Outward: Chapter 17: Panic Mode

It turned out that there were modes of panic that didn’t involve slamming the big red button.

News of Nate’s discovery had rocketed up his management chain, reflected off the project lead, and spread back down to all the offices involved, sending them scrambling to figure out what was going on. Audits sprung up left and right. Most of mid-level management got pulled into meeting after meeting. Most importantly, to Nate at least, was how much of the secondary watch center staff got tasked to trawl through the logs to see if anything like this had happened before.

Nate himself had landed the unenviable job of looking back through the entire history of MOJO firing sequences and correlating them with the daily planning e-mails that listed which jobs the pencil-pushers had vetted and approved. Granted, there were fates far worse than this — Nate had heard the software development teams had been called in to do line-by-line source code reviews — but there was unpleasantness to be found in his job as well. Nate braced himself for it as he lifted up his telephone and dialed the dreaded number.

“IT support center,” the voice at the other end said.

“Hi,” Nate replied, “I need some old e-mails–”

“Please hold while we connect you with the next customer service representative,” the voice continued, before being replaced with music.

Nate groaned and held the handset a few inches away from his ear. He liked Vivaldi as much as the next guy, but not when it was squeezed through the lowest fidelity sampling equipment known to man. Nate didn’t even know how one could make a 56 kilobit MP3 file. It was the sort of thing so terrible it couldn’t be done accidentally; someone had willfully decided that this was what all callers requesting IT support should be subjected to. Which didn’t make any sense, given how he was pretty sure they got paid by the call.

Nate paged through the logs of all MOJO firing sequences. It stretched all the way back to the first test firings of MOJO-1, back before the secondary watch center had even been completed. Scrolling up and forward in time, it looked like all of them were the usual multi-satellite jobs, not the weird singletons he had seen today. That was good. It probably meant he hadn’t missed any previous incidents. His job was safe. On the other hand, it meant he’d need to go through the entire list, line by line, making sure each one matched up with the planning e-mails.

“IT support center,” a different voice at the other end of the line said.

“Hi,” Nate replied, noticeably less enthusiastically than last time, which took some effort, “I need some old e-mails recovered from backup.”

“Please hold.” Another Vivaldi assault.

Of course. Nate knew there were things worse than having IT support outsourced to some backwater town in India. Particularly, having IT support outsourced to Cairo. Cairo, Illinois, to be specific, where evidently it was pronounced Kay-ro.

“IT support center,” a third voice said.

“Yeah,” Nate replied. “I need some old e-mails recovered from backup.”

“OK, sir and or ma’am,” the voice said, not even bothering to hide the fact he was reading from a script, “I am required to inform you that company policy is that all e-mails received must be retained for a minimum of five years, and that it is every employee’s responsibility to comply.”

“I know,” Nate grumbled. If they seriously expected him not to delete e-mails from the server, IT really needed to start giving him more than 100 kilobytes’ worth of space. He made a note to just start forwarding all his work e-mail to GMail. Then Nate smiled as he realized something. “But what I need restored is a copy of all messages sent to the MOJO operations coordination list, including those sent before I was hired.”

There was a pause at the other end, presumably as the tech support drone checked the script for a way to guilt him for not having done the impossible. Nate took the opportunity to act on the note he had made, before the torrent of restored e-mails arrived in his inbox. Nate heard the sound of typing on the other end of the line. “There you are, sir and or ma’am. You should see the restored e-mails arrived momentarily. Have a pleasant day,” the voice recited just before hanging up.

After a few minutes’ wait, the e-mails arrived as promised, and just as quickly got forwarded to GMail. Nate spent the next several hours going through each of the log entries from the watch console to make sure they matched up with the daily planning announcements. He built up his own list cross-referencing log entries against announcements, just to make sure he didn’t overlook anything. Much to Nate’s relief, they matched up perfectly, except for the two events he had already discovered and reported.

With a sigh of relief, he forwarded his list to management. Whatever the problem in the system was, it wasn’t his fault.

For the next several days, Nate kept a more careful eye on the console. He forewent raids in World of Warcraft to keep from getting too distracted as he waited for something to happen, even though nothing ever did.

Finally an e-mail arrived from upper-level management. It proclaimed that the root cause of the problem had been identified and dealt with, without elaborating on any of the details. Nate frowned.

It may not be his responsibility, and it evidently didn’t actually have anything to do with him, but curiosity got the better of him. He wondered how the two mysterious jobs had wound up in the firing system. It would be good for him to know, as a member of the watch center, in case the problem ever came up again, right? He knew he’d like to avoid throwing everyone into a panic for the better part of a week the next time he caught one of the satellites firing off into space. That was a good enough justification for him, at least.

He started calling the people he knew in the project’s other offices to see if they knew anything he didn’t. Nate didn’t even bother requesting information from management, figuring that if they had officially wanted him to know, they would have told him already. Much better to go for the people who do the real work in the organization.

After a few calls, Nate struck gold with Pat, one of the techies who worked on the operations software.

“Yeah,” Pat said, “once we were able to convince management that a zero-based code review wasn’t the best use of our time, we were able to find the problem pretty quickly.”

“Oh?” Nate replied. “How so?”

“How much do you know about the operations workflow planning system?”

“What’s the operations workflow planning system?”

“Ah. Basically, it’s what makes sure all the necessary steps get taken care of from the time a customer requests MOJO time to completion of the mission. Once a request comes in from sales or the online interface, it does some quick processing on it to figure out what needs to be done, and holds off on dispatching the request to the actual operations side of things until it’s all done.”

“What kinds of things?” Nate asked.

“You name it. Just about every office has some piece of it; the workflow system splits off those pieces and sends them out. Accounting has one, to make sure the customer has actually paid. Engineering has a bunch, mostly to make sure the request is physically possible and isn’t going to blow out one of the satellites. That sort of thing. The real beauty of the system is that it’s nonlinear. All the prereqs get forked off and tasked out in parallel, so no one winds up blocking on everyone else. Engineering doesn’t have to wait for the check to clear before verifying the requested power level is going to fry an antenna. Deconfliction makes doesn’t have to wait for the engineers to check if a satellite’s already tied up with another operation. And so on. Without doing all that in parallel as much as possible, there’d be no way we could manage a 24-hour turn-around for our main customers like DoD.” Pat was clearly proud of the system he had helped architect.

“So what went wrong with it, anyway?”

“I’m getting to that. One of the tasks is legal; they do a let’s-not-get-sued check. Once the beam trajectories get computed, it does a check of the target coordinates and all the points the beams pass through to make sure we’re not going to get in trouble.”

“How so?”

“It basically comes down to making sure we have permission for wherever they’re going. The military can target a point in a war zone whereas you or I couldn’t. You could target a point on your own property, as long as you actually own it and the expected blast radius won’t bleed over into someone else’s. Then there’s making sure it’s been cleared with the appropriate local and national officials. Lots of stuff to look at. And you have to look at the entire beam path, or else sooner or later someone will figure out they can time things just right so a beam passes through some other country’s city even though their supposedly targeting land of their own. It’s a huge mess.”

“I bet.”

“Anyway, the workflow system cross-checks the trajectories and coordinates with national airspaces, territorial borders, existing authorizations, and whatnot, and gives legal a list of all the things it needs to check out. That was the problem. Firing out into space means you don’t cross any of those zones, since you’re not firing anywhere close to the planet. And since the planning notification tasks didn’t get queued up until legal got resolved….”

“They never showed up in the planning e-mails.”

“Right, and that’s why the job got forwarded into firing control without planning finding out about it. We fixed that bug in the workflow now, so it won’t happen again.”

Well, Nate thought, that explained that, at least. Though he still wondered who would be interested in firing out into space in the first place, or why. He’d try making a few calls, but he could guess he already knew the answer: customer identities were confidential information. But he still had all the technical details of the two events, and he had plenty of time to do a little outside research on his own. The next raid would have to wait.

Chapter word count: 1,770 (+103)
Total word count: 29,928 / 50,000 (59.856%)

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