A Taste of Leadership
Gavin entered the mess tent and chanced a glance over to the table where Team Eight was gathering. A couple glanced up but quickly broke off eye contact. His scrutiny was quickly interrupted as a couple of kids from Sara's team sent him some rather humor filled glances and a couple of the other girls scrunched their lips up and blew him kisses.
Fairfax elbowed Gavin as the pair made their way up to the food line, "Now you're stuck carrying a book or something to press flowers in. Way to go lover-boy."
Gavin tried real hard to hide how embarrassed he felt, but the fact the edges of his ears glowed red caused a few others in line behind him to comment. Tasha, the team leader of Team Fifteen managed to slide in behind Gavin, "You know, I'd have tried to test with you every day if I would have known it would have gotten me a chance to kiss you."
Behind Tasha, Ellen snickered, "No hitting on a guy who is already spoke for."
This got another round of giggles from more than a few girls and even a couple of boys. The only ones seemingly not enjoying the merriment were those from Team Eight. They all quickly consumed their meals and sat quietly, waiting for announcements. Conversely, they didn't look around or glare like normal either.
Gavin, food in hand, was flatly relieved to be able to sit at his team's table. No matter how hard he tired to ignore what was going on around him, however, the giggles and grins sent his direction further heightened his discomfort. Even those on his own team joined in with some good-natured barbs.
Fairfax, in particular, found the whole thing hilarious. "Gavin, if I could get a girl to kiss me half as good as you just got just from kicking someone, you have got to teach me how to fight!"
Gavin rolled his eyes and lightly punched Fairfax in the shoulder. He could tell he was badly blushing too, but on the other hand, it felt kind of good to be the center of attention for a while. As the best friend of a kid who seemed to exude charisma, Gavin was very used to being in Robin's shadow most of the time. This time, the spotlight was on him, and for the first time in his life he understood there was actually an upside to being a bit more outgoing.
Still, remaining as the center of attention was not where he wanted to be for very long, so there was an audible sigh of relief out of Gavin when Jasper stepped up to the podium.
Jasper did his normal squealing of the sound system to get everyone's attention. He then took a few moments to look over the assembled kids. He noted those looking back at him did so with a hint of eagerness, which was not something the testing week was supposed to be about. Testing week was supposed to be about fear, about hyper-vigilance leading to silly mistakes, about kids staring down at note-puters with shaking hands and even a few tears of worry.
The stress of the testing week was partially designed around weeding kids out who should not be heading out to ISTAZ. Robin and his scheming had taken this out of the equation and it worried more than a few instructors in the camp and even more above him. At the same time, Command had taken a very active and direct interest in this whole group and Robin's Team Five in particular.
Jasper remained quiet for a few more seconds as he drummed his fingers over the podium. Finally, he put on a forced smile and glanced back over his shoulder to the instructor's table to make sure all of them were there. "OK, cadets, you all have really started to gel, not just as teams, but for the most part, a camp. There are still a few who have not joined into this rather unusual unified and cooperative mindset, but for those of you who have, I know I speak for all of us over you… We are proud to have gotten to know you all.
"Still, we have now had two altercations between cadets. This is not acceptable, although in both instances, we feel it was not only justified but needed. However, from now on, any physical violence between cadets at this camp needs to be handled differently. If you really want to fight about something again, before you leave for your zones, come see myself or Mrs. Rockland. We will set a time and have medical teams standing by to deal with the aftermath. Any fisticuffs before the times we establish will result in you being shot with sonic weapons, which you should note, all instructors are now armed with." He patted his side to emphasize he was, in fact, armed with a powerful stunning weapon. "Furthermore, should you not follow this guideline, you will be subject to a full day of hard duty at one of the space stations. This will be overseen by space command marines, and believe me when I say they have been told, should they get one or two of you, to make those twenty-four hours the worst of your lives.
"Any questions?" Jasper barked.
Getting no response, other than some wide eyes, his lips pressed into another tight, forced smile for a few seconds. "Good, so I can assume there will be no more impromptu blows being struck. For those interested in Randy, he will be back for evening testing, but will have to wear a headband to monitor brain function since he did receive a rather nasty concussion. I expect you all to refrain from teasing him about wearing it and should anyone see red blinking lights on it, you need to get one of us instructors immediately."
Jasper had to fight to hold off a look of disgust. He had tried, unsuccessfully, to have Randy removed from the camp for medical reasons. The fact the teen was a team leader, however, made removing him unacceptable by those well above Jasper's rank and pay. Jasper took a moment to look over at Team Eight's table, noting a few looked unhappy about Randy's return while a few others looked relieved. He knew in his heart the whole team would not last three weeks out in the wilderness of Zong, and chances were high one or more of those kids at the table would end up in a hospital transport back to Earth or worse. Jasper didn't take much comfort in the fact his reports and reasoning for wanting Randy removed said the same things.
Over ruled or not, the chance one of the kids looking up from the table might not make it back to Earth bothered him a great deal. Jasper took a moment trying to figure out how to force the whole group of kids to throw in the towel, but he still had to be fair. At least he still had decision-making power on where to send the team, so he would put them in the historically safest zone he had available, a zone normally reserved for the youngest group, he reminded himself.
Putting the oldest group in the zone normally reserved for the youngest didn't seem like the right answer, but if it was his only option to try to keep the kids safe, he would do so… He took another deep breath and glanced back down to his morning briefing. "Let's move on to other matters. We are moving into the halfway point of testing. At this point, you all should have a pretty good feel for how we test and what the tests are meant to prove. Because of this, we are looking for that little extra flair of insight before we award an Outstanding mark. Also, because of your study sessions, we will send all Excellent and Outstanding marks up for review. We do not want to let our desire to make the tests challenging to you all overshadow your accomplishments."
Jasper glanced down again and felt a shiver of unease shoot up his spine. When he spoke again, it was clear in his voice he was a bit concerned. "This next matter is very important. I need you all to pay close attention."
Jasper made sure the kids were all at least looking his general direction before he continued. "I know you all got a basic science classes on this star system, but there are few things not included. First off, the system is thought to be several million years younger than our home system. Much of this is conjecture, but it seems sound enough based on what we know about Earth. You also know this planet has its own life forms, but with very few exceptions, the native life forms are much lower than the more advanced life on Earth. Because of this, Earth decided to move almost all disappearing wild life here to preserve it. A pair of the continents here is strictly devoted to Earth wildlife and are off limits except for scientific study and Advanced ISTAZ training."
Jasper noted a few of the kids starting to fidget and a few others picking at what was left on their plates. To get their attention back he cleared his throat as loudly as he could. "Now, I can see some of you starting to give me the blank stare of a kid listening to a parent. I know, it is the same look I gave my own dad when he started on one of his many lectures…"
Getting a round of snickers, Jasper managed a real grin for a few moments before continuing. "Cadets, trust me when I say this is going somewhere so bear with me for a minute.
"This system is a young one and once in a while there are some problems. One of them is the star at the center of this system. I am sure most of you have been taught Earth's star goes through sun spot activity of approximately eleven-year cycles. Peak sun spot activity also means peak activity of solar flares, which can interrupt some electronics and even damage some of most advanced micro-tech. Earth has early warning systems and has been able to drastically cut back on damage because of solar flares, due in no small part to their alert systems.
"The same kind of thing happens here. However, the cycles of this star seem to be about every twenty-seven years and when sun spot activity peaks, the eruptions off this system's star are bigger, more violent, and more damaging. Also, this system does not have factories below it to replace damaged equipment like Earth does. Instead, when a major eruption occurs, the space stations fold up and weather the star-storm in a gold plated cocoon. At the same time weather satellites do the same thing.
"For those of you still wondering where this is going, we are now squarely in the middle of peak activity from this star. An hour ago a large discharge was detected and is heading this way. We have all day today before the first effects are felt sometime tomorrow. However, weather sats are already shutting down, which means we are going to be in for some crazy weather. Weather does not like to be messed with and with controls going away, the whole planet will try to revert to natural weather pattern. This could take weeks to fully reverse, so those of you going out to ISTAZ, you are going to be in for a potential rough start. Command has authorized those who want to stay back at camp to do so until decent control can be re-established, but this will affect your ability to attend Advanced ISTAZ next year. In simple terms those of you who stay back more than an extra two weeks, you will have to attend another ISTAZ next year to be eligible to Advanced ISTAZ two years from now.
"The next thing these flares tend to do is mess with radio and microwave transmissions. Because of this, you will have to deal with some communication breakdowns and failures of some of your high-tech equipment. This is something to think about in testing over the next few days. Today may be your last day to use some of the gadgets you are used to relying on.
"Furthermore, each of you will be issued a second emergency beacon, since the last time Adventure Quest had this happen several beacons blew out. If yours does blow, wait one hour before trying to activate your backup. Also, if you are with others who also have dead beacons, I want only one of you to reactivate. Everyone else wait at least another hour, unless you are in an emergency situation. Once out in your ISTAZ, you will need to send an alert as soon as possible should damage to your beacons happen. Calling for replacements is not going to count against you in any way shape or form.
"Finally, and this has the possibility to lead back to one of my earlier points, command has a special award for any team in which every member gets at least one Outstanding mark. Team Five, you only need one member and Team Fifteen you only need two. Teams Two and Eleven already have three with Outstanding marks as well, so it is possible more than one team can achieve what has never before happened. Command asked me to put forth this challenge to you all, since it seems like cooperation has become the order of the day around here. Should more than one team have all its members get Outstanding marks, an additional reward is being offered to all who leave this camp with an outstanding grade."
When nothing more was said, Jay, from Team Seventeen spoke up, "What's the reward, Commander?"
Jasper face seemed to light up some, "Unfortunately, I cannot tell you, although I do know what it is and it is a major reward. Should two teams do this, we will be getting a visit from Colonel McKnight, who will announce the offer. I am not at liberty to say any more."
Several kids looked around at each other, more than a little intrigued to hear who might be paying them a visit. Colonel McKnight was none other than the Commanding Officer of the Explorer Corps academy at Dal-Houston. There was not a kid in the mess hall who hadn't seen his holographic image requesting kids to apply for pre-academy testing and training once they turned fifteen.
Robin could see more than a few looking in his direction. Feeling a renewed pressure to help out, he stood. "As long as I pass this morning, I'll offer to help hold another round of classes the rest of the day."
Jasper glanced over with a bit of a smirk. "Private, if you don't pass, half this camp will be in too much shock to test, let alone go to an extra class."
This got a large round of laughter, including a couple in Team Eight.
Jasper let things die down, "OK, cadets, get to your assignments and best of luck to all of you."
Robin waited till most of the kids left before pulling Oliver to the side. "Dude, I can feel how stressed you are. Let it go and do your best. I don't care about you getting an Outstanding as much as I care about you looking out for Dillon. We'll get you an Outstanding on another test if need be. OK?"
Oliver looked at the floor and kicked a pebble. "I don't want to let you all down though!"
"You're always going to be a friend no matter what." Robin put his hand on Oliver's right shoulder and used his other hand to lift up the boy's chin so he could look him straight in the eyes. "No one on our team is going to give you a hard time, no matter what you score, so forget about the grade and do what needs to be done."
Oliver blinked away a couple of tears, "I'll take care of Dillon, but I can't let you all down after you agreed to take me in to your team. I'll get and Outstanding today, before the star-storm screws up my chances."
"You'll do fine," Robin stated with total certainty. "See you at lunch."
Oliver took a couple of deep breaths before making his way out to the transport. At first a bit of worry raced through him as he saw everyone from the vision except Dillon. However, just as Mrs. Rockland was calling his name a second time Dillon came around the corner. "Here, sorry, couldn't find my canteen so I borrowed Randy's since he ain't here today."
Mrs. Rockland moved up and looked at the boy's badly blackened eye, "What happened to you?"
The boy didn't hesitate with a response. "I was horsing around with Frank and he nailed me with an elbow on accident.
The woman's face told everyone she didn't totally buy the excuse, but with nothing else to go on and time on the test already ticking she decided to let it go until they were back at camp after the test. She led them to the gear and told them to hurry.
Oliver moved up to his pack and looked down, "Mrs. Rockland, I am missing a securing hook and the battery pack for my infrared goggles is not seated in the charger. He then glanced over to Dillon's pack, "Man, your pouch with your twine ball is empty."
Meghan seemed to take charge as she heard this. "OK, guys, I want everyone to go over each other's pack and find the mistakes. Once you go through the pack hand it off for a second look from someone else and get everything fixed. We are not going to miss an Outstanding before we even get to where we are going!"
Mrs. Rockland watched the kids quickly, yet methodically, check over the packs. The couple of items she had messed with which were not found by those inspecting, were found by Oliver as they started to head out. Even though the instructors agreed not to say much, if anything, she couldn't help herself. "Oliver, good eyes and Meghan, way to show some leadership. Now let's move out!"
The next part of the test was exactly in line with what Robin's amazing ability had forecasted right down to Jason and Shane shooting at the overhang of snow once Oliver had pointed it out. When this failed to bring it down, the kids carefully moved on, actually having Mrs. Rockland fly them over the overhang to a new spot so they never crossed under it. Once again, this was Meghan's suggestion and was not something Robin had foreseen.
As the group of kids piled out, Oliver noted Dillon moving to a ledge as if to look down. While no one else took more than passing notice, Oliver could see the slightly older boy's hands start to shake. A moment later Dillon turned away from the drop-off, closed his eyes and took a step back, as he did so the edge of the ledge gave way causing him to fall a great deal faster and more violently than even he expected.
Oliver reacted as fast as he could, but almost missed grabbing the top of the boy's pack. At the same time he felt his left pinking finger get caught in one of the straps and snap. He let out a lout cry of pain, but managed to hold on. Fighting back tears of pain he managed to gasp out, "Someone help!"
Before he could say more Jason, Shane and Lynn all raced to the edge. Lynn quickly grabbed Oliver's feet so he wasn't dragged down, while Jason pulled a rope and held on to Shane so the boy cold loop the rope around one of Dillon's safety hooks.
Tears continued to pour out of Oliver's eyes, "Hurry! I can't hold on much longer!"
Mrs. Rockland moved up next to Oliver and latched on to Dillon's pack with one hand while using her other to prevent herself from sliding any further. "I've got him, you can let go."
"No way," Oliver gritted his teeth. "Not until he's tied off!"
Dillon looked up with a degree of astonishment as everyone in the testing group seemed to rally around him. He suddenly realized his actions had not only endangered himself, but pretty much all of the others as well. As he saw Meghan take the rope from Shane, tears of sorrow dripped down his cheeks.
Meghan and Ricky quickly stepped back and wrapped the rope around their waists and started to walk as a team pulling Dillon back up as they went. With the boy secure, the others were quickly able to haul him back safely up onto the ledge.
Oliver finally let go and pulled his broken finger into his stomach and puked from the pain.
Sean moved over and knelt. "I've passed Wilderness First Aid; let me take a look."
It took Jason to all but force Oliver to uncurl so Sean could pull his hand out to take a look. When he did so, it was clear to everyone the finger was broken.
As Mrs. Rockland called for a medical team, Oliver glanced up, still crying, "I don't want to miss ISTAZ!"
Mrs. Rockland patted Oliver on the back, "Son, I'll go up there and get you myself if they don't want to release you. But it's only a broken finger so they may have the equipment to set in down here, so relax."
Dillon looked at the absurdly bent finger and lowered his head, "I'm sorry, man…"
Mrs. Rockland shot Dillon a nasty look, "Son, you damned near got yourself and Oliver killed. What were you thinking?"
Before Dillon could answer, Oliver spoke up, "It wasn't his fault. The rock broke from under him. I heard it and as I turned I saw it break off."
Mrs. Rockland moved over to the edge and looked at the fresh break. She nodded slowly, "Yeah, it sure did and I can see where some rocks hit the snow bank below. Once again, good observation skills, Oliver."
"And a hell of a catch!" Meghan spit out with a high amount of praise in her voice.
Oliver used his shoulder to get rid of some tears as he continued to clutch his hand. When he spoke it was clear he was in pain, but was almost getting used to it. "We don't have much time, we may as well finish this." He winced as he started to get back on his feet, but found getting up suddenly easier as both Jason and Lynn moved up to help him stand.
Sean glanced into the cave and winced, "It smells bad in there."
Meghan moved up and played her light inside, "Oh, yuck, there are bits of bone and piles of animal crap!"
Oliver gritted his teeth as another wave of nausea hit him. He shook it off as he managed to speak, "A couple of you ought to get out rifles, the only meat eating things in this area I know of are the lizards and the cats, and since this isn't a mound it's probably a cat." He forced a pained grin as he joked. "We should find a whole different area. I'd prefer to eat lunch rather than be on the menu for it."
This got some uneasy giggles from those around him, but did prompt three kids with laser rifle certificates to pull them out.
Mrs. Rockland glanced over to Oliver, "I can take the group to a new site, if you think you can handle the acceleration. I can have the med team meet us there."
"Let's go," Oliver all but demanded. "I don't want a stupid broken finger to screw up the rest of the test for everyone else."
As the kids moved into the back, all of them offered to help both Oliver and a still shaking and very quiet Dillon get situated. As soon as Oliver felt the lift fans engaged he glanced over to Dillon, "Are you good?"
Dillon looked down and sighed. "I know you probably saved my life and certainly prevented me from a medical trip home…" His left foot kicked at the heel of his right. "You should have just let me fall, Oliver. It would have been easier on both of us."
While others in the back of the transport gasped and looked at Dillon with wide eyes, Oliver was quick to counter. "No way, you are still one of us, even if you are part of Team Eight. I also know what happened last night to you…"
"How? Randy made sure…" Dillon caught himself and stopped talking suddenly.
Jason's eyes narrowed. "So are you saying you almost falling wasn't an accident or something?"
Dillon lowered his head into his hands, "The ledge breaking wasn't in my plan. I wanted to slide down and just get a little hurt, but when the rock crumbled…"
Sean slid closer to Dillon, "You almost died and took Oliver with you! What could be so bad to risk your life?"
Dillon glanced up with a bit of a glare, "I'm trapped and it was the only way out!"
"You're trapped?" Jason's held tilted to the side in bewilderment. "What are you talking about?"
Dillon lowered his head again, "You all wouldn't understand."
"Try us," Meghan demanded. "Otherwise, you aren't giving us much choice. We'll have to report this."
Dillon glanced up, with some astonishment. "You mean you're not?"
Jason shook his head, "We don't want to, none of us do. Almost everything Robin has talked about in his testing classes is a need to be united as a whole camp. We'll have your back on this, but only if you'll tell us what is going on so we can make sure you don't hurt yourself or anyone else again. I know you haven't been part of what we have been working toward, since you are in Team Eight, but you have to give us a chance!"
Dillon tried to bite back a sob, but failed badly.
Ricky moved closer to the side opposite of Sean and put his arm over the older and bigger boy, "Come on, my dad always says hiding things only makes it worser."
Jason quickly agreed, "Look, you are about the only sane one in Team Eight, from what I have seen. Let us try to help you."
Dillon forced himself to quit bawling, but tears still trickled down his face as he looked up with a truly miserable expression. "My step-dad was in the corps a few years back, but got moved to scientific study after he started to show signs of OSO… When my mom was killed a few months ago, he told me if I couldn't make it in ISTAZ not to bother coming home cause no son of his, adopted or not, was going to puss out by being anything less than an ISTAZ graduate…"
Dillon broke down again as he continued to talk, "But when I got to Dal-Houston, the only ones I could find to link up with was Randy's group… I don't like any of 'em, and they really don't like me either… I've always been a loner and never can make friends… I figured if I got hurt I could go back home and my step-dad would call it good, or let me try again next year since he can send all his kids for three years, since he was an Explorer."
Between the sobs spilling out of Dillon, he managed to gasp out, "I don't know what I'm going to do! I don't want to get beat up again and I know my dad won't take me back if I voluntarily leave training. He's already said he doesn't want me!"
"What a jerk!" Lynn shook her head in sadness. "How could he put conditions on keeping you after he adopted you?"
"You'd have to meet the guy." Dillon whispered. "He's as dense as a lead brick and as mean as a malfunctioning zap camera."
Lynn had to blink away a couple of tears, "I know saying I'm sorry doesn't really help, but I am sorry."
Dillon managed to give her a nod of gratitude. "I know I could get through this, but I can't… not as long as Randy has it in for me like he does."
Jason looked over clearly confused, "What does he have against you?"
"Frank asked Randy to step down as team leader and him and Kathleen both recommend me for the leader spot since I have passed three tests and have one Excellent grade." Dillon gulped, "Randy got all bent out of shape and told them he'd show why I'd never make a good leader."
"So Randy did give you the black eye," Sean snarled lightly.
Oliver nodded, "And more. He had help. Two others held him down last night. Robin found out about it too late to stop it, and it's one of the reasons Gavin nailed Randy this morning."
Jason's eyes narrowed, "Maybe I ought to ask for a fight time with Randy!"
Oliver shook his head, "Not going to happen, they'll never let him get into a fight as long as he has to wear the synapse gap monitor on his head. Another concussion, as nice as it would be to see someone give him one, could do permanent injury…" Oliver paused and glanced around, "Robin already added me to his team so I don't see any way he would add someone else, but what about the rest of you? Any chance Dillon could switch up and join one of your teams?"
Meghan let out a short breath, "There is a good chance my team would let you in, especially since Jesse is thinking about asking to go to normal intake. Let me talk to my team when we get back and I'll be able to get you a firm answer. I know Curtis does not want to be the only guy on my team and has been pushing Jesse to stay because of it, and that is the only reason Jesse is still in camp."
"What's wrong with Jesse?" Ricky asked with a bit of concern since he was only a few days older than the boy and his ten-year-old age had come into question more than once before his team rather reluctantly let him join them back at Dal-Houston.
Meghan shrugged, "Nothing other than the fact he has only passed one test up till now."
Shane shook his head, "Not many of us ten-year-olds left, I'd hate to see another one go."
Oliver glanced over to both Shane and Ricky, "You guys don't need to worry, you'll both do great. Mr. Montgomery keeps saying age is not nearly as important as the will to do this, and you both have it."
Meghan nodded in agreement before she glanced back over to Dillon, "If you want me to ask I will, but no hitting on Sara. I don't want to see Gavin going all ninja on you."
This seemed to break the tension a great deal as several of the kids openly laughed and even Dillon cracked a bit of a smile.
Jason also spoke up, "If you really want to do ISTAZ, one of us will find you a slot on another team. You just got to promise you will not try to hurt yourself again."
"I really want to do this… but…"
"We'll find you a different team and go to Mr. Montgomery with a reason," Jason assured the boy, "but for the rest of today, you stick with me, and I mean close to me. Let me and the rest of us here be a shield for you until we find you a new slot."
"OK, but if I can't transfer, I need a way out… Please…"
"Trust us. One thing I think we have learned from Robin is, we may be on different teams but we are all part of the same camp. We'll make this happen." Meghan assured Dillon.
By the time the transport got to the new location there was little in the way of evidence of the real problem other than the fact Jason decided to stick real close to Dillon.
The medical team was also waiting and did some quick scans of Oliver's hand and finger. The lead medic looked down and shook his head. "We can reset the bones here, give you some bone mending protein shots and fit you with a glove to prevent movement for a couple of days, but it would hurt a lot less if we took you up to the station…"
Oliver shook his head, "The star-storm is coming and I'd be stuck up there. No way. Let's do this."
"This is really going to hurt, son." The other medic warned.
"Just get it done," Oliver growled. "Talking about it is not going to change my mind, but will scare the crap out of me."
The lead medic glanced over to the other kids, "It'd sure help if a couple of you helped hold him down a bit for us. You will need to hold him as tight as you can, the less movement the faster we can do this, and he will jerk some, no matter how much he tries not to. The portable scanner we have won't work properly if we numb the area, since it can't tell the difference between medicated tissue and normally functioning tissue. Just leave the arm and hand with the broken finger to us."
Jason and Meghan moved up to Oliver and each grabbed a shoulder. Sean also knelt and put Oliver's good hand in his own. "Squeeze as hard as you need to."
Oliver nodded and before he realized what was going on the younger medic pulled the finger as straight as he could, put the glove on the damaged hand, and attached the scanner while the other medic held his arm out. Needless to say, Oliver screamed and jerked hard. Fortunately, Meghan, Jason, and Sean were able to hold him securely enough to where it only took a couple of seconds to get the glove on.
The pain was not over by a long shot, however. The scanner caused the embedded, electrically charged fibers on the glove to contract and pulsate around the broken finger, forcing the bones to align perfectly. It took everything Oliver had not to beg for them to stop. Finally, after nearly three minutes, the sensor detected perfect placement of all the bones and injected the proper proteins into the right spots. Once the computer detected everything was ready, the unit caused the glove to suddenly become ultra ridged around the damaged area and down the length of the hand, forming an instant cast while giving him movement in his thumb, index, and middle finger.
The medic handed the sensor over to Mrs. Rockland. "He should be good in two days, but you may want to check it with this before removing the glove. It was broken in three places. You got a damned brave youngster here. Take good care of him."
Mrs. Rockland nodded as she spoke, "Brave is an understatement, and until he leaves for ISTAZ he'll get only the best treatment, I assure you." She sent Oliver a warm smile before returning her attention back to the medics, "I'll have Mr. O'Mally check before we take it off. He was a team medic on the quick expedition we took last year."
She then turned to Oliver, "Very courageous and admirable of you to handle this as well as you have. You OK to continue?"
Oliver took several more deep breaths, while Sean wiped tears and snot from his face with a towel out of Sean's own pack.
Finally, Oliver nodded thanks to the three around him and spoke with a trembling voice, showing he was still in quite a bit of pain. "Yeah, but I don't know how I'm going to do the rifle test with my hand like this. I can't hold it the way you all taught me."
"We'll figure something out." Mrs. Rockland assured the clearly worried boy. "You may have to wait on your rifle test until it's healed. We'll grant an exception and test you the last day if needed."
Once again, Oliver got help to stand and had to continue to get help as he saw some stars as he stood. Sean stayed next to him and held his shoulders until Oliver regained equilibrium.
The next hour went by too quickly as the kids thoroughly enjoyed the cave. By this time it came as no surprise to Oliver to find out everything else Robin had predicted came and went. So perfect were some of the things Oliver saw in the vision, it was hard not to point to problem spots before they appeared. At the same time he suddenly realized why Gavin felt like he had cheated. Having this much knowledge about a test before hand was not exactly fair.
As they boarded the transport back, more than a few kids were already congratulating Oliver on getting an Outstanding mark even before the grades were handed out.
Robin, on the other hand, was trying hard not to use his weird foreknowledge as he went into his test. The test itself was almost silly. All he had to do was enter a resupply bunker, get what was needed, report what was taken and/or missing and lock it back up. Of course, there were a few catches and possible glitches they could throw at him, but overall it was about as simple and straightforward as any ISTAZ test could get. At least, so he thought.
Everything changed when Mrs. Anderson told him to prep for a sub-O flight and told him two others were coming with him. Since all the other resupply tests had been done solo, this took all three of them off guard and gave them some nervous jitters. Having Mrs. Anderson was somewhat discomforting in and of itself, since she was a big unknown to the boys. Since there were more tests than instructors, extra ones came down as needed from the space station just for testing week, and Mrs. Anderson was one of them.
While the fact he had partners and was taking everyone suborbital to get to the testing ground seemed really strange, it was nothing compared to where she instructed him to put down. It was flatly un-nerving. It was the larger of the two Advanced ISTAZ continents and the spot she selected to put down was over a massive lake. He sent a questioning look over to the woman next to him, but all it got him was a nod. He then glanced back to Steve, the team leader of Team Nineteen, and Jeff from Team Seventeen. Both kids looked at the rather desolate land around the immense body of water with wide eyes, and mirrored each other as they shrugged.
Robin took the craft down and did an overwater transition to hover mode, thankful Gavin had explained how it was supposed to be done. It was far from smooth, but he did keep it out of the water, barely.
Mrs. Anderson shot Robin a glance, "You have to be kidding me! No one does it on the first shot… Did one of the other instructors take you for an overwater transition and not log it?"
"No…" Robin let out a relieved breath as the ride smoothed out some. "I'd have been looking at fish if Gavin hadn't talked me through it ma'am." Robin assured the clearly astonished instructor.
"You are quite exceptional, young man," she praised. "I expect you in the academy with or without the rest of your team. You're a natural for this sort of work."
"It's all Gavin and I have ever dreamed of," Robin assured her as he pushed the acceleration up to over three hundred Kilometers per hour showing no intimidation at going so fast. "So, where to?"
Mrs. Anderson pointed to an island off the port side, "Your bunker is right over there."
Even as Robin banked the hovercraft toward the speck of land, Steve frowned deeply, "Why is there a resupply point on an island a good twelve kilometers from any land?"
Mrs. Anderson snickered at seeing a true look of befuddlement on all three boys' faces. It was not something any of the instructors had seen on Robin up till now, which she found strangely reassuring. "Very good question. The truth is, this is a bonus supply point for teams on Advanced ISTAZ. Each team has one supply bunker in their zone, which gives them a bonus if they get to it. No one is told what the bonus is, and to be totally honest, I don't know either, since my team tried three years in a row to figure out how to get to ours, but we couldn't. As far as I know, only two teams have managed to get to one and those are now just emergency supply points and new, even harder to get to ones, were put into those zones. This happens to be one of the two places kids got to, by the way."
"Oh, wow!" Robin's eyes glimmered with excitement, "When we come back next year we are going to figure out how to get to ours! Guys, get as much info as you can on the area, the wild life, other dangers, and whatever else you can find. We don't know squat about where we are, let alone what we may have to deal with."
Mrs. Anderson laughed, clearly amused by Robin's reaction.
Robin glanced over again, "What's so funny?"
"Your quick thinking and just how well Jasper seems to have you figured out, are both rather humorous to me," Mrs. Anderson informed Robin. "You know, Mr. Montgomery said you would say almost those exact words when you heard about the bonus bunkers. He also predicted you would take charge once you saw the possible problems with the testing site and start giving instructions even before you were given the actual testing constraints."
"He seems to know what many of us are going to do," Jeff kind of signed. "I swear, he can look into the future or something. When he took our team out for pre-testing camping, he even stopped Denny from getting hit by a falling rock. I swear he knew it was coming or something!"
"He's an Explorer Commander for a reason, Jeff." Steve reminded the twelve-year-old.
Robin started to respond, then stopped. He had seen Jasper do it more than a few times too, and it was very similar to his own ability. Was it possible Jasper also had this weird capacity? The very fact Jasper didn't seem overly surprised by anything Robin had done up to now and even knew how far he could push those he was teaching, made this insight even more of a possibility. The real question was, what, if anything, this meant. At the same time, Mrs. Anderson kept very quiet, which Robin found odd, given the nature of the conversation.
Before he could figure out what his next step should be, however, he had to focus on the current task at hand. He slowed way down as he approached the island. "OK, now what?"
Mrs. Anderson grinned rather mischievously as she glanced over. "Now, you get your chance at your first command."
"Huh?" Robin gasped.
"You are on the payroll as an Explorer Corps Private, so Space Command came up with a way to see just what you are made of. Since all three of you have passed four tests we can take all day on this if needed. Your friends, and teammates, were briefed about your not being able to lead the study group this afternoon. Gavin and Fairfax have agreed to hold it in your absence."
Jeff looked over to Robin with near panic, "What did you get us into?"
Robin threw up his hands, "I don't know… but I guess it's time to get the testing parameters."
Mrs. Anderson clicked off all electronics to prevent any of them from getting extra information above and beyond what they already downloaded. She then pointed to the back of the craft. "Leave your packs in the craft. Special ones were set up by us and put into the storage locker. Since Robin had you download some data on where we are at, you can take your handhelds, but everything else stays in the cabin. You have until breakfast tomorrow to organize the gear we gave you, decide what you need to resupply with, find the bunker, resupply, and send your report. Also, there could be more to this than meets the eye, so, should you get to the bunker, grab everything you would normally want and take it with you. Robin is your team leader for this exercise. End of briefing. Remember, however, we do have a star storm heading this way so we do need to be back at camp before it hits tomorrow at midday."
"Damn, this sounds a lot harder than it should be…" Steve gulped as he grabbed his note-puter and jumped out.
Robin muttered to himself for a second but as he jumped out, he took control of the other two, "Stay close to the ship and break out your rifles if we have them. Next, we need to spread out all the gear from all the packs and see what we have to work with. We need to find out what we are dealing with and what we have for gear before we do much else."
Jeff looked over at Mrs. Anderson as he stepped out and looked around. "I don't get why we are being given a test like this. Why would we ever end up with equipment we didn't pack?"
Mrs. Anderson leaned back against the craft. "The answer to your question happens to be one of the reasons I am your instructor for this. The last year I was out on Advanced ISTAZ, we… my team… were heading for our extraction point." She paused as she saw the blank looks on the kids' faces. "Once you go through one year of Advanced ISTAZ, each year gets harder. The second year they give you a standard pack and one hour to grab any extra gear you want before you go out and the third year they give you a pack and nothing extra. You have to get to a bunker to get the extra stuff you want and it's never close. They also drop you off in one location and tell you where you have to get to in order to get picked up. If you are not there by the pick-up time, you fail."
"Intense!" Steve stated eagerly. "Man, I hope I get to my third year in Advanced ISTAZ, but I'd be eighteen by then…"
"If you make it through this year and two years of Advanced, you'll get a shot at year three in Advanced." Mrs. Anderson assured the fourteen year old. "However, let's not get off track.
"When I was on my third year we were on a hill when a sudden storm blew in off the ocean. We set up camp and broke out the e-domes, but a couple of things went badly wrong. A lightning strike nailed a tree real close to us and knocked four of us cold. I was the first to wake up and found our e-dome had blown away and with it most of our gear which we had tossed inside it while we were out trying to make camp. The other three on our team were not there and neither was their e-dome. Our emergency beacons were all blown out as were our hand-held units. There were downed trees and branches, plus one of my team had been hit with a falling branch and had a broken arm. We ended up making a camp by using our hands to dig out under a fallen tree. We splinted his arm with branches and strips of cloth torn off our clothing and stayed there until the storm broke. We managed to find what was left of our tent and salvaged some stuff, but it took us almost a week, with limited equipment, before we got to a bunker, resupplied, and called for help."
"What happened to your missing teammates?" Steve asked with wide eyes.
Mrs. Anderson let out a very long breath. "Unknown. They are among three of the seventy-eight listed missing ISTAZ kids on Zong since the Corps took over training fifteen years ago."
Robin felt his mouth fall open, "You mean there are kids lost on Zong somewhere?"
"Lost and assumed dead," Mrs. Anderson nodded grimly. "Although, many of them would be my age, or even older now. It used to be way worse. Early on, before ISTAZ training was as good as it is now, lots of kids were badly hurt, killed, or got lost in the vast wilderness of this world. The last fifteen years, since the Explorer Corps took over training, those numbers have gone way down. ISTAZ is still very dangerous, however. For as you have already been told, one out of ever fifteen ISTAZ kids still goes home on a hospital ship or worse.
"Just over a year ago, one team of Advanced ISTAZ kids came across a small yet deep cave with the skeletal remains of an entire team of six which had gone missing almost 30 year ago. Scientists now believe the kids built a fire and it took enough of the oxygen out of the small cave to where they asphyxiated."
Robin cringed and shivered involuntarily, "One of the things Oliver told us was the number one thing about his cave classes was to only build a fire in the mouth of a cave where there was good ventilation and never stay where there is a dead end for very long. Now I understand why."
"Yup, early training was not very good," Mrs. Anderson let out a long breath as she looked down. "And even today, it isn't perfect. After every group ships out of here, I go back to the spot where I last saw my three teammates. Maybe one of these years I'll find out what happened to them…" She glanced up and gave a sad sigh, "But enough about me. This is about you all, and seeing exactly what Robin does as a team leader, especially since one of you is older."
"Older or not, I'm not the one with four Outstanding marks!" Steven all but shouted. "I'm thrilled Robin is in charge and not me!"
"You're a team leader, too," Robin reminded the older boy. "So you should look at this as if it was happening to your team, since they will be looking to you for leadership when things go bad."
Robin then turned to Jeff, "And as your team's resupply guy, they will be looking to you to get them to a bunker and what to do when they get there, so your input is just a valuable on this."
Mrs. Anderson stepped back and noticed how both kids took some strength from Robin's words. Jasper was right; the kid was a natural leader. Yet he was better than most, for he had the charismatic pull to lead while being one of the guys. Even while he was taking charge of the other two, he had already pointed out why they were every bit as important as he was to this effort. Just as impressive, he had done so in a way where they totally bought into it.
Within an hour the trio of boys had a list and had redistributed the gear so they all had key items. Each had a canteen, a day's worth of food, and a knife of some sort. The three damaged laser rifles had been broken down to make two working ones, which were taken by Robin and Steve, while they used two sonic rifles to make one good one, which was carried by Jeff. Robin, as team leader, took the one good sonic pistol.
Robin then went through and put specialty equipment with those who could use it, so he took the water purifier. Robin also parted out the outerwear, giving the insulated poncho to Steve, since the two coats were too small for him. Finally, Robin had them divide up batteries for lights and made sure each of them had a light source of some kind.
They then sat down and went through the data they had on the area. This took almost another hour, but Robin had no intention of moving until he was sure not only he, but the two with him were totally straight on what to look out for and to make sure the two moderately toxic plants were first and foremost in their minds.
Robin finally stood, "So, Steve, I want you in the lead and keep your rifle out since there are supposed to be wolves and bobcats in the area. No telling if they are on this island or not, but we need to make sure. Jeff, you keep the solar charger out with the two discharged laser battery packs in it until they are charged, but stay between us. We can't afford for you to fall and accidentally break it. I'll take the rear."
"Sounds like a solid plan, but where do you want me leading you to?" Steve almost begged to be given a direction.
Robin shrugged, "Well, first off you aren't leading me, you are leading us. I can't do this one alone. Second, I think we can safely guess the bunker is not along the edge of the island since they would want it sheltered from storms and waves. As big as this lake is, a big storm would produce near ocean sized waves.
"This is just a guess, but they probably wouldn't make access too dangerous, although we know this used to be a bonus bunker, so perhaps it isn't the easiest thing to get to either. The island is just over five square kilometers so I suggest we move in to the scrub trees and make a full loop around the island. Then we can narrow it down. If we find it great, but something tells me it won't be so easy. Keep your eyes open for trails, too, since they would need to resupply somehow and I don't think they are going to drag a bunch of stuff through thorny trees."
"The map showed a rocky plateau at the east end of the island where they could fly in a load of supplies and land up there." Jeff interjected.
"It's an option, but somewhat dangerous since we would have to rock climb and we only have one rope. We look for safer to get to places first," Robin ordered. "Still, if we do not find anything on our first pass around the island, we should look at your idea well before it gets dark. The last thing we want to do is climb rocks in the dark."
Three hours later the kids got back to the lander with nothing to show for it. Robin called a break and set up the water filtration unit, pulled water from the lake and refilled canteens. As he handed them back to Steve and Jeff, he took a seat and broke out a ration pack. Part of him wanted to actively use his power, but with limited food, doing so seemed like a poor idea. "I'm beginning to think Jeff had the right idea from the start. We didn't see any kind of a trail, not even a game trail."
Steve nodded in agreement. "It has to be up there or somewhere on the big hill on the northwest end, and I really don't want to go through all those thorn trees to check the hill."
Robin let out a deep breath, "Every test has a catch in it somewhere. I can't help but think we are missing something really simple here."
"This is supposed to be for Advanced ISTAZ, Robin," Jeff reminded him. "I bet things aren't as easy or straight forward on the Advanced side."
"Still, Robin may be right," Steve nodded. "It seems like we are missing something."
Robin took a swig of water and rubbed his chin. "Let's start from scratch. We have the gear we have for a reason. What does the gear tell us?"
"What do you mean?" Jeff wondered as he glanced at the pack he was carrying. "None of us have half of what we should and none of the extra stuff we normally carry."
"True," Robin agreed, "but what about the stuff we all have. Maybe the clue is not in what we don't have but what we do."
Steve studied his own pack with a thoughtful look, "What if the answer has nothing to do with the equipment and more about those of us on this test?"
Robin glanced over, "What do you mean?"
"Well there were five of us who signed up for Resupply and only three of us on this island," Steve explained his thoughts. "I guess what I really want to know is why did they give us to you for this test and not the others?"
"For starters, you each passed four tests so you could afford to miss other tests today." Robin reminded Steve.
"So did Dena and she isn't here," Jeff countered.
Robin's eyes arched and he drummed his fingers together. "I don't know her very well, so I didn't know she had passed four tests… So if it isn't just the number of tests maybe it has something to do with what tests we have passed. Steve, what have you passed up to now?"
"I have Laser Rifle, Wilderness Hunting, Spelunking, and just barely got my Land Navigation. I also pre-qualified for Rock Climbing-repelling and Basic Survival before I left Dal-Houston, since I was on Zong last year and took some Rock Climbing and Wilderness classes after I expressed interest in ISTAZ."
Robin grinned, "Thanks to scouts and stuff, I was able to pre-qualify for Laser Rifle, Ballistic Weapons, and Rock Climbing, so did Gavin." He glanced over to Jeff, "I know you got Laser Rifle since you got it at the same time as Fairfax. What else do you have?"
"I got First Aid, Wilderness First Aid, and got a passing mark on Emergency Communications last night after failing it my first time. I'd have failed again without your classes. I also have Pre-qualifications in Basic Survival and Wilderness Hunting, since I was also on Zong last year, and went to a ranch. I got interested in ISTAZ and they sent me out with some kids to see if it was something I really wanted to try. I think the only reason I got to come back this year is because I did so good on the testing. My family only rates a one shot for kids coming to Adventure Quest normally."
"Seeing the way the Explorer Corps handles us and ISTAZ training, it kind of looks like they really search out kids who may make good ISTAZ candidates," Robin noted. "Still, they rounded us out pretty well. Between the three of us we have all of the core classes covered, except Wilderness Night Operations and Dangers which is my next test…" Robin suddenly stopped. "All three of us are laser rifle certified and have some kind of wilderness certs as well, what about Dena?"
Jeff shook his head, "She's not so good on wilderness things, most of her stuff is Navigation, First Aid, Emergency Communication, Water Purification, and she totally bombed rifles. She was downgraded to sonic only and had to go through classes before they will even let her test to carry it." Jeff couldn't help but giggle. "She almost shot Mr. Allen in the rear on the range the night before testing started."
"Interesting, just before I passed my first test he said something about taking a laser shot in the butt," Robin snickered. "I have been wondering about the remark ever since he said it."
Steve cringed, "From what I heard from Jose, Mr. Allen came real close to shooting her with his sonic pistol because of how mad he was."
"Real close," Mrs. Anderson added, "and, just to set the record straight, he hid it well, because she didn't miss him."
All three boys cringed. Even with power settings at one quarter normal, a laser shot would burn right through clothing and into the skin leaving a small, third degree burn.
Robin openly shuddered and cringed, "Now I see why he was so grumpy with me on my first test!" He grinned as he glanced back at Mrs. Anderson, "Now I know why all the instructors stand back so far most of the time, too."
Mrs. Anderson rolled her eyes and snickered, "There are a lot of reasons for not getting in front of cadets, but getting shot by one has got to be toward the top of the list!"
This got a good round of laughter out of all three kids, but once again Robin was quick to get them back on task. "So let's take a shot at this and say she was either excluded because she can't carry a rifle or does not have solid wilderness skill certs yet. Since we've seen nothing to indicate large animals, I'm going to go one further and say rifle certification is probably out as well. So we are left with wilderness stuff. The next question is, what does it mean?"
"Just a thought, but it probably means it isn't around the edge of the island," Jeff volunteered. "But we already kind of know since we walked the whole thing."
Steve let out a snort, "Robin already guessed it wouldn't be. But if we need wilderness stuff, then it must have something to do with the two toxic plants. All three of us have a good handle on basic plant ID since it is part of all classes with 'wilderness' in the name. The one thing Zong has, is a large amount of dangerous plants!"
Robin openly grinned as all the pieces suddenly fell into place for him. For a moment he realized he had accidentally tapped into his special ability again as he actually caught a glimpse of the bunker in the middle of his mind. He also suddenly understood he used this insight thing way more than he ever knew before now, especially since he had parked the lander only a few hundred meters from the actual bunker. The strange power was part of him and using the insights it gave him was actually part of his daily life!
Since this was the case and he now had the answer he went with it, but he also wanted to involve the other two as much as possible. Seeing them both get Outstanding marks would help him toward his quest to get as many kids as possible from the camp into the academy. "It would be just like the Corps to put the bunker where there are lots of toxic plants! This way, the kids who get to it have a chance of failure even after getting out here and finding it. The last part of them getting the reward would be avoiding the plants!"
Jeff and Steve both let out long breaths, as it suddenly clicked with them as well.
Jeff pointed into the scrub trees. "You know, we purposefully avoided the area right in front of the lander because of the amount of Sap-stickers and Itch-weed. I bet you parked us right in front of it Robin!"
Steve lowered his head and laughed, "And I noticed a large grove of scrub trees just up from us, which would be a good way to go deeper, since neither the stickers or the Itch-weed grow well close to them!"
Robin took another deep drink out of his canteen and stood. "Jeff, since you have both Survival and Hunting, why don't you lead us in. I'll switch rifles with you, so you can have a laser just in case. Take it slow and make sure you find a toxic plant free track. Look for a way into where all the problem plants are though, since I'd bet money the Corps stuck it in a spot with only one or two safe ways to get to it."
It took the three only another two hours to work their way in and find a safe way into the middle of the area surrounded by the two problem plants. Another fifteen minutes were spent gathering supplies and getting all three of their packs up to full, while adding additional gear they wanted. Finally, another hour was spent combing through the bunker to find out what else was missing before they sent their report up on what they were taking and a few items which were missing.
As they came out the same way they had gotten in, Mrs. Anderson rolled her eyes. "Now, I see why instructors are so amazed by you Robin. Not only have you scored another Outstanding you helped the others to get them as well." She held up a hand held transmitter, which had recorded all their actions. The screen showed their grades had already been approved by Space Command.
She paused and patted each of the three on a shoulder before she took a knee in front of them. "This test was about as hard as we could find a way to make one and you aced it, you all did. Let me also add in something you all may find rather interesting. The one thing I left out in my briefing was the fact the team got to the bunker but still failed. Four of the five of them had to be shuttled up to the medical station for treatment because of the blistering caused by Itch-weed and Sap Stickers."
This started a round of conversation from all three of them as they congratulated each other and talked about making sure when they got to Advanced ISTAZ they not only got to their bonus bunkers but would make sure to not overlook other traps and tricks. They also found it rather comforting the testing and forethought the Corps put into basic ISTAZ continued, and even got trickier as kids learned to handle more.
Mrs. Anderson also did something else the kids found surprising. She told them to break out their collapsible poles and fish for their dinner, saying it would be good practice and they had plenty of time. While both Steven and Jeff enjoyed the break and started chatting, Robin couldn't help but notice Mrs. Anderson was purposefully delaying departure till after afternoon testing was over back at base camp and was keeping a close eye on her hand-held screen.
After cooking and eating fish over a camp fire and making sure the fire was fully out, the kids got back in to the lander and Robin ran preflight and plotted a path back to the training camp, Mrs. Anderson shook her head and erased his flight plot. "Nope."
"Nope?" Robin responded with a befuddled cocking of his head down and to the left.
This time Mrs. Anderson's smile was almost creepy. "While this test is over, your next one is just starting."
"Huh?" Steve grunted with wide eyes, "What test… we haven't studied for any extra tests!"
Mrs. Anderson said nothing. Instead she gave Robin another destination. This one was on a huge island, well over 125,000 square kilometers in size just off the other Advanced ISTAZ continent. As Robin punched in the flight plan and sent it up to Space Command, he noted his path was altered to make room for four other craft, all going to the same destination.
Out of curiosity, he pulled up the flight plans of the other landers and pilots and felt a shiver run down his spine. All four were coming from within a few hundred kilometers of their base camp and the pilots were none other than Gavin, Fairfax, Ajax, and the last was commanded by Mr. Montgomery, but showed Oliver as the student pilot. There was a fifth plot inbound to the same location, but it was already leaving sub-O on approach to the landing zone. It had come from the primary space station and the pilot was listed as classified, but it was a large craft and was an Explorer Corps ship. "Guys… We aren't going to be alone!"
"Really?" Jeff looked at where they were going with a raised eyebrow. "Who else is going to be way over there?"
Robin let out a light whistle. "I am sending this to your note-puters, so you can see for yourselves, but while we are getting there, get us full downloads on the area and the continent as a whole since it is only eighty kilometers from the west side of the island we are going to. I've got a really weird feeling about this!"
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