Chapter 1: The Terror of Childhood

Hi, I'm Archie. When I'm in trouble with mom I'm Archimedes Kephas Orestes. I'm Greek, don't ya know.

I was of the first generation to be born in the ship's creche. I live in a huge ship that mines the outer or Kuiper belt around Sol. We're so far out that it takes a telescope and a good eye to pick out our sun, Sol.

A few generations ago, just after the reactionless drive was discovered, corporations were formed and funded to exploit the asteroids. One team stretched a net of power and control cables around Miranda (the smallest moon of Uranus), attached drivers to it and flew the whole thing to the orbit of Mercury to make it out-gas and burn away all of the organics and volatiles near the surface. This compacted the outer shell of the planetoid quite a bit. The propulsion net was re-strung, then it was flown to L4, Earth's leading Lagrangian point There the surface was cleaned up and the whole thing was hollowed out with solar mirrors and plasma cutters, removing most of the rest of the organics. This also sealed the rock so that the atmosphere wouldn't escape through it. At least, that's what I was taught. Another mesh of cables was buried five kilometers beneath the surface to protect the propulsion system from debris or attacks. Then, after carving out the core and a lot of engineering to build the decks and everything in them, big tanker ships were sent to the Jovian satellites and Jupiter itself to mine the water and gasses. They weren't allowed to take metal, water or air from Earth; only soil, plants, animals and seeds.

That's why we're called the factory ship Miranda and we're owned by the Miranda corporation.

The refined metals and alloys that the ship processes are transported to the huge factory complexes at L5. All the big polluting industries were forced off-planet once the cost of getting up and down the gravity well had dropped by a factor of roughly ten thousand to about a dollar a kilo.

A lot of the ship's construction engineers submitted their resumes to be considered for berths aboard the ship. After all, they'd already proved that they could handle themselves in the environment. My dad, Theo, and my mom, Adriana were hired on as crew members to help monitor the ecology and the atmosphere. I've learned more about the ship's infrastructure than most just from listening to them talk. Our power comes from four rings of eight lithium fusion reactors. Our atmospheric gasses are stored in separate dewars that were cryogenically fractionally distilled. I talked them into giving me a tour of the engineering spaces where it's done. They're huge! They had to spin the tanks to get the fractions to separate out when they were first building the ship, before she was spun up to give us 'gravity'. Well, it isn't really gravity, but if it burns wood and makes smoke, I'm calling it a fire.

It was all quite terrifying, at least to me. We were constantly living on the edge of disaster. Just one misplaced decimal, one forgotten variable and a major subsystem that we depended on for our lives would kill us with no hope of recovery. Everything was so closely linked that a cascade failure was a real possibility.

One part of the ship's design was incorporated to combat just that problem.

The ship is organized in a hundred and eighty tube-shaped decks surrounding the central core, each of which is broken into eight wedges by air tight bulkhead. The volumes are further broken by forty more bulkheads across the central core. That was done to give engineering better atmospheric control and to isolate industries and processes that can't help but create pollution. The air monitoring and remediation systems are separate for each air domain. If it weren't for the concatenated domains that were needed to accommodate the docking core, the huge refineries, the atmospheric gas reservoirs and the gas fractioning equipment we'd have 57,600 individual atmospheric domains aboard ship, excluding the ship's boats and the bridge. That took a lot of automation and a lot of atmospheric engineers to provide over-watch on all the systems. We also had thirty four fusion generators, again excluding those on the ship's boats. We ran one power engineer for four fusors and the power grids were isolated between the generator domains. One separate fusor was reserved for the bridge and computer core while another one powered the docking bay complex. We had lots of entire air domains shut down, in maintenance mode because we lacked enough people on board to populate them.

Some of the larger air domains were organic CO2 sinks and oxygen generators. We grew our own food. Soil chemists regularly took samples to keep the fields fertile. Some entire air domains were planted in flax or grasses and shrubs so people could have 'green' vacations. You wouldn't think that we'd have wetlands on a space ship, but we did. Several of 'em, actually. They were kept isolated by doubled air-locks to keep the bugs from getting loose. Nobody wanted a cricket-infested ship. We had orchards of dwarf trees growing for fruit, nuts and citrus, but they weren't bearing yet.

It took a special kind of person to put up with all those chickens scattered in farms across a few domains. The farms were separated in case of a fast-spreading disease took a flock. The goats had to be carefully watched or they'd get into anything they could. Again, the farms were isolated by doubled air-locks to stop the possible spread of mites and other parasites. Everyone got decontaminated when coming out of them.

We also had huge illuminated water tanks on board that had been inoculated with algae and various selected micro-fauna from rotifers up to shrimp, krill and fish. We harvested a lot of our dietary protein from them.

The boat bay is at the rotational center of the stern. From there a tunnel leads up the core and several special purpose bays are attached to that. Some hold our mining ships, some hold our gas tankers and some are materials bunkers where the mining ships deposit their finds or the finished metals are stored. They've discovered that there are big natural 3-D sheets of asteroids that hold unusual concentrations of heavier elements. They're called drifts. That's where the mining boats concentrate their harvesting.

When I was eight I had to pass several tests to be let out of the creche. They called it achieving citizenship. I had to learn shipboard coordinates, intercom protocols, micro-gee acrobatics, how to put on a pressure suit in ninety seconds, what to do in a lifeboat drill, how to read a sensor panel and how to report a sensor alert. The kids that didn't learn by their ninth birthday were taken off ship. We didn't know where they went. We just hoped that they weren't dumped in the big empty as failures. It was never talked about and we never asked questions. They could always lie.

My next two years were spent in learning how to learn. I was taught English and German as well as how to write and critically read a paper. We were taught logic in group classes to learn from each other. My rate of learning directed my education path. I wasn't selected to be a farmer, a cook or an environmental tech. I was going into the sciences.

They experimented with sleep teaching using us as the lab rats. It didn't screw us up too badly that I know of. However I did lose a few friends around that time. The good part was we started to learn a lot faster. Well, learning isn't the right word. It was like we were force-fed information. Then we had to be tested on it to make it settle in with everything else we knew. For example, we still had to learn typing the hard way! It was sure a great way to learn word lists, with their definitions and pronunciations. I was reading and writing college-level Russian in four months. Mandarin Chinese was so different though, it took me most of a year to learn.

I've learned a lot of math, up to college post-graduate level. I learned physics right along side it. Then came chemistry. I took the physical rather than the organic path, learning partial pressures, p-chem and stochastic processes. I was interested so I got a pretty good grounding in chemical engineering. My comprehension tested out pretty high so I was allowed to continue. Then I got a good grounding in nuclear theory and engineering. I wasn't afraid of our reactors any more. Hell, I could fill in on a power team control board or even rebuild a reactor.

I was told that we all had to cross-train in various fields because we didn't have enough manpower to specialize. That's why I went on a bender in mechanical engineering and electrical theory. I was getting into some pretty rarefied air for a while there. I almost had the theory of our reactionless drive in my teeth, but I didn't have the field theory yet that would tie it all together. I was disappointed, but I sucked it up when my mentor told me that after a year or so everything should have settled down in my head and I'd be ready for the next step. Instead I backtracked into thermionics and power tube design. That was comparatively easy and the concepts flowed together for me. That brought into focus how the ship's sensors were designed and their trade-offs under different filters.

I was fed computer programming next. It was all baby steps until I got dropped into real-time operating systems, queueing theory, information optimization, minimizing computational complexity and data flow bottlenecks, array processor logic, programming for computer clusters and co-routines. My dad told me that they were worried when I wandered around in a daze for a while while I digested it all.

Then it was time to apply some of what I'd learned. I went back into the analytical labs with an eye towards tuning a few things. I had a few failures, but I had a few real successes as well. We modified some of the process chains used for dealing with the mined metals to get pre-formulated alloy billets. That made somebody happy because when I asked to work with a sand-boxed copy of the bridge controls and sensor net nobody quibbled.

I got a work-mate. Miriam, or Merry. She'd fast-tracked through computer programming just like I had, but she'd specialized more in micro-engineering and computer design. We'd worked together with the reactor control algorithms to clean a few things up and found that we clicked. She was happy to dive into the bridge automation with me.

The first thing we did was to diagram all the sensor nets, their power supplies, filters and the data feeds. We found a few bottlenecks that some closely-linked array processors could ease. Then we patched the code and exercised the hell out of it to see if we'd broken anything. It worked fine on a localized scale. Then we tried dumping a full scale optimized data feed to our copy of the ship's multi-core that ran the bridge.

We brought it to its knees. It hadn't been designed to handle that much raw parallel data. This was bad news. The thing was crippled by design. We were in for a big project as the entire processing core had to be re-engineered to be open-ended. First we designed groups of satellite processors into cooperative modules. The algorithms had to modified to integrate with the processing modules coming online. The active core had to be instructed to power up modules when its CPU utilization started to red-line. Then the same monitoring process had to watch the system utilization to scale back the active cores when the activity dropped below ten percent. The core also needed an over-watch computer that would statistically analyze the system as a whole for periodic red-lines, indicating a need for a larger baseline core to be left running full time. We took our time to do it right. Within nine months we had a redundant, self-optimizing core complex that would handle another magnitude of data. Then we looked at taking the next step. We were running out of bandwidth. We needed to bring in an expert on quantum theory and its engineering applications.

We couldn't run Q-bit pipes to every CPU, but we could run them to every module, designating a "sergeant" for every cluster of "privates" while maintaining a "general" in the form of the core cluster. This would slightly de-couple the processor integration. That meant we had to re-tune the algorithms for different storage models, semaphores and propagation delays. We figured out an elegant little mechanism that would measure critical bandwidths and self-modify the propagation delay factors. We talked to our quantum engineering pro about putting two Q-bit pipes in every 'sergeant' computer, allowing the system to essentially do port bonding between sets of clusters when the system went into a high-demand mode. He nodded and smiled. The hardware would accept that. We had a solution! Granted, it depended on self-monitoring and self-modifying code but we built in an override to factory reset the propagation factors in case the algorithms went pathological. Unforeseeable data could cause unexpected results but we tried to plan around it.

It all worked. The system ran smoothly under the testing protocols and the high-availability system worked as designed. We wrote it up and sent it to the ship's lead engineer with a copy to the captain.

That was our graduation exercise. After we helped implement it throughout the ship we were officially designated as polymaths.

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Story tagged with:
mt/ft / Consensual / Space / Aliens /