Robin felt Mr. Collins gently shake him. Rubbing his eyes he yawned, then stretched. As he regained his bearings, he realized they were almost back at the training camp. "Wow, I dozed off, didn't I?"
Mr. Collins laughed out loud, "More like zonked out young one. You were even snoring!"
Robin felt his face go a little flush, "Sorry sir. I guess all this testing…"
Eugene Collins cut him off, "No need to say anything recruit, you earned the nap. As a matter of fact, I went on an extended flight since your testing went so quickly."
Robin yawned again, "How long was I out?"
"About an hour and a half and you are still getting back well before dinner."
Robin took a deep breath, "Good, I'm hungry!"
Eugene raised an eyebrow, "You ate a huge lunch, two full ration packs and you are still hungry?"
"Yeah, actually, I'm starving!"
With a high degree of sarcasm in his voice Mr. Collins rolled his eyes, "Why don't I just go down there and kill you a buffalo to eat all by yourself!"
Robin giggled, "I guess my teammates better do good in their hunting tests then, huh?"
"If everyone on Zong was able to eat like you, we'd need another planet just to keep this one in food stores; instead of being able to let Zong feed you all!"
Robin wanted to tell Mr. Collins about how, when he had the weird feelings, he could also feel himself using up energy inside himself, but he was afraid what the man might think of him. It was bad enough the whole episode at the old crash site had been recorded on audio. All the instructors would hear it. What would they think of him?
His fears rose as the lander came to a smooth stop in the motor pool right next to the instructor barracks area. He gulped as Mr. Montgomery came over and opened the door for him.
Jasper frowned as he saw the look on Robin's face. "Didn't do so well this time around?"
Eugene glanced over, "Quite the opposite. He was incredible! I don't see any way anyone could overrule my outstanding mark! Wait till you see the vid and hear the audio after the vid went haywire. It will just astonish you!"
Jasper lifted his favorite student out of the lander, "Then why the glum look Robin?"
Robin lowered his eyes; "You're all going to think I'm some sort of mutant."
"What?" Jasper's voice didn't hide his surprise. What was hidden behind the look was the pain of having had the same thoughts throughout his own life. Jasper hid his own problems quickly by reassuring the boy in front of him, "No chance young one! Why on Earth, or Zong, would you think such a thing?"
Eugene held up the recording unit, "He did some unusual things out there Commander, but I think he is more tired and hungry than anything."
Jasper chewed on his lip for a moment, "Robin, relax. No one is going to think anything bad about you. I'll take a look at the record in private, then I will get back with you. No one else will see or hear it, not even the other instructors, okay?"
Robin looked up with a renewed hope in his eyes, "Just you?"
"Mr. Collins," Jasper turned to look at the other instructor, "I assume what happed does not need to be looked at by anyone other than me to verify your grading of Robin?"
Eugene moved over and patted Robin on the shoulder, "No reason what so ever, Commander. We do have to report he figured out a safe way to check out the wreck and found the remains of the missing crewmember during his exploration, but the vid unit was acting up. There is no reason for anyone to know about the audio."
Jasper jerked in astonishment, "He found Major Witman?"
"He sure did. It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen out of any kid and this is my first full year here! He even figured out that because of the strange effects on scanners and the like, the poor woman probably killed herself when the auto-med unit gave her wrong information."
Jasper digested the information quickly, "Let me get this straight. Robin, here, figured out the area messes up our equipment, explored enough to find someone we couldn't for over ten years, and then put together how she ultimately died?"
"I don't even need to see the record. I second your Outstanding mark."
Robin took a deep breath as relief showed on his face, "Thank you Jas… um, thanks Mr. Montgomery."
"You can call me Jasper, you earned it," Mr. Montgomery smiled warmly. "Get with the rest of your team, get cleaned up and get to the mess tent for chow and announcements. You have had a heck of a day and deserve some down time."
Jasper watched the boy perk up and run off toward the camp area before turning to Eugene, "Okay, I want to see and hear what you got out there, but then it gets erased. I will not break my word to him, or any other kid for that mater."
Eugene motioned for Jasper to climb in the lander; "It might be better if you viewed it in a nice private spot then." He glanced back to make sure Robin was well out of earshot before he continued, "If he can duplicate what I saw today, there is nothing normal about him."
Jasper jumped in the lander, "Dinner is running late, and most of the kids aren't back from testing yet, so we have some time. You fly, I'll watch and listen."
Eugene nodded, "Fine by me."
Robin ran all the way back to his campsite, only to find he was the only one from his team around. This didn't do much to calm his nerves. He dearly wanted one of his teammates to talk to, wrestle with, or even play a game with. Up till now, his weird abilities had been something he had carefully kept hidden. Only his mother and father knew anything about them, and even they didn't know just how weird he was.
Robin had known, from about the age of seven, there was something weird going on inside him. The first time he could remember the strange feeling was when he was about to get on a shuttle platform for a school fieldtrip. It happened so fast, he didn't even remember reacting, but he had. He stopped and grabbed the girl in front of him and yanked her to the ground, then fell on top of her. Before anyone could react, the lift short-circuited and sent a powerful burst of electrical current through the entire lift. There was no question the malfunction would have killed both him and the other girl if he hadn't done exactly what he had. Robin touched his temples briefly, remembering the now somewhat familiar sensation of tingly numbness and the flash of knowledge, which always came at the same time. Then, not long afterwards, was the desperate need to eat.
He kind of smiled as he remembered the teacher's reaction back when he was seven. The teacher figured Robin had seen the beginning of the problem and had reacted to save himself and a classmate. She, along with the paramedics, was only too happy to feed him candy and other snacks. They all thought he was using the food to calm down. Besides, he was the little hero, so they all figured he deserved a little extra.
Robin grabbed a packet of apple juice as he sat down and waited. This time had been different from all the others and it really bothered him. Never before had the weird feeling come so many times, so quickly, nor had it lasted so long. Making matters worse, this was the first time he had done something so clearly strange in front of another person. He sucked on the packet of apple juice with only one chain of thought running through his head; I'm a mutant, a weirdo, and now others know it.
His musings were interrupted by the new kid in his small team.
Oliver came over with a huge grin, "Hey Robin, how'd you do?"
Robin exhaled and put on a smile, "Same grade as last test. Looks like you did pretty well."
Oliver's shoulders slumped some; "You got another Outstanding mark?"
"Yeah," Robin stated then changed the subject, "Come on, what happened with you?"
"I passed," Oliver stated, "But I only got a good mark."
Robin waved off the lack of enthusiasm, "You retook the test, so you automatically loose a grade. You would have scored an excellent if it had been your first time. Don't sweat it."
"I know. You can only get an Outstanding on your first try at any test, but you have two of them already!"
Robin smiled, "Well, I'm going to tell you what my plans are before the rest even get back; that is if you're interested."
Oliver eagerly nodded, "You bet I am!"
Robin knelt down and started drawing in the loose dirt of the tent floor, "You didn't get a chance to find out much about us before we went to test, but I'm sure the others won't mind me giving you some background. Gavin and I are best friends. As a matter of fact, Gavin's parents adopted me legally so I could come on Adventure Quest this year. We met Ajax and Fairfax before we left Earth when they helped us with Randy and Frank."
Oliver smiled, "I've heard a little about some kind of fight back on Earth between you guys."
Robin snorted, "Not much of a fight. They picked on a little kid and we chased them into a mud hole."
Oliver openly laughed, "No wonder they're pissed at you!"
Robin couldn't help but grin, "Yeah, well they deserved it. Anyway, Ajax and Fairfax are both SLO's."
"SLO's?" Oliver asked.
"Street Level Orphans," Robin stated with some distaste in his voice.
Oliver's face scrunched up in complete bewilderment, "Sorry Robin, but the term may mean a lot to someone from Earth, but to someone from Mars it means nothing. An orphan is someone without family. We have a term called Open Space Orphan, or OSO meaning someone who lost both parents to Open Space Sickness, but SLO does or says nothing to me."
Robin shook his head, "Boy do I feel stupid. I'm sorry. I never even thought about how different life would be for you compared to me."
"I bet we'll have quite a few miscommunications before we adjust to each other's language differences; English only goes so far." Oliver again grinned.
Robin nodded, "Yeah, here we both speak the same language, yet our lives are so different. I will have to stop taking for granted some of our, what did you call us, Earthers?"
"Yeah," Oliver blushed slightly
"Right. I will have to stop assuming you will know all our Earther terms."
"I'm sure I'll make similar mistakes with my Mars lingo before this summer is over. So what is a Street Level Orphan? From the tone of your voice, it sounds bad."
Fairfax walked into the tent, "Sorry to interrupt, but yeah, being an SLO sucks."
Robin glanced up with a smile, "Fairfax, how'd you do?"
"They are sending my test for a secondary decision. I either got an Excellent or an Outstanding." Fairfax shook his head, "I can't believe it; absolutely everything you told me was correct. It's like you saw their testing notes or something! The only reason I may not have gotten an outstanding is because I suck at actually hitting a target."
Oliver snorted, "Hey, at least you passed and get to carry a laser rifle. If my whole team would have stuck it out, half of us would have had to go out with stun rifles."
"Might be safer for the rocks and the trees if I did go out with one of those, one way or the other the animals won't have to worry," Fairfax joked. "So what do you want to know about SLO's?"
Robin sighed, "I was about to explain my plan, but I wanted him to understand why I was so dead set on it. I didn't mean to be talking about you behind your back or anything."
"Robin," Fairfax scoffed, "give me a break! I wouldn't have gone there with you. We're buddies and those are too few and far between. I just figured I could explain what being at street level in a CHZ is about far better than you could."
Robin nodded, "No question. All I have to go on is what little I have seen, what you first told Gavin and me, and what's said in the media."
Fairfax rolled his eyes, "Yeah, I have heard all those reports, only about half of them hold any truth at all." Fairfax stood up and started to pace, "I don't know what the other Combined Habitat Zones are like on Earth, but the street level in Chi-Troit is a," Fairfax paused, then shrugged, "I'd get my butt smacked at the orphanage for saying this, but what the hell, street level life in Chi-Troit like living in a shit hole!
"Anything below the fifth floor is considered street level officially, but it is more like the tenth floor. The streets at ground level are basically long forgotten. There are ruined cars, massive amounts of trash and even open sewage in some places. The pollution is so bad your lungs burn with each breath because the air is basically blocked by rubble from the old buildings they tore down to build the towers. In some areas the rubble goes up to the eighth or ninth floor. There are huge grates in the bottom of many of these rubble pits where the waste from the towers pour out from massive pipes. Many of the trash chutes the people in the towers use all empty down into other pits. When the solid waste pits fill to overflowing, automated cargo platforms come in. They have massive cranes that scoop up the trash and then I have no idea what happens to it. Rats run out of the pits in waves when the trash platforms come. Those who are too close can be bitten to death."
Oliver shuttered, "You mean people live down there?"
Fairfax nodded, "Technically it is illegal to live at street level, but some of us have no choice. My family of six and another family of seven were assigned to a two-bedroom apartment on the fourteenth floor of a very rundown building because none of our parents had skills. Those who can't even read or write are given very low paying government jobs. The place didn't have water over half the time, there was no air-conditioning, and Mom and Dad didn't make enough to feed us all, so we had to take turns skipping meals.
"Finally, my older brother found a way into the lower levels. The bottom six floors of our building were nothing but equipment to run the building; pipes, control panels, wiring and the like. It took us three days to find a way out, but we did. Once we were at street level, we found that there are thousands of others who live between the buildings, scavenging out of the trash pits, covering ourselves from gangs of armed thugs and hiding from the rare patrol in force when the military comes through with hundreds of men. Their primary job seems to be to wipe out the armed gangs; shoot rats and other vermin, and guard building maintenance people who seal up the buildings so the rats don't get in. But they also round up any innocent people they find and send them to processing stations for assignment to quarters, schools, and government assigned jobs with tiny wages.
"If they find a kid, they declare them SLO. They don't care if you already had a name and a government number. They don't look for other family members, they don't do much of anything other than assign us to orphanages with an SLO label in our number."
Robin realized he had been holding his breath during most of Fairfax's speech. He took a few deep breaths while forcing his fists open. "Where did you get food and clothing?"
Ajax, who had been standing at the tent flap, wiped away a couple of tears, "We ate rats cooked over fires made from trash. We dug clothing others had tossed out into the trash then found a way into a lower section of a building so we could wash them, ourselves, and get water. We always had to be on the move, because if you stay too long in the same place the gangs would find you. They would then beat or even kill anyone who resisted and make the others dig in the middle of the trash piles for them."
Fairfax shook for a moment, "The middle of the trash piles were where all the good stuff could be found because the edges always got picked over, but the rats tend to go after those who go out into the deeper parts of the pits. I've seen gangs laugh as someone they sent to get them stuff gets eaten alive. Gangs run street level life in Chi-Troit. There are some buildings left at street level, but they are all controlled by the gangs and some gangs are so well armed the military's patrols in force won't even take them on, unless the gangs attack first."
Oliver looked sick as he held his stomach. "But the news says…"
Ajax shook his head, "Yeah, the news says the trash problems in the CHZ's are getting better all the time and there are plenty of places to live along with all sorts of good jobs. All of it's lies. All of it! I watched my sister get killed in a stampede of rats when one of the cargo trash haulers picked up a load of trash. She slipped and fell in the muck and a wave of rats washed over her. They say those found are taken care of, but I'll tell you, I'm never going back to that damned orphanage!"
Robin held up his hands, "I have no intention letting either you or Fairfax going back, but I also want to keep us all together."
Fairfax stopped pacing, "How?"
Robin turned to Ajax, "Did you pass?"
"Barely, but I did. I got the bottom mark of passing."
Robin managed to smile, "Fantastic! Two up, two down, for both of us! Now, if Gavin passed we can set my idea in motion."
Gavin entered the tent looking like he had been put through a wringer, "I just caught the end of your conversation. I made it by the skin on my teeth, but I passed! So what's the plan Robin?"
"Awesome," Robin stated as he pumped his fist. He looked around with a smile, "We will start work on this after dinner, but here are the basics. I want all of us to get an Outstanding mark in at least one test. Once we all have an Outstanding grade, we can all go to the academy together."
Ajax looked shocked, "How in the world are you going to get us all an Outstanding mark?"
Robin grinned, "Those of us who get an Outstanding will back off on our studies and help the rest. We'll let each other know what we saw in our own tests. We will work up a list of things to expect, and we will test each other before we go out and take our tests. Tonight Ajax and I will work with the rest of you because neither of us have to take a test at all tomorrow. We'll help you all to pass the tests you already failed. This'll give us from noon on tomorrow to get ready to get an Outstanding mark on a test. As we each get one, we'll spend more time helping the others. You'll all have four chances left, so we have got to work hard and really push each other. Are we all in agreement?"
One by one the other boys nodded.
As the boys talked in their tent, Jasper watched and listened to Robin's test with growing excitement. There was no doubt in his mind he had found someone even more gifted than himself. He waited until he was alone before pulling out his communicator. Walking well out into an open field he changed the frequency, "Echo one, this is Tango four, respond on encrypted setting seven."
He quickly punched in a new code and once again changed the frequency.
Seconds later a female voice came over his communicator, "Jasper, your taking a hell of a risk sending up a signal from your area. What have you got for me?"
"I found another one of us," Jasper responded. "He may be exactly what we have been searching for!"
"How sure are you?"
"For the first time since I become part of the Team I am positive. The kid has scored two Outstanding marks and has already helped one of his team members to get an Outstanding grade. I had suspicions after his first test, but this test he clearly displayed the Gift and even some control over it."
The woman's voice sounded shocked, "A brand new ISTAZ trainee scored two Outstanding marks in his first day?"
"Yeah, the first one was close, this one wasn't. I'm pretty sure he used his Gift on both tests, but there is no question he did so on the one this afternoon."
"Sounds like the one we have been dreaming about has walked right into our arms. Keep me posted Jasper."
"You can count on it, Jasper out."
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