minute cold reboot of the aux 'drive, at which point it would run for five minutes, flag a COM FAULT and shut down.  No other symptoms, no weird readings -- and no way short of irreversible action with a chisel to get a look at the inside of the thing.

     We didn't have a spare.  The last one of those went in six months back, off Blizzard, and when I'd put in a request for a replacement, it was bounced -- after all, that refit was going to happen!

     They scheduled the refit last month.  It's six months off.  With a final dead amplifier module in the aux, Billy How will run slow on the realspace leg of this trip and it looks like we'll be sitting at the space station until we can get a new amplifier.  What it's going to cost to expedite delivery of that -- assuming Beamathon even has any in stock -- you don't want to know.  What the module itself will cost, I don't want to know, cubed.

     Fix it before it breaks or pay the price later.  It never gets any cheaper, no matter how long you wait.

21 March 2019

He Worked On A Starship

     C. Jay left the USAS Lupine for the last time today.

     He'd given notice two weeks ago, as soon as it became clear the trouble we had here on Frothup was the result of small groups of violent malcontents and not a broader conspiracy, but he'd liked the looks of the place even before he took a shuttle down.

     "It's a brand-new world," he'd told me the day he gave notice.  "Well, not brand new--"

     "Way not.  The first group of farmers landed here in 1964, " I said.  "You were six."

     He'd given me the look he reserves for people who point out the obvious.  "Yeah, and I was living on a farm my family'd owned for a hundred and fifty years.  It's all suburbs now.  Here, there's room to stretch out."

     I had to admit he had a point.

     He wasn't done.  "And there's room to stretch your brain, too!  Hell, you were hanging out with the people at the Science Co-op, you know what it's like here.  If I stay aboard Lupine, I'll end up like Minimum Andy, fixing the same stuff over and over, three hots and cot, getting into arguments with Conan the Objectivist out of boredom!  It's time, and this is the place."

     There was no talking him out of it.  Better people than me gave it a try, even The Chief and Dr. Schmid.  I don't know what went on between him and The Chief but it involved the hatch being shut tight and a lot of shouting; he never did have much use for our secretive boss.  A day later, Dr. Schmid hauled him off to officer country and talked soft soap at him for half a shift over a fancy lunch.

     Neither encounter made the least bit of difference.

     C. Jay's mind was made up.  Frothup was going to be his new home, a rented house in the capital to begin with and then, who knew?  There were a lot of possibilities.

     We saw him off at the shuttle bay passenger lounge today, everyone from Engineering except The Chief.  Even Jonny Zed showed up, out of sickbay after his stroke but not back on duty, a bit slower than before.  There were hugs and handshakes and I teared up when I tried to tell him how much I'd enjoyed working all these years with a tech who was as sharp and smart as he was, with a man who read the kind of same books I did.  C. Jay and I both have big vocabularies and it's been a relief to chat with someone who didn't stop and say "Hunh?" and have to have words explained.  But in the end, words failed us and we hugged wordlessly.

     Final boarding call for the shuttle came over the PA then, and he turned and walked away to the airlock, carrying a bag of last-minute gifts, not looking back.

     Starship routes and time compression being what it is, I've probably seen my friend and shipmate of these past thirty years for the last time.

     Fare well, C. Jay!

     I'm sure going to miss him.

06 December 2018

Hidden Damage

     Of course, it took one of the Power Room electricians to find it.

     And of course, it was the ternary degausser.  The degaussers don’t run very often but they’re absolutely essential.  They’re after the output of the [CLASSIFIED], five hundred feet right after the big ion trap, and cycle on whenever the induced magnetism of the support structure exceeds a preset level. There’s a neat little magnostrictive oscillator to detect it, and—  But that’s too much geekery already.  The blamed thing kept tripping the breaker and the riggers and I hadn’t been able to figure out why.  I was sure the problem had to be in the wiring or hardware out on the boom; there’s a lot of stress on everything out there and we’d replaced the transformers for it just last year. The most recent breaker trip was nasty enough that it glitched the stardrive -- and it was pure luck it didn't happen at a critical time.

     Dr. Schmid, the Chief's boss, decided we needed an electrician and I figured he was right.  The degausser secondaries run a couple of hundred Amps through the coils.  Power Room’s got test gear that’ll read that high; we don’t.  The primary current’s only 19 or 20 Amps per leg, at 480 Volts, and even that’s enough energy to make plasma arcs on a bad day.

     Ron, the electrician, was whistling a tune I didn’t recognize when he showed up at the Drive Room in one of the little electric service vehicles, loaded down with tools and supplies.  There were a couple of riggers waiting with me, already in their pressure suits except for gloves and helmets.  Ron’s first words after introductions were, “So what’s going on with this thing?”

     “It keeps blowing the breaker,” I told him.  “We haven’t been able to find any wiring problems and every check I’ve had the riggers make out at the transformer looks okay.  I’m mystified.”

     “Well, let’s set up to see what happens and give it a try.”

     The riggers finished suiting up, Ron handed out clamp-on ammeters and we got set up: riggers in vacuum out on the boom, checking at the first junction box and the transformer, me inside watching the degausser controller and contactor in their explosion-proof box, with the door open, and the electrician at the breaker panel around the corner and a few steps down the passageway.  I had the controller off, so the contact wasn’t going to pull in and we’d just be checking the wiring from the breaker to it for this first step.  Just turn it on and right back off, unless it tripped first.

     He shouted “Here we go,” reset the breaker and something went POP! like a firecracker.

     I yelled, “Dammit!” right afterwards. 
     My radio clicked and on of the riggers asked, “What was that thump?  I felt it through the conduit!”

     Ron had come over to where I was by then, and asked, “What was it?”

     “I don’t know.   Not the contactor closing; it’s pretty quiet.”

     “You want to try again?”

     I said sure, told the riggers to listen close, and sure enough, the same thing happened.  Pop!

     So, we’re clever, we checked the wiring from the breaker to the contactor, unhooked it from the breaker and pulled it out of the conduit, laid it out on the floor.  Nothing.  Twenty years old and the wires looked brand new.

     Ron looked at me.  “You sure that contactor’s off?”

     “Should be.”

     He said, "Mm," and we traded a look.  “Should be” often isn’t and we both knew it.

     On close examination, the contactor -- a big relay -- seemed fine.  The contacts are fully enclosed for safety, so you can’t see them, but the moving part, the armature, has a little tab that sticks out and that was clearly in the de-energized position and moved freely.

     Ron whistled a couple of bars of something vaguely classical while getting an ohmmeter out of his toolbar.  “I wonder….,” he said, more to himself than to me.

     Three measurements later, we weren’t wondering.  Three sets of contacts in the thing and one was open just like it should be, one was closed…and one read a few hundred Ohms instead of zero or infinity.
      I went to look for a spare contactor on the parts inventory.  He started taking the old one apart.

* * *
     Ten minutes later, having come up dry on a replacement, I walked back to see how things were going and Ron handed me a set of contacts.  No bigger than dimes, scarred and blackened.  “They weren’t quite welded together.  I pried them apart.”

     I looked them over.  “Ugly.  Inventory shows we should have three replacement contactors, the whole thing, new in the box; note says the last one got used in ’97, right before I started.”

     “These’ll clean up.  How’re you fixed for sandpaper?” 

     In the end, it took fine files to clear up the worst set. In a half-hour, we had them all smooth, shiny, and moving freely.  With the contactor back together and wired up, he returned to the breaker, I radioed the riggers to watch their meters, and told Ron, “Power up!”

     He hit the breaker — and there was no pop.  I waited a minute and tapped the manual override button.  The contactor pulled in with a muted “clunk,” followed by the riggers checking in on the radio:

     “Twenty Amps at the J-box, over!”

     “Degausser’s humming like normal.  Twenty Amps. Over.”

     “Thanks, guys.  Stand by.” I raised my voice.  “Ron, you hear that?  Looking good!”

     He walked around the corner smiling.  “It must have single-phased every time you reset the breaker!”

     I gave him a rueful grin, “Yeah, and arced like a son of a gun.”

     He nodded.  “The worse set of contacts were wedged in at a kind of funny angle.  It can’t have been good.”

     I told the riggers to button everything up and head for the airlock.  I cleared the manual override, but the degaussers stayed on, with the flickering red light of the “magnetization detected” indicator lit up.   Ron and I closed things up — gutter covers on the breaker box, the lid of the explosion-proof enclosure for the degausser contactor and controller — and about the time we finished, the red light went out and the contactor released with a soft thump.  No arc, no popping sounds.

     It’s easy sometimes to leap to a conclusion and become too attached to it.  If I’d suspected the contactor myself, it wouldn’t’ve taken much effort to open it up and check, or put an ohmmeter across it.  But I hadn’t.  It took a fresh pair of eyes — and a lack of preconceptions — to find the problem.

24 October 2018

The Problem With Captains

     It was the problems with the data-loggers on the old Billy How that clued me in that the ship's new owners were going to be difficult to work for.  Cincinnati Group was something well beyond frugal and had installed a Captain and XO who came aboard determined to show us a thing or two about how starships should be run.

     See -- or maybe you don't; it's been decades and all of the technology has changed -- back then just as now, everything having to do with maneuvering the starship was recorded.  Intercom chatter, control inputs, telemetry, inertial navs, all of it was saved and at that time, that meant magnetic tape.  Some tracks were digital, some analog; one track was nothing but a clock.  The idea was that if anything went wrong, you'd have a record of it and with any luck, enough information to put things right.

     They were fiddly beasts.  Billy How had six of them in two groups of three, one set in the rack room* just off the Command deck and another down in Engineering/Power, the combined space for the Jump exciter, reactor controls, and suchlike. The two-inch wide tapes spooled slowly, each one holding twenty-four hours of recording on one big reel, and we "bicycled" ten reels of tape through each set of recorders.

     They were supposed to spool slowly, that is.  The set up on Command had gotten squirrely, racing through a tape in a few hours during the Jump in the Kansas II system.  Once we were back in normal space, I dug into them,  running the setup procedure from the manual, and they weren't behaving as they should; the speed control, a lovely complex setup with tachometers on the drive and reel motors and a triple phase-locked servo, wouldn't stay locked.  The signals from the tachs were ragged, and when I went to look for replacements, all I found were a few empty boxes with a note from three years before: "Order more ASAP."  Before my time as Chief but I should've checked already.

     By the time I'd got that far, we were close enough to get a reply back from Kansas II in a few hours, so I messaged the chandler Cincinnati Group preferred to deal with and had a price back on replacement parts by the start of my next watch.  They weren't cheap.  Between all six units, we needed eighteen of them; not all the tachs were bad, but at least half had failed the rest probably weren't far behind.

     The new Captain was in his quarters just off the Command bridge.  "Cap'n Wheat?  About the loggers, I'm going to need some parts."

     Gregory Wheat was a young man as starship captains go, only a few years older than I was at the time.  He looked up from the papers on his desk and frowned, "And what parts would those be, young lady?"

     I kept smiling.  Captains get a lot of leeway.  "Tachs for the speed control.  About half ours are worn out and I'd like to stock replacements for the remainder.  So eighteen, at just over seven hundred dollars per deck."

     His eyebrows went up.  "You want...over four thousand dollars worth of parts?"

     "Didn't have any replacements in stock, sir.  That's on me; I missed the empties on the shelf."

     "Why don't you have another look at those recorders, see what you can do.  I'll get back to you."

     I kept on smiling.  "Yessir."

     I took the old tachs apart and cleaned them up again -- they're optical, and any grime on the moving disc will mess them up -- but it didn't do much good.

     Shortly after chow, the Captain called me up to the bridge.  "I'm going to get you some help.  The Kessler is at Kansas II.  It's a Cincy-Group freighter a bit larger than us.  I was XO there and they've got a real sharp Chief.  He'll come aboard after we reach K-two and help you with those loggers."

     I was thinking he wasn't going to be much help if he didn't bring any tachs with him, but you don't say that kind of thing to the guy in the worry seat, so I nodded and replied, "I'll look forward to that."

*  *  *

     The trip in was uneventful.  Once we were parked in orbit around Kansas II, Kessler sent a squirt-booster over and I met their Chief at the airlock -- a dapper young man, who was not, in fact, carrying any replacement tachs.  We shook hands and exchanged names -- Jim MacAlheny, he was and I asked if he had any luggage.

     He laughed.  "No, just me and a green tweaker."  The ubiquitous pocket screwdriver -- we all carried one back then; it was practically a badge of office.  "I'd better check in with the Old Man."

     I told him, "Okay; then we can see about the tachs on those loggers."

     The Captain was in his quarters; I waved the Kessler's Chief in ahead of me, and Capain Wheat stood up, his hand out.  "Jim!  It's been too long.  How're you doing?"

     "Greg, you've come up in the world!"

     "Yes, well -- close the door.  We've got some catching up to do."

     With that, he shut the hatch in my face.  I went back to Engineering; there was plenty to do.

*  *  *

     Jim didn't  show up again for several hours.   I kept myself busy checking the replacement parts stock; finding one set of empty boxes had me worried there were others.  I didn't realize the next watch had come on until my number two stuck his head in the storage compartment.

     "Chief Bobbi?  Cap'n Wheat's on the 'com for you.  Says he wants you up on Command."

     I gave him a smile.  "Always good to be wanted, right?"  I wiped my hands and got moving.

     The Captain was at his desk and Jim was in the visitor's chair.  I squeezed in and Captain Wheat told me to close the door.  He gave me a look I couldn't quite read. "Jim tells me those tachs are shot."


     "Well, why is that?"

     "Age, sir?  Those loggers run all the time.  It's a wear part."

     That got a frown.  Beside me, Jim said nothing, his expression neutral.  "Well, why didn't you say so?"


     "That we needed tachs."

     "But sir--"

     "I had to fly Jim over here at great expense to the company, because you didn't know how to fix those loggers!"

     "Sir, I said--"

     "I really hope this does not set a pattern, Roberta.  It does not bode well."

     Jim still said nothing.  I gave him a quick glance, silent appeal.  Nothing.

     "Yes, sir.  It will not set a pattern."

     "Indeed.  Jim has ordered the parts we need.  I trust you will be up to installing them?"

     I was boiling mad.  But you don't get mad at starship captains.  You can't.  "I believe so, sir."

     "You believe?"

     This was well past tolerable.  Nevertheless, it's a long walk home and there's not much to breathe along the way.  "I can and I will.  Sir."

     "See that you do.  Thank you."  Captain Wheat waved a hand in dismissal.

     "Sir."  I opened the hatch and got out, shaking mad.

     And that was when I realized working for Cincinnati Group might not be a long-term career for me.
* Yes, "rack room," or occasionally "rack compartment," looking not very much different from a modern-day server farm.  I was Chief on the freighter Billy How before things were quite so digital, though even then, the early '90s, it was well begun and any fool could see the trend was only going to grow.  Still, the end is the same; then it was mostly screwdriver adjustments with oscilloscopes and meters to see the result; now it's all keyboards and screens for the same job. 

     "Rack" is an overused word.  Small to medium sized equipment gets installed in racks nineteen inches wide and standardized to a pattern that goes back to late 19th-Century telephone equipment; when we had computer and audio tapes aboard starships, they got "racked" on the machines instead of "mounted" and "re-racked" instead of rewound.  You even sleep in a rack -- well, you do if you're a regular grew member; as Chief Engineer I rated a compartment of my own, much too handy to Engineering and nearly large enough to turn around in.  Somehow the meaning is clear in context -- and the galley never serves rack of lamb. 


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 screened 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.

         The war was over.

*  *  *
     General Gerald Filiaggi, CEO of Mil/Space and — after round upon 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 environmental budget at the Mil/Space shipyard and HQ on Trinity's airless moon Alpha 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 definitely left for the independent settlement of Smitty's World — Filiaggi made himself not use the term, "pirate base," since the too-clever Johann 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 had 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:
     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, to hold position.  Take no action. Our 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 (and Freya did run out of powdered eggs); but what mattered was, the inconclusive and spiteful War was over. Over, as the USSF negotiators had insisted upon, at eleven p.m. Greenwich Mean Time on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, as the Earth counts time; 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


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

A: I'm getting to that.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

05 May 2015


I. Lines

     Picture a line stretching down the block.  Oh, not a totally grim line -- the weather's good, near seventy, and the people are brightly dressed, contrasting with the concrete and block of the buildings, the gravel and concrete of the streets -- but a serious one.  Picture more lines, many more, a world of lines, a place where if you didn't work for one of the big outfits, or on a robot farm, or at the "School," an occasional missed meal was just how it worked.  But how can you begin to know what it was like if you don't know why and how?

     The world was called Ryall.  It wasn't good for much -- halfway through a glaciation, which meant the temperate zone was a belt around the Equator a little over five hundred miles wide.  But it was warm enough to grow crops and raise animals, the local weeds were neither poisonous nor allergenic, it had metals and fuel, and best of all, it was well behind the straggling, uncertain "front" between the Far Edge refuseniks and the Earth-based NATO forces searching for them.

     Once the Edgers realized they hadn't fled far enough and Earth wasn't willing to let them be, the University of Ryall, until then an otherwise struggling institution that by chance had an excellent 'Drive physics program, was cultivated as a major research institution by grants directly from the Federation of Concerned Spacemen (the shadowy Edger non-government) and its various military contractors, most notably "General" Filiaggi's Mil/Space.

     The population swelled as the War years dragged on, with people looking for a safer place (especially after the disastrous attempt to reclaim "Peace-And-Prosperity," the planet better known as Linden and, later, Lyndon), various professions and trades following work, along with farmers, administrators, manufacturers and the Far Edge's commercial military organizations.  Agriculture struggled to keep up.  Distance made luxuries (smuggled from Earth or P&P, built or grown on Trinity or Frothup) expensive and uncommon and by the time the War idled to a stop in 1989, Ryall was a distinctly difficult place.  Government was small, hard-pressed, and inadvertently oppressive.  Mil/Space and defense contractors dominated employment.  Thirty-plus years of war and rumors of war had left more than a mere mark; FCS was reportedly considering intervention, as it had done twice before elsewhere to rein in too-powerful local governments.

     A decade earlier, it had already been a hard, gray place for a long time, a place more than a world, and one with a job to do and little time or resources to spare for nonsense--


     He recognized her as they both stood on one of the endless lines that had come to dominate life in Landingport, lined up for a chance to purchase onions or cheese, lined up to register or reregister for a work permit or a housing permit or a travel permit, lined up for inoculation or delousing, lined up because you saw a line and didn't want to miss out -- or face arrest for not lining up.

      Even though she was an unperson these last seven years, her poetry deemed wasteful, unnecessary, he recognized her. "Aren't you Sara-the-bard," he asked, but it wasn't a question. Students had called her that, back in the hopeful beginning, before walls had gone up around the School, before passes and air-raid drills and Security. "You're her, you are," he exclaimed, incredulous, delighted.

     She never made eye contact. "I was," she said, almost whispering, and turned away.

III. A Gap In Space

    Mathematics and poetry sound like an odd combination of talents to most people.  Yet they're often found co-existing, happily or not, in the same mind.  Oppenheimer translated Hindu epics; Ada Lovelace struggled to subdue her "poetical nature," and Dodgson, well, you already know him as Lewis Carroll.

     Before the war, Sara-the-former-Bard was celebrated for poetry, valued for insights into multidimensional physics too abstruse to explain, insights she'd loved for the beauty they revealed, insights applied physics and engineering of wartime  had turned into windows into terror.  Or so she feared; compartmentalism had slammed down with her on the outside and all she knew of the most recent developments was rumor.

     (This is the opening of a planned novel, set on the same world as my short story, Things Lost Under Bridges.)