Meanwhile, in another part of the forest...
The Thequa Sector
Michael Strang paces the bridge, unwilling to make the decision that confronts him. They have already lost three ships–three commanders perishing in the name of scientific advancement, or the pursuit of commercial advantage, depending on your point of view.
He is loathe to commit a fourth ship until he feels confident that the problems encountered in the first three trials have been solved.
He waits while Leiden H. Frost, Principal Scientist, confers with Pat Gantt, the project manager, and Crispin Paunch, the project's chief engineer. They huddle round the makeshift command and control console installed in a corner of the bridge. They nod in agreement as they point in turns at a spreadsheet and an array of charts. Then they sit in silence, each one deep in their own thoughts.
Strang is in no hurry to risk the life of another pilot; he only wishes he had a better knowledge of physics so he could begin to understand what they are doing here. Impatient for news, rather than where that news might take them, he addresses the management team.
"Situation report, please. Are we getting any closer to a solution?"
Frost, a thirty-something theoretical physicist, turns away from the monitors to face Strang. His detailed knowledge of how a body dies in the vacuum of space has led him to wear two pressure suits, a standard inner and an extra-large outer. He keeps his helmet on permanently.
"We are close–very close, I think," his muffled voice escapes the helmet; then after a pause: "In fact I would say we are ready for the next run."
Strang doesn't like Frost, this much is clear. They are so different from each other. Strang is a man of action, a pragmatist, and a realist. Frost is a thinker, a theoretician, and somewhat disconnected from normal human experience.
"You think we're close," Strang says vehemently, "and you think that's enough to send another pilot to an almost certain death? I need more than your thoughts; I need to know there's a high probability of success."
Frost is silent, as though he doesn't understand Strang's concerns. They've had this stand-off before and Paunch intervenes–again.
"I know that last time I agreed with you, Michael, about the risks, but we know so much more, now. Come and look at this and I'll explain where we're up to."
Strang moves close to the console and Paunch points to a chart.
"Look," he says, "we've overcharged the hydrogen pumps so we can vent twenty-five percent more than in the last trial."
"Will that be enough?" Strang asks.
"I believe so," Paunch replies, "but that's not all we've done. In the three trials so far, we've monitored the variation in thickness of the Frost Layer over the hull of the ship. The annihilation pressure is greatest on all the leading edges, as you'd expect, and is weakest on the large, flat, outward-facing surfaces. It's on these surfaces that the Frost Layer broke down first and the ships were destroyed."
"So, what you're saying is that we need to smooth out the thickness of this layer?" Strang asks, refusing to give Frost any credit for his discovery of the effect. "And that's what you think you've done?"
"Correct. We've created a real-time process control package to manage the distribution of hydrogen venting, with a feedback loop from the pressure sensors. Where we see the Frost Layer weakening, we pump out more hydrogen until the annihilation pressure increases, thus thickening the layer. We're regression testing the software now and the changes to the plumbing are nearly complete–we needed larger bore pipes in a number of places."
"The tasks will complete within twelve hours," Gantt says, consulting a schedule. "For planning purposes, and with regards to resource allocation, will you let me know which resource will command the next ship, Commander Strang?"
Only Frost is lower than Gantt in Strang's estimation.
"They're people not resources," he explodes, heartily sick of the gang of inhuman misfits he's been saddled with, "and I've made my decision. We will go ahead with the trial when the software's tested and the pipework is completed–and I'll be the pilot."
Strang can't see Frost smiling smugly inside his helmet, but he sees the surprised looks of Paunch and Gantt and on the faces of the other crew who happen to be on the bridge.
"Are you sure?" Paunch says with concern and some affection. "You don't have to, you know."
"Oh, but I do," Strang says. "I can't send anyone else. I wouldn't know how to choose and look them in the eye."
He turns to Gantt and says: "Let me know when the ship's ready."
to be continued...