I’ve been playing a bit with flash fiction lately. Interesting stuff, but can stretch your mind to tell a story in very few words. Below is one of the stories I’ve been working. Let me know what you think.
“This is it, final check list and countdown for deorbit burn and landing,” Said Commander Gupta into the ship’s comm loop. The on-board computers had made these verbal checks obsolete, but it was an old tradition that no astronaut was willing to give up.
Gupta looked at his screens and opened the file with the speech he had written for this occasion.
“Mission Control, Endeavour. Pre-burn checklist complete and we’re go for deorbit burn and landing on the Martian surface. By the time you receive this message, we’ll be at Marineris base preparing for humanity’s first steps on Mars. I am humbled to be leading this mission and this outstanding crew. We understand the great responsibility we’ve been given and hope that our success today will pave the way for many more to follow.”
“All crew, standby to start countdown to burn,” Said Gupta to finish his speech.
The countdown started and the ship turned, bringing new stars into Gupta’s observation port. Somewhere out there was Earth and the home he’d left nine months ago. Then the slow march of seconds reach zero and he felt weight on his body as main engine burned. Another timer started as he saw the stars take an unexpected turn to port.
“Commander! The engines aren’t shutting down.” Lt. Nguyen yelled.
“Steady, work the problem, manual override, cut the engine, flight check our attitude. Looks like we’re still turning …” Were the last words received from the Endeavour’s commander.
Dr. Kim Yung walked into the conference room deep inside the JPL building. Computer screens lined each wall with each one displaying a bit of data from the disaster. The craft’s strange angle of decent. The extended engine burn that threw the ship off course. The rapid depletion of fuel reserves. Pictures of the crash site and screen after screen of computer logs.
“I don’t know how the flag got set, but it’s clear it’s what started the cluster failure and shutdown all on-board processors.” Said Jayce to the assembled group of engineers just as Dr. Yung took her place at the head of the long black conference table.
“Jayce, you point is well taken, but even in the event of an on-board computing cloud failure, the manual overrides and physical controls should have allowed the crew to make a safe landing or at least aborted the landing.” Said Dr. Yung.
“Kim, there are no physical controls – think, idiot. This is all fly by wire. These manually controls are just computer programs that bypass the ship’s main AI navigation functions. Even in manual mode, you still need the cluster running to do a manual operation and every control subsystem is just another virtual computer running on the main computing cloud. What I am telling you is that everything shutdown at once. The crew was helpless. They had no controls, no readouts, even the comm system is just VoIP routed through the ship’s data network. Commander Gupta died is his command chair with no idea what was happening and couldn’t even talk to his crew because the computing cloud was off-line.” Replied Jayce.
Dr. Yung looked around at the other engineers and could read on their faces that Jayce was right. She intuitively knew that the computer logs displayed around the room proved that had again proven Jayce to be a first class investigator and the best systems engineer at JPL.
“But the cluster was designed to be redundant, and failsafe. Why didn’t the backup systems take over? Why did everything just shutdown?” Asked Dr. Yung.
“Because the global flag was set. Again, this was not a failure. It was the protocol if the flag was set. That flag shouldn’t have been there – I’ve been saying that for years. Because it was and because some fool didn’t think to ensure it was off during a critical phase, we now have eight dead astronauts, a smashed ship, and when the public finds out why, this will be the end of the program and all our jobs.” A frustrated Jayce said as she slammed her hand on the table.
“Jayce, let’s keep our perspective here. You can’t seriously think that just a simple software setting would cause the ship to blowup.”
“Think? With all due respect to your bureaucratic ignorance – the logs prove it. Somewhere, somehow the global flag was set, and every piece of computer hardware on-board the Endeavour started a restart cycle at the same time. In the best case it would have taken five minutes for main clusters to install the new software and restart. Nominally it takes the whole system fifteen minutes to recover. Who in the hell schedules a global software upgrade with a reboot in the middle of a deorbit burn?”
Till next time,