Castle Roland

Adventure Quest

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 11

Posted: 24 Aug 15

Adventure Quest
Kyle Aarons

Thinking Outside the Box

Jasper move up to the podium as the kids were eating lunch and looked over the assembled group. What he saw was quite a bit different than what he had witnessed at breakfast. Instead of every kid buried in his or her own note-puter, there were several who had started to work together. It was clear, even before he made announcements, of who had decided to take what tests. Many of them already knew, and were already working with others, to get ready. He glanced over to Robin who was inhaling a massive plate of food, while others from his group had already finished their meals and were talking to others they would be testing with.

There was no question the boy had the Gift and a lot of it. The young man also had control. The Water Purification Test was the most important test and it had been rigged with a multitude of small pitfalls. Over the past ten years it had a failure rate of 88% the first time through. But Robin had aced it, scoring his third Outstanding and helped all the others with him to at least pass. The next hardest test had been the Wilderness First Aid and it too had been passed by all four students with three Outstanding marks in the same group, all of them approved by those in Explorer Corps science station. There was no question Robin had somehow bumped Gavin's readiness to where the boy had been ready for way more than the others.

Jasper scratched his ear and let the kids talk for a while before he squealed the microphone a couple of times. As all eyes turned to look at him, he let out a long breath, "I am sure most of you already know but we need another round of applause for Robin…" Jasper stared down at him while several kids openly clapped and a few others even whistled. There were still quite a few who didn't look happy, but the numbers were way less than they had been the day before.

"Boy… you are really starting to tick us off. Even when we sent your test up to command, they said they had never seen anyone blow a test away like you did this morning. I don't know what we could do to make the test harder, but rest assured, once we ship all you out to your zones, we will spend the next two months trying to figure out a way to make future test takers hate you. As it is, Commander Sandra Hollister of Zong Space Command has used her authority to field promote you to private. Should you choose to go to the academy, you will be getting paid as one. Adrienne will be bringing you the rank and a pair of uniforms when they fly her down later today. Stand and take a bow or something, Private."

Even while several kids chuckled over Jasper's comments, Robin waved his hands back and forth across each other while turning beet red. At the same time he was astonished how many seemed to genuinely be congratulating him.

Jasper then tapped his note-puter, which pulled up an official Explorer Corps letterhead with names and number codes of six other students; after each name was a test and after each test was a grade. Five of the grades were Outstanding and one was Excellent. "Because of the sheer number of Outstanding marks we felt were owed, we also sent six other names up for review. Truth is, almost all Outstanding get reviewed, but in this case we decided to defer to those above us, especially since there was some disagreement between us on whether to award Excellent or Outstanding. In simple terms, these grades didn't come from us: they came from our bosses. All we did was submit recommendations. Gavin, you note your name has a star next to it.

"Commander Hollister says your quick thinking and you keeping your cool enough to properly splint Adrienne's ankle, even after finding out the whole thing was a trick was very impressive. Adrienne actually had a pair of micro cracks, but since you did such a fine job they were able to inject bone-fusing protein into the foot before she moved it. Adrienne will be fine by tomorrow morning and you will be getting recruit pins, when she comes back from medical to rejoin us. Furthermore, as you can see, your leadership allowed both Sara and Jared to be awarded Outstanding grades."

Jared let out a deep breath and looked over to Gavin, "I'm buying you a big meal when we get back to Dal-Houston!"

"I'll probably need a real one after three months having to live off the land," Gavin tried to joke to hide the fact he was very uncomfortable with the praise he was getting.

Another round of laughter rippled through the assembly of kids while the rest of Jared's team patted their friend on the back and gave Gavin a nod of appreciation.

Jasper also snickered, "You all may be hungry if Robin keeps eating the way his is today." He gave Robin a wink to show it was only meant in jest before he glanced back over his shoulder. "The other three names up here were all split decisions between original grader and reviewer so, like Jared's they were sent for automatic review. Oliver, you were darn close, but you made one slight mistake command and Ms. Reid couldn't overlook. I am sorry, but I have a strong feeling you will make the grade before the end of this week, especially with the help of your teammates; Ajax and Timothy, congrats, and welcome to the academy.

Timothy, also from Team Seventeen let out a long breath, "Like Jared does for Gavin, I owe you a big dinner once we get back to Earth, Ajax."

Ajax shrugged, "Being an SLO, I better be able to do good on basic survival."

While several eyes went wide at hearing Ajax's status, Timothy stood and walked over to him, "Man, you want a home, I'll get my parents to take you and Fairfax both. We'll even get you new numbers so you don't have the SLO designation." Timothy then looked around the room, "And if any of you plan on giving them any crap, you may as well give it to me too, cause I will stand up for them."

Patrick, the team leader for Jared and Timothy, stood. "So will the rest of Team Seventeen."

"As will my team," Ellen, the leader of team two spoke up. "We'd be down Adrienne if it wasn't for Gavin, so any of Team Five needs anything; you guys just come see us."

Ajax had to wipe away a couple of tears, "I pretty much plan on going to the academy since I made the grade, but thanks."

"Well, if you want a designation change and a new number, even if it you don't want a home, you let me know," Timothy stated. "Thanks to you, I plan on being at the academy right next to you, so it sounds like we will be academy bothers at least."

"Thanks," Ajax gave a smile and turned away knowing he was close to breaking down.

Jasper eyed Randy's team, but he didn't see nearly the hostility he expected from many of them. Randy, on the other hand looked absolutely furious. Jasper even considered contacting command to see about getting rid of Randy, but decided against it. There was still a chance the kid would turn his attitude around and become a team player. If not, he would try to get the others in his team to ask him to step down as leader. Something had to change before Randy ended up getting one of his team killed and Jasper knew it.

He let things settle some and read off assignments, noting quite a few of the kids who passed two tests already had elected to sit this round of testing out. He guessed Robin and Fairfax would have their hands full. He was a bit concerned since there wouldn't be any instructors around to supervise, but now Robin at least had some serious support from the likes of Jared, Timothy and Ellen and all of them had decided to sit out this round of testing.

He forced himself not to cringe at what this meant for the evening round of tests. He now had little doubt this training group would send more cadets to the Explorer Corps Academy than any other ever had.

Gavin left the mess hall early and took some time to be alone. He leaned back against the transport he and two others would take for the Emergency Communications test. Almost every part of him wanted to run back in and tell Jasper and Mr. O'Mally he had cheated. On the other hand, the reason for getting the extra award had not come from Robin's weird power. There had been no forewarning of the ankle injury and Jared had discovered the fake injury. The other thing was, Robin had really pushed himself to help. He couldn't throw away the help of his only true friend.

His thoughts were interrupted as Jason came up, "Dude, if I had just been told I was an Explorer Corps Recruit I think I'd look a lot happier than you do. You Okay?"

"I guess," Gavin gave a slight shake of his head. "I just think I got way more credit than I should have."

"I bet Adrienne will argue you didn't get enough. Jared said you were already air splinting the foot before she started asking about trying to go back to base with you all. The only reason she isn't headed home on a hospital ship is you prevented a worse injury."

"I know…" Gavin signed, "I guess I'll feel better once we score Outstanding on this test."

Jason cringed, "I talked to some of the others and they have no clue what more they could have done. I even reviewed some of their score sheets. Making matters worse, we have Mr. Allen…"

Mr. Allen came around the side of the transport, "And why, exactly, does having me make things worse?"

Gavin gulped, "Because you actually had to set up interstellar emergency comm. After all, you were stuck here once your lander malfunctioned and left you and your team stranded down here, while your unmanned ship started to lose its geosynchronous orbit."

Mr. Allen gave a slight grunt and rubbed his chin, "Alright recruit, now answer me this. What did I do that, even though it worked, will get you an instant failure."

Gavin didn't hesitate with an answer, "Probably two things. First, you pulled the magnetic drive out of the lander. Second, you launched it with liquid rocket fuel you synthesized out of some of the geothermal fields to send an unmanned probe back to Earth to request rescue and inform the whole world you found a planet with life."

"Alrighty then, you do know your Explorer Corps History," Mr. Allen gave a hard nod. "You try anything along those lines during our test here today you go straight back to Earth, no questions, no excuses."

Sara came up with her pack. Seeing both Gavin and Jason snickering she looked a little nervous, "What did I miss?"

Jason rolled his eyes, "Just Mr. Allen telling us not to go hardcore explorer like he did when he first landed here."

"Hardcore, huh?" Mr. Allen eyed Jason with a smirk, "You got no clue what hardcore is."

"Maybe not," Gavin grinned, "so give a test to show us."

Mr. Allen burst out laughing, "You really want this kind of beat down, guys?"

Sara glanced over at Jason the Gavin and shrugged, "Sure, I'm game."

Jason eyed Gavin, while a less than happy grunt came out from his tightly closed mouth, but he didn't really care for the mocking tone he was getting from Mr. Allen. "Sure. Hit us with your best shot."

Before anyone could look at Gavin he grinned, "If we screw up I'll get my whole team to help you get an Outstanding on the next one, but I think it's time we see what Mr. Allen is really made of."

"Oh, oh, ooh, I see how this is going. So, since none of you three have to pass any other tests today, does this means you are all willing to forgo evening testing to make this into a real test?" Mr. Allen's whole body seemed to lose several years and a gleam came to his eyes none of them had seen before.

"I'm in," Gavin stated with no hesitation.

"Me too, then," Sara grinned.

Jason tossed up his hands, "I can't back out now."

Mr. Allen pulled his radio, "Yo, Jasper. These three just put their collective feet in their mouths. You can scratch three for dinner and have command send down a replacement to cover for me. We ain't coming back in time for evening testing. It's time for my dream advanced ISTAZ test!"

There was a long whistle as a way of a reply, followed by laughter, "Start the video and audio feed now. I can't wait to see what you do to those three."

"You got it; you'll have to change vehicle rotation and assignments as well. Allen out."

Sara didn't know whether to giggle or cry as Mr. Allen pointed for them to grab their bags and put them into the camp's only full space transport craft.

The veteran Explorer then glanced over to Gavin, "So I happened to notice Commander Montgomery certified you on flight and even Sub O and O flight and has taken you up a few times to make sure."

Gavin's eyes went wide, "Um, yes sir…"

"Good," Mr. Allen grinned rather fiendishly. "Jump into the pilot seat and pull up the controls. I'll keep it set for instructor mode from the co-pilot side, since we have others with us, but I don't intend on doing squat."

Jason watched from the back seat as Gavin pulled out the pre-flight checklist and did a full comm check with the Explorer Corps space station. He still wasn't convinced the kid was going to take control, until a voice gave Gavin clearance and made sure to warn Mr. Allen; Gavin was not certified for moon landings but could leave atmosphere.

"You really can fly!" Jason gasped

Gavin glanced back with a grin, "We are hoping Oliver can pass enough tests to get flight training before we leave so all of us from Team Five can fly. All four of us from the original group have passed ground school and soloed; we also have three hours of flight time each, so we have our basic certifications. Only Robin is certified for instrument landings and moon landings as a primary, though. I haven't even gotten certified for solo moon take offs yet. I just can't quite get the controls right in the lighter gravity."

"It's more about not having atmosphere across your control surfaces, than low gravity," Mr. Allen snickered some. "If you manage to pass this test, I'll get you to pass certification right quick like. Now take us up and get us sub orbital and keep us there until you come down here," he pointed to a glowing dot on a map he pulled up on the heads up display, "with no flight interference."

Gavin typed on the keyboard and felt his eyes go wide, "It's a volcanic island off the third continent and it's smoking!"

"Yup," Mr. Allen stated as he leaned the front copilot seat back as far as it could go and put his hands behind his head. "She's all yours Recruit."

Gavin sent the coordinates to the back, "Guys, I got to fly us there so you two need to grab us all the data you can find on everything from vegetation, to animals, to safe places to set down, plus anything else you can think of."

Robin turned and glanced back as he was making his way back to his team's tent. The sound of the magnetic drives of a spacecraft engaging was unmistakable. He stared as he saw the craft lift off above the buildings as the wings unfolded. As he saw Gavin in the pilot seat, he shot his friend a look only to get a shrug. A second later the craft angled up and the wings folded back slightly.

Fairfax came out and watched the craft disappear into the crystal blue sky, "What's going on?"

"No idea, but Gavin had the controls."

Fairfax frowned, "The wings were set for Sub O flight, though."

"Yeah, and he pulled Mr. Allen for his test."

"Ouch," Fairfax cringed. "I really feel sorry for him, cause Sub O normally means a long, fast flight. I bet the test isn't even going to be on this continent!"

"I can't wait to hear all about it," Robin snickered. He looked around for a moment, "So have you seen Oliver?"

"Not since he saw he got an excellent." Fairfax chewed on his lip, "He's kind of hard to read, but he seemed to get hit pretty hard by it. So where have you been the last hour?"

Robin made a small grin, "Getting something ready for our meeting." His mood quickly darkened as he clenched his fists in some ager, "I was so worried about shoving food down my throat and getting things ready for this afternoon, I didn't even notice Oliver's reaction."

Ajax came out of the tent, having overheard the conversation. "He's probably in the chow hall. I heard him say he wanted to find someone else he could trust to take the evening testing session with. If he isn't, I'll find him while you all start your study thing."

"You aren't going to join us?" Surprise was evident in Fairfax's voice.

"Actually, as soon as I am sure Oliver is okay, I'm going to crash for a while. I didn't sleep well last night and the basic survival test kicked my butt. The only way to get an Outstanding is to also make sure those with you don't screw up too badly, and there can't be but six working brains cell between all seven of those in Team Eight. I'm shocked they passed Randy. He's such a stupid jerk!"

"Yeah," Fairfax quickly agreed. "They are the oldest group by average age by almost six months and they are the dumbest by at least twenty IQ points. I kind of feel sorry for Grace though. She is two years younger than the next one in Team Eight and I am sure she gets picked on all the time."

Robin shrugged, "Well, she hasn't passed a test yet, so there is a good chance she won't be part of their final group. I kind of hope for her sake, she doesn't make the cut." A pang of nervousness shot through him as he stepped up to the mess hall, "You ready, Fairfax?"

"As I ever will be." He opened the door and glanced in, somewhat surprised by the number of kids sitting around the tables. He quickly spotted his other teammate sitting with five others. "Oliver is over with Team Seventeen."

"Good." Ajax yawned. "Wake me up if I'm still asleep when dinner rolls around."

Fairfax nodded as he stepped in. Almost a score of heads turned and all talking ceased. He quickly moved out of the way to let Robin go in first.

Robin fired a bit of a nasty glance back at Fairfax, only to hear his friend whisper, "Hey, I'll back you up but I ain't talking in front of a group. I'd prefer to be back on Earth fighting off a wave of rats at street level!"

Robin snickered at the comment, then moved into the hall. "First off, thank you all for coming. Sorry I'm a bit late, but I wanted to prepare something I hope will be helpful. More on it later, though. I want to start this out by pointing out what I have noticed about our testing to this point, if you are okay with it."

Ricky, the youngest kid in the whole camp at age ten and three weeks, was first to speak. "I don't know about anyone else but I got two passing grades and I don't know what I could-a done to do better. I'll be happy to get a stupid Good mark!"

Fairfax shot the kid a smile but otherwise remained silent. He just couldn't see how anyone could easily speak in front of a group.

Robin, on the other hand, snickered. "Ricky, I came within seconds of failing my first test. The only reason I didn't, is I saw something in the instructor telling me it wouldn't be a good idea to call for inspection. The truth is, they give you time to double check almost everything.

"Some of it you have to get right the first time, like looking for lizard mounds and simply avoiding them. Half the tests my guys have talked about included lizard mounds."

All around the hall he saw faces change. Some looked upward and several others plopped down on the tables they were at, more than one making a distinct thudding sound as they impacted the tables pretty hard.

"Wow," Robin stopped and glanced around, "If nothing else good comes out of the next two hours, I can see this has been helpful."

Several heads nodded agreement but quickly turned to look back at Robin. For his part, Fairfax could see the others; even those who looked skeptical, were now paying full attention. This helped him push some of his own fear to the side, "Robin, if I may?"

Robin stepped off to the side and used his whole arm to show Fairfax had the floor.

Fairfax noticeably shuddered, "First off, I ain't like Robin. Standing up and talking to this many people scares the crap out of me." He took a deep breath and let it out, "So I am going to add something Oliver and me talked about and shut up."

Hearing a round of snickers gave him a little more courage. "If it looks too easy, it is. Every test I took so far, I see someone go for the quick way out. During rifle testing, one of those with me fired burst fire at one of those nasty cats. Sure she killed it, but two of the four shots continued on and had to go somewhere…"

Robin was quick to speak up as he heard his friend's voice start to falter, "Guys, this actually leads nicely into my next topic, and we can start with rifle testing. How many of you checked the weapons you were handed for problems?"

Troy, from Team Fifteen, let out a long breath, "Not until I tried to fire my first shot and the beam came out at an angle. I let the crystal cool and fixed it. I managed to get a Passing grade… Wait…You mean my laser optics was purposefully not fully seated in the barrel?"

"Probably," Robin smirked. "The fact you were smart enough to figure out the problem, then waited for your rifle to cool is the reason you passed. One of the first things I dealt with today was mold on the primary filter of the purification unit they issued me. I didn't check before I left, but I did once I was on site and replaced it with a spare. This will be the last test I take without checking out the equipment they issue me before I put it in my pack."

Meghan, the leader for Team Eleven punched her own leg in frustration. "The First Aid test I took yesterday was made way harder because there was no power supply in the pressure point cup. We had to do it by hand. It never occurred to me… The kit looked brand new!"

"But it had been opened," Tiffany, from team fifteen, added in. "I noticed the seal had been broken when I pulled it out of the transport…" She looked down, "Never really thought about why or what it could mean."

"Just like what happened to me," Robin grumbled seeing yet another pattern. "The first miss of the power supply was excusable; the second one probably got you downgraded. They seem to build in second chances for some things, like group equipment. Still, we can eliminate a lot of problems if we give everything a quick check. My bet is, if one of you had noticed the broken seal on the med kit before you left they would have taken it back and handed you a brand new one, since it would take a lot of time to double-check everything in a med kit and we only have four hours per test."

Robin pulled out his hand-held camera and projected an image up on a wall. "I wasn't allowed to take video during the testing but nothing say I couldn't re-create something I saw on my first test. This is going to take some time, but I don't think talking about this alone will help anyone. You need to see it and then we can talk about it."

The video showed Robin setting up an E tent. The whole process took almost twenty minutes. Robin then moved back to where he had set the camera up and showed the whole area. For the first time he spoke in the video he shot. "This is likely the kind of situation the instructors will put you in. But you have to really look around before you call for a grade; you can try to double-check your own work. At this point I have failed, but I have not called for a grade so I can still make this right." He moved up and reset the camera. This time he cleared a spot and moved a few flat rocks over so the domed environmental tent could be level and anchored it. The whole video lasted almost forty minutes.

For almost a minute there was nothing but silence. Finally Curtis, from Team Eleven, shook his head; "Robin, I need to take the test and I saw nothing wrong with the first time, nothing. If anything; the second time looked worse because it wasn't on level ground. You also set up an E dome, like three times faster than I ever came close to. All the insulation and stuff kills me."

Robin held up his hand to give everyone a bit more time. When no one else spoke up Robin hit his touch pad and replayed the area again. "When I took the test Jasper… Mr. Montgomery… said we have to combine all of our training, look past the book. He then asked me this question; 'What are you supposed to be learning in this class?'"

"How to deal with bad weather," Curtis answered instantly.

"Same answer I gave, might even be the same words," Robin snickered. "All it got me was the 'oh really' look."

"Compete with the hands on the hips?" Troy asked with a wide grin.

"Yeah, and the one raised eyebrow," Robin returned the smile.

This got some humor filled snickers and comments. At the same time Curtis shook his head and dug in his pack, pulling out his own comp pad. A few seconds later he projected his own image of the manual up on the wall next to Robin's paused video, "The title is right there: Bad Weather Survival."

"What about the survival part?" Tiffany spoke up in sudden understanding. "Handling bad weather is one thing. Normally we run inside and sit it out, or watch it out of a window. There isn't going to be anywhere to run to, no one to ask for help other than our teammates and what we have been taught."

She ran her hands through her hair. "This isn't one of my classes and I have never even seen one of those dome things. Why would we need to set one of those up?"

"It's for bad weather," Curtis held up open hands showing his building frustration. "Mr. Montgomery says the average team has to set these things up like three to four times on a typical ISTAZ stint. Normally, the first few weeks tend to be most likely, since there is a greater chance for snow and real cold. It's designed to keep everyone warm and let ice and snow build up on the outside, which as weird as it sounds, provides extra insulation. Those two tubes coming up out of the top are for air circulation. Body heat takes care of the rest. We need to be prepared to stay in them for days, if needed."

Sean, the only kid from Team Nineteen to pass two tests so far, chewed on his lower lip for a few seconds before he looked over to Curtis, "When I was on land nav classes there were areas with, like, over a meter of snow. I know this isn't one of my classes, dude, but if we need to stay in it for, like, days for a snow storm, then don't we want it up higher on a hill? Otherwise we are going to be digging ourselves out of a hole."

"Or end up with a pool of water around us," Ricky added. "Plus, if it is like the freezing rain we had last night, and it all melted this morning, we' be in mud-ville if it was set up in a low spot."

Curtis typed in a query and glanced up from his nope-puter, "There is nothing in the course about where to set the stupid thing up!"

"Nope," Robin agreed. "Nothing in the manual even suggests anything other than to make it as level as possible. Note, it does not say to set it up on level ground, only to make it as level as possible."

"How are we supposed to pass tests when we don't get all the answers?" Shane, the only ten-year-old in Team Fifteen, demanded to know.

Troy reached over and patted his teammate on the shoulder. "I think the whole point of what Robin and Fairfax are trying to tell us is, we have to figure out part of this on our own. They don't give us all the answers."

"Ms. Reid told me something after my first test," Fairfax once again joined in. "She said we don't have babysitters once we get dropped off, so she wasn't going to tell me what I should do during testing."

Meghan let out a long audible breath and used her hands and elbows to prop up her head. "Then we best get studying. This is going to be a long afternoon and evening, cause we are going to have to rethink everything."

"It could be worse," Fairfax managed a smile. "We watched Mr. Allen take Gavin, Jason and Sara sub orbital for their test."

Several kids noticeably cringed as they quickly decided they would rather be studying with friends rather than deal with Mr. Allen taking them to a test somewhere else on the planet.

At about the same time the kids at camp were breaking into groups to talk over specific tests, Gavin was angling down to the island. "Okay, I need to have a place to set down."

Jason, for the third time, looked to Mr. Allen. "Sir, are you sure? The whole island messes with electronics."

"Yes, cadet, I'm sure." Mr. Allen finally spoke up, "I am abundantly familiar with what it will do to electronics; once you shut something down, powering it back up will fry the circuits. You also can't depend on anything your scanners show, so you will have to do a totally visual landing. And, before you ask, no, you cannot power up the emergency equipment before we get there."

Sara chewed on her fingernails, "The orbital scan shows active lava running down the north face and into the water. I don't see how we are going to do this then…" She shook her head and focused back on the orbital map. "There is a clearing on the west side. The problem is there is some kind to reptile, a snake looking thing with lots of legs and reports show it favors the west side of the island."

"Give me somewhere else," Gavin demanded before he reached up and pulled up space command on the radio. "This is C1354LM, I need a safe path in on flight plan 223R."

"Most of the avian life has bedded down for the night cadet," A female voice responded, "But there are some critters flying around the west side of the island."

"Thank you, command." Gavin glanced back. "West side is out guys. Without electronic overlays I could hit flying animals and if I get blood on the window, we'd be screwed on making a visual landing."

"Then you'll have to take us down to hovercraft mode over the water and see what is under the trees. There is a sandy area…" Her eyes lit up. "Hey, guys, we are going to see the ocean and a real beach!"

"Too bad it's going to be dark," Jason sounded a bit down. "I've always wanted to see what the ocean and waves really looked like."

Mr. Allen glanced back and with a hint of caring in his voice, which was something the kids were not used to hearing out of him, "If you guys pass, big if… but if you do, I'll take you and secure transport for all three of your teams to one of the best beaches on Zong for a whole day before we ship you out to your respective zones."

"Aw, wow," Sara gasped, "We got to pass this test!"

Gavin banked down and once he got two meters off the water he glanced back, "I can do the switch, but I am nowhere near as good at it as Robin or Ajax, so it's going to be a bit bumpy as I disengage the mag drive and switch over to hover. Hold on tight for a few seconds."

"Aw, crap," Mr. Allen muttered while pulling up his seat and buckling in for the first time since he climbed in the craft. "Have you done this over water?"

"Uh…no," Gavin frowned, "Does it make a difference?"

"Aw, crap." The old man muttered again.

Sara swallowed hard, "Um, maybe you should let Mr. Allen do this."

"Nope," Mr. Allen shook his head, "just don't go all crazy and start screaming or nothing."

Jason and Sara exchanged nervous glances while hitting buttons activating the securing fields.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, guys." Gavin grumbled. Hearing uneasy giggles from behind him he pulled the nose up and disengaged the drive, then punched up the hover fans.

"Yup," Mr. Allen snorted with a great deal of humor. "Same mistake every rookie pilot makes; you guys ready to see what it's like to be in a submarine?"

"HUH?" Jason shouted.

At the same time, Gavin was gritting his teeth as he felt the back end fall faster than he expected while warning claxons sounded. At the last second, he tried to put full power into the back hover fans but it was already too late. The automatic safeties kicked on, cutting off the fans as the back end smacked into the water. A few seconds later, the whole craft dropped below the surface of the water.

Mr. Allen started laughing as he saw all color drain form Gavin's face. "Boy, relax. There isn't a pilot out there who doesn't do this exact same thing the first time or ten!"

Sara looked out the window seeing a fish swim by, "This is normal?"

At the same time Gavin wiped away a couple of tears, "I'm not going to lose my license?"

"Normal, yes," Mr. Allen snickered, "Lose certifications, no."

"What did I do wrong?" Gavin managed to ask as he felt his heart racing inside his chest.

"If you were over land, you were a bit high, which is why it is such a rough transition between flight and hover. Over water however, you can't pull your nose up. Water has give to it, solid ground does not. By pulling the nose up your aft fans are pushing into something liquid, which in turn pushes outward creating a kind of hole in the water. Sensors see water on both sides and won't let water get into the fans so it cuts them off and puts the same kind of field around them as the securing bubbles did for your test mates. With no lift left, we slam into the water and start to sink. If anyone ever tells you they didn't do this the first few times they tried an overwater transition, they'd be lying.

"Now comes the fun part. You got to take us up and try it again. This time pretend the bottom of the ship is a flat rock and try to skip it over the water while the hover fans engage."

Jason's head titled to the side, "How do you skip a rock over water?"

Mr. Allen turned his head and eyed the boy, "You aren't being serious, are you?"

Sara shook her head, "I don't know what you are talking about either."

"And you?" Mr. Allen turned to Gavin.

"Yeah, but only because I got to go to the Mia-Orlando Museum of Water Craft History. One of the displays showed us how and let us do it. It was way cool."

"Earth is really going to hell, if kids have to go to a museum to learn how to skip a rock. It ain't even a place worth living on no more." Mr. Allen muttered with a great deal of disgust. "Well, boy, show your friends how it's done and at some point during the rest of this testing week, every one of you kids is going to learn how to skip rocks!"

Sara decided to take her mind off the fact Gavin was once again taking them up to try again. "Mr. Allen?"

The old man glanced back.

Sara's brow wrinkled, "The way you were talking, it sound like you haven't been back to Earth in a long time."

"Haven't," a smile of pride crossed his features, "none of my team have, for over twenty years. We live here. It was the best thanks they could figure out to give us for finding this rock." He turned back around and pulled on his harness a bit harder to make sure it was nice and tight as Gavin came down for his second attempt.

Gavin took one hand off the controls and made a motion of trying to skip a rock. He nodded to himself as he got the craft perfectly level and killed the magnetic drive. He then let the craft skip over the water once and as soon as it bounced back up he hit the over fans with full power. He had to fight the controls some and the whole craft shook as it bounced over some of the light waves but thirty seconds later he had full control and was able to retract the wings. "Wow! What a rush!"

None of the three had seen Mr. Allen look so happy as he reached over and patted Gavin on the shoulder. "Boy, I am more than impressed! If you weren't already a recruit, I'd be demanding you got the pins for this. To get it on your second try… It's just incredible!"

Gavin's smile was radiant as he brought the craft into a small cove and lowered it to the ground under the trees well above high tide. As soon as he backed away from the controls Mr. Allen reached over and typed in a command lock-out.

Mr. Allen rolled his shoulders and spoke with a hint of a sinister overtone. "Okay, cadets, you cannot access any ship function and you need to find a way to let someone know you are stranded. Testing starts now."

All three kids hopped out and grabbed their gear. Gavin was the first to dig into his pack. He quickly started assembling a collapsible rifle.

Jason watched for a few seconds, "Um, you try to shoot it, it'll fry.

"It's ballistic, not energy. Robin and I both have PhilaYork police certifications so we were able to test out of Laser rifles at Dal-Houston and since we had PhilaYork certs, we were given a chance to test in Ballistic weapons as well. Since there are creatures out here, I figured I should keep a watch while we figure out what to do."

Sara rolled her eyes, "With all the gear we have to carry, you have to be nuts to want to add an extra couple of kilos to carry something to shoot bullets!"

Gavin reached down and picked up a small rock and offered it to Sara, "Would you prefer to keep guard with this?"

Jason burst out laughing as he saw the girl glare at Gavin, "Okay, it's official."

"What?" Gavin asked carefully.

"She likes you," Jason teased.

Sara's cheeks flared, and even in the moonlight the others could see a hint of red. Even Mr. Allen laughed some.

Sara growled at everyone as she started to look through the gear. The fact she chose not to deny Jason's observation was not lost on any of them. Needing to change the subject quickly, she dropped the whole communication bundle onto the sandy soil and looked back. "Okay, so what other neat, non-electric gadgets do you have? Cause we got no way to send a message."

"We could build a raft and send up a signal," Jason offered.

"A raft…" Sara glanced over to Gavin, "You mean like tie branches together and float out there?" She pointed to the ocean and the waves rolling onto an outer barrier reef. "How do you plan on getting out far enough? We have to be at least five hundred to a thousand meters off shore before the interference of this place will let us try to turn it on." She gazed out to the shimmer of moonlight as the waves hit the reef and shook her head.

"Remember, I did say there were sharks out past the breakwater," Sara added, "whatever a breakwater is."

Mr. Allen pointed out to where the larger waves were dispersing as they hit the outer reef. "It is what you are looking at. A breakwater can be natural or man-made. It shelters beaches or harbors from large waves. Where the big waves are forced up and break apart out there, is this island's natural breakwater."

Gavin watched the waves hit and shook his head, "I can't be sure, but I don't think those are a kilometer out."

"No way," Sara agreed. "Hard to tell in the dark, but my guess is between half a kilometer to maybe three quarters of a kilometer. The energy disruption field varies so there is a chance, if we got out there, cutting along the edge of the area until we find a spot. Still, how do we get it out there?"

"As silly as this might sound," Jason managed a grin, "we stick our legs off the end and we kick."

Gavin couldn't believe he was considering the idea. A glance at Mr. Allen was useless, since the man's expression was totally neutral. "Well, it's an option, I guess. But if we do, we will have to take like electronics with us to turn them on so we can fry a few while we search for the right spot. Otherwise we risk frying the emergency signal gear."

Sara continued to look through her own gear. "There has got to be an easier way, and a safer way, guys. On the last test, we had to worry about lizard mounds and I don't know about you all, but making some kind of raft and getting it out over half a kilometer sounds more dangerous than a bunch of lizard mounds, even if we can use the flotation gear in the emergency hatch of the craft."

Jason glanced over to Mr. Allen, "Are the flotation devices in play?"

"The emergency kit is part of the test, if you want it to be, cadets." Mr. Allen held up his hand, "Let me make this very clear. The only things you cannot try to do is to use ship systems, or damage the ship in any way, which would prevent our safe return to camp. The idea is, you landed here and found electronics don't work, including the ship, and you all need extraction. I'll also tell you this much, I have been trying to convince camp leaders for over a decade to let me try this to see what happens. They wouldn't even let me try it on anyone but third year Superior ISTAZ Teams. When I approached Commander Montgomery with this, he said no, but then came back to me a few days ago and said if someone asked for a real challenge, then I could try it.

"The Commander seems to have this weird knack for sensing something might happen and he is normally right. But, whatever… The important thing is you all asked and I am enjoying this more than you could ever guess."

Sara stared at the old man for a few seconds before finally speaking, "What would have happened if we hadn't done the research and Gavin had shut down the ship?"

Gavin shook his head, "I couldn't; he had it set for instructor mode, so I couldn't power it down." He looked up at the sky, "The only reason you did it was because you weren't sure we would even try to check out where we were going!"

Mr. Allen's eyes flashed with merriment as he let out a long cackling laugh. He leaned back on the craft and smiled, "You're all smart and talented, but let's see how far you can push those brains of yours. I will tell you this much, since you already eliminated the idea, part of the test would have been me warning you to not go out past the breakwater, no matter what. Once out there, some of the Earth creatures the scientists decided to populate this world with have the potential to be deadly."

"Then why did they put them here?" Gavin asked, thoroughly appalled to hear some deadly forms of life had been purposefully placed on Zong.

"It was the only way to prevent them from going extinct in nature. The oceans of Earth are closing in on being lifeless because of overfishing and human pollution. In Zong, we found a true second earth, since ninety-nine percent of the natural creatures of this world are not capable of fending off Earth species and the vast majority of Zong creatures are not food sources for things brought here from Earth.

"The other thing is scientists were very careful to hatch or artificial womb everything released here, so they didn't bring in viruses and other things from Earth to here. This actually lead to some massive overpopulations at first, but nature took over as only nature seems to be able to do and some of the bacteria and illnesses associated only with Zong animals started to appear in Earth animals. A few years ago the buffalo were hard hit, which is why we ask you not to hunt them unless you have to. They were down to under two thousand head before they started to rebound. Now the number is once again over five thousand and continuing to climb, but ten years ago, there were estimated to be over a hundred thousand.

"I have lived here through pretty much all of it. Some scientists now think most of the Earth life forms released here are now slightly genetically different than those on Earth. Me, I hope this is true, because Zong, which got its name because it was the twenty-sixth planet of those considered best candidates to support life, with our gravity, also known as Optimal-positioning Near-Earth Gravity. Z, being the twenty-sixth letter, was put at the beginning and thus the world was named Z.O.N.G. by those of us who landed here."

"Wow!" Jason looked over to the other two kids, "I've never seen the reason this world is called Zong. Matter of fact, I have heard many kids wonder why it has such a weird name."

"Me, too!" Sara nodded, "Our holo-teacher even gave us an assignment last year to name or rename Zong and explain why it should be called what we suggested. Most kids failed and I got a D, which got my butt smacked by my dad, but nowhere in the class were we told how or why this place was first called Zong."

Mr. Allen eyed Sara with a great deal of curiosity, "And what name did you come up with, young lady."

"Second Chance."

"Way better than I would have come up with!" Gavin complimented her, "I would have gone with something like Paradise."

"Well, you are both smarter than I am," Jason managed to smile. "I'd have titled mine Earth Too, as in also, not the number."

"To be honest," Mr. Allen nodded, "I think all three of you have great ideas! Now let's see you focus in on this test."

"I have been," Sara mumbled, "but, I can't even start a fire. Our laser lighters are out and the sun is down, so I can't even use my back-up magnifying glass."

Gavin's eyes went a bit wide, "Cool idea! I am going to have to add one to my gear when we get back!"

"Me as well," Jason gave Sara a thumbs up, "But, you're right, it won't help at night."

Gavin held up a finger and dashed back to the craft and came back with a trio of flares. "Let's gather some wood and uses these!"

"Right on!" Sara jumped up, "At least this way, even if we decide to build Jason's raft, we can have some decent light to do it with, but you should keep guard as we move into the trees to grab the wood, since you are the only one of us who can shoot at any threats."

An hour later the kids had a decent sized fire going and were starting to assemble a raft out of some of the longer branches and the extra flotation used in the ship. The problem was, it was slow going, as none of them really knew how to use the rope to tie everything together.

Jason winced as he dug another splinter out of his hand. "Damn! I wish we could build a fire big enough to be seen by one of the space stations or something!"

Gavin felt a cold shiver run down his spine as his remembered his trip to the museum in Mia-Orlando. "Right on, Jason!"

"Huh?" Sara stated, "You want to start a fire over half the island or something?"

"NO!" Gavin shouted as he pulled out his note-puter, which he had turned on well before they got to the island. "Get all the reflective space blankets and we'll build a reflective cone and aim it at the space station. One of us needs to locate one with the optical setting on the vision enhancers! We should be able to use my note-puter to get a general location of a space station!"

"I can find one of the space stations since we have a way to get a general idea of where to look." Sara stated with certainly as she dug out her binoculars and set them for visual mode so she didn't have to turn on the digital enhancements, "They are way brighter in the sky, so I just have to focus in the brightest stars and look for them to change appearance slightly as they adjust their solar panels, but how are you going to signal them?"

Gavin's eyes seemed to dance with joy in the firelight. He handed over the note-puter, "When I was at the Naval History Museum, Robin and I learned a way to send code by light flashes, so we both memorized it. Old warships used this light code so they didn't have to broadcast a radio and give away where they were at. They used this thing called Morse code, and one of the signals was a distress called an S.O.S. for Save Our Ship! It is a sequence of dashes and dots. Now, if the computers on the space station start seeing this, the artificial intelligence will kick in and alert someone. All we can do is hope someone figures it out!"

Jason started to assemble a cone so they could direct the light upward in a big beam with growing excitement. "Even if they don't, they will send someone down to investigate!" He chewed on his lip, "So how do we send the signal?"

"Once we aim the light so it reflects up toward the space station, we use my reflective blanket with sticks." Sara responded, "We tie it to sticks and pull it back to send light and push it back over the fire to block the light. It may take a few minutes to get it right, but once we get it down we just keep repeating until someone responds."

"Let's do this!" Gavin eagerly jumped up and down in excitement as Sara put the last piece of his plan in place for them.

Mr. Allen felt his jaw drop some as he backed off and watched. He shook his head as the three kids spent another hour and a half making the reflector and second fire. Once they put out the first fire and started playing with actually sending up the message, he started chewing on the side of his mouth and started talking to himself. "I'll be damned. Even if this doesn't work it is brilliant. A kid knows of Morse code, who would have ever thunk it!"

Once they started sending a signal, it didn't take long for a small craft to appear in the sky. A small rescue team landed on the island, fully expecting to find someone in trouble. All four members of the rescue team took time to shake hands with the three kids and promised to visit the training camp before they all went to their assigned zones.

As they watched the rescue craft angle up toward the distant dot in the night sky, Mr. Allen took a minute to give each kid a quick hug and motioned for them to follow him into the woods.

Gavin glanced over to the other two, but not knowing what else to do, the three quickly followed. Ten minutes later they came up on an old wrecked lander with over a dozen huts built around it, all but two had all but been reclaimed by the island's plant life. "Welcome to the first human camp ever constructed on Zong."

Jason's eyes lit up as he looked around, "This is where you landed?"

"Yeah, and where me and my unit lived until Earth answered my distress beacon. You are only the second set of cadets to get to see it."

"Is it safe to explore it?" Sara asked with giddiness in her voice.

"Sure, but if any of the snake-pedes are around they will rear back and hiss. If they do, move slowly and back out so Gavin can shoot them. They will not kill you but they will make you very sick if they manage to bite you. Don't worry too much, though, they don't tend to come to this side of the island, but they do like dark spaces so there is chance there is one or two in the old shacks. Mine and Lieutenant Gillespie's are totally ferro-creted and sealed, but I'd prefer you stay out of mine and my old Lieutenant's is locked."

The kids used chem-light sticks for light and spent over an hour exploring the old camp and spacecraft before Mr. Allen called for them to get back to the ship. With Gavin once again behind the controls, Mr. Allen glanced over to the three kids. "Space command is going to have a collective heart attack."

"Why?" Sara asked.

"Because, for the first time ever, I am going to recommend multiple Outstanding marks on a test and submit them for special awards of some sort. You all just rewrote the book for getting an Outstanding grade out here. The old one was the raft trick, that and using other electrics to find where you could send a signal from, so you had it figured out. This, however, was beyond brilliant and all three of you helped put the pieces together. Nice job cadets!"

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