Act I, Scene 5 of 2100 CE.
“How does it look?”
With a slight groan that betrayed his fifty years of working in low gravity, the colony’s chief engineer Uthman came to his feet. “Well, the simple part is, I know what’s wrong. The complicated part is that the server is burnt out.”
“Burnt out?” the station’s superintendent sputtered. “How? Can servers even burn out?”
The mining colony’s chief administrator raised a pacifying hand. It was a well-known fact that this particular super and the chief engineer did not get along, even on the best days, and the last thing Beowulf Zahn needed right now was a heated argument.
Luckily Uthman did not take the bait. “Simple overload. Someone’s been pumping too much juice into it.”
Zahn sighed. He should have known civility was too much to hope for.
“Hey damnit, I don’t maintain these damned machines,” the super shot back. “Maybe you should keep a better eye on these things. That is your job.”
“I don’t need to be told—”
“Gentlemen,” the administrator cut in. “Please… Uthman, what happened? Is it a spec failure, user error—what?”
The engineer ran a hand through his silver beard. “There’s a more basic issue,” he said. “The power converter attached to this server can only handle a certain amount of wattage, but it’s plugged in to a power source that gives triple that amount.” He sniffed. “It’s basic procedure.”
“If you’re trying to say we screwed up,” the super started, “then you can—”
“Gentlemen,” Zahn repeated, more loudly this time. “I understand this is frustrating, which is precisely why I want to get to the bottom of the issue as quickly as possible.” He turned to the engineer. “Uthman, when we assembled it, did we make a mistake?”
“Well, that’s just it. We didn’t assemble it—not this one, anyway.” He gestured to some exposed wiring under the computer console next to him. “See, this is a gauge we don’t carry. We carry 24 and 36, but this is 28. Plus, the coding on the inside panel is—”
“Uthman,” Zahn said, feeling the onset of a headache, “just the basics.”
“Just the basics…” the engineer repeated. He stroked at his beard pensively, considering his words, at one point seemingly planning to return to his explanation of wires before thinking better of it. “Well, it looks to me—no, I should say, this is one those Confederal jobs.”
Zahn closed his eyes, the headache now coming in full force. It seemed like every other day he heard the same damned thing. Out here, far from Mars or Earth, Confederal was a curse, not an adjective—and it was often accompanied by any number of expletives. Among the numerous meanings it had taken on, one in particular stuck out in his mind: faulty equipment put together by indifferent contractors who had little nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of 8-Gitano. He was hardly surprised—these things happened too often to surprise him—it was just that he did not need this right now. He had an end-of-season report due in a week’s time, a corporate inspection to prepare for—and this breakdown made it all the more difficult to meet either of those deadlines.
He opened his eyes again. “Can it be fixed?”
Uthman frowned. Shaking his head, he said, “We don’t have any spares…” He gave the superintendent an inquisitive look.
The super shook his head. “Never had a need.”
“And besides,” Uthman went on, “even if we did replace it, we would still have the problem of burn-out since the power converter can’t handle the wattage it’s receiving.”
“That’s what I don’t understand,” Zahn said. “This is the main server, isn’t it?” He directed the question to the super, who nodded acknowledgement.
Uthman frowned again. “The main?” The older man turned and crouched back underneath the workstation.
While they waited, Zahn took the opportunity to look around the mining station. Essentially a large warehouse on tracks, the station was designed to move along the asteroid’s short axis, gradually hollowing the asteroid from the inside in its search for mineral deposits. Sixteen such stations operated within the asteroid 8-Gitano, with a handful of smaller subsidiary ones following in their wake. Their slow progress—they moved only once every two weeks—was a way of guaranteeing the asteroid’s core structural integrity.
All around them miners took the opportunity to catch up on lesser maintenance duties, most of which involved cleaning equipment or greasing work vehicles. Without the computer, the station was for all intents and purposes blind, making operations in the asteroid risky, even for drones. Although his primary concern was not with the station’s operations—though some of his bosses might argue that it should be—a day or two of this would cause major problems for the colony. Whenever one station ceased operations, an invisible clock started ticking, and when it reached a week’s time, then everything across the asteroid was forced to stop.
A moment later the chief engineer stood back up, but rather than finding clarity, he looked more puzzled than before. “If that’s the case,” he said, continuing the earlier conversation, “and this is the main, then that explains some of what we’re seeing—though it also means that this is more botched than I thought.”
The super looked skeptical. “How do you mean?”
“The machine is labeled properly, but the actual hardware inside belongs to a subordinate server.”
“That explains the weaker power converter,” Zahn said.
“Right. But because it was labeled correctly, though, when they came around and installed them, they just hooked it up to the main’s power source.” Uthman stroked his beard. “That explains those files going missing for the past few weeks and all the backup storage you’ve been requesting. Someone should have noticed the drive couldn’t hold what was being asked of it.”
“Are you accusing us?” the super said testily. “We don’t have the IT side of this, damnit, that’s you.”
“Even so,” Zahn cut, taking a step forward to physically place himself between the two men. Each was his senior by more than twenty years and yet he often found he was the only adult in these sorts of situations.
At twenty-nine, Beowulf Zahn was the youngest colony administrator to be hired by Ceres Material Industries. He had made a name for himself as a deputy emergency manager and recovery coordinator for Harbindale on Mars in the wake of the Medea virus epidemic. His skills at negotiation and mediation were what made him stand out among a small class of private consultants who had come out of that crisis. He prided himself on his ability to bring opposing parties to the table and achieve a successful result, one which suited all parties. Being chief administrator and the mayor of 8-Gitano was his crowning achievement, the goal he had longed after these many years.
But then there were moments like these that made him wonder if it had been the right choice accepting this job.
“What’s done is done,” he went on. “I can imagine that everyone was too busy with countless day-to-day things to notice something so minute.”
While the other two nodded their heads, Zahn wondered if they realized the irony that statement. The chief administrator dealing with minute issues…
“Uthman, if the drive didn’t have enough space, does that necessarily mean there’s no main on this station?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it stands to reason that if this is a subordinate server, then there should a main somewhere in the station,” Zahn began, waving a hand towards the warehouse around them. “After all, these sorts of stations are modular, sent out to hundreds of mining colonies in packages of one main to x number of subordinates. If there was one hooked up, would we be able to tell just by the drive space?”
“You mean because they’re all networked?” Uthman shook his head. “Not necessarily. That sort of networking these days runs off the main server, so if they thought this was the main, it’s unlikely the functionality is there to tap the other subordinate drives on the network.”
“Shouldn’t they have noticed that when they programmed it?” the super said.
“Who said they didn’t?” Uthman countered. “It wouldn’t be the first Confederal job that got botched and wasn’t reported so they wouldn’t have to redo it.”
The three men shared a laugh—it was easier to laugh than scream.
“If that’s the case,” Zahn said, “then it seems possible or even likely that the main is hooked up as a subordinate somewhere around here, going under-used. If that’s the case, we can go without a single subordinate until the next supply shipment. I can put in for it as soon as I get back to my office…”
“When is the next one?” the super asked.
Uthman was nodding along, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “So just swap them out.” He shrugged. “I don’t see why that wouldn’t work, though it’s going to take some time.”
Zahn cocked an eyebrow.
“Come on, Mister Zahn,” the engineer said, “twenty consoles take hours to check manually. This is five times that number.”
“Well then, Uthman,” he said, patting the older man on the back, “I guess there’s not a moment to lose.”
“What, and not stay to help?”
Zahn gave him a weary smile. “As much as that would be an honest relief, I have my report to finish,” and then in a different tone, “and a farm to visit. Faye Jennings says she found a skive queen, so I have to go take a look.” He rubbed his temples against the throbbing in his head.
“A skive?” the super said, alarmed. Skives were genetically engineered beetles designed to eat the odd fungi that grew in the polar farms on Mars—only to discover that they possessed a ravenous love of the sort of high-yield cereal crops grown in colonies. They were also resistant to all but some of the most potent insecticides, often requiring the dangerous use of chlorine gas funneled into their burrows.
Zahn shrugged. “I’m not going to gas them until I’m sure.” He paused, considering his next words carefully. “Faye has a tendency to get worked up over little things. Remember when she thought the corporate inspector was spying on her? For all I know, it might just be a ladybug. Either way, I’ll know this evening.” He checked his watch: sixteen hundred hours local time. He turned to Uthman. “I’ll give you a call in three hours and if you’re still here, I’ll swing by and give you a hand. I’ll also try to convince Luas Ray to get out here, though you know how he can be…”
Uthman burst into a rumbling laugh. Slapping Zahn on the back, he said, “You’re a good kid, Mister Zahn!”
He and the super were still laughing when Zahn left.