The Orthogonal Galaxy

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Chapter 18

The pilot leaned back in the seat of his C-320 space craft as it floated serenely through the expanses of space. The C-320 was the most recent engineering marvel at NASA. Capable of traveling at 0.6 times the speed of light, it was the fastest space craft ever constructed. Now that it had completed a rigorous three years of testing, it was on its first mission to the outer edge of the solar system. The C-320 had the appearance of a white bullet, although on closer inspection the shape was more flattened than rounded, and had wing-like protrusions on either side. It was spray-coated with some of the highest tech material ever invented. A light-weight, elastic and resilient polymer, it protected the ship and its passengers from impacts with space objects.

Inside, the ship could be deemed cozy at best, but astronauts never seemed to use that term upon return to earth, where they almost certainly proclaim that “sardines have no idea.” Even so, space explorers were clamoring for opportunities to take the new-fangled vehicle for a spin somewhere in the galaxy, simply because of the excitement of exploring the far reaches of the solar system where no man had ever traveled before.

“All systems check. Having successfully navigated through the asteroid belt and beyond the orbit of Jupiter, we’ve obtained cruise velocity and are on time with a rendezvous at the edge of the galaxy. The Magellan-Victoria is all systems go,” the astronaut voiced into a headset and then lifted the microphone away from his mouth. “You see, Tef… everything is going normally.”

“I know, Jainn, and that’s what has me concerned,” replied the pilot. “There’s always a problem on these voyages, no matter how small or insignificant. So far, there has been nothing. It’s almost too quiet, too eerie. I just want to get that anomaly out of the way, so I can relax and enjoy the trip.”

Jainn shook his head. “You’re too superstitious. Everything will be fine.” The confident navigator reclined as far as he could in his seat and gazed out into the expanses, stars blazing in panoramic splendor from the cockpit. “Would you just look at that, Tef? What an amazing view!”

Tef reclined his seat, wanting to forget his concerns. “You’re right about that, partner. I’m still surprised that we’re traveling faster than any human ever has, and it feels dead still, just the hum of the ion thrust engines.”

“Yeah, it definitely doesn’t feel like we’re moving… I mean I know that those stars are very far away but it still surprises me considering the speed we’re traveling that you hardly notice us moving.”

The two star-dazed astronauts enjoyed the various quality of brilliance and color that filled the black canvas behind them. Even Tef, the paranoid pilot began to relax and forget his worries.

While the astronauts were watching the spectacle overhead, they could not notice the tiny particles of ice and dust left behind from some far-flung comet, speeding by as they intersected its orbital path. However, the C-320 was very well-equipped to sense them, and alerted them to their presence with an audible alarm. Both returned their seats to a fully upright position simultaneously to assess the situation.

The pilot lowered the microphone on his headset. “Victoria reporting to mission control on a debris sensor. It appears as if we are being impacted on the right side by minute debris field at an angle of 254 degrees. We’re commencing navigation first to minimize angle of impact.”

Tef worked a joystick to cause a gentle and gradual roll of the craft in the direction of the stream, to allow particles to glance off the right side of the craft. Jainn monitored the sensor data of the craft and watched intently for any other alarms signaling problems while navigating out of the debris field.

Tef spoke clearly into his headset. “Mission control, we’re going to pitch up at an angle of 13 degrees from the galactic plane to take ourselves away from the field. Frequency of impact detection is decreasing rapidly.”

Taking a deep breath, his turned to his navigator. “Well, Jainn. Hopefully, we’re out of the woods. There’s that anomaly I was worried about… may it be the last.”

“Yeah,” said Jainn panting slightly. “I love this job, but I really hate...” He was interrupted abruptly by a jolt which rolled the craft slightly to the right. An alarm indicated some kind of breach on the wing. Jainn looked out of the right side window in order to get a visual on the incident and grew pale instantly.

“Tef, I’m seeing vapor coming off of the end of the wing!” he exclaimed. “Oh no, I’m seeing sparks… and...” His voice trailed off as he saw a white piece of debris floating in space just behind the wing. “Tef, we’ve sustained damage.” The tip of the right wing had been sheared completely off of the craft by one of the minute particles they were attempting to avoid.

Tef continued in a business-like manner. “It looks like I’ll need to continue the direction of pitch in order to pull up from the debris. We really need to distance ourselves from the portion of the vehicle that’s traveling right next to us. If we veer into its trajectory, it could do more damage still.”

The wing tip fell out of view as the craft continued to pitch up, but what the unsuspecting astronauts couldn’t see was that the particles, although fairly sparse now, were continuing to bombard it pushing it closer and closer to the back of the craft. As it slammed into the rear, the C-320 yawed from side to side. An alarm indicated that damage had indeed been sustained in the back of the craft now and that oxygen was escaping into the vacuum of space around them. Vital cables, electronic equipment and hardware began to ooze out of the gash like blood, and each lost object was only adding to the damaged exterior as it was sucked into the volume of space.

While the astronauts struggled to regain their craft, shouting orders to each other, closing off pressurization breaches, sweating nervously, and listening to a litany of alarms, the craft began to pitch and yaw violently until the ion generators in the rear of the vehicle were severed. Tef, previously fighting the joystick, let up and leaned back in his seat

“Tef!” barked Jainn. “What are you doing?! We’re spinning out of control and need to restabilize the craft!”

“We can’t,” proclaimed Tef calmly, while fixing his gaze somewhere out into space.

“Why not?!” shouted Jainn as he glanced all over the panel, dazed by the number of lights and alarms.

“Listen, closely. What do you hear?”

“Alarms… I hear alarms. All over the place.”

“Exactly! You hear alarms. But, do you hear the engines?”

Jainn strained to listen to the remainder of his environment. He silenced all of the alarms to get a better fix on any other sounds in the cockpit. Then, he noticed the panel of flashing lights that were lost by a sea of red, yellow, and white lights pulsing from the panel. The engine failure alarms had indeed come on. Breathing heavily, he racked his brain for a solution to the problem.

“Ok,” Jainn struggled to control the emotion in his voice. “Let’s think this through. We need to get back there and restore power to the engines. Since the craft still has power, we haven’t lost the ion generators yet.”

“We’ve sealed off the cabin, Jainn. Nothing short of a spacewalk would get us back there, but we don’t even have an airlock that we can reach. Even if we did, we have no way of stabilizing the craft.”

“How bad is our destabilization situation?”

“Can’t tell, the sensors have been badly damaged or lost, so I don’t trust them, but if you look at how quickly the stars are spinning, my guess is that we’re rolling very fast, and pitching a little too. In fact, I’m guessing we have velocity vectors in all three directions. We couldn’t possibly calculate a successful jump-off from the craft.”

After an uncomfortable and eerie silence, Jainn asked his pilot, “So, what do we do now, Tef? We can’t simply sit here and just float off into space completely out of control! What are our possible scenarios, captain?”

“Well, in the worst case,” the pilot stated in a matter-of-fact manner, “we get pulled in by some nearby object’s gravitational field and we’ll begin to accelerate toward it, eventually slamming into the surface and creating a deep crater.”

“And the best case?” asked Jainn. “The worst doesn’t sound very encouraging.”

“In the best case, we become one of the universe’s most bizarre objects orbiting around some planet or solar system as a frozen memorial to the mission.”

Having muted all of the alarms, the astronauts sat there in complete silence and near darkness as the power being served from the damaged generators weakened. Their attention was immediately drawn to a large orange button in the middle of the panel that was sounding with a harsh, pulsating buzz accompanying it.

“Mission Abort!” read Jainn. “I don’t remember seeing that button. What does it mean, Tef?”

Tef didn’t get a chance to answer as a final electric pulse shot through a vein-like series of circuits throughout the surface of the aircraft. In complete simultaneity, a thousand small explosions on the surface of the craft reduced the Victoria and all of its contents to dust. For a split second, all of the oxygen remaining on board turned into a fireball of bright orange and searing blue flames, before quickly evaporating into the quiet blackness that existed before Victoria wandered into the region.…

Maril Scoville sat straight up in bed. He found himself sweating profusely and breathing heavily. He clutched his chest, feeling his heart pound rapidly under his ribcage. It was as dark as the vastness of space surrounding the recently destroyed C-320 Magellan-Victoria. The harsh pulsating alarm from the C-320 cockpit panel persisted. Slowly, Maril realized that it wasn’t a panel alarm at all. Instead, the noised emanated from his digital clock alarm which read 5:00 AM.

His wife rolled towards him and rubbed his back. “What’s the matter, Honey?”

Composing himself with a deep breath, he whispered, “Another nightmare.”

“What happened this time?”

“Tef Alline. He was… he was on a mission with the new astronaut, Jainn Tucker… and…” His voice trailed off. “And the shield failed them.” He hung his head and rubbed his face with his hands.

“Oh, Honey… I’m sorry.” She tried to focus her hazy thoughts to say something comforting, but was having difficulty at this time of the morning. After a few moments of silence and reduced breathing she continued, “Where are Tef and Jainn now anyway?”

“I think Jainn is on family leave with a new baby. Tef was preparing for a mission to Mars. He was going to replace the Russian astronaut on the next shift change.”

Maril stood up from the bed and put on his slippers and robe.

“Will you be ok, Sweetie?”

“Yeah, you go back to sleep, Love.”

5:00 AM was earlier than Maril’s normal alarm. This was going to be a long day for the burgeoning rocket scientist. As a project manager over a team of 30 engineers working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory adjacent to the CalTech campus, one of his biggest tests would occur on this day. The efforts of his team would be scoured by resident engineers and visiting authorities from Ames, Langley, and of course NASA headquarters.

Maril’s project was deemed critical to the success of Star Transport. His job was to develop the Star Shield. One of the major headaches facing theorists on interstellar travel was how to protect the craft from random space debris at speeds approaching the speed of light. Since the speed of light in a vacuum is a fixed value just under 300,000 kilometers per second, propulsion scientists referred to this value as warp speed—a term which was borrowed from the works of twentieth century science fiction. An object travelling at the speed of light would be considered to be travelling at Warp 1.0.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to consider what could happen to a spaceship that has a head-on collision with space debris traveling at this velocity. In fact, some of the mathematical modeling performed by Maril’s team demonstrated that a particle of dust no bigger than one millimeter in diameter could have catastrophic effects on a space vehicle if the impact was just right—or perhaps better said, just wrong. Computer simulations demonstrated that a head-on impact on the wing of the Star Transport design would not only impale the wing, but could saw it clean off. It didn’t take long for his computer models to translate into nightmares that were coming with greater frequency. In these dreams, visions of shuttle parts being ripped apart, disintegration of the entire vehicle, or sudden explosions provided more of an effect than a science fiction movie.

On the night before the design review, Maril slept tolerably well, all things considered. But on his commute down Interstate 210, Maril’s thoughts were focused only on the details of the design review. Did Physon get the remainder of data from the particle tunnel? Had he remembered to ask Kelcey to print the handouts for the presentation? Did the final simulations finish up overnight? His cell phone rang several times on the way into the office with all sorts of issues he’d have to solve as quickly as possible.

Problem number one occurred at 6:03. “Maril, the simulations are still a couple of hours away.”

“Ok, then let’s adjust the agenda accordingly.”

At 6:12, the following detail was announced. “The techs are telling me we may have a problem running the demo in the wind tunnel.”

“Well, those things happen. Just set up a flat panel display in the auditorium, in case we need to do a computer demo instead.”

Perhaps most importantly was the call that he answered at 6:27. “Don’t forget your tux at the cleaner’s. The party is tomorrow night. You know I’ve been looking forward to this all summer.”

“No problem, honey. It’s just around the corner from the office, so I’ll have Kelcey pick it up before her lunch break.”

Finishing up another call as he entered into his office at 6:45, he thought to himself, “You know, maybe I should just get one of those ear-implants.” His phone even had one of those new terabyte holographic drives where all of his favorite music and talk show broadcasts were stored.

Pocketing his cell phone, Kelcey handed him five other urgent messages that had come in that morning, briefed him on the agenda and catering for the design review, and presented him with a stack of handouts of the presentation. “I really need to give this girl a raise,” Maril reminded himself for the umpteenth time as he sat down at his desk and made the final preparations for the review.

The auditorium was packed like never before. While Maril had met nearly all of the scientists present, he’d never seen so many of them at one time. He was surprised to see experts from nearly every other NASA site in the country. Johnson, Kennedy, Ames, Langley, Dryden, and Goddard were all represented. From Washington, there were policy makers and worse yet—finance committee members. He was not told that the finance committee would be represented, but he also didn’t know that it was simply coincident with their visit to his father, Ballard Scoville, just the day before.

He was pleased to see that most of the 200-member team on site had come to aid or simply provide moral support to Maril’s team throughout the day. Electrical, mechanical, chemical, computer and aerospace engineers were all represented in an effort to convey to the bigwigs that the project was well staffed.

At precisely 8:00 AM, while most were still enjoying the fruits, muffins, juices and coffee that was constantly replenished on the counter in the back of the auditorium, Maril began his introduction.

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attendance here today. I recognize the distance that many of you have traveled for this important review, and I am confident that you will leave here at the end of the day with all of the data that you will need to confirm that this project is making great progress and that all of your questions will be answered satisfactorily.”

Maril took just a few minutes to bring his team onto the stage, introduce each member by name, and list the various credentials which they bring to the team. Pausing to allow the team to return to their seats in the front row, Maril then used his remote control to lower the lights, draw the curtains from the back of the stage, and bring the projector to life.

“As you are all aware, Star Transport is slated for an intra-stellar flight mission in the third quarter of next year. It is intended to journey towards the outer reaches of the solar system and will then race back to the center of our solar system, passing within just one tenth of an astronomical unit—or eight million miles—of the surface of the sun. The Star Shield that my team is working on will be thoroughly tested in three phases of this flight.

“The first test comprises the asteroid belt, lying between Mars and Jupiter. We know much about the asteroid belt, and the materials of which it is comprised. We believe that this will be an easy maneuver for the shield to handle, because of the low distribution of asteroids. Our computer scientists have developed a set of algorithms that can quickly process magnetic field data in order to detect the presence of an asteroid and steer clear of it. We believe that with these algorithms, Star Transport will be able to navigate through the asteroid belt at Warp 0.68. That’s nearly 204 million meters per second.

“The second phase—the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud—proves to be much trickier. While we have discovered much recently about the Oort Cloud, we still can only theorize about its density at its outer boundary. As such, we’re not convinced about the speed at which we’ll be able to approach solar systems with similar clouds. However, this is typically a trivial matter, because it is commonly agreed that the amount of time traversing through such clouds is minimal compared to the time required to travel between star systems. At this point, the conjecture is that the inner portion of the cloud—believed to be denser—will only be maneuverable to Warp 0.25, whereas the outer portion of the cloud should allow the vehicle to reach speeds of Warp 0.45. Calculations show that such speeds would allow us to traverse the cloud in about two to three months. Of course, we will continue to explore these assumptions as astronomers around the world continue to map out the cloud. Obviously, we’d like to do better than to keep our fine astronauts tied up in our own solar system for so long. We’d be much happier getting them through the cloud in just a few weeks at most.”

“Now, while the first two phases are involved in large body avoidance, the final test phase will prove out fine particle and heat tolerance. By traveling close to the sun, the Shield will be prone to vast quantities of high speed gases and dust emanating from the sun. It will also test its ability to withstand the higher temperatures within this region. To make the test even more problematic, Star Transport is expected to approach the sun at a speed of Warp 0.75. The speed of the craft, coupled with the speed of the solar particles will accurately simulate the effects on the Shield of particles approaching speeds that, for all intents and purposes, would be the same as traveling at the speed of light.”

At this last comment, several of the visitors inched forward on their seats in suspenseful recognition of the meaning of Maril’s words. If such a test could prove successful, then the more perplexing problems of Warp Speed travel would be solved. Both large object avoidance and small particle tolerance could be checked off of the list for interstellar travel. For some, the realization that such a test was literally just around the corner gave them chills.

While a litany of design reviews were held throughout the day, none were more important or more impressive than the one demonstrated in the the particle tunnel. There analysts could see the impact of small high-speed particles on the shield. Maril was on hand personally, as he felt that this was the most critical aspect of his part of the project: to make sure that the vehicle and astronauts were adequately protected from unavoidable high-speed impacts.

“Gentlemen,” began Maril confidently. “I’d like to walk you down a timeline of our efforts on the Star Shield project here today. First, if I can direct your attention to the video monitors, we’ll demonstrate our early materials experiments, where we studied the effects of high-particle impact on a flat, square piece of material three millimeters thick.”

Maril then demonstrated a parade of materials, where he placed no fewer than twenty different three-millimeter thick sheets into the particle tunnel and revealed the effect. He showed the frustrations that were encountered when they marched through sheet after sheet that didn’t make the grade. One was too susceptible to penetration. Another was simply too heavy to measure up to the vehicle specifications. Other materials were too brittle, not malleable enough, more susceptible to radiation, or had lower melting points.

“Now, if I can draw your attention one last time to the video monitors,” announced Maril. Everyone turned their heads away from the speaker and back to the video display. Maril was able to convey that a particular metal hybrid composite was able to deflect all particles up to five millimeters in diameter at speeds of Warp 0.3—the maximum speed the technology allowed at the time, even though the sheet itself was only three millimeters thick.

“Gentlemen, I think the results speak for themselves. In this ultra-lightweight composite material, we have a very durable material to use as the outer skin of our Shield.”

“Mr. Scoville,” called out a reviewer formally, “this experiment only convinces me that we will be safe at Warp 0.3. How can we be sure that this material will work up to Warp 1.0?”

“Excellent question.” Maril was prepared for this. “What you are seeing is the effect on a flat sheet, where particles are allowed to strike the surface at precisely ninety degrees. As reviewers are gathering in the wind tunnel presently, my team is demonstrating to them the novel aerodynamic shape of the shield, which will guarantee that no particle strike any part of the shield at an angle greater than sixty degrees. Our calculations prove that this would equate to a particle tunnel speed-up factor of 2.5.” “But that’s still not good enough, Mr. Scoville,” scowled the critic. “If we only need the vehicle to travel at Warp 0.75 that would be fine. But the specification is clear. Warp 1.0”

“Yes, indeed,” Maril did his best not to get irritated by the pessimism of his visitor. Besides, these were the types of questions that needed to be asked in order to find any holes in critical assumptions which could jeopardize the project or the mission. “Keep in mind that this is just the skin. We also have shield impact response sensing software that will ensure that we prevent damage to the shield or vehicle under high-impact events. For more than 99.99% of the time, the vehicle will be able to travel at Warp 1.0. However, when traveling through high-dust regions, such as the Kuiper Belt or Oort Clouds, the drive will be reduced sufficiently in these less frequent scenarios.”

Maril had already put the arguments of the reviewer to rest, but added one more detail to ensure that any doubts be eliminated in full. “For those nastier space objects that are in the gray area—for example, anything that may be larger than a pea, and smaller than a beach ball—these cannot be detected with the avoidance software, these will be pulverized by the electronic disintegration mechanism layer which is placed just underneath the skin. These electronic pulses will radiate through the skin and break up these types of objects before they reach the skin. Our simulations show that at Warp 1.0, such disintegration will sufficiently break down these objects before they reach a distance of ten centimeters from the shield.”

Question after question, Maril did all that he could to convince the reviewers that this most critical piece of the puzzle was ready for prime time. Now, he just needed to convince his subconscience in order to avoid all of those annoying nightmares he was having.

Ya Ming was a young aerospace engineer taking on her first responsibility as a team lead. Maril Scoville was impressed with the CalTech graduate turned JPL employee when he met her eight years earlier. He had been impressed enough with her work that he invited her on the Star Shield team as a team contributor. When the shield design lead left his post with NASA for a corporate engineering position, Maril felt that Ming was a perfect fit for the job. Had he seen her efforts during the wind tunnel portion of the design review, he would’ve been confirmed in his promotion of her.

“NASA fellows,” she began, “I thank you for your presence here in the wind tunnel today. As I make my presentation to you, please feel free to interrupt to ask any questions that you may have.”

Ming appeared confident enough in front of the panel of reviewers, but inside she was quite nervous about her first major design review presentation. She didn’t know if she was more nervous about the presence of all of the senior visiting authorities, or whether it was the fact that the director of JPL, Dr. Rawson Cornell, was there as well. Maril thought that it would be useful for Cornell to attend, in case Ming needed any help or support during the review.

Ming continued, “Before we fire up the demonstration in the wind tunnel, I would like to begin with a brief presentation.” Ming gestured to a projector screen, where her computer presentation was already queued up.

“On this first slide,” she noted, “you’ll see the cone-like shape of the Star Shield. We have taken measures to minimize the angle of approach of particles impinging on the shield. The design is such that 90% of particles will approach the shield at an angle less than 23.5%. Computer models show that most particles of reasonable size will glance off of the shield without harm at this sharp angle.”

A hand raised among the crowd. Ming acknowledged the visiting reviewer, “Yes, Mr. Callahan. You have a question.”

“While it may be good that most of the particles will deflect, it seems to me like it would only take one particle approaching at the worst case condition to impale the shield, and perhaps the vehicle,” expressed Callahan.

“If you were to take cross sections of the shield,” Ming answered quickly, “you will notice that the cone is perfectly circular until you get ten centimeters from the nose of the shield. At that point, the circular cross sections begin to slowly morph into octagons, which is calculated to reduce the rounding effect at the tip of the cone. Continue down and these octagons will get smaller and smaller until about three centimeters where the shape of the octagon becomes irregular. In this region, you will notice that the nose begins to point slightly downward until it comes to a point. That point actually is bent three degrees below the directional axis of the vehicle. In order to get a direct ninety degree impact of a particle on the shield, it would need to approach the vehicle at three degrees from below. While the vehicle is traveling at sufficiently high speeds, it is impractical for any object to impact the shield at zero degrees. In fact, the vast majority of particles will impact at angles well below fifty-five degrees.”

Satisfied with the answer, Callahan gestured to Ming to continue with her presentation.

Ming clicked on her presentation controller to advance the presentation. “On this slide, I show the layers of the shield. The skin consists of a three millimeter single-molded sheet of a highly specialized metal-matrix composite material. It is extremely light and very impervious to high-speed particle impact. It is molded into a single sheet to avoid any seams which might cause degradation in performance.

“The second layer of the shield consists of a two-dimensional array of impact sensors. The sensors relay the amount of pressure on the shield to the main guidance computer system. There are over twelve million microscopic semiconducting sensors in the array, placed in immediate proximity in order to assess not only the force of impact but also the size of the particles in question. The computer calculates the size by assessing the simultaneous force of impact on neighboring sensors. The larger the object is, the more sensors that will transmit a simultaneous reading to the computer. Size and force together are the two key components which dictate the potential damage to the shield.”

Ming paused and looked around for questions, but she had apparently described the second layer sufficiently for the reviewers to comprehend the usage of the second layer.

“The third layer consists of electronic pulse generators, or EPGs which can pulverize larger particles into smaller ones just prior to impact. For the most part, the vehicle will prefer to decelerate in areas of higher density debris. However, some objects will be too large to safely deflect but too small to avoid. In these instances, the vehicle will first decelerate to an acceptable speed and will engage the EPGs. These can turn a basketball-sized particle into multiple golf-ball sized particles as soon as it approaches within twelve centimeters of the shield, even while the vehicle is traveling at Warp 0.5.

“Miss Ming,” interrupted another reviewer. “How long can the vehicle sustain the amount of energy required to engage the EPGs, and how is that energy restored? I trust we will not be able to place interstellar gas stations along the route, right?”

Ming chuckled respectfully and answered, “At Warp 0.5, we expect to be able to navigate through dust fields as large as 500 astronomical units. We expect these events to be rare, compared to the asteroid fields that the shield will completely avoid impacts altogether. In most galaxies, dust has coalesced to form asteroids. Only in very new galaxies, will the vehicle have to contend with large quantities of dust. The most typical use of the EPGs will be while navigating through chunks of ice scattered behind the tail of a comet. However, these will only cause the EPGs to be turned on for a very short period of time.

“I am afraid that I am not able to answer your second question, since that comes from the Star Energy team, who is handling the energy generation and consumption requirements for the vehicle. We were given a specification from the team that the EPGs must consume no more than 100 kilowatts of power in a single burst. From this, we calculated the numbers I provided before. That is, 500 astronomical units at Warp 0.5.”

“If there are no further questions…” There were none. “I would now like to demonstrate the shield in the wind tunnel.”

The team was able to note the deflection of wind across the shield. They paid particularly close attention to the effects of the wind at the tip as well as along the flat octagon-shaped portion of the shield. They briefly examined the effect along the curved portion as well.

One reviewer asked if an EPG demonstration could be provided, and Ming was able to oblige by leading the party into an electronics lab. She took two three-foot square metal screens and placed them upright in front of a small canon-like device. She took a couple of average looking rocks each about five inches in diameter and loaded them one at a time into the canon. The first one was fired directly into the metal screen with the EPGs disengaged. The screen was completely impaled by the rock as was evidenced by the five-inch hole in the middle of it. Ming then turned on the EPGs, which caused the shield to dance with blue glowing pulses of electricity. The second rock was fired into the new screen. The effects were vastly different. Several gasps of air and a couple of high-pitched whistles convinced Ming that her party was impressed. To finalize the effect, Ming took the screen and showed them the profile, where there were several dents in the screen, none of which were larger than about five millimeters. Then she showed them the floor below the screen where a collection of fine dust had accumulated from the disintegration of the rock.

“Miss Ming,” announced a senior reviewer, “it appears to me that your team has done a magnificent job in your research and development. Congratulations on a job well done, and keep up the fine work.”

Ming bowed graciously. Words nearly escaped her, until she was able to fumble out an emotional acceptance of the praise. “Thank you, Dr. Janos. I am glad to have been able to demonstrate our work here today.”

At 8:45pm, Maril collapsed into the leather seat in his office. In the quiet of his office, the only sound he could hear was a dull ringing in his ears. After introductions, design reviews, and debriefing sessions, Maril found himself alone for the first time since walking into his office earlier that morning. Had it really been just that morning? It felt so much longer than that.

Heaving a deep breath of air and finishing off a bottle of water that sat on his desk, Maril collected his computer bag, and started to walk out of the office. He paused as he noticed a freshly pressed tuxedo bag on a hanger behind the door. He smiled and reminded himself out loud, “I really do need to give that girl a raise.”

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