21 Return to the Redun

The quiet buzzing of his comm woke him. Geren's was buzzing in unison. He found himself in a room that was more homelike than military. Soft carpeting lined the floor and the walls were pleasantly warm-colored. Padded chairs sat in front of the consoles. There was a door into a private bath.

Geren was awake and headed into the bath. "I checked today's schedule last night, why don't you take a look while I shower?"

His comm indicated he had messages from Danil, Ereine, Elenne, and Enne. It struck him how different it was to be connected closely to so many people.

He'd meet up with his flight at breakfast in thirty minutes. They were to be shown prototypes of the drones and briefed on the latest progress. A tour of the base would take up the remainder of the morning. After lunch, they'd be introduced to the senior fighter flight, Agarad, the other flight assigned to the Redun for the mission to Mecran.

He quickly read the message from Danil. The fighter pilots in his flight, including himself, hadn't been assigned yet. He was hoping to join the mission to Mecran.

The messages would have to wait. Too many things in his life had become more complex than he could keep up with.

The mess was more like a cafeteria with a serving line. Humans, mixed with robotic servers, were visible behind the counters. Zeke filled his tray and saw the rest of his flight spread around the large dining area.

He and Geren sat at the first table with two open chairs. Two older officers, both captains, were already sitting at the table.

He and Geren voiced quiet good mornings as they sat down. Zeke could see their eyebrows raise slightly in recognition. Their expressions changed; he thought that perhaps they hardened just a bit.

"You are the wonder boy from Earth?" asked one, his tone more of a shared jest than mean-spirited.

"I am," Zeke's reply surprised them and their faces darkened for a moment. "My good fortune won't last forever, so I hope to increase my knowledge and skill to match my good luck. "

Geren shook his head in amusement at Zeke's bold response. His smile spread to the other two, the tense situation apparently averted. They asked questions about the base of the two senior officers, which they seemed happy to answer. Though they were surely tempted, they asked none of Zeke or Geren.

They soon finished and met up with the flight at a tram stop. The base was too large to make travel on foot practical. The tram car approached almost silently. It floated on electromagnets that levitated it above the track. It was large, easily big enough to hold the entire flight.

It took them directly to the stop nearest their destination. They saw smaller cars as theirs bypassed stops on the way. When they stepped off, a short walk brought them to their destination, a workshop with various machines and robots of different types scattered around the room. Along the far wall a probe sat on a test stand. It was about the size of a fighter and roughly similar in shape.

Hren was there to meet them. Panels were opened and Hren showed them the different components. The QE transceiver was located where the life support in a fighter would have been. Though it could only send a few bits per minute, it was an amazing device that would have been worth it were it many times the size.

Thrusters were present in the familiar spots, though they were much smaller. Most of the space that had been occupied by the thrusters was replaced by fuel canisters, Hren explained. The probes could operate for many years if they were able to remain stationary; the thrusters were the primary consumers of power.

"We've made changes," he added, "that will allow us to make the probes more quickly. The twenty probes I promised are already complete. Another ten should be ready by the end of the week. The latest word I have is that the Redun departs when the last of these probes is ready. We've developed a way to disassemble them partially--to pack them in more tightly, so you will have room for the additional probes."

"Also," he continued, "we have almost completed a stripped-down, jump capable version, without sensors. This simple drone can carry messages and small payloads between systems."

Two would be stationed at the edges of the Anyari system, so they could work on ways to improve and filter the data using the known trajectories of the traffic. Those would be deployed soon after their departure for Mecran.

As they were preparing to leave, Zeke felt his comm vibrate with a message that directed him to report to a meeting room where he would meet with the captain of the Redun. The rest of the flight would continue with the tour.

His comm directed him to the tram where he waited for a small car. In a few minutes he was standing outside an office where he gave his name and orders to a secretary who directed him to one of several offices.

In the office he found a Captain First seated at a desk. A Lieutenant First was seated in a one of two chairs facing the desk. The lieutenant rose and introduced himself, with a trace of coolness, as Helf, the flight leader of Agarad flight. The captain introduced himself as Verrin, the captain of the Redun, and directed Zeke to the vacant chair.

"You have quite a reputation," Verrin stated. It was a challenge as much as a question.

"It is," Zeke answered, "sometimes as much a burden as an honor."

"The Academy was not easy, but neither will be duty on the Redun."

Zeke nodded. "If you believe that we think ourselves more important than anyone else, I hope that we will be able to show you that we ask only for the respect that we earn."

"If you earn it," Verrin said gruffly, "you will get it. Now let's talk about the preparations for departure. We hope to leave for Mecran by the end of the week. The loading and refitting is behind schedule. We will not leave until we are ready, but I want to be ready by then. That will require everyone on your flight to assist in the work."

"My duty station in the capital ship sims was life support. I didn't clean any toilets myself, but if that is what's needed..."

"Good," Verrin responded. "That is the attitude we need. Helf is already familiar with the ship. You'll find it has changed since your adventure, but I don't think you'll have any trouble. Helf is senior and you will take most of your orders from him."

"Understood," Zeke answered.

Verrin concluded, "Your cabins on the Redun should be ready by the end of the day. Agarad flight has already moved in. You would normally fly your fighters onto your first duty station, but with all the activity, that isn't practical now. I support tradition as much as any, but we must dispense with it in this situation."

Zeke nodded and Verrin dismissed them. He followed Helf out of the compartment.

Helf seemed uncomfortable as they walked down the hallway.

"The two flights should be waiting for us. I'm afraid their tour was cut short. I doubt any of us will ever spend much time here," he told Zeke. "We will all go up on a shuttle shortly. Our fighters are already stowed; I'm sorry you'll miss the chance to fly yours the first time you come aboard, but you'll get a chance to fly yours up in a few days."

"We've been fortunate beyond what anyone could hope for," Zeke answered. "We're just happy to be here."

"Good," Helf replied and seemed to relax. "I think we'll get along."

When they reached the meeting room, the members of both flights were intermingled and talking. They immediately became quiet when Helf and Zeke entered.

Helf got right to the point. "We will all take a shuttle up to the ship after the noon meal. Ag's fighters are already on board, Behrlende, you guys will need to come up with a nickname, that's too hard to say often,"

That brought a grin from everyone.

"Anyway, you will be back to fly your fighters up in a day or two. Things are hectic on-board now. The captain wants to be underway by the end of the week and that's not going to be easy. I'm sorry you won't be able to fly your fighters up today, but it couldn't be helped."

Zeke watched the faces of his flight mates. He could see traces of disappointment, but no one spoke. Rilt, whom he always looked to when he foresaw problems, was as impassive as any. Indeed, he had become as solid and reliable as any in the flight.

Helf looked at Zeke, "Who are your flight leaders? I'd like to have them shadow mine at first so they can learn the things that weren't covered by the Academy."

This caught Zeke by surprise. "Uhmm, those haven't been assigned. We always rotated those duties during our sims. It didn't occur to me that would no longer be practical."

"I would say, 'just pick them', but that's a decision worth a little more consideration. We'll head to the mess for lunch, can you meet us and let me know?"

"Yes, give me a few minutes and we'll meet you."

Agarad flight left and Zeke moved to sit facing his comrades.

"Everything is for real now, guys. I hope many things will remain as they were, but some will surely change. This is the first."

Kaevin spoke, "Just choose, we chose you to command the flight for a reason."

"Dev, Sephen, and Geren. Rilt, you will second Dev; Jeren, Sephen; P'len,Geren. Kaevin will be my second. We will divide into squads when we have time."

He looked around for traces of resentment. They had become leaders and leaders preferred to lead. Nothing in their faces showed anything but determination.

They walked as a group to the mess hall. Marching was left at the Academy. Zeke and the flight leaders got their meals first and Zeke went to sit with Helf, who indicated two more tables where Dev, Geren, and Sephen could sit with Agarad's flight leaders.

Helf spoke as Zeke sat, "No one has been on carrier duty in generations. We only have logs and diaries of the last time. We'll have to figure out the routine as we go."

Zeke nodded.

"Captain Verrin considers this to be a 'working' shakedown cruise. The chances of any encounters with the Rogue are small. So we can focus on training, clearing the system of any Rogue, and preparing to get the shipyards restarted.

"The convoy of freighters should follow us into Mecran within a week of our arrival, two weeks from now. We'll have a week to explore the system and sweep it for any hidden Rogue. We'll deploy a couple of drones in the Mecran system. The captain has indicated we'll probably make a quick hop to a nearby system, as jump routes go, to deploy a few more."

Helf read the expression on Zeke's face. "He knows, and we know, that that is probably not the optimal pattern to start deploying them. However, until another ship is finished and assigned to Mecran, the Redun can only leave for short periods."

Zeke nodded. "We don't have a deployment pattern yet, at least I haven't heard one. So anything is better than nothing."

They headed directly to the slip where a large Goose class shuttle was waiting for them. Their belongings had been transferred from the Academy and were part of the cargo.

MI's did the logistical scheduling. With robotic cargo handlers, the loading and preflight procedures were completed quickly and efficiently. They were scheduled to depart in ten minutes. Their schedule had been changed with almost no warning. His view of the Anyari as inflexible was being tested.

Their comms guided them to their seats. Zeke could see the two pilots in the cockpit running through their preflight procedures.

As the time for launch approached, the talking within the passenger compartment quieted. The noises of the thrusters powering up preceded a jostling as the shuttle lifted. The roof above had retracted and they rose vertically, gradually picking up speed.

Zeke wasn't near a window, but he looked down the row of seats to his left and could watch the blue sky become darker as they left the atmosphere. He was sure the view as they approached the Redun was memorable.

Two large hangars were visible on either side of the forward half of the Redun. With all the activity, the doors were almost always left open. Constantly pressurizing and depressurizing the hangar decks was impractical. They had been weightless for a few minutes--until the shuttle crossed into the artificial gravity of the Redun's hangar. The shuttle carefully maneuvered among other ships and large cargo containers where it could attach to a docking adapter with an airlock.

When they'd docked, an announcement over the intercom told them they were clear to unfasten their harnesses and exit through the hatch. They slowly filed through the one hatch into the Redun.

A tube had extended from the hangar lock. They passed through it and the lock itself. The hallway on the other side was familiar. After having spent more than a month on the ship with only Danil, he found it strange to be just one minor part of the large crew.

His belongings, the few that he had, would be sent to his cabin. He knew that each of them would share a cabin with another.

Helf and his flight headed directly to their first assignment of the day. Zeke and his flight were directed by their comms to the center of the ship. It was a place he'd had little reason to visit during his previous stay on the Redun. He and Danil had stayed in the captain and first officer's cabins before; his living quarters would be somewhat smaller this time.

When he reached the small cabin, he took a quick look around. Rilt came in behind him, apparently his cabin mate. The compartment was small enough that they had to squeeze past each other.

"An interesting assignment," Rilt said with a bemused look.

"Yes, they must have their reasons," Zeke responded.

Their conversation was cut short by a message from a Lieutenant Denel, ordering them to report to one of the many mess halls for their assignments.

The flight was soon scattered, overseeing a number of tasks---none of which were related to their primary duty assignment.

Zeke and Rilt were assigned to check out the ship's waste systems. They were all overseen by the regular crew members assigned to those systems. The system had been upgraded and reduced in size, allowing more room for other things. Walls and bulkheads had been removed and rebuilt. They verified that the welds and construction matched the plans. All went smoothly--they found no mistakes. Coordinating the work of different groups needing access to the same area was the biggest challenge.

They did get to crawl through some piping from one deck to another. Though they'd been cleaned and sanitized, Zeke was sure he could detect a hint of an unpleasant odor.

The day was busy and they hopped from task to task. The tasks were often menial, but nothing was really difficult. With much to do, the time went quickly until the day's final meal. He met with Helf and they discussed plans for the next few days. Several more days of refitting would be needed.

Their next priority would be to become familiar with those systems related to their fighters and their interfaces to the ship. Before they left the Anyari system, Helf wanted to become familiar with the drones; it had been decided that the responsibility for them would fall to the fighter groups. They would have less to do when they were not out on patrol, and Zeke's flight was already familiar with them.

When he returned to his cabin, Rilt was on the small console. The container with his belongings didn't take long for him to store. He'd been issued a couple of sets of work uniforms, in addition to his flight suits. He'd gotten the impression that the fighter pilots got little preferential treatment, which suited him.

By the time he'd finished organizing his things, Rilt had signed off and they squeezed past each other. The messages from Elenne, Ereine, and Enne were still waiting for him. Ereine had news about the progress of the drones, and simulation data to share with the flight. He'd probably speak with her via video conference before he left. He noticed a few subtle things she said of a personal nature. Before, they'd seen each other daily. Now, she spoke about how aware she was that he would be away for some time.

In his reply, he joked that now the next guy in line would get his chance.

The messages from Enne and Elenne were even more personal. Perhaps the separation in distance and in time made them more comfortable expressing their feelings.

Enne was, to be sure, the least emotionally mature of the three. He hadn't sought her affection, but still he was left with a sense of guilt and uncertainty because of her age. Maybe the coming months would clarify things.

Elenne thanked him for his visit to North Engleston. Her parents and Jonets had been transformed to minor celebrities. Though they were a modest family, it was a nice experience to be in the limelight--if only for a short while.

She had, she admitted, been receiving comments about being one of Zeke's "girlfriends" and confessed that she didn't mind. She didn't seem to be jealous of the talk of the other two women, but he wasn't so sure what he thought about her seeing someone else while he was gone. In fact, the more he thought about it, the less he liked the idea.

From one perspective, he realized that he'd come to care for her, which was new to him. Conversely, he was still confused about relationships here and what the boundaries were. That was a conversation he'd need to have with Rilt. For some reason, the idea of discussing it with Rilt seemed easier than with anyone else.

He sent each a reply back thanking them and acknowledging how lucky he was to have the interest of someone so charming and attractive. Flattery it might be, he thought to himself, but it was also undeniably true.

He and Rilt squeezed into their bunks. The bunks themselves were the largest part of the cabin and thankfully large enough for them to recline comfortably, once they got into them.

"Rilt?" Zeke asked, "What do you think? We finally made it."

"I told you that a lot has changed in how I look at things. That change really has given a kind of depth to everything that happens now. Being here now, being a member of this flight has become something special. I like to think this time it is something that I earned and not something that was handed to me."

"You earned it. We all did," Zeke said, "We may have been lucky, but I think we did pretty well with the opportunities we were given."

"Yeah, I might even impress my family someday," Rilt answered. "Good night."