A World of Mysteries
Robin knelt as he listened to the testing instructor, Mr. Collins, explain the final test for the Exploration course. This was an important class. Every group had to have two members pass it for them to be able to actually enter the ISTAZ. Because Robin's team only started out with four members, only he and Fairfax had taken the course, meaning they both had to pass.
The task Mr. Collins laid out seemed easy enough. He was to climb the hill, look around and find some potentially dangerous area or areas to poke his nose into. In some ways, the whole course seemed silly. But as Robin really thought it over, he realized every team would find things of interest to them and would want to check them out. Doing so safely was of utmost importance in the ISTAZ, because medical assistance was further away and rescue attempts were ten times more difficult in the wild areas of Zong.
Robin took a deep breath and asked himself a single question, "Okay, this whole mission is just way too easy. What am I missing?" He stayed kneeling as he looked over the land. Everything looked normal and there was nothing to indicate danger. He pulled out his electronic map to overlay his position, so he knew exactly where he was. The readings came up and he made his notes for a journal entry; then stopped. The readings were up on the mapping screen, but the terrain didn't match. The hill looked the exact same as what he was looking at, but there was another hill beyond showing on his screen, which was supposed to be thirty meters higher. From where he was, the next hill should have been visible. Frowning he played with the small hand held map only to get the same results.
Robin turned and tried for another reading. Again he got an overlay, but yet again it wasn't quite correct. The land was close, but there was a ravine off to his left, but it didn't show on the screen. "Close screen," Robin ordered the small hand held map, "Bring up compass readings."
The map faded from the screen; replaced by a compass. It pointed his direction as south. Robin looked up, noting the afternoon sun was well off to his right side. On Earth, this would be correct, but Zong spun in the opposite direction, meaning not only was the map wrong, so was the electronic compass. He dug into his pack and pulled out a magnetic compass. He didn't know whether to grin or frown as he saw the pointer spin wildly, then stop; only to spin again a few moments later and stop; pointing in a different direction.
Robin looked up at Mr. Collins, "Well, I know what I want to find out, but I'm not sure where or even how to begin!"
"Okay. Talk to me recruit," The man's voice didn't hide his surprise.
"I know you took me airborne and cut all electronics when we were a few kilometers out from here. I assumed it was so I couldn't do any advanced work while we were getting to the testing area. Now I'm not so sure."
"My mapping pad is completely useless here, as is the compass function. The old fashioned compass is even worse. I want to find out why. I'm also wondering if it affects the electronics on the ship the same way."
Mr. Collins nodded, totally astonished. "I am impressed Robin. I have never seen a kid realize the problem so quickly, let alone wonder about why we take kids here without any help from onboard systems. We lost two space lander craft in this area before we realized the self-guidance systems didn't work right in this zone. Both crashed into things the electronic systems didn't see. To this day, we have no idea why this happens, but there are five of these zones we know of on the planet."
Robin chewed on his lip as he pulled out a few other pieces of electronics. None of them worked properly, and his comp pad kept cycling to the wrong thing or a program other than what he tried to pull up. "I want to know why this is happening, but if you can't figure it out, I doubt I will in only a few hours. Instead I'll do my best to trace the borders of the problem and map them in by hand so we don't accidentally get lost."
"Robin, I wish I could tell you to go for it, but the zone is over thirty square kilometers, there is no way you could map it in the time you have."
Robin frowned in disappointment, "Any chance I can come back here and spend some time poking around?"
Mr. Collins laughed, "Normally I'd say no, but there is a better than even chance you will pass two tests on your first day, so you might have at least one full day free. You pass this test and I'll bring you back here personally."
Robin grinned, "I guess I better pass then, huh?"
"You're off to a good start."
Robin looked around then dug back into his pack. "The position of the sun tells me I'm facing north. Without the sun, I wouldn't have a clue, so I'm going to set up an arrow with rocks just in case the sun gets covered up behind those storm clouds." Robin pointed to a dark bank of low hanging clouds.
Mr. Collins recorded Robin's comments on a specially shielded digital holovid recorder for review by the student or the other instructors later. Even with the extra protection the quality and even some of the footage would be messed with by the unknown energy in the area, but it was better than nothing. Even though he glanced up and listened to Robin, he remained silent, but did nod.
Robin moved up the hill keeping a sharp eye out for danger. He still felt this whole thing was way too easy, and it bothered him. These thoughts suddenly vanished as he crested the top of the hill and looked down into the ravine on his right. He stopped and stared at the wreckage of a large space lander. It looked like its wing had hit a large outcropping of rock at a very high speed and sent it spinning into the ravine. Grass, and even small trees, had grown up and, in some cases, through parts of the shattered craft, but the passage of time failed to hide the devastation of the crash site. Robin clutched his temples for a moment, "Someone died here."
Mr. Collins nodded solemnly, "Yes. Three did."
As Robin continued to hold his temples, he felt something. Four had died, he was sure of it, "Only three?"
Mr. Collins frowned, "Yes, a fourth person, the ship's medical officer, was never found, even after multiple searches and was declared dead, even though we never found a body to send home to the family."
Robin knew the woman had died as well. As he let go of his temples he realized he knew it had been a woman yet, had not been told. It wasn't a pleasant thought.
Robin gulped, but he had to take a closer look. He located what looked to be an easy and relatively safe path down to the mangled craft. He quickly started down the hill, but after only three steps he stopped short. He smacked his head in combination of fear and disgust at his foolishness as he cried out; "A wreck this bad may have cracked open the magnetic drive cores! What am I doing?"
Robin quickly backed up shaking his head. When he got to level footing away from the ravine he dropped his pack and pulled out a small scanner. He started to set the mode for a magnetic scan then looked skyward, "Okay, now this is really silly. I already know electronics don't work right in this area and there is obviously a magnetic problem because my regular compass doesn't work right and they all work by magnetic fields. Any reading I get, I won't be able to trust."
Mr. Collins made a couple of notes and started to close his holovid recorder, "Nice work Recruit!"
Robin smiled as he realized he had just passed the test. His smile faded quickly, however. "Sir, I still have over two hours, right?"
"You sure do. Do you want to poke around some more? I feel I better warn you though, if you do explore, there is a chance you could do something wrong or foolish, thus forcing me to fail you. Any time you spend out here is testing time."
"Sounds fair to me," Robin agreed, but cringed as he realized he was risking a failure. "I'd like to check this out though."
"The crash site?" Mr. Collins looked confused. "You already determined there was no way to verify its safety. A crack in a magnetic drive core could put out enough magnetic force to polarize the iron in your…"
"I know, it could make my blood cells become magnetically charged to the point they wouldn't be able to move around. I would literally die of asphyxiation because my blood couldn't move oxygen through my body. I learned about magnetic drives in school, long before I saw it in the safety manuals we had to read here."
"So what makes you think you can safely go down there?"
"Nothing," Robin paused as he looked at the shredded fuselage. Robin slowly held up a finger as an idea started to form, "Nothing yet, key word, YET!"
Mr. Collins flipped the recorder back on and repeated what he had witnessed and Robin's desire to continue the test. "Okay, I'm going to sit here and watch. I must tell you, you're pushing the envelope of exploration just by staying here and thinking about going down there; this is especially true since you know the danger."
Robin grinned with a huge smile, "Don't worry sir. I'm not going down there until I'm sure it's safe. I'm not in any mood to risk my life just because I want to see a wreck up close!"
Mr. Collins sighed, "Good. So what is your plan Robin?"
Robin rubbed his forehead for a moment, "I'm still working on it sir."
"This should prove to be interesting. I have been in the Explorer Corps for over a decade and don't see a way around this."
Robin looked down at the wreck again then sat down, "I need to get a piece of iron down there without me putting it down there."
"Iron, Huh?" Mr. Collins snorted. "First question I have for you is: where are you going to get a chunk of iron?"
Robin started digging though his pack. He suddenly grinned as he looked at his vest, "Isn't the safety hooks on the shoulders made of carbon tempered steel?"
Mr. Collins nodded, "Yes, as a matter of fact they are. They are in case you fall and your team members, or a rescue crew, needs to pull you up. They are quick snap, but you aren't supposed to take them off, ever!"
"I don't need to. I grabbed a couple of extra because they have a little, yet very strong, pulley in them. I figured, coupled with rope I added to my pack, they might come in handy." Robin held up a pair of the hooks in triumph.
"Nice thought, so now what?"
Robin pulled out his sight scanner, "I set this to optical mode so I will not get any interference from the electronic side of it. I can then see what happens to the hook when it gets close to the crash. If there is a magnetic field down there from a cracked engine shield, it will either fly right toward it or bounce away from it."
"Very resourceful!" Mr. Collins was truly impressed, but he saw another problem. Since his student had already passed, he saw no harm in providing a word of caution, "I seriously doubt you can throw such a small object far enough to get a good reaction. You would still have to get too close for safety!"
Robin pulled out his first aid kit and pulled out a long strip of white tape, "I'd never be able to see it either." Robin grabbed a large rock and started taping the steel hook to it, "But with white tape around this rock I should be able to take care of both the problem you saw and the one I saw. I just had to select a larger rock than I had first planned."
Mr. Collins rubbed his jaw in astonishment. The Crops had taught him thousands of tricks but nothing like this. In some ways it was just too damn simple. Only a genius, or a kid could, come up with such a bizarre solution. Adults were too dependent on technology to solve problems. Yet, as he analyzed it, it should work perfectly. The rock was not too large to effect what would happen to the small iron hook if there was a magnetic core breach, but could easily be tossed close enough to see an effect. Of course, he already knew the craft was safe. The drive cores had long ago been taken away; but it had been decided it best to leave the rest as a training tool.
As far as he knew, no one ever came up with a way a kid might be able to determine if it was safe and thus explore the crash site. With a degree of admiration, the instructor watched the student hurl the rock. When he had been assigned to Zong as an instructor, Eugene Collins never dreamed a twelve year old boy would teach him something, let alone give him a whole new way of approaching a wide range of problems. He felt somewhat humbled by the whole turn of events.
Robin jumped up and down in glee showing he was still very much a child, "It didn't move! It's just sitting there! It's safe!"
Eugene snickered, "Nice work, now what?"
Still excited beyond belief over the fact he had figured out a way to check out the wreckage, he started down the hill again; then stopped, "First I need to calm down, so I can focus on what I'm doing!"
"Good place to start," Mr. Collins agreed, switching back into an instructor mode, all the while sharing the boy's exuberance.
Robin slowed and moved down the path carefully, "I don't know if I need to tell you this, but I'm going to go down off the path as soon as I get close to the wreckage, I don't want to slip and get a piece of metal stuck into my leg, so I'm risking loose rocks instead. At most, I'll skin my knee this way."
"Explanations are not required Robin, but I like it when I hear a cadet talk their way though a test."
Robin finally made it to the bottom of the ravine. He carefully made his way through the wreckage and into the fuselage. He went straight back to the engine compartment. "How come they took the magnetic drives out but left the rest completely intact? There are still lots of equipment and gear in here!"
"We let kids walk right into here and look around. We want them to see everything as it is. We hope they will realize this may not be a salvaged wreck and see their error. Most don't."
Robin smiled, "How could they not?" His smile faded as he once again felt or maybe even saw a brief flash inside his head.
Mr. Collins shrugged, "They don't think, I guess." He suddenly smacked the Holovid recorder, "Damn!"
"Problem?" Robin asked, then shuttered as yet another flash of revelation came to him. "Three women and one man died here. It is eerie."
Eugene Collins stopped dead in his tracks. He turned from the Holovid recorder, which had fallen victim to the weird effects of the area and was now only recording static. "Um, Robin only three bodies were recovered, one was not. Only three were confirmed dead. I didn't tell you there was three women and one man either, how did you know?"
Robin ignored the question as he once again grabbed at his temples. He stepped out of a hole in the fuselage and moved away from the wreck at an angle. Ten minutes later he moved up to a small cave, more of a small hole in the face of the ravine and knelt. He once more gulped and fell backwards as his eyes saw a skeletal hand clutching an auto-medical scanner. "It gave her wrong information; just like all the other scanners do here! She killed herself on accident!"
Mr. Collins rushed up as he saw Robin fall back. As he grabbed the shaking boy his eyes fell on the same sight, "Oh my god!" As he felt Robin calm some in his arms he allowed himself to take a deep breath, "Robin, how did you know? How did you do that?"
Tears still trickling out of Robin's eyes, the boy shook his head, "I don't know. But I do stuff like this all the time. I can find something my mom lost when I wasn't even home. I know when Dad will come home mad, and this time, I just felt this was the way she'd gone. It was as if I was trying to find a safe place and moved this way, only it was her!"
"It's okay cadet. Sometimes we all get hit with inspirations. I just wish I had been able to catch all of this on the recorder."
Robin winced, "Our voices will still come out fine. Trust me."
Mr. Collins scrolled back through the static and played it back. Sure enough the recorder had caught every word spoken. He trembled lightly.
"Like I said," Robin stood again, still shaking and traces of tears still welling up in his eyes, "trust me. Those types of feelings are always right with me, always." A new round of sobs wracked him as he looked back to the skeletal hand clutching the medical scanner, "Can we go back now? I wanna see Jasp… Um, Mr. Montgomery."
"You bet," Eugene wrapped his arm around the boy and led him back to the lander. As he led the boy back to the craft he heard Robin's stomach growl. "I saw you eat, you can't possible be hungry again!"
Robin managed a weak grin, "You know those weird feelings I was telling you about?"
"You mean the demonstration of your uncanny intuition?"
Robin swallowed hard but managed to nod, "Uh huh."
"What about them?" Mr. Collins asked curiously.
"Every time I have them, I get really hungry afterwards. The longer or more exact they are, the hungrier I get."
Eugene paused and dug out a rations pack out of his survival kit, "Well, eat one of these. They were not made with taste buds in mind, but they are filling."
Robin gratefully ripped open the pack and dug in with an enthusiasm showing just how hungry he was.
Mr. Collins laughed and pulled out a second rations pack, "Good heavens boy, be careful you don't accidentally bite off a finger there!"
Robin laughed as he accepted the second meal package. He paused for a moment as he climbed into the lander, then looked up at his instructor, "Um, sir?"
Eugene looked over to Robin as he strapped himself in, "Yes?"
"Did I pass?"
Mr. Collins patted Robin on the shoulder; "You passed. As a matter of fact, you are the first kid out of this training camp to ever get back-to-back outstanding marks." Eugene engaged the drive systems and took the craft up, "I know what you found shook you up Robin, but there is a family back on Earth who will finally be able to put their daughter to rest because of you. You done real good!"
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