Episode 11 – Chief Designer

The Lava Tube – Under The Ridge

Your Dad was one – – as I still am.

Now it was Jaak’s turn to return a hard-stare – his ears stopped twitching but became frozen in opposite directions as if they were in a state of suspended animation. The hour glass in his brain was spinning around furiously, while he processed what he had just heard.

Jaak: But…but… that can’t be right – my Dad’s a mining engineer – he always has been!

…and how can you be a space engineer? We are miles from CaSA in Aoraki and the Tet’s are way up in orbit!

…and my Dad hates modern high tech stuff! I’ve only just got him to flick a switch on a 12 volt power supply!

Jaak continued to look directly at Layan, his face and features illuminated by the soft yellow glow of the paraffin lamp, searching for any sign that this might be another one of Layan’s quirky moments. Jaak saw nothing but sincerity and honesty.

Layan: Yes, my young cub you are quite right in that your Dad is a mining engineer – now that is. However before that? Yes – he was indeed a space engineer and a highly skilled one, who worked with me on the original development team that designed and built the Tets – all of this was long before you were born.

I was the one who originally discovered how to harness the special properties and powers of the cyan stones and it was me that designed the stone reactors that power the core of the Tets today.

Where we have just come from is the CaSA-ESeC – the Cyanos Space Agency – Engineering Space Command and Control Centre; for all four of our Tets in orbit…
– its a remote work from home facility.

Layan gave a toothy grin

From there I can directly monitor and control the reactor cores of each Tet, and also communicate directly with the Chief Engineer stationed on each Tet.

I am the Chief Designer.

Your Dad’s story is a longer one to tell – come let’s go back to the cabin – this story will need coffee.

A thousand questions swirled in Jaak’s mind, however for the rest of the short journey back to the cabin he kept his thoughts to himself. They emerged back through the trap door and Jaak put a fresh pot of coffee on the stove, while Layan produced the tin of cookies.

Layan: It was around thirty years ago and your Dad was a young and newly qualified engineer in his twenties. He came to join my design team at CaSA for Project Tetris. That was the name of the project to put the four Tets up in space. The construction of the first orbital Tet was well underway and we were getting ready to install the stone reactor for the first time…


Cyanos Space Agency – Engineering Design Laboratory – thirty years ago…

Layan: Altai! Have you got those stone mass to plasma concentrate calculations ready yet?

We’re already several weeks behind schedule and the current construction crew are due to return to the surface in two weeks! The reactor will take nearly all of that two weeks to install – and they’re the specialist crew that have been trained to install the reactor stone!

Any project the size and scale of putting four huge tetrahedron space station platforms in orbit was always going to have delays. It was no one persons fault, more a number of smaller interconnected problems, snow-balling on each other to cause delays upon delays.

Altai: The main frame computer is still processing the calculations Chief. It is showing 25% complete – estimated remaining computing time is 36 hours. That’s as long as we don’t get another 1201 program re-start alarm. This is the third restart this week. Each program calculation cycle takes 48 hours to complete.

Layan was frustrated and had been particularly short tempered this week.

Layan: Un-f**king-believable! Please someone tell me the Tetris computing contract was not given to the lowest bidder – wait… yes. Of course it was – silly me.

The fact that this bold project to put up four mammoth Tetrahedron space stations in orbit required new and advanced computing power never before seen or dreamed of on Cyanos; along with a whole raft of other things that had never been done before – and that it all had to be done to satisfy some arbitrary politically driven agenda laid down by the Cyanos Central Committee wonks mattered not. They were behind schedule. Way behind.

36 hours and 5 minutes later…

Layan: Well? Do we have our numbers?

Altai consulted his clip-board.

Altai: Well Chief, the short answer is yes – but we did notice a potential anomaly as the data was processing. To be sure – I recommend that we re-run the program.

Both of Layan’s eyebrows shot up.

Layan: Re-run? Again? Another two days?

If we re-run the program we will lose the window for the current crew to install the reactor. That will put us another three months behind before they can return.

Is this a real anomaly or a potential one?

Altai again consulted his clip-board and waved it about in the direction of the computer bank.

Altai: Potential. The variation was only on the screen for the briefest of moments at around 75% complete. Every thing else checks out.

Layan: We run with the numbers we’ve got.

Altai was not happy with the answer, but the Chief had made the decision – Altai was both a stickler for the rules and the absolute integrity of his data, – but he also respected authority.

Altai: Yes Chief.


Layan: The stone reactor was installed with 4 hours to spare before the crew needed to return to the surface. It had been a scramble, but they did it. I thought that we had dodged a bullet on losing more time on the schedule. I was wrong.


Reactor Test – CaSA-ESeC – thirty years ago…

Layan: OK people listen up. We are about to begin the test and bring the reactor online for the first time. Are all systems ready?

Altai’s team of engineers all sounded the affirmative – Altai was the last to give his call.

Altai: Ready Chief.

Layan: Bring the reactor online – 10% power.

Altai: Reactor coming online – increasing to 10% power.

Layan: Report!

Altai: All systems are nominal – reactor is at 10% and stable.

Layan: Increase power – 20%!

This process of slow and careful incremental increases to the power, with the engineers not daring to take their eyes off their data displays for even a moment and reporting back to the chief, continued until the reactor was running at 70 % power.

Layan: Increase power to 80%!

Altai: CHIEF! ENERGY SPIKE AT 75% – RECOMMEND EMERGENCY SHUTDOWN!

Layan: INITIATE EMERGENCY SHUTDOWN!

It was too late.


Layan: The reactor exploded taking the partially completed Tet with it. Most of the crew were standing off at a safe distance in shuttles for the test, – however a small crew had remained on the Tet to monitor critical systems. They were lost. Once the explosion subsided there was nothing left except for small traces of nano-quantanium particulate…
– basically space dust.

Jaak who had been listening intently stopped with a cookie half way in his mouth mid bite.

Layan: Naturally there was a major CaSA investigation and inquiry. It also involved the Cyanos Government Central Committee, it became political and messy. In short, after analysing over a million lines of computer code, we found one single piece of code that had been inserted incorrectly, in simple terms it was basically a > instead of a < . This caused a catastrophic exponential negative to positive feedback loop increasing pressure in the velcronium capacitors, that effectively doubled the power output every millisecond at 75% power. This caused the massive explosion. It put the Tetris program back 2 years – but we learned from our mistakes and we moved on.

Your Dad took it badly. He felt he was responsible, that he had not pushed me harder to re-run the data program. The ultimate responsibility however was mine and mine alone. I made the decision to proceed.

He left CaSA and retreated back here to the valleys to work as an engineer in the mines. He is a good engineer and this is why he is so particular and takes safety seriously. It also partly explains why he has to a large degree shunned modern technology – especially computers. It is also probably why he never wanted Tet-Net coverage at his cabin.

Layan paused and took a long slug of his coffee

A point to remember though Jaak is that the computer did exactly what it was told to do. It was not the computers fault – it was the instruction that was wrong. I think this could also apply to your Dad in this case. I gave him the wrong instruction.

No – I did not lose my job, but even when all four Tets were up in orbit and doing exactly what they were designed to do my star had long faded within CaSA – no ticker tape parades for me.

Eventually I moved back here to the valleys and set up the remote monitoring station and satellite dish to provide Tet-Net coverage to the valleys for the first time. This was not without controversy, and there were many heated discussions and debates at the gatherings – your Dad being one of the most vocal against. He wanted to preserve the culture and uniqueness of the valleys and felt that the arrival of easy communications and access to the internet would spoil that. What I really think is that he just wanted to forget.

For some time the two sat in silence. There were many, many thoughts swirling in Jaak’s head, and it was going to take a while to process them all.

Jaak: Thank you for telling me all this Layan. It helps to explain why my Dad is the way he is with somethings.

Jaak finished the last cookie from out of the tin and then quietly excused himself and made his way down the hill and home.

Episode 12 – Beaver Dam

4 thoughts on “Episode 11 – Chief Designer

  1. Mikadosora 7 September, 2020 / 06:55

    The truth is revealed! I wonder how Jaak will talk to his dad about this?

    • Craig 7 September, 2020 / 08:46

      Yes this is a big reveal to both the reader and to Jaak. This episode brings together a number of cookie crumbs that has built up to this point in the story. So how will Jaak deal with this and how will he talk to his dad about it? That is a good question – but the truth – no matter how painful is what matters.
      Fun fact: This story incident was based loosely around the Apollo One fire.

  2. shuichiboy 23 September, 2020 / 17:22

    The verbiage in here works in interesting way. “Casa” has a nice double-meaning, as does Tetris.

    I’ve had a few troubles with the thing in coding myself. Nasty little buggers that are easy to sneak past you on the screen. Sometimes, it takes me an hour to find them.

    • Craig 23 September, 2020 / 20:22

      Well – CaSA-ESeC – just tried to come up with some kind of BS Nasa-ish acronym – works well enough. As for the coding error – I tried to use one of the smallest coding symbols to create a large problem. A ‘greater than’ instead of a ‘less than’ coding error seemed to work for an exponential type energy spike and resulting explosion. Think Chernobyl on steroids.

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