19 End of the Beginning

The last few weeks at the Academy were filled with training for life aboard a large ship. Though they would all man fighters, there would still be shipboard duties and each of them had to be prepared to fill any role should the need arise.

The large capital ship simulator had been inactive for many years before the last attack. It had been refurbished and reactivated after the last attack and now was in constant use. They simulated missions lasting several days, sleeping in bunks in the simulator. The simulator was large enough to combine several flights, enough to man all the critical positions of a large warship.

Capital ship training was the last stage of Academy training. Zeta flight, now the most junior of the flights at this stage, manned those positions that would have been filled by non-commissioned officers.

Zeke's assignment was the life support area. He was responsible for the waste disposal and recycling equipment. The simulation displays monitored and controlled simulated systems. In reality, he was told, robots could be used to perform repairs and maintenance so that humans seldom had to deal with unpleasant repairs.

Everyone had a battle station and he was fortunate that his was in one of the many gunnery stations. He spent much of his time in gunnery practice, something much different than flying a fighter.

Gunnery involved a close link between human and MI. New targets were acquired, prioritized, and reassigned between the many gun stations that made up the defensive systems of the ship. MI's were integral to these functions.

Ran was again his partner in these systems, but their relationship was different, and he perceived it as being much closer than when flying a fighter. She made more decisions and, in some ways, played the dominant role in the relationship because she could handle so much more information than he could, and do so quickly and accurately.

In the simulations, the crew was scheduled in four hours on, eight off shifts, just as they would be on a real ship. They often worked and slept in reduced gravity, which would sometimes be on a real ship would reduce energy usage.

He was asleep when the first simulated attack came. Klaxons blared and red lights flashed for the first time since he'd been at the Academy. For the better part of a minute he was disoriented, trying to figure out where he was and what he was supposed to do.

He was not the only member of his flight who didn't make it to their station within the allowed amount of time. All of the others late to their station were from Zeta flight, too. He ran past another member of his flight, still fastening the clasps of his shirt, and entered the compartment that housed his gunnery station. Rilt, who was stationed in the same compartment, entered just after him muttering Anyari curses.

The battle lasted only a few minutes, making the alert more like a drill. Afterward, the tone of the senior cadets was noticeably cool. The debriefing after showed how poor their performance had been. After their many successes, Zeta flight had seen it was not infallible.

The next day, when the mission had ended, they gathered in the dayroom. The mood was somber, everyone was embarrassed. Zeke alone had a smile on his face.

Rilt was the first to scold him, "How can you be happy? The reputation we have worked so hard for has been destroyed!"

The expressions on everyone else showed agreement with Rilt.

"If our reputations can be sullied so easily, then it must not have been a very good reputation anyway. I've been waiting for something to go wrong. It had to happen, eventually. If this is the worst we screw up, then I'm thrilled."

For the first time his words seemed to have no impact. None were convinced by his words. Even Dev and Sephen held on to their despair.

"If this is how we react to a little adversity, then our reputation should take the beating you seem to think it has," he said, frustration making his voice uncharacteristically sharp.

"Why did we perform so badly?" he asked.

"We were cocky and unprepared," Geren answered.

"Yes. The humble, yet great Zik Tilor was cocky," he said, pronouncing his name with an Anyari accent. "Has any other flight ever done as bad during their first surprise drill as us?"

The room remained silent.

"Are we better than every other flight in every way? Do we cry when we find out that we are not?"

This wasn't helping. The faces in the room only hardened.

"I was a nobody on the world I come from---and I never expected to be anything else. I am lucky to be here, lucky to have you for friends. I have done things I regret. Coming here..."

Zeke sat, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.

"When I came here," he continued, "I left behind the people who cared about me. I didn't even say goodbye or explain where I was going."

The guilt he'd been able to hold at arm's length pressed in on him again. He'd told no one but Elenne and her family. His head lowered, he looked at the floor, his eyes filling with tears.

He spoke, still looking down at the floor, "I am happy here, and proud to be with all of you. But..."

"We were cocky," Sephen said quietly. "A mistake I hope we don't make again."

Rilt came to sit beside him. He placed his hand on Zeke's back.

"I thought I'd learned what was important," he said. "Guess I still have a little more to learn."

Zeke sat up, wiping his eyes. "We all do. We probably always will."

The senior cadets graduated and Zeta flight moved up the seniority ladder. Discussions of fleet operations became a significant topic of discussion in their analysis sessions. With no significant opportunities for new ideas or strategies, the sessions began to become dull. Zeke shortened the sessions accordingly and discussed ways to keep them mentally challenging.

With the frequently simulated missions lasting several days, there were fewer opportunities for the nightly analysis sessions. When they were held, most of the discussion concerned updates on the drone intelligence program from Ereine.

In the second round of shipboard simulations, the members of Zeta flight moved up to supervisory responsibilities, sometimes commanding small groups of those from the new junior flight, sometimes commanding crewmen simulated by MI's.

Ereine continued to attend sessions when they were not on the simulated missions. One evening she had news to share.

"The design documentation and prototype design are complete and I have them for you to review. You should all have copies and access to any information you desire by the time we finish tonight."

Everyone perked up at the news.

"This soon?" Rilt asked. "It's only been two weeks!"

"The target was to have working prototypes within a month," Ereine explained. "Most of this is simply combining existing components with minimal changes to scale components and modules to an appropriate size."

She added, "Your schedule has been changed for tomorrow. No classes and your mission simulation has been canceled. You are to review this information and provide analysis, critique, and suggestions. By the end of the day if possible, by the end of the following if necessary."

Zeke exchanged glances with Ereine and looked up at the lights, the unspoken question on his face.

"I'll take care of it," she replied.

"Ereine will see that the lights are on for another few hours for those that want to start looking at the information. I know I do," Zeke said to the group.

"Why don't we review the information tonight, and plan to discuss it in the morning?" Zeke suggested. Everyone in the room nodded agreement.

Ereine left them to review the new material.

He leaned back in his chair and opened the electronic packet. The technical details differed little from what they'd recommended. There were to be two basic types, those with normal lightspeed communications and those with QE transceivers. The first questions they addressed was the ratio of these types of QE probes.

Initially, they'd planned to equip a fourth of the probes with QE, with the ratio increasing until all probes were so equipped. With lightspeed communications, if the QE probe was near the center of a system, it could take hours to send information to a probe near the edge.

Adding propulsion to the probes had been considered, but rejected as unnecessary. As much space as possible was to be devoted to sensors.

Active sensors were considered but rejected for the initial probes. The probes could detect emissions in a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Location could be determined by triangulation.

Development of a new sensor, a mass detector, was underway, but there was no estimate as to when it would be available. It would not have any ability to determine direction or distance. It could only detect the changes when new masses entered the system or changed their location.

Zeke read through reports and estimates. How many units would be ready? What types of ships would be used to deploy them? So far, only the Redun was large enough to carry more than a few probes, and it would be on station in the Mecran system in a few weeks. The next Redun class ship would not be ready for almost six months and Zeke, knowing the immensity of the Redun, was amazed that the next ship, the Remarran, could be operational so quickly.

Dev and Rilt were sitting at a large console along the wall, discussing something. The rest of the flight were still intent on the material they were reading. Zeke, though, was suddenly tired. For the first time, doubt crept into his thoughts. Was this the right course. Surely they needed to find out about the Rogue. But, should it just be done building manned ships, after all? Sending patrols through star systems?

With doubt came fatigue and he got up to go downstairs and turn in for the night. He hoped the morning would bring renewed energy and optimism.

The flight had been up later than usual, but the morning wake-up was at the normal time. Zeke resisted the urge to consider it a day off since their schedule was their own. He was up and heading to the showers as on any other day. He saw Dev and Sephen were up and going, too. Everyone else took the day seriously and Zeke felt a surge of pride in this group. They were not slackers.

They were soon ready and formed up to march to breakfast. The talk at breakfast was about the briefing material they'd been reading. Ereine joined them. Following the custom, she did not maneuver to sit with Zeke or any of the nominal leaders of the group; she simply mixed in and sat with Rilt and Geren. Zeke could see that all at that table were focused and discussing probe information.

Back in their barracks dayroom, they started in their familiar analysis routine. Zeke looked at Ereine to make sure she'd started recording the session and she answered with a nod.

Zeke recalled his thoughts from last night, but let the discussion proceed around the room. No one had new insights until it came to Geren.

"I have been thinking about the types of drones to build and where to deploy them," he said. Zeke's attention focused on him, hoping Geren had reached the same conclusion he had.

"The fundamental idea," Geren said, "is still sound. I am starting to wonder if, although we have expanded our view of gathering more information, we have been too conservative, and too specific."

Zeke thought he heard a trace of Rilt's old attitude when he responded, "What do you mean? You think we are on the wrong track?"

"No," Geren answered, his composure unruffled. "But I think our view is too vague."

To their credit, the whole flight was silent as they tried to deduce Geren's meaning for themselves. An idea was more thoroughly accepted when it was a product of your own thoughts and not spoon fed to you.

Zeke felt that Geren was on the same line of reasoning that had occurred to him, but he waited longer, and when he spoke, he avoided being specific.

"If our plan is too limited, is it because our reasoning and purpose is also too limited in scope?"

Geren had become a good leader in these last weeks. He avoided giving out simple answers so that the rest of the flight could arrive at the conclusions through their own chain of logic.

"I believe that is true," he answered. "I think we should question what it is we seek to accomplish, or rather what it is we seek to accomplish--initially."

"Our aim has been to gather information, any information about the Rogue," Rilt protested. "That seems like a good course of action to me."

Gell had contributed to analyses before, and Zeke was glad he was the first to get Geren's point. "Any information we obtain about the Rogue is of value, but if we could choose the one thing that is most important. What would we choose?"

Zeke could see several people in deep thought. A few appeared to reach a conclusion, but Zeke was looking at Rilt. He thought that it was important that Rilt be the one to announce this conclusion.

"We want to know..." and he paused. "We want to know where they are. If we could only learn one thing, that would be it."

With that, Rilt's face softened to a rare smile. He looked at Geren. The expressions they exchanged expanded the pride that Zeke had been feeling.

Zeke waited a bit longer. He wanted this to be a revelation made by others. He'd had plenty of recognition and the group would be stronger if all felt that they were making significant contributions.

After a moment he added, "I agree. We need to know where they are. What do we do to find them?"

"How many probes do we need to put in a solar system to detect a Rogue craft?" Rilt asked, looking at Ereine.

"The information in your briefing..." she started to say, but hesitated. "But that was when the intention was to gather more information about the Rogue. Not simply a yes/no detection."

She started to enter a message into her console but stopped again. "I think the best thing to do is communicate directly with the team designing the probes. General Yalt will probably want to be involved, too.

"The team is a few hours behind us and won't be in their lab for another hour or two. I'll send out a request, we should be able to speak to them within a few hours."

"What is your best guess? " Zeke asked Ereine.

"I don't know if a single probe is enough," she answered. "I think it could cover most of an average sized solar system, but it depends on at least two things.

"The obvious parameter is how much are we willing to risk missing a detection. Even with several probes, depending upon how they're deployed, we could miss detecting a small Rogue ship.

"The other problem," she continued, "is that we don't know how the Rogue operate, so we can only guess the best way to configure the probes. That increases the uncertainty."

Dev asked, "Do I understand correctly, we are looking to change our focus? Change it such that instead of getting more detailed information from probes in a few systems, we will be looking to simply detect Rogue presence in a larger number of systems."

This statement brought a general nod.

"Perhaps, then, we should consider the assumptions we are making. Deploying probes in star systems assumes that we believe that the Rogue will frequently operate within these systems, and not in the space between systems."

That statement caught Zeke's attention. It was obvious now, but it was an assumption that could have blinded them to options they might not have considered.

"That is a very good point," Zeke acknowledged. "We may need to stay with that assumption, but if so, I think we need to make sure we remain ready to question those assumptions."

Dev said, "The space between star systems is so vast that we cannot hope, with the technology we have now and probably with any technology I can even imagine, to monitor a significant portion of it."

As he was speaking, they could hear footsteps on the stairs and General Yalt entered the room at a brisk pace.

"Monitor the space between systems? Dev, I think you are correct. I cannot imagine a situation where it would be practical. Still, I will agree with what Cadet Tilor has frequently reminded us; we must remain ready to question our assumptions."

"The engineering team won't be ready to discuss your latest analysis for nearly an hour, so please tell me what your thoughts are now," he said as he found an unoccupied chair.

Eyes looked to Zeke, but he demurred. "Anyone here can explain, probably some better than I."

He looked at Rilt, and the rest of the flight looked to him to explain. Rilt's face colored slightly, but he rose to the occasion.

"We," he started with emphasis, "have begun to question the uhmm... priorities that we proposed initially."

The general's expression showed just a trace of surprise and, perhaps, concern.

Rilt detected the general's concern and addressed it.

"We have not yet had a chance to discuss the details, but I do not believe that what we will suggest will invalidate or delay any of the preparations made so far," he said looking around the room for agreement. Nods from everyone supported his statement.

"Our initial goal was to gather whatever information we could about the Rogue. After considering that, we are in agreement that our top priority should be simply to find them."

The general sat back in his chair, his arms folded, lost in thought for the moment.

"But what then, after we find them? I choose to assume that we will."

"We haven't gotten to that point," Zeke interjected. "Nor have we talked about how this changes how we proceed. I think, in general, we will want to put fewer probes in more star systems, ideally one each in all that we can. That does, of course, mean changes to the types of probes that are built."

"Perhaps not," Rilt suggested.

Zeke looked and waited for a response.

"We should consider that at some point, we might want more detailed information and want something closer to our original planned configuration."

General Yalt commented, "Yes, there will be a trade-off between gathering information and the best chance to detect activity. I don't expect this will be a major change for design and production. We'll need to hear from the technical team. Don't let me interrupt you any further, please proceed with your discussion."

All eyes went back to Zeke. "Construction priorities will have to wait until we talk with engineering and deployment groups. Initially, we were talking, about less than ten star systems. Anyone want to venture a guess about how many we should monitor now?"

Geren had an answer. "There are, approximately, one hundred star systems within three months travel time from Anyar." He paused. "And..."

Zeke looked at him expectantly.

"I think you will be interested to know that one of those systems is your home system. What you call Sol."

A cold wave of dread washed over Zeke. He'd hoped that Earth was largely isolated from all this. Even after the discussion with Rolenil about Earth as a possible ally, he didn't consider that they might really be in as much danger as Anyar.

"Am I lacking in objectivity, or does that have an impact on our plans for how we deploy the probes?"

"I can answer that with some certainty," the general answered. "We have only explored a few of these hundred odd systems, but the fact that Earth is inhabited by, what I choose to believe, are our brothers will most certainly have an impact on our plans. The fact that we discovered your planet was chance. If we find more systems with intelligent life, it will complicate things further. "

"I am sure that I am influenced by my home world," Zeke announced. "I trust someone will keep me honest if I am unduly affected by that."

Everyone was quiet for a moment. None of Zeta flight had an answer.

The general broke the silence. "We can each do no better than our best. If any of us put less emphasis on the safety of your home world, then that is no credit to our principles."

Zeke breathed a sigh of relief, a sigh that was surely noticeable to everyone else.

"Well," he said, "with that settled, I think we should have some ideas to present to the engineering and deployment teams."

As Zeke thought about the danger that Earth might be in, something occurred to him.

"There is a concept, or maybe I should say a strategy, that I've heard of on Earth," he told the group. It is called a 'honeypot'," Zeke said, doing his best to translate the Earth expression.

"Honey," he went on, "is a sweet substance made by a type of insect. Their hives are attractive to various types of animals. We use the term 'honeypot' to describe a desirable target, deliberately used to capture an enemy. Although I don't believe that we should deliberately use Earth in such a way, because it is inhabited, we must consider it a desirable target for the Rogue."

Dev was first to comment, "That is clearly the case. I think it would be a clear justification for having a high priority on placing probes in the Sol system. Since it is, as best we can guess, a desirable system, I think it also justifies a full compliment of drones. Who knows if they scout out inhabited systems, or simply immediately attack when they find an inhabited system?"

The general said nothing, but he nodded his head in agreement.

Finally, Ereine signaled that the video link was ready.

Two walls of the dayroom, the ones without windows, disappeared to be replaced with images that were so clear the room appeared to have two new openings. One had several people in civilian dress. This group, seated in a small room, were introduced as the engineering team. The other image showed a slightly larger room which had three people, a man and two women, in military uniforms with the marks of captain.

"Cadet Tilor, would you please explain your current recommendations to the planning team for their evaluation," the general instructed.

Zeke repeated Rilt's explanation, concluding, "We can't give a more detailed recommendation. We have yet to take into account many factors, for example the number of ships available to deploy probes in the fashion we're suggesting. Clearly more of the probes would need to have QE transceivers with this plan. The most important decision to be made, of course, is whether the change in objectives is the best course."

The senior member of the planning team, who'd been introduced as Te'elle, spoke, "We had considered the advisability of a range of deployment scenarios, including leaving a large number of probes in a few systems or a single probe in many systems."

She paused for comments, then continued, "Our conclusion was that a minimum of two probes should be deployed in each system. That is enough to virtually guarantee detection if a craft comes within the orbit of the outer gas giant on all the nearby star systems. In addition, it increases the amount of information on activity occurring further in-system. We believe that any Rogue craft entering a system would be likely to proceed in far enough to obtain metals and other materials more abundant in the inner, rocky worlds."

"So two probes per system," Zeke stated, matter-of-factly.

Ereine, addressing Te'elle, added, "There are approximately one hundred systems within three months travel time, that would mean two hundred probes."

"The number is somewhat arbitrary," Te'elle responded. "It is simply a point to determine when we have extended the detection net far enough and should start to add additional probes to gather more detailed information. That number seems as good as any. The next question to consider is the deployment pattern."

No one spoke as she continued, "All our analysis leads us to the conclusion that the pattern might not matter. We have no information about the Rogue pattern for jumps. We must consider the possibility that their movements may not correspond to a pattern we would consider logical, since we don't know their goals."

With that she paused. Those on the two video links looked, or appeared to look, at Zeke. Everyone in the dayroom also turned to look at Zeke who, deep in thought, took several moments to notice.

"Why do you look at me?" he said, something between surprise and ire in his voice.

The general broke the silence. "We seem to have no logical method for deciding how best to deploy the probes. Choosing a course of action when logic fails seems to be one of your specialties."

That brought laughter from everyone, Ereine looked at Zeke, tears streaming down her face. Whatever makeup Anyari women wore must have been waterproof.

Something else in her look, too, touched something in him. She laughed louder and longer than the others, but something in her manner made him feel warm inside. Maybe it was something like the warm pride his grandparents must have sometimes felt. There had been moments back in school. Moments when he was not just one quiet guy...

Zeke's frustration was melted by the warmth he could see and feel.

"How many probes can be carried by the Redun?" he asked.

"Each probe takes the space of about two fighters. If half the complement was replaced, fifty probes could be carried," answered Hren, one of the engineering group.

Zeke asked, "How long before the Remarran can be spaceworthy and able to make jumps if we don't finish installing the weapons systems?"

Hren spoke quietly with the other engineers. "It will take a day to determine a reliable estimate. I will guess six months and hope that is accurate to within a month."

For the first time, Zeke saw emotion on General Yalt's face. "I do not believe we want to risk sending out the Remarran without defenses."

"It is an idea worth considering. It might be worth modifying the construction sequence to have it as an option, if it can be done without slowing things down," Zeke offered.

"Anyway," Zeke continued, "the only idea I have is to start deploying probes in whatever pattern gets them in the most systems in the least amount of time. Leaving large holes in the deployment pattern might be something to avoid. If no other factors are important, speed surely is."

The general had, for the most part, kept a low profile, at least as low a profile as was possible for someone of his rank to keep in a group of that size. Now he spoke to the two teams on the video screens.

"How long will it take to produce twenty probes, each with QE transceivers?" he asked the engineers.

"Thirty days," Hren answered almost immediately. "That will use up all the materials currently available for QE transceivers. After that, another few months before we can produce another batch of QE transmitters of similar size."

The general addressed the planning group, "Te'enne, come up with a plan for the deployment of those probes and send it to myself and Ereine. Come up with a plan to deliver the next batch of probes to the Redun, when they are complete, preferably without using the Remarran as a transport."

He looked at Hren, "Determine what would be needed to construct the next batch of probes with QE transceivers within two months. Let me know what you will need to accomplish that. Determine what is required to produced fifty probes within two months. Unless it impacts the completion of the Remarran, I believe it will be approved."

"QE transceivers are the limiting factor and the production rate cannot be increased," Hren responded. "The equipment used for one critical step has no duplicates and constructing additional copies will take at least three months."

"It appears," the general announced, "that the Redun will need to leave in thirty days with the first twenty probes."

"I strongly suspect that the mission to Mecran will be changed significantly. The Redun might not be going after what I heard today. I hope that this will be our last decision made on analysis and not facts."

He continued, "By tomorrow I hope to have enough information to confirm our first step. You should prepare for graduation by the end of the week. The Mecran system is the logical first place to deploy drones. It must be searched to make sure no Rogue are hiding there. Beta flight, will also be assigned to the Redun.

"This will accomplish several things. It will be a training mission for you, the extra cargo capacity of the Redun will allow more material to be ferried to Mecran, and the Redun will provide protection for the convoy. The chances of encountering the Rogue are small, but we really don't know. You will remain until a cruiser is manned and a small complement of fighters can relieve you."

"You will return to pick up the twenty," and he looked at the screen that had just had the images of the engineering group and added with emphasis, "or more probes and start deploying them."

"Now," he asked, just a hint of a smile on his face, "are you sure you don't have any questions?"