Time: 15 minutes
Prompt: "She'd been determined to find mistakes and lapses"
Source: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
It wasn't, as all of Dr. Anis's pupils supposed, that she was determined to find mistakes and lapses—their mistakes and lapses—but simply that she'd managed ship operations for so many decades prior to accepting the professorship, that if a mistake or lapse occurred, she could not help but notice. She was not unkind. She was efficient.
"Your engine cycling algorithm is inadequate for at least four plausible eventualities. Fail."
"There is no sliding adjustment for anticipated metal fatigue. Perhaps these struts will outlast you, Mister Jordan, but I certainly do not expect that they will outlast this ship's period of service. Fail."
"Sloppy matrix configuration. When a future programming curator has to update your code, he will waste precious minutes orienting himself to this mess. Fail."
When I wrote my first practical with Dr. Anis, she didn't bother to explain her monosyllabic response. "Fail," she said, and she exited the chamber.
I puzzled over it for days. I scoured my project—a rapid deployment plan for a prototype star sail—but I found no errors. I cleared every element with the engineers, then back-tracked to the materials scientists and even the theoretical physicists. They all confirmed the quality of my work. Finally I scheduled an appointment to speak with Dr. Anis.
"Yes, Mister Dioshi," she said. "Your plan is entirely functional."
"And yet, I failed," I said.
"No," she said. "You did not fail. Your project failed. You will have a prosperous and rewarding career. Failures will be rare for you."
"So you just wanted me to have the experience?" I said. I excluded sarcasm from my voice.
"Mister Dioshi," she said, "when you have found the flaw in your project—there is one—schedule another presentation session. Until then, we needn't meet."
Armed with the assurance that the plan itself was sound, I sat all night before my vis-array, running through the presentation over and over again, altering the variable values, determined to find a scenario for which the system might break down. Each time I saw the same elegant extensions of telescoping rods and rapid grow nanobundles, the same expanding networks of trellises and spiderwebs spanned by monolayer collector surfaces and focussing reflectors. Sleep assailed me, but I warded it off with sublingual stimulant tabs.
In my summary animations, various classes of critical motivators were represented by color-coded points. When I started the simulation for an eleventh time, I could hardly keep my eyes open and the colors blurred. For several seconds, my mind wandered and I lost track of which bright dots in the display volume represented explosive bolts, which were microthrusters, and which designated static oscillation points. They became just so many colorful lights dancing in the dark.
The next morning, I found Dr. Anis in the library.
"You are ready," she said. It was not a question.
I presented the plan again. This time I pulled a representative ray of the sail into focus and employed unambiguous symbols—all in grayscale—for the various elements.
When I finished, Dr. Anis said, "Color blindness has not been reported in over three centuries, Mister Dioshi. Many instructors therefore consider color-coding acceptable. I do not." And then she said, "Have you considered what your next project will be?"
She had never uttered the word "pass," that anyone could recall, and she never would. For Dr. Anis, there was "fail" and there was everything else. I relished that little dose of everything else, knowing all too well, just how transient it might be.
[about my timed writing exercises]