Entrance Examination, Chapter Seven

Time in its unending march brought forth day six, which found Elder working on the computer files when Sloan came in and asked for help.

:Cadet Trainee Elder, leave that for a few moments please and come with me. I need someone smaller than I am to help me with a conduit.” Sloan’s voice rumbled throughout the bridge.

“Where’s everyone else?”

“Busy with the gravity system down several decks or asleep. I could call one of them, but it would take a long time for them to get here. You would be done before one of them got here. I need you only for a few moments; there is a hook-up that I cannot reach. If I were not so big I could slip inside the conduit but I am what Concar made me. Since nature made you of a more manageable size, you could unhook the connections so I can make the tests and hook them back up with no trouble. Ten minutes maximum is all I ask.” Sloan’s chuckle vibrated Elder’s cup of tomato soup as it sat on a console nearby.

Elder looked at MacBeath who was watching the sensors this bridge watch and sighed. “I think I almost have figured out how the Master Control Program uses memory. Oh well, I guess it can wait. Where’s this hook-up?”

“You can find out how the program uses memory any time you want, which should be no problem for you. You are the best person I have ever seen on a computer The hook-up is just down the corridor. Ten minutes is all I ask.” Slapping Elder gently on the back, Sloan guided him away from the Main Computer console while Elder regained his balance.

The two cadets left the bridge. Ten meters away from the bridge was an open conduit hatch. A shiny safety-orange diagnostic analyzer stood just outside.

“Just inside and to the port is a juncture of three control lines, numbers 258AD3691. One of the three is the input and the other two are output lines. I need to make sure that the data signals are getting through that junction. Hand the input line out to me first and I’ll run it through the diagnostic.”

Elder slid into the conduit and found junction box 258AD3691 without a problem. The input line was easy to spot and Elder unhooked it and slid it out of the conduit. Two minutes later Sloan passed it back and Elder hooked it up. The outputs of the junction box and the two output lines were checked in rapid succession.

Once Elder was out of the conduit Sloan rumbled, “Thanks Cadet Trainee Elder. Everything checked out fine. The problem must be in the control unit itself. That I can handle. See, I didn’t take you from your precious computer for too long did I?”

Almost checking the bulkheads to see if they vibrated in response to Sloan’s rumble in spite of how rude that would be, Elder said instead, “No, you didn’t. I am glad I was able to help. Maybe being away from the problem will help clear my mind enough so I can make some progress.”

“That often helps me when I have a problem. Step away from it for a short while and let your brain work on it while you do something else to occupy your time. Although, I am surprised you are having so much trouble. Every time I see you at that computer, you amaze me. It’s almost like you were already an expert of long experience.” A small tool vibrated off the diagnostic analyzer and clanged on the deck. Sloan stooped, picked it up and placed it in a kit at his waist.

“No, I’m not an expert and I’m not experienced. I may never be an expert, but I guess I do know enough to be able to pound away at any computer problems we may have.”

“I think you paint yourself into a picture that you don’t belong in. Father Lester is the only other cadet among us who knows much about computers and he is Jumps behind you. Accept what you are, Elder, and be at peace. If you constantly fight yourself, how can you win? You are good with the computer and you must accept that.”

“Why do you and the others keep saying that? You aren’t family and you aren’t friends to pamper me.”

Sloan looked at Elder, noticing, perhaps for the first time, the short stature and ugly face. “I think you model yourself against a standard that does not fit you. Your mind is not your face; you have good qualities that do not show up in a mirror. I have no need to pamper you nor do I have need to lie to you. You are good with the computer and you have much good about you. Accept your good and discount what is lacking. Peace comes with that, self-torture brings neither peace nor anything good.”

Troubled at Sloan’s comments, but seeing the basic truth of his advice, Elder went back to the bridge and began working on the control program with a lighter heart. Then he realized that Sloan was probably just being nice to him because the eleven of them were trapped here.

On day nine, Elder was working with Irving on a small problem in the temperature control system on Deck Four.

“Hey Irving, do you know much about Concar?”

Surprised at his informality, Irving replied, “Much not do I know, some little more than general knowledge have I. Why ask you?” She almost sang her words. Now that she was more familiar with the others, she broke into snatches of song when she worked, although never around Ostrom whom she avoided as much as she could for some reason she never discussed. None of the songs were in Imperial, so none of the others knew what they were. Moreover, when they asked her, she just said they were popular songs from her childhood.

“It’s just a comment that Sloan made a couple of days ago. He made a comment that got me wondering. Krasgia in not real close to Concar, so I just know what I learned in school. That and the rumors that go around. Concar is not a high gravity planet, so why all the strength? Concar is famous for the strength of its people.” Since they were all the same rank, Elder had decided to drop the formality in casual conversations.

“True that is. Also, think you about Sloan’s height. In high gravity, tall bad is. Concar has normal gravity by what learned I in school. But in history learned I more of the origins of Concar. Genetic engineering extensive in their early history was. The settles a physical ideal had and made for their children. All from Concar this ideal meet now.” Irving seemed to accept his decision, and even though a commoner she had manners close to that of a noble, so if she accepted his casualness, the others should also.

Elder shuddered. “That’s disgusting. Why did the Empire let that happen?”

“The Emperor no say had, the Duke’s choice it was and the Duke agreed with the ideal of his people. Oceania’s king no action took, This early in the Empire was, rebellions by the king distracted probably was, or maybe just before the Empire existed was it.” Irving shrugged.

“Genetic engineering to fix defects in the genetic code is one thing, but to make a racial type – no, that has to be wrong.”

“Do Sloan you blame?”

After taking the moment to make sure he understood what she meant, Elder said, “Of course I don’t blame Sloan; it’s not his fault that his ancestors committed a vile crime against humanity. I wonder what they did with the babies that didn’t meet their standards?”

“That, know I not. Nor know I if wrong then that was.”

“It wasn’t wrong then to genetically engineer someone for purely aesthetic reasons? Probably not. After all, they got away with it. I don’t think any Duke would let it happen today.”

“Today, no, such happen would not. In reaction to what Concar did perhaps is why the Empire genetic engineering restricts.”

“Could be, at least they didn’t make their people dumb. Sloan is pretty smart.”

“Truth that is, and worthy of friendship is he. Wise in advice has he been with me when help needed I.”

“Yeah, so I’ll just have to let my feelings for him outweigh what I think of what his ancestors did. Maybe his advice is as good as you say. He told me that I undervalue myself because of my looks.”

“Do you perhaps undervalue the strength that your mind in is. A face many people see and reject without the mind seeing. A reactor your face stops” here Irving smiled one of her rare, except when singing, smiles, “but your mind starts. Is no bother a face, but important a mind is. Do not waste yours pitying what the mirror sees.”

Startled by Irving’s comments, Elder let his part of the work slide for a few moments while he considered what she said. Others had commented on his skill with the computer. No one had commented about his face, or his stature. Too many of the others were about his height. Here he wasn’t the runt of the family, albeit a beloved runt. He had to be honest and admit that his family, and Constance, loved him. And they knew what he looked like.

On the eleventh day of the test, Quinn had the bridge watch. Moreover, after he watched Elder for two hours of uninterrupted work on the control program he asked, “You are yet to ascertain anything of importance concerning that control program, Cadet Trainee Elder?”

“No, Captain, I haven’t, at least not very much. I can trace the subroutines that have already run, and thus get some idea of what the programmer’s mind is like. However, it looks like at least two programmers worked on this so that does not help much. I can tell you that whoever wrote this program is sneaky, just about every time the program does something, it uses a different command or command structure. Three or four different commands to do the same thing so far as I have seen. And the level of protection in this program is ridiculous.” Elder leaned back and rubbed his gray eyes. “The part that hasn’t run yet, the part that would tell us what to expect, has layer upon layer of protection. I actually figured out how the program uses memory, but it does not help me since the program almost re-writes itself after every few dozen command modules. I’ve even worked through the layers of protection and the program code is encrypted and I don’t have the key.” Formality was second nature around Quinn; even when friendly he was formal.

“The Navy encrypted this program? Would this encryption not enhance the probability of inaccuracies in the program code, and thus increase the likelihood of erroneous actions on the part of the program?” Quinn began pacing around the bridge.

“You got it Captain. My guess is that this program has run so often that the Navy has already caught all the bugs. We can’t be the first cadets who have been through this. My first guess, last guess and only guess is that somewhere in the processor the encryption gets stripped away from the program code. Probably a resident part of the processor since we might find a way to find and learn any hardware stripper located outside the processor itself. I can’t read any part of the program before it gets to the processor and after it gets through the processor it’s too late to worry about it.”

“What actions has the program accomplished in its previous activities? Perhaps there is an indication, in those undertakings that it has accomplished to this point, concerning what this program ha in store for our future aboard the JACOTOT.” Quinn stopped his pacing and settled into the Captain’s Command Chair again.

“I actually thought about that Captain. The quick answer is that it looks like the program has done everything that has happened so far. The subroutines are short enough so that each runs as a block. When the first part of a subroutine is past the processor, the last part is already in the processor. Each subroutine is just a short burst of commands that is over with before I can react. In addition, what that subroutine does will have no connection with what the next subroutine does. If I memorized every command code, I might be able to read the program as it goes along, but it would take me weeks of constant work to do that and there is no guarantee that I will have all the commands. Many of the commands have happened only once so far. If they do not repeat, I waste time learning them. If they do, there might be so many that I would not be able to remember what the code means fast enough. And, I think some codes mean different things when sent to different places, but I am not sure on that. I need to study that part some more. The only thing I can do now is tell what part of memory is being accessed next, and that does us no good.” That was one thing about Quinn. Unlike most people, regardless of how much you said in one speech, he let you say it all without interruption. And he listened to everything he said. Elder had not been used to having people pay serious attention to him, but he discovered that he liked it.

“However, you have been able to ascertain what actions these subroutines have taken once they have performed their functions?” Quinn laced his fingers through his dark hair and leaned back into the Captain’s Command Chair.

“Sure Captain, that’s easy enough for the most part. They do everything on board the JACOTOT. The program monitors air quality, water quality, environment, power usage, everything. This program keeps the lights on schedule, runs constant diagnostic checks on all the installed equipment, checks the integrity of the wiring and tubing, anything a crew would do, this program does. Every system that is up and running gets whatever commands it needs to do what it does from this program. The program sometimes sends commands to systems that are not working, like Main Weapons, as a way of confusing us I think. Somewhere there ought to be a way to show the expanded definition of what the codes mean when the computer runs them, but I haven’t found it yet.” Elder walked over to the bridge door and back, stretching as he did so.

“This program operates diagnostic evaluations upon the electrical and hydraulic systems?” Quinn rose and began pacing again.

“And pneudralics and power and all those systems that engineers love. And a lot more systems that I haven’t identified yet, Captain.”

“Are you able to determine what malfunctions this program detects when it runs these diagnostics?”

“No Captain. Either it has not found one that I can tell or it does not record anything about them. All I have seen so far is a statement that there is no change from the previous check. The computer does not seem to keep a record of checks past the immediately previous one. At least, I have not found any record of any checks but there is a lot I have not searched yet. So far, all I’ve seem is that the computer keeps only the last check and compares it to the previous one and dumps the previous one.”

“If such information is available, our maintenance tasks would be alleviated considerably, especially if we are to compare our previous efforts with what the computer notes of those efforts. Very well, it is my order that you relinquish the task of deciphering the control program for the present. If you ascertain a procedure for researching this program more effectively, you should revive this investigation. What have you discovered regarding the backup control files? Will we have the capability of accomplishing their preparation so that they will function in the eventuality that we require them?”

“Father Lester has looked over about a tenth of the files labeled as control programs in the backups and not one of them has checked out as being able to run on its own Captain. All the programs are missing the same part in the operating system. The program that is running has a complete operating system, it has to, but it is not compatible with the others as far as we can tell. It is a system like nothing either of us has ever seen before. Uness one of the remaining programs has the missing part for the normal programs, which I think is highly unlikely, we cannot use the backups at all. And once we have the missing part, we will have to strip several dozen subroutines in each program out for safety. Each program has a lot of subroutines that could easily be traps and unless we strip them out, we could be in a worse situation than if we just let this program: and here Elder slapped the glossy black Main Computer console, “run its course.”

“Establish the making of the backup control programs effective as your highest priority until I direct otherwise; I do not possess any degree of confidence in this control program. As of this point, there has yet for anything actually dangerous to occur, with the exception of the journey through the asteroid field and even that was presented in a manner that did not require extensive action upon our part; but, I possess an ominous foreboding concerning this program. Why have these backup programs in storage memory if there is no requirement for them? Another point to consider, mayhap the Navy has stored an unimpaired operating system for these control programs in another file that is not one that would be obvious to you. You disclosed during the conference that we held, did you not, that the file names lack relationship to what the file contained in actuality?” Maybe that was why Quinn let everyone else finish their speeches without interruption, he made so many on his own.

“So far Captain, only half the file names that have been checked have really indicated what the file really was, and about half of those were disingenuous. One, for example, was listed as ‘Spares, Personal Weapons’ and when I checked it, there was a long list of spares for various systems and at the end was the comment ‘Personal weapons are not stored on board this ship’. Father Lester has done most of the checking so far; I’ve been tied up with this control program.” Again Elder patted the Computer console. “Did you know he had been training as a computer programmer before entering the seminary?”

“I had not that knowledge; however, I am convinced that someone in the Navy possessed that knowledge, which is the explanation for the Navy assigning him to this team for examination. Have you not already perceived just how coherent a group was are as a team? Every instance where we need to perform a task, there is, at a minimum, two people who are capable of performing that task adequately. In all instances, so far, at least two people possess the skill or training needed. Only Cadet Trainee Sloan is the exception to this pattern, there being none other with his great strength. This may be an indication that great physical strength is not a normal requirement for this examination.”

“I don’t know about that, and since I don’t know what most of the subroutine have done or will do, I won’t bet that we won’t need his genetically engineered physical strength. Do you want to find out the hard way that we need someone as strong and don’t have him around Captain?”

Quinn raised a dark eyebrow at Elder’s impolite comment about genetic engineering but did not follow up on it; he probably knew the history of Concar. After all, as a member of the nobility he had access to more knowledge than the general run of the Imperial population. “No, I cannot state that such is my desire. But, why ought we require such strength as he possesses? There are multitudes of functional servomechanisms and machines available for our use while aboard this ship.”

“We needed that strength when we first came on board this ship Captain,” Quinn twisted his head once in that cocked nod of his to acknowledge the fact, “and there are those control subroutines going to the power system. Could we operate the servomechanisms without power? I do not know most of what this program is doing; I do not know what the commands are doing most of the time, a lot of the commands are something like ‘Switch output of control junction 123456789 from port A to port B’. Damn it Quinn, what more surprises are waiting for us?”

A voice came over the speaker just then, “Bridge! This be Ostrom! Medical emergency! Irving been badly injured! Houston and I be taking her to the infirmary but we need someone else there who be having medical knowledge.” Ostrom rushed out his words.

Stepping to the intercom unit nearest to him, Quinn said, “Executive Officer Ostrom, this is Captain Quinn. I am proceeding to the infirmary.” After punching another control on the intercom, “Attention all personnel, if anyone has medical training or experience, report to the infirmary immediately. We are in a medical emergency.” He shut off the intercom and said as he strode off the bridge, “Cadet Trainee Elder, you have the bridge.”

Elder considered what had just happened. Quinn spoke like a normal person when he needed to, although still formally correct in his phrasing. Maybe Irving had been right, Quinn was just talking that way because he thought we expected it of him.

Not knowing how badly Irving was hurt, Elder decided to let that wait until he knew more. No sense worrying about it, there was too much else to worry about, things like the computer files that he could actually do something about, however poorly.

Elder watched the main display show the empty space they were flying through for a while before going back to his problem with the computer files. Perhaps there was a clue about what was to happen hidden in there that he could decipher.

Elder began by simply scanning the files, renaming them as he understood what they contained. That way he would have a better chance to find what he needed in the future.


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