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Wednesday, May 20, 1998
By Paul Ford
Summer is coming, even to Connecticut. The engineers looked sleepy yesterday, in the slow humidity. Today, they look exhausted.
Tom, awake 36 hours, plays with a soldering iron and a circuit board, trying to simulate a situation at Orbital Location 99 Degrees West Longitude, a few thousand miles in space. Other engineers check him from hour to hour. They ask him to sleep. His pink skin is gray with stubble.
They don't press him, because he might solve the problem. No one wants to interfere with a potential miracle.
The machines are built in clean rooms, untouched by human hands. Still, it's us up there, our work and pride, facing 94 degrees away from our proper angle. I worked on the system that failed, the NMX positioner, with Tom. Someone else did backup, and that failed too. It makes me crazy, to see it fail. I napped in the meeting room, and dreamed about spinning in space.
Tom knows that we all wanted to be astronauts. At a company launch party, he shakes his head at a junior programmer, smiling. "Kid, you just put a machine into space. Some mother is sharing recipes with her daughter, some doctor gets paged to deliver a baby, ABC is getting the news. Because of your navigation system. You're IC315-A, right guy? Communications payload integration bus?" And he would begin to clap for the kid, smiling. We'd all watch, letting the new engineer bask, silently welcoming the him into the fold. Having Tom clap for you is better than anything Mick Jagger's ever felt. He's why they can pay us shit wages, why we tell the headhunters to go to hell.
There was a message for me when I got home from a movie with Cindy, on Saturday night. When I got to the control center, I asked "why wasn't I paged about this?"
The assistant looked at me and began to laugh. "Because our pagers rely on GS-four, man."
I went home for a shower and shave on Tuesday, then drove back. The place smells horrible, thirty dirty engineers with low tempers.
When the story broke, the CTO came in every thirty minutes and asked when we'd be done. You could feel the mercury rise in the room when the door swung. Finally, Tom took him aside and said, "Fuck it, Jake, just leave us alone. You can't make it faster by being an asshole."
In the room, we're watching and waiting. We're waiting along with 90 million alphanumeric pagers, with weather images, with news feeds, and with some limited satellite phone bandwidth. We're all hoping Tom, with his EPROM writer and soldering gun, can release those cutoff signals from their stellar purgatory.