Jasper Montgomery sat at his desk looking over the courses the leader of this group had selected for his teammates. Like the last four, he saw major problems. "Jordan, what type of ISTAZ do you plan on going to?"
Jordan smiled with anticipation, "Mountain, sir."
With extreme patience, Jasper gently asked, "What do you know about mountains?"
Starting to look befuddled, Jordan faltered, "Well… they have lots of rocks, trees, and wild animals."
Jasper forced himself not to shake his head. He had managed to make it this long without accidentally putting a child down, and he was determined to continue his streak. "What about weather?"
"What about it?" The young man looked confused; "Zong has controlled weather."
"To a point, you are correct, but mountains still get cold. There might even be a snowstorm if you get up high enough. Weather control cannot prevent such things, and in some cases might even create the snow. Those downstream may need more water, which means the Weather-Sats will have to make a snow pack heavy enough to keep rivers and streams flowing properly. We can slow major weather systems down, but minor ones still happen and in ISTAZ areas, we don't even try to change them, unless it looks like they will cause serious health risks to kids."
Jasper held up a finger to cut off Jordan's response as he stood and moved to a small holographic viewer. He slid in a micro-disk and hit play. The image of a group of kids huddled around a fire while wind and snow slashed into them played for a couple of minutes. Jasper hit pause and turned back. "Not one member of your team is scheduled for adverse weather survival training. The list I gave you recommends at least two members take that set of classes."
The boy shrugged, "Okay, Alice has an extra slot to fill. I'll assign her."
Jasper chuckled, "Not that simple. The skills you learn will make or break your efforts on Zong. Do you really think your team will be ready for a storm like I just showed you with the training you have selected? After all, most mountain teams go through at least two storms like I showed you. The team on the vid had to go through four."
The boy's jaw dropped some, "You mean we'll be out in snow?"
Jasper nodded, "And rain, and sleet, and high winds… I want you to start from scratch and get me a new list or I will not approve."
"All right," the youngster sighed, considerably more nervous than when he came in. "I'll be back in an hour or so."
"You have until noon tomorrow. Do not rush it." Jasper stated to the boy's back as the kid walked out the door. As soon as the door automatically slid shut, he looked down at his instructions. All groups who wanted to take a crack at ISTAZ areas were to be allowed to do so. He, actually, didn't have the authority to turn down any group, which met basic criteria, anyway. All the teams thus far had stuck to the "requirements", but he knew damned good and well, requirements would not last past the first two weeks. They needed to look at the suggestions as well.
Jasper punched up a cherry soda on the moleculizer in his chamber. One perk of the job was getting a higher grade of syth–meals and soda always came out of the machine tasting pretty good here at the DalHouston training center. It still amused the man that this had once been the command area for the United States space operations. Now it was humanities last hope for a future of freedom. It may be one of the last hopes for humanity at all, since Earth's resources were all but maxed out and even material brought in from mining asteroids, other planets and moons was not making up the difference.
He glanced down at the kids dealing with the snowstorm and played it again. This particular group of ISTAZ kids from three sessions ago had called it quits after only four weeks, which was actually above average performance for a new ISTAZ team. Somehow, those numbers had to increase. He clicked off the holographic imager and let out a sigh, wondering how the Explorer Corps could find kids who were tougher; both physically and mentally.
His thoughts were interrupted by the door's mechanical female voice, "Student PY-QZRX2507-D1245XW requests entry."
Jasper moved back to his desk, PY meant PhilaYork. Only one team leader from PhilaYork was currently at DalHouston who was interested in ISTAZ training. He had high hopes for Robin and his team. "Open."
Robin came in holding his comp-pad, but didn't look terribly happy, "Sir, am I allowed to ask questions?"
This was a very rare question. Most of the team leaders had everything already figured out, at least in their own way of thinking. "Of course you can ask questions. Please, have a seat Robin."
Robin sat down looking uneasy. Very few adults called him by anything other than D1245XW. Having a total stranger call him by his name really took him off guard. "Sir, I cannot follow all the recommendations given on the class roster."
Jasper nodded, "I know, it is up to you to decide what is best, and please call me Jasper or Mr. Montgomery. I feel old when you call me sir."
Robin grinned, "You are old, compared to me."
Jasper laughed, "Good point! But humor me anyway, Okay?"
"Not a problem, Mr. Montgomery." Robin again smiled, "I kind of figured the list had too many recommendations as some sort of test, but why do we all have to take firearms training? I could fill in a couple of extra slots if I didn't have to go."
"Robin," Jasper spoke with a raised left eyebrow, "I have never known any boy who didn't want to learn how to shoot."
"But, I do know how. I got a merit badge in scouts for it. I have laser, stun, ballistic rifle and pistol badges. I even got a certified gun safety from a PhilaYork police firearms safety instructor."
"How did you manage to swing all that?" Jasper asked while pulling up the records on his comp-desk.
"One of the kids in my patrol has a dad who is a police sergeant," Robin announced proudly. "I got his help to fill out all the forms so my whole patrol could get the lessons. Only me and two others passed all of them. Gavin missed the stun pistol, but passed everything else and we both go to the range every two months to stay current."
"Quite an accomplishment," Jasper nodded. "I could allow you to skip the firearms requirements if I tested you. Think you are up to it?"
"I know I am sir, ahh, I mean Mr. Montgomery." Robin swallowed to hide his nervousness.
"Fine, let's go." Jasper stood up and motioned towards the door.
"As in right now?" Robin gulped.
"Sure. We can't get much further with your request until I find out for myself if we can eliminate the requirements on your list, now can we?"
Robin stood, "I guess not."
The more time Jasper spent around this boy, the more he liked him. As he led the way to a practice range, he decided to find out more about this fine young man. "Have you talked more with Ajax and Fairfax?"
"Yeah, they're great." Robin smiled up at Jasper.
"Did they tell you about their past?" Jasper prodded.
"Yeah," Robin's voice took on a sad tone, "I had heard rumors of people living at street level, but never really thought they were true."
Jasper turned to look at Robin, surprised he had gotten this information out of the boys. Clearly the youngster was a leader. "Well, they live in an orphanage in ChiTroit now."
"If you call being stuck in a small section of a tower with only one trip outside a month living, I would prefer to live at street level and risk the rats, trash and gangs if it meant staying with those I love." Robin firmly stated.
Jasper decided to switch tactics, "They didn't even know how to read and write before they were taken in to the orphanage."
Robin remained firm, "Yeah, but why couldn't they just give their parents an apartment instead of taking them away like that?"
"Their parents refused a job and placement. There was no choice Robin." Jasper sighed.
"They could have left them with their parents like they wanted." Robin insisted.
Jasper's eyebrows arched, "Then they would still be living in the filth of the streets. Living out of the basements opening on to street level is extremely unsanitary and this way they at least get an education."
"So they are imprisoned in a place they do not want to be," Robin stared into Jasper's eyes, "Sorry, but why can't they be given the freedom this country once stood for? At least my history books say it used to be free."
Jasper had never debated a child with such strong ideals before. He firmly disagreed with Robin, but at the same time could see where the youngster was coming from. He opened the room to the indoor firearm's range with his pass card as he spoke. "You make some very interesting arguments Robin. I do not fully agree, but you do make some very valid points."
"My teacher wanted me to join a debate team, but scouts got in the way." Robin shrugged.
Jasper handed Robin a laser rifle right off the rack, "Is there anything you are not good at?"
Robin nodded and hung his head a little, but carefully removed the power pack before he checked over the rifle. As he preformed the inspection, he spoke, "Oh yeah, sewing, leather work, goalkeeping, spelling, and I missed my black belt in judo last month again too."
Jasper patted Robin on the back, "Just going for a black belt at the age of twelve impresses me young man."
Robin perked back up as he finished looking over the rifle, "The lens is cracked on the front. I will not fire this weapon."
"Very good," Jasper took the weapon back. This time he opened a weapon's locker and handed Robin a different rifle.
Robin again inspected the weapon before putting in the power pack and checking the charge. "What setting do you want me to put it on?"
"One quarter," Jasper answered with approval. "Targets will appear in the holo chamber. Lines of tick bushes are actually walls so you will have to turn and move a different direction when you encounter them. Make sure you only shoot what is a danger to you."
"What about stuff for food?" Robin questioned.
"You will take a course in what can be shot for food; the firearms safety test is to make sure you do not endanger others. You have shown me you know how to handle it properly, but you still have to prove to me you will not be too jumpy with it."
Robin looked a little worried, "The police friend-foe training was pretty clear cut, if it was a guy who was not in uniform and had a gun, I shot. What do I look for here?"
"Use your judgment the first time through. If you do well at all, I will give you some pointers and allow you to try again."
"Oh, Okay." Robin gave a little boyish grin of excitement as he stepped into the practice area. The holo projectors clicked on; putting him in a grassland area. As far as the eye could see there was nothing but a few trees. Robin shook his head to clear it. Never before had he seen such a perfect holo-generated image. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a huge, black, four-legged creature with horns charging him. He shot once, but it didn't stop. Realizing this was probably a tough beast; he flipped the switch and fired a three shot burst. This time the beast fell. Off in the distance, a deep snorting sound emerged from a whole heard of the massive, humped back, things, but they didn't try to approach.
For what seemed to be an hour Robin walked around in the endless grassy fields. Several times, a creature would pop out of the ground or fly through the air, but nothing seemed to be a threat. As time went on he got a little bolder; he approached some of the creatures, but kept enough distance to not make himself a threat to them. Finally, he came up on a lizard. He had seen a few of them before, but this one was quite close. He tried to back off but it moved with lightning speed toward him.
Robin raised the rifle and fired off a pair of shots. Both hit and the creature dropped to the ground twitching. So real were the effects, he briefly felt guilty about killing it. He moved on, wondering what to expect. He couldn't help but notice Jasper tried more than a few times to step in front of him or get in a position were the Robin's rife was pointed toward him. Finally he clicked the safety and shouldered the weapon to remove any chance the man could accidentally trick him into being unsafe.
Another twenty minutes passed before the door opened and Jasper called out, "Halt." The program shut down, leaving Robin feeling a little sad, "I could have stayed in there forever! It was great!"
Jasper laughed and nodded. "You did extremely well. You do not need a second time through. I will pass you with what you did."
Robin looked a little disappointed, but removed the power cell and placed it in the solar charging unit. He then grabbed a fresh power pack, slid it into place and handed the weapon back to Jasper, "That was totally different than the police friend-foe test."
"Zong has some creatures which will attack, but they are few and far between." Jasper stated, while handing back Robin's comp pad. "I will be happy to test Gavin and you can both try to test out with ballistic weapons too, if you want."
"Wow, thanks! I'm game!" Robin eagerly nodded. "Can I pre-test anything else?"
"Sure," Jasper nodded while eyeing the boy. As far as he knew, very few tried to pre-test out of anything. The few who did, tended to have spent one session on Adventure Quest and had gotten some skills and classes. Yet here was a kid who not only had some useful survival skills but also wanted to prove himself. Once again he found himself totally impressed with the youngster.
Jasper motioned for Robin to follow him to another range, while he sent a message to have another instructor test Gavin.
As Robin checked over the ballistic rifle he glanced up. "May I ask what the first thing was?"
"It is actually an Earth creature called a buffalo. You can look it up if you wish. They are very good eating, but we do not like you to kill them unless a bull attacks you. There are several herds on Zong, but only a few on the continent of Adventure Quest."
"Neat!" Robin grinned with excitement, "I hope I see one for real!"
"You just might." Jasper couldn't help smiling at Robin's enthusiasm.
Robin looked down at his list of classes and punched a button, "This is what we talked about; if I got out of weapon's training. Option three is if you'll let Gavin test out as well. That still leaves us short, but a little better."
Jasper took the comp pad back, "Mr. Dravenport will test him to see how he does. Anything else?"
"Yeah," Robin looked up, "All the lists were the same for all the ISTAZ areas. I wondered if we should look at special classes for forests and mountains because that is what we want to do."
Jasper knew he had to be careful. The boy was clearly asking for help, but he couldn't set the training for him. This was the first time any youngster had approached him like this, so he was treading in new territory, "Robin, I cannot tell you what to take and what not to."
"Oh, I know Mr. Montgomery. I wasn't asking you to do that. I just wanted to know if you could tell us what a mountain forest was really like. We looked at the pictures and listened to the descriptions, but the computer didn't really tell us what to expect."
"You want me to tell you or your whole group?"
"I was hoping you could tell all of us."
Jasper paused to think. Then an idea came to him, "Very well. If you four are willing to camp in the forest tonight, I will camp with you. I will answer all questions, but I will not give advice. How is that?"
Robin eagerly nodded as he entered the next testing range, "That would be great!"
Three hours later Robin entered the small room where the rest of his team was organizing some gear lists. Gavin glanced up, "Well, I tested out so I can fill two more slots." He let out a long breath, "I can't believe how real the rifle testing holographics were. It really looked like I shot the lizard thing!"
"Yeah, I actually felt sorry for it," Robin admitted, "especially the way it screeched and twitched." Robin glanced down at his class list. "We need to fill in Wilderness Weather and Emergency Communications. Which one do you want?"
"If you're giving me the choice, I'll take communications. The other sounds boring."
"Cool!" Robin snickered, "I was actually thinking the same thing about the communications classes."
Fairfax looked up, "Sorry, they don't have classes on stuff we know."
"Nothing to be sorry for," Robin responded seriously. "From what you have told us, you'll be teaching both of us some survival tactics the likes of which the Corps trainers can't touch. It may not be exactly what we will deal with on Zong, but survival is still survival, and some of it will certainly blend in to what they are going to teach us."
"I've never even slept outside, not for real." Gavin sighed. "We have done camping in the environmental domes in a few CHZ's, but those are still in a dome."
"Yeah, well be happy you never had to at street level." Ajax shot back with a bit more intensity than he really wanted to. Seeing both Robin and Gavin turn and look at him with wide eyes he cringed. "Sorry, Gav, it just…"
Robin moved up to the smaller boy and spoke in a soft voice. "If you want to talk about it, Gavin and I will listen. I wish there was something else we could do…"
"Taking us as part of your team is doing more than anyone else would." Fairfax forced a grin. "You guys are the only ones who have even talked to us since we got here. If nothing else, you have shown us some kids don't care what we are or where we came from."
"If we can do more, let us know." Gavin demanded, as he looked over the way his note puter told him to pack his backpack. "Is anyone else having problems with the whole backpack thing?"
Fairfax glanced over and started laughing. "Um, I think the sleeping roll and bag go into the waterproof bag and get strapped underneath, not shoved into the bottom compartment."
Gavin's eyes went wide, "Oh!" he looked at the picture one more time and frowned, "So the idea is to roll the mat and bag up… I wondered what the big glob attached to the bottom of the frame was supposed to be!"
Ajax held up his own pack. "The two clips with the pulleys are to easily pull the strings around the sleeping gear and lock it in place. The real question is, what are you going to do with your ballistic rifle? There is only one rifle spot on the pack?"
"It breaks down and all fits into the butt." Robin held up his already collapsed bullet firing rifle. "It'll fit in one of the side pouches with no problem. I'm still debating if I want to carry a pistol or not. This is already pretty heavy."
"Maybe Mr. Montgomery will have an idea on if it would be useful or not." Gavin suggested. "The question is, if you carry one, are you going to take a laser, stunner, or ballistic?"
Robin glanced down again and rubbed his chin. "Probably go with a laser stunner combo. Pistol isn't even offered as a first year ISTAZ class, so I may be the only kid in camp with one…"
"Which means you ought to carry it," Fairfax joined in the conversation with a serious voice. "It will show the others you are not green, and from what I've seen, you'll probably be the youngest team leader. Having a pistol on you from the start will send a message to the others about not being an easy mark, and will probably keep others off all our backs."
Robin frowned as he looked over his gear. "I guess I could take a shoulder holster. The whole thing will only weigh an extra kilo and a half with a spare battery." He glanced over his gear once again and decided to add the laser stunner and shoulder rigging to his load out. Once he typed it in, and added the classes for both Gavin and himself, he stood. "I'm going to take this over for approval. Meet you all by the pond on the north side in an hour or so."
Night in the DalHouston training center forest was truly eerie for the four youngsters. Jasper's presence, however, helped a great deal. He showed the boys how to set up a small camp fire, how to inflate the "cheater" tents, and lastly showed them how to set up a real tent made of extremely strong lightweight material.
The evening grew quite late as the eager youngsters asked question after question about Zong, the ISTAZ areas, and mountain forest survival. By the time they went to bed, they had agreed on exactly what courses to take, adjusted the list one last time and turned the list over to Jasper.
Morning came far too quickly, but an ordered nude dip in the pond, close to the campsite Jasper had selected, erased all drowsiness.
Ajax came out of the water, "Wow, that's cold!" he stated through chattering teeth.
Gavin was already busy toweling off, shivering as he did so, "No kidding! Mr. Montgomery, are we going to have to take cold baths out in the ISTAZ?"
Jasper grinned, "Yeah. And if you think that is cold, wait till you jump in a stream fed from a mountain snowpack!"
Robin chewed on his lip, "Maybe we should go somewhere warmer."
Fairfax giggled, as he pushed a surprised Robin back into the water, "No way!"
This only led to Gavin pushing in Fairfax, Ajax pushing in Gavin and finally Jasper pushing in Ajax. Soon, all four naked boys were in a freezing cold-water fight, splashing each other and Jasper.
Jasper could hold back no longer. With a running leap, he cannon balled into the middle of the group, drenching everyone. He backed out after a few minutes and reluctantly called for the group of boys to get dressed. "So you still want mountain forested area and ISTAZ?"
Robin started to nod, turned to make sure everyone else agreed then nodded in earnest, "Yes, Mr. Montgomery, we do!"
"Would you boy's mind if I took over as your trainer for most of your survival classes?"
Ajax answered first in an excited tone, "Could you?"
"Yes, I'm already scheduled to pilot you and seven other teams to ISTAZ training and to be an instructor. As the pilot, I get to choose which group I work with."
Robin gave a charming smile, "Can we still have some fun like this?"
Jasper couldn't help but laugh, "As long as you pay attention in the classes, we can have some fun too, but classes take priority. Okay?"
All four boys nodded their heads in unison.
"Great, be at the shuttle pad at 1450 for boarding instructions."
Robin frowned, "I thought we had another day here."
"You did," Jasper stated. "But this dome is to see how kids will react to wide open areas. You four took to it like you were born in the wilderness. I figured I'd just bump up your departure to match my flight. Otherwise, you get a different mentor."
"I don't want a different teacher," Ajax announced. "I vote we go with him."
"Me to," Gavin spoke up.
"I say yes too," Fairfax looked back to Robin, "but he is our team leader. It should be his choice."
All eyes turned to Robin
Robin blushed when he realized the other three were going to do what he wanted, even if it meant not having Jasper as an instructor. He grinned as he spoke, "1450 hours it is!"
Fairfax jumped into the air, "Yes!"
Time until the flight moved fairly rapidly. Jasper issued all the boys' the gear they would not only train with, but also use once they got to Zong. Uniforms had to get fitted and made by the machines at the training center, and extra, wanted equipment had to be selected. Robin looked at the collapsible laser rifles, survival knives, and other basic gear; then used what limited knowledge he had from scouts to get vests with signal mirrors, and other basic survival equipment.
Next, they were issued full backpacks, a medic-unit and other required supplies. This equipment had to be left alone until the kids received proper training.
Before any of the four boys had a chance to relax, the time came to board the shuttle. Talking quieted down some as Fairfax pointed out the two boys they had chased into the ditch the day before. Both boys glared at them, but quickly turned their attention back to the three girls with them. Two others, a boy and a girl, were also part of the group, but were kind of left out of most of conversation. It seemed odd, but Robin quickly decided it wasn't his problem. Still, it didn't sit well with Robin or any of the others on his team, knowing they would all be going to the same training center. At least their seats were not close to the other group.
To take his mind off the other group, Gavin looked over at Ajax as his new friend gripped the armrests tightly, "Are you okay?"
"I hate this part," Ajax managed to get out through clenched teeth.
Fairfax gripped his friend's shoulder for a second, "You have to engage the safety field. We haven't left the ground yet.
Ajax forced his hand off the armrest just long enough to hit the protective field button. His hand then instantly returned to the armrest. Several of the other kids looked over with questioning looks, wondering why anyone would put up the field before they had to.
While Robin took his time staring down each and every kid until they turned away, Gavin continued to talk. "I've been to the moon on one of these. They're safe."
Ajax continued to look straight forward but spoke after a few moments, "You've been to the moon?"
"Yeah, Robin and I take turns filling out paperwork to get free tours for our scout patrol. There are all sorts of government things that are free for small groups. The whole troop only gets to go on one outing a month, because there are so many of us, but each patrol only has seven of us, so we look all over for tours and contests. Every time we find one, the other fills out the forms.
"Last month alone we went to see Space Central in OakCisco, the geothermal station at Yellowstone City, and the TampaJax Museum of Aquatic Transport."
Ajax's interest made him forget where he was. He turned to look at Gavin, "All for free?"
"Sure! Almost every CHZ has programs to get others to see major attractions. Many are just for kids. All we do is find out about them, download the forms and have the other one fill them out. Robin is better at it than I am, so I fill out about eight a month. He gets the four or five I find. We also re-submit to places we get turned down for as often as they will let us."
The electronic voice told everyone to secure themselves. Gavin pushed the button for his securing field. He noticed Ajax had turned a little pale so he continued to talk, "The Aquatic Transport place was really wild. They even had a small area where we got to learn how to steer a boat with a sail."
Though afraid of the upcoming flight, Ajax was suddenly very interested, "By a sail?"
"Yeah, it's so weird. There are ways to make the boat move even against the breeze."
"Hold on, I don't get it. What is a sail?" Ajax asked while confusion crept into his voice.
"Oh, it is a giant piece of cloth attached to a pole." Gavin held up his arm and pulled his shirt out to give Ajax an idea, "Wind catches it and it puffs out." He blew on his shirt. "The main bar the sail is on is attached to the boat so the wind pushes it."
"No way!" Ajax shouted as his eyes flashed wide in wonder.
"Really!" Gavin nodded, "I didn't believe it either until I saw it work and got to try it."
The conversation continued as the shuttle launched. Before Ajax realized what had happened, the craft was making final preparations for gate entry. He looked over, "Have you ever done this before?"
"Nope," Gavin smiled, "but we tried to a few times. Gate trips are hard to get for free though…."
The word drug out as Gavin realized they entered the gate. He felt like a giant rubber band being stretched and stretched and stretched, then suddenly he was snapped back. For a few seconds he patted himself from head to toe, making sure he was all there. Then he felt his stomach spin. He started to reach for the sickness bag, but it ended as quickly as it started. "Oh, yuck! Gate travel sucks!"
Ajax couldn't have felt more opposite, "That was great! I want to do that again!" Seeing his new friend looking more than a little green calmed his exuberance some, "Gavin, you okay dude?"
"I will be… I think…" Gavin belched and shuddered, "I'm glad one of us liked that part. How is Robin?"
Ajax looked over, "He's like me, but I think Fairfax is even sicker than you are."
The over head speaker came on, "Anyone needing sickness medication, please press five on your touch panel now."
Gavin didn't hesitate, nor did Fairfax. Both boys quickly gulped down the whitish orange liquid dispensed in a small plastic cup.
For Gavin, the effects were quite startling. It tasted absolutely terrible for a moment, then his tummy calmed. Seconds later he was as good as before the gate entry, "Gee, I'm glad they thought of that."
"Me too," Fairfax managed to groan, still not completely recovered from the effects. "I think I know what my underwear band feels like when I pull on it now."
Laughter erupted from several kids within earshot. Many of them gave a hive five slap on their protection fields to show approval.
The merriment was cut short by Jasper's voice, "Young folks, this is your pilot; welcome to Zong. You are all ISTAZ training students, so we will bypass the spaceport and take you directly to Dal-Houston ISTAZ training sector on the second continent. Upon landing, grab your gear and proceed directly to the vehicle with your team leader's name on it."
Robin led the way as they exited out of the rear starboard door. It was either very early morning or very late in the evening as the planet's sun cast a glow off in the distance. Strange sounds of chirping could be heard and off in the distance he could just make out a buffalo grazing beyond the fence.
He moved toward a small hover vehicle as he noticed the sky continued to grow dimmer. Night was settling on this side of Zong, laying a velvet blanket of darkness over everything. Stars too numerous to count could be seen in the crystal clear sky. For Robin, this was as close to heaven as he could ever imagine being.
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