23 Ready or Not

It took several hours by tube to reach Kanelin. The base was large and had several tube stops, with one near the hangar. They'd had little time to admire their fighters since graduation and they hurried to their fighters as soon as they arrived.

Nothing he'd experienced compared to the pride he felt at having something as incredible as this. Of course, it wasn't really his, as a sports car would be, but it was close enough.

When they got to the landing bay, many of the other fighters had already left. Rilt was just climbing into his. He waved quickly as the canopy closed and the lift pulled away.

They donned lightweight pressure suits, adequate for this trip and easier to manage than the heavy armored suits they would use on real missions. They weren't really necessary. When riding in larger craft, they were seldom worn, but a fighter pilot always wore a pressure suit when flying outside the atmosphere.

Soon they were back at their fighters; walking around for preflight checks. Zeke found a module that was warm to the touch, he called a maintenance technician over. Sephen found a leak in one of the coolant lines when he opened an inspection door.

He found out later that all pilots found a fault with their craft the first time they flew it out of the atmosphere. At least, he was told, they'd better find it.

He stepped onto the lift and into the cockpit. Once inside he heard Ran's voice, "Diagnostics underway. Complete. No faults."

"Request clearance and open a channel to Sephen," he told her, though his tone made it more of a request.

"Clearance granted for both fighters," she replied. "Channel open."

"Ready?" he asked.

"Ready," was the answer.

"You first," Zeke told him. "I'll follow."

He could hear the hum of the thrusters increase in pitch and soon Sephen's fighter lifted from the tarmac. It moved out and down the line, following flashing arrows on the tarmac. Zeke lifted and followed.

Above them, the roof opened and the arrows turned to concentric, flashing circles, indicating the spot where they could lift up and out of the facility.

Sephen accelerated slowly at first, but soon increased his acceleration as they began to ascend. Zeke followed, staying in formation with Sephen's fighter. Their HUD's showed the location of the Redun, now exactly on the other side of the planet. This time, they had a readout which vectored them to get to the Redun in minimum time with moderate acceleration and deceleration.

The fighters were much faster than the Sparrows and they were quickly out of the atmosphere. In a surprisingly few minutes, they could see the immense form of the Redun. Even after the months he'd spent on her, her size, accentuated by the small craft buzzing around like flies, still evoked a sense of awe.

They were given instructions for entering the fighter bay. The heavy traffic that had surrounded the ship before was almost gone. Most of the supplies had been loaded, and except for the fighters, most of the craft were heading back down to the planet.

Like their first solo flight, this was a moment to be remembered. He was glad he was sharing it with Sephen.

Too soon, though, they guided their fighters into the fighter bay---a separate bay that was for them exclusively. It was smaller and was fitted specifically to support these smaller, high-performance craft.

Like many of the preparations to fight the Rogue, its design was the result of educated guesses. The exterior bay door was low and wide so that all the fighters on alert could be launched in a minimum number of waves with as many as five fighters per wave. Incoming fighters traversed a sequence of inspection and repair stations that refitted them for launch.

Under extreme conditions, the fighters could back into the launch bay, or even enter nose first and be refitted, and rotated in place. It could be faster in emergencies, but compromises, primarily the number of diagnostics and efficient refueling, were made.

Sephen and Zeke had entered through the standard entrance. After making the transition to the ship's gravity, they lowered their fighters onto a wheeled cradle. The lock was large enough for two fighters, and after a moment, they were able to open the canopy and the helmet on their suits. When the inner doors opened, they were standing on the side of the cradle.

They hopped off, watching the fighters go through the short assembly line where they would be inspected thoroughly, despite the short duration of the flight. Modifications to allow combat weapon systems would begin apace, now that all the supplies and parts had been loaded.

Through their comms, they could they found that about half of Behrlende flight was aboard. The last of the flight was leaving Kanelin Base now. They should be on board well before the deadline. He didn't want to have to explain anything to Captain Verrin.

They returned to their cabins to make sure their few belongings were again stowed and ready for inspection. Zeke found Rilt completing that task when he entered their shared cabin.

"How was your leave?" Rilt asked.

"Different," Zeke replied. "I learn a little more about Anyar each time."

"Someday you may be able to meet my family. Not sure you would want to, except that it might be educational. According to my cousins, my status has recovered substantially. I guess everyone else's hard work has rubbed off on me, or at least, presented the facade that I am a valuable member of the team."

Zeke looked Rilt in the eye, his response serious, "You are a valuable member of the team. Contributions by all of us, large and small, have led to what we've achieved, and yours have not been small. If your family comes to recognize that, then they are smarter than you think. If they don't, it isn't your loss."

Zeke had seldom been so firm and direct, and he could see the respect in Rilt's eyes.

"Helf has scheduled a meeting in a half hour. I'm going now to talk with him. We shouldn't have any more grunt work."

He met Helf in the mess hall.

"Any changes in the plan since we left?" Zeke asked.

"No, not really. We'll have additional information and instructions on the drones. We have forty on board, ten more than the last projection. Even with the reduced fighter complement, things are packed pretty tight. We will probably start deploying drones more quickly than we'd planned, or we might just leave some stored in the Mecran system.

"The Remarran will be designed to hold more drones. The current plan is to deploy them as quickly as we can manage. A plan to send the Remarran out before it was complete, to accelerate the drone deployment, was rejected. It is too valuable a resource to risk."

Analysis of the most effective way to use and deploy the drones would be a big part of their flight's responsibilities. The remainder would be flying simulations, which they could do with their fighters operating in static mode. The inertial compensators used to reduce the effects of g-forces could also be used to simulate them.

"The squads in each flight will start to stagger their duty shifts so that we can be launch ready around the clock. We'll start gradually shifting sleep times on the way to Mecran. Each squad on A flight will be matched with one on B," Helf explained.

As they were finishing, Helf admitted, "No one has any real battle experience. The last attack was short and our role was brief. We lost friends, but we didn't gain a lot of experience. We are the senior flight, and though I hope you will keep it between you and me, we don't have a lot to teach you. In fact, with the probe analysis, we are the ones who will have something to learn."

"I know that we have a reputation," Zeke replied, his tone serious. "I know that I have one. I repeat this because it is important for you to know I don't want it to be the cause of friction, and I don't want for us to get complacent. If we have had more success than others, it was because of a few lucky breaks. If I take credit for anything, it would be for having the determination to get the best ideas out of those in my flight, and to be ready to abandon my own when someone had a better one."

"The stakes are too high to do anything else," Helf acknowledged. "If I can do something better, please let me know, in public or in private as you deem appropriate."

"Agreed," Zeke said extending his hand. "I expect you to do the same for me."

Helf was a little puzzled at the handshake.

"Earth custom, I guess. When we make a serious agreement, a handshake signifies that we understand its importance."

Nodding, Helf shook his hand firmly.

The rest of the flight was on board by then, and they wandered into the mess hall in small groups. Zeke visited each table, informally explaining the changes. Some had read the ops plan already.

The schedule for each squad was posted as part of the ops plan. Zeke spent time assigning specific flight members to each group and finished before Captain Verrin announced their departure from Anyar. It would be a day before they made the jump to Mecran. In the meantime, Zeke spoke with Helf about finding a place they could meet regularly to review the latest updates on probe-related information. They also spoke about how they would handle having multiple sessions, to minimize the need to change the sleep cycles of the squads.

Both flights barely fit in the pilots' briefing room, it was designed to handle a single shift's on-duty pilots.

Helf spoke and repeated what everyone already knew. They would start the duty rotation as soon as the Redun left orbit. The duty pilots had their fighters ready for launch. The fighters would rotate when the shifts rotated. This was one of the few inefficient things the Anyari did. Each pilot flew his fighter unless it wasn't operational. The fighters were moved at each shift change so that the oncoming crew's fighters were in the outermost locks, first up for launch.

Helf showed a video of the shift change process. It was something that none had practiced in a century. Before, all of the fighters had been based on the ground or on the space station. Although complex, the process was automated, so the need for practice was minimal.

By tradition, the pilots coming on duty and going off duty were suited and in their ships, so both could launch immediately if necessary.

Space on-board was limited. All the fighters sat on robotic dollies, not their own landing gear, which moved them precisely within the narrow confines of the locks and passageways.

When the shift change had finished, the pilots on duty went back into the adjacent ready-room and removed their armored flight suits. In the ready room, their suits were in stations so they could be fitted and ready in less than sixty seconds.

All that was necessary to launch a fighter was the opening of the exterior lock door. The fighters for the following shifts were in separate locks lined up behind. If more were to be launched, the interior doors between the successive ranks need only be opened.

Helf announced that they would start the patrols when they entered the Mecran system. Each patrol would search the system for any sign of Rogue activity. Additional craft with more powerful sensors would be a part of each mission.

With that, he turned over the podium to Zeke who spoke about the latest probe information they had all been given.

"We have forty probes on board, at least twenty of which will be deployed in ten systems. The latest plan from Anyar is that we place at least three in each system. Jump-capable relay probes are being built that will jump to a system if the QE transceiver signals that there is any unusual activity to report. How that data gets both to Anyar and us has not yet been determined."

He continued, "Additional personnel are being assigned and trained. A lot more analysis and simulations are being conducted. The project is not going to be ours anymore, although we'll be high on the priority list, and will still continue to comment and suggest. Now, we will soon be out deploying probes and our involvement must, necessarily, be limited. I don't view it as a demotion, but as a further acknowledgment that the idea and reasoning were sound."

He went on to summarize the other information in their briefing. The next group of probes would be made more modular, so that it would be practical to configure them during deployment missions. Additional modules would be available, including propulsion, so that probes could be move around within a system.

"That is all I have to say. We will have two analysis sessions each day, as well as briefings and debriefings after any exploratory missions. That will also mean filing reports. Most of that can be handled by having your MI record notes and video and other sensor data during your missions. Filing your report should consist mostly of reviewing and organizing the information stored by the MI."

"Any questions?" Helf asked the group.

"Are there procedures describing how we should conduct the exploratory missions?" Mallen, from A flight, asked.

"Yes, but we'll be adding to them as we go. This is something else we've barely touched in the rush to get this deployment mission launched. We'll need someone to take the lead in organizing them. Those procedures are another subject and I think they should be a regular agenda item for our sessions," Helf answered, looking at Zeke, who nodded agreement.

"I think our analysis sessions should evolve and become more formal. Unstructured time is important for creative thought, but we'll have a lot of things to do and track that we will want to make sure we cover systematically," Zeke suggested.

There were nods around the room. Zeke mused, "I wish Ereine were still with us; someone with organizational skills and knowledge of the rest of the Service is important. Do you think we can get Captain Verrin to assign someone to fill that role?"

"I'll get an appointment with him and we can make the case. I'm starting to grasp how little we know and how much we need to do and to consider. Other questions?" Helf responded.

Rilt asked, "Since we'll be doing a lot of looking and probably not much fighting, can we equip the fighters with additional sensors? Having dedicated shuttles is a good idea, but we have so much space to cover, just in the Mecran system. My point is, every little bit helps, if there is a reasonable way to extend each fighter's sensor array."

Helf responded, "I think that is another good idea, if it is practical, and it argues even more for Zeke's idea of a liaison to assist us. I'm starting to wonder if one will be enough."

When there were no more questions, Helf remained behind to talk with Zeke as the group left to go to their fighters and start their training.

"I've got an appointment with the captain in an hour. I think we should talk first."

Space was short on the ship, and although the pilots had priority on the use of the briefing room, there were others who needed it. Luckily all the regular crew was busy preparing for the jump to Mecran, so he and Helf could remain.

"Captain Verrin is somewhat old school. He is not unreasonable, but he can be conservative and oppose change at times. You can tell that he is, uhmm, less impressed with your accomplishments than most. Still I want you to be with me when we ask for his approval of our request."

Zeke nodded agreement, but said nothing.

"He does support the search for the Rogue, though, and he was among the first and strongest supporters of this idea. He commanded the largest armed craft we had when the Rogue attacked, and he was in charge of A flight, too. He was the one who made sure we launched early and were as ready as possible when the Rogue got close to Anyar. It would not have been enough, without you and Danil showing up, but without his preparations, all would still have been lost."

Helf could see the questioning look on Zeke's face, "If you find him stubborn, lacking flexibility or creativity, I just want to make sure you know his strengths."

"Understood. General Yalt assigned Ereine as liaison to us back at the Academy. That seems a good example to follow. Will that cause him to favor the idea, or does he tend to be contrary?"

"I don't think he and Yalt are on the best terms. I don't think we'll bring that up unless we need to."

"OK. Anything else?"

"No, we've got a half hour before we meet with the captain, I'll meet you outside his ready room then."

The half hour allowed Zeke to check his messages, possibly for the last time before they left the Anyari system. To his surprise, Rolenil had sent a long message. It spoke briefly on many topics. In general, though, it expressed confidence in him, the two flights, and the rest of the crew. Zeke sent back a simply worded thank you. He was careful not to presume on the kindness and special interest the king had shown him.

Elenne and Enne each sent long messages, too. After they made the jump, exchanging messages would be limited to how often freighters and other craft made deliveries with the Redun. It would likely be several days to a week between a message and response, especially after they left the Mecran system to deploy probes.

He sent each a simple thank you, telling them he was saving most of their message for later and planned to read a little each day. Hopefully, that would be considered at least a little romantic.

Ereine's message was shorter. Much was about the probe project and related activities, including the construction of the Remarran. She was still the liaison with General Yalt, from whom a message was noticeably lacking.

She closed, though, with a couple of paragraphs saying how she felt like a schoolgirl with a crush. It had started, she said, when she'd taken the flight on that tour their first day at the Academy. Everything since, she went on, had only increased her admiration for him, and her affection was something that grew with each day.

He was taken aback by that and unsure how to answer. Finally, he acknowledged that she was the first Anyari woman that he'd gotten to know and he was still coming to terms with the idea that she might not be "out of his league", as she would surely have been on Earth. He confessed a fear of screwing things up but that he hoped he'd have a chance to get to know her.

The time away from Anyar would give him time to sort out the situation with the girls.

He sent the message to Eriene and hurried to meet Helf who was waiting for him. He hadn't seen Captain Verrin since they'd arrived on the ship and he wondered if his opinion of him had improved or worsened.

Helf knocked and they entered when Verrin acknowledged them. He motioned them to chairs.

Helf did the talking. "We have continued to conduct the analysis sessions and plan to continue. But, as we study the situations that might confront us, we have questions for which we don't have answers."

Verrin interrupted, "Knowing your weaknesses and limits is important. They don't teach military strategy anymore, but it is one of the basic principles. Good! I'm glad you recognized that."

Helf continued, "The first thing we identified is that we need to put more detailed procedures in place for the search of the Mecran system, and clarify our search procedures in general. That, I think, we can handle, although if there is someone who has any relevant experience..." he let the sentence trail off.

"You're right. Everything we do--everything you do--is important. We don't want to be paralyzed by over-analyzing, but we want to do the best job we can. I don't think there is anyone on board who has much to offer in that regard, but I'll talk with my staff. In the meantime, your communications with Anyar will have priority. I know they're working on drones to relay messages more effectively. Before they're ready, we'll send couriers back and forth if you deem it necessary. You, the two of you, have the authority to order a courier sent to Anyar without my approval. I'll be in the notification chain if there is a conflict that needs to be resolved. Questions?"

Helf kept his surprise almost completely hidden, but he couldn't completely keep his eyes from opening a little wider.

"We have another request. Another idea has been suggested. It has to do with modifications to the fighters to improve their sensors, but we don't know enough about the ship's personnel and responsibilities, etc. to know who to talk to. I'm sure there will be other issues that we will need help with..."

Verrin interrupted, "The shuttles with the augmented sensors... those won't be enough?"

"Will they?" Helf answered with renewed confidence. "I don't think any of us know what is enough. If we can improve the search, through better procedures or better equipment, we'll take what we can get."

Verrin was silent for a moment as he considered Helf's statements. He remained so, long enough for Zeke and Helf to grow nervous. Finally, he answered.

"Yes, there will be a lot going on. I think you'll need someone who knows the ship and her personnel. I have a couple of ideas, you'll have someone shortly after we enter the Mecran system. In addition, I think I'll have my First Officer, Witten, attend your analysis sessions. He can be the liaison with me. That might change later. I might even attend one myself, if that won't disrupt things too much."

Helf was smiling now, and Zeke, who hadn't known what to expect, was impressed with Verrin's quick decisions.

"Anything more?" Verrin asked.

"Not now, not yet, but this will help us immensely," Helf told him.

"Good, you're doing good work. I didn't see how we could get everything organized, the Redun refitted, and make a credible start in Mecran nearly as quickly, or as well as we have. We have good people," and he looked into Zeke's eyes, "and I count both of you, in that number. I have a feeling that there are surprises in store, and few will be pleasant, but I think we are off to an auspicious start. Contact Witten if you need anything. I trust your judgment until proven otherwise. Trust his. You're dismissed."

They left the ready room and stopped outside to congratulate each other.

"I don't know what just happened," Helf told Zeke. "He was sincere. I'm sure this wasn't something he did under orders from Yalt or anyone else. I'm still getting used to not having a bureaucracy that resists any change or improvement. At this rate, I think we'll be kicking some Rogue ass in no time!"