Robin finished his lunch in silence as the other kids talked about how cool it was to see their friend become a member of the Explorer Corp. It didn't seem fair to Robin. He loved the idea of being allowed to attend the elite Explorer Corps School, but what about Gavin? He couldn't leave his best friend in the whole world behind. Then there was Ajax and Fairfax. His new friends would go back to their orphanage in Chi-Troit at the end of the summer. It wasn't fair to them either.
Robin thumbed his Explorer Corps pins as he downed the last swallow of his milk. As he did so, an idea started to form in his mind. It was kind of underhanded, but it was a way all of them could become cadets in the Explorer Corps. The more he thought about it, the more he was sure it would work, but he would need some time with all of his team. His eyes lit up as he realized there was a way to get them all some extra time, but only if everyone passed a test before evening testing. He was about to speak up when the mike in the front of the dining area squealed to life again.
Commander Montgomery frowned slightly as he squealed the mike over and over until all the kids went silent. Finally, he put on a forced smile and started speaking. "I know you all want to talk and settle your nerves before afternoon testing. I want to remind those of you who passed a test, you are not required to test the rest of the day. If you so choose, you can take the rest of the day off, or can get with one of the extra testing instructors for some extra training on areas you didn't take classes on.
"Remember, there are six days of testing of three testing periods each. Since each of you has six tests you must pass, you are only required to pass one a day. Those who passed this morning's tests can take another test, but no one is allowed to pass more than two required tests on any given day. On the other hand, if you want to take a shot at a test you didn't take classes on, you certainly can. It will at least give you an idea of other aspects of what your team members got to know in depth."
Several chuckles rippled through the assembled kids as the mere thought of passing two tests in one day seemed absurd. A few others looked over at Robin with a degree of jealousy as they realized he might actually be capable of passing three tests in a day. The look was not lost on Robin, or the others in his team; nor on the instructors.
A couple of the adults purposefully sent some icy glares at a couple of kids letting them know harassment of Robin would not be in there better interest. Most got the unspoken communication. A few others didn't.
Commander Montgomery paused until the chuckles and giggles died down before speaking again, "Team leaders, I need your attention for a minute, please." He waited a few seconds until he was sure all seven team leaders were, at least, looking in his direction. "What I am about to ask is very uncommon, but then, so was the original request.
"One of the team members from team six wants to know if any of the other seven remaining teams would allow him to join your team. He really wants a shot to go ISTAZ, and is willing to join any team willing to let him in."
One of the girls from team two looked up, "Which kid, Mr. Montgomery?"
The team leader from team eight, one of the two Robin's whole team had chased into a muddy stream at DalHouston, started laughing, "That fag?"
Robin rolled his eyes, "How archaic can you get? Enter-sexual relations are important back on Earth you idiot. If everyone stuck to the old morals, Earth would be outstripped of its resources within a few years from too many births!"
"So," Randy countered, "A fag is still a fag!"
"Whatever," Fairfax said with a disgusted grunt. "Not that it matters, but why would you insult the kid?"
"I pay attention," Randy smirked somewhat proudly. "He won't even shower when anyone else is in the shower room!"
Robin glared, "You're calling him a fag, Randy? How is it you're the one paying attention to who's in the shower, yet someone else is a fag? How does this work?"
Several of the other kids, including a couple from the older boy's own team, started laughing. Many of them pointed fingers at Randy as he turned a bright red.
"You little jerk!" Randy screamed at Robin, "You must be a fag too!"
Robin kept his cool, even managing a snort of laughter, "You know, the person with the most to hide is usually the first to point fingers at others. So what are you hiding Randy?"
As Randy jumped to his feet in a threatening posture, Mr. Montgomery started to move in between the two boys. A hand on his shoulder stopped him. Mr. Allen's voice whispered just loud enough for him to hear, "Something tells me Robin can take care of this himself. If you step between them now, nothing gets settled."
Jasper growled, "I don't want any kids hurt."
"It'll be easier to patch up a black eye or a bloody nose now, then to have to watch both of them the rest of the testing week. Besides, I have seen some tension between these two from the moment they saw each other here. This was bound to happen. Plus, those who are eyeing Team Five need to see the youngest team leader isn't afraid of any of them. This will go a long way to stopping things from getting out of hand across the whole camp. If'n gets really nasty we'll step in and knock some horse sense into 'em."
Jasper reluctantly nodded as he watched Robin calmly stand and brace for an attack, "Remind me to put their teams as far away from each other as possible."
Mr. Allen chortled softly, "Already noted! Any bets, Robin's team will end up taking Oliver in just to spite Randy?"
Randy took a step toward Robin, "You going to have your butt buddies gang up on me again?"
The attempted insult only made Robin grin fiendishly, "Butt buddies? Gee, you have this enter-sexual thing going on bad don't you! Besides, I'm not a little kid like the one you and Frank were picking on back at DalHouston. Speaking of which, were you picking on him because you thought he was cute or something? I mean, you seem to have this thing of wanting to see other guys and all. Was that going to be like a rape thing?"
Jasper grinned as he listened to the exchange of insults, "I don't bet when I know I'd loose."
Randy completely lost his temper and leapt at Robin. His wildly swinging fist caught Robin in the nose, but Robin took the punch and dished out a much more thought-out attack, first hitting Randy in his exposed stomach and then kicking the back of the older boy's leg as he bent over. Randy fell forward knocking over the table Robin's team was sitting at and cutting his eyebrow wide open on one of the chairs.
Robin finished off the short-lived fight by kicking Randy in the ribs, knocking the wind out of him before backing off. Even to the least observant kid in the hall, it was clear Robin could have done a great deal more damage. The few who had been thinking he was the proverbial teacher's pet suddenly realized this was not the case. In fact, the camp commander had not even ordered either boy to stop. Instead Mr. Montgomery had done nothing. Many found this rather sobering.
Jasper finally moved in shaking his head, "I think we can call this little argument over, can't we boys?"
Robin held up his hands, ignoring the trickle of blood coming down his nose, "I considered it over at DalHouston."
Jasper ruffled Robin's hair, "So did I sport." He then knelt down and took a look at Randy, "Young man, your head will require a few stitches. Glue alone is not going to close this gash."
Mr. Allen came up, smiling widely, "I'll get him to the Med Hut. Maybe this'll teach him not to mess with an Explorer Corps Recruit!"
Robin wiped his nose with a napkin, "You mean I'm not going to get kicked out?"
"Neither one of you are, Robin." Mr. Allen stated firmly. "The only fighting which would get anyone kicked out is to continue after one of us stops you or fighting your team leader. A fight between team leaders… well to be honest, it really ain't uncommon.
"By the time this summer is over with, one out of every fifteen kids in this tent will be critically injured or killed. Those are the averages for first year ISTAZ kids. If we can get you all through this and end up with only a bloody nose and a ding to a forehead, we will be some very happy instructors!"
The numbers caused everyone in the tent a few moments of reflection. There were forty-three kids, forty-four if Oliver joined one of the teams in the room. If the odds Mr. Allen spoke were correct, three kids in the room would likely go home in a hospital ship or not go home at all. The thought even seemed to sober Randy.
Jasper sighed, "You would have all heard this speech sooner or later, so I may as well get it over with. What Mr. Allen told you is right on the money. The likelihood is at least one out of fifteen will require us to send in an emergency shuttle to cast a broken bone, dislocated joint, seriously sprained ankle, or animal bite. We have not had a single year where at least one child from this training center has not been killed. As a matter of fact, there has not been one ISTAZ training camp who has not lost a child since Zong was opened. Think over those facts as you look over your testing data. If we fail you, it is because we want you to live."
Many of the kids inside the dining hall found themselves looking around wondering if one of the boys or girls they had gotten to know over the ISTAZ training would be among the dead. It was not at all a comforting thought.
Mr. O'Mally stepped up next to Jasper and spoke. "Mr. Montgomery is new to this guys, but you all need to refer to page fourteen about fighting if you need a refresher. Now, if things continue to cause enough harm to where we need to patch you all up, we will set some rules about fighting, but no matter what happens, don't expect us to coming running to stop you. Fighting your team leader, one of us, or continuing after told to stop will get you sent up to the space station for hard labor until Adventure Quest ends, though, so keep those rules in mind."
Jasper frowned, as he realized he didn't even know this, but in all honesty he never expected a fight to happen, so it was something he must have brushed over. Still it was not something he wanted to let the kids dwell on too long so he changed the subject. "So, anyone want to speak up for Oliver without using fists?"
Robin again dabbed at his nose, then turned to his team, "Anyone object to letting Oliver join us?"
"I don't think any of us really know him. He is way quiet," Fairfax commented, "But it would be nice to have another team member."
Gavin agreed quickly, "I don't know what courses he took, but Fairfax is right. We are at the minimum in most areas because we only have four of us. A fifth member could be helpful."
Robin looked to Ajax, "What about you?"
"I kind of like the team we have Robin. We all get along great and I'd hate to see someone mess it up. But you're the leader Robin, whatever you say, I'll agree to."
Robin turned to Jasper, "Can we let him join as a possible member and see how he works out with us?"
"I'll ask him if your conditions will be alright, but I suspect they will. He really wants a shot at ISTAZ. Besides, something tells me you'll all get along fine. He is twelve and he is smart. He'll be a good match with your team."
Robin nodded, "Unless one of the other teams is willing to take him in without conditions, my team will take him."
Jasper looked around, making eye contact with each team leader. He couldn't help but snicker as Randy glared at Robin's decision, yet remained silent. "Okay, I'll have him report to you, Robin. In the meantime, you all need to get ready for testing this afternoon. I'll delay the start for another hour. This should let you all calm down from the boxing match we just witnessed and give you time to get your heads screwed on straight. That means testing will be from 1400 until 1800, we will take a one-hour break for dinner then the final testing will go from 1900 to 2300. Curfews will be pushed back until midnight, but we will still have breakfast at 0600 tomorrow, so I suggest you get cleaned up and to bed in quick order tonight. Dismissed!"
Robin pushed a new napkin up to his nose as he motioned for his team to follow him. Once outside and out of earshot of the other teams he took a seat on a log. Before he could say anything Gavin glared at him. "Dude, you should have never let such a wild punch land. Our teacher would be pissed at you!"
"I took it on purpose."
"What?" Ajax eyed Robin with skepticism.
"By letting the blow land and still fighting back, I sent a stronger message to the others who might want to cause problems." Robin wiggled his nose a little. "Besides, I have been hit harder by kids four years younger than him in our martial arts school."
Fairfax glanced over at Ajax as he realized what Robin had done. "By getting hit and still fighting he is telling everyone he will not back down. If he had taken Randy down without getting hit at all, it would have only shown is he is fast and Randy is a freaking idiot."
"Still," Gavin muttered, "you should have just annihilated him."
"I'm not as good as you are." Robin stated sincerely.
This got a look from both Ajax and Fairfax, but Gavin was quick to change the subject. "So what did you pull us all away from studying for?"
Robin glanced over at his best friend with a humor filled snort. "Nice deflection, Gav!" He chuckled for a moment but realized Gavin was not going to say more so he decided to get to the point. "I know Mr. Montgomery said it was best to take the tests you thought were hardest first, but I need you all to pass at least one test today, so take one you are confident of this afternoon."
Gavin frowned, "Why?"
"I have a plan, but to make it work, we all need to be able to take off the evening testing so I can explain everything."
Gavin shrugged, "Fine, I'll take first aid then."
Fairfax frowned, "Rifle should be easy enough."
Robin nodded at Fairfax, "Okay, but no matter what happens, don't point your rifle in anyone else's direction and make sure you do a careful inspection of the rifle before you go out and you only kill if you absolutely have to. If you can back away from a threat without endangering yourself do so. My bet is there will be something wrong with the first rifle they give you, maybe even the second."
"Okay boss," Fairfax stated seriously, "Glad you warned me, cause I wouldn't have thought about them handing me a damaged rifle!"
"I'll explain more later, but they set you up so things look easier than it really is. Sometimes the fastest route or the easiest way is not the best."
Fairfax smacked his head, "Now I know why I failed my Ground Nav!"
Gavin looked over, "You do?"
"Yeah," Fairfax sounded disgusted with himself; "I plotted the fastest way to get to where they wanted me to get to. It took me through a bunch of red lizard mounds!"
Robin cringed, "They have a mildly poisonous bite!"
"I know, but they're dormant here, so I didn't think about it at the time."
Gavin suddenly understood, "Just because they are in the dormant season, it doesn't mean there is no chance of seeing one. If you had stopped before you got to them and plotted a course around them, then you would have probably passed!"
"Yeah," Fairfax mumbled, "Now I feel really stupid!"
Robin patted his friend on the back, "My test was much the same way. I bet they all are. Don't set your mind on just accomplishing the task; think about what your actions might lead to. If something looks too easy, then it probably is!" Robin noticed Oliver standing back waiting for him to finish, "Come on over! We don't bite!"
Oliver approached with a nervous shuffle, "Hi."
"Have a seat. We were just talking about our testing and making sure everyone in our group passes their next test," Robin grinned. "What is your best subject?"
Oliver shook his head so hard his long sandy colored hair flew around wildly, "I thought I took it this morning and failed so badly the instructors wouldn't even talk to me."
Robin grimaced as he watched a tear slide out of the gray-eyed boy's left eye, "I think you have it all wrong. You probably came so close to passing they couldn't say anything without giving it away. Tell us what happened."
Oliver stared at the ground as he sat; "There isn't anything to tell. I identified all the plants on the tables. I know I was correct on which ones were poisonous and what ones were good to eat. I even managed to hunt and shoot a bird. I cleaned it and set up a cooking fire when time was called."
Robin shrugged, "I'm not taking hunting and gathering. Ajax or Gavin, did either of you hear anything wrong?"
Gavin looked more nervous than ever, "Man, if I could do half of what he did I'd be happy!"
Ajax chewed on his lip for a moment, "Only one possibility, and I'm betting after what Robin just told us they set it all up."
Gavin frowned, "What?"
Ajax held up a finger, wanting some quiet as he thought it out, "Oliver, what area were you in when they took you hunting?"
"There was only one grove of trees around."
Robin smiled but remained silent. He knew the answer before Ajax even asked.
"So you made the fire out of wood from the grove, right?" Ajax shook his head as he saw the pattern of what the instructors were doing to all of them.
Oliver looked more confused than ever, "Of course I did."
"Yep, just like I would have," Ajax was now snickering. "What type of trees Oliver?"
Oliver groaned, "Oh, no! It was Raven wood!"
Fairfax threw up his arms, "So?"
Gavin slapped his forehead a couple of times, "They warned us once and only once, but it is talked about over and over in the books. Raven wood puts out a sweet smelling smoke, but tends to be absorbed by meat cooked over it. It's a natural laxative."
Fairfax shuttered, "Ohhhh, yuck!"
Robin jumped up, "Oliver, retake it. Watch for the traps they will set. They may even try the same thing for all we know, but take things more slowly and think over every step."
Oliver nodded, "Okay, but Mr. Montgomery said me teaming with you was kind of still up in the air."
Robin nodded, "It is, only in so much as we want to make sure we can all get along. We will complete ISTAZ one way or the other, but we also want to have fun. If we all don't like each other, it'll be harder to survive and it surely will not be much fun. All we want to do is get to know you. Your whole group was rather standoffish, you know."
Oliver agreed with a sigh, "My group doesn't really fit in with you Earth guys."
Gavin cocked his head to the side, "Earth guys?"
Oliver took a deep breath, "Yeah. I'm kind of used to the open spaces. I'm from Mars settlement 1473."
Robin was the first to be able to speak, "Absolutely awesome! You have to tell us about Mars!"
Oliver was surprised by the looks of eagerness all the way around, "Well look around, make the ground red, take away all the trees and add about 400 two-story buildings all with air filtration systems to keep out some of the red dust. You can go out and play, but the oxygen levels are too low to stay out for more than six or seven hours. There are some scrub brush and ground cover plants, but nothing like this. The sky is more of a reddish brown most of the time, but if the winds remain calm for a few days there is a hint of blue sky.
"The terraforming sometimes screws up and it rains for days or even weeks at a time. The Mud gets so deep, special hover cranes have to pull some of the lower lying buildings foundations back up or the buildings flood. We still have to grow most of our food in Environment Domes or EDs because the Mars soil makes most of the foods taste weird. They did come up with a genetically engineered potato plant that tastes fine when grown outside and the new tomatoes we got from Earth taste great, if you like a bit of sour flavor."
Oliver shuttered, "But they taste more like a blasted tomato flavored sweet tart if they are grown inside."
Ajax's eyes went wide, "Wow! Mars sounds great!"
Robin agreed, but was confused, "Don't get me wrong, Oliver, but I didn't think Mars kids were eligible for Adventure Quest."
"Most of us aren't," Oliver admitted sadly as he wiped away tears, "But those who loose a parent are."
"What happened?" Gavin gulped.
Oliver punched the dirt under him as hard as he could, "Those of us who were born on Mars don't really understand, so I am not sure why it happens."
Gavin gritted his teeth as he realized he had asked a question he probably shouldn't have, "Hey, man, I'm sorry."
Oliver waved him off, "It's okay, sometimes I need to talk it out. Maybe one day it'll make sense."
"What will make sense?" Robin asked softly.
"A lot of Earthers," Oliver kind of frowned, "Sorry, Earthers is kind of a bad name we use for people who were born and raised on Earth. I shouldn't use it around you guys."
Fairfax managed a friendly smile of encouragement, "Most of the people of Earth deserve an insult or two, from what I've seen. No insult taken. What about us Earthers?"
Oliver again wiped a tear away from his eyes, "Many people who come to Mars get kind of crazy. Most people it happens to very quickly, but others seem to burn out over a long period of time." Oliver again punched the ground, "OH hell, this is silly! My mom got what the doctors on Earth call Open Space Sickness. For some reason she couldn't handle the wide-open spaces and started withdrawing into the settlement more and more.
"My dad is a Chief Terraforming Officer at the Water Asteroid Facility and was helping guide in and break up a massive water-ice asteroid to bring more moisture to Mars. He couldn't leave, because they have to be very exact or a large asteroid could smash into the planet and kill a great number of people; or even wipe out the whole population. Since he was a Mission Commander for this asteroid, the government refused to give him leave, even though everyone knew what was going on. He tried to send Mom back to Earth, but she wanted me to go. Dad said I was born on Mars and should stay there for my own good. Mom kind of agreed, but refused to leave. She just kept getting sicker, more afraid of the outside.
"One day, I came back from a sleepover at a friend's house and found Mom hooked to a mindvid machine. She must have over-road the time safeties and let her brain turn to mush, pretending to live in some mega-city back on Earth."
Robin swallowed hard, "I have heard of Open Space Sickness, but I didn't know it got so bad, or was so common."
"Usually it's worse," Oliver stated firmly. "Sometimes people lock themselves into small spaces out of panic and do things like hit their head against a wall over and over until they do a great deal of damage and sometimes kill themselves. Other times they take their vehicles and head out into the Mars open deserts, blindly trying to find a real city. It's scary. Over 300 people in my settlement of 6,000 have killed themselves over Open Space Sickness."
Fairfax hugged himself as he heard Oliver talk. "We never hear how bad it really is on Earth. It seems strange to me. I love it here and I grew up in a CHZ."
"Me too," Gavin confirmed; his own voice betrayed how horrifying it was to hear just how bad Open Space Sickness was.
Oliver wiped his shirtsleeve over his nose to get rid of some of the snot his light crying had caused. "Most kids freak out when they come from Earth to Mars, but most adept very quickly. I'm actually amazed at all you Earth kids here. You are doing an ISTAZ and seem totally opposite of most of the Earth kids I met on Mars."
"We're strange!" Robin piped up proudly trying to change the mood, "So we hope you're still interested in joining our group."
"More than you'll ever know!"
"Cool!" Fairfax smiled as he stood. "Let's go pass some tests so we can huddle this evening and listen to Robin's plans."
Oliver took a deep breath, "Fine by me. Thanks for the tips, too, guys."
"We're here to help each other," Robin reminded everyone. "We'll survive only as a team."
Gavin nodded, "By the way, what are you going to do while we're testing Robin?"
"I'm going to take my Explorer test."
"No one passed it yet," Oliver stated grimly. "Matter of fact, two of my old teammates took it this morning, and both failed so badly they were told they couldn't take it again until they restudied and took the written end of the course test again."
"Ouch!" Robin yelped, "No wonder your team tossed in the towel!"
"Think they had it rough, Cyndy, our team leader, got sent back to the camp early because her instructor kicked her out of the rifle testing. She was downgraded to a sonic stun rifle because she screwed up so badly," Oliver shrugged, "But so were three others."
Fairfax looked at Robin, "Maybe rifles would not be the best test to take after all."
"You'll be fine," Robin assured his friend. "Just keep your finger off the trigger until you need to use it, never point it toward anyone, even if you have to point it at the ground, and follow my earlier suggestions. You'll pass, I'm sure of it."
Robin gave encouragement to all the others on his team, then waited until he was alone. Speaking aloud to himself, he stared up at the passing clouds, "Now, if I could be as confident in my own abilities, everything would look great!" He chuckled to himself as he looked down at his Explorer Corps Recruit pin, "I'd feel like a real fool if I got this in the morning and failed the next test I took!"
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