20 A Good Day

The remainder of the week passed swiftly. They completed a simulated mission as the command crew of the battleship. For once, Zeke could sense this was more of a distraction than real training. Debriefings were perfunctory, except for one or two errors that were covered in detail. Everyone, including the instructors, seemed to be going through the motions.

Zeke was surprised, but he chose not to ask. Maybe this wasn't specific to Zeta flight. Maybe this was the traditional way that training wound down.

He learned that the graduation ceremony would be a big deal. As he would have expected on Earth, it was an event that family attended in person, and since anyone could watch via the net, many more would be watching.

If the graduation was not event enough, he got a message from Enne telling him that she and her parents would be attending as his family. The king's presence, of course, emphasized the importance even more.

During the last week, for the first time since he'd walked down the breezeway ten weeks before, he had free time. Their uniforms had small shoulder patches to show that they were the graduating class and could freely wander the facility.

He spent time with Ereine each day. He had a chance to watch streams from the planetary media, entertainment, news, and informational videos. Some he chose, some Ereine picked to explain Anyari culture. He'd picked up bits and pieces. He was beginning to understand that relationships between men and women were more complex, or maybe simpler depending on your perspective, than what he was used to.

That Ereine still showed an interest in him, while knowing about Elenne and the rumors about Enne, made a little more sense. Made sense, he thought, to someone who was accustomed to such a society. Flattered as he was, he couldn't decide how he should act, and it wasn't something he was going to ask Ereine about.

The day before graduation, they received their official orders. As promised, they would remain together as a flight and would be assigned to the Redun. After graduation, they would fly their fighters to Kanelin for final training and preparations for the mission to Mecran.

On that last day, they were to submit their votes to select the flight commander for when Zeta flight became operational. This could be overridden by command, but seldom was. He suggested to Dev and Sephen the idea of having a last analysis session before they submitted their votes. A suggestion was all that was needed. He could, of course, have sent it through his comm, but preferred this personal method. Perhaps the Anyari reluctance to become too dependent on technology had made an impression.

That evening, after the evening meal, everyone met in the dayroom. Zeke was aware that this would be the last time and wondered if the others shared his sentiment.

Zeke was one of the first upstairs. Everyone had smiles and the mood was light. They had just received their rating as a flight. Though it had been expected, hearing the official word that they were the top ranked flight in the history of the Anyari Academy was something that they could take pride in, an accomplishment to remember for the rest of their lives.

It still intrigued Zeke that the talking tapered off quickly without anyone needing to start the meeting. Eyes, as they had done so often over the past weeks, turned to him. The silence in the room, he realized, was a comfortable silence, and didn't need to be broken quickly.

Consciously he made eye contact, stopping for a moment on each person in the room. It would have been a trite gesture at any other time, but now it was somehow symbolic, like a tradition whose form he was simply following.

"I don't know if you also have the sentimental feeling I am having, knowing that this marks a change in our lives. On the first day here, after the problems the Behrlende mission caused, I could never have imagined that I would be so proud to be a member of this group that we have formed. I am glad we will remain together for now, and I know that someday when we have finally gone different ways, I will remember each of you."

On Earth, someone else would have surely felt the need to express their agreement, but here, Zeke took their almost imperceptible nods as an acknowledgment that such was an obvious truth. Nothing needed to be said and so no one felt the need to break the mood.

"There has not, up to now, been the need or occasion for me to ask a favor of you. Now, though, I have something that I think is important."

Puzzled expressions appeared on each face.

"You will be casting your vote for flight commander today. I hope you don't think me over-confident to believe that many of you will cast your vote for me. My request is that you not do that."

The request started an uncharacteristic murmuring. Geren was the one to address Zeke, "I don't think any of us understand the logic in your request, but I will certainly consider it if you can justify it."

So much for this being easy, Zeke thought. "I have never been comfortable with the attention I have gotten. You know my story. On Earth, I was as unremarkable as someone can be. It seems to me that I have gotten credit for your ideas and insights. Although that is my personal perspective, what is more important is the assumption, the illusion, that I cannot be replaced. Sometimes the impression of something is more important than the actual truth. This flight can function just as well with another leading it, and I am happy to learn how to follow."

Rilt spoke without hesitation, "No one here would say that I have any qualms about expressing my talents and abilities."

A few chuckles greeted this admission and the mood, again, lightened. He continued, "I don't think anyone can doubt my objectivity when I point out, politely, the mistaken assumptions.

"If need be, I think any of us could lead and do a good job. I think you've given us the perspective and the determination to meet any challenge we face. Perhaps it was not even you, but the sum of us together, that has been the cause of our success, with you as the catalyst. The strength is, we realize, in the group and not in an individual, even when that individual is you."

He went on, "It is funny that you taught us something that, in retrospect, is at the essence of the Anyari way."

Zeke started to think that he was going to get off the hook, but Rilt wasn't done.

"However, those points do not change the clear fact that you provide something, intangible but indisputable, that we would be foolish not to take full advantage of."

Zeke protested, "Leading is a skill. I have come to understand that. And skills require practice, something no one else will get if they do not fill that role. I have no doubt that any would learn quickly, but that is not the same as having the time to learn."

Dev said, "The point of disagreement, then, is which is of more value? Your leadership now, or the chance for someone to gain experience by leading the flight?"

Zeke nodded agreement without speaking.

"Then," Dev said, "should we not consider the advantage of your continuing to gain experience?"

Sephen pointed out, "These all are conjectures with no facts or precedents to clearly support any one of them over the other. In that case, the status quo should be maintained."

The agreement from the rest of the flight was clear. Zeke conceded, his shoulders slumped. "OK. I won't debate intuition over logic when it is not an intuition anyone else seems to share."

Kaevin, who had developed the reputation for speaking rarely, but with special insight, had something to add. "I have one more reason why we should maintain the status quo."

All eyes looked at him expectantly. "Whoever else was chosen, with you still present in the flight, would compare themselves, and would be compared by everyone else, both inside and outside the flight, to you."

"If you screw up in a major way, your reputation can withstand it. If it were one of us? Could the confidence we have now be maintained? Perhaps, but it would be a difficult situation."

Zeke had to succumb to that logic. It was unfortunate and unfair, but true.

Smiles spread around the room and slowly Zeke's smile made it unanimous.

"I don't know if I am more regretful that things will change, or excited about the future."

"Excited about the future," was almost a chant by the group.

The next morning they dressed in their flight suits. That was, after all, how fighter pilots dressed. On graduation day, everyone was a fighter pilot. Even had they not all been assigned to that role, they would still have dressed the same.

The day was bright and sunny, but cool. Yipt marched them out onto the quadrangle, the first time he had done so since the first week of training. They stood at parade rest, feet apart, hands clasped behind them.

The king's shuttle was visible on the tarmac with a few other smaller craft. Most of the others were smaller, and most of the large crowd seated on temporary chairs had evidently come via the tube.

The twenty of them marched to a marked spot, beside the dais which faced the assemblage. General Yalt was on the dais, joined by Ekthon, who Zeke remembered from the committee meeting in Kanetel.

Anyari events evidently did not include long waits. Shortly after the flight stood in its assigned spot, General Yalt stood up. There was no lectern or obvious microphone, but his voice was amplified so that all could easily hear.

Zeke could see Rolenil, Egrenne, and Enne. They were seated on the left end of the front row, near the flight. Zeke could see Enne was looking at him, waving. His eyes went back and forth from General Yalt to Enne. Beside her, Egrenne whispered in her ear and she stopped, but the smile didn't leave her face. Egrenne looked up at him and smiled the smile of a proud mother.

That brought memories that again caused his eyes to moisten and made blinking necessary to clear his vision.

The general's remarks were to the point. He welcomed everyone, making no mention of the king and his family. Court etiquette was something that Zeke had not been briefed on; evidently he would be told anything he needed. The general summarized the traditions and history of the space service. For once, it was all information that had been covered and that familiarity gave Zeke a sense of inclusion.

The general then proceeded to list the accomplishments of the flight. He announced their ranking and displayed the patch that each would wear on their flight suits and uniforms marking that accomplishment.

Then, he started listing the accomplishments and awards of each member, calling them forward where Ekthon applied the patch, the new Third Lieutenant's bar, and the claw insignia marking each as a fighter pilot.

Zeke had been told that they would be called in random order. Dev was one of the first called, and each was called in turn--but when Rilt was called leaving Zeke by himself, he muttered, "Freaking random...", under his breath.

After Rilt joined the group on the other side of the dais, Zeke was left feeling embarrassingly alone, sure he knew what was coming.

General Yalt did not disappoint.

"We are cautious when we single out one individual for recognition. The best and most honorable of us is not immune to presumption and vanity. I have had the good fortune to speak to each of the fine young men who were just presented to you. Without exception, each confirmed that the recognition I give now, though I have given it before, is deserved and would fall off his shoulders, in his own words, 'like water'."

Zeke's face turned red, the curse of his fair complexion. He looked away from Enne and her family. Near them, though, he saw Ereine sitting next to Elenne, each beaming as if the general were talking about a boyfriend.

The general had not stopped his comments. "...his service to the planet in the last Rogue attack, his successful completion of the Behrlende mission, his performance ranking, the highest in the history of the Academy. And last, but not least, you should know that his name also resides on the 'Plaque of Wanderers' on the space station for his performance during spacesuit qualification, the only one in his flight to earn that distinction. He has, as you can see, distinguished himself in every way!"

The general's voice delivered the last 'accomplishment' in such a good-natured tone, that Zeke couldn't feel resentful or embarrassed, even though it brought forth loud, but polite, laughter.

"Cadet Zik Tilor," the general stated formally, "please step forward to receive your commission in the Anyari Space Service."

The laughter had faded quickly as the general called him forward and he walked up to stand in front of Councilwoman Ekthon. Her stern face betrayed a hint of approval as she applied the patches and insignia to his chest and shoulders.

As Zeke joined his flight, without instruction, the crowd rose to their feet.

"Ladies, gentlemen," the general concluded, "I am proud to introduce Flight Behrlende, assigned to the Redun for its mission to Mecran and beyond."

If Zeke had thought the Anyari were a reserved people, he learned that he was wrong. At that point, a group of fighters made a thunderous pass over the field and the crowd yelled and applauded as if they'd just won the super bowl. They poured forth from their seats and swamped the members of the flight.

Elenne was first to reach him and throw her arms around him to kiss him. She was quickly replaced by Ereine, who soon let a shorter Enne have her turn.

The crowd parted respectfully as the king and Egrenne walked up, but the noise did not abate. Egrenne's hug was more motherly and she whispered in his ear, expressing her pride and thanking him. She told him that there would be, of course, video so that someday his grandparents could share this special day.

The king did not limit himself to a handshake but embraced Zeke warmly. The crowd hushed.

He said, "I can add nothing to what has already been said. I can only say that I am as proud now as I will be next week at Danil's graduation. I think of you, as I believe do all us here, as a son...a son of Anyar!"

With that the crowd let loose with a roar that Zeke didn't know the quiet Anyari were capable of.

Zeke introduced the king to each member of the flight. The king shook each hand and found something appropriate to say to each. When he was introduced to Rilt, he held his hand for a moment longer and whispered into Rilt's ear. Zeke could see Rilt take a deep breath and nod. The king responded with a smile.

The crowd made their way to the tarmac where the fighters had landed in a triangular formation. By each stood a veteran pilot, holding a helmet. Zeke was assigned the lead fighter. The pilot beside what was to become Zeke's fighter had a First Captain's insignia.

"Lieutenant Tilor, this is your fighter, serial number eight seven six nine. Congratulations."

With that, he clasped his hand and bent forward to give Zeke a leg-up, a tradition when a pilot was assigned to his first fighter.

The cockpit was just high enough to require the assistance. In a flight suit instead of the full space suit he'd worn in the simulations, the seat adjusted itself to his body so that he sat in a more upright position suitable for atmospheric flight. He could see Rolenil, and all the members of what he'd come to think of as his family, looking on. He raised a hand, waving and making a fist of pride and triumph.

The crowd slowly receded to stand back on the quadrangle.

Zeke commanded Ran, "Open a channel to the flight."

"Done," she responded.

"Everyone locked to me? I'll try not to break anything. Acknowledge."

Each member of the flight in order answered back, "Locked."

"OK. They said such nice things, I think I can take a little latitude with our departure. Compensators on, set them to minimum so it will be fun, " Zeke instructed the flight.

"Ran, please compute a dramatic departure course over the quadrangle, minimum safe distance."

"You're sure you want to do that?" she replied.

"You know how I play hunches."

"Done," she replied.

"Canopies down." The canopies on all twenty fighters closed in rapid succession.

The course was displayed superimposed on the canopy.

"Clear to lift?"


Zeke slowly raised the fighter; the other nineteen, programmed to follow his movements, hovered a few meters over the tarmac.

"This ought to be good," he said with a smile.

He pushed forward the throttle quickly, pointing the nose of the fighter to follow the course. They cleared the crowd by less than a hundred meters, traveling at several hundred kilometers per hour.

As they passed over the crowd, he pulled the nose up and they continued to accelerate straight up.

"Ready to release lock," Zeke announced to give everyone a warning.


With that, each fighter peeled off in order.

"Ran, please send an explanation back to the ground. Tell them, 'that's how we do it on Earth.' Hopefully, I won't get into too much trouble."

"Formation dismissed," he announced to the flight.

With that, the new pilots had a chance to enjoy their new found privileges and responsibilities. Each took off to visit his hometown.

"Everyone is going to their hometowns to show off. Where do you want to go?" Ran asked him.

"That doesn't apply to me, the king's residence is the closest thing."

In a moment, though, an idea came to him. "Is there a school in North Engleston?" he asked Ran.

Her reply was so rapid that it was easy to believe she already had the information in her data banks. "The school has about a hundred and fifty primary and secondary school students."

"I have an idea, can you contact the administrator and see if it is suitable?" he instructed Ran, explaining it to her.

Ran computed a course and trajectory that would get them to Elenne's hometown in the minimum time. Before long, the fighter was making a low pass over the village. Ran had marked a waypoint for him to land in an open area, near a building that must be the school. He made one low altitude pass, fast enough to be impressive without being frightening.

Zeke pulled the fighter around in a big turn and approached the field.

"The thrusters can't be raised on a fighter, you're going to scorch spots in the lawn when you land," Ran warned.

"Well, I hope they'll consider my visit worth the trouble," Zeke replied.

He set the ship down as far as he could from the school. All the teachers and students stayed back and did not approach until he opened the canopy and waved at them to come.

The teachers and older students walked casually, but the younger students ran forward as fast as their legs would carry them. Near the front of the group was a familiar face.

"Zik!" he called, "When the teacher told us a fighter was coming, I knew it would be you!"

"Well, Silpen, you know the tradition that on his first flight in his fighter, a new pilot flies to his hometown. I hope it's OK if I make this my hometown."

The other children held back, but Silpen ran right up to Zeke and offered his hand for a handshake. Zeke took it and shook politely, and then picked the boy up for a hug.

"I am glad that I could come back to see you again," he told him.

Jonets was a little older, and had suppressed the desire to run with the younger children, but he had walked as quickly as dignity allowed. Zeke greeted him with a hug.

"This is a great surprise," he told Zeke, "maybe better than your weekend with us."

"I'm glad that I had a place like this to come to," was Zeke's response.

By this time, the teachers and other students had caught up with the youngsters. Zeke pointed to the fighter, and said, "It is safe, take a close look."

It was mostly the boys who crowded around the craft. One boy asked a question of his schoolmate, all were surprised when Ran's feminine voice answered. After that, she was peppered with questions about both the fighter and about herself.

The girls, from the preteens to the oldest students, came to him, politely asking questions, none of them technical.

"Do you really know the king and his family?" one girl asked.

"Yes, he replied, "I have had the good fortune to meet them. They are not much different from you and those in your town, and every bit as nice," he answered.

"How many girlfriends do you have?" one young girl asked.

"Can I count you?" he replied quickly, causing her to blush.

"Is Enne really in love with you?" asked another young girl.

This time it was Zeke's turn to blush and it took him a moment to gather a clever reply. "I don't know. You know as much as I do. What do you think?" he answered with a laugh.

He posed with several groups for pictures and found out later that video of the occasion had been recorded.

Soon, adults from the area began to show up until there were several hundred people. Jonephs and Ne'eme were among them. It took him a while to make his way, politely, through the many excited onlookers, to them.

"It is a wonderful thing you've done, visiting our little town," Ne'eme told him as she greeted him with a hug. Zeke and Jonephs exchanged a long handshake.

"After your kindness, it seemed like the right thing to do," Zeke responded.

The conversation turned to Elenne. Zeke commented that he had been too busy for anything more than a quick hello.

"I tried to find a way to get hurt again so I could see her in the infirmary, but I just couldn't manage it," he said, bringing a laugh from both of them.

Zeke made a point of introducing himself to each teacher and thanking the administrator for her quick approval of his plan.

"It is not every day we get a visit and close up view of something like this, and if you don't mind my saying, it is even more special when it is piloted by a hero such as yourself," she said with sincerity.

To his surprise, a large cart with portable chairs was soon rolled up. Not long after, small, box-like trays with warm food and drinks were being distributed. All the youngest kids sat down in a semicircle around Zeke.

Everyone had questions, about Earth, about his training. No further queries about his love life were forthcoming, but he spent a half hour patiently answering any and all questions.

They finished and as the empty boxes were gathered, he looked at the time on his comm-bracelet.

"I wish I could stay longer, but I must be in Kanelin soon. Thank you for your hospitality, I am more grateful than I can express," he told them.

He motioned Silpen and Jonets to come forward to stand beside him near the fighter.

"Can the two of you give me a boost up?"

It was a bit awkward as he tried to keep most of his weight off of their clasped hands. He stepped up into the cockpit and the smile on their faces assured him it had been the right way to make his exit.

He waved as the boys made their way back to the group. The whole group walked back to stand near the school. As he lifted off, he made a slow pass over the crowd, their waving hands easily visible in the display.

It was full dark as he approached the spot that marked Kanelin base. Few lights could be seen below. The display only showed the course with an icon to mark his destination and the faint whoosh of air diminished as he slowed.

"You have approach clearance," Ran told him before he had a chance to ask.

"Clearance to where?" he asked, nothing was yet visible, even to the augmented vision the sensors and display provided.

Just then, a small square of light appeared in the ground ahead. As he approached, he could see an opening into a hollow cavern. He lowered the fighter through the opening like a scene from a James Bond movie. The space was amazingly large, the floor was bigger than many, many football fields. He could see one large Condor class transport, hundreds of meters long, occupying a small part of one corner.

The destination icon guided him to the formation of the other fighters which had preceded his. Each was in a slip with an umbilical connected to the fighter. He landed in the opening in the formation, completing a neat row. He could hear the umbilicals connect as the canopy opened.

The base was large, with many craft of all types distributed around the field. A small automated cart was waiting to take him to his temporary quarters.

The cart exited the main cavern through a large tunnel. He passed additional smaller caverns, some with grass and shrubs, others lined with uniform doors. The cart stopped in one such cavern where his comm-bracelet guided him up a lift and to the doorway of a room.

He opened the door into a surprisingly large room with two beds, one of which was occupied by Geren studying something on a portable console.

Geren looked up and asked, "How was the rest of your day?"

"Good," Zeke responded, "just as good as the first part."