Robin moved up stream slightly to try his hand at panning for gold. Mrs. Anderson's class was a good one and taught all the basics, like making sure there was 'black sand' which was actually iron, since gold, like iron, was heavy. A push magnet made separating the iron from the gold relatively easy, but separating out the gold from the rest and 'tapping' the pan just right was definitely a hands-on learned and perfected over lots of time skill.
After almost an hour, and only managing to get a few flakes of gold he put his plastic pan down and glanced skyward. The 'polar lights' of the star storm nearly took his breath away. It was by far the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. The only problem was he couldn't take any pictures since the star storm had killed all electronics. Still the ribbons of light blue, green, and even some orange tinged light would be something he would remember for the rest of his life and he knew it. He couldn't help but wonder how many other kids all across Zong were admiring the startling display of nature's power, beauty and fury all wrapped up into one.
He also hoped it had served as a warning to those lost out in the wilds of the planet. With limited gear any more damage could prove fatal. Still admiring the light show, he thought back to the meetings with the adults as he actually helped draw up plans on how to help find the missing ISTAZ teams. His biggest idea, which was to use some of the academy cadets to form teams to go in and help search areas once any signs of a missing team had been found, was instantly accepted and given high praise. To Robin this seemed like a minor addition to the plan, but not a single adult saw it like he did. Even Jasper said it was a brilliant addition to the still developing plan and would put more resources into promising areas.
After several more minutes of thinking back to being the only kid in a meeting with high-ranking adults, he tore his gaze off the sky and used the light from the cracking fire behind him to once again fill his pan with sand. While the idea of striking it rich was certainly enticing, and it was rather interesting to see exactly what panning for gold was all about. He was not nearly as into it as many others were. Still, he didn't want to end up with nothing when all up and down the stream he could hear kids cheer as they got a good amount of gold flakes or even an occasional gold nugget.
As he used the flowing water to help swirl out the lighter material, he realized this was the first time in his life he had nothing with power on around him. It was so strange, even his trusty note-puter was off. There was nothing beeping, nothing putting off an electronic glow. He paused the swirling of his pan to pull out a couple of larger rocks that would not come out and lightly sighed. It was amazing to think people used to have to live this way. In some ways he found it exhilarating to be able to all but duplicate what those who headed west in the great gold rush had to deal with, if only for a few hours. To think people had to once cook over fires, hunt with ballistic weapons, and not have lights they could just flip on and off at a moment's notice; it was truly astonishing they managed to accomplish what they had.
Other thoughts came as he continued to work with his latest pan, now almost empty except for some sand. He tossed it out seeing almost no black iron meaning there was probably no gold either and moved again. This time he stepped out into the rather cold water and scooped up some sand from beneath a particularly large rock and moved back to the edge to work on his latest pan. He wondered what kids his age used to be like. What did they do when there were no electronic games? How did they study for tests without being able to look stuff up on a computer? It all seemed so hard to fathom.
Of course he was doing something only one out of a million plus kids back on Earth had done; he was out on Zong a stone throw away from being out on ISTAZ with four friends. Robin couldn't help but smile as he realized millions upon millions would probably see what he was doing as 'roughing it', which was kind of absurd, given the fact he had the support of space stations, electronics, energy weapons, and resupply points.
Kids of the time of the gold rush era had nothing… Robin frowned in thought as he wondered what they did for clothing, fishing line, fish hooks, and a host of other things he had in his pack. Without resupply points, they had to make it all. The real question for Robin became how it was done. The more he thought about it the less sense it made. There weren't even stores since people were moving west and establishing towns as they went. Where did they get what they needed when something broke?
His train of thought almost caused him to miss a pair of small glimmering stones in the bottom of his pan. Fortunately, as he picked them up to discard them, he realized they were quite heavy for their size and stopped. He gazed down at one of the oddly shaped large pebble in his hand and tossed it up and caught it. A single word escaped his lips. "Wow!"
Mrs. Anderson moved up as she heard the voice. She smiled as she saw Robin examining the roughly three and a half centimeter long and two centimeter in diameter metallic hunk. "Nice find."
Robin turned and plucked the second, slightly larger one out of his pan and held it up between his thumb and index finger. "Is this really gold?"
The woman moved up and looked at it more closely. "It sure is. Did you get both of these out of the same pan?"
Robin pointed down to his pan and nodded still in some awe over his find. "Uh huh, I got them from under a larger rock out there." He pointed with one hand while handing over the pair of nuggets with his other.
She nodded and pointed down at the pan. "Then you best be real careful about the rest of what is in there. If you found both of these, then there are certainly smaller ones and my guess is quite a few flakes as well." She gauged the weight and motioned for one of the academy cadets on guard to come over. "Get me a pouch for our new corporal. My guess is this is close to seventy to eighty grams of gold. We'll get it cataloged and checked for purity once we can fire up the scanners."
Robin continued to use his limited skill to swirl out more of the lighter sand. After nearly twenty minutes he used the push magnet to pull out the iron sand and realized he had another half dozen tiny nuggets and a considerable amount of flakes. He glanced over to Mrs. Anderson, "It looks like there is more gold than sand left, how do I separate it?"
The instructor knelt and talked him through it a few times before he finally managed to get it separated and managed to get almost all of it into his new gold pouch. He then went back out to the rock, got another helping of sand and moved back to the edge, noting Mrs. Anderson was no longer really watching him. Instead she was gazing out to the far side of the stream.
He glanced up, noting the slight rise led to a rocky looking ridgeline with some fallen trees and heavy undergrowth. Since he was only using the campfire light and polar lights to see, it was hard to see much else. He reached back for his ballistic rifle, "Did you see something?"
Mrs. Anderson shook her head. "No, just thinking."
Robin shrugged, but still kept his rifle close since he could feel some discomfort from the woman. He once again knelt and went to work panning, this time only finding a few tiny nuggets, but still a decent amount of gold flakes. As he once again fought to separate the gold from the remaining sand he suddenly put the pieces together. "This is where your ISTAZ team was hit by the storm, isn't it?"
Mrs. Anderson's eyes went wide and she let out a bit of a gasp, giving credence to Robin's intuition. "You're an amazing young man, Robin," she responded in a soft yet clearly surprised voice. "How did you figure it out?"
"Well, you said you panned for gold, the storm knocked down a bunch of trees, and you were on a ridge line." He nodded at the far side of the stream. "It all kind of fits and you have been staring over there off and on since you came over here."
Robin remained silent as he finished off his latest pan and moved the small amount of gold over to his newly acquired pouch. Since the woman said nothing more, he decided to try to force a conversation. "Can we go over there?"
"What about the gold panning?" Mrs. Anderson asked carefully.
Robin shrugged, shook out the pan to dry it as much as possible, and stuffed it into the top of his gear bag. "Oliver and Fairfax will force me to do this a bunch." He smiled, "Now, if I had found a couple more big pebbles then I would be getting another pan from under the rock, then I would have never said a word…"
Mrs. Anderson managed a snicker. "I knew there was a kid buried in there somewhere." She helped Robin secure his pack over his back and pointed over to the same academy cadet who had gotten Robin the pouch. "We are going to look at something on the other side of the stream. There are some dangerous animals in this area, so we could use an extra set of eyes. Come with us and keep your eyes open."
The teen nodded. "Let me get one of the others to fill in the gap and grab my pack, ma'am."
Mrs. Anderson nodded in agreement while noticing Robin had readied his own rifle since the kid had moved off of perimeter duty. "Your diligence is admirable, but with all the noise we are making along this stream, it is highly unlikely we will be seeing any wild animals tonight."
Robin managed a shrug, made more difficult since he was carrying his full pack and had been up for over twenty hours, much of it wearing a pack. "Everyone is here because of me. I'd feel awful if one of them got hurt now, when all I have to do is stand guard for a few minutes."
Realizing there was nothing to counter Robin's argument; the woman nodded in agreement and glanced back over to the ridgeline. "There is a small path up just around those two fallen trees with the new one growing out between them. We started to set up camp only fifty meters or so down the other side when the lightning took out the really tall dead tree you can see only because of the polar lights. I have to wonder what you expect to find, though."
"Probably nothing," Robin admitted, "but it can't hurt to have someone new take a look, can it?"
"Agreed, but I have to warn you, I have brought others back here to help me look over a dozen times. We have never found anything."
Robin said nothing. Instead, the second the academy cadet got back with another one, he shouldered his rifle and made his way to the other side of the stream, following Mrs. Anderson. Once they got to the small game trail winding up the small ridgeline, Robin turned to the cadet. "So how long have you been at the academy?"
The young teen glanced over showing more than a hint of resentment at the fact Robin was wearing real Explorer Corps rank. "Going on my third year, Corporal. I joined at age ten after I scored an Exceptional on ISTAZ training and my team made it through."
Robin brushed off the underlying annoyed tone. "So you were team leader when you were ten?"
"Not at the start." The teen informed Robin with a voice that said he really didn't want to be having the conversation. "Our team leader stepped into a hole and broke his leg and ankle. We elected to stick it out and I was voted in as team leader since I was the only kid on the team with an Exceptional and one of two left with a laser rifle."
"Cool." Robin purposefully kept his voice friendly. "So how is the academy and how do I get in line to come back to Zong to help out?"
"Most of us volunteer and the spots are taken based on grade average, merit points and finally rank. There are almost always more volunteers than slots. But there is always a need for leaders, so since you are a real corporal, you will certainly be a cadet officer. You'll get to go anytime you want as long as you keep up your grades. It isn't all cakewalk here though. We still have to attend classes and make sure the ISTAZ camps are taken care of. The cadet officers have overall camp responsibilities too. You will have to make sure all the paperwork gets handled for us and make sure we all have enough time to get our classes and schedule off days. In addition, it will be up to you to get with other camps and make sure there are shuttles so we can enjoy our days off. You only get one day off a week, which most officers schedule back to back so they can go out and have some fun, but it means long spans of work. Once the ISTAZ trainees head out then things get better since we get extra wilderness classes and can take three days a week to do some extra exploring, even the officers get the three days a week.
"We also have to make rounds to some of the normal Adventure Quest camps to check on the kids. No matter how many cameras and other equipment is around to watch out for trouble some kids still get picked on and some don't want to tell the computer they want to go home. The minute we show up, there are always dozens to stuff into Corps shuttles to take kids back up to the space station. Once we get them up to the main station the cadet officers have to help arrange transport back to Earth."
"Man," Robin let out a deep breath as he glanced at the lights in the sky again, "Why would anyone want to leave here a moment before they had to?"
This seemed to loosen the slightly older kid up some. He cracked a slight smile. "Don't ask me. I work my butt off to get good grades so I can come back, cook and clean up after new ISTAZ kids. It means I advance in rank a bit slower since I don't get any of the extra academy leadership training, but I don't care. Besides, being here means I have all my flight certs and way more exploration ribbons than those who stay at the academy for the summer, so it balances out. To be honest, I'd love to just live here."
"Me too," Robin whole heartedly agreed. "So what is your name?"
"Cadet Sergeant Dakota Sinclair, Corporal."
"Dakota, neat name; I have never heard anyone with your name before."
"You're the first Robin I have met Corporal."
Robin turned to Mrs. Anderson. "Ma'am can we just use first names?"
"You hold rank on him Corporal, so if you say it's okay, it is. In a formal academy setting he would still have to address you by rank though."
Robin nodded his understanding. "Let's drop ranks for now." Robin extended his hand, "Nice to meet you, Dakota."
Dakota grinned in earnest as he took the offered hand. "You know there are a lot of older kids who are going to really resent you and all the others you are bringing in with rank. Most of them are going to blame you."
Robin shrugged, "I'll have to deal with it as it happens, but hopefully I will not have to worry about it for a while."
"I heard. I would pay money to be part of the crew of the ship."
"I have been told I can pick others to join, you want in I would love to add you to the crew. It'd be nice to have a few kids who know what the academy is like with us. I can tell you would fit in great and I bet you could point out several others who would as well. But first, I have to help find a bunch of missing kids."
Dakota's face lit up, "I'd help if I could."
Mrs. Anderson found it amazing how quickly Robin had turned a basically hostile cadet into being a friend in a matter of less than five minutes. "Well, we could add you to the roster of insertion teams we are putting together thanks to Robin's idea. They are to go in and search areas if signs of the missing teams are found, but the teams themselves are not. This will allow those doing the searching to move onto other areas. Since you are already an ISTAZ team leader, you could take one of the leader spots. We still need two for the two teams going after the missing ISTAZ teams."
"Sign me up, Ma'am!"
Robin shot Dakota a grin, "Thanks."
"Nothing to thank me for. Getting a shot to go back out for extra ISTAZ time, even as a search and rescue team, is a dream for me!"
Robin smiled, "Maybe your team could pair up with mine. The way we were talking about setting it up is for each team to have a shadow team to check out possible finds. Your team would work directly with mine, then split off to search areas once we find something worth a closer look."
"Sounds good to me," Dakota grinned. "Way better than having to go on camp check-ups and babysit a bunch of homesick brats, some of them older than me."
Robin laughed and nodded in agreement. "No argument from me." He then switched subjects seeing Mrs. Anderson was not thrilled with where the line of discussion was going. "Since you have been here before, have you ever helped Mrs. Anderson poke around up here?"
"Not exactly…" He glanced over to Mrs. Anderson before he continued. "I was brought here by Mr. Allen and a couple other adults last year. We were told what happened and told to see what we could find. We were told if we could find anything we would get a promotion and an extra bonus… We got nothing."
Mrs. Anderson looked over, clearly surprised by the information. "I had no idea…"
"I have been taken to two other spots and given briefings about what happened there, too. Everyone I know of who has come to Zong to be ISTAZ camp help has had the same thing happen to them."
Robin actually found some comfort in the boy's words. "It's nice to know the Corps doesn't give up on those who are missing."
Mrs. Anderson nodded in agreement, but remained silent, allowing the two boys to continue to chat. Finally, she got up to the top of the ridge and quickly moved to where a trio of fallen trees made a natural den. She approached with her pistol out, half expecting something to have taken up residence. Once she was satisfied nothing had moved in, she motioned for Robin to come over. "This is where we took shelter to ride out the rest of the storm. I used a couple of mostly straight branches to make a splint for Gus and we found what was left of our E-dome wrapped into some trees almost a kilometer down there two days later." She pointed down the hill in the direction of the ocean, which was barely visible. Only the white tops of the waves could be seen and only because of the eerily ripples of light in the sky.
"Must have been quite a storm!" Dakota gasped. "We didn't know about the E-dome, but we did spiral out almost three kilometers from here, with no luck."
Robin moved into the shelter and noticed he could see the names of those who had used the place to weather out the rest of the storm carved into the wood along with short messages to any who happened to find the markings. There was even a notation at the bottom as to where they were planning on going. Impressed, he ran his fingers over the makings and saw a flash of Mrs. Anderson doing the carving while a kid whimpered in pain slightly deeper in the dug-out den. He could feel how cold they all were and realized the only gear they had on was what was on their vests since their packs had been in the E-dome. He could also hear the very loud roar of the storm and even the snapping of a few more trees. One even sailed over the makeshift shelter as they watched. It was actually quite terrifying to just relive it. On the other hand, since he already knew most of this information, he forced the image to shut off since he didn't want to get too hungry too fast.
He climbed out and glanced over to Mrs. Anderson. "When you carved in the names and what your plans were, did you expect them to be found?"
"Good eyes, those are hardly visible after all this time…" She took a deep breath and shuddered. "To answer your question and be blunt, I wasn't sure. I figured they tracked us to some extent so I hoped they would, but I also wanted there to be something to remember us by. We didn't even know we would find any gear when I carved it, so none of us held out much hope of making it. Finding what was left of the E-dome and our gear was pure luck."
Knowing he was about to give out more information than he was given, made him nervous, but he figured it might help get a better handle on what had been going on around Mrs. Anderson at the time. "The loud roaring and the trees flying through the air… what caused it all?"
Mrs. Anderson's eyes went wide, but she forced her voice to remain even. "How did you… Um, we now think it was a small tornado…"
"A tornado?" Dakota's eyes went wide. "What about weather control? There hasn't been a verified tornado on Earth in years!"
Mrs. Anderson glanced over to Dakota. "This isn't Earth, son. We don't have full control over the weather and while there may not be any verified tornados in the US, many other countries do not have the tech we do. There are still tornados on Earth. One devastated a large section of Paris-Mans in France only a couple of years ago."
Dakota let out a long breath, "Guess the text books aren't quite correct then."
"They tend to gloss over some things. If you look up tornados in the academy central computer you will find there are a few small ones we think hit before weather control can kill them, even over the US, but they tend to be in the deserts of the southwest. We are lucky none have hit a major CHZ in over a decade, but it is probably just a matter time.
"The one we got hit with was probably small, and some think it was actually a couple of them… There was a low-pressure system, a hurricane… I found out later it was diverted some, but it was too big to break up and weather control on Zong is not nearly as advanced as it is on Earth, especially out here in the wild areas. Weather control satellites cost millions upon millions of credits and the ones orbiting Zong have to be totally gold plated and made to slip into a cocoon with over half a centimeter of gold covering them to withstand star storms, so most storms out here are left alone. Hurricanes tend to spawn tornados and water spouts, so best guess is we got nailed by a couple of them back to back. There were a pair of damage tracks side by side, which started down the hill and continued up to the top of the ridge. Scientists think one tornado split into two and then hit us back to back. The tracks are all but invisible now."
Robin frowned and chewed on his lower lip. "So the others… were they in their E-dome when it hit?"
"I don't know," Mrs. Anderson admitted. "I know they had theirs set up and then the tree got hit with lightning. I woke up seeing stars with most of my electronics smoking and with toppled trees all around me and the others moaning. Gus was awake, but screaming in pain. Why?"
"Well…" Robin glanced around, "If they were, and the tornado picked it up, it would explain why they vanished."
"Oh, come on!" Dakota shouted. "Do you really think a tornado could pick up a dome full of kids?"
Robin glanced over as he thought about the tree he had seen blow over the den in his vision. He shrugged and patted one of the massive trees lying over the den he had just squeezed out of. "If it could knock over this, my guess is it could."
Dakota looked at the tree, then the stump it snapped off of, realizing it was several meters away. "Yeah… okay, so let's say you are right. What good does it do us even if you are right?"
Robin glanced around for a few moments. "I'm not sure… yet…" He left the last word drone on for almost a second. "So, can you show me where the other dome was set up?"
Mrs. Anderson knelt and looked over the area. "It was so long ago…"
"Come on, try." Robin prodded. "Where was yours set up?"
"Over there." She pointed to a spot, which was now covered by a pair of fallen trees with moss now covering the rotten wood. "It was clear before the storm hit."
Dakota cringed, "Lucky you weren't there when those fell or you would have been squished like bugs!"
Robin nodded in agreement but didn't want to get off track. "Where did the rest of your team set up their dome… was it close to yours?"
Mrs. Anderson's brow crinkled as she struggled to remember. "Um, it was up hill from ours. We moved further down thinking we would get less wind if we weren't on the crest of the hill." She glanced around trying to get her bearings. "It had to be right around where the big rock is sticking out of the ground. I kind of remember it. I actually think they tied one of the securing ropes to it. I remember I couldn't see much of the dome itself."
Both Robin and Dakota moved up hill and looked at the large rock. Dakota looked around and was first to speak. "The only good place to set up is on this side, meaning the rock would have been basically between them and the other dome. The rest of the ground has too many sharp rocks or tress... at least what is left of them…" The teen gulped as he looked around again. "Man, Robin, you could be right, these trees snapped like twigs and some of them are bigger around than me. A wind capable of doing this could have pulled them right off of the ground and launched them!"
Robin moved over to the massive rock structure and looked around the base for a few minutes. The darkness hampered his search but after nearly five minutes he found a thin wire coming out of the ground. He dug with his hands and found a ground spike. "It was anchored right here. The wire snapped just above the spike. There is so much iron in these rocks there was no way for a metal scan to find it."
Both Dakota and Mrs. Anderson moved up and looked at the four centimeters of metal cord hanging off the uncovered ground spike. The fraying around the end could still be seen. "Damn…" Mrs. Anderson muttered, "Ten minutes and you have found more than I have in years!"
Dakota's eyes were also wide as he realized this had been missed by countless searchers over the years. "Way to go, Corporal!"
Robin ignored the two as they continued to talk over what he had found. Instead he focused in on the spike for a few seconds then reached out and grabbed it like he was trying to pull it out of the ground. Suddenly, a new vision erupted in the middle of his mind. He cringed knowing he would need to eat a lot after this was done and had no easy way to cover for it, but went with it anyway. The second he fully opened his mind, the vision became crystal clear and extremely vivid.
The wind picked up and leaves, pebbles and even small braches. It all slashed into the teenaged boy as he hammered in the stake. On the other side of him the sounds of another stake being driven into the rocky ground could just barley be heard over the roar of the storm. The second the spike was in the teen let out a curse as a rather sharp piece of debris slashed into his left cheek. He glanced down the hill, and made sure the other dome was going up before literally rolling into the one he had just helped to put up.
He winced as the girl inside the dome pulled out a piece of twig from his face and started to put a bandage on it. Her face showed her concern and fear, but it was equally clear she was confident they would make it through this latest problem. They all knew each other and had handled many situations, some just as bad as this.
Before anything could be said another boy dove in the dome holding his hand, cursing about hitting his finger with the hammer. A moment later there was a near deafening crack and a very bright flash of light. An ozone smell quickly permeated the E-dome as electronics shorted out in mass. The girl was knocked cold and the boy with the hurt hand had to yank off his vest as one of the emergency hooks heated up and started to burn his neck.
The teen who had driven the spike into the ground next to the huge rock outcropping felt his hair stick straight out and quickly patted his arm where his emergency beacon was smoking. He started to crawl over to the girl to check on her when a very loud roar drowned out his words. The sound grew and the dome started to buckle. While the other boy used his feet to push on the side of the dome to prevent it from collapsing in on them, the first ground spike tore loose. Moments later two others did the same, one of them slashing into the tent and sticking into the other boy's arm. Even though he screamed in pain, it could not be heard over the wind, thunder and snapping of trees.
The E-dome lifted off the ground with the trio of kids in it, held by the single wire attached to the spike Robin had found. A moment later the wire snapped, making a deep slice into the side of the dome as it did so. The new gash allowed more air in and the whole dome launched violently upwards with a long, very straight, evergreen tree right next to it. The boy who had driven in the spike grabbed both of the others and held them as tight as he could. It seemed like they were in the air forever, but the dome with the holes in the side and the weight of the three teens in the bottom of it acted kind of like a giant parachute. They came down fast, but not dangerously fast.
Suddenly, there was a splash and cold water started to pour into the dome. The boy pulled the other two out through the gash made by the snapping cable and pushed them over to the tree the storm had flung into to the water next to them. Off in the distance he could make out the shore, but there was a small bit of land closer…
The vision ended there as Robin lost connection with what happened afterwards. Robin fell back from the spike and took several deep breaths. Beside him, both Mrs. Anderson and Dakota both gazed down at Robin with shocked looks.
Dakota was first to be able to find his voice, "Son of a bitch, you were right! They flew away!"
Mrs. Anderson spoke next, with a trembling voice. "What the hell… I saw bits and pieces of what happened! How did you do that?"
"It just happens sometimes." Robin spoke weakly as his stomach growled. "It's how I found the missing crewmember of the ship…"
"Wow!" Dakota whistled, "I heard about that! They were able to finally send the missing major home! It was big news all over the camp. Can you use it to help find the missing ISTAZ teams too?"
"It seems to only work when I have close contact with something where they were at, like the ship or the dome spike." He glanced up shaking somewhat, "I need to eat."
Dakota dug out a pair of emergency ration packs and pulled them open for Robin. As he watched the boy all but inhale them, he whistled softly. "So when I saw the kid get hit with the spike and the tent get yanked off the ground, it actually happened?"
"From what I can tell, yes. When I get these things, it seems to be from the perspective of a person, so I see what they saw or at least think they saw."
"I only caught a few images, but they were so… so… stunning!" Mrs. Anderson whispered in awe. "I saw Jackson jump in the tent and Donny came in holding his hand, then the spike slashing into the dome hitting Donny. The last thing I saw was the whole thing getting picked up as the last cable broke."
Dakota tilted his head in confusion. "I didn't see the kid holding his hand, but I did see a girl getting knocked out and her blue eyes were fluttering open and closed. I also saw lots of electronics blowing out. I think I even smelled some of them as they burned up! I also saw a large tree go the same direction as the dome."
Mrs. Anderson glanced over realizing her heart was beating about as fast as it ever had. "Um, I didn't see any of those… Robin, was there more we didn't see?"
Robin took a long swig of water. "Yeah, a lot… the dome didn't fall out of the sky like a rock, it kind of floated down. They hit water and the one you called Jackson pulled the other two out. I pretty much lost it there, but part of it was the shock of how cold the water was. The last thing I got was the water going into his mouth and it not being salty, so they didn't get blown out to sea."
Dakota gazed down in astonishment, "You feel and taste stuff too?"
"Uh huh… My cheek even hurts where the twig stuck into Jackson's face." Robin rubbed the spot, "But it is already fading." Robin took a couple of deep breaths, "This is the first time I have had one this clear with all the senses… I'm really glad I didn't see it through the other kid's eyes… the one who got hit by the spike… I don't think I ever want to know what that feels like."
"Yeah…" Dakota pulled out his last ration pack and opened it. "Here, you look like you could probably use this."
Robin gratefully took it and started eating it a bit slower than he had the first two. "Thanks."
Mrs. Anderson squeezed Robin's shoulder. "How did we end up seeing some of what you saw?"
A few tears trickled down Robin's cheeks. "I don't know… That almost never happens… I don't even know how I get images from outside the tent like I did, when most stuff is from what someone saw then it switches somehow... It has gotten lots easier to do them here, though… I think it's because there are less people and less things going on or something… It's how I knew Randy had beaten on Dillon… Still, whenever I get theses things, they always make me bloody hungry after, and I have not had one be wrong yet… this was one of the strongest ever. I could hear, see, feel, smell and taste things… I didn't like this one at all."
Mrs. Anderson used her other hand to wipe away the tears with her fingers, "Seeing what happened must be hard, huh?"
Robin nodded then lowered his head, "Yeah, but the real problem is now everyone will know I'm a freak!"
"What are you talking about?" Dakota demanded to know.
Mrs. Anderson looked up at the teen. "He's afraid of what others will think about him."
"I ain't saying nothing, dude!" Dakota took a step back while raising his hands defensively in front of himself. "First off, I want to be the team leader of your back-up team and secondly, you are the best shot the missing kids out there have!"
"Robin," Mrs. Anderson spoke softly, "Dakota's right. This thing you have is an incredible gift and the best chance we have of saving not only ISTAZ kids, but also Zong and keep Adventure Quest alive for other kids. San-San has given the Federal Government six months to bring back forty-four of the missing kids… It is an almost impossible number in our opinion, but one that sounds reasonable to those who don't understand the situation. It will also keep the casualty rate within acceptable limits the Explorer Corps projected for ISTAZ. If we can't bring back forty-four, or at least very close to forty-four, they will demand to move some of their population here.
"The press and news stations are already hammering the Explorer Corps for how we handled the last star storm and how many kids from San-San were injured, hurt, and the like. Once San-San tries to move some of its population here, so will other CHZs. If the government says no, then we very well could be looking at a civil war, if the government says yes, we lose Adventure Quest and the best chance we have of training youngsters how to handle open spaces without developing Open Space Sickness.
"Mars has shown us we can't just move people off Earth, no matter what the CHZ governments think, and even worse, we need Zong as a staging and training area for those who are deep space explorers. We used to lose hundreds of crew to OSS each year up to a few years ago. Those numbers have dropped to single digits per year since we started using nothing but ISTAZ grads. Even better, we have yet to have a single multi-year ISTAZ grad fall to OSS. Also, we have only lost a few terraformers to OSS since we switched to using kids who have done three stints on Zong and only one of them was an ISTAZ grad, and she only did it one session."
Dakota glanced over to Mrs. Anderson. "No wonder here there are so many ISTAZ grads in the academy!"
"Yes..." she paused but realized more of an explanation was needed. "We actually seek out and contact any kid who makes it through two ISTAZ stints and offer full scholarships to any who make it through three. We also keep an eye on general Adventure Quest intake and look for kids who want to come back when they are being sent home. Those we identify as possible candidates are given a second year and a closer eye is kept on them to see how they do. This program works..." She then glanced at Dakota, "Um…Everything I just said is highly classified…"
Once again Dakota held up both hands. "My lips are sealed, ma'am. I have already made it through three ISTAZ and don't want to screw up my chance to keep coming back here. I also want a shot at doing the exploration trip with Robin and the others from the mountain-forest training camp! I want to prove I won't get OSS!"
Mrs. Anderson managed a smile. "The chance you will ever get OSS is zero. You love it here too much. Actually, I think you and the rest of your ISTAZ team would be a great addition to the exploration trip Colonel McKnight has offered if enough kids are found."
Robin took another long drink out of his canteen and finally stood, albeit with slightly wobbly legs. He nodded thanks to Dakota as the boy reached out and steadied him. "So no one else will know about me, then?"
"Not from me." Dakota declared.
"I will have to let a few others know, Robin," Mrs. Anderson admitted, "but relax. It will stay in a very tight group and there will be no Explorer Corps paperwork either. You will understand more later."
Robin kicked at the ground, clearly not happy to hear this. He forced himself to shrug it off as best he could, though. After several seconds, he looked back up to Mrs. Anderson. "So what about your missing friends?"
Mrs. Anderson sighed, "You said they landed in cold fresh water. I am sure they drowned…"
"No…" Robin shook his head violently, "no they didn't. They all got out of the tent and they were in sight of land. I know the one with the hurt hand made it to the tree floating next to them and I'm pretty sure the other two did as well, but I lost it before I actually saw them get to it."
Dakota's mouth scrunched up as he thought over Robin's words. After several seconds, he spoke. "When we came out here to do a search, we spiraled out as a group. There were only two lakes within three kilometers of here big enough for a large tree to float in. One was upstream from where the gold panning is going on… You know I wouldn't mind learning how to find gold too…"
"I'll teach you and the other camp helpers later." Mrs. Anderson rolled her eyes, never ceasing to be amazed at how fast a kid could switch subjects, "but let's stay focused, because you are right. The other lake is just over a kilometer uphill from us, behind a set of low rolling hills." She pointed, but the hills themselves couldn't be seen, even with the glow of the polar lights.
Robin thought back to the end of the vision. "Does one of them have a small island with some of the Zong short reddish brown pine-like trees on it?"
"Yes!" Mrs. Anderson all but shouted. "The big lake just over those hills does! Why?"
"Because," Robin let out a deep breath before continuing. "They hit the water real close to the island."
"We could get a search party together…" Dakota started only to get cut off by Mrs. Anderson.
"No, we have classes starting tomorrow afternoon and the flyers are grounded until this latest star storm passes. Besides, the lake is way too big to swim out to the island. I can assure you, I'll fly us out there with a search team the second we get clearance to fly again, even if I have to steal a flyer and kidnap a group of cadets for the search team!"
She patted Robin on the back and handed him yet another ration pack out of her own small backpack as she felt his stomach still rumbling. "Wow, I'm going to authorize extra ration packs for you, son. You and your team can take as many as you want when you head out."
"Good…" Robin managed a bit of a grin. "I'm tired of having Ajax and Fairfax cleaning out the mess hall for me."
"So that is where all the food has been going!" Dakota laughed. "There has been a couple of times we have had to cook more since there was not enough to feed us after you all got done!"
Robin cringed, "Sorry… I actually thought we were helping by giving you less to clean up…"
"No, it's cool. We got to cook what we wanted to eat, and it was hotter and fresher than normal too, so thanks!"
Mrs. Anderson raised an eyebrow, "So your whole team knows you can do this?"
"Yeah…" Robin admitted sheepishly, "One of the reasons Gavin wanted a shot at Randy is because he saw what he did to Dillon and wanted to even the odds and to show the rest of Team Eight Randy was not nearly as tough as he tried to act."
"It worked." Mrs. Anderson smirked. "But I don't see why you didn't come to one of us about it if you knew…"
"He would have had to explain how he knew," Dakota countered. "Plus, I doubt you would have believed him even if he had told the truth. Without seeing what I saw tonight, I know I wouldn't have."
Mrs. Anderson remained silent as she led the other three back to the stream. She glanced over to Dakota as they got back into the safe perimeter set up by the academy cadets. "Keep an eye on him and if he needs another ration pack or ten make sure he gets them."
Robin glanced up with a rather disgusted look. "Oh, come on, I could eat another one, but ten?"
Dakota snickered as he grabbed another pack from a fellow cadet and tossed it to Robin, "Dude, this is your fifth; I bet you could eat ten!"
Mrs. Anderson saw the look on the other academy cadet Dakota had gotten the ration pack from and snickered. "Yup, five… all in the last half an hour, no joke."
"Damn…" the girl gasped, "where does he put them? He's skinny as a rail!"
Robin sent her a grin, but said nothing. Instead, he quickly downed the latest ration pack, pulled out his pan, and moved right back to the rock where he had found the nuggets.
As Robin found another large nugget of gold and a decent amount of flakes, Mrs. Anderson made a beeline for Jasper. She quickly nodded for him to break off his conversation with a pair of academy cadets and moved into the woods.
Jasper quickly finished his friendly chat and moved to join the woman. The second he saw her face he raised an eyebrow. "So… I see you are convinced he really is one of us, huh?"
Mrs. Anderson shook her head slowly. "No, Commander, he is like twenty of us when we are all on a good day. We have to find a way to get him to join us!"
"So he found something?"
"No… well, um, yeah," Mrs. Anderson showed how rattled she was as her voice cracked, "he found something. He then saw everything and even projected images of it to me and Cadet Dakota Sinclair!"
"He projected to a non-psionic?" Jasper gasped.
Mrs. Anderson nodded slowly, "In color, even… Robin has telepathy and hindsight… they are at a level well beyond where our charts even go… He makes your magnitude seven look like a one or a two and my magnitude three basically means nothing. He is a fifteen on a scale of one to ten, maybe even higher. He has something else too; something I can't pinpoint. Even before he had the vision he had something else... and it was a full vision with auditory, visual, olfactory, and more… He passed on quite a bit of the visual to Cadet Sinclair, and I got some of all the others but it overwhelmed me so badly I actually ended up with less than Cadet Sinclair did in the end."
"Will Cadet Sinclair keep his mouth shut?" Jasper asked with a great deal of concern.
"Oh yeah! He wants to be the team leader of Robin's back-up team and Robin agreed. Robin also offered to take him as one of the crew of the exploration ship. So he has Cadet Sinclair's total loyalty and even more interesting, his friendship as well."
"His leadership and charisma continues to amaze…" Jasper breathed a sigh of relief before he continued. "Still, I want Cadet Sinclair sent to me so I can talk to him and gauge where his mind is at."
"I'll see to it, sir, but there is more." Mrs. Anderson stared right into Jasper's eyes. "The real amazing thing is Robin had already guessed what had happened to the missing members of my ISTAZ team and he was right on the money. It is some kind of super intuition and probably a future-sight element as well. He has so much coursing through him he burns through food like a he has a fusion reactor or something inside him. He also has control, so there is not much chance of him burning out his ability before we train him, if we can coach him more than what he has managed to teach himself, which I am not sure we can."
She shook her head to refocus her thoughts. "I felt him shut off the first vision when he was down in the den, then forced the second one when he located a spike left behind by the other part of my ISTAZ team. A spike none of us had found, and he even knew it was not found because there was so much iron in the rocks around where it had been driven in, it could not be detected with scanners. I have never… we have never seen anything like this."
Jasper looked skyward and watched the ribbons of polar lights for several seconds. "Send your report up the chain then, but make it crystal clear we need him to help find the missing kids from San-San and there is little chance we will be able to separate him from his buddies without force, and I will fight it if they try."
"So will I," Mrs. Anderson stated firmly. "Besides, doing so would create even more problems since all of the rest of his team knows he has the gift. He has shared it with all of them."
Jasper felt his jaw drop. "He has projected to all four of them? Was it at the same time?"
"Not sure, sir, but the way it sounded…" Mrs. Anderson tossed up her hands. "Um… well, my best guess is he did. The two SLO's have been grabbing extra food for him and Gavin saw something Randy did to Dillon through a vision which is why he all but annihilated him with the kick we saw."
This actually caused Jasper to smile. "Then they can't take him without causing way too many alarm bells. Gavin's parents are both very high up, so we can't touch Gavin and Oliver's father is too important to mess with. Without him, terraforming of Mars would take a giant step backwards. Make sure they understand this as well. We need to find a way to get as many of us as we can on the explorer ship if, by some miracle, they manage to find enough of the missing kids."
"My bet is he will find enough of them, sir. He all but found where my friends disappeared to…"
Jasper stared at Mrs. Anderson for a few seconds. "And you aren't out there searching?"
"The second we can get a flyer airborne, I will be."
"What…" Jasper's tone became totally perplexed. "They blow away or something?"
"As a matter of fact, yes… The tornado, and it was a tornado, took the whole E-dome with them in it."
"And Robin guessed this in advance of knowing?"
"Yeah…" Mrs. Anderson spoke, her voice showing she was still in some awe. "And then his vision told just how right he was and showed him right where it, and those inside, landed. Pretty amazing, if you ask me."
Jasper shook his head, "No freaking wonder he has gotten nothing but Outstanding grades! If he can guess that, then we don't have a chance of tricking him!"
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