Technical Debt

Author: Philip Berry

“So, you’re saying it was nothing to do with you?” Malkex put his face an inch from Programmer Nik Billin’s sweaty brow. “Yet by your own account, you knew the code better than anyone in the solar system. The two statements don’t go Billin.”
“I knew the early code was weak. But I didn’t write it.”
“And you didn’t mend it either.”
“My role was expansion, not consolidation. It was agreed we would grow radially, to the next ring. A hundred k. It took all my time.”
“While sectors one to five of Needle City were left to slide off into the vacuum.”
“We didn’t know.”
“You did. We’ve got you on tape, in a bar last year.” Malkex touched a desk icon. Billin’s muffled voice cut through a soundscape of Friday night drinkers and chinking glass. ‘…it’s all built on cotton wool, the early code, full of air, like they didn’t care, didn’t even try to anticipate…’ — pause, inaudible response from friend in bar — ‘Yeah, I mean, Needle City was commercial, non-governmental. Shareholders on Earth. They did the minimum required to get ships into the ring system, bridge them, show the money that a habitat was feasible. But it’s an endless dynamic, with competing forces. You need subtle, self-evolving code to distribute those forces. So now we have to program backwards, fill the holes, strengthen the foundation in order to support the next phase… but they don’t pay us for that, they pay us for what they see, the new stuff, Needle 2, The Arch…’
Billin stared hard into the desk top. Malkex leaned back in his chair. He sensed closure.
“That was five months before the tragedy. You knew Billin. This is negligence. Space-city programming is responsible work. Tens of thousands of people entrusted their safety to the likes of you. The architects.”
“I didn’t build Needle City. I came in five years ago.”
“You didn’t keep it SAFE!”
“They knew.”
“Who knew?”
“On Titan. The cabinet. They knew.”
“You can prove that can you?”
“I told them, in a memo. I explained the stability of the ring structure was based on local energy balance. The moon Enceladus donates energy to the E-ring through its flume, convection disperses it, the moon and the ring remain stable and in harmony. That’s what attracted the company in the first place. But we disrupted that balance with our arrival. Our waste energy accumulated in the ring particles, Enceladus had nowhere to put its water-vapor, its cryo-volcanic generator didn’t stop producing, the resulting delta v caused Enceladus to shift its orbit. This pulled the front end of Needle City off its base. The moons of Saturn have always pulled on the rings. It’s knowledge. I explained it all. I told them there was a risk, that this was the debt, the technical debt, for taking those early short-cuts.”
“You’d better have that memo Billin.”
“You really want to see it, Malkex? You really want proof that your bosses are the negligent ones?”
Malkex stared into the desk, at his own reflection. Billin observed how his interrogator’s dark hair now glistened.
“Forty thousand lives,” murmured Malkex.
“They’re the ones who paid the debt.”
Malkex nodded, and thrust his chin at the door to indicate that Billin could leave. The door opened in anticipation. As Billin stood silhouetted in the corridor light beyond, Malkex called out,
“Find me that memo Billin. We’re going on a crusade, for justice! It’s time you grew up. Are you ready?”


  1. cmh8133

    Fixing the old stuff is much like replacing the foundation (with or without a basement) with the house on top. It can be done but it is very difficult and the house can get very stressed!!

  2. SimonJM

    Having been a programmer I can feel the pain! Sadly, trying to fix the ‘old stuff’ will generally be more work that a complete re-write and prone to catastrophic errors!

  3. xdhz8

    Effective use of science and development of a character who changes for the better in the end. Good flash.

    • mina

      It’s never too late to develop a conscience?

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