Castle Roland

Adventure Quest

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 18

Posted: 2 Jun 16

Adventure Quest
Kyle Aarons

Oliver looked more than a bit disappointed as he all but tossed his pack into his wall locker and fell back on his bed.

Fairfax looked over, "Hey, we were told it was all a matter of luck. Next time you'll do better."

"Luck has nothing to do with it." Oliver sighed as he looked with distain at the pouch given to him to put gold into. "I let more flakes get away than I got. I just can't figure out how to do this!"

Robin glanced up, somewhat happy his own achievement had been left out of the chatter of camp successes. The last thing he wanted was to have his name close to the top of the gold panning leader board several of the others had set up. The fact everyone knew he had gone with Mrs. Anderson allowed him to brush off the questions about what he had or had not found. "I was having the same problem, Oliver. When we go back out, get your pan down to sand only, and then take it over to Mrs. Anderson. She'll show you what you are doing wrong."

Gavin put his own pack down and used some of the wood they had gathered to light a fire in the small fire stove. "I just want to get warm! My hands are still freezing."

Ajax rolled his eyes, "Gavin, are you sure you are warm blooded?"

Fairfax snickered as Gavin tossed a pillow at Ajax. "You better take the wood chopping certification so you can carry an axe as part of your gear."

"Why?" Gavin asked.

Oliver grinned, "Cause, if we lose power to our laser cutters you will need a way to cut wood so you don't chip your teeth. I have never heard teeth chatter so loudly as yours do! I don't know how you would make it on Mars. The average temperature of my camp at night hovers around three degrees and we are close to the equator. Those in the northern and southern settlements end up with frost four to five days a week. Also, solar heaters start to cool down a couple of hours before the sun comes up, so it is not uncommon for buildings to be just a few degrees above freezing when we wake up."

"Oh, screw that!" Gavin shuddered at the thought.

All four of the others started laughing at Gavin's reaction. As the giggles died down, Oliver let out a long breath. "My dad's next project is to figure out a way to increase temperature so more plants can survive and so we can start bringing some animals to Mars. Until we can get the planet capable of supporting outdoor animal life and more plants we are still dependent on Earth, and Dad says Earth has enough problems of its own!"

"Yeah, it sure does." Ajax agreed. "Live down at street level for a few days, and you will see just how bad it really is."

Fairfax frowned. "Can we talk about something else, guys? I really don't want to go to bed thinking about being at street level or freezing on Mars."

"Hey, my mind talk power is not as strong as it was this morning." Gavin glanced over to Robin, "Any chance of a boost? Can you show us what you found with Mrs. Anderson?"

"Do we have enough food for all of us?" Robin forced a friendly grin, not really wanting to deny his friends but realizing another vision would really wipe him out.

Ajax's grin was all Robin had to see to change the forced smile into a real one. "I'm game, but I want to try something new this time."

Oliver rolled off his bed and moved to sit next to Robin. "What did you have in mind?"

"I'm not sure, exactly," Robin sighed. "But I'm kind of where Fairfax is. I don't want to go to bed seeing anything bad. I sure don't want to know if one of Mrs. Anderson's friends died or anything along those lines."

Fairfax stood and paced back and forth for a few seconds, "Um, well, we could test how far away this thing of yours works."

"How far away?" Gavin's head cocked to the side in bewilderment. "Like what?"

Fairfax paused and held up a finger as he fully formulated the idea. "Robin, maybe you could let us use what your folks are going to do tomorrow or something."

Robin didn't look or sound too excited. "Problem is, they do the same thing every day, except their one day off a week. Mom goes twenty-one floors up and does something with bank records and Dad goes to whatever spot in the building needs plumbing fixed. He is also on call all the time for emergencies, so he gets called out all the time. I have gone over a week without seeing him and he sleeps most of his mandatory day off each week."

"Maybe you'll get to see what an emergency is or something, Robin," Gavin spoke up. "He never talks about it, even when we have asked him."

Gavin took over and tried to talk Robin into seeing what his dad was doing for several minutes with no success. He talked about plumbing, going up into the maintenance sections of the building and even tried to talk about Robin's dad using some of the tools the two boys had seen. Finally he gave up and shrugged, "Guess not."

"Not even a flicker," Robin agreed, clearly disappointed over the failure. "Any of you all have any other ideas?"

Fairfax let out a long nervous breath, "I do, but I don't know if it will be a bad thing or not."

"What do you have in mind?" Robin asked intrigued to see Fairfax act uncomfortable about something.

Fairfax stood and dug into the bottom of his pack. After almost three minutes he pulled out something wrapped in cloth. Before he unwrapped it he explained, "When we dug around at street level for stuff, once in a while we would find pretty valuable stuff. When we did, my brother would find a way into one of the buildings and try to sell it for hard credits since he had a legal credit account. We would save up until things were looking really bad, or we really needed something and he would go buy it. Usually it was medicine or freeze dried food packs.

"A few days before I ended up in the orphanage, I found this…" He took another long breath. "I should have given to my brother, but I just wanted it… I told the people at intake it was my great grandmother's and it was all I had left, so they let me keep it, but they locked it up so I didn't have to keep it hidden from all the other kids. They almost didn't let me take it to AQ, but I didn't want to leave it behind. So, old lady Gertrude relented and got it so I could take it with me…"

Ajax looked at the dirty looking cloth with growing interest. "I'm amazed; she never bends on anything. What is it?"

Fairfax carefully spun the cloth off of a small silver box with a very tiny lock. Even though the silver was badly tarnished and had a couple of dents in it, a six pointed star could be seen in the lid and on each side was a weird looking candle holder which held nine candles. He set it down on the center table and glanced up as the other four boys moved closer. "I did a scan of the symbols and it came back as stuff to do with the Jewish religion, the national religion of the Israel CHZ. But since Chi-Troit does not look kindly on church goers of any type and the orphanage separates kids who are known to belong to any church, I figured they would take it from me if I did more study, so I stopped. I was kind of hoping to link with the space station computer when I go out on ISTAZ to see if I can find out more, since I could then erase the download and there would be no trace."

"I bet someone would still know your note-puter did a religious download. Mom says the government is paranoid about big religions, even though we are free to practice by law," Gavin stated. "PhilaYork's government is really bad. My dad and mom only teach us the bible in our home and we get together with a few other Christian families when we can, but Mom has to be real careful or she could lose her high security clearance. I don't even know why the CHZ government is so paranoid about it, since Christianity is all about peace, love and forgiveness."

Robin cringed, "My folks would have never allowed your folks to adopt me if they had known you are Christians! Dad says more people have died in religious wars than all other fighting combined. He says the second Civil War was more about religion than land and food. He says no more of his kin are going go to war over stupid beliefs. He was kind of mad when I got laser rifle trained, but Mom pointed out I could join the police and get out of our lower class tower if I kept getting all the training scouts offered. Neither one likes any kind of religion, though."

"We'll never try to push it on you, Robin." Gavin responded defensively.

Robin held up his hands. "Hey, I'm not mad; just make sure to tell everyone in your family to keep my folks out of the loop. I actually think it would be kind of cool to find out what it is all about. All I know is someone let a group of people torture him to death or something like that. The one time I tried to find out more, Dad beat my butt with a thin plaststeel pipe when he found out. He said no kid of his was going to become one of them."

Fairfax cringed, "Sounds painful!"

"It could have been worse," Ajax teased, "it could have been made of the much harder metalplast."

"Pipes can't be made out of metalplast." Oliver countered. "Metalplast is used to make buildings because it is stronger, more metal-like, but it is too ridged for pipes. Plaststeel can be heated and bent into shapes to fit places too; like regular plastic. Besides, metalplast is designed to flex like plastic, but unless it is thick it would crack with the expansion and contraction of hot and cold going through it all the time since it is more metal-like than plastic."

Seeing the others looking at him oddly, he shrugged. "My dad has been trying to find something better than plaststeel for pipes on Mars. Plaststeel is tuff stuff to be sure, but with ice asteroid fragments being dropped on us as part of the terraforming, they break all the time."

"Break?" Gavin frowned in confusion. "Do you have pipes getting hit by chucks of asteroids?"

Oliver nodded. "Ice asteroids still contain some rocks and junk so there is always hard stuff hitting the planet. My dad and the other terraformers make sure to bring in the asteroids away from settlements so no major damage occurs; as a matter of fact, there are huge fields which are nothing more than crater fields since they try to aim the asteroids into the same areas. The problem is some of the settlements are not in areas where fresh water can be stored, so massive aqueduct pipes send them what they need. No matter how hard they try to avoid it, some fragments hit those pipes and cut off water to those settlements for days at a time."

"Why not build big water storage tanks?" Robin wondered aloud.

"Mars does not have the same mineral content as Earth, so we can't build massive reservoirs out of Metalplast like Earth can. Besides, Dad says some of the ones on Earth are showing some damage and no one has a clue how to repair them since there is billions of liters of water in them and if they empty them to do repairs, the walls will cave in, since the pressure of the water is part of what keeps them structurally sound or something along those lines. I really don't get it."

Oliver shrugged, "Still, I'd bawl my eyes out if I got beat with a hunk of either metalplast or plaststeel."

"Yeah, it was awful…" Robin quickly changed the subject, not really wanting to talk about the only time he could remember being beaten with anything other than an open hand. He glanced back down at the small box then back to Fairfax. "What's inside?"

"I don't know." Fairfax shrugged. "I don't think there is anything cause nothing rattles... Still, I have thought about breaking it open hundreds of times, but I don't want to ruin it." He then lowered his head and spoke a much softer, "Besides, breaking it just feels wrong."

"Nothing wrong with not wanting to break it." Oliver finally showed some serious interest in the item by sticking his head real close to the box. "It sure looks old!"

Robin nodded then glanced over to Fairfax, "So you want me to see who it belonged to or something?"

"I don't know." Fairfax shrugged. "Whatever you can get… It would be really nice to know how it ended up in a trash pit at street level though."

Ajax knelt and looked at it closely. "Yeah, I bet it is worth a good fifty credits, even at a fence shop."

"What's a fence shop?" Oliver asked while frowning.

"It's a street level shop, normally run by some CHZ military guys." Fairfax spat with a level of disgust. "They sell things for trade or hard currency from anyone. Normally they sell worn out military clothing, army knives, and army rations, but I have heard some of them sell guns, ammo, power packs, and even explosives if you have enough valuables."

"They do." Ajax confirmed. "Dad bought a ballistic pistol from them, and a couple of clips of bullets once, when the gang activity in our area got real heavy. Problem was the same store was selling guns and stuff to the gangs they were supposed to be fighting. It got real bad for a few months, then a military sweep came through and took out the gangs. My sister and me watched from under a rusted out car as the same guys who sold Dad the pistol came through after the fighting and picked the bodies of the dead gang members clean. They set up a new shop selling the same guns, clothing, and gear all over again."

Oliver looked sickened, "They took clothing off of the dead and sold it?"

"Happens all the time." Fairfax shrugged, showing some confusion over why Oliver was so appalled. "It's not like the dead need clothing and if it isn't grabbed quickly, the rats and bugs eat it when they eat the bodies, then it doesn't do anyone any good. Besides, those killed by military sweeps don't leave blood on the clothing since the military uses energy weapons. When I was picked up, half my stuff had at least one burn mark, and my coat had three. At least one was a clear laser burn."

"Oh, GROSS!" Gavin shouted.

Oliver took a couple of deep breaths and a swig from his canteen, "OK, I'll be good if I never go to Earth. Robin, let's um…"

Robin quickly nodded while eyeing both Ajax and Fairfax with a great deal of sadness. The fact neither seemed even slightly disturbed by the turn of the conversation showed how unfair life was. Hearing the Chi-Troit CHZ military sold the clothing of the dead was even more disturbing. Yet, Robin could find no fault with either Ajax or Fairfax for wearing the clothing of those who died at street level. Still, it was extremely disturbing. Another thought occurred to Robin as he thought over what he was hearing. If they had worn clothing of those killed by a military sweep, the people must have been close to their size, which meant the military didn't care if they killed kids. It was truly a revolting notion. "Let's form a circle so I can see what I can read off the box, otherwise none of us are going to get a good night's sleep."

Robin waited until everyone was holding hands. He had Fairfax hold onto his upper arm so he could pick up the box. For several seconds he got nothing. He let out a sigh, "I think it helps to know something about it. Maybe I could work back from where you found it, Fairfax."

Oliver glanced over, "Try to talk him into it. Where did you find it? What were you doing?"

Fairfax kind of cringed. "Um, you all might end up seeing what street level is like if I go there."

Gavin gripped Fairfax's hand a bit tighter. "You had to live it and we have all heard you talk about it, but I still don't really get it. Maybe it would be good if the rest of us did get a real glimpse."

"Gavin's right." Robin responded with a hint of nervousness in his voice. "Just take me there and I will see if I can backtrack from there or something."

Fairfax took a deep breath, glanced up at the ceiling, and closed his eyes. Finally he started talking. "It was winter and real cold. We had been inside a building for the prior few days, but were totally out of food. Mom figured the cold would keep the rats and the gangs down so we headed out as a large group with two other families.

"Our first stop was the main trash chute coming out of the building we had bedded down in. My youngest sister, Gerri was sick and one of her rat bites was infected. Dad was carrying her on his back. We had to hold up between an old truck and a crumbling stonewall as a few gang members forced six people to dig through the trash. They finally called them back and tied them together when it started to snow.

"The snow was worse than normal. It was brown and had a real nasty smell to it. I remember Dad saying it must not have snowed much so what was coming out of the sky was more polluted than normal. He also made sure we didn't eat any, not like we would have anyway…" Fairfax lightly quivered. "We all saw one kid from another family get sick and die the year before from eating polluted snow, so we knew better."

Fairfax let out a long breath. "Since we knew there were gang members around, Dad and my brother pulled out their ballistic pistols and kept guard as the rest of us moved into the pit. Mom was right about one thing; it was too cold for the rats, so we were able to move in deeper than normal. I found a note-puter with a cracked screen, but it was still working and a pair of pants with thirty hard credits in a pocket someone had forgotten to take out before tossing them. I also found half a dozen school lunch squeeze cheese packets, which were still sealed. I tossed two to Gerri and sat down to eat the others. When I did, the mound I sat on shifted.

"I jumped up thinking I hit a rat's nest and was getting ready to run, but when nothing else happened I knelt down and pulled on what I had sat on. It turned out to be part of an old wooden desk. All around it was old clothing. None of us had ever seen anything like it, but it was mostly girls and women stuff, even a few dresses like they have in the museums. It was made out of stuff none of us had seen before, too. Dad said he thought it was real wool, which I didn't know was sheep fur until I looked it up at the orphanage… Anyway, it was really warm and in great shape. The more I dug the more I found. The rest of my family came over and we really tore into the area after I showed them.

"While everyone was talking about all the clothing and even some old pictures that didn't even have color in them I found the bottom of the desk. I pulled out a drawer. I think it had been locked but when it was tossed out the trash chute it broke open when it hit the trash pile. Whatever happened let me get into it; it was full of stuff including books, a really old gun with a bunch of bullets, a large knife with lightning bolt looking marks which looked kind of like two S's, and a whole bunch of some weird looking paper; Dad said it was old money from some other country.

"While my dad and brother talked about where they might sell it all, I went back out and continued to dig through the desk and some of the other stuff around it. I found a book with lots more pictures with no colors. They were kind of weird looking. They had people in them, but they were way too skinny, even skinnier than I was down on street level. Some of the pictures showed men with round helmets, they had stripes or bars on their clothing, kind of like rank or something and hand packs with balls and pouches hanging off them. Many of them carried really big and bulky looking ballistic guns and were carrying some of the real skinny people. Some of them even looked like they were crying. There were other pictures of the real skinny people smiling and other pictures showed the skinny people, including small kids… It was weird; they had their arms out, there were numbers and letters written on their arms. One picture had a gate with a bunch of the men with the round helmets standing in a large room. Some of the pictures showed pipes with round things coming off them and there were even some which showed marks on the walls that kind of looked like scratch marks from fingers. It was really creepy.

"Mom took the book and pictures away, tossed them off to the side, and told me to keep looking." Fairfax's head dropped some as did his voice. "I got kind of mad since I kind of wanted to keep the pictures in the book, but knew better than to argue. But then I found the silver box…" Fairfax let out a long uneasy breath. "As soon as I saw it, I wanted it and I was mad, so I shoved it in my pack. I then held up a really strange looking hand clock. It was coated in silver and had a latch to open it. Inside was another no color picture of a boy with a cross necklace on and it was on a silver chain and a ball thing on top."

Fairfax let go of Robin and dug into his pack again. He pulled out a pouch with a small round picture of a boy's face. Even as old as it was it was in remarkably good shape and since it was now in a vacuum-sealed plastic pack and was well protected. On the back was the name 'Yishai Gal Weinstein' and 'Sent to Monastery of San Quirico 27 January, 1943'. Underneath was a small note with the date 29 January, 1943. It simply said 'Died in allied air attack'. "Maybe this will help. Since we got five hundred credits for the clock Mom let me keep the picture inside and the guy we sold it to even sealed it for me. The note was behind the picture, but I had him put it on the back so it could still be seen."

As Fairfax grabbed Robin's arm again, Robin reached out and touched the picture. Suddenly everything changed. The smells, sights, and sounds of the small team building they were sitting in seemed to vanish. In its place, the five boys found themselves on a cobble stone street just outside of a small village, a cold wind blew and icy sleet slashed into their faces. Off to the side was an extremely small single level building with smoke curling out of a square pipe coming out of the roof made out of bricks. Around the tiny structure was a pile of firewood, a pair of cows and a strange looking water faucet with a huge handle. Off of the faucet a small icicle hung and under the icicle was a large wooden bucket. It was as if Robin and his friends had stepped through a doorway in time.

While Robin, and those with him, tried to understand what they were seeing, feeling, hearing, and smelling, a group of people, many carrying suitcases, scurried down the road past them. Most of them had the six pointed stars, like what was on the lid of the silver box, sewed on their coats. The group suddenly stopped and all but a few dove into some bushes off the side of the road while others started to run across the open field. The rest moved a bit further down and stopped on the opposite side of the road from where the others had hidden themselves.

Robin watched in some puzzlement for a moment before the sounds of an engine and metal on stone clanking caught his attention. The boy from the photo was one of the people in the group who did not dive off to the side or run. Instead he was stopped by one of the adults. Another adult stopped a couple of others from joining those hiding. It took Robin a few seconds to realize the boy was one of half a dozen kids not wearing a star. Next to the boy were three others boys, two girls and two men. Both men wore heavy winter clothing of some kind, but both also had a strange white collar under their tightly buttoned up black shirts. The man, holding tightly onto the boy's shoulder, frowned and spoke in a language Robin did not know but for some reason understood.

"Those fools will be shot! They need to get down!"

The other man let out a long breath. "There is nothing we can do for them now. We have to protect those they gave to us and get them hidden."

The man holding onto the boy from the picture blinked out a couple of tears from his eyes and mouthed a short silent prayer. He then spoke so all the kids could hear him. "God will get his justice in the end. I hope it will be enough. Until such time, do nothing, say noting and keep moving." He then pulled the boy into him. "Jessie, if you act afraid the soldiers will see it. Your actions will kill all of us."

The boy glanced up, "My name is Yishai…"

The man holding the boy flipped the boy hard with his index finger. It was so hard Robin heard the 'thunk' sound and saw the tears well in the boy's eyes. "If you are to live and continue your family line, you will accept the Christian name given you, Jessie. At least the good Bishop has let you keep a Christian name with the same meaning as your Jewish name. Now, keep moving and wave as they go by or you will doom us all! If they shoot at those running, do nothing!"

A couple minutes passed as the other five children were given similar instructions by the man and his friend. Suddenly, a very strange vehicle rounded the corner and sped up as the passenger saw the running figures. The vehicle crashed through a wooden fence and quickly closed on the fleeing people. A man on the back pulled up a ballistic weapon and fired it on full automatic fire at those still running across the field. All seven fell screaming. The driver and passenger scanned the field while the man in the back reloaded and finished off those still moving, this time taking his time to fire single shots. Once satisfied, the passenger motioned the driver to continue back to the road. This changed as the passenger saw the group of eight people making their way down the far side of the road.

Even as shocked and sickened as Robin was over the cold-blooded murder of seven men, women, and children, his mind managed to take in the strangeness of the vehicle. The front had wheels, but the back was not tires, instead it was long bands of metal plates that spun on gear-like wheels. On the top was some kind of very big ballistic gun with a bunch of huge bullets connected by odd-looking chain links that led down into a side box. On the side of the metal vehicle were big black plus marks. There was a man behind the big gun too, the one who had shot the seven trying to escape.

The man in the passenger seat held up his hand, which in turn caused the driver to bring the massive contraption to a stop right next to the two men and six children. As the machine stopped the man behind the big gun turned it on the group. His eyes seemed to glint with the anticipation of pulling the trigger.

Robin felt his own heart speed up as the man behind the gun pulled back on some lever on the gun. At the same time the man who had held up his hand stood and looked over the small group. The man brushed some of the snow off his nice coat and straightened his collar, showing twin lightning bolts on both sides in the shape of twin S's. The man's hand went down to rest on some kind of ballistic pistol held in a belt holster. "Priest, where are you taking these filthy urchins and why did you not do anything to stop the Jew scum?"

The man holding Yishai dug his fingernails into the boy's shoulders a bit deeper to keep the boy standing straight and mouth clamped shut. At the same time the man lowered his head to show deference to the man speaking. "The bombing of Wilhelmshaven has left more homeless than our bomb damaged local orphanage can hold, and now there are even more for us to care for good Captain. I am leading this group south to hand them off to the Church at Oldenburg. As for the Jews, I do not know what you want me to do. Should I throw rocks at them from here? Besides, my task is the safety of these children, and they are too weak and hungry for me to do anything but try to get them to their destination."

The man with the lightning bolts on his collar snickered as he hopped down and looked over the children then moved up to the priest. "You have almost forty kilometers in this weather, you travel with almost nothing and these six are not exactly dressed for this."

"There was no clothing to spare. We fed them this morning, and with God's will we will find shelter and at least something to go with the few pieces of bread we brought with us. Otherwise we push on. I see no other choice."

The captain once again looked over at the kids before finally grabbing Yishai. "What is your name boy?"

Yishai burst into tears, not saying anything.

"This is a German?" The man mocked, "Are you sure he is not a Jew? He sure looks and acts like one."

The priest made a show of rolling his eyes. At the same time his hand crashed down into the back of Yishai's head getting a loud yelp of pain. "He is a bed wetter, good Captain, nothing more. None of the others will sleep with him so his bed is colder than most."

The priest once again cuffed Yishai on the back of the head, "This is a German SS officer, and has asked you a question. Speak up boy!"

Tears now openly pouring down the boy's cheeks he managed to stammer out a few words, "My name… is… Jessie…"

"Jessie?" The German officer asked with a degree of disgust. "What fine German would name a boy Jessie?"

The priest kept his head down. "His mother was English, sir. It has a good Christian basis meaning God is gracious." He then pointed to a girl a year or two younger than Yishai. "His sister is Helga, named by her German father."

The German officer reached down and grabbed the boy's chin in a tight grip and forced his head upward so he could stare into the teary eyes. "I see you got way too much English and too little German, too bad for you."

This got chuckles from both the driver and gunner of the armored halftrack.

The officer seemed to take great pleasure out of the seeing more tears come from Yishai. After nearly a minute he picked the boy up by his chin and tossed him into the brush off the side of the road. He then pulled his pistol and fired a couple of shots, purposefully missing, but causing a wet spot to appear on the now balling boy's pants. He laughed hard, "It seems your little Jessie does not need to be asleep to wet himself!"

The priest stood still, making no attempt to help. Instead he let out a sigh as he spoke, "I do not see him joining the German Army, Captain."

This got a new round of laughter from all three German soldiers. After a few seconds, the driver spoke up. "The others are certainly braver, even the girls!"

The SS officer looked over at the other children, noting all five of them showed some fear but not a single one had a tear in their eyes. It never occurred to the man they were too tired, weak, and hungry and had seen too much. Nor did it occur to him most had just seen a family member getting gunned down and were in shock. He smiled. "We are headed past Oldenburg with new orders. Load these five real Germans in the back and I will take them. One of you can stay with Jessie, or leave him; he has too much English in him and too little German for me to waste any resources on him. I can delay no longer!"

The priest looked over to his partner. "I will take care of the bed wetter. At least this way the food I have will be enough for the two of us."

The officer moved around to the back and helped the other five into the back of the halftrack. The oldest boy was even allowed to move up and was shown how to use the big gun in the back and got to fire a few rounds.

The priest waited until the halftrack had disappeared down the winding road before he moved over to Jessie and picked him up. He ignored the wet spot on the boy's pants and he wrapped the boy in a hug and kissed his forehead tenderly. "I know you feel shamed boy, but you just saved the lives of the others and by keeping them distracted those who hid on the other side of the road were not noticed. You did well. Now let's see if we can get you cleaned up. I happen to know the owners of the farmhouse. They are good people, but will expect you to say a Christian prayer, as the new visitor. Keep it short and end it with 'In Jesus' name' and you will be fine."

As the pair moved over toward the farmhouse, a pair of aircraft with spinning propellers in the front dove out of the clouds. On the wings were white stars with blue and red lines coming off the star. They angled in the direction of where the vehicle had gone. A few seconds later, tracers streaked down from both craft while return fire arced upward. An explosion followed.

Yishai burst out into tears and said something about his sister in the truck. At the same time a woman hiding in the bushes way up the road burst into tears and softly said a prayer mentioning Yishai and his sister. The woman then moved out into the field and cradled a dead man riddled with bullet holes. She finally had her hands pried off the dead man by one of the others with her, but not before taking his pocket watch with the picture of Yishai in the lid. Robin could stand it no longer; he let go of the vision and fell back, but even as he did so a few more images came to him. "Holy Crap! His mom thought he died, but he wasn't on the weird truck!"

Gavin shook his head, staggered out the front of the building and puked, followed shortly after by Oliver who didn't throw up, but definitely looked shaken. He glanced over at his friend and involuntarily hugged him. "Those people… they killed them… shot them and smiled… Oh my God, how could anyone do that?"

Back inside, Fairfax looked over with wide, tear filled eyes, "Robin I'm sorry! I didn't know…"

Ajax moved over to Robin and held him while stroking his hair, "Hey, this isn't your fault! This isn't even what you wanted him to see. It just happened, but as much feeling as there is attached to the picture… Do you really think we were seeing something way back in 1943?"

Robin held onto Ajax for several seconds before managing to calm down enough to speak. He looked down at his hands as he remembered seeing the blood on the woman's hands as she grabbed the watch out of the dead man's bullet ridden body. "As I broke contact with you all, I got a bit more. I saw a glimpse of her writing down the date and slipping the paper behind the picture. She thought Yishai died. The note you have behind the picture was written by her, so yeah, I think it really was back in the mid-twentieth century. She pulled the pen out of the silver box; the key to it was in a hidden compartment underneath. The left front foot spins to the left."

Ajax continued to hold onto Robin as Fairfax reached out and secured the box. He glanced over at Robin and turned the left front foot. Just like Robin said, it rotated and caused a click. At the same time a tiny compartment on the bottom slid open and a silver key dropped to the floor.

Fairfax looked at the key and stared to insert it into the box, but Robin's hand stopped him. "I… I can't see any more. Please don't… at least not tonight."

Fairfax held the key to the lock for a couple of seconds before reluctantly nodding. As he put the key back into the hidden compartment, he took a deep breath. "Robin, I didn't want you to have to…"

Robin managed a nod while still holding onto Ajax, "How could anyone do such horrible things? The man… the captain… He looked happy… He picked up Yishai and threw him by his face and liked it! He laughed as those people were murdered… How could a man like him end up in charge of the other two?"

Ajax continued to hold Robin, "The patrols of soldier at street level are led by such people. They kill and scavenge the dead with no care for who they kill or those they leave behind. I have even heard they get bonuses for number of kills. They can do whatever they want cause they have the biggest guns."

"But at least those they kill are shooting back or trying to resist." Fairfax countered. "Those people did nothing but run. I don't understand what they could have done that was so wrong. One of those kids was like five or six!"

"I have seen kids that young get caught in the crossfire between gangs." Ajax sighed, "But you're right; they were not targeted."

Robin shivered in Ajax's arms. "I can't believe you have any kindness left in you…"

"You've given us a reason to be nicer than normal." Fairfax admitted. "Even though I'm a bit disgusted by where your vision led, I'm by no means as freaked out by it as you are."

Oliver reentered the small building still holding onto a lightly crying Gavin. He helped him sit on the bed before taking a seat next to him. "I have never even dreamed of something so terrible!"

"I've seen some of it at street level," Fairfax grunted with a great amount of distain in his voice, "but I don't think I've ever seen something close to being that cold. To kill people trying to run away… not even the Chi-Troit military sweeps shoot people in the back!"

"Not on purpose." Ajax agreed with a sad shake of his head. "Normally I can sleep after seeing almost anything, but I'm not sure about tonight."

Robin closed his eyes and saw the seven people as they fell under the rain of bullets. "Even as hungry as I am, I don't know if I can even eat, let alone sleep."

Ajax dug into his pack and pulled out some food. "Your stomach is rumbling again. Eat this… Maybe we should sleep on the floor as a group like me and my family used to do in the CHZ." He suddenly blushed badly as he realized how what he said must have sounded.

As Robin took a few bites of food, Gavin surprised everyone. "Um, if you don't mind, I would kind of like to sleep close to the rest of you tonight. If I don't, I will have nightmares real bad and can't run to my parent's bed."

Robin quickly finished the first pack of food before joining the conversation. "There is no way I am going to sleep without some extra comfort, not after seeing seven people gunned down! Our bags are designed to zip together so we can keep each other warm…"

Oliver gulped and lowered his head, "I don't…"

Ajax glanced over, "Sleep next to me. I don't mind and won't bite too hard if your hand wanders some."

This, at least, got a laugh out of Robin and Oliver; which helped to break the tension some. Still, all five boys stayed close and had to hold each other a few times while they set everything to sleep as a group on the floor. Nothing more was spoken, but more than a few thoughts were exchanged as they ate and then slipped into the massive bag made out of five individual ones. Gavin was the last to fall into an uneasy sleep, but to do so he had to snuggle right up against Robin, who didn't fully wake but did tenderly put his hand on his best friend's chest as if he knew the extra support was needed.

Robin blinked a couple of times as he heard the sound of a ship switch over to magnetic drives and take to the sky. He let out a long yawn as he stretched. He cringed briefly as he felt Gavin shift on his left side and Fairfax on his right. The light coming in through one of the windows told him it was well past normal camp wake up time. He glanced over to where his note-puter was on the end table next to his bed and frowned. Robin mumbled, "Oh, yeah, no power." He chewed on his lower lip for a few seconds in thought before speaking aloud again. "How'd they get a ship up?"

He frowned deeply as he slid out of the big bag. The warmth inside the bag with the others made the cold morning air even colder. He glanced down and realized he was the first of his team to wake. As he dressed hurriedly, because of the chill in the air, he once again found himself wondering what kids his age used to do. How did they tell what time it was when there was no power? The longer he was without any technology, the more he wanted to know how it used to be done. It was one thing to go to museums and see displays and hear about how things used to be. It was an entirely different thing to have to live it, even for a short period of time.

His eyes wandered over to the silver box and he shuddered at the memory of the vision. He almost moved up to touch it but stopped himself. He knew he would need the support of the others on his team if another vision, even a hundredth as bad as the one the night before, came out.

Deciding to let the others continue to sleep, he slipped out the door and let the sunlight beat down on his face as he looked up. The warmth felt pretty good, considering it was clearly a chilly day. After several seconds of just enjoying the feel of the day, he rolled his neck and looked around. There were a few kids out, but like him, most of them looked like they had just woken up.

He moved over to a couple of kids from Team Seventeen as he heard them talking about panning for gold the night before. From the sounds of their voices, both were a bit disappointed they didn't get much, but wanted to try again. It seemed like a great distraction, so he eagerly went over.

The instant Jeff saw him, the boy grinned, "Hey, Commander Montgomery says we have to go into the trees to use the bathroom, since the storm knocked out the power for the water pumps. We also have to cook over a fire if we want warm food."

Robin smiled widely, happy to have something totally different to take his mind off the vision of the night before. "Looks like part of ISTAZ started even before we get out into the field!"

"Yup." Jay responded with an excited grin. "So I hear Fairfax came up huge on the gold last night!"

"Big time," Robin nodded. "He bagged almost two hundred and fifty grams. We had to all but drag him away from the steam." He couldn't help but snicker at the memory of both Gavin and Ajax pulling on him to get him to leave the edge of the water. "How'd you two do?"

Jay patted an all but empty pouch on his side, "Like fifteen grams of flakes, but I hear we get to go back out again a couple of times and Commander Montgomery said he will provide us all maps of where in our zones we can pan while we are out! Even better, if we can find enough of the missing kids, he will stick us in zones known for high gold content!"

Jeff let out a sigh, "I think I got like five grams is all." He shook his head in some disgust. "I was only like ten meters from Gavin and he bagged over thirty. It's crazy how hit and miss it can get. But Mrs. Anderson said she would take us out again after dinner if we wanted. How about you?"

Robin pulled out the pouch given to him. On the side of it there was the Explorer Corps insignia along with the letters 'Au', the periodic table abbreviation for gold. He dug out one of the actual nuggets and held it up. "Not too bad."

"Wow!" Jeff looked at the nugget with a bit of awe and a tinge of jealousy. "You have ten times more in one rock than I have in flakes!"

Robin dropped the nugget back in his pouch, deciding not to show them one of the others or his other pouch with the flakes. Instead he smiled as warmly as he could. "When we go back out, there is a big round boulder in the middle of the stream, go out and pull your first pan or two from under it. You'll both be happy you did."

Jay frowned slightly, "I don't want to steal your spot!"

"I am going to try to help out Oliver," Robin responded rather dismissively. "He had all sorts of problems trying to separate the flakes last night. He only came in with like two grams."

"Ouch." Jeff cringed. "He was really into the class too."

"He's still all about trying it again." Robin assured the other two, "Between Fairfax and me, we'll get him up close to camp average, even if we have to slide him some of what we find." He glanced around, "Um, so what about classes and testing?"

Jeff shook his head. "Commander Montgomery and a couple of others are going to give us some kind of overview class this afternoon and let us pick what other classes we are going to select. He said they needed to tweak the classes some and we can't test because there are not enough instructors around."

"Really?" Robin glanced skyward with a perplexed look, clearly wondering how it had gotten off the ground in the middle of such a massive star storm. "Did some of them leave in the flier I heard a few minutes ago?"

Jay nodded. "Yeah, most of the instructors left with Colonel McKnight in a really weird looking, heavily gold shielded ship with several academy cadets just before you came outside. It didn't even have any external sensor arrays or nothin'!"

Jared came over, having heard the conversation. "I heard Commander Montgomery talking to a couple of the other instructors. It sounds like one of the smaller general intake Adventure Quest camps was hit hard by the star storm, or something, and needed emergency help. They lost all contact with it, even with the power dampeners and shielded communications units they installed in all the camps. They also are going to make runs to all the kids already out on Advanced ISTAZ and make sure they all weathered the initial wave."

"A gold plated ship?" Robin whistled in amazement, only half hearing the rest. "I wish I could have seen it!"

"It was pretty cool." Jeff admitted. "I bet we would all have to pan for a decade to get enough to plate a full ship. The weird part is there is no way it could leave the atmosphere, since gold would melt right off on re-entry, so they must have brought it here in a larger ship or something!"

Robin glanced skyward, wishing he could have caught a glimpse. "They might have felt they needed a few after what happened to the kids from San-San. This way they can do some moving around during a star storm." He shrugged it off, still hoping he would be able to see the ship when it came back. 

Jared quickly agreed. "It must cost a fortune to run Adventure Quest. One of those fliers probably cost more than my whole eighteen hundred floor building."

"Only eighteen hundred?" Jay asked in some surprise, "I live three hundred stories above your whole building and I am nowhere close to the top."

"Mine is thirty-eight hundred." Robin sighed. "But the top twenty are mostly for running things. I was able to take a tour once. It was kind of creepy going up to the top and realizing there were buildings even taller in the distance. It didn't help my mood to see some cracks running down the side of the metalplast edges either."

"I saw the same thing on mine," Jeff shuddered. "But our guide said they were superficial and normal. I didn't really buy it though, since I saw dozens of spots where crews had done patching of other cracks."

Jasper moved up to the small group of boys. "Cracks are normal, and they have to be repaired before they get too deep. You all do realize almost all the really tall buildings in the CHZ's actually wobble some, even yours, Jared. The movement of the Earth and the winds mean the top floors are almost constantly in motion. The bases of the buildings have built in shock absorbers, which actually increase the movement some, but reduce damage. Still, crews have to make repairs all the time. Otherwise, the cracks would grow and the buildings would crumble.

"I am sure what you saw were superficial or were expansion joints where designers put in spots where the buildings can expand and contract for heat, cold, high wind, and even Earth tremors. Have any of you wondered why you felt so weird when you first set foot on Zong?"

Robin frowned, "Sir, I was too amazed with this world to notice anything."

Jeff quickly concurred. "I didn't notice, sir."

Jasper grinned, "Because you are ISTAZ cadets. You were too caught up in what you were coming here to do to notice one thing most kids who come here really freak out over. The dome at Dal-Houston helps prepare, since it has only minimal movement, but did any of you notice how many kids stuck right next to the ships once they got to Dal-Houston intake?"

"Yeah!" Jay all but shouted. "They were all gripping at the ship… Come to think of it, I had to grab onto the ship rail for a few seconds because it didn't feel right…"

"Yeah, because for the first time in your life you were standing on ground that was not moving under you." Jasper chuckled. "Sometime over the next few years I'll take you all to general intake. When I do, watch how kids walk. It is un-natural for them to not have some sway to the ground so they look rather wobbly. We, in the Corps, actually think one of the things leading to Open Space Sickness is the very major adjustment humans have to make in perception and even walking when leaving the towers. When we did a study of people who didn't get OSS, one thing we did note is the higher up in a tower a person lives and works is directly in line with how quickly they get OSS.

"Street level and close to street level people still get OSS, but it tends to take a lot longer. Even animals we raise in the towers then release here, or on other worlds, have a major problem and some signs of OSS. We think part of it is re-learning how to walk or even fly, since where birds land moves back and forth some in the towers and doesn't here. Also natural wind moving the braches is hard for birds to get used to. Over sixty percent of the flying animals we released here didn't survive the first few days because of it."

Jared took a deep breath, "Sixty billion people on Earth and only a fraction of them know how to walk on solid ground. How sad can you get?"

"Sixty billion is the number of counted people, Jared." Jasper stated, "The real number is much higher. Just look at Ajax and Fairfax. There are millions of street level people in the US alone, maybe as many as a few hundred million. We don't have anything more than a guess, and it is far worse in other parts of the world. We think China tops out at over ten billion if we count street level, and Europe is probably close to double the fifteen billion on the records, since we know France, Italy, Greece, Belgium, Spain, and several other countries have gone bankrupt a couple of times and records are fractured at best. There are rumors of some of the ancient underground networks in many European cities being lived in by mass numbers of street level people."

Ajax came over and joined the growing group, "No way… No one can live below ground in a CHZ, the sewage pours out of the towers into huge grates and it all goes underground. Anyone down there would drown in liquid waste!"

Jasper noticeably shuddered at the thought as he moved and patted Ajax on the back. "Like I said, son, those are only rumors. However, there are more than a few much higher up than me who firmly believe it and have access to information I don't. All I do know, is there is considerably more than sixty billion humans on Earth. All I can say, with any certainty, you and Fairfax are quite incredible young men to have lived at street level, then to come here and proven yourselves the way you have."

Ajax rolled his eyes. "You realize I came here knowing more about survival than some of your classes teach, right?"

"Really?" Jay asked.

"Yeah." Ajax glanced over with a hint of annoyance in his eyes. "I had to live on the streets, find food, water, and shelter. I learned how to protect myself from rats, street level gangs, and lots of other things before I was like three years old. We have to keep clear of those who are sick too, since there is no medicine, and avoid getting cut or at least find a way to clean and bandage cuts fast since there is so much nasty stuff at street level everything can get infected real quick like.

"I have seen people have to cut off fingers, hands, feet or even arms and legs because they get nasty, bloated and start smelling bad…" seeing everyone looking at him oddly he took a deep breath, "When an infection gets bad, it gets a different smell to it. The only thing to do is to cut it off, or out, once it gets the smell, then burn the area around it. There are hundreds, probably thousands at street level with missing body parts and burned where the cut off part was sealed off. It is the only way to not get the fever and die."

While the kids looked almost green after hearing this, Jasper knelt and pulled Ajax closer as the boy started to tear up. "It is called gangrene. It starts when part of the body tissue dies then festers. If any of you want to know more about it, there are lots of accounts of it during the first US Civil War. Modern medicine has all but eliminated it, but for those without access, it can kill if not treated. To be honest, I have never thought about how common such problems must be at street level."

Jasper couldn't help but pull Ajax a little closer and give him a quick kiss on the top of his head. "You are right, by the way; you probably do have survival skills above what we teach. However, some of the things we incorporate into our classes are certainly better and safer than what you learned down on the streets of Chi-Troit."

"I have learned a lot, but some of it is beyond the reach of those at street level." Ajax took a few deep breaths to calm himself some. "At least here you can drink rain water. By the time rain hits the streets of Chi-Troit the water has hit the buildings and it is nasty and dangerous. If it hasn't rained for a while the water actually burns when it hits skin. If it rains too hard, the rats move up and it gets even more dangerous.

"Breaking into buildings can be risky, because being hit with a zap camera all but means certain death since the rats will get to you. And if they don't the armed street gangs will. At least once we got in, the sonic devices tend to keep the rats away, especially if you sleep right next to one. Still, some rats and roaches are not pushed back by them. Those have to be killed before you can sleep safely. Those also tend to be what is most eaten. Rats can be cooked over the main steam pipes coming out of the fusion generators…"

Seeing most of the others were starting to look physically ill, Ajax stopped. "Sorry, guys."

Jay swallowed hard. "Hey, not your fault… But still… Yuck!"

Jeff forced a smile, "Um, so much for me eating breakfast. Anyone up for a hike or something?"

"Good idea." Jared stated while clearly cringing. "I'm in."

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