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Paper Dreams

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No spacecraft ever needed to be told, "It's alright, you've got this," but that doesn't mean it didn't need to be said. No spacecraft needed to understand its mission, because everything that there was to understand was in the software that controlled the instruments, and that was for requirement reviews and critical design reviews and hardware-in-the-loop testing to prove out.

Sarah understands that, because she sees the engineers when they visit to make sure the paperwork is being followed, because she sees them reach out for the equipment housing bus, even when it doesn't have any of the instrumentation in it, even when it's just a piece of bolted aluminum that meets a print. There's more there now, and she sees the man lean in, and she sees him talk in low murmurs.

She can't hear what's being said, but she isn't sure that she needs to. She knows the budget issues, the fact that they wanted to make something grander, something that would go more places, but that piece of aluminum is still going to go to Jupiter and Saturn, which is way further than Sarah's ever even thought about, even given that she works on the instrumentation of advanced systems.

"How late will you be working on this today?" the engineer asks, and Sarah startles a little to realize that he's talking to her, that he hasn't gone to ask her supervisor instead.

She looks at him at the question, and then back to the engineer.

She wants to tell him that she'll be working on it until it's done, but this is a job of several weeks, and she's not sure that that really answers the question. "Probably six or seven tonight."

He blinks at her, starts to open his mouth before he closes it again.

She feels obligated to explain herself anyway. By the time things hit the floor they're always behind schedule, and her supervisor is better than most about recognizing that, and not allowing the program managers to run roughshod over him. It makes her feel a tiny bit better about the weeks they are asked to work twelve-hour days continually, at least.

"I didn't think the schedule was that tight," he says, and she wonders what they're saying in their meetings. They're probably just given the end date and told that her area's working to meet it.

"We're trying to bring things forward so Testing and Avionics don't have to work through Christmas," she says, and she doesn't know if that answers his question or not, but he doesn't ask another.

Everyone knows that the planets won't line up this way again for another hundred-something years (some people even know exactly what that interval is) but it's as much human concerns as scientific ones that drive the actual schedule. At least that makes her feel a little better about it, about the fact that the actual launch is far enough out that Sarah's sure she'll have forgotten about the stress of the schedule by the time it happens. Maybe she'll already be on to the next thing, but she doubts it. She's been through enough of these schedule crunches to know that she still can't hate the product, can't help being enamored with the result of what it is that they're doing.


Half a lifetime later is enough time to be out of that job several times over, to be retired and not straining her eyes and her fingers to fit instruments exactly where they need to be. Which is good, because Sarah's not sure now if she's up to that sort of straining, given the problem she's having with the article that her grandson laid out in front of her.

"Momma said you know something about this spacecraft," he says, and he says 'spacecraft' with the kind of precision that most third-graders say words they've heard about in class but haven't really had the chance to use in a conversation yet.

She remembers how long it took for her to stop saying it like it was something amazing, and more like something she had part of in front of her, just another day at her job. She wonders if she's lost the sound of it on her own lips now. It's not like she won't talk about what she's done, it's just that at some point everyone she would talk to about it already knows everything she could have to say.

Sarah picks up the paper and holds it at arm's length to study the words, and the picture.

"I can tell you that when I worked on it, it didn't look like that," she says, smiling at her grandson. She wonders how much they've talked about in class, whether they talk only about what it's done, or bring in what it was supposed to have done as well, compare how much it's exceeded everything they made it for.

The Voyager craft were never meant to live longer than her, and yet here they are, and she's not sure that the spacecraft know how to stop any longer.

"What did it look like when you worked on it?" her grandson asks.

She reaches out to pat his head, and he ducks her hand, protesting. "It looked like this in the same way that pictures of me when I was your age when look like I do now."

His nose wrinkles, and she can see that he's trying to picture it but clearly having difficulties.

"It looked like a piece of aluminum. Sure, a heavy piece of aluminum, given the size, and filled with all sorts of really expensive instruments that I can kind of understand now, thanks to this." She waves the paper at him, even if this one is more of a general piece than some of the articles she's seen. It's always easier to understand the state of technology as a retrospective.

"What did it do?" he asks.

"When I was working on it? It sat there and didn't do very much at all. For now, well, what have you been told it's doing?"

"Exploring our galaxy," he says.

She smiles at him, and nods. "I want you to imagine if I asked you to walk to school from here. Do you think you could do that?"

"At schooltime?"

"When the crossing guards are out, yes."

"No."

"Why not?"

He shrugs, then looks at her. "I don't know the way."

Sarah bites down the urge to laugh at him. She knows that that never goes over well. "Maybe I'll walk with you part of the way."

"Yes."

"Alright. But when you get to school, just keep going instead. Keep going for as long as you can, where no one else has before, because we want to find out what lies beyond the school."

She can see the moment when he gets it, when he stops struggling with the fact that he does know what's past his school.

"That's what both of the Voyagers are doing."

"Aren't they scared?" he asks.

Sarah gets the pat in on his head this time. "I don't know," she says, but she wants to think that they understand, that even though their mission's been expanded they'd rather keep going in a direction, even if that direction is away, rather than simply waiting in space for something to come to them. "I don't think so."

Her grandson leans in over her shoulder to study the article. "That's good."

"It is."