The orange light of Sabine’s primary star splashes out of the window-mode wall screens and over the control panel. Why the space station’s designers felt the need to surround the octagonal room we call “the cab” with wall screens in the first place is beyond me. When the turquoise oceanic planet below eclipses its star, the screens are virtually pitch black. When the K3V casts unobstructed light onto the massive orbital, the screens are blinding.
I step away briefly to dim the “windows” another ten percent as my trainee hunches over his space traffic control panel like a penitent seeking absolution from an unforgiving god.
“Niner-Zero-Kilo Lake Anne, reduce speed to point-zero-two-five-C. Number three for Entryway Niner Right.”
The voice of my developmental controller wavers with an uncertainty that conveys more than his actual command. David Coleman is a nice guy and he certainly doesn’t object to working hard but it’s becoming clear that he’s not ready for a tower position inside a Level 10 traffic control facility.
“Three-Four-Lima-Sierra Santa Juanita, you are cleared on Entryway Niner Right, reduce speed to point-zero-one-C. Thirty-two-Echo Askold, you’re number two.”
I adjust the headset currently hugging my neck. Like my trainee in front of me, most controllers wear the device as intended, over their ears. However, I’ve found the noise-cancelling foam prevents me from hearing other controllers in the room. Instead, I let my headset rest around my neck with the microphone sticking up near my lips. I always want an ear listening to what the other controllers are doing with the starships in their slice of the orbital’s space.
Santa Juanita replies to David with a tight voice. “Santa Juanita, cleared E-Nine Right, speed restriction point-zero-one-C.” Her response is clipped, almost terse. It says, “I can tell you’re losing control.”
I stare at David’s panel and find myself agreeing with her. He’s created a huge mess and there’s an enormous problem barreling his way. Does he see it coming? A trained eye would.
The dark glass of David’s console is marred with faint grey lines and symbols seemingly sketched at random around his screen. As is typical, when David customized his panel at the start of his shift, he tinted his specific airspace on the screen the deepest shade of black to make it easier to see exactly where his responsibilities begin and end. That’s kind of important.
Most of the etchings are “flowlines,” tracks and symbols designed to help a controller manage traffic according to the current flow. We’re currently in rimward flow but will change to coreward flow in a little over a month when our planet orbits another 49,000,000 kilometers around Sabine’s star. Standing out from the flowlines in a slightly brighter shade of grey, David has added the major approach routes that starships sail to close with our orbital. They all have vague names like SNWY2, or the Sunway-2 Approach. These routes connect to navigation fixes that have equally arcane monikers. Inside Sabine, there’s a departure navigation fix labelled “DNIDE” that’s pronounced “Denied.” Oddly, it never causes any miscommunication whatsoever.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” David mutters to himself while staring, wide-eyed, at the tragedy unfolding in front of him. I wonder if he realizes he mumbles when he’s stressed out. Thankfully, he’s not transmitting. The Federation Space Traffic Control Administration grants us controllers quite a bit of leeway but it has zero tolerance for profanity transmitted over an open frequency. “Uh, Zero-Eight-Oscar-Victor Orion, correction, Zero-Eight-Zero-Victor Orion, continue holding short of Entryway Niner Right for traffic.”
Running down the sides of David’s panel are a Sail Plans list, the Sign Ons of other controllers, Arrival and Departure lists and a large block of automated sail strips that detail specific information for each starship currently in his airspace. On the very perimeter of the screen are fourteen virtual knobs and touch buttons used to adjust more than one hundred sixty-five possible settings. Judging by the limited clutter on his screen, it’s evident he likes his panel as clean as possible. It’s a technique that I agree with wholeheartedly. My girlfriend, Tey, once told me that I’d fade out actual starship traffic in my airspace if it were permitted. That’s mostly an exaggeration.
080V Orion, a 220,000-tonne freighter, acknowledges David’s call and my floundering trainee moves quickly to the next piece of traffic as the catastrophe escalates. His screen is a sea of green and white letters and numerals slowly converging on our orbital. The majority are green letters, an indication that those ships are some other controller’s problem. At least for now. My focus is on the blue dots with white letters traveling inside the dark black of David’s realm. Each dot has a short, blue tail providing a brief history of where it sailed. David could adjust his panel to include white lines stretching out in front of his blue dot contacts that would predict where each starship will be given no change to course or speed. He has declined the Path Line option even though I prefer it. No biggie. My job today isn’t to teach him my technique; it’s to evaluate his own.
David has twenty ships inbound for Entryway 9 Right and another eighteen vectored for E-9L. Thirty-eight starships in total, lined up but at varying speeds. All of them want to idle their drives, kick back and dock at our orbital. Behind these two processions, over a hundred more green letters are shooting approaches that will carry new customers into David’s airspace. Six “A” markers are flashing grey and white. They are ships waiting impatiently, at relative rest, right at the border between Spinward Final’s airspace and David’s own realm. They are stuck in limbo, wanting to move closer to the orbital but unable to because David is majorly backed up. The colloquialism for this purgatory is “spinning at the boundary.” In technical jargon, it’s called a clusterfuck.
The interphone rings inside the cab. This secure, peer-to-peer comm device allows controllers in other rooms to talk with us or, when we are this far behind, at us. If I wanted to be a jerk, I could make David answer it. After all, if I certify him after this checkride, he will be alone at this position. On the fourth ring, Melissa growls. She’s the only other person in the cab, working the other half of Tower Control. I try to appease her with a touch on the shoulder as I lift the phone off its cradle. David continues giving frantic instructions to a ship named either 52E Ducky Star or 52ED Lucky Star. He’s blending his words together so it’s hard to say. Either way, I’m pretty sure answering the interphone is low on his priority list.
“Tanner’s Aircar Rentals and Massages, this is Jake speaking, how may I help you?”
“Goddammit, Jake. This is Niven down at Final. What the fuck is your guy doing in the cab?”
I cringe in response to the grating voice. Niven is the equivalent of a human sourball. Unlike most sourballs, Niven has no sugary center and is consistently one flavor: asshole. He gets away with it because his uncle is the CFO for the entire Orashi orbital. I firmly believe that nepotism is the only reason he’s working a Level 10 system. It certainly isn’t skill. “David’s working traffic, Niven. Pro tip, you can tell because all those green T’s on your screen are moving toward the orbital.” I pause for dramatic effect. “You have remembered to turn your screen on, right?”
“I’ve got six ships spinning because your trainee can’t find his ass with two hands and a flashlight.” Niven’s voice is acerbic but he’s nearly gleeful. Nothing makes him happier than pointing out another’s deficiencies. There’s also a hint of panic to it. His airspace will be filling up shortly if David can’t get his shit together.
I force a smile on my face even though Niven can’t see it. “Well, calling to bitch at us should certainly solve the problem.” I hang up before he can retort.
David has finished handing off a liner leaving his airspace. One down, eleven zillion to go. Well done, David. He tears his eyes off the screen to look up at me and gives me his professional assessment. “I think I am so screwed right now.”
In space traffic control—we just say STC—there can come a time when you get so far behind on traffic that you cannot be saved. When you’ve “lost the picture,” you’re too busy avoiding guideline violations and collisions to spend time explaining the situation. Even if there were a savior available and willing to listen, something terrible would happen during your briefing. David is rapidly approaching that moment.
“I can step in,” I offer halfheartedly. By relinquishing his position, David would automatically fail this checkride and I don’t particularly want that to happen. To become an FPL or Full Performance Level controller, a person has to check out at every control position in the star system. The Sabine system is insanely busy and this means checking out at nine types of positions. There are actually fifty-seven STC spots in Sabine but checking out at one departure position counts for all of them. There are four departure slots on the Orashi orbital alone. Failing a checkride means David will have to navigate an appeals process to gain more training time in Sabine, assuming that the STC supervisors and orbital manager agree to salvage him.
I give him my best look of faith and bolster his confidence with, “Don’t think you’re screwed, know you’re screwed.” I’m a motivator.
The consequences for failing a checkride used to be much worse. Fifteen years ago, when I was starting out, failing a checkride meant you were finished. No extensions, no salvage. The best you could hope for was your previous star system taking you back. If you failed a checkride at your very first star system, you were now in control of the want ads.
In today’s kinder and gentler and vastly understaffed FSTCA, the training program has been relaxed to a new “Train to Succeed” system. When it was first introduced, Orashi’s manager had the poor judgment to place me in charge of the station’s program in addition to my normal duties. He had a change of heart after word of my enthusiastic introductory briefing gained his attention. “The station manager wants each and every one of you to suck seed. Believe you can suck seed and you WILL suck seed!” My services as the Train to Succeed Manager were no longer needed shortly thereafter. Now I just mentor the occasional developmental controller.
David heeds my encouragement and is back in the fight, vectoring outbound traffic through the other tower controller’s airspace. Why not? His space is full and she has plenty of room, right? I turn around and tap Melissa’s shoulder before pointing at David’s 150,000-tonne liner merrily sailing through one of her inactive entryways. He really should have sent her a point-out first. “Sharing is caring,” I advise her. She flips me off without turning around.
A neutral, mechanical voice speaks rapidly in my headset. “Conflict Alert.” Two of David’s blue dots become surrounded by red coronas. My hand instinctively reaches for the plug of his headset but there’s still time for him to correct the situation. I wait.
“Niner-Zero-Five-November Monsirri Express, traffic alert, turn right heading one-three-zero immediately!” David does not wait for an answer and rapid-fires, “Tango-Tango-Niner-Four Florikan, traffic alert, turn left heading two-eight-zero immediately.”
Now would be a great time to activate the path lines on his console. They’re really useful to avoid placing starships onto collision courses. Alas, he doesn’t receive my telepathy but to be fair, there are more pressing concerns. The red coronas of the conflict alert fade as the ships alter course. The tension is palpable though, as I wonder if either ship is going to criticize David’s original intent to get them to engage in postnuptial activities.
When I started out, I once placed a freighter on an intercept course with a 3,500-tonne military corvette. After being awarded with a system conflict alert, I immediately ordered the corvette, “For noise abatement, turn left ninety degrees.” The corvette was not amused. “We’re in space… how much noise can we be making?” I answered, “Sir, have you ever heard the noise a corvette makes when hitting a three hundred thousand-tonne freighter?”
Monsirri Express and Florikan must be in forgiving moods or maybe they’re just grateful that David noticed this mistake. The number of starships waiting near the orbital at the “hold short” lines of the entryways has almost doubled in half an hour. Only a single ship has departed Orashi station in the last five minutes. Even though Monsirri Express and Florikan remain quiet, the rest of the natives are getting restless. Every reply to David comes from a cranky, frustrated helmsman.
I fold my arms and lift my chin to pull some slack in the headset cord running under my arms and to the control panel. Even in the age of starships and tunnel dives, most of us still use actual plugs with cords because they’re nearly malfunction-proof. I watch David cycle Santa Juanita off the entryway and hand her off to the controller working Docking. Another blue dot disappears from the scope. Unfortunately, the remaining line of blue dots on course for Entryways 9 Right and 9 Left stretch across his screen.
David clears his throat before ordering, “Thirty-two-Echo Askold, you are cleared for Entryway Niner Right, reduce current speed to point-zero-two-C.”
Damn. My heart sinks at the command even though I knew it was coming. My eyes flit between Askold and the blue dot charging after it. A glance at the data block riding next to the dot tells me the speed differential between the two ships will surpass a mere conflict alert and enter “bust” territory. David is oblivious to this. There’s no, “I got this.” No, “Give me a second.” Not even a, “Sound collision!”
I’m all for letting people make mistakes to see how they recover but my live-and-learn outlook places greater emphasis on the live part. In less than twenty seconds, CSS Askold is going to have its virtue soiled by the Federation Cargo Vessel, Lake Anne. I don’t know if Lake Anne is into ancient Slavic princes but, even if she isn’t, she soon will be. Literally.
I yank David’s comm set from its plug and offer a generic, “Sorry, David.” I think he nods a fatal acceptance although I’m not sure. My focus is on his screen. My screen. “Nine-Zero-Kilo Lake Anne, reduce speed to point-zero-two-C. Thirty-two-Echo Askold, speed restriction lifted… keep your speed up.” I tap my foot impatiently until I receive acknowledgment from both parties. With starship sodomy averted, I machine-gun commands, prioritizing further disaster prevention. “Zero-eight-zero-Victor Orion, cleared immediate departure E-Nine Right. Twenty-two Kurobe, position behind the traffic ahead of you and begin a high-speed taxi.” By regulation having two starships departing via the same entryway at the same time is prohibited. However, one departing and one merely speeding up behind it on a taxi is perfectly legal.
As soon as Orion breaks past the far threshold of the entryway, I order, “Twenty-two Kurobe, cleared immediate departure E-Nine Right. Forty-one-Yankee Donner’s Pride, position and hold after incoming traffic, a 150,000-tonne liner.”
I wait for the acknowledgments and mentally queue my next moves to untangle this mess as David holds his head in his hands. An incorporeal voice from an unknown starship makes clear sentiment of his attempts at space traffic control. “Nice to finally get the A-team in.”
Melissa barks a short laugh behind us but I’m too busy to comfort my failed developmental controller. He shouldn’t be expecting consolation anyway. This is just life behind a panel, chasing blue dots. Either you hack it or get out.