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The Shoulders of Orion- Ch. 3: R&D
Master Engineer Elnishel Nesch stalked around her makeshift office, a nonstop stream of agitated chittering pouring from her as she processed the indignity she’d been subjected to. The Humans had finally pushed her too far this time. It was enough that they had been wasting her skills on such an inane project, and it had been downright insulting that the human project leads had steadfastly ignored her pleas for something more important to work on. But being late to a meeting that they had requested? That was too much.
The Uplift of Humanity was supposed to be the greatest engineering challenge in generations. Studying the technology of a species that had achieved interstellar travel independently would be fascinating enough on its own, but to then convert such a sprawling, still pre-subspace species to galactic parity was something no one had ever done before. Naturally, the call had gone out for the best of the Jezren engineers, and Nesch had been one of the first to sign up.
It had been two years since she had arrived in human space. Most of her time had been remarkably productive, and there were already several major accomplishments that she could take pride in. Being part of something so historic had even been worth dealing with the poor state of the local terraforming and the almost daily human compulsion to point out her resemblance to a ‘giant flying squirrel,’ whatever that was.
And then the Humans had come to her with this utter stupidity of a project. It was such a waste of her time, and more importantly, her talents. Humans had so many other things that should have been a higher priority. Planetary energy grids still needed efficiency upgrades. All of the newly built interstellar com buoys were in dire need of fine tuning all across human space. The whole of the species needed a helping hand understanding subspace; human ships were still mounted with their primitive Alcubierre drives in addition to their Federation designed sub-space jump drives, all because the human’s were still experimenting with the ‘new’ technology. And those were just the major projects she knew weren’t being worked on by a Jezren. Yet, here she was, playing around with a pet project for their ‘navy.’ It was a veritable crime against progress.
She grabbed her datapad and flipped through her project emails, just to remind herself that the humans had really asked her to work on something so pointless.
Nesch had played along at first, offering up a few new designs and then trying to move on to more important things. But her human liaisons had insisted that they needed more. More power. Lower energy requirements. Smaller components. The stupid apes wanted her to completely revolutionize an entire field of technology, and doing so wouldn’t even provide any benefit to a species with such a robust physiology. A new stream of curses flew from Nesch’s mouth as she thought about how much time she had wasted on this endeavor already.
A chime rang out just then, announcing that her appointment had finally arrived, and Nesch immediately had the computer let him in. The ape may have requested this meeting to try calming her down and getting her back to work, but Nesch was far too riled up at this point for a simple conversation to accomplish that.
Brigadier General Jonathan Ngata strode into the office a moment later with a practiced crispness to his movements. The colored, swirling grooves carved into his face were accented surprisingly well by the steel and black fatigues of the Commonwealth Marine Corps, and there was a distinct warmness to his voice when he spoke.
“Ah, Master Engineer, I apologize for the delay. With all the tests going on today, air traffic control has been an absolute nightmare.” He sounded legitimately apologetic before quickly getting down to business. “Now, I’ve been told by some people, who all seem to think that they’re very important, that you are unhappy with your work and are requesting another assignment?”
The general stood in the doorway where he had entered, not even waiting to be invited to sit down. Nesch wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be some kind of intimidation tactic or not, but if it was, it certainly wouldn’t work. She walked right up to the general, drawing herself up to her full height of just over a meter and looked up to meet his gaze, her bone white fur bristling a little as she did so. The fact that the human was close to twice her height and likely six to eight times her weight made no difference to her at all. Nesch was used to being the small one in the conversation, and she’d tell this oblivious alien off just like she had all the others. She crossed both pairs of her arms in a huff, and tore into him.
“That is correct, General. Your project is a waste of time, resources, and worst of all, my skills. The technology that you’re asking to have enhanced doesn’t need enhancements, and is more than capable of meeting the needs of every known sentient race. With your people coming from such a high g world, you need it even less than everybody else. There is no practical benefit from this work, for me or for your species, and I demand a new project immediately that will actually help someone.”
“Well, you certainly aren’t one to mince words are you?” Ngata asked, the warmth never leaving his voice or the smile leaving his face. “I’ve always appreciated straight shooters. I’ve got no time for people who don’t say what they mean. It’s one of the reasons I requested you for this project. The other reasons all involve you being the best at what you do.”
The General let his statement hang in the air, giving Nesch time to process the implications. She hadn’t been aware that she had been specifically requested for this work. The cheerful disposition of Ngata was also something she wasn’t prepared for. This meeting was not going the way she had expected, and it had just started. She quickly tried to regain control of the conversation, unsure of how she lost it in the first place.
“The fact that the Uplift Council signed off on a request for my services on something like this is, at best, a cause for an investigation. Inertial dampening technology is perfectly fine in the state that it’s in. It doesn’t need upgrades. Humans, specifically, don’t need upgraded dampening tech. I’m being wasted on something completely unimportant.”
“What if I told you, Master Engineer, that this is the most important project we’ve undertaken here in the Proving Grounds since First Contact?”
“Then I’d have to tell you that you're a lot dumber than you look.”
Nesch had prepared herself for a lot of things after that comment. Anger. Insults. Immediate termination of her post with the Uplift. She had even tensed her legs, prepared to jump away on the off chance the human general had reacted with violence. Nothing could have prepared her to instead hear the massive xeno erupt into riotous laughter. Nesch thought her translator implant was malfunctioning at first, but the human was definitely laughing. Less of this meeting was making sense by the minute.
“Thank you for that, Master Engineer,” Ngata said when he finally regained his composure after several moments of sustained laughter, wiping a tear away from his eye as he did so. “I really needed the laugh. I wish more humans had the stones to speak to me that way; a lot more would get done. Now, back to the matter at hand. I assure you, Federation Inertial Dampeners are going to be the key to Humanity’s new place in the galaxy. I take it none of my subordinates that you’ve been coordinating with have explained the ‘why’ of what you’re working on?”
“No,” was all that Nesch could choke out in response, suddenly very worried about where things were headed.
“Would you like to see?”
Unable to come up with a reason to decline on the spot, and still unsure of how the human general had so deftly evaded her fury and redirected their meeting, Nesch found herself being led outside to a USC Marine shuttle. In another blow to Nesch’s suddenly bruised ego, it was obvious that the shuttle had never even powered down its engines.
Nesch climbed into the shuttle to find a seat custom built for her stature. Quickly strapping herself in, she took a quick survey of the craft. It was just as bulky and boxy as every other human ship and vehicle Nesch had seen. Massive engines at the rear and anti-grav lines running through the fuselage meant the shuttle could handle both atmospheric and suborbital flight, and the modular insides could easily be converted from a large, bulk cargo bay to the pseudo diplomatic transport she now found herself on. Though it lacked the grace and elegant lines of most Federation ships, it was an especially efficient design.
The shuttle gave a slight lurch as it lifted off, kicking up a small cloud of red dust as Nesch watched the Martian surface fall away through the viewport. They climbed rapidly, leaving the shining jewel of New San Diego behind in mere moments as the Hellas Sea glistened in the distance. She was about to start another internal rant about the horrendous standards of human terraforming when General Ngata sat down across from her and strapped himself in. Once he had finished, he handed Nesch a pair of goggles with darkened lenses several centimeters thick before pulling on a similar pair himself.
“Before we can get to our project, we’re going to have to take a slight detour. We’ve got to stay outside of a certain radius of Barnard’s Crater, so we’re taking the long way around. The flyboys are testing some of the new theoretical armor compositions today. You’re going to want to put those on if you want to watch.” Nesch looked at him quizzically, not understanding the connection between the two, before Ngata elaborated. “Some of your compatriots are going to be assisting with the test. There’s an old Federation battleship in orbit, and they’ll be firing their main battery in about a minute.”
Nesch’s blood ran cold, and she immediately scrambled to don the goggles as a fresh stream of curses flew from her mouth. “They’re firing it through the atmosphere? Are you all insane?” She stopped her swearing as she realized she was now very precariously suspended in that same atmosphere because of these stupid apes. “You couldn’t have waited to take off until after the test?”
Her world went black as the goggles settled into place and blocked all of the light in the shuttle. Not even the sunlight streaming through the viewport could pierce the thick lenses. Despite being effectively blind, she somehow had no doubt that the general was still smirking.
“I wanted to see for myself what I might be subjecting my marines to one day. Besides, we’ve got a solid 150 clicks of clearance; we’ll be fine. 10 seconds left.” Ngata sounded distressingly nonchalant.
Nesch fidgeted with her restraining harness and looked for anything she could hold on to that might increase her chance of survival in the event something went wrong. It was a simple coincidence that she happened to be looking directly at the window when the orbiting battleship set the heavens alight.
A single pillar of fire split the sky, bright enough to make Nesch wince despite the suffocatingly dense lenses of her goggles. The piercing beam reached from beyond the curve of the horizon up towards the outer reaches of the atmosphere before it faded from view. Air roiled and exploded outward from the beam, the unfathomable heat ionizing the scattering particles as they were reduced to a superheated plasma in an instant. Nesch knew she was only seeing the after effects of the weapon, but that didn’t make it any less terrifying. She watched in silence as the atmosphere ripped itself apart, knowing that whatever was on the surface at the base of that beam of light was suffering an even worse fate.
The humans viewed the Energy Lance as simply a big laser, Nesch thought scathingly. She had heard some of them joking about it, but could never find the words to explain their foolishness. This test would certainly teach them that, while they were technically correct, an Energy Lance was so much more than a simple laser. It was the height of galactic weapons technology; a hyper dense, super focused stream of photons capable of melting through any known material. The weapon took the full energy output of a fusion reactor powerful enough to warp spacetime and drive a warship through sub-space and poured it forth in one stream of pure destruction. Everyone watching the test wasn’t seeing the beam of the weapon itself; they could only see the column of air that was being ripped apart at the molecular level where the beam passed.
After ten seconds that seemed an eternity, the beam of light winked out of existence as instantaneously as it had appeared. The sky continued to burn in its wake, and a column of smoke rose from beyond the horizon to replace the column of fire.
Nesch sat in awed silence for a several moments, blinking away the afterimage that had managed to burn itself into her retinas despite the goggles. She had never seen an Energy Lance fire in person before, and after today, she was quite sure she never wanted to again.
“So that’s why the Federation won’t let us have those. Huh. Makes a lot more sense now.” General Ngata’s contemplative voice was the first thing to break the silence in the small shuttle.
“You’re absolutely right we’re not letting you have Energy Lances!” Nesch shouted as she finally ripped off the goggles, the indignance in her tone as clear as the burning sky beyond the shuttle. “We’d be fools to let a newly discovered species have access to technology like that. Who knows if you can be trusted with that kind of responsibility. Especially you humans. You’ve shown a propensity for recklessness that’s… rare.”
Ngata smiled in response. “We do have a knack for brash decisions, don’t we?” he asked thoughtfully. “But we’ve got, what, three generations to figure out how to behave? We’ll get things figured out by then.”
His tone became suddenly serious as he quietly added, “If we last that long.”
The passenger bay filled with silence as the shuttle flew on. Just as the shuttle began its landing approach a few minutes later, the initial shock wave generated by the test passed by. Nesch and Ngata could hear the roar of distant thunder even through the hull of the ship as the waves of turbulent air rocked their descent. Despite this, they set down with no major complications moments later, and Nesch immediately ripped off her safety harness and rushed outside, thankful to be back on solid ground.
She was joined shortly by Ngata. They were on a low, barren ridge overlooking a long stretch of empty plains of the Peneus Patera. Though the humans had introduced an atmosphere and a new water cycle to the small planet, their experiments with adapting their native flora were slow going. As a result, large swaths of Mars had yet to develop true soil that plants could find purchase in. These plains had never been a prime spot for such experiments, and likely still looked just as they had when humanity had first arrived. Nesch clicked her tongue in frustration. It was so much wasted potential.
“Now my tiny friend,” Ngata said, “You can see what all of your efforts are being spent on.” He handed Nesch a scaled down pair of human digital binoculars, then started to key something into a datapad. “Look at these coordinates.”
Nesch raised the binoculars, following a prompting arrow at the edge of her newly enhanced vision until she was staring at a small hangar-like structure out in the middle of the plains. Several hundred meters away from it was a reinforced landing pad ringed with markings.
“Am I supposed to be impressed with a hangar?” Nesch asked, her patience with the general starting to wear thin.
“That’s just the target and the control facility,” Ngata replied. “The real test starts from here.”
A new arrow appeared in her binoculars as Ngata keyed something else into his datapad, and Nesch found herself having to lean back slightly as her gaze was directed skyward. As she zoomed in, she found herself looking at a small flotilla of ships. Largest among them was the Federation battleship that had just unleashed hell beyond the horizon, its reflective, semi-crystalline armor glistening in the starlight. Escorting it was a small group of human gunboats and corvettes. It made sense, thought Nesch. The humans wouldn’t let a foreign power simply blast away at one of their home planets un-escorted, even if they had invited the ship to the system to do exactly that.
It was all for show, of course. The thought of the tiny human gunboats so much as impeding a Federation battleship was laughable.
Mixed in with the warships was the ship her binocular arrow was pointing to. Nesch didn’t recognize the design, but it was definitely human, and appeared to be some kind of freighter. Other than looking bulky and incredibly ugly next to the elegant and graceful Federation battleship, it seemed rather unremarkable.
“Why am I looking at a giant orbiting brick?” Nesch asked, the dryness in her tone underscoring how utterly underwhelmed she was by this whole adventure so far.
“Because that brick is what’s going to be launching the dampener improvements you submitted.”
Nesch turned sharply to look at the general. What did he mean ‘launch?’
“You’re going to want to keep your eyes up. Test launches in 3. 2. 1. Now.” Nesch had just enough time to relocate the freighter with her binoculars before she heard the general’s fingers tapping his datapad.
Something jettisoned from the freighter in response to the general’s command, and Nesch found her binocular’s tracking arrow following it. It was cylindrical in shape with a shielded cone capping the side faced toward the surface, and was already headed for the ground at significant speed. As soon as it cleared the freighter, though, a series of engines ignited, propelling the strange hunk of metal towards the ground at ever increasing, and frankly frightening, speeds.
Nesch watched, fascinated by the projectile, completely unsure of what its purpose was. Yet it continued to accelerate through the atmosphere, the heat shield glowing fiercely. The engines pushed it ever faster. Flames licked at the sides of the falling cylinder as the suddenly superheated air resisted the falling contraption. The engines pushed it faster still.
Suddenly, Nesch realized the danger she was in. Whatever this thing was, it was only a few minutes from impacting the ground at truly ludicrous speeds, and she was more than likely well within the blast radius.
She turned toward the general to demand an explanation, to beg for safety, to demand to know what this had to do with her assignment, to ask for something, anything about today to make sense, but froze instead when she saw him. He was standing a little ways off from her, head back and staring skyward, unaided by binoculars. There was something wrong with him, but Nesch couldn’t tell what it was. Something about his posture and the laser focus he was directing at the sky sent a chill down her spine that she couldn’t explain.
“You’re going to want to keep watching, Master Engineer. This is the important part.” Ngata’s voice was cold and emotionless when he spoke, so intense was his focus. Nesch wasn’t even sure how he knew she had looked away from the strange cylinder.
Nesch returned her gaze to her binoculars, unwilling to press the general in his strange state and unsure of what else she should do. As she caught sight of the burning missile, several thrusters fired on one of its sides, and the cylinder flipped on its axis, the main engines now firing towards the ground to slow the projectile’s descent. It was far too little, and far too late, to save the falling experiment. Nesch watched the hunk of metal hurtle the last kilometer towards the ground, still traveling at least several hundred kilometers an hour. The decel burn wasn’t enough: they had mistimed the turn that would allow the projectile to survive the landing.
At the last possible second, as Nesch was bracing for the explosion caused by the impact, she saw a shimmering ficker in the air around the cylinder before it slammed into the ground. There was no fiery explosion, but a column of dust and debris was thrown a hundred meters into the air when the falling metal object slammed, exactly on target, into the landing pad in the center of the plains.
From the time Ngata triggered the test until impact, less than seven minutes had passed.
A sudden roar split the silence next to Nesch as Ngata bellowed skyward, a steady stream of unleashed rage and released stress flowing freely towards nothing. “Proof of concept my ass, you small minded pricks! I told you it would work!” He yelled himself hoarse, standing on the low Martian ridge, throwing curse after curse at the disembodied specters of those who had doubted him. Finally he stood, triumphant and panting, with joy, validation, and righteous fury rolling off of him in waves as he surveyed what he had wrought on the field below.
Nesch cowered away from the sudden outburst and stared at him in horror. There was something behind his eyes. She couldn’t tell what it was, but it didn’t look right. Something was off; something unhinged and barely constrained was clawing to get out, barely kept in check by decency and decorum. It sent a spike of primal fear through her the same way a childhood nightmare about a Raelethi did. It was cold, dark, and animalistic, and it hungered. For the first time in her adult life, Nesch realized, she was actually unsettled by a predator.
They stood in silence on the empty ridge for another minute before Ngata collected himself. “My apologies for the outburst,” he said, after catching his breath and clearing his throat. “I’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights getting this project greenlit, and I’ve been called a fool and worse by a sizable percentage of the Corps. This was our first test run, and I got a little emotional. I apologize. Now,” Ngata’s tone shifted suddenly from contrite back to enthusiastic in an instant. “Let’s go see how we did.”
The short shuttle ride to the impact site was so brief that Nesch had no time to form a coherent question for the general before they landed. When they exited the shuttle, Nesch and Ngata were standing near the edge of a small crater, surrounded by the last of the swirling and settling red dust kicked up by the impact. Recovery crews that had been waiting in the nearby hangar had already reached the site with heavy equipment and a crane truck, and human workers were flooding into the crash site.
The diminutive Jezren was suddenly extremely conscious of her tiny frame as the sea of human workers swarmed about. She quickly set those concerns aside and pushed her way towards the lip of the crater, desperate to finally get some answers. There were only more questions to be found, however, as Nesch looked down at the still very intact projectile.
“How?” Nesch asked as Ngata reached her side. “How is this thing still in one piece? That impact should have shattered it.”
“Energy shields,” Ngata answered. “The rest of the galaxy doesn't put much stock in them since they won’t stop your light based weaponry. But seeing as our species has had to rely on kinetics to do all our between-the-stars killing, we’ve gotten very creative with our shielding tech. Now, let’s pop this sucker open and see if your dampener redesigns did the trick.”
He led Nesch down into the crater and up to the side of the still smoldering object. The pair arrived at the side of the strange experiment where two human scientists were waiting for the general. With a quick nod from Ngata, they turned to the slab of metal and, with some effort, opened a door on the side of the cylinder.
A river of thin, light brown sludge gushed out of the opened cylinder, swamping the feet of scientist, general, and engineer alike.
One of the human scientists scrambled to climb into the open doorway. “All carbon based cargo appears to have been completely liquefied,” the scientist started calling out to his partner. “All the fluid storage ruptured, as well. Looks like the oxygen tanks are still intact, though there’s signs of significant warping.”
Nesch bent down until her nose was almost touching the pooling sludge. Breathing deep, she tried to identify the bizarre substance, and was met with a swirl of familiar scents. She recognized most of them from the human mess hall.
“You went through all of this just to try and de-orbit food?” she asked the general, incredulously.
“Not just food,” Ngata replied, beaming at the semi-successful experiment before them. “Water, oxygen, medical supplies. Anything and everything a besieged population could need to survive. This project could save millions one day."
Nesch was exasperated. “What’s the point? This is all so unnecessary. You have landing craft and shuttles that work just fine.” She gestured to the converted shuttle that had been ferrying them around Mars all morning for emphasis.
“Indeed. And they take 20 minutes to get through a decently thick atmosphere. Traditional landing craft are little more than target practice in a warzone. In all the Federation’s centuries of fighting the Qorthi, how many planetary resupply missions have met with total disaster?” When no answer from the tiny Jezren was forthcoming, Ngata continued. “These landing pods will be almost impossible to shoot down; they won’t be in the air long enough. If we can launch a cloud of these pods, all loaded with supplies, we’re guaranteed to get enough to the surface for it to matter.”
“And you need me to design inertial dampeners powerful enough to ensure that everything survives the trip.” Nesch was looking past the general at the strange landing vehicle as she spoke. The whole plan seemed crazy, but Ngata was also making a surprising amount of sense.
“Exactly. Anything we need to get from orbit to the ground in a hurry, we’re going to put on these,” Ngata continued. For the briefest of moments, Nesch thought she saw the same predatory hunger from earlier flash behind the general’s eyes, but it was gone so fast that she wasn’t sure she hadn’t imagined it. “Orbit to surface in less than a minute. That’s the goal. We can design the pod that can get it done. But we need you to make sure that what’s inside arrives intact. Are you up for the challenge, or should I find someone else?”
This wasn't just unorthodox, it was an entirely new way to think about doing things; as far as Nesch knew, nothing like this had ever been tried before. The Federation may have been far more advanced than Humanity, but there was precious little room for innovation for an eager engineer. Her career had always revolved around maintaining and refining existing technology. The chance to do something truly new was exactly what she had joined the Uplift to find.
Nesch was positively giddy.
“If you want to get these pods to the surface in that kind of time frame and have them survive, you’ll also need anti-grav lines small enough to fit on something like this, and a small enough power supply to run them.”
“Why Master Engineer, I thought you’d never bring it up. But that’s stage two. Let’s focus on making sure the oatmeal doesn’t cook itself on the way down first.”
After the crane had pulled the drop pod from its crater, Nesch rode back to the command facility, picking Ngata's brain the whole way for details and specifics on how he wanted the drop pods to work. She already had several ideas for improvements, and was irritated that she had left her personal datapad back at her office. If she had brought it with her, she could have already started designing some of her new ideas.
Instead, Nesch found herself tagging along behind Ngata as he wound his way through the hangar. He was stopping intermittently, speaking to various teams as they inspected and disassembled the pod for further examination. It was chaotic, but there was an excited urgency to the work that Nesch found impressive.
Ngata’s tour stopped suddenly as he rounded on one of the human scientists who had been hanging back from the swirling mass of other humans and looking rather distracted. “Singh, cheer up, man. This has been a resounding success. Act like it.”
This particular human was significantly smaller than Ngata, though his skin was only a few shades darker, and he was clearly flustered by the general’s attention as he spoke. “S-sorry, sir. I’m only here to work on the heat shields, and there’s not much for me to do at this point.”
“I’ve seen you check the clock three times in the last 10 minutes. You got somewhere better to be?”
“Sorry again, sir. But, slightly yes, I do, sir. I’m on one of the teams designing armor concepts for the Fleet, and our prototype is next in line for testing. They’re due for the test firing any minute. I had wanted to watch.”
“How confident are you that your team's design will work?”
“Pretty damn, sir.”
“You got access to a video feed?”
“I should be able to pull one up, sir.”
“Well, then,” the general said, taking a quick survey of the work going on around the hangar. “I don’t think there’s that much more for me to do around here. Go get your video feed set up, Singh. I want to see how Fleet’s getting on with things.” Ngata then turned to Nesch and asked, “Want to see what that Energy Lance looks like from the ground?
Nesch’s fur bristled again at the mere mention of another test. Besides, she had a new goal for her project, and wanted to get to work; she already had multiple new designs swirling around in her head that she wanted to commit to a blueprint. But having spent the better part of the day fully immersed in Humanity’s bizarre way of doing things, she couldn’t suppress her curiosity to see what they were up to. After a quick nod, she followed Ngata off towards one of the computer terminals lining the hangar.
Singh had already pulled up a variety of feeds from cameras mounted near the rim of the crater by the time Ngata and Nesch arrived, and was cycling through them looking for the best views of the testing areas set up on the floor of Barnard’s Crater. Several of the cameras displayed a slagged, melted pit that had been burned into the crater floor, the area around it nothing but a blackened, glassy waste. If that had been the site of the test earlier in the day, there was no trace left of the armor that had been tested. Nesch wasn’t surprised, but it was still sobering to see.
As Singh filtered through the cameras, he settled on a series of angles showing the last stages of the setup for the new armor trial. A massive square slab of armor, 10 meters on a side and half a meter thick, had been attached to a series of metal stilts, keeping it elevated a good two meters off the crater floor. The last batches of workers and scientists were loading themselves into nearby shuttles to take them clear of the Energy Lance’s lethal radius.
At the last minute, a single human dashed out of one of the shuttles and ran under the armor slab, disappearing from view for several seconds before reappearing and boarding the shuttle again. “Holy shit, Davis actually did it!” Singh exclaimed, switching camera views to a wide angle shot that showed a side view of the test area. He zoomed in as far as he could push the camera, and there, on the crater floor directly beneath the center of the armor slab, sat a glass full of water and ice cubes.
Nesch had to admire the human’s optimism. It was rather endearing.
The last of the shuttles cleared the crater’s edge, and Singh pulled up a countdown timer in the bottom corner of the screen. Several other members of the drop pod team had wandered over, and a small crowd had formed around the computer terminal. Nesch listened as Singh told them about the armor’s design. He went into as much detail as he was allowed to about the carbon nanotube lattice, and the beryllium-tungsten ceramic molded around it that made up the layers of the armor. Apparently, the armor on trial was a laminate made up of over 25,000 layers of this material. Nesch was impressed, and even thought there were some really good ideas in the design, but she knew what the ultimate result would be. Even if the armor could hold up to the raw energy of an Energy Lance, it would still just transfer the heat inward to the ship it was protecting, melting and boiling everything inside.
As the countdown neared zero, the small crowd went strangely silent. The anticipation around the corner computer terminal was palpable. Most of the viewers had never witnessed anything like what they were about to see, Nesch thought, and most likely never would again. With ten seconds left on the timer, the screens went dark as heavy filters slid over the camera lenses.
Nesch caught herself holding her breath along with the rest of the humans, and forced herself to breathe normally. The timer hit zero, and as though someone had simply flipped a switch, the screens lit back up.
A cloud of white hot debris erupted from the top of the armor as the ray of pure energy struck home. The cameras were zoomed in too far to see the effect the beam had as it passed through the atmosphere, but that was hardly necessary to judge the power of the weapon with the uncut glimpse into hell that the cameras showed on the armor’s surface. Solid matter sublimated and then ionized in an instant, superheated particles ripped from their atomic structure as the armor was eaten away in a fiery, boiling hellstorm. Sparks flew and chunks of matter were blasted into the air by the shear heat as what used to be beryllium, tungsten, carbon, and whatever else the humans had mixed in was reduced to nothing but wisps of plasma.
The energy radiating from the impact was so intense that, even through the heavy filters over the camera lenses, Nesch could make out few details on the screen.
After 10 seconds of sustained bombardment, the Energy Lance reached its duration threshold and switched off, leaving what was left on the crater floor to smolder and burn. The screens went black immediately, as the mere residual glow left after the bombardment wasn’t nearly powerful enough to pierce the protective filters of the cameras.
Holding their collective breath, the humans gathered around the computer terminal waited for the filters to pull away. Nesch had once again been caught up in their strange habit, but this time she didn’t correct herself, waiting with bated breath to see the results.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the filters slid aside. A riotous cheer went up from the gathered humans, and Nesch let out her held breath in disbelief. There, on the crater floor, was what was left of the human armor slab. The upward surface was a still glowing, slagged mess, and fully 2/3s of it’s thickness had been eaten away, but it was still there, and still intact. Even more unbelievably, beneath the armor, the glass of water was still standing. No ice had survived the blast, but the glass was still full to the brim, and none of the water had boiled away.
Nesch didn’t understand. Nothing should have been able to survive a direct blast like that. Even the best armors in the Federation could only take glancing strikes from an Energy Lance, and nothing approaching a direct, full ten second barrage.
She scrambled to get to the side of Singh, who was in the process of receiving an incredibly heavy pat on the back from Ngata, desperate to know what genius he and his team had used that enabled them to build something that could withstand the galaxy’s most powerful weapon. Reaching his side, Nesch jumped onto the computer desk so that she could be at eye level with the materials scientist. She grabbed him by the collar to pull his attention away from the celebration, and looked him dead in the eyes.
“How. Did. You. Do. That? That armor plate should have been burned clean through by a sustained, direct hit like that.”
“Well, yeah,” replied Singh, unable to wipe the smile from his face. “If everything stayed in one piece that would happen. But the layers are ablative.”
“Ablative. The layers are designed to vaporize at a certain temperature, and take the heat with them. Then the next layer can absorb heat until it vaporizes. And so on and so forth through however many thousands of layers are in that particular slab. Is… is that not a thing that other species do?”
Nesch recoiled in horror. This wasn’t brilliance. This was stupidity on a scale she had never imagined. The humans may have a different way of doing things, but this was raw insanity. Who in their right mind would make armor that was designed to get vaporized away. It wasn’t counter-intuitive, it was just plain stupid.
“Ok, let me make sure I understand this,” she replied. “You’re planning on building warships, filled with Humans, and wrapping them in armor that is purposely designed to be peeled away like a fruit skin?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“That’s pure insanity.”
“Hey, if it works, it works.”
She sat down, completely deflated. She could only be thankful that Ngata’s craziness seemed to have an actual productive use, and that she wouldn’t have any part in human fleet design.
Nesch jumped down off the desk and walked back towards the drop pod, determined to find something actually useful to work on. She vowed there and then to never set foot in a human built ship.