Gavin looked out from the hover vehicle window as it sped past the fence of the Zong ISTAZ landing field. Night was quickly falling, but there was enough moonlight from two of Zong's three moons to allow him to see some of the surroundings. For the first time since they had formed their little group everyone seemed to be quiet, lost in their own thoughts.
It didn't take Gavin's mind much time to wander. He couldn't believe how wide open everything seemed. Part of him refused to believe this was real. The Holo-projectors in DalHouston training center proved to him this could all be some sort of trick. However, the smells were different, as were the tastes. Up till now, Gavin hadn't really thought about the taste of air before, but being on Zong changed this. Earth oxygen had a refined taste to it, almost metallic in nature.
Of course, with over 60 billion people on the planet, technology had been developed to keep the air free of most pollutants, and thus the air constantly went through filters and processing stations. Not so on Zong; the air held thousands of smells, some very pleasant, others truly terrible. The problem for the youngster was his sensitivity to the smells was extremely high. Having never smelled unprocessed air before; his nose was inundated with nature.
Sure the E-domes had some flowers and plants, but the air still went through filters to keep it at the proper oxygen content and free of germs. The resulting purification meant smells didn't get a chance to travel very far or mingle. The more Gavin tried to figure out what he was smelling, the more confused his mind got.
Ajax also found himself getting confused, not from a smell perspective, but instead for a distance and reference standpoint. The hover vehicle Jasper piloted was not traveling very fast, only 150 KPH at most, but the problem was figuring out how the man knew where he was going. They were not on a road. Nor were there markings to show the big man where he was supposed to go. He could see the driver's console, so he knew Jasper was not on an auto navigate mode, nor was he tracking a homing transponder.
His mind also started to play tricks on him. He had thoughts of getting lost. The more he looked for familiar features the less he found. Within minutes the landing facility was no longer visible through the back window, so he could not, for the life of him, figure out how the man knew where to go. He started to worry about getting lost on some mountain.
Fairfax's mind found a whole different train of thought to go down. The last four years had been one long nightmare. It had all stated when ChiTroit CHZ police found his family walking around at street level. His whole family had been taken to a laborer tower where they had been forced to live in a tiny room. All six of his brothers and sisters, mom and dad could barely move around without stepping on one another. After less than a week, his parents decided to hit the streets again.
It had taken another few days to find an exit to street level; everything was going great until he twisted his ankle, as they slid one by one down a recycling chute to the basement. His cries of pain alerted one of the workers who hit a zap camera.
The camera trained on his cries and sent out an electrical stun pulse. Fairfax woke up in the orphanage hospital room with none of his family around. Question after question had gotten him nowhere. The workers at ChiTroit Orphanage ZR refused to give him any information about his mom or dad. All they really wanted to know is where his sisters and brothers were. He refused to tell them anything.
Once his ankle healed he was assigned to a classroom and given a number CT-OPHZR-19878967-SLO. The number itself told everyone what they thought to be important. The CT stood for ChiTroit. OPHZR told people he was currently assigned to the ZR orphanage. And the last three letters informed the world he was nothing more than a street level orphan. Someone had once told him the number in between was the total orphans in ChiTroit. Fairfax had a hard time believing this, however. He seriously doubted 19,878,967 orphans were housed in ChiTroit CHZ, but who could ever tell. Of course Ajax's number was 19876773, which was only 2206 greater than his and they arrived on the same day, so it might be true.
Looking around, he wondered if there was a way to not have to go back to Earth. Here on Zong he was Fairfax. The name given to him by the one of the nurses who didn't care for the name his parents had called him. She said Bubba just didn't sound like a good name for a boy.
The same woman gave Ajax his name. Although his friend had never told him what his given name had been. For some reason, whenever a new SLO came in to the ZR orphanage, she would give them a name with an "X" somewhere in it unless they had "good" names like Joey or Tommy. Girls always seemed to be spared this treatment, though. Of course the older kids in the orphanage knew a name with an "X" in it meant SLO. This was like having a target painted on him. The kids would tease them, call them gutter trash and other cruel remarks. Unfortunately, it seldom ended with words. Pranks, some of them quite painful, and others very humiliating, were an almost daily occurrence. It was something the adults ignored and both Ajax and Fairfax figured had to be encouraged as well.
Staying on Zong, never having to get the worst clothing in the orphanage because he should be "used" to it, and having friends like Robin and Gavin, who didn't seem to care what his past was, sounded like a great idea to him. The idea of never having to be jammed into a small closet, finding his clothing missing after a shower only to be replaced by something one step up from rags, and a hundred even worse things being done to him was very appealing. The more he thought it over, the more he wondered if he could convince Robin to go along.
Robin was more adventurous. He watched the countryside slide by for several minutes before sighing. The rest of his group looked like they wanted some time to think so he slid up to passenger seat, "Mind if I join you for a while Mr. Montgomery?"
Jasper grinned, "Not a problem Robin." Quickly he punched in a code into the computer console. Instantly, a second set of driving controls slid out of a panel in front of Robin, "How would you like to learn to drive?"
Robin looked at the controls with wide eyes, "Su…Sure, what do I do?"
"Look down," Jasper pointed to the floorboard. "The right pedal is the forward speed; next to it are the controls for the stopping thrusters. The harder you press the more reverse thrust you will get. The control wheel in front of you is how you steer. It has the settings on the left for upward thrust. The higher up you are, the smoother the ride, but the harder it is to control and make turns. The three buttons on the right are your visual modes. We are on lowlight now. That is why we can see even though it is dark out. The second one down is infra-red, and the last is daylight."
Jasper clicked a red button, lighting up all the instruments on Robin's side of the vehicle. As he did so, they came to a slow stop. He quickly showed speed indicators, radar, and even collision threat detectors. After a few minutes of letting Robin get used to the controls, Jasper hit a computer switch. "I have it set on instructor mode. I can override all your commands by grabbing my control wheel, so do not worry. I will not let anything bad happen, but she is now yours. Take it easy and get used to it. I'll point the way."
Robin started off very slowly, then built up speed. He quickly discovered driving was not nearly as hard as he thought it would be.
Jasper smiled as the transport's digital readout slowly but surely pushed the 300 KPH speed mark. "Robin, how would you like a real challenge?"
Robin slowed down sensing danger, but he was not the type to back down, "As long as I don't hurt anyone."
"Nope," Jasper reached out and gave Robin's slender shoulder a light squeeze, "you might scratch the paint some, but nothing more."
"I don't want to damage anything."
"Don't worry; I'll just have you paint her during some of your free time."
Robin giggled, "Deal! What do I do?"
"Slow down and turn right."
Robin looked to his right and saw trees and several large rocks, "How am I supposed to get though a forest with this?"
"It is just a grove of trees and some old volcanic rocks. It will give you a chance to test how well you can really drive."
Robin took a deep breath and moved the transport into the grove. At first he took it really slow, low to the ground.
Jasper nodded approval, "Not bad. Now push her up to 50 KPH."
Robin swallowed hard, but did as he was told. Quickly, he realized he had to give the craft more upward thrust as his teammates in the back started complaining about being bounced around. Gritting his teeth, Robin glanced over at Jasper as he eased the upward thrust up. Getting a smile, he calmed some and continued forward. Twenty minutes later he cleared the trees and rocks.
"Great job, didn't hit a single thing!" Jasper stated proudly
Robin forced his hands to relax his grip on the wheel, "I always thought playing the holo-vid games were hard!"
The laughter from the back further calmed Robin. Soon he was pushing the 300 KPH mark again.
"Okay speed demon," Jasper joked. "Lets take this this impromptu training one more step. Bring her to a stop."
Robin had no idea what to expect. He had never dreamed of being allowed to pilot such a machine for real. His heart raced knowing Jasper had something really special in mind.
Jasper picked up a radio mike, "ISTAZ central, this is EC597TL, I need Sub O training clearance for zones twelve to fifteen, over"
A female voice came across, "Wilco, Commander Montgomery, stand by. I will have all traffic cleared in five mikes, over."
A giggle came from the back of the craft, "Uh-oh, you did it now Robin!" Gavin's voice teased.
Robin turned, looking a little pale, "Yeah, I get the same feeling. I just wish I know what I did!"
Ajax couldn't help but join in, "If you get us killed I'll haunt you!"
Fairfax started laughing hard, "How do you haunt a ghost?"
"I don't know, but I'll figure it out! Can I drive some too, Mr. Montgomery?"
Jasper turned with a grin, "I'll give you all a chance to drive, maybe even do everything Robin is doing; as long as you do as well as he has up to this point."
This brought about a round of smiles and morbid jokes about wrecking and never being allowed back to Zong again. Things came to an abrupt halt as the speaker crackled to life with a deep male voice. "Explorer Corps Commander Montgomery. This is space command. Suborbital and orbital paths all the way to Ipax moon are now clear. You may commence your training flight. Have fun boys!"
Jasper could see all the boys had heard the words. His status as an Explorer Corps high-ranking officer was now known by all the kids in this small group. He quickly typed in a security code into the transport's central computer. Seconds later, hydraulics moved wings out from the craft's body and the low hum of the engine died out as a magnetic drive unit clicked online. "You three in back, hit your restraining fields please."
"What about me?" Robin asked.
"You have to fly. You have to be free to use the controls," Jasper smiled, while quickly pointing out the controls used in flight. He then looked right into Robin's eyes and smiled at the look of determination engraved into the boy's face, "The best way to learn is to do it! Take us up!"
Robin glanced back, happy to get nods from all three of his teammates. His right hand pushed the throttle as he used his left to pull back on the stick. Seconds later he had the craft well above the planet's surface.
"All right Robin!" Fairfax stated jubilantly, "You did it!"
Jasper agreed, "Very smooth for your first time. Now the next challenge is to take us suborbital. When you do so, you will feel gravity let go some. The second this happens, cut back on your thrust or you will take us into an orbital position. The 3D grid off to your left will show you when to expect it, so look at your controls for help."
"What if I mess up?"
Jasper chuckled, "Then you get to learn how to do a re-entry and to try it again."
It took Robin three times to get it right. The first time, he backed off too soon and had to regain lost altitude as he found himself spiraling downward. Everyone, except Gavin, found it kind of like an amusement park ride. All Gavin could think about, however, was hitting the ground at six times the speed of sound.
The second time Robin overshot the mark and found himself in zero gravity. Looking over with wide eyes, he was relieved to see Jasper smiling. This meant another twenty-minute class to learn how to enter the atmosphere without burning up. The task was made all the harder because Jasper made the scared boy do it without computer auto guidance systems.
None of the boys could figure out how Mr. Montgomery could remain so calm as they watched the outer skin of the craft start to glow a light red, as heat from the atmosphere penetrated the force field surrounding the craft. Little did they know the larger ships could produce a much stronger field than the small craft could; Jasper was used to this.
Two hours later, Robin finally managed to get them all to the smallest of Zong's moons, land, and fly back with no major problems. Relieved, the group took a break. Then they switched drivers. One by one the kids took turns driving and flying, but Jasper didn't feel comfortable enough with Gavin's or Ajax's flying to allow them to land on the moon. As dawn broke over Zong's second continent, Fairfax guided the vehicle to a smooth stop outside of a small building nestled back against a small rock formation on the edge of a vast mountain range. Off to the side, a beautiful waterfall tumbled off the rocks above and roared into a large, deep, crystal clear pool. Several fish could be seen swimming around as the amazed boys looked down.
Jasper let them stretch and get a feel for their new surroundings before taking charge. It still amazed him none of the four looked, even slightly, homesick. "Okay boys, I want you all to shower and get your gear spread out on tables in the cottage. There is some other gear you may wish to take along in there, but remember, you have to carry everything you pack.
"I will go over your gear while you all get used to just being here. Today is yours, but do not stray to where you cannot see this cluster of cabins. I cannot tell you how many times kids get too far away from camp on their first couple of days, but the numbers are staggering. If you do get lost go ahead and hit your emergency beacon. Just don't expect us to be happy when we pull up next to you. We have to log every incident, and they count against us.
"Tonight I expect you to all get a good night's sleep. I want you all alert for your classes tomorrow. If you keep up with studies and you want to earn flight wings I will give you ground school classes, but only if you keep up with your ISTAZ studies. Understood?"
"Yes sir!" Robin nodded. "We'll study hard if we get to earn pilot wings!"
"I kind of thought you might." Jasper snickered.
"Can we sleep outdoors?" Ajax asked.
Jasper shook his head in astonishment as the rest of the group all turned to him with gleaming eyes. He couldn't believe how totally un-intimidated this group was of being in the wilderness. He almost said no, but thought better of it, "As long as you set up your tents and are close to the building in case you get cold. Remember, this isn't DalHouston. There are no weather-sats above this continent and we are approaching late fall. It will get darned chilly. Rain and snow are both very real possibilities; especially judging from those dark clouds." Jasper pointed to a cluster of darkness off on the horizon away from the mountains.
Robin's eyes really lit up; "I always wanted to play in the snow!"
"You will be here for two weeks Robin," Jasper stated. "You will get your chance, I am sure!"
He paused and glanced over the four, very eager, kids. "Chances are good you will have to camp in a snow storm or two while out on ISTAZ too. From reports I have read, only three mountain forest teams have not had to deal with one snow storm in the last fifteen years."
Jasper watched the reactions of the four boys. Once again he saw only glee and hope. These four were not at all what the Corps had told him to expect. In fact, they were totally opposite. As he walked away he smiled to himself. He was told he would get the chance to offer five kids academy scholarships and he figured he had four of them already spoken for. If he could get them all though ground school and some solo time, he might even be able to get them in without them. The Explorer Corps kept a close eye on all kids in ISTAZ, and getting wings would make them stand out.
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