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       Human Error, p.1

           Raymond F. Jones
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Human Error

  Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at



  _Illustrated by Paul Orban_

  [Transcriber Note: This etext was produced from If Worlds of ScienceFiction April 1956. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence thatthe U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

  [Sidenote: _The government was spending a billion dollars to convincethe human race that men ought to be ashamed to be men--instead oferrorless, cybernetics machines. But they forgot that an errorless manis a dead man...._]

  During its three years' existence, the first Wheel was probably thesubject of more amateur astronomical observations than any other singleobject in the heavens. Over three hundred reports came in when a callwas issued for witnesses to the accident that destroyed the spacestation.

  It was fortunately on the night side of Earth at the time, and in aposition of bright illumination by the sun. Two of the observers hadmovie cameras attached to their ten-inch mirrors. The film in one ofthese was inadequate, but the other carried a complete record of theincident from the moment of the _Griseda's_ first approach, through thepilot's fumbling attempt to correct course, and the final collision.

  The scene was lost for a few seconds as the wreckage drifted out of thefield. The observer had been watching through a small pilot scope,however, and had wits enough to pan by hand so that he got most of theremaining fall that was visible above his horizon as the locked remnantsof the Wheel and the _Griseda_ began their slow, spiral course to Earth.

  By the time this scene was finished, word of the disaster was alreadyflashing to Government centers. Joe McCauley, radio operator aboard theWheel, had been talking with Ed Harris on the _Griseda_. As a matter ofroutine, all their conversation was taped, and some of this wasrecovered from the crash and played back at the investigation.

  "--and get this," Ed was saying, "my kid had his fifth birthday justlast week, and I've got him working through quadratic equations already.You've got to go some to beat that one."

  "Doesn't mean a thing," said Joe. "You know how these infant brain boxesburn out. Better take him fishing and forget that stuff for a while.Hey--what the devil's going on? You got a truck driver in the controlroom? I just saw you out the port and it looks like you're right on topof us!"

  "Jeez, I dunno. It's been like that ever since we cleared Lunaport.Sometimes I think this guy Cummins trained in a truck the way he--Hell,he's comin' up on the wrong side of the Wheel! I relayed the orders togo to the east turret. Acknowledged them himself--"

  "Ed! I can see you outside the port--we're going to hit!"

  The words were ripped by the shattering, grinding roar of collidingmetal. Then a moment later the blast of an exploding fuel tank.


  "Joe--yeah, I'm here. Lights gone. Emergency power still on. Take theemergency band if you've still got a rig. I'll stand by--"

  Joe switched over without comment and called Space Command Base on theemergency channel, which was always monitored. "Wheel just rammed by_Griseda_," he said. "Possible loss of orbital velocity. Extent ofdamage unknown."

  Lieutenant James, on duty at the Base, had just returned from a threeday leave and was scarcely settled in the routine of his post once more.He glanced automatically at the radar tracking screen and his face paledat the sight of the irregular figure there, slightly out of thecentering circle. It was no gag.

  "You're dropping," he said. "Orbital velocity must be down. Can youcorrect?"

  "I haven't been able to contact the bridge," said Joe. "Alert allCommand and have crash point computed. Stand by."

  It developed that the bridge was entirely gone, along with a full thirtypercent of the station. Captain West had been spared, however, being oninspection in the other sector of the station. He came on at once as JoeMcCauley managed to get the communication lines repatched.

  "Emergency red!" he called. "All stations report!"

  One by one, the surviving crew chiefs reported conditions in theirsectors. And when they were finished, they all knew their chance ofsurvival was microscopic. Captain West ordered: "Communicate with Base.Request plotting of crash point."

  "Done, sir," Joe answered.

  "Command post will be established in the radio room. Emergency steeringprocedure will be started on command. Man all taxi craft."

  It was all on the tapes that were salvaged. Everything was done thatdesperate men could humanly do.

  * * * * *

  At Base, its Commander, General Oglethorpe, was in the communicationsand tracking room by the time Joe McCauley had established contact withCaptain West.

  He picked up the mike at the table. "Plug me in to the station," hecommanded the Lieutenant.

  He got Joe first, but the radio operator put Captain West on as soon ashe arrived in the radio room. "Hello, Frank," said General Oglethorpe ina quiet voice.

  "Yes, Jack--" Captain West answered. "I'm glad you're there. Does itlook pretty bad?"

  "Orbital velocity is down two percent. You've been falling for eightminutes."

  "That's pretty bad. I've got all steering stations manned, but onlythirty percent of them are still operable. We're using the taxis to givea push too. But we haven't been able to dislodge the _Griseda_. Itsinertia takes almost half our available energy."

  "Couldn't you get a blast from the _Griseda's_ tubes to put you inorbit?"

  "Adler's got a crew out there working on it. But his controls are gone,besides his fuel tanks being opened. And even if we could get theirrockets operating it's doubtful we could get the right direction ofthrust. Our hope is in our own rockets, and in breaking the ship awayfrom the station."

  But the closer the massed wreckage dropped toward Earth, the higher wereits requirements for orbital velocity. While the crews worked at theirdesperate tasks General Oglethorpe sat with his eyes on the trackingscope, and the voice of his friend in his ear. He listened to CaptainWest's measured commands to the men in the station and to those workingto free the ship. General Oglethorpe heard the repeated reports offailure to free the _Griseda_. He listened to West's orders to transferfuel from the ship to the station as the latter's supply ran low. Hewatched the continued deviation of the spot on the tracking scope.

  Then he turned as a lieutenant came up behind him with a sheet ofcalculations. "Present rate of fall indicates a crash point in the SanFrancisco Bay region, sir."

  The General gripped the paper, his face tightening. West said, "Did Ihear correctly, Jack? The San Francisco area?"


  "We'll have to try to keep it from happening there. I'll order therockets shut off now. We'll save enough fuel to try to do some lastminute steering as we approach Earth."

  "No!" General Oglethorpe cried. "Use it now! Its effect will be the sameas later. Blow the chambers apart! Get back in orbit!"

  "We can't make it," West said quietly. "We've gained forward velocity,but I'll bet your computers will show us better than four percent belowrequirements at this orbit. Spot our crash as accurately as possible onfree fall from our present position. We'll save remaining fuel for lastminute steering in case we're near a city."

  The General was silent then as he heard the responses come back from themen who manned the rockets and who knew that with the closing of theirfuel valves their own lives had also come to an end.

  "We'll want testimony account for the investigation," Oglethorpe saidfinally. "Get the responsible officers on the circuit--but you first,Frank--"

  There was a moment of silence before Captain Frank West began speakingin changed tones. "What is there to say?" he asked, finally. "You won'tneed to hold an investigation. I can tell you all you need to know--allyou'll
ever find out at least,--right now. Your decision will be thesame one so many hundreds and thousands of investigating boards havemade in the past: Pilot Error.

  "_Human_ error! That's what killed the first Wheel, and the _Griseda_. Idon't know why it happened. Adler doesn't. Neither does any other man uphere with us. Those who were with Cummins in the control room are dead,but they didn't know any more than we do.

  "We spent a million dollars training that man, Cummins. We believed hewas the best we could produce. We measured his reflexes and hisintelligence and his blood composition until we thought we knew thefunction and capability
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