26 The New Plan

As the Mrrin returned, the Redun was preparing to jump back to Mecran. They were several long jumps away and it would take a couple of weeks to return. When the crew door opened on the shuttle, Zeke thanked the crew and headed towards his quarters. He would just be starting his off-duty time. The long day in the shuttle, and the emotions of seeing Earth and his grandparent's farm, had left him physically and emotionally drained.

Zeke found Rilt in their cabin and they talked about the mission. He'd spoken of his family and his regrets at leaving them, so it was common knowledge, at least among his flight mates. Rilt could tell that the experience had shaken him.

"Were you close to your grandparents?" he asked.

"They were more like my parents, and I looked at them that way," Zeke answered. "I didn't think of them any differently than other kids did their parents. I didn't think we were especially close... didn't think about them that much. Now that I've been gone, though, I am reminded of them all the time."

"To have someone you feel that strongly about," Rilt confessed, his voice quiet, "is something I envy."

"There's a saying on Earth--it never meant much to me before--about not appreciating something until it's gone."

They were both quiet, but Rilt snapped the solemn mood.

"You never know what will happen. I certainly never thought I would like you!"

"I know, the feeling was mutual," Zeke replied and they both laughed.

Zeke changed the subject, "Nothing new while I was gone?"

"No, we wouldn't hear anything unless it was major, so no news is good news."

They made their way back to Mecran. Earth was the farthest they'd been from Anyar.

The weeks were uneventful. They only passed through systems where they'd already deployed probes. It didn't seem very efficient to have one long empty stretch of travel without deploying more probes, but their route had been determined by many factors and this dull stretch had been unavoidable.

The weeks were filled with more training and analysis, but the time dragged by, even more so than before.

Finally, they made the last jump to the Mecran system. Shortly after the jump, Zeke received instructions to report to Captain Verrin.

The captain had surprising news. "You're to return to Anyar as soon as we arrive at Mecran. You'll leave on the next shuttle."

Zeke was taken aback, "Do you have any idea why?"

"Why? No. It is by the request of the king. You're to report for an audience with him. You are the only one, so I have no idea."

The captain betrayed no surprise and started preparations for Zeke's departure. "I'll need a recommendation for a flight leader to replace you. Another fighter pilot from Anyar is coming on the next shuttle to fill your slot."

Verrin dismissed him without further comment. Zeke left and headed back to the simulator he'd left, his mind buzzing. On his way, though, he changed his mind and used his comm to locate Helf, who was in the ready room, his squad ready to launch if necessary.

As he walked in he sighted Helf and motioned that he should join him in the hall outside.

"I've been ordered back to Anyar," he said simply.

Helf's eyes widened, "Why?"

"I have no idea, just that the king has requested it."

Helf paused. "There will be rumors. Who is going to replace you?"

"I need to recommend a replacement. I've scarcely had time to think about it."

"It is either Dev or Sephen?" he looked at Zeke.


Helf nodded.

"Either could do it, in fact, I can't think of any I wouldn't trust, but if I have to choose one..."

Zeke sent a message to the captain. A confirmation came back within a few minutes telling him he could make the announcement.

He went first to Dev to tell him the news.

"You must be kidding!"

Zeke's face was solemn, "No. I'm as surprised as anyone about my orders, but you are the logical choice to take my place."

"Sephen would be a better choice," he said with doubt in his voice.

"He would be a good choice, and you should seek his advice if you have doubts. Helf will be here, too."

Dev exhaled and slumped in the chair, "OK, if you say so."

"I wonder, often, if most everyone in the flight wouldn't be a better leader than me. As big as a change as it is for you, the only difference is that I had time to adjust. In the Academy, the responsibility didn't seem so great, but things changed, and I couldn't talk you guys out of keeping me as the flight leader. Now the time has come, maybe a little sooner than anyone thought."

"Too soon, I think."

Zeke smiled, "It is a relief for me. I have no concerns at all. With Sephen and Helf to help you, like you and Sephen helped me, you can deal with anything that comes up."

He went next to find Sephen, who was in his cabin, just coming off duty. When he gave him the news, he saw no resentment and maybe a trace of relief.

"You know that you could have been given command instead?"

"I think I could handle it, but I know Dev can. If my time comes, I'll be ready."

Relieved, Zeke replied, "I won't try to predict the future, but I would be surprised if your time doesn't come."

Then it was time for their daily session.

The announcement hadn't had time to spread. The announcement was greeted with silent surprise at the news. Danil hadn't heard, either, and he gave Zeke a questioning look. He replied with a shrug.

"You've all helped me, and I have no doubts you'll help Dev every bit as much. I needed that help and I'm sure he will, too.

"One last thing, I think you should go ahead and send our latest proposal. Send it through Ereine, she'll know how to handle it."

He concluded, "There isn't any more news. You'll have a new member joining you when we get to Mecran. Go easy on him."

Everyone in the room laughed, though it had a bittersweet tinge. Zeke realized it might be the last time they met like this, and they had only been together a few months!

After the session, Danil waited while the others left the room.

"I have no idea, why does your father want to see me?" he answered the unspoken question.

"He wants to see you?"

"If you don't have an idea..." his statement trailed off and he smiled. "Maybe he thinks I'll be a bad influence on you! Or that you are on me!"

Hours later, the Redun neared the shipyards. The growing station was taking shape around it. It had become a station, with a docking port for the Redun to use.

He went to each member of Behrlende flight to say goodbye. He spoke with Rilt last, as he packed his belongings.

"So," Rilt said with mock seriousness, "are you going to be OK, without me to look after you?"

"You know I had to go out on my own sometime," he answered with an equally serious tone.

When he'd finished, Zeke stood by the door, his bag on the floor in the hallway. He reached out to shake hands, but Rilt surprised him by wrapping his arms around him in a hug.

"You're not much, but you're my best friend," he said in the same serious tone. Zeke sensed the truth in his statement.

"I will miss you, I'll miss everyone here. Maybe like you, this is the first time I've ever had a bond like this."

Both of their eyes were misty. With a final handshake, Zeke turned away and headed toward the docking hatch.

Through his comm, he'd found that the shuttle had docked ahead of schedule. As he passed people in the hallway, a young lieutenant stopped him.

"Lt. Tilor? I'm Flinnel," he said shaking Zeke's hand. "Just in from the Academy and here to replace you, if that is possible."

"They are a good group of guys, you'll learn a lot. I did. Dev is commanding the flight now, you should check in with him."

"Yes, I got the word. Thank you. It's an honor meeting you."

"I'm glad to meet you, too. Good luck."

Zeke hurried to the dock. There probably wasn't much going back, so they were likely waiting on him.

He reached the docking hatch and hurried aboard without formality.

"I'm Zeke Taylor", he told the first crew member he saw, evidently the co-pilot because the pilot's chair was occupied.

"The great Zik Tilor at last," he heard from the pilot. Evidently he was less impressed.

The co-pilot's expression was apologetic. He pointed to a seat behind him in the front compartment.

"I'm P'lek, yes, the cargo bay is empty, we bring full loads, but don't take much back."

Zeke quickly sat down and strapped himself in.

"I'm secure and ready for launch," he reported.

The pilot nodded his acknowledgment, no smart remarks this time.

They ran through the checklist. A fault was noted and a command given to correct it. Since this flight was not an emergency, the fault was probably placed in by the MI to be found during the pre-launch checks. The pilot grumbled, but the solution was simple and they were soon un-docked and heading away from the station.

The trip back was much quicker than the trip out on the Redun. Still, Zeke had little better to do than read, study on a console, and wonder what the king wanted him for. Outbound for an hour from Mecran station, the shuttle jumped to the Anyari system. After the jump, the shuttle headed towards the shipyards. The adjoining habitat was large, and it had become the transfer point to the surface.

By the time the shuttle docked, it was too late in the day to proceed directly down to the surface. It had been a long day, and Zeke was assigned a cabin for the night. It was late evening in Kanetel, he would meet with Rolenil in the morning.

To his surprise, he found no messages when he arrived in his cabin. No one, as far as he knew, was aware he'd been ordered back to Anyar. He watched a news program and was struck with how much concerned the military preparations. It mentioned that the Redun had completed its latest mission and had returned to Mecran.

Before falling asleep, he had again tried to figure out the reason for his return. The situation with Enne, Ereine, and Elenne, as confusing as it was, took a backseat to this. What could he do that they couldn't find someone else far more qualified for? Public appearances? Surely, it couldn't be related to Enne.

In the morning, he checked to find available transport to the king's residence, where he'd been directed to report. A Sparrow, like the one he'd first taken to the station, was all he'd need. There wasn't much use for them, and the smallest craft available was a Shrike, a four person, lightly armed personnel carrier.

His comm guided him to the hangar bay and to his ship. The hatch opened up as he approached. The Net managed everything, so he just stepped in and sat in the pilot's seat. Before he fastened the harness, he heard Ran's familiar contralto.

"Seems like I just spoke to you a moment ago," she said, evidently attempting humor.

"MI's with humor?" he asked.

"Why not?"

"OK, I guess I can get used to it. Have you synced with the Ran in my fighter?"

"We don't exactly sync, however, when an instance of me is out of direct communications with the Net, the central database gets updated as soon as possible. So yes, I have been updated. I know when you last went to the bathroom."

"TMI," he replied.

"TMI?" was her response.

"Do you know English?"

She paused, "Very little material on the English language is available on the Net, so I must say no."

"Well, when you do learn American English expressions, it will make sense."

"How long to get to the Residence?" he asked.

"It is almost directly below us. If I give you vectors, you can be there in twenty minutes, thirty if you do it yourself."

"Give me some hints, that should be fast enough."

Ran displayed a sequence of waypoints, each had a velocity that he should match by the time he reached that waypoint.

In just a little over twenty minutes, he could see the forests around Kanetel. Before long, the large preserve, familiar from his two visits, was visible and he could follow either of the two roads that led to the king's residence.

Soon he was hovering over the landing pad, noting for the first time how incongruously large it was. As he set the little ship down, he saw someone was standing near the edge of the tarmac. Enne walked toward him.

"You don't look any different," she said as he stepped out. She gave him a hug.

"Has it been that long?" he asked.

"I guess not, guess it just seems that way."

"Do you know why I'm here?"

"No, I heard that you were being ordered back, and that it was at father's request, but nothing more than that."

They walked back toward the residence. Everything was still surprisingly informal considering the occupant. He still had a lot to learn about Anyari ways.

Enne showed him to the same office where he'd previously spoken to Rolenil. It seemed like years ago, but less than six months had passed. She knocked and opened the door, gesturing him in. He thanked her and stepped inside.

The office was unchanged from his last visit. The large window, the main source of light in the room, looked out across the open fields of the preserve to the treeline in the distance.

As before, the king stepped out from behind the desk and clasped Zeke's hand warmly.

He addressed Zeke's concerns and confusion immediately. "I'm sure you were surprised to be called back." His voice was reassuring and warm.

"Yes," Zeke acknowledged. "I've tried to come up with an explanation..." his voice trailed off.

He motioned Zeke to one of two chairs in front of the desk, taking the other himself.

"I can imagine," he answered with a nod. "Except for the political and social upheavals that have occurred on occasion, the past few months have seen the greatest changes in all of Anyari history."

Zeke nodded understanding, but said nothing.

"As great as those changes have been, I have come to the conclusion that they have not been great enough," he stated intently and waited for a reaction.

"I will take your word for it. The rest of the planet seems to trust you. I see no reason why I shouldn't," was Zeke's lighthearted, yet truthful response.

The king smiled, "The public trust is something that I and my predecessors have been able to count on, sometimes far beyond what they deserved. The situation now makes it important that we choose our course wisely, and we don't have a lot on which to base our plans.

"Your knack for analyzing the situation has changed the way we look at everything. Of course, we've tried to be objective, consider alternatives, and make rational decisions. This served us well for hundreds of years. We were conservative about the possibilities, and for the most part, that was a successful strategy. Taking chances was unnecessary and not worth the risk.

"Now, though, it is time to open ourselves to new possibilities. With the last attack, it is clear that minor efforts are not sufficient, and minor efforts were all that we made up to now."

"Minor? How old is the space station?"

"The space station was built over a hundred years ago, not long before we started preparing to colonize Mecran. But, like too many things, its purpose was never clear. We didn't have the ability to create artificial gravity, so it had to spin. It was, the newer histories agree, more a sign for the population to see that we were doing something.

"However, if you compare the effort put into construction of all our defenses, as a percentage of the output of the planet, it was less than two percent. Our knowledge and our manufacturing ability started to increase dramatically as we reverse-engineered the Rogue technology."

"You don't think the current plan is enough? I guess you wouldn't be telling me this if you did."

"We've been have focused on internal projects. As more equipment has been automated and, more recently, MI's became more common, it was easy to support our society's basic needs with fewer people. Since our exploration of space was modest, a greater part of society was freed to produce goods and services that were discretionary at best, frivolous at worst. Considering the magnitude of the threat, what were they―what were we thinking?"

"I don't know," Zeke said. "I guess it is human nature to deny the things that make us feel helpless."

"Perhaps," Rolenil said. "It may have seemed overwhelming at the time. One can look at the accomplishments. The station may not be an effective use of resources, but it was an impressive one, compared to any other projects before then. Perhaps any projects up until now."

Zeke nodded and waited without speaking. The king must have something to tell him. He'd been brought a long way.

"I wanted to give you a little perspective before I explained why you are here," and he paused. "I know you have resisted the hero worship that the public has tried to thrust upon you. I am very proud of you... I have come to take pride in you and what you do, though I am no more entitled to do that than anyone else on Anyar."

Zeke smiled and could feel his face warm with a mixture of embarrassment and pleasure. "I have not had a friend as close as Danil. I was always a bit of a loner, though not by choice. The relationships I've formed with him, and with the flight, mean as much to me as... almost anyone."

"Danil is more outgoing than you, he has many friends. But sharing the dangers you two faced is something that forges a rare bond. We have an old saying: 'Difficulties are a blessing visible only to those who experience them.'

"But I have gotten off track again," he laughed at himself. "It is time for you to understand the results of my 'analysis'. You may have guessed, you've had a few clues. We've talked about it before, and I see that you accompanied the probe deployed near Earth."

A cool flush drained the blood from Zeke's head.

"It has great risks, it might fail, it might even set us back instead of help, but I think it is worth trying, or at least seriously considering."

Zeke said, simply, "Earth!"

"Yes," and the king's face lit up with a hopeful grin.

"I'm not sure how much I can help. So many know so much more, my Grandpa John... but I'm here, and he is not."

"We will need the ideas and judgment of many wise and knowledgeable people. We have only the vaguest of plans so far. I have spoken with Councilor Ekthon and General Yalt. Of all my advisers, I value their opinions and insights most. With the possible exception of yours, especially in this matter."

He said the last with a smile that some might take as a jest, but he must be serious. The fact that Zeke was here demonstrated that.

Zeke's first thought was that he would see home again, even his grandparents, and a feeling of elation swept over him.

"Where do things stand? What do you want with me?" he asked, excitement leaking from his voice.

"Little has been done so far. I have spoken with only the two I mentioned and had the probe, a special probe, sent to gather information about Earth.

"The meeting of our two cultures would--will--I think, be a momentous thing, not just for you, but for us, too. It is an unprecedented event."

"Meeting alien races is a common subject in our fiction. It is exciting and, depending upon the circumstances, scary to think about," Zeke agreed.

"Yes," Rolenil agreed. "It is definitely both. I fear it is something we can easily mishandle. But handle it, with good judgment and care, we must. If we don't, it could be a disaster bigger than the Rogue."

That sobered Zeke. No one knew the differences between Earth and Anyar better than he. He'd learned by failure how to succeed. This time, they would have only one chance to get it right.

"There is much about my planet I don't know. It has a lot of different governments, different religions, and political groups."

The king nodded. "That will be the first step. You will have a busy few months. I hope it is only months. I have spoken with Councilor Ekthon and General Yalt about how to start. We are agreed that learning more about Earth and having a detailed plan are critical. We won't just show up, explain the situation, and expect help. Even if Earth were much like Anyar, I don't believe that would be wise."

"I understand," Zeke said with a laugh, "that I'm the only person from Earth you've got, but what do you want me to do?"

"You've shown a flair for problem-solving, and you have insights about Earth that we might not learn, no matter how much information the probe gathers. So, to answer directly, we don't know yet. But including you seems a reasonable choice. When we do contact Earth, your presence will surely have important symbolic meaning."

Zeke nodded, "A bridge between Anyar and Earth?"

"Exactly! At least, that is what I think, and the others share that view."

"I have not dared think about returning home."

"There is a danger that things may not work out in a way that you will like. We have not encountered beings from another planet, either. We may make mistakes, perhaps even major ones because of that lack of experience, but we will make the most rational decisions we can."

"I have adapted, I hope--- I believe, there are many on Earth like me."

"I think that humanity is the same, though our cultures are different," the king responded.

"What's next?"

The significance of the king's response took Zeke a moment to comprehend, "We learn, and we plan."

It sounded strange, but it took him a moment to realize, "You spoke English!"

The king switched back to Anyari. I've been working on it. I know there are many languages on Earth, but since it is the one you speak, and I know it is common on Earth, it seemed like the place to start."

Zeke answered in English, "I think it is the language used for international communications, but it isn't the one spoken by the most people."

"We have a lot to decide, and that will start right away. We meet with Councilor Ekthon and General Yalt this afternoon. Secrets are something we avoid on Anyar, but this idea should be announced in the right way. I hope for the support of the citizenry, but I don't take it for granted."

Zeke nodded, "I understand, speaking of changing perspectives..." Zeke told him of the proposal to expand the autonomous operation of MI's.

The king paused, digesting the idea. "That will meet with resistance, but it is something that could help our preparations and security. I have the same conflicting views that most Anyari have."

They went down to lunch, before leaving to meet with the others to start planning. The king cautioned him to keep the subject quiet: very few were in the circle, so far, not even Egrenne or Enne.

Egrenne greeted him warmly as she helped the cook prepare lunch: a spicy, salty soup, and slices of bread with a tasty seafood spread and crunchy vegetables.

Enne dominated the conversation, asking him about his adventures of the last few months. He could see Rolenil and Egrenne hiding smiles at her behavior.

"Isn't it scary to be so far out in space, so far from home?"

"I guess you get used to anything. I had plenty of company. On the trip here, all I had to talk to was Danil and the MI's, which were somewhat less advanced, and less interesting, than the current generation."

He added, "Not that Danil isn't an interesting and amusing companion, but a month of talking to him, learning Anyari, and watching videos about Anyar and Anyari culture, was more than enough. The deployment mission also became a little monotonous after a while, but most things do after you get used to them."

"Not me!" she protested. She stopped, her face red with embarrassment.

"That is a lot about me. I apologize because I've never thought to ask what you are doing? School? What are you interested in?"

"Oh, lots of things, especially human behavior. I think I'll study psychology at the second level school, which will start next year for me. Or maybe Earth culture, since I have access to an expert!" she said with a laugh.

"I don't know if I know that much. Earth has many cultures and they vary much more widely than here on Anyar. From the little I learned in school, it has changed rapidly in many parts of Earth in the last hundred years."

"Why so fast?" Enne asked. "I don't think that we ever had a period like that."

She looked to her parents who nodded agreement.

"I think technology has progressed more rapidly in that time, perhaps, than in all of human--Earth human--history. There were two wars that involved most of the planet, and many other wars and conflicts. I only really know about the ones that my country, America, was involved in."

They discussed the differences and similarities between Anyar and Earth. That was, Zeke realized, more important now than before.

They finished and he walked with Rolenil to the small craft he'd flown down. He performed the standard preflight inspection. They would be headed back to the station, ostensibly to tour it and view the progress that had been made on the Remarran. Rolenil waited near the open hatch and motioned for Zeke to take the pilot's seat.

Once inside, Zeke asked, "Is it customary to make introductions to an MI?"

"It has not been, but that is something we may need to talk about. Whom do I have the pleasure of meeting today?"

"Ran, this is King Rolenil. Sir, this is the MI who has, uhmm, accompanied me since the Behrlende mission."

"So you are the one who determined he could exceed the normal training limits. I'm not sure if I should be concerned or grateful."

Ran replied in a noticeably respectful manner, "Thank you, sir. I knew that the course of action had a high probability of succeeding. And of course, I was able to communicate with other MI's and the Net. Only thirty percent of the MI population agreed with my choice. By chance, I was one of those in that minority."

Ran had already run the preflight checks. Zeke verified the line of green indicators on the screen.

"You have clearance," Ran reported before he asked.

To which he replied, "Thank you."

They lifted at moderate speed, Ran painted the shipyard/station on the HUD and gave him vectors. As they rose, he and the king discussed Earth and how to enlist an entire planet.

"My grandfather spoke about the problems, mostly within our country, but sometimes of the entire world. He was---is--someone with high expectations. He teaches at the school I went to. I left with Danil before graduation, so in my culture, I'm not even a high school graduate."

"I think I understand. The probe has picked up a great deal of information, and is continuing to gather more. In fact, we've been able to establish a connection on your planetary computer network. That has opened the door to a lot of information."

"An internet connection with Earth? I would never have expected that."

"In this case, the bandwidth limit is on our end. Some other means of transferring data and instructions with the probe are in the works. We will upgrade the MI, something we should have done initially, so it can perform wider searches. I guess we have already begun to expand the autonomy of MI's, in at least one way. We'll hear more about that up on the station."

As they approached the station, Zeke asked, "How often do you travel up to visit facilities in space? Do you ever get tired of the view?"

"Traveling, meeting people, learning new things is the best part of my responsibilities. I would choose to visit the shipyards here more often, but it is best that I let people do their jobs by showing my interest, but not interfering."

The king paused for a moment, thinking. "Do you study leadership on Earth?"

"Me? No. They do in military schools."

"Only there? That is one difference between us. One of the basic assumptions in our society is that most people are leaders in some situations or in some contexts. Whenever a group of people comes together with a purpose, there are leaders, even if the group is somewhat informal. So we teach what we consider to be appropriate behavior and methods for interacting with each other. Not only the role of leaders, but what we refer to as patrons―everyone else."

"I don't think I've ever heard that before," Zeke said, "but it makes sense."

"We think that leading is something that is not completely natural, at least not with the complexities of society as it exists today. That you have done so well, when that was omitted from your education, is all the more impressive. We neglected to include it in your training. We will want to have you review our material on that subject. It is important to understand our culture, so you can help us determine how to proceed."

Ran, communicating through the Net, obtained clearance and a berth in a hangar, which she then guided them to.

The captain of the station was waiting at the hangar exit hatch. He greeted the king, who introduced Zeke. They clearly knew each other.

"If you're busy, Captain Crintle, you need not accompany us. The tour is informal, and I promise we won't slow anyone down. But do join us when we dine later."

"Thank you, sir, as you know, we have a lot to do if the Remarran is to be ready on schedule."

The king consulted his comm, "I see that the rest of our party has arrived. Thank you Crintle, I look forward to speaking with you later."

They walked down to the next hangar and Zeke could see Councilor Ekthon and General Yalt emerging from the hatch. He exchanged handshakes with the councilor, then a longer one with the general.

"It is good to see you again, Zeke," the general told him.

Zeke thought back to their first discussion after he'd completed the Behrlende mission and how the general had made the best of a difficult situation.

"Meeting under these circumstances is, again, a surprise," Zeke said with a smile. "Though not so much as the first time."

Although the station captain was not with them, an executive officer accompanied them around the station.

The station was tubular, large enough to enclose the entire Remarran. It was open at both ends. The ship was connected to the structure at many points. Like many, Zeke had never seen the ship before except for a few images in reports, and as a bright point in the night sky. It was similar to the Redun, though slightly larger. Its design had been modified to hold more fighters, or more cargo, in holds that connected directly to hangars, so it could load and unload its cargo quickly.

It had larger engines and inertial compensators. With the crew contained in acceleration couches, it could accelerate at more than five gravities, though they weren't sure if that would have any tactical use. Long sustained acceleration while limiting internal forces to normal gravity were its primary mode of operation.

The tour was an opportunity to let the crew meet the king and Zeke. They met with small groups and got to interact personally with them. This was Anyari custom. The king had already made several trips to the station and would make many more, each time getting a chance to meet with different people. This personal contact was important in establishing connections to society and to the goal towards which they worked.

He continued to be treated with an unsettling deference. He'd started to become used to it before leaving for Mecran, but the many months of isolation on the Redun had left him unaccustomed to the attention.

Viewports were present at many locations around the inside of the station. When they were not visiting workplaces, they met with crew members and workers in meeting rooms with portals.

With many departments to visit, the time with each was necessarily limited, which Zeke found to be unfortunate. There were many interesting demonstrations and reports, and time for brief explanations. Zeke noticed that the king asked specific and technical questions about almost everything. It was easy to see the admiration and regard with which each crew member held the king. The questions he asked each crew member showed the depth of his knowledge and interest in every facet of the ship's construction.

After several hours, Zeke was fatigued and slightly overwhelmed by all he'd seen. They had a meal with the captain who gave them an overview of their progress. Ways to speed the completion were discussed, as well as the obstacles.

"If you could have," the king asked Crintle, "anything that could reasonably be made available, to help you accelerate your progress, what would it be?"

The question took him by surprise and he sat back in his chair and thought.

"The ship already exists as a three-dimensional model. Much time is spent using this model, verifying that each component can be installed and will function as expected. We have about ninety percent of the maximum number of workers we can efficiently use. Adding many more might cause scheduling issues and interference between different groups and departments.

"We are learning how to use the automation effectively. In fact, if we were building a second ship, we could manage that with little additional delay. We have the workforce, with a few exceptions we could obtain the parts and materials."

Zeke asked, "If you can do two, could you do three or more?"

The captain's reply was immediate, showing he'd already thought through that eventuality.

"Managing and scheduling that much more activity, and that many people, would be a challenge. Could we adapt and do so efficiently? I have no doubt we could. There would be other limitations, though. We are training workers in jobs that have never been done, or, in some cases, have not been done since the Redun was built.

"So to answer succinctly, I wish we had started a second ship. There would be difficulties with more than two, which probably would reduce our productivity, at least in the beginning."

General Yalt looked at the king, a question on his face. The king nodded and the general asked, "We are considering some major changes that would increase our effectiveness and ability to defend ourselves. We would like your thoughts, however, the subject is not ready for public disclosure. This is, of course, contrary to normal Anyari custom, but in this case, we believe a delay before we reveal our proposal, before we have the time to completely analyze it ourselves, is necessary.

If that is not something you feel you can do, Captain Crintle, we understand and expect only that you not reveal my offer to include you in on our secret. As much as I detest the term and the idea, that is what it is."

Crintle considered the offer for a moment. "Keeping secrets is seldom a wise course. However, I know that seldom is not the same as never."

He looked at the king, "Sir, you and your predecessor have restored the confidence of the populace with your integrity and wisdom. Moreover, you have restored mine. If you believe this to be a reasonable course of action, I trust your judgment."

"Thank you Crintle, I was sure you would look it that way and I appreciate your trust. We do not know that the idea we share will be a good one, but it has the possibility of changing everything and that change, at its best, could make the safety of Anyar much more likely. It could also be problematic, even destructive to us and our goals. The only thing we can do is to consider it as an alternative and use our best judgment to try and ascertain the real result."

Crintle nodded, waiting for the king to continue.

"The changes in the last few months have greatly exceeded what I thought we could accomplish in so short a time. I'm encouraged by the increasing pace at which we build the weapons and ships to defend Anyar. We've also begun to seek answers to what we have formerly hidden from. I am confident that is the correct course.

"The question we must ask ourselves, though: Is it enough? Is there more we could do?"

He paused, inviting Crintle to comment, "You don't think we are doing all that we can?"

"All that 'we' can, yes. But with Zeke's arrival on Anyar, I think it is reasonable to ask: Can we look to Earth for allies?"

Surprise spread quickly up Crintle's face, his brows raised he asked simply, "Earth?"

"Yes. Despite the problems that we can foresee, Earth is much more populous than Anyar, and if Zik is an example, may have more than numbers to contribute."

"I don't know much about Earth, except what is talked about on the news feeds. I must agree about Lieutenant Tilor, but all accounts speak of constant turmoil, wars, inequality, not just between nations, but between citizens of the same nation."

He looked at Zeke apologetically, "I do not mean to offend, but I must speak truthfully."

Zeke responded, "You are right, and no one knows that more than I do. It may be that the obstacles are insurmountable. I hope that Anyar can have a positive influence on Earth. My country came to be politically and militarily dominant during the last world war. I think it is human nature that when times are tough we are at our best. I hope that this is an opportunity for Earth to unify around this cause. If ever there was a reason to do so, this is it."

Rolenil nodded, "I have ideas on how we might proceed, I'm sure the rest of you do, too. We have a lot to learn, but I think we could well benefit Earth while helping ourselves."

"What can I do?" Crintle asked.

"Right now, simply help us with your ideas and insight. You have your hands full with the construction of the Remarran, but since we are here, I wanted to take advantage of your experience."

Rolenil looked around the room, "General, both Zeke and Captain Crintle are new to our group, can you explain what we've discussed so far?"

"Certainly," the captain replied.

The general continued his explanation. "The idea was the king's, originally. He contacted Councilor Ekthon privately, about the time the Redun left for Mecran, and I became involved soon after.

"I know that the king spoke with you about the idea during your visit to Kanetel. I'll confess that the idea had crossed my mind, but I had no idea how feasible it was, and neither the time nor the means to do the research needed to determine if it was feasible. Placing the probe near Earth was our first step, so we can learn and hopefully prepare.

"I will admit, I am biased toward allying with Earth, I believe the advantages are too compelling to ignore. Having said that, I think we must prepare and get it right the first time. It will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to recover, if we don't start off well.

"So, our list of tasks: First, acquire more information about Earth, the countries we should approach, those that have authoritarian regimes that may cause problems. If we can gain a strong ally, we can't avoid the transfer of technology to Earth. In the wrong hands, this could and, certainly would, be used by some for their own ends.

"Second, we need to determine how to release the news. We are at the point where we must involve others and when that happens, our secret will not remain for long. That is good. Although we recognize the need, it is not the Anyari way to keep secrets. The sooner this is public knowledge, the better."

"And third: how to expand--who next to bring into our group." he paused, waiting for comments.

Zeke waited for a moment. When no one else spoke, he volunteered, "It might seem premature, but I believe it would be good to start on a list of options. I believe we can do so without biasing our judgment, and I think it would help us ask the right questions about what we need to know."

He paused and looked around, getting no disagreement, he continued, "I think it is human nature to imagine scenarios. Certainly, I can think of a few."

The king asked, "Since you are from Earth, I think we would like to hear your thoughts."

Zeke thought for a moment before speaking, "I think they all fall between two extremes. On one end, we enter with a demonstration of military force, say taking the Redun and Remarran and putting them in a conspicuous position in orbit where most of the population can see them. That would let us deal from a position of power. As my grandfather says, 'speak softly, but carry a big stick.' With the emphasis on the big stick."

That brought smiles from everyone. The king smiled, but said in a serious tone, "It is not our intent to become conquerors. However, with the fate of Anyar and Earth in the balance, we will do what we must to be successful."

Zeke nodded agreement, "On the other end of the spectrum, we could show up in a shuttle and land on the White House lawn. I have a strong feeling that would not be a good plan--given the way most of Earth's governments seem to work."

"White House lawn?" Councilor Ekthon asked.

"The home of the head of my country. It is a white building and a national landmark. In fiction, the White House, or areas nearby, is often the setting where aliens land with the intent to communicate with Earth."

They broke for a while as the meal was served. The conversation ranged from Zeke's trip to protests over the military build up.

"Protests?" Zeke asked, surprised. "I thought that all of Anyar recognized the need to prepare?"

"If you allow people to think for themselves, there will always be those at the extremes. We are a pretty homogeneous society, but some still choose different lifestyles and have different priorities. A few allow no automation in their lives and live a very simple existence. Then there are some who do nothing and have the robots and MI's do everything for them."

"I guess I'll need to study Anyar more, as you study Earth."

They finished the meal. When the servers left, General Yalt began, "I have a list of items to be approved.

"First, bring a small group to determine how to announce the news, with the goal of doing that within thirty days. Councilor Ekthon and I have a list of names for your review."

Zeke looked at the list on the console, the list included a small bio of each person. It was predominately female, he noticed, and tended toward mid-grade officers with a general first and a few lieutenants.

"I am in agreement," the king said, looking around to Captain Crintle who nodded. He looked at Zeke.

"I thought I was just here as an adviser."

"In a way that is true, and I understand this item and these people are not something you are familiar with. But you never know when someone will have an insight. So I would say I'll assume your agreement unless you bring up a reason to oppose it. Fair enough?"

"Understood, finding problems I can do."

General Yalt continued, "Good, we have a location that is somewhat isolated for them to work. They'll get their new assignments tomorrow and I'll meet with each of them. I'll update you with their recommendations.

"Second, and more important is the formation of a group, I think it will become a large department, to become experts on Earth. It is difficult to predict how long this will take. I think it will be ongoing even after we've opened communications with Earth. For planning purposes, I'm going to say six months for us to gather and analyze data. I have a somewhat large list, mostly of civilians with expertise in social and cultural subjects. They will be brought on board over a period of a month or two."

"I hope it will not take that long," the king stated, "but we don't want to act before we are ready."

Zeke looked through the list. It was long, over a hundred names. It was as meaningless as the previous one. It contained a few military people with experience in intelligence and analysis, but the majority were middle-aged academics in the social and anthropological sciences. He was near the end when he saw a familiar name.

"I know someone on here," he said with excitement. "Jonephs is the father of a... friend."

He turned a little red, but everyone politely ignored his embarrassment.

"What do you think of him?" Councilor Ekthon asked.

"He was interested in Earth and the contrasts between Earth and Anyar. I had several hours to talk to him and enjoyed it very much. In ways, he reminds me of my grandfather--which, I'm sure, you can tell is the standard against which I measure people. If my intuition and judgment are any good, he is a good choice. Are the others more qualified? Is there a reason he is near the end of the list?"

"Ah, another difference between Anyari and Earth viewpoints," the king smiled at his discovery. "I take that to mean that being at the end of the list implies to you less importance than being at the beginning?"

Zeke nodded.

"On Anyar, lists of items, tasks, and the like have the most important things at the beginning. With people, however, the reverse is true, although I think this list is only loosely ordered by order of desirability for this task."

The general added, "Jonephs has a very wide range of knowledge, although his focus is on the history and the social sciences, he also has a background in engineering. That seemed to me to be a valuable combination."

The general continued to his next point, "Zeke mentioned earlier that we should start to list our options as to how we actually initiate contact with Earth. Having had some time to consider that, I have come to agree. We have, I think, been reluctant to start considering the options. I suspect that the most effective ways to enlist Earth's aid and perhaps to help it solve its problems are not simple and straightforward."

The king's face turned serious, "We have had a peaceful existence for a long time, but we remember a time when people and countries schemed to advance themselves or their cause. Sometimes their motives were for the greater good, but often not."

Zeke agreed, "My grandfather used to philosophize about human nature. He believed that without some pressure to conform, groups and society would tend towards chaos. There are examples on Earth of tightly knit communities, almost always religious, that had very strict rules and expectations. Other times, he told me, a harsh environment and the need to survive forced people to adopt an ordered, regimented lifestyle."

"As chaotic and divided as Earth is," the king admitted, "we may be forced to act with determination. Even if many--or even most--welcome us, we will surely not make everyone happy, yet our need is such that we must take steps to ensure our success."

The mood in the room turned somber.

"What exactly do you, or I should say we, hope to get from Earth?" Zeke asked. "Our technology is centuries behind yours. We have some bright people who, I assume, could be trained or educated to serve in the military, or even in research."

Councilor Ekthon answered, "Yes, the natural resources that you have are more common than ours. Mostly metal and minerals that you don't use very efficiently. But it is people, I think, and the opportunity to expand an industrial base that will help in the struggle against the Rogue. Perhaps, too, the aggressiveness your people display is not all bad."

"I hope so," Zeke replied. "I hope so."