9 Restart

After the evening meal, Rilt and Zeke walked back into the flight barracks together. A week had passed since the event that had isolated them from the group.

Little was said and the situation was awkward. Zeke went to Rilt and said, quietly, "I think we all need to meet up in the dayroom and put this behind us." Rilt nodded.

Zeke asked Dev and Sephen to pass the word, inviting the flight to meet, but telling them it was not mandatory. He followed Rilt up the stairs to the dayroom.

There were chairs enough for all, scattered throughout the room. Zeke sat on one of the several tables. Rilt took a chair near him. They soon heard footsteps as the flight filed in.

Dev and Stephen were the last to enter. Zeke started speaking.

"It may be that I don't know how our group is supposed to work---how we are all to interact. I haven't been here long enough. I haven't been the flight leader long enough. Perhaps it is not my responsibility to keep the group a cohesive unit. Whether that is true or not, the decision I made was intended to do what is best: for myself, for Rilt, for this flight, and maybe in some small way for Anyar.

"I have forgiven Rilt. I believe he regrets what happened. I also believe that it has been, as adversity often is, a learning experience. It may help that I don't remember anything that happened," a smile crept to Zeke's lips, "but I have no anger or resentment towards him. Although my authority over you is minimal, I expect the same from each of you."

The room was silent for a minute, then Rilt spoke. "I was wrong. I am sorry for what I did, and for the shame I brought on this flight. I am," he said, emotion halting his apology, "grateful beyond words for the opportunity to continue with the flight."

Rilt continued, "If, at some point, each of you can forgive me, I will be grateful to each of you."

He continued with a caution. "Have I turned into a nice person, much different than before? I don't know. I do believe that I have been changed... changed for the better by this experience."

With that, the room was again silent.

To Zeke's surprise, Sephen chose to speak. "We will, someday, lead men in combat. If that happens, and someone commits a serious offense then, will they receive the same treatment?" He looked intently at Zeke.

The question caught Zeke by surprise, and without an answer.

"Who knows what I will do in a situation like that? Do you know for certain what you would do? Was I afraid to see Rilt punished? No. Did he deserve a stronger punishment? Perhaps. Maybe my values are different from yours. I was told that the decision was mine. My values are what counted here. I made the decision."

Zeke realized he'd been angered by the question, but the heat left him and he added, "That was a good question, a fair question. Did I answer it?"

Sephen nodded, Zeke couldn't tell if he'd accepted his answer or not.

Zeke concluded, "Rilt owes me nothing. His debt is to each of you and to Anyar."

The next day they started missions in the low-def simulators. They were simple compared to the hi-def simulator. These had a reclining chair, simple controls, and a large wraparound display. Even these simple simulators were far better than any video game he'd played on Earth and were more than adequate for the tactics training they were receiving.

As the missions continued, the type of Rogue changed; different combinations were thrown at him. Failure was common. Sometimes they were given instructions or guidance--sometimes not. Frequently his tactics succeeded with the complete destruction of the Rogue group, but, all too often, all his fighters were destroyed with little damage inflicted on the enemy.

In the next days, the scenarios expanded to larger, more powerful, but less maneuverable fighting craft. Sometimes they guarded slower freighters or troop transports. The fidelity of the simulations was incredible. Even when they scaled up to destroyer class craft, all the systems, all the possible malfunctions, all the crew stations could be simulated with MI's playing the roles of crewmen as needed. He'd played games before that seemed realistic, but the complexity of each system, and of all the systems as a whole, was tremendous.

They learned all these systems, but there were no tests on their knowledge. They were tested when they used these systems in the competitive simulations.

Match assignments were posted on the comm-net. Everyone could watch each match and all the telemetry. Zeke watched and reviewed every one he could find time for. To his surprise, few others seemed interested.

Although the competitions were between cadets, the simulation always matched Anyari versus Rogue. In half of these matches, a senior cadet controlled the Rogue craft. He, or she, did not "fly" the Rogue craft, but sent commands that were executed by an MI. In the rest, the Rogue were completely controlled by MI's.

The matches were organized this way for several reasons.

First, it gave the cadets more insight into the tactics, strengths, and limitations of the Rogue ships and systems. Although some insight and knowledge of the capabilities of Rogue craft had been gained by studying destroyed Rogue craft, capturing intact Rogue had never been accomplished. With so little real information on Rogue tactics, the assumption was made that playing the part of the Rogue in simulations such as these was of significant value.

Second, the competitive nature also added an element of stress. The results of each match were posted with scores and statistics. It was obvious; their performance in these matches would affect their assignments after they completed the academy training.

Finally, it allowed the strengths and weaknesses of each cadet to be evaluated. This was not simply a matter of determining the best and worst, but of finding each candidate's strengths and the best posting for them.

The hi-def simulators were in constantly in use, so it was some time before they were assigned missions which used them. His first mission in a hi-def was an attack on a small Rogue installation. He and three other MI-controlled fighters quickly destroyed most of the Rogue complex, but before they had completed the mission, they were attacked by a force of more than twenty Rogue. Within a few minutes, he and his MI flight mates had all been destroyed.

Any illusions he'd held of his abilities were crushed by that defeat--until he learned that only Dev had done better and that the scores of the top four--Dev, himself, Sephen, and Rilt--were comparable to previous classes.

In the debriefing after the mission, it was pointed out that he had maintained his composure and continued to direct the others in his flight in a way that destroyed five of the Rogue craft. Dev had destroyed four but had survived longer. Sephen had destroyed five also, but had not lasted as long. Rilt destroyed four to join them near the top of the flight.

All the results and statistics were available for Zeke to view. He could compare his performance to everyone in his flight, and anyone who had ever completed the mission.

Over the coming weeks the missions continued, becoming gradually more complex and more difficult.

Sometimes they attacked convoys of Rogue ships. At other times, they defended a freighter convoy or larger troop transports. Eventually, he was part of a group tasked with defending a large battleship the size of the Redun.

He thought this surprising, since that class of ships hadn't been used for hundreds of years and none even existed until he and Danil brought the Redun back. This training, he realized, had changed little in hundreds of years.

Soon after, he was partnered with other cadets instead of MI's. Most times, Zeke was not the flight leader and learned to follow the commands of others. Some of those leading the flights were skilled, their orders clear and the results successful. At other times, the flight leader would hesitate, or change his mind. Occasionally, he would hear female voices on the comm link.

Except for his performance in the first mission against overwhelming force, he had not done very well in the individual mission simulations. He knew that this was a disappointment after his first, notable, success. But as he started to command flights, and later a squadron, he found he could make quick and confident decisions. Sometimes his missions as flight leader were spectacular disasters, but more often they were solidly successful.

Still, Dev and Sephen were clearly ahead of him in almost every category. Each cadet's performance was posted on the comm-net for all to see. There were scored rankings in many areas: most kills, most kills by flights commanded, highest kill-to-loss ratio for flights commanded, and many others.

On several occasions he had Sephen for a commander. Those missions seemed to almost always be successful. After some time, flight leaders were allowed to choose one of their flight members and he chose Sephen. Many people wanted Sephen and Dev because of their performance ratings, so it was not often that Sephen was assigned to Zeke's missions.

Except when a flight leader, Zeke's performance was average so he was not in demand as were Dev and Sephen.

On a hunch, Zeke chose Geren for a mission. He'd noticed that although Geren had not done well on the individual missions, nor on the missions that he'd commanded, the success of missions he participated in was in the top ten percent, and Geren's kill performance had improved noticeably when he was not commanding a mission.

This choice turned out to be a good one and Zeke's missions became more successful. It was much easier to get Geren assigned to his missions than Dev or Sephen. With Geren's performance, Zeke's statistics as a flight commander started to improve and he began to overtake Dev and Sephen in the rankings.

As the matches continued, he was allowed to choose two, and then three other flight mates. Zeke looked for the same pattern in improved performance when not in command. He decided to choose Rilt, despite the antipathy that remained between them. Rilt was an average flight leader, but had ratings similar to Geren's when not in a command role.

This choice also proved to be a good one and Zeke pulled even with Dev and Sephen in the flight leader rankings. He was still only average in his performance as a non-command flight member, significantly lower than Dev, Sephen, Geren, or Rilt.

He developed something of a rapport with Geren, and to a lesser extent, with Rilt.

After the fourth week, they were given more latitude in the configuration of their craft. They were also able to requisition items and have simulated equipment constructed.

One thing Zeke noticed was the absence of camouflage or any kind of decoys. With some study during the evenings, he was able to learn how to have fighters constructed with only an empty shell. With the simulated budget, these rudimentary decoys proved effective. His work proceeded and the quality of the decoys improved. He was able to have them constructed so that their sensor signature closely matched that of a real fighter.

His strategy for the use of these resources contrasted with everyone else he encountered. They would use their material and effort to build a few armored craft with as much firepower as they were allowed.

He also developed different classes of decoys--from static hulks with no engines or ability to move to more advanced, and expensive, decoys that were fast enough to imitate a fighter and maneuverable enough to hold formation with a real fighter. These could be controlled from a fighter or other nearby ships.

With that innovation, Zeke shot to the top of the all-important rankings. Others tried to imitate his ideas, with some success, but their additions and modifications lagged well behind his.

The opponents grew more difficult and enemy craft became more numerous and powerful. His success rate, and that of everyone else in his flight, began to drop.

Zeke approached Sephen and Dev to share and discuss strategies and tactics, but initially they declined, politely, to pool their ideas.

Frustrated, he approached Sephen a few days later. "I thought Anyari culture emphasized cooperation and finding the best answer?" he asked him.

"That is true. This competition is an exception. It is the one time that each must be evaluated on his own abilities."

"If anything, it seems likely that you would benefit the most, and that I am risking the lead that I currently have!" Zeke responded.

"That is most likely true. If you are the best at leading missions, then that is what the rankings will show."

"I think that if we share tactics and ideas, we will all improve, but you will still not overtake me," Zeke challenged with grin.

Sephen could not suppress a smile. "Let me consider it. If we cooperate, it must be the entire flight that is open to this exchange of ideas."

"That hadn't occurred to me, but yes, not including everyone would be unfair and divisive."

Zeke asked, "Is this forbidden by regulations? Has any instructor given you any impression that we should not cooperate for the common success of the flight?"

The custom had been passed down from flight to flight. So far as they knew, it had been the custom as far back as Behrlende's time.

"You persuade the rest of the flight to participate, and we will too," Dev said, looking at Sephen who nodded in agreement.

The next evening, during the time they had for relaxation and study between the third meal and lights out, Zeke gathered the group in the day-room upstairs.

"You all know that I am leading the flight, and the academy in all of the flight leader categories." Many of the faces turned hard at what appeared to be boasting on Zeke's part.

"I have spoken with Dev and Sephen and I believe that we will all gain by working together to share ideas and tactics. I have a hunch that I will gain as much as any of you, and I think it is likely that each of you has something to gain."

Looks were exchanged around the room. This was a novel idea that clearly no one had expected.

"Whoever is interested is welcome to start participating. We'll start tomorrow night, here in the dayroom, an hour before lights out."

The following night, he was joined only by Geren. They talked about the last mission where Geren had been the flight leader. Zeke pointed out things that had not been mentioned in the standard debriefing.

With his poor performance as a flight leader, Geren was interested in anything he could do differently. Zeke explained that he believed Geren had the ability, he simply needed to change his perspective. To view the mission as more of a game of chess, rather than as a sporting event where his own physical contribution was most important. He suggested spending more time considering how to deploy his flight mates, and what they were doing, and to take a less active role in the attack itself.

"That my role destroying Rogue craft should be a secondary priority is a little difficult to accept," he replied. "But, I have little to lose."

The next day, Geren had his best mission to date. Another, the following day, was even better. Rilt joined their session that night.

Geren related how his change in perspective had improved his results. Rilt had little to say, but he nodded at Geren's suggestions.

Over the next few days, Rilt's performance as flight leader showed the same improvement Geren's had. Pride and excitement were evident in his voice when they analyzed his mission that night. It was still hard for him to have his mistakes pointed out, but he took their suggestions and his improvement continued.

A few days after Rilt's improved performance became apparent to all, Dev and Stephen finally showed up for their 'analysis' sessions.

For the new participants, the adjustment to the critiques of their performance was not easy. Though they had the ability to lead and make decisions, they had weaknesses in other aspects of their mission tactics. They had tried, with limited success, to emulate Zeke's methods.

He explained to them that the fidelity of the decoys did not need to be high--that a little went a long way. When he suggested that only a small investment in resources was necessary, or even advisable, he could see understanding in their eyes.

The difficulty of the missions was continuing to increase. Successful missions were becoming rare, even for Zeke and the members of the group.

Rilt's next command opportunity came later in the week. With the increased difficulty, what would have been a modest success was now a notable victory. None of his flight had been destroyed or even significantly damaged, and it was the best result he had posted to date. Good enough to take him, temporarily at least, to the top of the rankings.

When they met that night he was all smiles and excitement. "I know that I have much more to learn. I've reviewed the mission and see several things I think that I could have been done better. What have I missed?"

They reviewed and discussed the mission, being careful to limit their suggestions to maintain his new confidence and excitement.

Zeke focused on new strategies and tactics. Sephen spent extra time studying the advanced tactics that were taught by the instructors to the senior cadets and evaluated ideas against the standard tactics and tried to predict their response.

Dev focused on the camouflage and decoys that Zeke had begun using. He searched through historical databases for similar attempts by others. He also ran fully automated mission simulations with different decoy and misdirection ideas suggested by Zeke and Sephen.

Geren developed an attack plan where a flight of fighters shut down their engines and other systems while a single fighter simulated the signature of a damaged fighter with fusion core leaks and system malfunctions that caused it to broadcast on many wavelengths. This would mask the comparatively low emissions of the sleeping fighters. No mission so far had a scenario where this was helpful, but Dev's simulations showed that it would likely work in the right situation.

Geren's success had persuaded a few other members of the flight to join the group. They spent their time reviewing their previous missions, looking for ideas worth noting, and identifying mistakes that could be improved upon.

With the knowledge gained, the entire flight's performance improved. They waited for some comment by the instructors that their sessions violated some academy code, but none came. Some worked with Dev to improve the simulations, creating missions based upon real missions taken from the historical databases.

Over the next few days, more members of the flight joined the group.

P'len, for reasons Zeke didn't understand, was the last holdout. One day, he was one of the first to come up to the dayroom for the day's session. Wounded pride was on his face and in his voice, but he kept his emotions in check. "Clearly, I cannot continue to avoid participation in the group or I will remain the lowest ranking in the flight."

With that, Geren indicated that he could take a chair at the console next to him.

The change in perspective deepened in each member of the flight. Rilt's first major contribution was the "cannonball" attack, a strategy useful when attacking fixed or slow-moving targets. The fighters, would accelerate to high speed towards the intended target then shut down as many systems as possible and simply wait a set time, until they had coasted, undetected, to within a short distance of the target. They were virtually blind for this period--which could last for hours, but they could get to within a few minutes of firing range and continue to accelerate after attacking an unsuspecting station or slow-moving convoy.

Zeke began to feel a close bond with everyone in the flight. He could see that the methods were drawing attention to the flight, and probably himself. He worried that although everything seemed to be going well, there would be repercussions.

His fears were confirmed the next day. After the group session that evening, his inbox contained a request to meet with General Yalt.