A new focus
Robin punched up some details of where he was taking the other two and studied as best as he could while also being the pilot. "It looks like we will be on a very similar latitude as our camp and the area is mountain and forest, so it shouldn't be too much different than what we are used to."
Jeff chewed on his upper lip nervously for a few seconds before responding, "I don't know Robin. What I am reading says there are some pretty big storms off the ocean, especially this time of year. It also has over a dozen Earth mammals which are listed as highly dangerous, including bears, wolverines, wolves, cougars, rattle snakes, and it even says some deer and moose can be dangerous. It also has a couple of Zong's poisonous reptiles, but they are more snake-like and don't build mounds like the lizards we are used to around our camp. Finally, two of the small islands off the south end have a meat-eating salamander like thing, which are rated as one of the top ten dangerous native creatures of Zong. It is known to swim to the larger island and hunt once and a while, but for unknown reasons have never gotten established on the bigger island."
Steve listened as he scrolled through some more information. "There are a couple of areas where there are highly acidic pools in and around the geothermal features too, so we need to have a PH testing unit ready before taking a dip in any warm water.
"It also has large amounts of zinc, nickel, iron and a dozen other minerals, and it says there are some awesome places to go rock hunting, but there are a several geothermal active areas, making some of the best locations too dangerous to go to. I don't know what panning for gold is, exactly, but it says some of the streams have real gold nuggets. Now, if we could learn how to do this panning thing, I'd be all in for giving it a shot."
Robin let out a light nervous sounding whistle, "I can see why this would be considered an area for Advanced ISTAZ. We only have about one third of the things to think about at our camp as those who go down there."
"I'd risk it for a chance to find quartz, amethyst, ruby and even gold!" Steve's voice betrayed his excitement at the thought of rock and mineral hunting.
Robin couldn't help but snicker, "OK, it's official."
"What?" Steve demanded to know, "You don't think it would be fun to look for rocks, some of them made out of gold?"
"Hey, don't get me wrong," Robin responded with an even larger smile, "it sounds interesting. But I swear, all you spelunking guys are all rock collectors! Oliver and Ajax both talk about trying to find a way to carry a rock collection around with them, like we don't have enough to carry!"
"I'm right there with them!" Steve fired back, "I don't know how you could not be into it!"
"Carrying rocks, even rocks with gold in them, all over an ISTAZ doesn't sound like much fun to me." Jeff countered. "My pack is plenty heavy enough!"
Steve looked over at Jeff with a totally perplexed look. "Come on! It says right here we can keep what we find while out on ISTAZ and gold is going for over forty credits a gram! If I could get ten grams of it, just ten, I would leave here with more than my allowance for the whole stinking summer!"
Mrs. Anderson glanced into the back of the craft. "My third year out, my whole team spent a week panning and we all came back with more than a hundred grams of gold each. We had to sell it to the Corps, but they still paid us seventy-five percent of market value, so we all went home with over 3000 credits."
Robin almost choked at hearing such a vast sum of money. "OK, I take back what I was saying. Where do I sign up for one of these panning lessons?"
Jeff's head also bobbed up and down. "Me too!" he squeaked.
Mrs. Anderson chuckled. "I'll give you all a class tonight if you would like, but you'll have to rotate guard duty while I am teaching because we won't be in the secure perimeter and there are more than a few of those things Jeff talked about, which could find us tempting prey, especially in the area we are going to. On the other hand, there is a stream I know about where we can get you, and any of your friends who want to learn, all a couple of grams, even if we are very unlucky."
Robin glanced over with a totally serious look. "I can tell you my whole team will be in and you would have to shoot Ajax and Oliver to stop them."
As Robin was talking the radio chirped, "There is heavy avian activity in the area of touchdown, Lander One-Two-Niner. Readjust your approach and land over the water. Be advised, waves are cresting at over two meters due to high winds coming out of the west-northwest. Weather satellite shutdown has increased storm activity planet wide, so there is the possibility of heavy micro-bursts in your area as well."
Robin quickly acknowledged the information and adjusted course to land in the area cleared by Space Command. As he neared the water he cringed, "OK, ma'am, how do I skip the Lander over waves like those?"
"You are going to have to skim the tops, and it is tricky. DO you want me to take over?"
"No way! I have got to learn how to do this sooner or later."
Mrs. Anderson took a deep breath. "Boys, hit your securing fields. This could get real rough."
Robin started to go down, but broke off his first landing pass as he realized he could not hope to land into the wind as he would be hitting the leading edges of the waves. There was nothing to skip off of in the front of a wave. As he angled back up he called into Space Command of an aborted run and a need to keep the airspace open for a few more minutes. The second he got clearance for another attempt he skimmed the wave tops until he was certain he had the height gauged properly. He then cut down to where he was lower than the tops and between waves before he pulled the nose up and disengaged the magnetic drive.
Before the hover fans engaged, the bottom of the Lander skipped off the wave at an upward angle. Robin clenched his teeth as his body told him to do one thing while his brain told him the opposite. The body said to put more power into the back fans to level out the craft since the front was higher than the back, but his brain told him since the wings had not yet retracted the front of the craft would be first to angle back down since there was more lift toward the back of the Lander.
He forced himself to go with his brain, putting full power into the front fan and half power into the back.
A few seconds later the nose of the craft tilted back down toward the waves. With white knuckles on the controls, he pulled back to get himself almost level, but purposefully kept the nose pointed slightly down, since he had more power to the lift fans in the front. This intuition proved to be correct as the whole craft hit the next wave and skipped upwards a second time.
The third skip was even trickier since the wings were now totally retracted and the Lander was now a hovercraft and not a flyer. Robin dialed back the power of the front fan slightly and increased power to the back to give the hovercraft close to maximum lift. As he saw the nose angle on the control panel was once again showing the nose was going to impact first, he firewalled the front fan at the last second to skip over the third wave. By this time the lift fans had the craft off the water so Robin lowered the power and slowed. It took him almost a minute before he could pull his hands from around the controls.
A voice Robin had only heard on holographic videos came over the radio, but it was so distinctive, he identified it right off. "Unreal! Lieutenant Anderson, did our new private just land you, or did you take over?"
"It was all Robin, Colonel!" Mrs. Anderson responded while reaching over and all but giving Robin a hug and a hardy congratulatory shake. "He first timed the landing at Great Kline Lake too! Sending cockpit video and sound now."
"Son of a…" Then Colonel McKnight's voice paused as he realize Robin had not even asked for any help, once he understood the basic principles, and had figured out he needed to come in from behind the waves on his own. "Son, I don't know if I am going to shake your hand or give you a bear hug when I see you. I have hundreds of seasoned pilots who could not have pulled off a water landing in these conditions! Now take her up and get to base camp."
"What about the heavy avian concern, sir?" Robin asked, while knowing in his heart the whole thing had been an impromptu test. He also suddenly realized one of the two hits on radar belonged to none other than the overall commander of the Explorer Corps Academy Commander at Dal-Houston. Colonel McKnight had gone back up to watch him try to land over the heavy seas.
"There wasn't any!" Jasper's voice came over the radio with some laughter, "But you did just win me five hundred credits and you a promotion to Junior Corporal."
"The best five hundred I ever lost and the training vid we can make from this will more than pay for his wages over the next few years!" Pure delight could be heard in Colonel McKnight's voice. "Wow, what a landing!"
Robin's left hand crashed into his forehead. Not only had this been a test of sorts, he had been a big pawn in a bet! "You have got to be kidding me." Robin groaned, not even bothering to turn off his throat microphone.
"No," Oliver's voice came over the radio, "there are half a dozen drones up here to get every angle. You just made a training video for the Explorer Corps Robin!"
"What if I had botched it?" Robin couldn't help but ask.
"It would have made a good vid to point out mistakes." Colonel McKnight admitted, "But this… You didn't even come close to going under. This isn't just going to be a vid for the academy. It is going to go out to the whole Corps, and with the onboard images we got from your craft, I'm going to make an awesome recruiting piece."
Robin reengaged the magnetic drive and angled upwards to get well off the water before putting the craft into a gentle loop until he could get clearance into the original destination. When the voice came back over the radio it had a new tone of respect from whoever was behind it. "Corporal, you are cleared in. Both Colonel McKnight and Commander Montgomery are down. You have your choice of vectors. The sky is all yours."
Robin quickly landed and pulled into a small clearing surrounded by energy fences. Behind the fences a small group of Academy cadets, many who had been food servers at the old base camp, were setting up wire fences incase the energy ones went down during the incoming star storm. Ten super light and strong metal-plastic, also known as metalplast, prefabricated buildings were arranged around inside an inner energy fence and an eleventh, larger partially prefabricated metalplast structure was being put up by a small team of Explorer Corps men and women, many of whom were wearing rank lower than what Robin was told he now had.
"Leave the packs you put together in here and grab your normal gear out of the back once we are parked," Mrs. Anderson ordered. "Your team numbers are on the buildings you are assigned to, and there is no sleeping out in tents over the next couple of days until we are sure the area is totally secure. As you can see, this is a new camp and we haven't cleared the surrounding area yet."
As Robin powered down to park, he glanced over to Mrs. Anderson. "Ma'am, why did we have to set the packs for a mission when our regular packs are in the back? Wouldn't it have been easier on you all if we had just told you what we would have taken so you didn't have to go back and resupply it?"
Mrs. Anderson simply grinned, while motioning for Robin to complete his post flight checklist. Once it was done she punched in a lock out code and pointed to the smallest of the pre-fab buildings. "I believe Colonel McKnight wants to see you."
Robin grabbed his pack out of the back and made his way toward the small building. The whole place was a beehive of activity. Crews were working to get generators up and the mess hall equipment was still being unpacked so it could be moved into the largest building once it was completed. He paused as he noticed there was no building for Team Eight. While this gave him some inner relief, he still couldn't help feeling like he had somehow failed the whole group. They were part of his camp, after all.
Not normally one to be nervous about meeting anyone, he felt a couple of beads of sweat pop up on his forehead, even as a cold damp cold breeze blew in off the ocean only a couple of hills away. He stopped in front of the door, gulped, stood as straight as he could figure out how to, and knocked.
A few seconds later the door opened. Although Robin had been expecting to see the face, what he didn't expect was the size of the man behind all the video and press articles. Colonel McKnight was easily the largest person Robin had ever seen, let alone met. At a shade under two hundred and sixteen centimeters tall and over one hundred and forty kilos of muscle the guy was beyond massive!
Colonel McKnight looked down with a huge smile, "So, there is my newest NCO! I have heard nothing but remarkable things about you!" He stuck out a hand, which was easily quadruple the size of Robin's.
Robin took the hand but found himself pulled forward and all but engulfed in a massive hug. The scary part was, it actually hurt a little and he could tell the man had not even come close to really squeezing. As Colonel McKnight let go it took some effort to hide the fact Robin needed to take a couple of deep breaths so he could replace oxygen all but squeezed out of his lungs.
The massive man backed off still smiling. "Since the Corps took over training of ISTAZ, we have been dreaming for someone like you to come along. No one has ever tried to unite a camp. We have had some intense competitions between teams striving for the best scores, and we have had individual stand-outs from many camps, but this… what you have done is brand new."
Colonel McKnight took a couple more steps back and motioned Robin to join him in his building.
Robin, once again, pulled back his shoulders a bit and did his best to make his posture perfect. He still felt more than a little intimidated, even as friendly as the guy was, but pushed the lingering fear out of his mind and stepped in. The second he did so the door behind him slid closed and he realized he was actually in a studio-like building. There was a desk in an office area, but behind it was a kitchen, a bed and even an entertainment unit. Beyond was a door, which clearly led to a shower and bathroom area.
Along the walls were pictures of various Explorer Corps spacecraft, worlds, space stations, and behind the bed there were awards, scores of them. Even though he could not read many, all of them were centered around the Corps and some had Cadet McKnight as the name, so they went way back to his academy days. There was also a case, which held all the rank pins the man had earned and the dates of advancement under each. It was very clear this man's whole life was devoted to the Corps and exploration. It was also evident the man was proud of his achievements, but the way they were posted was behind everything, out of the way of his office and even the positioning of his desk meant anyone coming to see him would not look at the display.
On the other hand, Colonel McKnight was quick to take notice of where Robin's eyes went. "Don't be shy, if you want to take a closer look go right ahead. This is all considered office and work space, after all."
Robin took a deep breath as he moved closer and looked over the awards and displays. Before he really knew it he had spent half an hour looking over the pictures, awards, orders sending Colonel McKnight out to various star systems, and even a trio of holo-vid displays of other planets. One in particular caught his eye. It was a world covered with lush growth and lots of water. "Sir, this isn't earth or Zong. What is it?"
"That… well it is one of the most dangerous worlds we have found to date… Technically, it is called Omicron Omega Sixty-One. Those of us who have landed there have another name, though. We simply call it Terror."
"Why?" Robin moved forward and looked at the stunningly beautiful world again.
The man sat at his chair and spun it so he could watch Robin's reaction as he spoke. "Bottom left side, there is a red button. Push it."
Robin didn't hesitate. As soon as his finger came in contact with the button the holographic picture of the world disappeared and was replaced by a ground crew shooting laser rifles at a massive reptile. Robin took an involuntary step back and gasped, "It looks like a dinosaur!"
"Yeah… Very similar to our own, too. We nicked named the one you are looking at as Tyrannosaurus Giangantous. I lost three very capable Explorers on Terror to those and one of our Landers was destroyed by a Pterosaur-looking bird, only bigger. It actually thought our small craft was prey. We had to get extracted by a pair of plasma cannon armed fighters and a heavier and larger Lander. An entire team of six was wiped out by other, smaller, reptiles. Mammal-like creatures on Terror are pretty low on the food chain."
Robin realized after nearly thirty seconds he was holding his breath as a few other creatures were shown. "So the whole planet is kind of in the Cretaceous Period or something?"
"Very good!" McKnight praised the youngster. "I didn't even know what era it was in until our science teams told us once we got back to Earth. Feel free to hit the buttons on the other two worlds shown up there if you want to know why we haven't tried to establish colonies on them."
Robin's curiosity was running rampant by this time so he turned his attention to the next planet. This was nowhere near as beautiful as 'Terror'. It was a much dryer world with only three large bodies of water and the plant life made it look less green and more red. When the scene shifted it showed twelve-legged ant like creatures as they swarmed the Lander and tried to bite at it. By the time it took off it was coated in the nasty critters. Robin didn't bother to watch any more. He turned it off with a shudder.
Colonel McKnight snickered at the reaction. "We did a space evac of the Lander and slammed it right back into the planet, since each one of our landing attempts met with major attacks like you just saw, although the creatures were not the same. We didn't want to chance bringing anything back."
"Good!" Robin managed to gasp out. "I may even have nightmares after seeing how quickly those things swarmed the craft!"
"Been there!" The colonel snickered.
Moving up to the last one, Robin saw a world basically covered in water. The amount of land was less than half of what Earth had, but what land was there was lushly covered in jungle like plants and the polar caps extended down a great deal further than Robin would have expected. From space the planet was rather stunning since it was a mixture of white, blue and blotches of green.
He moved up and touched the button and literally jumped back as the image of a massive fish, jumping out of the water, snatched a probe. The image then shifted to a view from the probe. Tentacle-like structures inside the creature wrapped around it and started pulling it apart. It took only a few seconds for the feed to go fuzzy then stop. Two other probes were taken out in the same way. The last footage showed a landing crew on one of the larger islands. One of them moved up to take a sample out of one of the trees only to get a face full of thorns, which erupted out of the bark as soon as her hand touched it. The video cut off as she collapsed into the arms of two fellow explorers.
Robin tapped the button making the image of the planet reappear. "Did she die?"
"Unfortunately, yes. The thorns have some kind of digestive juice in them. If you would have continued to watch, you would have seen one of those trees shoot spines into a badger we released. The vines started growing around it then pulled it next to the bark and a sort of feeding tube came out and drank out the insides, leaving nothing but the skin and fur. It is not much different than what an Earth spider does to its prey. It was because of what happened on Oceana the Corps instituted a policy of releasing a couple of animals to see what happens before we go poking around, but we have yet to see anything like animal eating plants on any other world. We have the fly traps back home, so I guess you can say Earth does have them too, but… Well, I hope to never come across anything like those trees ever again!"
A fearful tingle seemed to roll down Robin's spine, only to extend out to every part of his body. The idea there were other planets with life on them was totally unknown to him. After seeing the videos, he couldn't help but wonder what would happen if one of those life forms ever got off those worlds and re-established somewhere else. It was truly frightening. "Are these the only other three worlds with major life forms?"
"The only ones I have helped to find, but there are a half dozen others. The Europe Consortium also found a couple and word has it the Japan CHZ government has found four, but they keep things real secret because China and Japan have been at a state of undeclared war for over a century now. Both need the ocean floor to expand and since they have all but fished it dry, food is becoming a major problem for both. China and the Northern Asian League have space programs, but our people tell us their space exploration divisions are more for show than anything else. Instead they have both poured their resources into Terraforming worlds they found decades ago. Northern Asia seems to be way ahead of China, and may even have a world on par with Mars. We aren't totally sure, but they have shipped out several thousand over the last five years.
"We know Japan is shipping a large group of over ten thousand out on a colony-sized ship they have been building, so they may have found something. They have asked us to let them use our gate too, so our guess is it is somewhere within wormhole range of Zong. We will just have to wait and see what they and our probes tell us and when.
"But so far, Zong is the only other world we know of which is safe enough for human and Earth life to coexist with native life. I also understand you have overheard enough to know we do have a trio of worlds we are trying to terraform. All three are in an optimal position with perfect gravity and some water, but no life we could find. One is already showing some atmospheric changes, so we have our hopes up for it. The other two are just too new and too far away to expect much for decades though."
Robin continued to look over the impressive display, "Sir… Um, am I like supposed to know even half of what you are telling me?"
"Technically, no, but as a non-commissioned officer of the Corps, you do have the right to know more than most. Also, your handling of the test at the bunker today coupled with your spectacular landing made me bump you to a full corporal. Of course, you have to want to be one of us for me to submit the paperwork…" Colonel McKnight let his words hang hoping for a quick response. He was not to be disappointed.
"I want this more than anything else ever!" Robin shouted.
The colonel's face broke into another smile. "Good, so as soon as you are finished over there come have a seat. We have a few things I need to talk over with you."
Robin forced himself to tear his eyes off the wall and made his way back to the desk. "Sir, can I ask a question?"
Colonel McKnight snickered, "By asking the question you already are, right?"
Robin paused and his face scrunched up in momentary thought. "Wow, I guess it does kind of sound silly. Um, maybe I should have asked if I could ask about being in the Corps."
Deep laughter came up from deep within McKnight and actually echoed in the small building. "You are as quick witted as Commander Montgomery warned me you would be! Ask away Corporal!"
Robin took an uneasy breath, "Sir, I just don't want to do this without Gavin and the others, can we stay together?"
Colonel McKnight rubbed his chin, "I can keep you all together in the academy… But you want something more permanent, like a kind of Cohort unit or something, right?"
"I don't know what Cohort, means sir, sorry." Robin responded with some confusion.
"It means comrade or friend…" The colonel leaned way back in his chair. "How about we make a deal, Robin?"
Robin cringed slightly. One thing his dad was big on was not making many promises and only giving his word when he absolutely meant what he was saying. In his dad's eyes a person's word was the most important thing one human could give to another. "Um… I'm listening, sir."
"If you complete what we were planning on asking you to do, then I will form a brand new, experimental, unit. I will even let you help pick who goes into this unit. Upon graduation, we will assign you all to the same ship… Maybe even before graduation… some of it will depend on how you all do as a cohesive unit."
Robin could not help but break into a big smile, "I'm in!"
"You don't even know what I am going to ask yet, son."
"Sir, for the chance to keep everyone together, I'll do whatever you want, no matter what it is. I don't want to leave Gavin behind and Oliver shouldn't have to go back to Mars unless he wants to. I will also do whatever it takes so Ajax and Fairfax don't to have to go back to an orphanage ever again."
"OK, then… Let's get down to business." Colonel McKnight slid forward and typed a quick access code on a small keyboard off to the side of his right hand. A moment later holographic image crystal popped up out of the center of the desk and showed Zong from orbit.
Robin looked over the rotating planet and read the three-dimensional information scrolling underneath. "So this was the deployment of ISTAZ teams six months ago, right?"
"Exactly," McKnight held up a finger to stop Robin from asking more questions, "but nine weeks into their three months stay this happened," he punched in another code.
This time the image of the star system appeared and showed a gigantic Coronal Mass Ejection from the surface of the star. The star flare was so large it hit the closest planet in and shattered it, creating an asteroid belt where there was once a planet. The wave of radiation continued outward until it hit Zong's electromagnetic field, which actual crumpled inward for over six days. The image then zoomed back in on the Adventure Quest camps on Zong and this time most of the dots showing the locations of the ISTAZ teams blinked out. At the same time other large camps for kids not on ISTAZ started blinking in red and a few even disappeared. Three of the weather satellites also got knocked out of orbit and burned up as they entered the atmosphere.
"Oh, not good…" Robin whispered in horror, "What happened to all the ISTAZ teams?"
"Before I answer your question, I need to give some follow up to what you just saw." McKnight took a couple of deep breaths. "The EMP from the star was so massive it took out the emergency beacons of over ninety percent of those on Adventure Quest, not just those on ISTAZ. It also totally took out power to dozens of camps scattered across the whole world and crippled weather control.
"We were left with a rather bad choice, since we have limited resources. We moved the remaining weather sats over normal Adventure Quest areas to give us quicker control. At the same time we pulled all resources in on the worst hit big camps, since there were thousands of kids who suddenly had no support, power, communications, and in several places the EMP even knocked out water so they couldn't even use a toilet. We then moved onto the other camps in order of size and damage. By the time we got to the last few camps we had to bring in hospital ships since some of the kids were close to starving to death, since they had no clue what to do without food stations and there were no functioning holographic instructors left to give them information.
"It was either get to those who had no clue how to handle a mass outage of services or go to the last known locations of those out on ISTAZ. Since we trained kids for ISTAZ to survive, we did what we had to do. We abandoned them. Once we got the camps settled down, we went after ISTAZ teams. We found most of them and a few others got to bunkers and contacted us, but we still have a total of nine teams out there… somewhere… in addition, we have nine other partial teams somewhere, with anywhere from two to five kids in them."
Colonel McKnight let out a long breath, "At least we hoped they stayed together, but since they started fighting with each other and split up, we cannot say for certain if we have groups or individual kids roaming around at this point. We have dozens of teams out searching, but we are afraid time is running out, especially for those who were first year ISTAZ cadets. We sent them into areas where it was early spring, just like we planned on doing with you, but now…"
Robin gulped, "Those areas are now heading into fall, which means if they aren't found they will have to deal with winter and no edible plants and shortages of running water and the like."
"Once again, your ability to grasp the situation is truly astounding for a young man of only twelve."
Robin glanced up for the holographic image, "So you want me and my team to go look for them?"
"In a manner of speaking, yes, but I actually want more. You have shown all of us you can think outside of the normal box humanity has been thrown into. You and you alone figured out a way to check out a ship no adult had ever figured a kid could get close to safely. You have rubbed off on your teammates as well. Gavin figured out a way to send a signal up to our space station, which was incredible. Today, Oliver pointed out a possible danger hanging above the testing group he was with and those around him tried to shoot at it to bring it safely down. None of us ever thought about such a way to circumvent the problem before today. Then, there was your leadership of two others. Your leadership got you into a bunker safely when a full team of Advanced ISTAZ kids totally screwed it up.
"On top of all those achievements, you have consolidated the camp around you. No matter how hard we tried to tweak the tests today, we are down to a baker's dozen who don't have Outstanding marks now, and two of those who didn't quit. When we take out Team Eight out of the mix, who still have no Outstanding grades, there are five kids in this new camp who are not assured a slot at the academy and we have two more tests to give each of them."
Colonel McKnight stopped and stared at Robin. Seeing he had the youngster's full attention, he lowered his voice. "To put this about as bluntly as I can, I am asking you to help us get the six remaining teams from your camp ready to help us find some of the missing ISTAZ kids from the San Diego-San Francisco Combined Habitat Zone before we have to tell the parents we lost their kids."
The man then stared straight into Robin's eyes. "In exchange I will give every kid here rank, with you in command of them, and put you all in a unit with some others and some instructors and let you all take an expedition to some nearby systems so you can find out if being a true explorer is what you want to do."
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