Cry Wolf by David Macfie
“I think we have a problem here,” said Dan, scowling in concentration.
“What’s wrong?” asked Terri, without taking her eyes from her laptop screen.
“These calculations don’t make sense,” Dan replied, tensely, eyes boring a hole in the back of his colleague’s head. “And please do me the courtesy of looking at me when I’m talking to you,” he added, with a face red with irritation.
“Relax, you’re far too tense. I was listening. Why don’t the formulae work for you?”
“They give an answer that doesn’t match our observations. It’s too high and might lull us into a false sense of security.”
“So, what do you think we need to do?”
“More observations and parameterized formulae so we can fine tune our outputs.”
“Makes sense. Go ahead and do it.”
“Don’t you even want to check me?”
“Not really. I trust your judgement and your calculations are better than mine.
Dan retreated; his face still red in frustration. He felt he’d been brushed off.
Meanwhile, Terri muttered under her breath.
“Why does he bother me with false alarms? He always has answers, but he must interrupt me twenty times a day. He’s making me crazy.”
The two were lead researchers in an organization that designed and built new structures for a variety of different applications. The current project was the biggest they’d ever been involved in. They were designing a complete, self-sufficient city to be built on the moon. And they had to build a scale model, with everything working to prove every aspect of their design. They had a team of thirty other specialists to complete the project and they’d been allocated a warehouse in which to build the model. The floor measured one kilometer by seven hundred and fifty meters and every centimeter was to be used for the mini city.
They’d been working together for seven months and Dan had been a fuss-budget from the start. Terri was about ready to strangle him. But she took a deep breath and calmed. They were too far through the model construction to be disrupted now. About three quarters was done and every component had been exhaustively tested. And it felt that Dan had questioned each one with his mind-reaming “I think we have a problem here.” All his objections and questions had been taken seriously and each one had been solved by Dan himself, without needing to bring in other team members. Terri decided she must talk to the man. She asked him to join her in the one meeting room attached to the warehouse.
“Dan, we have to talk,” she began. He was instantly defensive.
“Well, I wanted to ask you why you always come to me with, ‘I think we have a problem here’, every step of the way. And then go ahead and solve your concern yourself. You need to understand how irritating it is. It’s also a big waste of time.”
“I’m only trying to make sure nothing goes wrong,” he replied, face reddening furiously. “I really have these concerns and I would feel better if someone else checked them out. Two heads are better than one, you know.”
“I know, but only if the issue or concern really is serious and the one having it hasn’t found a way to deal with it. You have, invariably, found the answers by yourself. That means that the concern should have gone away. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Dan paused for long moments, his face twitching indecisively.
“I suppose so,” he finally conceded. “But I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake or miss something. Then what?”
“Once the model is complete, we’ll do an exhaustive final check of everything. Will that make you more comfortable?”
“I suppose so,” Dan repeated, not sounding at all sure. Terri decided to leave the talk right there.
Over the next few weeks, Dan seemed to be taking the talk to heart. He came less often but couldn’t entirely banish his insecurity. Terri still had occasions where she had to grit her teeth and try not to scream at the hated “I think we have a problem here.”
Gradually the model crept towards completion and the team were pleased with the results. It was a complex problem that required many technological innovations: air generating plants, carbon dioxide cleaners, power generators, air conditioning and climate control, compact farming, rapid transit infrastructures for passengers and materials, green zones with trees, flowers and water features for relaxation, schools and universities, water storage, recycling and purification plants. In short, everything required for humans to live and work in suitable conditions. This project was exceptionally important because the vision was huge. The goal was to be able to replicate the cities in a variety of hostile environments, including the moon as a pilot, and then expanding to other planets and under the seas. The ultimate objective was ‘cities in space’ to nurture communities travelling the vastness of the universe in search of alternative home worlds or other extraterrestrial life.
The final steps in the construction of the model were to connect the computerized automation of all working components and install the protective dome over the whole city. The automation included a continuous monitoring system that watched every working component and embedded comprehensive recovery-restart capability. Anything that could go wrong could be instantly repaired by the system. Not least of the items to be monitored was the integrity of the dome. There could be no leaks whatsoever. The environment had to be hermetically sealed.
Finally, they were done. Testing of the automation and the dome had been extensive and fault free. Terri breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed for the first time in months. She was ready to demonstrate the model to the project sponsors. And the Dan arrived.
“I think we have a problem here,” he said, without a smile or sign of humor. Terri couldn’t control herself and let out a piercing scream of anguish. All work stopped and the team focused entirely on the interaction taking place.
“I can’t believe this,” Terri shouted. “We’ve tested so extensively that it’s not possible that we’ve missed something. What’s your problem now? And why have you left it so late in the process?”
Dan stepped back in the face of the anger coming at him in waves. He hesitated and looked at his feet. Then he stood up straight, took a deep breath and looked Terri in the eyes.
“I feared your reaction and I was right, wasn’t I? You’ve lost patience with me, but I couldn’t let it go.”
Terri sighed and collected herself.
“OK, I can understand that put you off and delayed this conversation. What is the problem.”
“I don’t think the hermetic seals are strong enough. I know we’ve tested to five times the normal conditions we’ll face, and the seals have withstood the pressure. But I can’t help thinking that we may face much stronger challenges.”
“How much stronger?”
“The dome itself isn’t the problem. There I think our safety margins are enough. It’s the seals that worry me, Particularly, the seal between the grounded rim of the dome and the ground itself. If there are any major ground movements, I think the seals will fail.”
“Right, we’ll simulate possible causes of ground movement and test again. How violent should we go?”
“Earthquakes, volcanic eruption and a strike by a comet or asteroid should cover it, I think.”
“OK, we’ll do that. Anything else?”
“Not now, but if I come up with anything else, you’ll be the first to know,” Dan replied with a small smile.
“I don’t doubt it,” commented Terri, dryly.
The simulations were meticulously planned and executed, without any problems being identified. Terri and Dan stood together reviewing the results for the fifth time.
“I can’t see any flaws in our testing and the dome appears to be completely sealed even in the face of the simulated disasters,” observed Terri. “Are you satisfied now, Dan?”
Dan looked again at the results, his face scowling and indecisive. Terri grunted in disgust.
“Well?” she asked, impatiently.
“I can’t see any problems, but I have a really bad feeling about this. So, no I’m not completely satisfied.”
“Then, I’m afraid you’ll just have to suck it up,” replied Terri, unsympathetically. “We’ve tested far more comprehensively than we budgeted for and we have to move on. We will present to the sponsors in two days’ time. I can’t delay any further because you have bad feelings. I think we’ve pandered enough to them already. None of your concerns has led to anything.”
“It’s on your head then,” muttered Dan, turning away huffily.
The presentation to the sponsors was a triumph and the design was accepted with no alterations. The plans for the construction project, on the moon, were then officially launched and the research team were flown to the location to supervise the work. They lived in a space station and commuted backwards and forwards to the surface.
The first job was to clear the site and make it smooth, clean and level. Then construction began following the same sequence as used when making the model. The work progressed without incidents, though Dan raised concerns regularly. The team were becoming sick at the sight of him and he knew it. He withdrew more and more from daily activities, but he always monitored progress closely and avidly watched and checked all the testing. And he was routinely brave enough to come forward with his mantra, ‘I think we have a problem here.’
The city gradually took shave over nine months and the stringent testing continued to show that everything was sound and on track. Dan’s objections became less and less specific and even he started to look embarrassed when he voiced his concerns. Finally, Terri exploded.
“Enough already, Dan,” If you can’t come with specifics then don’t come at all. None of us has the time or the inclination to listen to your constant nit picking. Now get out of my sight.”
Dan crept away and disappeared for a while. Unbeknown to the team, however, He continued to monitor progress and in the dead of night he still reviewed and checked all the testing. He struggled with the constant conflict between his instinct that something was seriously wrong and his rational brain that couldn’t pin down any tangible theory for what it was. So, he kept out of sight and observed the city take shape.
Finally, the dome was constructed over the otherwise completed project. Only the final testing remained before the chosen population would start to arrive. Dan’s distress grew, day by day, as nothing was found that would delay the go live. He began to suffer terrifying nightmares about a catastrophe to the new residents in the moon city and during a particularly frightening one, something clicked in his brain. He woke with a terrible shock and knew exactly what had been bothering him for so long.
He rushed to find Terri, who looked at him like something the cat had just dragged in.
“What do you want Dan?” she asked, dismissively. He stood his ground.
“I’ve figured out what has been bothering me about our design. And I think it’s a significant weakness. Please hear me out.”
Terri sighed hugely and scowled at him.
“Bit late in the day, don’t you think?” she grunted, with a forbidding expression. Dan waited. Terri stared at him for long moments then sighed an even bigger sigh.
“Oh, all right. Against my better judgement I’ll listen this last time.”
“Thank you,” said quietly, but with great feeling. “I hope you won’t regret it. It’s the seal between the dome and the ground. It’s always been tested on flat level ground, first the warehouse concrete floor and now here with a carefully cleaned and leveled site. When we simulated earthquakes or other disasters, we never tested what would happen if the ground under the dome cracked or buckled or split into a crevasse. We’ve tested to destruction for collisions and shaking but not ground movement that created seriously uneven ground. I believe the seal will fail under such conditions.”
“Shit,” said Terri, with great feeling. “And you wait until the eleventh hour and fifty ninth minute to make this revelation?”
“I’m sorry, it only came to me in a nightmare last night. And no one else has considered it, have they? I couldn’t leave it and say nothing.”
“You’re right you couldn’t. Come with me.”
She took him to the team that was conducting the final testing.
“Guys, we need your help. Dan managed to put his finger on what’s been bothering him, and We must consider it. Dan, please outline what you told me.”
Dan explained to an initially skeptical group. But as he enlarged on the effects he’d envisioned, the mood changed. In the end they accepted that it could be a major issue. When the discussion ended, Terri turned to Dan.
“So, what next, Dan? Did you get a chance to think through what we should do next?”
“Yes, I did. First, we need to develop a simulation of the situation that I described. We should run it with increasing severity until the seals fail. If they don’t, that’s great, but I think they’ll fail unacceptably quickly. Then we create a second simulation to test the only solution I came up with to see if it solves the problem.”
“Which is?” asked Terri, showing interest rather than frustration for the first time in a while.
“I think the city should float over the ground instead of being integrated in it. The dome must extend all the way round including underneath the foundations. That’s the only way, I can think of to maintain the integrity of the seals.”
There was a stunned silence then Terri exploded.
“How the hell can we do that now?” she screamed in exasperation. “We’ve built the whole bloody thing already.”
“We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. I’ve got some ideas on how. Let’s do the simulations and see if there’s a real problem and if so, will my solution work. Meanwhile, all of us can try to find an alternative solution.”
Terri calmed down and looked at the team.
“What do you think guys?”
The team were slow to reply, then the most senior, grinned.
“I never thought I hear myself say this, but I think Dan is right on both counts. Sorry Dan, for doubting you. I thought you were just crying wolf, but now I think you may just have saved us from something terrible.”
Quickly now the rest agreed, and Terri nodded.
“OK then, let’s get busy. Dan, please come with me. We must talk to the sponsors and warn them there’ll be a delay.”
The conversation with the sponsors didn’t start well. They were not impressed with the delay and probable cost escalation. But when the cause was explained they understood the risks of ignoring Dan’s concerns. They applauded the decision to simulate both the existing design and Dan’s idea and agree it was prudent to try to come up with alternatives. There was only one difficult question: ‘why didn’t anyone identify this difficulty right at the start of the project?’ Terri indicated to Dan that he should field the question. He nodded and didn’t hesitate.
“You might put it down to stupidity, but I think that’s simplistic. The truth is nobody’s done this before, except in Sci-Fi books and, with respect to the authors, they don’t go down to that level of detail.” That got a good reaction from the sponsors with smiles and grins from all of them.
“We tried hard at the beginning to identify all the factors, but this one didn’t come up. And even when we were concerned that we’d missed something, we still didn’t see it. That’s why it came up so late in the process. And even then, we only understood as the result of a nightmare. So, the truth is we were lucky that we found it before we went live. And the simulation might show that we’re overreacting, but I don’t think so. I think the proposed solution is a good one, which has application in all environments we might want to colonize, but we will investigate others if we find them. All in all, I think we have a better, safer design, which avoids a potential catastrophe. And none of us wanted one of those.”
The sponsors were silent for a moment then they began to applaud. The chairman summarized.
“I think we are fortunate to have a research group that leaves no stone unturned. Even after many successes, they still didn’t get complacent. They kept looking for flaws and found one, even though all the testing came up positive. I think that’s highly commendable and I thank you and ask that you pass our thanks to the team. Well done and we look forward to seeing you again when the simulation results are available, and you know what is going to happen next.”
On the way back to the team, Terri stopped and turned to Dan.
“We owe you a huge vote of thanks on several counts. First you handled that meeting perfectly and we came out smelling of roses. Second you shared all the credit for your diligence with all of us and thirdly that you even offered your solution as a combined effort. After the way we treated you, you have been more than generous. Thank you. I will report back exactly what happened.”
Dan looked embarrassed.
“Truth is I was a right-royal pain in the ass. I’m glad you didn’t just fire me. I’ll be better next time, I promise. At least I’ll try to be more specific, when I’m worried.”
The first simulation confirmed Dan’s concern. The seals failed with moderate ground distortion. The second showed that the proposed solution was sound whatever happened. And Dan’s ideas on how to retrofit the dome to entirely encase the city, took far less time and money than anyone expected.
Dan had the last word, when the team celebrated a successful launch.
“I’m sorry I cried wolf so many times, but thankfully, this time, the wolf didn’t get the sheep.”