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Chapter 10

July 5, 2089

The hardware didn’t look like it was assembled and ready for a full-power test. Sure, the connections were made, and no wires or optical fiber cables were obviously loose or disconnected. None of the wires or cables were too long—each was exactly the correct length to connect the various parts of the test cell and they were aligned exactly as the final released drawings said they should be. The pristine, shiny housings containing the extremely sensitive electronic equipment looked like they were pictured in the online catalogs from which many of them had been ordered and the gentle hum of the power supplies waiting to be switched into the system sounded exactly like new power supplies should—they hummed. But Senior Test Engineer Roy Burbank knew that something was wrong. The whole test setup didn’t look right, feel right, but he couldn’t put his finger on what wasn’t as it should be. And that bothered him.

Roy Burbank was an engineer’s engineer, fastidious in applying proven engineering processes, loathe to take unnecessary risks, and a stickler to test plans and procedures. His reputation as a problem solver was widely known and no one had ever been injured—well, severely injured—on any test for which he served as a test engineer. He knew Murphy’s Law all too well, and he didn’t want Mr. Murphy visiting him or any project he was involved with. This one was no exception. There was something he was missing, and he couldn’t figure out what.

They were in lunar orbit, one of many teams frantically working to assemble the Earth’s first interstellar spaceship—a God-by-damn starship—and the stakes were high. They had less than a week to go before the Samaritan was scheduled to launch toward Proxima Centauri and Roy wasn’t about to let his team get on the critical path and cause management to start following their every move. If you were on the critical path, then it meant you were the one whose work would determine when the whole spaceship was ready to go. No, he didn’t want his team on the critical path or anywhere near it. Getting the equipment installed and tested today was important, but it was more important for it to not fail.

“I need to hear an affirmative from everyone on the team before we begin the test,” Roy said nervously. There was no better way to have a successful test than to have every member of the team verbally agree that their work was complete and ready to go. Ownership of the outcome always led to a better result—in test engineering and in life.

“Mechanical is good to go,” said Tad Malone. Malone had worked for a long time with Roy and they were good friends at work and in their personal time. Roy trusted him implicitly.

“Data is ready to go,” replied Misha Kuznetsov. Misha, a recent graduate of Tomsk State University in Russia, was new to the team and Roy was impressed with her. What she lacked in experience, she made up for in her eagerness to learn new things. He had been watching her work since she joined the team and found that when she didn’t know how to do something, she asked. He liked that. Too many recent graduates thought they were hotshots and would rather screw up than admit their ignorance.

“Power is ready,” the final member of the team weighed in. Patrick O’Hearn was a loner, didn’t usually crack jokes on the job, and never socialized with the rest of the crew after the workday was done. O’Hearn had only been with the team a short time and had been added to the group by corporate requirements. Roy usually didn’t like it when corporate or government big wigs imposed their people on him, but this was a very high-visibility effort. And Roy had to admit to himself that O’Hearn wasn’t that bad—at least he wasn’t in the way as he’d expected he would be. O’Hearn usually said his goodbyes and then went his own way at the end of each test or workday—always alone. But he did good work and didn’t cause problems for Roy.

“Hmm…Nigel, I want all the displays of the inputs and outputs from the diagnostic algorithms in my HUD.” Roy ran his fingers through his graying red hair and let out a long breath through his pursed lips, making a motorboat sound.

“Aye, Roy.” The Scottish accent of his AI data assistant sounded in his ears. Roy looked down at the circuit tattooed on his wrist and laughed a bit to himself. He sometimes wondered if he’d overdone it with the customization of his AI’s personality, but Roy was from Scottish heritage and it often reminded him of his grandfather when the AI spoke to him. Suddenly, the requested data screen appeared before his eyes, projected via the wireless contact lenses he wore.

“Okay, start the timer and we’ll see how this thing works,” Roy ordered as he scanned the hardware one more time using his datapad virtual overlay and the graphs in his own personal field of view through the contacts. With the overlay, he could see the health and status of each major component as their embedded sensors reported it. Integrated System Health Management, or ISHM—pronounced “ish-em”—was being used in the entire ship, with every system and subsystem constantly reporting data to the ship’s artificial intelligence. In theory, this would allow the AI to diagnose a systems failure long before it happened by seeing when various components were experiencing performance declines or anomalous behavior long before they were close to failing.

In theory. In theory, if the test were incorrectly set up or a piece of hardware were going to fail, then Roy’s datapad should alert him either from the pad itself, his personal view, or through Nigel. And it didn’t. The hardware, like the engineers who set it up, reported that all was well. Roy was still nervous. It was times like this when Roy always recalled how, in theory, some idiot scientists in the past had claimed bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly. But in practice? Bumblebees had been flying about for eons. Some theorists were too arrogant to admit that their theory just flat-out sucked and it always fell to the engineer to fix that in practice. Roy was nervous.

The countdown passed uneventfully and the only way they knew the system was successfully powered on was by looking at the ISHM data. As tests went, it was pretty dull. And dull was good—it meant success. It was the interesting or exciting tests that were a problem because that meant there was something that didn’t work right. Excitement during a test, in Roy’s book, was not a good thing.

The Samaritan’s primary navigation system was operational and all functional. Once the complete test sequence was complete, Roy would be able to certify that the Pulsar Interstellar Navigation System—PINS for short—was ready to fly. Without it, the crew wouldn’t be able to locate and direct the ship across the 25,280,000,000,000 miles to Proxima Centauri b with any hope of entering orbit around the planet. With the PINS, they should be able to know their relative position to within a few feet at any time during the voyage.

Roy didn’t know all the details, his job was to make sure the hardware worked as it was designed; he was not the ship’s astrodynamicist, nor did he come up with the idea. All he knew was that the sensors feeding data to the system in front of him were looking for the timing of radio signals from at least four pulsars chosen from a database of thousands that formed a rough tetrahedron with the Sun at its approximate center. Then, using techniques perfected by the early Global Positioning System—GPS—the hardware would figure out where the ship was relative to each.

You can’t know where to go if you don’t know where you are. And it helps a lot if you know where you’ve been. The PINS should be able to determine both.

Maybe that’s why Roy was so nervous about the hardware. Perhaps he was nervous because so much was depending upon the hardware for which he was responsible. The PINS had to work or the Samaritan would not be able to complete its mission and would be forever lost in space.

“The data from the PINS on test run number one shows some anomalous trajectory errors after about two hundred thousand iterations of the filter algorithm on the input from the telescopes,” Misha pointed out to him.

“What? Show me the run.” Roy didn’t like the sound of that.

“Here.” Patrick passed a datapad to him and pointed at the trajectory plot in question.

“Misha, are we sure we’re putting the right data into the PINS box? If we’re not red shifting and/or blue shifting it right the spectra will be wonky and the PINS database will be useless.” Roy looked at the chart and then tapped a few icons, opening up other PINS diagnostic processes.

“The telescopes are working,” Tad added. “I just zipped through the self-diagnostics on them.”

“We’re sitting still, right—I mean, for the most part?” Misha pointed out.

“Hahaha, of course we are. Did you start the data red/blue shifting simulation subroutines?” Roy asked Misha.

“I, uh, mmm, I think I did,” she replied sheepishly.

“I’ve got them toggled on now.” Patrick nodded, assuring at them.

“Alright then, run it all again. This time with the algorithms running.” Roy sighed.

Three hours later, the test all seemed to portray data that was to be expected. In other words, the PINS system was working. For whatever reason, Roy was still uneasy. His unease had no scientific basis as he’d just seen with his own eyes the flight qualification testing pass the required checks. But there was still something…

After some wrestling within himself, Roy had to reluctantly put away his test engineer’s intuition, which was still screaming, “Something isn’t right!” His team, and the information streaming into his datapad, indicated that the PINS was working fine. So, it was working fine.

“It looks like the PINS is good to go. Let’s power down the system, complete the report, and then turn it over to the AI. After that, I say we meet at the Krakatoa for drinks—the first round of pints on me. Any takers?” It was Roy’s custom to treat his team to a round of drinks at the local pub after a successful test. He didn’t make a lot of money as a test engineer, but he made enough to reward his team for a job well done. And for him, logistically at least, drinks were easier than dinner. Dinner he reserved for his wife, Chloe, and tonight they were celebrating their third wedding anniversary. He didn’t want to be late. He hoped that Chloe wouldn’t be late either. Once she’d started taking on shifts at the Lunar Docks Trauma Center so she could be there with Roy, she had been working late many nights as well. Fortunately, she was within a month or so of finishing the contract she’d signed with them and she was entertaining thoughts of becoming a small-town doctor somewhere after Roy quit the space testing gig. Roy and she had talked of moving to either North America near his parents, or somewhere warm, or maybe to Scotland. At the present, with all the interstellar spaceship building and testing, Roy was making too much money and having too much fun professionally to retire to the next phase of his life.

As expected, Tad and Misha readily accepted his offer and Patrick declined. Roy knew that one of these days he’d get Patrick to join them, but apparently tonight was not going to be the night. Though Roy always looked forward to time in the pub with friends, tonight was going to be an exception. He had to be back to his apartment in the residential hub before seven o’clock. He and his wife were cooking together and eating in—steak imported from Argentina, lunar merlot, and her special chocolate cake made from her grandmother’s recipe. He couldn’t wait.

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