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Authors: Robert L. Forward

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BOOK: Dragon's Egg
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However, she was worried. The scruff was blurring the data, ruining a good portion of it. It wouldn’t have made much difference if the good part had shown some new pattern and she could have ferreted out a new black hole to add to the Sun’s problems. However, it was now pretty obvious that she would have to be content with a negative thesis, and this noise was going to make it difficult to convince the examining committee that there were only four black holes in the Sun. She stared at the noisy portion as her arms rapidly slid the long sheet of paper across the table.

“I shouldn’t complain about this antique spacecraft,” she said. “But why did it have to start stuttering now?”

She moved along the trace. The scruff got worse, then slowly faded away. When she got to the clear section, she started to measure the amplitude averages again. In a way it was good that the computer was not blindly working on this data. She had enough sense to ignore the noisy parts, and thus end up with a very clean spectrum. But if the computer had been handling the data, it would have folded the scruff in
with the good data and the resulting spectrum would have had a lot of spurious spikes that would have given the examination committee plenty of ammunition. Jacqueline finished her data analysis late in the evening. She looked at the neat figures in the notebook.

“That is the hard way to analyze data,” she said to herself. “Tomorrow it gets worse, when I have to read it all into the computer. I hope old Saw-face has loosened the purse strings by then.” Jacqueline glanced wearily at the long tumbled ribbon of paper on the floor and, swirling it around, finally found a loose end and started to roll it up.

“Up and down with a double hump, triple hump, bump—repeat twice more, then scrufffffff, then up and down with a double hump, triple hump, bump—repeat twice more, then scrufffffff …” Jacqueline stopped her semiautomatic mouthing of the pattern on the roll. She quickly gathered up the whole pile of paper and carefully carried it to one end of the long room and stretched it out on the floor. She then went to one end and strode rapidly along it, looking for the noisy portions. “The scruff is periodic!” she exclaimed.

The noise seemed to have a period of about a day, and, as she went from one end of the roll to the other, it slowly drifted with respect to the more regular periodic bumps that were the meat of her thesis. She had previously thought that the noisy portions were due to random malfunctions of the spacecraft, but now the periodic nature of the scruff made her look elsewhere for the cause.

“It could be that the spacecraft develops an arc in the transmitter for a few hours every day, but that doesn’t sound very likely,” she said. She finished rolling up the paper and, carrying the roll with her, went into the communications lab. The first thing she looked up was the spacecraft log. Fortunately, that information
was in the general library file and the computer would let her look at that without charging her. She flashed the log backwards, page by page. Most of the entries had her name entered:

J. CARNOT: ESA: ACCOUNT SAW-2-J: LFR DATA DUMP

“I seem to be the only one using this satellite,” she said.

Finally she came to an engineering note. Once every few days or so, during slack periods, the spacecraft engineers at the CCCP-NASA-ESA Deep Space Network communications center would take the spacecraft through its engineering check list.

POWER 22% NOMINAL

X-BAND DOWN-LINK 80% NOMINAL

K-BAND DOWN-LINK DEAD

ATTITUDE CONTROL DEAD

SPIN RATE 77 MICRORAD/SEC

FUNCTIONING EXPERIMENTS

    LOW FREQUENCY RADIO

    SOLAR IR MONITOR

    X-RAY TELESCOPE (STANDBY)

“Only two experiments on,” she said. “The engineers must have turned off the X-ray telescope since the last time I checked.” She looked at the number for the spin rate, flipped the computer terminal into compute mode, and made a quick calculation.

“Seventy-seven microradians per second comes out to be a little more than one revolution per day—about the same period as the scruff. The scruff must be caused by the effect of the solar heating on the transmitting antenna or some other solar effect.”

She logged off the terminal, took the roll of paper, and headed back through the pre-dawn hours to her room. The roll would join the many other rolls that lay
stacked in a pile on her bookshelf, while she joined the rest of Pasadena in sleep.

TIME: FRIDAY 24 APRIL 2020

In her sleep, Jacqueline was flying. No, not flying, but drifting through empty space. She looked down and finally realized where she was. Below her was the bright globe of the Sun. Spread out before her was the whole Solar System as seen from above. Her astronomically trained mind had placed the dream planets in their proper positions and she could almost imagine faint lines tracing out the nearly circular orbits that gave the Solar System the appearance of a bull’s-eye target from this perspective. She found the tiny double-planet system that was the Earth-Moon pair and was straining to try and make out detail on the Earth when the slow, inexorable rotation of her body dragged her eyes away from the scene. Unable to turn her head around any further, she was forced to gaze upwards away from the Sun, her arms and legs outstretched in the form of an X. “Just like the low frequency radio antennas sticking out of the OE probe,” she thought.

Soon the rotation brought her body around again and she admired the view. She finally concentrated on looking at the north pole of the Sun. She had no trouble looking at the Sun despite its brightness, and she searched for any variations on the nearly featureless surface. As she stared, she saw nothing with her eyes, but she finally began to notice weak pulsations in her arms and legs. A double pulse, triple pulse, pulse …

“I’m picking up the complex radio signal of the orbiting black holes!” she thought, as her body continued to revolve. Soon she could no longer see the Sun, but she could still feel the pulsations in her arms and legs. Then, while staring out at right angles from the Sun, she felt a rapid tingling sensation building up
in her right arm. It became stronger and stronger, nearly blotting out the slower, rhythmic pulsations. “The scruff!” she exclaimed, and then began to laugh at herself …

“Nothing like getting yourself so wrapped up in your thesis work that you dream you have become the spacecraft yourself,” said Jacqueline as she sat up in her room. She looked at the bustling noonday traffic out her window and rubbed the prickles out of her right arm, restoring the circulation it had lost while trapped under her exhausted body.

She was halfway through her belated breakfast when the dream surfaced again in her mind. Although she knew the spacecraft’s operational characteristics almost as well as she knew the operating characteristics of her own body, it did seem strange to her that in the dream the scruff came when she was looking away from the Sun, not toward it.

She thought about it for awhile, then went to her bookshelf and got down the roll she had been working on the previous night and an older one from several months ago. She unrolled a section from each of them on the floor, one above the other, and slid the old one back and forth until the slowly varying complex pattern caused by the orbital motion of the black holes was matched up on the two rolls. She then looked along both sheets and came to the noisy portions. They were different. First of all, the scruff a few months ago was significantly weaker (although that could be explained by a degrading piece of equipment or insulation), but there also seemed to be a definite shift in the position of the peak of the scruff activity with respect to the position of the Sun. She got out an even older roll, and checked it. The scruff was very weak now. In fact, she remembered that the computer had had no trouble obtaining a nice, clean spectrum from this data since the spectral energy in the noise had been so small.
Again, however, there seemed to be a delay in the position of the peak intensity of the scruff.

“Well, this is one time when the number-crunching objectivity of the computer is orders of magnitude better than the highly subjective human hand and eye. It is back to the computer for you, Jacqueline,” she said to herself. “But first you have to get some more computer time from old Saw-face.”

Jacqueline walked across the CalTech campus to the Space Physics building. The huge edifice, built in the days when space budgets were a significant fraction of a nation’s budget, was now the Space Physics building in name only. Only the basement computer room and the first floor offices contained space research activities. The remaining floors of the building had been taken over by graduate students of the Social Sciences department. If the CalTech-Jet Propulsion Laboratories combine had not been able to talk NASA, the Europeans, and the Russians into combining their dwindling national space budgets into supporting one international space research center with a single Deep Space Network, then there would be no deep space research at all.

After the Americans had given up sponsoring deep space probes and the European Space Agency had broken into squabbling factions after the loss of SpaceLab, the Russian planners, without visible competition, had lowered their priority for deep space research to almost zero and concentrated their funding on manned and unmanned Earth orbital ventures. The cold war was still on, but it had degenerated into an almost automatic name-calling at the United Nations. The Russian standard of living rose, and as it did, the party planners found that they had to give more and more attention to a no-longer docile population and could not justify a separate deep space program.

Jacqueline walked down the almost deserted corridors of the Space Physics building to Professor
Vladimir Sawlinski’s office. Jacqueline hesitated, then knocked.


Da
?” said a gruff voice.

Jacqueline opened the door and walked in. A thin, middle-aged gentleman swiveled away from a computer screen filled with text in Cyrillic characters and turned to look at her. Jacqueline’s Russian was good enough that she could tell that he was reading a science news article about the supposed discovery of a magnetic monopole in some iron ore in Nigeria.

Sawlinski’s clothing was unusual for a Russian. It was a tailored suit in the latest European style. Its very presence on his spare frame advertised that the wearer was a multi-cultured world traveler who was given significant freedom and even more significant financial reimbursement by a worldly wise Russian government that expected great things from him. The man’s balding head bent forward as he peered over his reading glasses at the young woman.

“Jacqueline!” Sawlinski said, his face beaming with pleasure. “Do come in, young lady. How is your thesis work coming? Have you found another collapsed sub-stellar object?”

Jacqueline grinned inwardly at the Russian’s refusal to call them miniature black holes. Unfortunately, the Americans and Englishmen who had first popularized the concept of black holes were not aware that the phrase “black hole” had a context in the Russian language that was not used in polite company.

“I have used up my account and the computer will not talk to me anymore,” she said. “I thought I had plenty of computer time left, at least for another month of work, but a retroactive intercurrency adjustment canceled it out.”

Professor Sawlinski flinched. He had been afraid of something like that. His budget from the Soviet Academy was quite limited, but worst of all, it was in
rubles. Now that the Chinese and Russians were heating up the border war in Mongolia again, the Russian ruble had been falling fast in the international money markets. He had been glad to have Jacqueline working for him, for she came free. As one of its few full-time graduate fellows, ESA paid all her expenses. When he had come to America to work in the International Space Institute, he had despaired of being able to afford any graduate student help, so getting Jacqueline had been a lucky break. She was smart (and pretty besides).

“All right,” he sighed. “I will transfer more money from my main account. But my account will also be depleted by the same adjustment. I am afraid that this means that I won’t be able to go to the Verona conferences this summer.” He turned to the computer terminal at his desk and carried out a short dialog with the financial account program.

He turned after a minute and said, “The computer will now talk to you again. However, please be prudent in what you ask it to do, for the rubles are getting scarce.”

“Thank you, Professor Sawlinski,” Jacqueline replied. “However, I still have much work to do to finish my thesis. As of now, I cannot find any other periodic signals in the data. Also, the records from the probe are getting worse. The noise on the traces is growing in amplitude, and I have to throw out a good portion of the data. The noise itself is interesting though. I went back through some old traces and I find it is not only increasing in amplitude but the peak seems to shift in time with respect to the radio signals from the Sun.”


Da
, the ‘scruff,’ as you call it,” he said. “It is not going away, but getting worse? Well, we should not expect much from a spacecraft that is so old.”

“But the shift with time is strong evidence that the scruff is not generated by the Sun,” Jacqueline protested. “I think we ought to look into it.”

“I can think of many mechanisms whereby the failing electronics on the spacecraft could produce this static,” he replied with a smile. “We want you to get your thesis done without spending too many of my precious rubles, so I think we ought to concentrate on the analysis of the radio data that is not bothered by the noise.”

“But it would not take long for me to have the computer go back through the data and get a good estimate of the drift,” she said. Then remembering the tingling in her right arm, she suddenly became sure of something else, although it was against all logic that her position in bed in Pasadena had anything to do with an inanimate spacecraft cruising through space two hundred astronomical units away. Yet many a scientific idea had first surfaced in a dream of the researcher. Perhaps her subconscious was trying to tell her something.

BOOK: Dragon's Egg
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