24 Mecran

Depending upon how one defined a planet, the Mecran system had seven. Seven bodies with regular, elliptical orbits. The three inner planets, of which Mecran itself was the second, were rocky bodies. The four outer planets were gas giants, none with rings of any significance. The largest, the first of the four gas giants, was not quite as large as Saturn.

The planets, except for Mecran, didn't even have regular names. The colonists had named them, but that had been long ago and they had not been visited since.

The Redun jumped into the system at a distance twice as far as the last planet. It was assumed no Rogue would be found in the system, but the stakes were high and they were cautious. Exiting a jump caused an EM pulse that could be detected, and the thrusters, when they were engaged, could also be detected.

Three probes would be boosted to a velocity that would send them through the system, cruising across it in a couple of days. If they picked up any signatures of Rogue craft, they'd send out a QE signal that would be undetectable to anything except for the matched receivers on the Redun. When the probes reached the opposite side of the system, they'd be retrieved and their full dataset downloaded.

The Redun had one large, Eagle class shuttle that could carry and accelerate that many probes. The problem was, it took a long time to travel that far, even with ships that could accelerate at 10 gravities. It would accelerate in until it reached the orbit of the second gas giant, release the probes, then do a small jump across the system where it would slow down and wait for the probes to cross.

All of this would take more than a week and doing jumps of this precision was not common; in fact, it was pretty much unheard of. Simulations had been run, a few test jumps made in the Anyari system to confirm it could be done, and off they went.

The pilots for the Mrrin had trained and simulated for a month. It shouldn't be a dangerous mission, but they were going through a system no one had visited for a hundred years.

The Redun had jumped in slightly above the planetary plane on the assumption that any Rogue sensors would be concentrated to look for craft near the ecliptic. It headed towards the inner system at a stately two gravities, gradually approaching the planetary plane. Once the Mrrin was launched, communication with it would be minimal. It had a QE transceiver, but at a few bits per minute, most of the communications were simple updates. It would be several weeks before it could rejoin the Redun which, by that time, should be in or near their objective, Mecran.

Most of the crew watched through viewports or viewscreens as the Mrrin launched from the ship's main hangar. Radio and laser messages were exchanged for the first day, and then communications were ended.

After the Mrrin launched, Zeke and Helf led the first missions out to investigate nearby space. Icy chunks of methane and dust were present in numbers that made it impossible to inspect them all. They picked the largest ones which could be reached within a six-hour shift. The high relative velocities allowed for only a quick scan as they passed.

From inside his fighter, Zeke found this mission to be eerily similar to missions in the simulator. Somehow, though, it was disconcerting to think about being in a small metal box, unimaginably far from anything else, save the Redun. Hearing the voices of his flight mates, and knowing his flight was nearby, kept it from being overwhelming.

The shuttles with sensors identified targets and they went in pairs to inspect them. At close range, they could use active sensors. Most of the objects were less than twenty meters across and the inspections were simple and quick. The larger bodies nearer the star were more likely to hide Rogue craft and machines.

The excitement of the first missions changed to boredom within a few days. All the objects they encountered were dead balls of ice and rock, and the routine became monotonous.

The missions continued around the clock. This part of this system contained mostly icy proto-comets. The were located with passive sensors that operated in the visual range. Active sensors at this distance were impractical because of the round trip time and power required. Active sensors also announced the presence of ships in the system.

Witten, the executive officer, started attending the daily analysis and review sessions. The different duty shifts had adjusted their sleep cycles to match their missions. Except for those who were on their sleep periods, or had the occasional other duty, most members attended both analysis sessions each day. They were relatively short, but suggestions and comments continued to flow from the meetings.

Witten had petty officer N'pirrin, a member of the engineering staff, attend the sessions. She was a highly competent NCO and experienced technician. At first she was more than a little awed by the reputation of Behrlende flight. Both flights had numerous questions for her during the meeting, and she kept a record of the sessions, which really meant annotating and summarizing the recordings of the sessions.

She was soon comfortable with the group and a game developed where the pilots pretended inflated egos, which she took pleasure in bursting. It wasn't long before her liaison duties were her primary responsibility and Witten had her department head modify her formal duties to reflect that.

Witten had come to the sessions with a great deal of skepticism. Much of the discussion was still unstructured, clearly not something he was comfortable with. For a while his rigid manner seemed to stifle the group.

To his credit, he sought out Zeke to discuss the issue.

"I understand that my mere presence, because of my rank and perhaps because of my more formal manner is having an impact on the group. Perhaps it is best if another performs these duties," he told Zeke after one of the sessions. "Younger officers on the captain's staff might fit better with your methods."

Zeke pondered the problem for a moment. "That could be true, but, I have come to believe that one of our strengths is that we are a diverse group. Lots of different perspectives lead to more, and sometimes better, ideas. Replacing you with someone who is more 'like us' goes against what I think has made us successful. I think we've been lucky that some of our ideas have been good ones. We've wasted time, though, on some that seemed good but turned out to be impractical because we didn't have the experience to evaluate them.

"You have experience that would take us a long time to acquire. That you are different, and that you can draw on your experience, seems to me to be an asset that I am reluctant to give up."

Witten was unconvinced, "I see the logic, but if I am reducing your effectiveness, that trade off seems a bad one."

"Whenever we face a problem without a simple answer, we put it before the group and ideas seem to always pop out. I think this is one of those times. My gut tells me we can find a way to have the best of both worlds. Would you bring this up in tomorrow's session?"

"Will they speak honestly, even if their comments are critical of me?" he asked.

"They will if you tell them to," was Zeke's simple answer.

The agenda for the next day's session was a long one. Everyone had been on a couple of exploratory missions. Problems and possible improvements were to be presented and discussed, but the first item on the agenda was First Officer Witten's issue.

He began, "I have great respect for each of you, you are fine young officers and deserve the reputation that has been attributed to you. Agarad flight has shown itself to be adaptable, and I think they are contributing their share. None of you hesitate to try and analyze your own shortcomings objectively, and I think that is something I would like to emulate."

"It is clear to me," he continued, "that my manner is more reserved and formal than yours. It also seems that my rank inhibits your comfort in expressing what are sometimes 'crazy' ideas. I have learned that some of those crazy ideas are more plausible than they seem. More often they lead to ideas that are more workable. The problem, though, is that I am clearly a factor in reducing your freedom to express them. That is a problem that I am sure we must address. Zeke has suggested that I make it clear you are to answer honestly, and that is what I expect."

It seemed to Zeke that it was times like these, when the problems were interpersonal and difficult, that the solutions came from those who usually had the least to say.

Enelen, one of the few female pilots in A flight, was one of its quieter members. Now she spoke with a slightly shaky voice that belied the conviction in her words.

"Sir, I believe that you have identified an issue and described it accurately. The question then, is this: is the problem you, or is the problem us? I know that I, for one, seldom have ideas to contribute. I am, I think, most likely to be intimidated by your presence."

She paused for a moment, working up the courage to continue. "There are times when I have ideas that I hesitate to voice. On occasion, they've later been suggested by others. Sometimes, though, they are not, and my hesitation is worsened by your presence. Having said that, the problem is mine, not yours. If anyone else is inhibited by your presence, that problem is theirs, and not yours. Or rather, perhaps I should say that it is the problem of the group."

At that, her face turned a noticeable shade of red and she was only able to stammer, "I hope that makes sense."

Witten smiled, a friendly and approving smile. "Enelen, I think that makes perfect sense. It is not something that can be fixed by changing how the group works. It is something more subtle than that. Problems with easy solutions have a clear course of action. Usually, it is not as simple as 'you should try harder'. In this case, though, if there is a solution, I think it is as simple as that. I, too, have been reluctant to contribute ideas. You have developed quite a reputation. Even though I think I have my share of self-confidence, having the flaws of a suggestion aired so openly is not something I relish. Just as bad would be for you to accept them because of my position and not because of their merit."

Zeke spoke for the first time, "Sir, I think that if you are not contributing a few bad ideas, you're not contributing enough ideas." He turned to the group and said, "I think that is pretty insightful. I would like that expression recorded, and be given full attribution if it is used again."

The group laughed and the tension was broken, which caused him to add, "However, I'm not going to be the first to call one of FO Witten's ideas crazy. The second perhaps, but not the first."

The last statement brought down the house and even Witten had to smile.

"Now that we've completed the entertainment portion of our show, I think it is time we addressed the other items on the agenda."

Nippr, as they had come to call her, spoke about the procedures they'd documented for approaching unknown bodies. They'd practiced them on a couple of the icy snow balls they'd encountered.

Additional sensors for the fighters were still under development and would probably have to wait for equipment from Anyar. Although the engineering department was attempting to adapt some of their gear, the ship's facilities could not adapt as easily as could the plants on Anyar, They would be limited to a few prototypes to replace the weapons systems on one or two of the fighters on each mission.

"How long will it take to remove these sensors and replace them with the original weapons systems?" Witten asked.

"Several hours, at least for the first prototypes. I think if we get models fabricated on Anyar, we can swap them back and forth, on the hangar deck, in less than fifteen minutes. Right now, we're using a spare fighter that was moved to the engineering section where special tools are available. It takes over an hour, and the onboard network and software need to be upgraded. The MI's can easily load the algorithms to analyze the sensor data, so that won't be a problem."

"When can we try one of these on a mission?"

"Perhaps as early as the first shift tomorrow," she replied promptly.

"Enelen is on the first shift tomorrow, I think we should modify her fighter to mount the first prototype," Helf announced.

Enelen turned just slightly red this time, but her smile indicated her excitement at getting the opportunity.

Zeke and Helf exchanged nods, and Helf announced, "That, then, is the plan. I'll be interested in getting your report after your mission tomorrow."

Enelen's face glowed with the new task and responsibility, "Understood. I'll do my best."

The Redun started to accelerate towards the inner system. It could accelerate at up to five gravities in an emergency, but the captain would limit it to three gravities, given that the probes needed time to scan the inner system before the ship passed the first gas giant.

However, even this schedule had risks. To be safer, the probes could have been collected and set again to cross the system at a ninety-degree angle. This would improve the odds of detecting something in the corners of the system where they had the least data, but since waiting had its risks, too, a single pass was all that would be done.

As the Redun approached the outer gas giant, which Zeke though of as Neptune, the real work started. It seemed unlikely the Rogue would leave bases or sensors out that far, but no one could be sure, so each moon would be inspected closely.

The drones had not yet been picked up. They had continued to broadcast the "all clear" status and pickup was now only a day away. The Mrrin was moving toward a rendezvous with the probes and would reach Mecran, if all went as scheduled, about the same time as the Redun.

The idea of launching multiple flights was suggested. This would allow the search to be conducted more quickly and more thoroughly. However, it would also leave the Redun with fewer fighters onboard for defense, and it was already at less than full strength.

The planet and its moons were almost a quarter of the way around the orbit from the Redun's path. It would take a long mission with tanker craft to refuel. The other planets were distributed around the sun and some would be even farther.

Both Witten and Captain Verrin joined the session.

Helf and Zeke, with the general agreement of both flights, had suggested that two shifts fly the mission together, but Witten had been concerned about the benefit versus the risk.

"If you find a Rogue base, what will you do? When we reach Mecran, the outer gas giants will be searched last. If they were closer to our course, a detailed reconnaissance would be warranted. Now, I think not."

Captain Verrin was silent. The contrary view, that of the flight, was that it would be much easier to visit the planet's moons now. Two of the other gas giants were far enough from the Redun's course that they would clearly have to be searched after establishing a base at Mecran, but this outermost planet could be reached and perhaps reasonably searched in a single, extended, shift.

Finally, Verrin spoke. "We will simply skip this planet for now. Searching it may well wait until we receive the rest of the fighter complement from Anyar. We are rolling a die, one with an unknown number of sides. Our best estimation is that the inner planets are most important. Since we will make no warp jumps for some time, it should be difficult to detect us."

The two flights were silent, faces drawn.

Helf spoke first, "Understood Captain, we'll start to draw up recommendations for our next missions. Priorities?"

Verrin was impassive. "The innermost gas giant, and the outermost rocky planet are within a range that we can search. Continue your missions of objects we can reach in a single shift. If a larger object is discovered, we will discuss our priorities then. You next big task will be investigating the fourth planet, the gas giant, and then the third."

Helf acknowledged his instructions and the captain left. Witten remained with the group.

Although Zeke disagreed, he was glad to see that the expressions on all faces remained impassive and businesslike. They had a new task, and they would plan and prepare as best they could.

Witten laid out the mission parameters. "We will till be moving at a significant velocity as we approach the fourth planet. Even though it is close to our course, we won't have a lot of time. In this case, I think the strategy of using two shifts together makes sense. The fighters won't be as far away nor gone for as long. I'll confirm that with the captain. The tests, with the augmented sensors replacing weapons on a fighter, are complete?"

"Yes," Zeke answered. "They do not have the sensitivity or resolution of the shuttles, but they can move faster, so they can get closer to an object more quickly. We can get the same data from a sensor-augmented fighter as we can from a shuttle. Swapping the sensor and weapons packages requires a couple of hours. "

"Plan for that," Witten directed. "We will be near the fourth planet in twenty-four hours. How many sensor-enhanced fighters can we have by then?"

Zeke looked at N'Pirrin.

"One is operational, a second almost complete. We can definitely have a third by then, possibly a fourth with the components we have. There are some components we can't fabricate onboard."

"Plan on four," Witten stated. "I have confidence in PO N'Pirrin and her crew, and if we end up with three, we'll do the best that we can."

Zeke and Helf had fallen into a routine, each handling different parts of the session.

Helf handled the closing. "Last questions, comments?"

Rilt responded, "Geren and I considered the idea of mounting one or more probes on a shuttle to use for the patrol, but their sensors don't provide enough increased capability to justify the effort. However, it did occur to us that we should consider deploying a probe now, as we head inward. We believe there are a number of obvious reasons to do so."

"Go ahead," Helf instructed.

"First, and simplest, it makes a return trip to deploy one unnecessary. A number of deployment scenarios have been considered, but most include two probes near the outer planets, which were assumed to be gas giants like this one.

"Second, if we miss anything in our scan, it will be in place to detect any activity. Finally, it will give us a stream of real data we can begin to analyze."

Witten nodded his approval. "Choose a couple of people to help you determine where one should be deployed. I'll speak with the captain, but it will have my strong recommendation."

Helf deferred to Zeke on the choice.

"I think Rilt and Geren have made that decision simple. N'lenna, I haven't forgotten your point about a plan, should evidence of Rogue activity be found. Are you interested? If it's OK with Helf."

Helf nodded assent. The smile on N'lenna's face made her answer obvious before she could nod.

"I think we have our group for this deployment," Zeke confirmed.

"I know the strategists on Anyar are planning on what we might do if we find a Rogue presence, but I think that is something we should do now. I think that would be more valuable than flying sims, and it might give us some insight into the types of sims we do run."

"Agreed," answered Helf. "I think that is an activity adequate to occupy the rest of both flights. As soon as you can spare time from this deployment planning, I think your input on response scenarios would be useful. I don't think anyone will deny that you have a different viewpoint on exercises like this."

Zeke said with a grin, "I'll hold on to that reputation until you pry it from my cold dead hands."

From their expressions, he could see that the group was taken aback at this macabre expression.

"It is an Earth joke. In this case meant facetiously, but it is a way to humorously indicate that we value the possession of something highly. In actuality, my supposed reputation is more a hindrance than an asset."

The analysis consisted mostly of brainstorming ideas and identifying problems. They finally decided to put a probe in a large orbit around the last planet in the system. The general thought had been that this was the best place to hide a probe, while still being able to detect jump, and even thruster, signatures in the inner system.

Since the planet was almost a third of the way back in its orbit, it would take significant acceleration to get the probe headed to M7 and then reduce its speed to be captured in its orbit. The large shuttle, Mrrin, was still retrieving the probes that had been launched through the system. N'Pirrin's expertise was needed to determine if any of the remaining shuttles could do the job.

N'Pirrin reported that the largest remaining shuttle could ferry a probe, but it would be a long journey, almost as long as the one the main shuttle had undertaken. Given that, it was more practical to simply put the probe in an orbit around the star at approximately the same distance. It would be stable for many years.

That plan was presented to Witten and the captain and immediately approved. Even to get the probe in that orbit, the delta-v necessary would require several days of acceleration and maneuvering, so the quicker the mission was launched, the better.

With fewer pilots than shuttles, sending a crew on this mission left the roster of shuttle pilots reduced, and would mean that some fighter pilots might be pressed into service if other shuttle missions were needed.

With that decided and the shuttle on its way with the probe, the group returned to the planning of the exploration of M4's moons.

As the Redun traveled inward, the number of bodies to investigate decreased and missions were reduced in length. As it approached the orbit of M4, its speed was at its maximum and it reversed its orientation and started to decelerate. At about the same time, two of the three shifts launched on an extended mission to M4's moons. Accompanying them were three tankers and the sensor shuttles. The third shift prepared to launch eight hours later. It was a reserve which would be used in case the initial reconnaissance indicated a need for a more thorough search.

It would be a two-day trip. A long time to spend in a fighter and a long time to spend in a suit. The large shuttle would normally have been used to spell the pilots in shifts, allowing them to exit the fighters and their suits, but that wouldn't be possible now.

Even at ten gravity acceleration, it took over eight hours to reach the planet and its moons. The four major moons were the primary focus of the search, but six others required a close scan. Each pilot had a specific task and received guidance from their MI's to compute the most efficient trajectory and accelerations.

The moons were big. With so much surface area and limited time, they accepted the possibility that traces of Rogue presence could be missed. Four fighters had the augmented sensors and actively probed the largest moons.

The standard fighters were only suitable for the smaller moons and chunks of rocks that were found as they neared the moon system. It was a long and boring mission. The chances of finding anything were slim. Not finding traces of Rogue presence was the desired outcome, so all the more care was required to make sure the search was as thorough as they could manage.

Traces of metal, in suspicious shapes, were detected on two moons. Zeke and his flight took one, and Helf and A flight the other. Landing and looking was the only way to be sure.

Zeke, Rilt, Kaevin, and Dev followed the trajectory marked by their MI's to the rocky moons below. The icy moons, as expected, had no metals near the surface. Metal was the indication of either a natural formation or an unnatural structure, presumably Rogue.

This far from the Mecran sun, the surface was dark and only the augmentation by the ship's sensors allowed any details to be visible. They found a relatively flat area to land within a few hundred meters of the suspicious location.

Fighters weren't designed for the pilots to enter and exit by themselves on remote moons. The minimal gravity, which made landing feel like a feather floating to the ground, made it possible to easily exit and re-enter the fighters in their suits. Small thrusters, meant for emergencies, could also be used if they jumped too high. The gravity was strong enough that they couldn't reach escape velocity, but they could accidentally have launch themselves in an arc that would take an hour to drift back down.

The surface showed the marks of many meteor impacts. They were as sharply defined now as they must have been for the last million years. They reached the location indicated by the MI's and found nothing unusual. Some type of metal must have been present within the crater wall, but they found no trace of an artificial object.

After a half hour they returned to their fighters and let another group replace them. Everyone would get a chance to get out of their fighters and move around. Outside, the sense of isolation was overwhelming. Realizing the immense distance they were from the Redun was forbidding. The sensation remained with him for some time, even after Zeke was safely back in his fighter.

The hours passed and none of the shuttles or other fighters found anything. It had been, as was both expected and hoped, really just a practice run.

Another few hours and they each docked with the tankers to refuel, then the trip back to the Redun began. The auxiliary fighters had turned around hours before, when it was decided their presence wouldn't be needed.

Many hours later, the Redun became visible as more than a dot in their HUDs. Zeke and the other pilots caught snatches of sleep on the flight back. Sleeping in a suit, in a fighter, was far from comfortable. Nor was it something they had experienced or simulated before.

He finally maneuvered back inside the hangar bay and felt the clank of his fighter making contact with the cradle. Zeke was exhausted and relieved to be done. He'd developed strong opinions about the usefulness of other missions like this in the future.

The second shuttle returned from its mission to launch the first probe later that day. The auxiliary crew would be on duty for the next two shifts. No missions were planned, so they only needed to be on duty in the ready room in the unlikely event that something occurred which would require them to launch.

Two days later the Redun finally approached the planet. As it grew larger in their screens, it looked just like it had in the mission sims. The moon, not quite as large as Earth's, would be searched thoroughly. With its proximity and the Redun slowing to enter orbit around Mecran, the search could be done at a deliberate pace.

The ship slowed to a few hundred klicks per second. The Mrrin, having completed its long mission, brought back the probes for storage until they were deployed. Five more were deployed, temporarily, in orbit around Mecran. The probes could not emit the active signals needed for detecting passive Rogue machines, but they could act as receivers for the scans emitted by the various shuttles and the Redun itself.

With that activity started, the Mrrin's crew was replaced and immediately sent out on a mission, accompanied by two squads of fighters, to search the rest of the system.

The captain ordered three of A flights shifts, and one of B flight's, out with the shuttle on the first of a series of missions. The Mrrin was large enough to allow most of the fighter complement to dock with it and give them time to rest between sorties. Its ability to accelerate at more than ten gravities made trips to and from the outer system quicker and more practical.

Zeke and the remaining shifts turned to analyzing the latest information from Anyar, delivered via a series the new jump capable drones.

The new probes' modular design would have some drastically different features. Most importantly, they could be configured at the time they were deployed. One option was to make the probes jump-capable. The quantity of QE transceivers, though increasing, was not nearly sufficient to put one in each probe.

They had been gone just over a week, but things were changing in their absence. The Anyari were becoming a flexible, adaptable people. The trickle of interest that had greeted the idea for the "Search," as it had begun to be called, had swelled with the news of the Redun's departure.

The Redun stayed in orbit around Mecran for another week. Landing parties were sent down to inspect the facilities that had been abandoned. They would not be needed for the foreseeable future, but the planet was a possible, although unlikely, place to find signs of Rogue presence.

The Mrrin deployed a second probe during its mission with the fighters. A third was planned for deployment on the way out of the system, this one in closer to detect any activity within the inner system.

The Redun started accelerating outward from the star the next day.

The Mrrin and fighters returned. Within twenty-four hours, the Redun jumped to a nearby system, one that had been only briefly visited before.

This time the Redun entered normal space closer in, near the orbit of the outermost gas giant. The Brelen system had a wealth of planets, five gas giants and four inner rocky planets. The Mrrin was used to accelerate a probe into an orbit around the star.

Time was of the essence, but the physics of the jump drive worked against them. After each jump, depending upon several factors, a necessary delay had to be endured while the jump plates dissipated the charge built up during the previous jump.

The Redun, vulnerable because of its temporary inability to jump very far, waited the two days the shuttle needed to deploy the probes. It stayed as electromagnetically quiet as possible. The shuttle did a short, precise jump across the system to launch the first, then quickly deployed a second on its return. The smaller size of the shuttle, and the short jump, allowed a minimal delay between jumps.

Zeke didn't understand the physics, but had learned the rules governing jumps. A third probe might have been appropriate for a system with so many planets, but it had been decided that it was more important to get probes in as many systems as possible.

Captain Verrin invited Zeke and Helf onto the bridge for the jump to the next system. Zeke had spent a lot of time on the bridge of the Redun during the trip from Earth to Anyar, but he had not been on it since. He remained struck by the similarity to those described in the science fiction novels he'd read. Large screens showed virtual images constructed from the sensor data.

It didn't have a three-dimensional display of the star system, but he knew that those were in the works and the Redun would be refitted when time allowed. The Remarran would come equipped with one.

The jump itself was singularly unimpressive. A short count as the calculations were verified, then power was shifted to the storage fields for the warp generators. When the count reached zero, the star field changed with no sound and little sense of movement, yet they were in another system, light years from where they'd been.

The Mrrin had just been taken aboard when they'd jumped, but it was already loaded with another probe and ready to depart again.

They continued on their course while the Mrrin was away. They would wait for the first probe to contact the ship, and establish a laser link with the second probe, before they departed for the third star system. The second probe had a QE transceiver matched with one back on Anyar, so they could only communicate with it over laser and radio channels.

The priority was to deploy probes. They took no time to search for Rogue in these other systems. That might come later, if no sign of them was revealed by the probes.

The Mrrin returned, and the ship prepared to jump again. During the next two weeks, it visited three star systems, using the same method each time. The next to last system, it hadn't been named and was referred to only as Gn22, was a large binary system. It had no habitable planets---only a large asteroid belt and six rocky planets that would be more suitable for Rogue occupation than human colonization. With a system so large, the Redun deployed a probe and the Mrrin deployed two more.

The last system was as small as the previous had been large. The two drones left there seemed like an afterthought, but there was no telling where the Rogue might be or what criteria they might use for occupying a system.

The last drone deployed, the Redun made the several jumps necessary to return to Mecran, where it would wait for the freighters and a complement of new fighters.