Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Numbers Runners

Zaonia faced an embargo. For some worlds this would be an economic disaster and for other literally a slow death. Zaonia had water, breathable air and a biosphere that you could work with. What was more, during the Great Flame Out they had learned self sufficiency.

They still felt the bite. There was a shrunken market for thier goods. Subsidized merchants had their routes changed to exclude the world. Free Traders were strongly encouraged to look for bargains elsewhere or face the mother of all balloon payments on their ship mortgages.

Zaonia had a small merchant fleet, a shoestring operation. It had some grey area opportunists (smugglers) and it had other small local operations who owned their patched together little ships like Belters and tramp freighters.

Shoestring operations usually do not employ navigators. Instead they buy a jump tape. It isn't recorded on tape  but the name persists due to the tape you unwind to unpack the storage media that holds coordinates for a jump. It's usually cheaper than a navigators on ships that can't manage high jump numbers like Belters and tramp freighters. The tapes are sold any starport that is more than a cleared field and outhouse.

Zaonia used an offworld computer on their starport. The starport was legally a separate territory from the planet. The offworld computer failed soon. The embargo excluded sending repair parts to Zaonia's starport. The Zaonian's lawyered up and demanded the parts saying the starport was not part of their territory and hence excluded from any planetary embargoes and tariffs. the reply was the the embargo specified the planet Zaonia and not the government. As the starport was affixed to the lithosphere it was part of the embargo.

Accusations flew that the computer breakdown was the work of industrial sabotage. Possums weren't that destructive. A microwave couldn't explode with that much force. The spontaneous fires were kind of hard to explain as well. The answer was the same, take it to subsector court (where they would wait months) or sector court (wait years at the least).

Trade slowed still more for a week or so until jump tapes were made available. At discount. The tramp freighters and rock miners came back. The economy was definitely not booming but it was at least now breathing on its own. The embargo barons did a spit take and (after refilling their glasses) called an operative to go to Zaonia and see what in hell went on. The operative packed a few incendiaries, bombs and possums in low berth carriers for good measure and left.

He returned a month later. It took him a while to get to see the inner workings of the jump tape computers.

"ComputerS?" Banks wanted to know.

"Computers," the operative said reaching for a glass that was slid out of his reach. "They call these guys, can run numbers in their heads -computers, They got about 40 of them and they use these to calculate the jump coordinates." The operator held up a contraption that looked like  bunch of rulers held together with a clear plastic band.

The Director of Starports grabbed the slipping sticks and ponder them working them against each other slowly. "It has jump logarithma on it," he finally announced.

"They have all kinds of similar things. Also mechanical adding machines and hard copy books of logarithmic tables. They use them all to calculate jump tapes. There's a pool of secretarial labor to input the numbers on tape. -It's amazing," the operative said grudgingly. It was also hard to take out with a couple of easy to smuggle bombs or GMO  marsupials.

"Humans can't figure out jump navigation -you need computers!" Banks sputtered. Starports shook his head. "Humans can figure out jump coordinates. It takes a little longer is all."

"But ... the cost! The salaries!" Banks protested.

"Sir, do you have any idea how little mathematicians make in academia? Or aides? They were cranking out tapes when I got in and saw them," the operative said enjoying Banks discomfort.

"Okay, you go back with a bio weapon ... " Banks began. The operative  was about to protest he wasn't a mass murderer. One at a time was as far as he went. But Starports cut him off.

"Embargo on the starport is over. Now. Ship them a new computer on the next merchant. A good one!" he growled. He slid the glass back over to the operative who drained it gratefully.

"But why?"

"Do you know how much the Starport Authority makes selling jump tapes? Selling computers to compute jump tapes? If this gets out that a bunch of egg head number crunchers could do it for peanuts, we'll be ruined!"