25 A Glimpse of Earth

The Redun jumped back to the Mecran system, just outside the orbit of the third planet, and was in orbit around Mecran within a day, just in time for the first freighters and personnel shuttles to arrive from Anyar.

The shipyards from the previous occupation had been left in a hurry. The facility consisted of habitats for the crew, and metal skeletons with heavy arms to join sections of ships together. A frame large enough to assemble a Redun class ship was half complete, and would stay that way for the time being. Tug-like ships for ferrying ore and minerals from the planet and asteroids remained docked to various parts of the structure--as they had been for over a hundred years.

It would take years to get everything operational again, but having a backup to the shipyards at Anyar was deemed important enough to make the endeavor worth the effort.

Zeke received a private video message directly from Rolenil. It arrived with the latest of the now regular transits of drones.

Discussion had begun, Rolenil said, of opening those mines that had been closed, and of mining metals from the Anyari system's asteroid belt.

The relatively modest needs of a stable society with slow population growth, and efficient use and recycling of materials, had reduced the need for mining of minerals and metals. The new production of drones and ships required ever-increasing quantities of raw materials, so old mines would be reopened.

Not only were they planning for the production of probes and general purpose drones, Rolenil told him, but for an increase in fighters, and yet a fourth Redun class carrier. The Remarran would be complete in six months, the Ralazek would be complete less than a year later. He hoped that as processes were improved, the schedule would be accelerated.

Danil was spending time visiting secondary schools. His presence encouraged many to consider studies of technical subjects. Rolenil himself was making appearances at institutions large and small. He believed the course of Anyari society was changing, an astounding turnaround in the space of a few short months. It had taken a while for Anyar to prepare themselves mentally for their response to the attack, but he was greatly encouraged by all that he saw.

Political opposition had spiked for a short while, but that had quickly been overtaken by enthusiasm, now that an effort had begun with the hope of finding and defeating the Rogue. Complete defeat of the Rogue was, he said, an optimistic dream when so little was known, but optimism fuels enthusiasm and the changes were exciting.

Zeke had other messages, but Ereine's gave a more technical summary of the changes and plans. She also reported on the influence General Yalt was having on the decisions to emphasize the drone program even more.

The planet, she said, was going on a war footing, assuming that the Rogue would be found and they would need to be able to defend themselves, or attack preemptively if possible. The changes, she said, had started before they'd left, and the few weeks they'd been gone had been a turning point. She could tell, even when talking with her family, how the majority had shifted in their viewpoint. Where before they had wanted to hide, the desire to find and fight was asserting itself.

Zeke responded that he missed her insights and told her about N'Pirrin, praising her ability and asking that she contact her.

The first few freighters carried the essential items to make the habitats livable. While the technicians started their tasks, the fighters and sensor shuttles started a survey of the planet. Mining facilities were checked to make sure they were not hiding any Rogue. The chances were slight, but until the freighters with the next batch of drones arrived, it was the best use of their time.

Both flights spent hours searching the surface. The sensor-equipped shuttles worked continuously, crews working in shifts to make sure no sign of Rogue presence was missed. As before, it was as much for the practice as it was because of a significant possibility they would find something.

The daily announcement included the announcement that Danil's flight, and another experienced flight, would be in the next convoy. That would bring their fighter complement up to eighty--almost full strength. Helf and Zeke were called to Captain Verrin's office later that day.

"Crennalin flight will remain here, protecting the shipyards. Dri'in flight will come with us on our next deployment mission. A new batch of probes will follow in a day or so. As soon as we can get them stowed, we'll be off to deploy them. Another jump-capable shuttle will arrive soon so we can deploy probes more quickly. It will be a tight fit in the cargo bays, but a second shuttle will reduce our time in any system and allow us to return to Mecran that much sooner."

"What will Dri'in flight do?" Zeke asked.

"Acclimate to the shipboard routine and learn the techniques you used for searching for signs of the Rogue. At some point, we will begin to rotate the current crew back to Anyar. This is the first step. When we get back, they'll help in patrolling this system. We have a lot to search, so there'll be no shortage of things to do."

"Why not leave them here to defend the shipyards?" Helf wondered out loud.

"That was considered. Getting the Redun closer to full strength was considered more important. I agree. Should we run into any Rogue, we will run away if we can, and fight if we must. This seems the best compromise."

Danil's flight arrived the next day. Their fighters were in freighters, and they arrived in the new shuttle, the R'keen, that would be squeezed into the Redun's hangar bay. Calling it Danil's flight, Zeke knew from the messages Danil had sent, was not completely accurate; he was one of the squad leaders, but the flight leader was a female lieutenant named N'linne.

Zeke waited in the hangar bay as it was re-pressurized after the shuttle entered. It was a large shuttle and both flights were aboard. It reminded Zeke of waiting at the airport for his grandparents to exit the plane. Finally, Danil's familiar face appeared at the hatch.

They hugged. It had been a long time since Kanetel, and they talked as Zeke guided him to his quarters.

They'd exchanged messages, but it wasn't the same as being face to face again.

"I was home for a few days before leaving. Enne talked about you non-stop. You're not encouraging her, are you?" he said feigning seriousness.

"I'm not encouraging anyone, whatever made Earth girls avoid me must have the opposite effect here."

"The flight and squad leaders from your flight will meet with Helf and myself in an hour. That should give you time to stow your stuff in your quarters and then we can get something to eat in the mess?"

Zeke showed him into one of the small cabins, not too far from the one he shared with Rilt. "I'll meet you in the mess hall in twenty minutes?"

Danil nodded, and Zeke left with a sly smile on his face.

Slightly more than twenty minutes later, Danil entered the mess to find Zeke barely able to contain his laughter.

"Very funny, those weren't my quarters! N'linne wasn't amused to find me in her quarters. We treat the sexes as equals, but we don't assign them to the same rooms."

"Oh, I know that. Just wanted to make sure we got the rookies here started off on the right foot. You found your correct quarters, I presume?"

Danil feigned grumpiness for a minute but then laughed. "Yes. You know you've started something, and in spite of your demonstrated abilities and success, this is a competition you'll come to regret!"

Danil told him of all the developments that had happened in the time they'd been gone. Time had passed quickly; the Redun has been away from Anyar for more than a month.

"After finding that Rogue ship, the planet has focused on expanding our production and training. The number of volunteers has doubled, and it seems like every week the plans for new ships increase. There was talk of two new cruiser carriers, but I think it will end up being three. Each of the academies is being expanded, and my father is still backing the construction of a fourth. I remember reading some of your history; it reminds me of the way your country, the United States, reacted when it entered your second world war."

"Yes, it transformed my country, and made it what we called a 'superpower', with the biggest military in the world."

Two freighters, with the next batch of probes, arrived the next day. The probes were quickly stowed, and the Redun started on a second mission to deploy the second batch of probes.

As the Redun accelerated away from Mecran, Captain Verrin called Zeke to his cabin.

"I thought you should know," he told Zeke when he arrived, "the orders I received include deploying three probes in Earth's system. It will be one of the last drops on this mission."

Zeke sat silently for a moment, then asked, "Is there a special reason, or does it fit into the pattern the MI's have suggested?"

"I asked that question," the captain answered. "It is one of several systems that was under consideration, all with about equal priority. The king has been following the progress of the deployment and he specifically asked that Earth's system be included as soon as it was reasonable to do so."

Zeke nodded, "Nothing unusual about our deployment in that system? We'll be in and out quickly?"

"We are going to deploy three probes. One of them will be placed near Earth, in a Lagrange point in your Earth-moon system. That will take extra time. I'm not sure why, but those are the orders. If you like, you may accompany the crew in the shuttle that deploys this probe. You'll get a chance to see Earth, though mostly through sensors, but that is about it, I'm afraid," his tone was uncharacteristically sympathetic.

"Thank you for the information... and explanation, Captain. I would like to go with the shuttle crew," Zeke said.

"You're welcome, Lieutenant." Verrin stiffened slightly, back to his customary formality.

The ship accelerated out for a day before making the jump. As always, a squad was on duty in their fighters during the jump, so they would be ready to launch immediately, if needed, on entering the system. Zeke's squad was up for this jump and he waited in his fighter, wondering if this would be the time they needed to launch immediately.

As expected, nothing was waiting for them and his squad stood down and went to the ready room to finish their watch, as soon as the all clear was given.

The first system was large, and three probes were deployed. The routine was the same. It had lost its excitement. Now it was becoming monotonous. To break the boredom, the simulations were re-organized to make them competitive. Opponents and squads were organized without respect to flights, but the results were reported by pilot. It was clear that B flight was continuing the success they'd enjoyed at the Academy.

At first this caused friction, but the analysis sessions soon spread the knowledge and techniques. The scores gradually evened.

As the days dragged by, the subject of the monotony came up in one of the sessions. Since no one room was large enough for the larger group, they were connected with video and viewscreens.

Even Dri'in flight, on their first mission, were feeling the weight of boredom descend on them.

Helf, who had been more of a conduit for ideas and information, was the first to ask the obvious question.

"Why are we here?"

Questioning glances met his gaze.

"I thought the answer was clear, we don't have enough information about the Rogue. These probes seem the best way to gather it. Do you have a better idea?" Geren asked.

Helf answered, "Better than the probes? No. But, historically, tasks that are boring and repetitive have been the ones to be automated. Why haven't we done that? I'm not the only one who has spent a couple of months out here. Am I the only one who wonders if this is a good use of our resources---a good use of our time and a reason to keep the ship away from protecting Mecran or Anyar?"

Danil was the one to catch on first, "Are you thinking what I think you are?"

"The fighters could fly themselves, but they are never sent out... are they?" Zeke thought out loud.

"They have weapons. Energy weapons are always 'loaded', so no they never are," Helf answered. He continued, "Shuttles, though, would return to their origin if needed, if the crew was incapacitated."

Zeke saw puzzlement on many faces. Danil stated it plainly, "If we used automated craft, jump-capable shuttles piloted by MI's, we could use them to deploy the probes without tying up a ship important to the defense of Anyar as the Redun."

Zeke watched the expressions change as the idea sunk in. He could also see conflicting emotions on their faces.

"I guess I should have read more on the subject," Zeke announced. "What are the limits MI's have? How closely monitored are they?"

Sephen answered, "The one situation I can think of is mining equipment. They don't move very fast, but one person will monitor several, perhaps as many as ten, and they work pretty much on their own. Does anyone know of another situation where an MI's has more freedom?"

"On Earth, we sent probes out to explore the system before we could easily send humans, but they were not MI's and could only do very limited tasks without instructions. Was it different on Anyar?"

"Yes," Danil answered. "By the time we were going out to other planets, we had both MI's and craft that could carry us, thanks to studying Rogue technology, so we didn't use, or really trust, remote probes.

"You know that we have been careful about giving MI's autonomy. The reasons are complex... sometimes practical, sometimes ethical, and sometimes out of fear of the consequences."

The merits and consequences of the limitations the Anyari had imposed on the use of MI's was debated. Zeke felt a growing shift in the attitude towards the expansion of the roles they could play.

"I think," Zeke proposed, "that we should submit the idea to Ereine, to see how technically feasible it is. If nothing else, keeping the Redun, and eventually the Remarran close to Anyar or Mecran seems to me to be a tremendous advantage."

Danil expressed his doubts, "I agree with the idea, and I know ideas from your flight have met with a great deal of support. This, however, will stretch the flexibility of our leadership much farther than the probe program, and that was a major change."

"Are you saying we shouldn't submit this proposal?" Zeke asked him.

"No, I'm in agreement. Its advantages far outweigh any risks. Our reluctance to give MI's more autonomy is based less on reason than emotion. I am saying that this may not get the support of the council, or perhaps even my father. I just don't know what will happen."

"We have another week before we return to Mecran. Another week to debate the idea before we can send it to Anyar. That will give us more time to justify the idea," Helf suggested. "Though I'm not sure we'll have much to add by then."

Helf ended the session, and everyone went back to their duties. Zeke walked back with Danil to the crew quarters.

"What do you think?" he asked Danil.

"I don't know," was his reply. "This is a radical idea. I'm not sure that the decision will be based entirely on logic, even with the fear that the last attack caused. I'm not sure that will overcome the fear of loosening our control over MI's."

"Looking at it from both sides, as objectively as I can, it is hard, even for me, to avoid letting my imagination run wild. With no idea of how the Rogue came to exist, it is easy to imagine a situation where the MI's end up like the Rogue. It's easy to imagine that there is no safeguard we can build into them that might not fail or be defeated."

Helf, Zeke, and N'linne requested a meeting with Captain Verrin and First Officer Witten to tell them of their proposal.

They all met in the captain's dayroom. Verrin's face turned grim at the idea. Witten remained silent, his face impassive.

"That is," he said, then paused before finishing, "quite an idea."

Helf answered, "We know. It has been discussed during the last few analysis sessions, and we wanted to tell you before it spread around the ship."

He continued, "It may not be a good idea. It might even be a bad idea, but the majority of the flight think it is a choice that should be made consciously, rather than a possibility that remains ignored."

"Yes," the captain agreed grudgingly, "it is difficult to think about, but if the conflict with the Rogue ever put us in a dire situation, we would come to regret not having taken every action that helped our effort. The dangers we run by taking the Redun away from Anyar..."

"I don't agree," Witten spoke frankly. "We must adapt, but this goes too far."

"Perhaps," Verrin replied, "but whether it does or not is not for us to decide."

The weeks passed and Zeke looked forward to the last system and his brief glimpse of home.

When they entered the Sol system, one shuttle would jump across the system to deploy a probe. Another would be deployed directly from the Redun. The probe to be placed near Earth would be delivered by the other shuttle. It would make the smallest possible jump, and then accelerate to the Earth-Moon L4 point.

The probe had been loaded into the main bay of the Mrrin before the jump, and it was ready to go soon after they entered the system. Zeke joined the crew in the front compartment. These shuttles were almost twice the size of the one he'd flown with the king during training. It was constructed so that the main cargo/passenger bay could be opened to space with the crew in the front compartment.

Soon the main hangar door slid open and the Mrrin departed, followed by the R'keen. Behind them, the Redun altered course toward the point it would deploy the third probe.

The shuttle accelerated at twenty gravities, much more than the Redun, but less than a fifth of what a fighter could. The pilot explained that the micro jump would take them near the orbit of the fourth planet, a hundred million klicks from their destination. They would need about ten hours to reach the Earth-Moon system.

The shuttle had space for six crew members in the main compartment, with three stacked bunks that could be used on longer missions like this. But only four, including Zeke, were on this mission.

Zeke had access to a comm station and was able to pull up images that could still be loaded from the Redun's sensor array. He brought up images of Earth. Zooming in, he could see oceans and clouds with the edges of North America peeking out.

"Tighten your harness straps, we'll start thrusting in a minute," the pilot announced.

Zeke pulled on the straps and adjusted himself in the seat. After checking around the cabin, the pilot advanced the throttles. They accelerated for thirty minutes until they were three hundred thousand klicks from the Redun. The pilot eased back on the throttle and they were momentarily weightless.

The sun was still a small, pale ball. The jump instantly made it large and bright.

The acceleration built up again as they started toward Earth. Through the ship's sensors, the Earth was a large, bright crescent, the Moon smaller and darker. Strange, he thought, to realize he'd walked on both of them. Stranger still to realize all the places he'd been and things he'd seen.

They now had ten hours until they were in a position to deploy the probe. Zeke had seen the crew on the ship before but hadn't had a chance to meet any of them. They asked questions about Earth and about life there. He asked about them and where they were from, and how they'd come to be on the Redun's crew.

They had access to many things to occupy their time, but Zeke learned that talking and telling stories was a skill held in high regard, and he could see how they blended their technology and humanity. The long trip, with only occasional cursory monitoring of their position and the equipment, showed how they had adapted to the role of the MI's.

He asked them what they thought of the idea of letting MI's handle the deployment of probes, and of giving them more autonomy in general. He was surprised with their answers.

Prelet, the pilot in command of the mission, said it simply, "We've adapted to the changes up to now, I think we'll adapt to whatever happens next. How the rest of Anyar will react, though, will probably be different. On this mission, we've come to trust our lives to them every day. However, that is less true for most back on Anyar."

The other two crew members nodded agreement.

"You aren't afraid of what might happen?" Zeke asked them. "Even I wonder if they won't somehow become monsters like the Rogue."

"There are never any guarantees," responded Lement, the third crewmember. "Either we trust our ability to use what we create wisely, or we don't. We have not always done so, the consequences could be catastrophic. Technology isn't the only change that might destroy us."

Zeke was silent, absorbing what they'd said. The others were silent as they shifted from talking to watching videos. Among those he'd met, free time appeared to be about equally divided between education and entertainment. Both were easily available.

Halfway through the flight, the pilot reversed the thrusters to start decelerating towards their destination. The L4 point was an empty point in space, worth notice only because it was a stable point where the probe could remain at a constant distance from both the Earth and moon.

The Earth could be seen directly through the side of the main canopy. The Mrrin displayed a marker on the HUD that showed it with the smaller, fainter moon above it.

Through the sensors, the view had become clear and filled the monitor. The continents were easy to see in the sunlit crescent, but he was disappointed that Asia was the only visible landmass. He realized he'd expected a brightly lit Earth, like in the satellite photos he'd seen, but the real view depended on your position relative to the Earth and Sun.

The L4 point, where they would deploy the probe, was more sun-ward so much more of the surface would be lit.

As they got closer, Zeke asked the question that seemed obvious now: "We're sure we can't be detected by anyone on Earth? I know they aren't looking for anything this far out, but a bright light would show on optical telescopes, wouldn't it?"

"You know more about Earth's capabilities than we do. One reason that we're deploying a probe so close, I think, is to find out more, though that's only a guess. It's the only logical reason I can think of. The radiation bursts when a ship jumps could be picked up if we'd jumped closer to the planet; it would have made the trip shorter, but the course we've followed keeps the thrusters pointed away from Earth. No light will visible on the planet."

"That would make sense," Zeke acknowledged and he thought of the conversation he'd had with Rolenil about Earth as a possible ally.

An hour later they'd reached their destination. The hatch between the crew compartment and the main bay was closed, the bay evacuated, and the large side hatch, that ran the length and height of the main bay, opened. Small robotic tugs pushed the probe out about twenty meters from the shuttle and returned. It was a surprisingly simple operation.

The crew member in charge of the probe reported, "The QE transceiver checks out, it's in communication with its match on Anyar. The laser transceivers are functioning. They've received messages from the Redun and the other two probes, but it will take a couple of hours before any communication it sends will be received."

The tugs returned and the bay closed. Prelet reversed the shuttle and started the trip back to the Redun.

Zeke watched the Earth grow smaller through the viewport. The crescent gradually got thinner as they headed outward.

Something occurred to him and he asked the crew member in charge of the probe, "Can we communicate with the probe from here? And get a visual of the planet?"

"Sure," he answered, and showed Zeke what to do.

Soon he had a high-resolution image of Earth. The terminator was midway through North America.

Morning in Kansas, he thought. He watched as the sunlit area moved westward, and he zoomed in slowly on the middle of the continent.

Locating a place without mapped boundaries was hard, but Zeke had plenty of time. It would have been easier at night, but then he couldn't see what he wanted.

He traced the Mississippi up from the gulf, and then at St. Louis followed the Missouri river west and found Kansas City. From there he found the Kansas River and followed it past the cities he knew: DeSoto, Eudora, Lawrence, and then Topeka.

He followed roads: US 75, then state and country roads. Before long, he could see the road leading out of Council Grove and finally the house and barn, tiny rectangles on the screen in front of him. Grandpa's yellow truck was parked outside the barn. It was reminder enough and he turned off the display and went to lie in one of the bunks for the remainder of the trip back.