Training & Testing
Robin rolled his head as he reassembled the equipment. The training for the ISTAZ insertion was pretty intense and Jasper Montgomery was one very tough instructor. Eight hours out of every day he attended classes. Some times it was with the others from his small team. At other times; with a couple of other kids from other ISTAZ teams. And a few times, like now, it was just him and an instructor. One very old and mean instructor, Robin reminded himself again for about the tenth time.
The elderly man, well over eighty years old, came over looking a little disappointed, "Son, this is harsh weather survival you are getting ready for. Look at your dome and tell me what is wrong."
Robin looked at the tent and shrugged, "It is set up like the Comp pad says to."
The man shook his head in frustration, "That's the problem with you kids. You follow instructions, but don't think for yourselves!"
Jasper cleared his throat to make his presence known. Once he was sure the lesson had halted he walked up, "Instructor Allen, the kids at the rifle range could really use a hand."
"Just what I need, a laser in the butt from some careless little punk," the old man snorted. "You want to finish this?"
"Yeah," Jasper smiled and managed to slide in a wink at Robin while the old man turned to grab his gear, showing an impressive amount of stamina and spunk for a man his age. "I think I'll try a new approach."
"Good luck," Instructor Allen muttered. "I won't give this kid's team a month and a half in the zone before they will be begging for Mommy and Daddy."
"Hey, that's a full month's improvement over any of the other teams."
"Yeah, well this one at least listens and his team treats him like a leader. Those other ruffians don't stand a flipin' chance if they will not follow one leader. Age don't matter nearly as much as brains and teamwork do out here."
"Very true," Jasper sighed. "Maybe you could talk to them."
"My job's to teach, not baby-sit," Instructor Allen complained. "They selected their leaders; they ought to be willing to let 'em lead!" He then paused and shot Robin a stern look and tapped his head. "Think boy, think! I can see it in them bright green eyes a yers! Ya haven't called for a grade yet cause yer brain be trying to tell ya something!"
Jasper waited until the man disappeared from view before smiling at Robin, "You know he was actually giving you a compliment."
"Yeah, I know, Mr. Montgomery. That's what worries me."
Jasper laughed, "Your team is doing far better than the others, really. Don't let his bark bother you because he doesn't bite."
Robin brightened; Jasper just had that effect on him. "Okay, so what did I do wrong with the tent?"
Jasper looked over the low environmental domed insulated hut also known as an E-Tent, "Truth be told, you did it just the way the comp pad shows you to."
"I know, and Mr. Allen agreed, but he said I wasn't thinking."
"He does tend to say those words a great deal, and I know you all dislike him. You know he called me on the radio because you are really close and he didn't want to give you the answer. If he does, you automatically fail," Jasper paused. "However, there is no person better qualified to teach you about ISTAZ survival. You know he was on the team that first discovered Zong."
Robin almost felt his eyes bulge out, "There was only one Allen on the team," Robin shuddered with excitement, "Campbell Allen! Ground Team Leader of Explorer Seventeen! Is that really him?"
"My, my, you know your Explorer Corps history!" Jasper chuckled, "Indeed it is. He may not have the best instructional manner, but if you take what he teaches to heart, you will be far better off then those who ignore him."
Robin seriously thought about running after Instructor Allen to get an autograph, but held his excitement in check. If the biggest hero in Robin's life felt he had done something wrong, he wanted to know what it was. "So what am I missing?"
Jasper ruffled Robin's hair as he moved over to a rock and sat down, "What have you been taught so far?"
"You mean about setting up the E-tent?"
Jasper shook his head and took in a deep breath of air, "What are you supposed to be learning in this class?"
"How to handle bad weather," Robin answered automatically then frowned, not really liking his answer. He came over and sat on the rock next to Jasper as he reworded his answer. "How to survive in it might be closer."
Jasper put an arm around Robin and gave the boy a light squeeze; "Neither answer is quite correct Robin. All your classes are to teach you how to survive and handle the dangers of an ISTAZ, so you are right about that part. What I really want you to think about is what this class in particular is trying to teach you."
Robin's nose scrunched up as he thought over the question. "I thought it was just to show us what to do in case of bad weather."
"If that is all there was to this, you would pass with flying colors. You know how to use the equipment without your comp pad. You set up the E-tent perfectly. You know what types of bad weather there are. You have learned how to use all your team's body heat to help you stay warmer. You understand when to stop and make a shelter in very bad weather. You have even aced the tests on what to look for as far as signs bad weather may be coming. Mr. Allen rated you on everything with the highest marks, and for him to do so tells me he is impressed. The thing Mr. Allen wants you to do is blend in all these skills with what you have learned about rain, snow, sleet, fog, and even hail.
"The skills we teach you are only half the battle out here. The rest has to come from in here," Jasper tapped lightly on Robin's head. "And the desire to make it when things are not going well will come from here," Jasper used an open hand to pat Robin's chest.
"I know you and your teammates have the needed heart and you will have all the training; what I do not see you having, though, is what makes it come together and makes it all work well."
"Then show me!" Robin yelled out is some frustration. As he wiped a tear out of his eye, he lowered his head, "Please?"
Jasper rubbed Robin's shoulders for a few minutes to let the boy calm some, stood, "Robin, we have tried in the past to show kids what to do, but it doesn't work. Things get missed and teams fail quite badly. ISTAZ survival cannot simply be shown, nor can we simply tell you what you will need to know, because we cannot possibly prepare you for everything that could come up. Every year we hear about things that happen to teams, which we never even dreamed of. Like last year, we had a team of five who were walking along a ridgeline when a gust of wind caught a half-assembled E-tent the team leader had been too lazy to disassemble all the way. The wind dragged the girl over to edge of the cliff. She grabbed onto one of her teammates, but he was not strong enough to hold her up, so they both went over.
"Two kids, who went through all the classes, died and the other three were left without a medi-kit, E-dome, and other drastically needed supplies. Bad weather prevented us from getting to them and the other three almost starved to death. It took controllers in the space station to realign a weather sat to even make the rescue possible."
Jasper let his words sink in, "ISTAZ's are dangerous and every year claims lives. The primary reason why we had to get your parents to sign special forms and why we have this training course is directly because it is life and death out there. This is also why we, as instructors, have the rule about automatically failing anyone we give an answer to, even if we do it accidentally. A great deal of what will happen we cannot predict. Once you are out there, we will not be able to help and when bad things happen. Testing is about making sure you can make the needed leap in logic to transition book learning into real life applications. For once out there, on your own, you don't have a safety blanket. Out there," Jasper pointed out into the wilds of Zong, "is where you and your team must blend in what we teach you into a larger picture of what is going on."
Robin looked back at the E-tent and chewed on his lip, "Are you saying that I did everything right by the comp pad, but something is still wrong?"
"As screwed up as it sounds, yes. Mr. Allen would dearly love to hear those words come out of your mouth, as well as all the others here. The fact you didn't call for a grade yet, tells me something inside you already guessed this to be the case though."
Determination returned to Robin's features as he stood and walked around the E-tent, "Can I at least get a hint?"
Jasper shook his head, "If I even mentioned the problem, you would see it right off. What Mr. Allen was trying to do was make you combine the training up to now into one picture. Much like a puzzle, the pieces will fit if you stop looking at one thing. Much like the girl who only saw the hassle of breaking apart the E-tent for a short walk, she didn't see what the consequences of not taking apart the tent were, until it was too late."
Robin growled after a few moments. Whatever he was missing must be obvious if Mr. Montgomery and Mr. Allen both saw it right off. The tent was set up right. They both had said so; yet there was still a problem. If it was not with the tent it must be with where the tent was set up. He looked around and felt very stupid all the sudden. The tent was set in the lowest ground in the area. And if he set it up at all it would be for bad weather, which would probably mean water or snow was on the way or already falling. The E-tent was low to the ground and would end up filling up with water if set up in such a low area. Robin sighed, "We'd all get wet if I set it up here."
"Outstanding!" Jasper almost shouted as he jumped to his feet and patted Robin on the back. "If you look beyond what you are being taught at the moment, you will be able to handle things far better!"
Robin smiled as he disassembled the tent and put it up again in a better spot, but had to clear some branches and a few rocks away first. As he looked around he suddenly realized the training area had been selected to teach just such a lesson. The easiest place to set up the E-tent was in the low spot because it didn't have to be cleared. Once he double-checked his work he called for a grade.
Jasper typed in an outstanding mark for the class and handed Robin back his comp pad, "You are the first student to get an outstanding grade in this session. Congratulations cadet!"
"Thanks Mr. Montgomery!" Robin's smile was almost radiant.
Jasper, again, ruffled Robin's hair, "As soon as you get the E-tent broken down and properly stored, you can get some lunch." Jasper stopped and put a hand on Robin's shoulder, "You put the pieces of what we have taught you together today, keep it up and you and your team will be successful out there."
Robin nodded, "I kind of see how the classes build on each other now. All I have to do is remember to use what you already taught me when I am testing."
"It isn't just me, Robin, There are six other instructors out here who need some credit too."
"Yeah, I know. But you're the best!"
Jasper couldn't help but feel a little pride as he walked down the hill toward the base camp. When he had first received his orders as a training officer for Zong ISTAZ cadets, he was crushed. His dreams of leading a third expedition into deep space would probably never come true. He had almost quit the Explorer Corps outright.
The night the orders appeared on his hand-held he first cried, then got angry and busted up a few things in his quarters. Finally, he spent another two hours typing up a very nasty letter along with his resignation. His finger was actually on its way down to send it, when something stopped him. It was a deep twinge telling him to give it a shot. The letter could always be sent after getting rid of the first group of urchins, and like it or not, he had to admit; he had the needed skills to be an instructor.
Now, however, he was finding he was not only good at teaching, but also loved to work with the kids. There was something so wonderful about seeing a child's eyes light up as a new skill was learned. Until a few weeks ago, Jasper would have never believed himself to be a good candidate for a father. Now he could think of nothing he would prefer. For a brief moment he thought about Fairfax and Ajax. There were millions of kids back on earth stuck in orphanages… Maybe he could take a couple away from such a miserable existence. The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea.
Robin was oblivious to Jasper's musings. He packed up the E-tent and walked back to the camp; looking at his comp pad with a huge smile. His joy came to an abrupt halt, however, as he saw Fairfax almost crying.
"Hey, you OK?"
Fairfax glanced up showing eyes brimming with tears. He shook his head and looked away.
Robin knelt next to his friend, "What happened?"
Fairfax bit back a sob, "I failed the ground nav test." With a look of utter defeat he handed over his comp pad so Robin could look at it.
Robin looked over the notes made by Instructor Hale, "This isn't too bad. You scored satisfactory on almost all your skills. Besides, you get two more chances to pass."
Fairfax shook his head, "But I did everything I knew how to! I don't even know why I failed!"
"I almost had the same thing happen to me," Robin stated as he put an arm around his friend. "Mr. Montgomery and Mr. Allen gave me enough time to get it right, or I would have failed too."
Fairfax wiped away a few tears and looked over in surprise, "But you got almost all above average or excellent marks in all your classes. How did you almost fail?"
"The tests are not as simple as looking things up on the comp pads." Robin openly cringed. "Let's round up Ajax and Gavin, grab some lunch and we'll talk over what we learned and didn't."
"I'm not really hungry," Fairfax stated as he stood up.
"You! Not hungry?" Robin gasped in mock shock. "We better get you to a doctor!"
Fairfax glared for a moment then started laughing as he saw the look in Robin's eyes. "All right, I guess I could eat!"
"That's more like it!" Robin giggled as he punched Fairfax in the arm playfully.
Ajax saw Robin and Fairfax roughhousing as they approached the mess tent, "Looks like they are all smiles."
Gavin looked up from his burger and fries, "Looks like I'm the only one who failed."
"Dude, you still got two more shots. You'll get it!" Ajax insisted. "It isn't like you are alone. No one in your whole group passed!"
"Yeah, but I was the only one who failed without an explanation. I just can't see a way to get a passing grade. I guess I need to figure out how I could pass all the sub-tests and end up with a failure. It makes no sense!"
Robin bounded over the bench and took a seat, "Looks like you started without us!"
Ajax answered, "Yea, I figured some food might calm Gavin down."
"You failed too?" Fairfax asked in some amazement.
Gavin tossed his comp pad on the table so the others could see his scores, "You mean I'm not the only one?"
"Nope," Fairfax replied as he passed his comp pad over for Gavin to see, "I blew it too, but Robin passed!"
"So did Ajax," Gavin smiled for the first time since he got his results. "You guys better grab some food before it gets cold, then we can talk."
Robin and Fairfax each grabbed a plate and got a pair of burgers and a good-sized helping of fries. By the time they got back to the table the mess tent was almost full, but the conversation was not near as loud or boisterous as it normally was.
Robin looked around after talking about his test and what Mr. Montgomery had taught him, "Hey, where is Team Six? Their table is empty."
Ajax shook his head; "They threw in the towel. I saw them packing out for standard Adventure Quest Intake right after the morning testing. I think they settled on a ranch area."
Fairfax shook his head, "That leaves only seven teams left, including us. Why did they call it quits?"
"Not sure," Gavin shrugged, "Although I heard their team leader say they failed every test they took."
"So what?" Robin asked to no one in particular. "This is only the first day of testing. They would have had two more chances each."
"Maybe…" Ajax started, but was interrupted by the sounds of the PA crackling to life in the tent and Instructor Moore asking for quiet.
Jasper stood and walked up to the podium, "As I am sure many of you have noticed, we are down to seven teams. I also know many of you are highly disappointed with your morning of testing. At this point, some of you are wondering what the point of continuing even is. Let me first say the number of people who didn't pass is not abnormally high. Actually, I am extremely pleased to announce Team Five actually had two members who passed their tests; so hats off to Team Five. Robin you're the team leader, stand up and take a bow!"
There was a round of applause as Jasper gestured toward Robin, who looked totally embarrassed. His sudden blush in his cheeks almost matched his hair.
Gavin exchanged looks with his teammates, "We can't be the only ones with two passed tests, can we?"
"Sounds like it," Fairfax shrugged. "I suddenly don't feel so bad."
"Same here," Gavin grinned.
Robin tried to sit, but Jasper again spoke up, "Robin, stay standing for a minute."
At this point, Robin would have loved to have had something to hide behind, but he stood back up and faced Jasper again, doing his best to ignore the looks of all those around him. It didn't help much as he noticed, almost immediately, all the instructors were standing behind the podium. The fact they were smiling only made it worse. As he wondered what was going on, he saw a kid, who was working on cleaning up the serving line, hand a small box over to Mr. Allen. As the boy did so he glanced over to Robin with a tinge of jealousy in his eyes.
This only increased his curiosity, since all the kids manning the mess hall were Explorer Corps Academy cadets. Robin couldn't help but wonder what could make an academy cadet jealous, since being a cadet was one of Robin's greatest dreams. Fortunately, he didn't have long to wait.
Jasper cleared his throat as his smile told even the least observant how happy he was. "Robin, here, is also the first one to get an Outstanding mark here at DalHouston's Zong ISTAZ training center this year.
"As you know, all of us who are teaching here are members of the Explorer Corps. You may have even heard us refer to you all as cadets on occasion, even though you are not members of the Corps or the academy. This is done out of respect for those of you who are willing to try ISTAZ, because we do hold a great deal of respect for anyone willing to give this a shot.
"Over the past fifteen years, the Corps has started a very special award to those who achieve any Outstanding grade and an even higher award for the first to do so. Robin, please come up here for a minute."
Robin approached Jasper, but looked back at his friends. Seeing all three of them nodding and smiling helped him a great deal.
Jasper motioned for Instructor Allen to step forward, "You all have gotten to know us, but there are a few things some of you have not managed to piece together yet. Mr. Allen's full name is Campbell Allen."
There were more than a few gasps from the assembled kids in the mess tent as the name was spoken.
"For the few of you who don't recognize the name, Mr. Allen led the ground team that first landed here on Zong."
Campbell Allen walked up to Robin with a smile. The first real smile Robin could remember from the man since he arrived at the training center. "You had me a bit concerned there at the end, there, cadet."
Robin nodded, "Me too, sir."
Campbell let out a cackling laugh, "Well, you pulled through and used your head. You earned this." Carefully, Mr. Allen opened a black case and pulled out a pair of pins.
Robin almost passed out as he saw the quartz starburst insignias held in the case. They were only worn by members of the Explorer Corps!
Mr. Allen pulled the pins out and stuck them on Robin's shirt collar. Before Robin really knew what was going on he felt the old man grab his shoulders and spin him around so everyone could see what had been clasped onto his shirt.
Jasper shook Robin's hand and stepped up to the mike, "Only five kids per Adventure Quest rotation get to be the first to get an outstanding grade from the U.S. Because of this, the Explorer Corps takes great pride in making Robin a full member of the Corps at the rank of Recruit. Upon completion of High School, which may be at the Explorer Cadet Academy, if he so wishes and his parents agree, he will be given a full scholarship to the Explorer Officer Academy. Upon completion of his two years of schooling at the academy, Robin will be inducted as an officer in the Explorer Corps. Furthermore, since he is now an actual recruit he will hold officer rank as a cadet for the full time he is there."
Robin looked at Jasper in shock. The words sunk in, but his brain refused to believe what he had heard. Even the Starburst pins didn't make it quite believable.
Jasper moved up behind Robin, put his hands on the boy's shoulders, "I can see at this point many of you are wondering what happens if you manage to also get an Outstanding Mark on your future tests, so let me answer the question now, before you all ask us.
"Any Outstanding marks, from here on, will give you true cadet rank in the Corps and you will be offered a scholarship to the Cadet Academy at DalHouston Training Center. Even if you, or your parents, do not choose to take us up on the offer, your Cadet ranks can still be worn with pride. Furthermore, Robin and anyone else with an Outstanding Mark will be allowed to return to Zong every year until you are eighteen years of age.
"Robin, here, will always be a full member of the Corps, even if he does not choose to stick with us; my congratulations, Recruit Robin McDaniels."
Robin couldn't hold his emotions in check. He turned to Jasper and hugged the man as he cried.
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