Arrival at Adventure Quest Intake
Gavin's mom flew the two boys to the PhilaYork Northwestern Airfield. She couldn't help but to look back at the boys joking in the back of the family flyer. Their excitement, and obvious joy, over going on to the Gyrax system for Adventure Quest was both fun to watch and scary for her to think about.
For over three months the boys would live on their own on a wild planet. Sure, it would be safe, she reminded herself. They would have the best technology known to support them and in a real emergency the adults in the space station above the planet Zong could respond. Still, neither boy had really been outside before. Oh, sure, they had the monthly visit to PhilaYork Enviro-park Foxtrot, but that was an E-dome that only allowed a certain amount of people in every day.
She forced herself to smile, thinking about the park. It was over six years ago Gavin and Robin had first met at the park. The accidental meeting at the swim-lake had led to an instant friendship. Gavin had been a very quiet, shy, and pretty much constantly picked on boy. Robin had changed all that right in front of her eyes. He jumped on a boy nearly two years older and clamped his, then, small six-year-old hands over the older child's mouth and nose, not letting the bully breath. Once he chased off the eight-year-old, he started a splash fight with Gavin's dad, while asking Gavin for help.
Robin's outrageous behavior brought a smile to Gavin's tear streaked face. Soon, both boys were laughing and playing together. From that day on they had scheduled their Park Days together, had gone on trips to the circus, museums, and even Moon-Base to play in light gravity together. Now they were brothers and they were still best of friends.
Truth be told, it didn't really matter that the adoption had taken place. Both boys called both sets of parent's Mom and Dad when they were together and Robin already had a bed in their apartment. Robin had been a godsend. She really felt quite good about being able to do this for him. Still, she didn't want to part with these two for such a stretch.
Robin's eyes glittered as they pulled up to the hover terminal at the airport. Thousands of people rushed around like sheep trying to abandon a field invaded by wolves. He loved to watch people. Their faces told so much, as did their manner. He tapped Gavin on the shoulder and pointed out a guy in a business suit carrying a briefcase. His face told of his stress and his quick walk announced to anyone bothering to pay attention that he was clearly late for something. The man's attention was so drawn into what he needed to do he ignored the fact that the left coattail of his suit was stuffed into his pants.
Gavin instantly started laughing. He jumped out onto the platform and pointed it out to the man. As his face turned crimson, both boys started laughing anew. The very fact Gavin now had the courage to pull such a stunt, showed just how much Robin had done for the formally shy and introverted youngster. The days of being picked on by others were gone. Gavin was now a very self-confident twelve-year-old who would stand by any friend in the face of any challenge.
Gavin's mom shook her head and escorted the two giggling bundles of fun to the Adventure Quest check-in station. As they waited, she noticed Robin walk up to a boy, about his age, who was hanging out by the departure terminal for the actual space travel flight. This meant the youngster had been to Zong before and didn't need the two-day introductory lessons.
Mrs. Athens smiled as Robin brought over the shy boy, after just a few minutes of conversation. It was just like him to make next to anyone feel comfortable, or at least get him or her to talk.
"Hey, Gavin!" Robin next to shouted, "This is Sammy. He's been to Zong two times already."
Sammy shuffled his feet, "Hi."
Gavin looked at the boy with a sense of awe, "Two times?"
"Yea," the nervous youngster stated, "I'm going into an ISTAZ this time with my friend."
Mrs. Athens shuddered, "You are awfully young to go into a wild area aren't you?"
Sammy swallowed hard but a friendly grin from Robin gave him some courage. "It isn't really all that ma'am. There are still places in case of trouble, and there are set places to go to get food and water if we run out."
Sammy suddenly smiled, "But we'll be fine."
Mrs. Athens continued to listen to the boys chat. Of course, Robin did nine-tenths of the talking, but after only twenty minutes the three were beginning a friendship. What really troubled her was the fact Gavin and Robin were pretty much dead set on going to an ISTAZ by the time Sammy's space plane was called for boarding.
As soon as Sammy made his way to the gate, gave a final shy wave, and entered the Maglift to the craft, Mrs. Athens looked down, "Boys, this is your first time. There is no reason to do this your first time out. You will have four more years after this one."
"Oh, Mom," Robin sighed, "We'll be okay. Besides, you heard Sammy. The more times we go into the ISTAZ areas, the better the chance we can get into the Explorer Corps Academy! It may be our only chance we get to actually go out and search for new planets!"
Mrs. Athens cringed, but knew it was the truth. The US Federal Government had a dual purpose for Zong. First, was to give all children a chance to see what Earth used to be like, to give them all a chance to get away from the towers of human hustle and bustle and see what trees, birds, and wide open lands really looked like. Not from holographic projectors and VR goggles, but the real thing.
The second, less obvious reason, lay hidden somewhere behind what the public was told. Every major Earth power sent out explorers to find new worlds. The problem with this became evident very early on. Adults didn't know how to handle landing on a planet without buildings, technology, and millions of people milling around. One by one the teams went crazy, some even killed themselves to escape the mind numbing fear of seeing nothing manmade for as far as the eye could see. Kids, on the other hand, were not as set. They could be trained to handle it without them even knowing what was really happening. Zong was the perfect planet to test if a child could make Explorer Corps material.
Making matters worse, Gavin and Robin dreamed of becoming Explorers. Every Holo-Vid show about the Corps that came out the boys would watch, without talking or joking about how stupid it was. They went to every Explorer movie on opening day, and normally caught it again before it left the theaters. The same starry-eyed look she saw every time the boys came back from a theater could now be seen plastered over their faces.
She took a breath, "Robin, what you heard is only rumor."
"Mom," Gavin spoke up, "you work for the Transport section of PhilaYork Gov. Is it true? Does the Explorers really check to see if kids went to ISTAZ's?"
Mrs. Athens felt trapped. She had never once lied to her son, nor to Robin. As much as she wanted to now, she just couldn't. She knelt and spoke softly. "Gavin, Robin, what Sammy told you is basically true. But he doesn't know how true the rumors he spoke of really are. Explorers will not even look at an applicant that hasn't been to and survived a full stint in an ISTAZ. Those who go to the academy have to go through two of them or they don't graduate. If you go through two of them, you will be contacted by them and offered a slot in the academy. If you go through three, you will be offered a job and get all the training; even if you don't go to the academy."
She stopped, seeing both boys' eyes fixed on her with total attention. "You must not tell anyone. I could get into a great deal of trouble if anyone found out I told you this. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Mom," both boys answered almost as one.
Robin turned with a grin, "All right! Stereo!"
Mrs. Athens gave them a weak smile and looked to make sure they understood the seriousness of her words. Both turned solemn and nodded that they indeed knew what they had been told was indeed very secret information.
"Okay, now you know. I know you two would have done it anyway so have fun, but please stay safe and take care of each other. Also, when you get to DalHouston, you will be able to sign up for some classes during your trip. Make sure you take all the survival stuff offered. The wild lands are not nearly as safe as Sammy made it sound. Learn what plants can be eaten, how to hunt with a laser rifle, and where to find water. The classes they give aren't a joke to be laughed at. They could mean the difference between coming home under your own power or coming home in a hospital ship. And boys… just because you know how to shoot a laser rifle, it does not mean you know how to hunt with one. I have seen reports, and ISTAZ is very dangerous."
Gavin shook with nervous anticipation, "We'll take care of each other Mom, just like always."
"Don't worry Mom," Robin chimed in, seeing how worried she really was. "We'll come back and give you lots of hugs!"
Both boys wrapped their arms around her in a tight squeeze, as Robin asked her to pass on a hug to his mom and dad.
An hour later they boarded an Adventure Quest Shuttle bound for their introductory training at the DalHouston training center. The Shuttle was packed with hundreds of kids ranging in age from nine to sixteen, most wore worried looks as the blue-green force field clamped them into a secure pod they could talk through, but would not let them feel the full effects of the very high G flight. Forty-five minutes, and a low orbital flight later, they landed at Adventure Quest Training Center Five.
Gavin shook his head and swallowed hard to make his ears pop. As he caught up to Robin, he saw his friend looking at the dome. Averting his gaze, he was suddenly taken aback. The ship sat above an indoor forest on a massive raised platform. The dome was painted, or maybe holovided, with a crystal clear blue sky. Birds flew below them and nestled into the trees, singing beautiful chirping sounds. He walked with Robin over to the edge of the platform and looked down. "I'd pay to be able to work here!"
"Me too!" Robin's voice betrayed the fact he was every bit as amazed as his stepbrother. "If Zong is anywhere as nice as this place, I don't know if I want to come back!"
An adult voice brought them back to their current situation, "My, my, boys. Your reaction is quite different than most of the Adventure Quest trainees."
Gavin looked around; noticing most of the kids had backed up toward the familiar ship and its comforts of shelter. Not a single other child had joined them to look over the edge. "Sir, is Zong like this?"
"In many ways, yes it is. Only it's far more open and far bigger." He surveyed the boys carefully. It was not unheard of for children to be so totally thrilled with open space, like the dome was meant to get them accustomed to, but it was very, very, rare. Yet, these two showed no fear whatsoever.
Robin looked up at the large black man with the nametag of instructor Jasper Montgomery on his chest. "Mr. Montgomery, can we go down there?"
"You sure can. Get your billeting instructions from the computer over by the Maglift entrance and then you can head on down. Would you like me to show you around?"
"That would be great!" Gavin stated, as he jumped up and down with excitement.
Jasper smiled and ruffled both boys' hair. "Get your assignments and wait for me on the forest floor. I'll be down as soon as we take care of the others."
"Yes sir!" Both youngsters answered with a degree of enthusiasm that Jasper had never personally seen before. He walked away, punching in for a camera to track the two boys, wondering if he had finally found what the Corps had sent him here to find.
Robin exited the Maglift and stepped onto the forest floor, "Gavin, this is totally great!"
Gavin turned to see the Maglift exit disappear behind a holo-vid so perfect it couldn't be detected, "Yea! Oh man, if Zong has a forest ISTAZ, I want to go! I wonder if we're allowed to climb the trees."
"It would be so awesome if we could!" Robin responded. "I just don't know why they don't let us camp here instead of giving us quarters in a building?"
"I wonder if we should ask?"
Robin shrugged, "Never hurts to ask." His thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of a boy yelling "Leave me alone!" He turned toward the sound. Gavin followed.
Only fifty steps into the foliage they came across two boys of about fourteen standing over another boy of about nine. Robin stepped in front of the fallen boy, "Why don't you pick on someone your own size?"
"Look Frank, he thinks he's tough," the bigger of the two laughed. "You best move on unless you want to join him."
Gavin moved into sight. "You'll be dealing with both of us, and by law I have to warn you, if I'm forced to defend myself you may not be able to get back up again."
The smaller teen glared at the pair, "Are you two stupid or something? We'll rip you apart."
"You may be bigger," Robin responded, "and may even beat us up a little, but you'll leave knowing you have been in a fight, if you leave here at all." Robin reached down and picked up a fairly thick and long stick. He swung it, forcing both teens to jump back. "At least it is two on two."
"Wrong!" Another voice answered from the left. Two other boys, both about eleven, came into the small clearing. Both wore clothing that looked on the edge of being rags. The smaller one had dark brown hair, which was somewhat tangled and very long. His hazel eyes held the look of anger and were dangerously serious. The other had stunning blond hair and blue eyes and glinted with an even more dangerous edge than his partner. It was clear by their stances; they both knew what trouble was and had faced it more than once. Even though they both looked dirty, it was not because they didn't bathe; instead it was the look of being dirt poor. Both new kids nodded at Robin and advanced to stand next to Gavin and Robin. Like Robin, they picked up sticks.
"Four on two," The blond boy flashed Robin a grin, before returning his stare to the teens. "You want to take them on; you take us on as well."
Both teens took a step back, "What is this, kiddy patrol?" The smaller one asked, trying to sound tough.
"No," the brown haired boy replied, "This is where you run away like scared little girls."
With those words, both of the new arrivals jumped forward and swung their makeshift weapons at the teens. As predicted, both bullies turned and ran, only to find all four of the younger ones in hot pursuit.
Five minutes later, they found themselves pinned between a muddy ditch with a stream running in the bottom and four very determined boys, three of them with sticks. Robin took the lead as he saw the worried looks on their faces, "You can jump in and get muddy or we will beat on you until you jump in and get muddy, your choice."
"You can't!" The bigger boy shouted.
The brown haired boy advanced, "Oh no?"
His friend also took a step forward and swung his stick. Both boys exchanged looks, then jumped, rolling down the side of the ditch before splashing in the shallow stream.
Robin glanced down, "Gee, I wonder if we are seeing what fish look like when they get out of the water?"
The brown haired boy giggled as he turned, "Man, you guys are great! They've been picking on the smaller kids since we got here this morning."
Gavin caught his breath but smiled, "Robin hates bullies."
"Glad you stood up to them. We've been wanting to, but didn't think we had much of a chance."
Robin smiled, "Let's get back to that other kid."
"Yeah," the blond boy agreed. "My name is Fairfax. My friend there is Ajax."
Robin beamed an impish smile as he headed back to the spot they had left the boy, "My brother is Gavin and I'm Robin. We plan on going to an ISTAZ."
"Us to, but they say we have to have at least a group of four," Ajax answered, then lowered his head, "And no one'll even talk to us cause of our clothing and stuff."
"Then let's team up!" Robin stated as he looked around.
Fairfax's eyes lit up, "You would let us join you?"
"We need to be with those we trust and we already fought together!" Gavin declared. "What you're wearing means nothing to us."
"Sounds like we have a team," Robin announced as he put an arm around each of his newfound friends and allies.
Ajax followed suit, putting an arm around Gavin. The four boys made their way back to where the little kid was, only to find him gone. In his place they found Instructor Montgomery leaning up against a tree.
"Normally, I would send all of you home for such a violent stunt, but this time I concur with your actions. Those two just found out that they weren't the baddest pair on the block. So Ajax and Fairfax, you two found a pair of team members?"
Ajax swallowed hard, "Yes sir."
"You all saw the vid on the way here." Jasper reminded the four boys. "You need to elect a team leader."
Fairfax spoke up, after a few awkward moments, "Robin, how about it?"
"Me?" Robin squeaked.
"Yeah," Gavin agreed. "You're a natural leader. Just like our soccer coach said. Your leadership is why you're the team captain."
Ajax nodded, "You sure took the lead with those two jerks. No one else would face them until you did."
"Well Robin," Jasper Montgomery smiled, "if you accept, you are the team leader and all four of you will be able to start Independent Survival Training Area Zone training. What do you say?"
Robin took a breath as he saw the other three looking at him, with hopeful eyes. He never could figure out how he always seemed to get elected to be in charge of things. School projects that require teamwork, sports team captain, scouts patrol leader, judo warm up captain, it just didn't matter. Now he was, again, being asked to be a group leader. He had never turned down a challenge, and this was no different, although far more frightening.
The team leader spot of an ISTAZ team was central to ISTAZ since the team leader and team leader alone was responsible for the team. Those under the leader were expected to follow all orders of the leader. Those who didn't follow the commands risked punishment, up to and including hard labor in a juvenile work camp for up to a year upon being picked up from ISTAZ. In simple terms; the lives of the others on the team rested on the shoulders of the team leader. "I'll be the team leader sir, but I'm also a team member."
"Your words, along with the way you say them, tells me you will be a very good leader, young man."
"Everyone says the same thing, sir."
"You're a natural leader. I could tell it in just the few minutes I have known you." Jasper looked over the group, "Your best chance to survive an ISTAZ is teamwork. That means learning from the classes you take and following what your team leader says. Robin, I will need to see you alone. It will be up to you to make sure you have your team trained in enough skills to make it in the ISTAZ. You can't all take all the classes."
"Can I get a list, sir?"
"Sure can. Mind if I ask why?"
"Because I want to make sure we get as close to our interests as I can. Some of us will have to learn some stuff we probably don't really care about, but at least we can have some fun learning some stuff we think is cool."
"Sounds good," Jasper handed over a comp-book micro-disk. "This has everything you need. I'll see you right after dinner." The man walked off talking to himself, "The Corps needs to keep an eye on the whole group. They are taking to this dome like they were born here. But Robin is one I plan on taking a personal interest in."
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