The Power of Dreams
The morning went quickly, and as lunch was finished and announcements were called, Jasper moved into the mess building with the other instructors. "OK cadets, I have a trio of landers coming in with extra instructors. Tonight will be the first night of testing on Wilderness Night Operations. If you want an outstanding grade, you need to settle on teams and get your gear ready. Each lander will take one team and no more than eight members to a night op test. You all have two hours."
"No warning?" Dillon gasped as he looked around at the shocked looks of others around him.
Jasper snickered, "What, two hours not enough for you, cadet?"
"We'll be fine." Robin stated as he stood. "Most of us are taking night ops and each team will need a leader. I'll lead one if it's OK with everyone."
This only got a laugh, so Robin smiled and looked over to the table with Team Nineteen, "Steve, you should lead one of the others. I have worked with you on night ops classes and you're great at it."
Steve nodded without hesitation. "As long as I get Dena… Whatever I miss she tends to pick up on."
"You two do work together great in classes," Robin admitted with a bit of a cringe, "but I was going to suggest she takes the third team."
"I'm no leader." Dena spoke with a shake of her head. "If you want another Night Operations test leader, it should either be Tasha or Timothy."
Robin let out a slight sigh, knowing Dena was selling herself short, but quickly turned to glance over at Tasha, "You're already a team leader and would make a good test leader…"
"Tim's better than me at seeing things at night, but I'll take second spot with him." The girl responded with no hesitation.
Robin thought about using rank to set testing teams around each group but stopped himself. This was going to be hard enough without people being stuck with others they may not want to test along side of. Still, he decided to make one call about team organization. "OK, we have team leaders and I want one of the San-San Near Ocean Seven guys with each team, since it will give all of us a better chance to see how they think and will point out things we couldn't even guess at. I'll take Saul." He looked over at the kid, determined to show the kid he was not quite the leader he thought he was. Judging by the look he got in return, he realized Saul was dead set on upstaging him.
Robin turned away and grinned while looking over at the others on his team, "Break up and go with the other teams. I don't want Saul saying I'm stacking the deck."
Oliver snorted, "Take him down a peg and he'll probably make Team Eleven a good team member."
"Such is the plan." Robin nodded in agreement.
Several hours later, Robin moved up into the wood line and knelt. He scanned the surroundings while he held up his hand stopping the others in the small testing group. As deep as they were into the test, the last thing he wanted to do was to screw up.
Dillon frowned as he tried to see what Robin had noticed. After nearly thirty seconds he gave up and simply waited for Robin to do something. Several of the others displayed the same trust in Robin as they also kept up their guard, but simply waited.
Saul, on the other hand, moved up next to Dillon and spoke softly, "What are we waiting for?"
Jason gave Saul a bit of a dirty look and even though he was whispering everyone around him could hear the annoyance in his voice. "Dude, I know you were out there without support for months, and you kicked some serious butt to be able to handle it. You may have a great grasp on Wilderness Night Operations, and could probably teach us crap we haven't even dreamed up. However..." Jason's eyes narrowed and his voice got even more angry sounding, "one thing you need to get into your skull is when Robin says something, the rest of us listen... as should you. Now keep your eyes open and mouth shut. We all want an Outstanding on this test."
Saul started to reply, only to get a light elbow from Teri. He frowned deeply at the younger girl but stopped himself from doing more as he realized the others were all eyeing him. After a few tense seconds he held up both hands and nodded. The loyalty Robin was getting from the others was total and, if he wanted to be part of the rescue effort, he realized he would have to play along. Sooner, rather than later, he was sure he could upstage the camp golden boy and could show the others he was better at all types of wilderness survival than some kid who had not even set foot out on ISTAZ yet.
Before Saul could fully take his mind off wanting to upstage Robin, he noticed a weird shadow move across the very bright polar lights up and to his right. He glanced around, realizing Robin was the only other one who seemed to be looking in the direction of the movement, and had been for several seconds.
Robin stayed perfectly still, ignoring the back and forth whispers of those below him. Wilderness Night Operations was supposed to be the most difficult of all the courses according to the information back at Dal-Houston. To show the importance the Explorer Corps placed on it, every team had to have three members who took it and two had to pass before the team could go out on ISTAZ. In addition, the testing for Wilderness Night Operations could not be taken until three other tests had been passed by those wanting to test for it. Although the reason for this was not given in the sign-up, Robin now correctly guessed more kids were injured or ended up lost at night than any other time. There were so many dangers out in the wilderness already, dealing with them at night only made it worse. Night also happened to be when some of the more dangerous wild animals looked for prey, which only compounded the potential for injury or worse. With those thoughts in his mind Robin took a few moments to review everything they had done since they arrived at the testing site.
In all truth, the background for the test had been pretty straightforward. They arrived in one of the gold plated flyers just after mid day, hiked around to find a good spot to settle down and finally established a camp for the night. They fished for their dinner out of a nearby pond, and got to look over the area since they had all been told there was a chance they were going to be close to where two of the missing San-San kids had last been seen.
According to Jasper, who assigned where the tests were given, the area was the best guess as to where the kids from San-San Forest Sixteen lost two of its members. The reports from the rescued kids from San-San Forest Sixteen were pretty consistent. They saw a lander fly over eighty-four days after the Star Storm took out their equipment. The second they spotted the low flying craft, a couple of them dropped their packs and ran up the hill. A few of the kids noted one of those who dropped his pack hadn't really lost much since he had been carrying the emergency communications unit and it had exploded in the pack the first day of the star storm. This had left the fourteen year old with almost nothing.
The rest followed, but kept their packs with them and moved as quickly as they could. By the time the five with packs got to the top of the hill, the lander had already disappeared from view. Totally disappointed, the kids moved back to their camp and decided to light a big fire in hopes the lander would fly over again and see the glow in the forest below, but once they got back to camp they realized two of their teammates were not there, even though their packs were.
They split up and searched for the two boys for several hours, but as darkness fell, they decided to move the camp to the top of the hill, light the planned big fire hoping for rescue, while also hoping the two missing teammates would spot the fire and find their way back to the team, neither happened. The kids from San-San Forest Sixteen spent an additional two weeks searching the area, but with no sign of their friends and natural food running low, they packed up. In a last ditch effort to help their missing buddies, they decided to put a red cloth on the boys' packs and tie them high enough into the trees to where they might be spotted but safe from animals. They even added a few extras like a battery charger and a stun rifle.
The rest of the kids then moved to the south, since they knew there were some small semi-wilderness Adventure Quest camps along the coast because they had spotted them on way to their ISTAZ zone. Fortunately for the other five members of the team, they did find one of the wilderness camps almost a month later. Once they told their story, rescue teams were sent back out in an attempt to locate their missing comrades, but nothing was found, not even the two packs.
Of course this didn't mean much, since the area was thickly forested and there was no way to pinpoint exactly where they had lost the other two team members. At the same time, finding two packs in the wilds of Zong was more about chance than anything else. Still, Jasper felt it was worth another shot, and since he wanted the kids to get into an area that was in a non-mountain forest, and three of the gold plated landers were available, it seemed like a good idea.
The whole setup of the test seemed kind of strange to all the kids. They had set up the camp well before dark, and done everything needed including get enough food to feed themselves and the two instructors. The whole outing had nothing to do with night operations. Within minutes of when Robin started to cook the fish, however, the test quickly changed. Much to their surprise, a black bear with a pair of cubs came out of the thick underbrush toward the smell of food. Upon seeing them, Robin had everyone back off, let the bears eat the fish left over the campfire, and waited till they wandered off. He was extremely happy they hadn't messed with the tents, but they did tear up the collapsible fresh water containers the group had kept near the fire.
As Robin watched the bear cubs use the ten liter containers as play toys, he realized why the resupply points had everything imaginable stashed in them. Had the animals wanted to investigate the tents, a great deal of gear would have been badly damaged. As it was, the group was down to one fresh water container. Even as unnerving as it was to see how quickly gear could be lost or damaged, Robin couldn't help but join in the quiet discussion as the cubs batted the light blue water storage jugs all over the place and even pounced on them as they started to roll down the hill. Once again he wished the star storm had not taken away the ability to take pictures. He would have loved to have had a video clip of the two cubs at play.
Even though Robin wanted to use his weird mental abilities to see how the instructors had managed to get bears to come to the campsite, he forced himself to stay focused on the task of getting everyone safely to a new site. The first thing he settled on was to use the last water jug to make sure the fire was out, then to get clear of the area while moving in the opposite direction of where the three beasts had gone. As soon as he found a clearing, he had everyone stop so they could make sure they weren't being followed while giving them a place to discuss options. He then made sure everyone in the group ate a ration pack before finalizing plans. By this time, the last rays of Zong's star were fading on the horizon and the polar lights started to take over the sky, so as one side faded in a fiery orange, the opposite side started turning a mixture of yellow, blue, and violet. The contrast was rather stunning so conversation stopped as nature put on the battling light show. Even the instructors watched in awestruck silence.
Once everyone managed to tear their eyes off the heavens, the discussion on what to do started. Opinions were varied. The real problem was the note-puters were still down so they could not upload information on bears to get more information about them. At the same time, they had no electronic maps. Fortunately, Jason pointed out the moon and the fact some of the stars could still be seen so they could use them for direction. Dillon was quick to join the discussion, as he remembered there had been a fresh water stream they had passed when hiking to the camp set-up site and it was well away from where the bears had been.
The hike back toward the stream was slow going. There were lots of loose rocks, roots, and other things to trip on, and Robin guessed, almost instantly, one of the things the instructors would want to see was everyone being careful not to twist an ankle or slip and fall because of carelessness. In an attempt to help others get an Outstanding Grade, Robin gave enough hints to where Teri picked up on it and made the actual suggestion.
While the going was difficult, at least the polar lights, combined with one of the moons being mostly full, allowed for some extra light. This, in turn, allowed them to see where they were walking most of the time. The other thing Robin saw in the back of his mind was the instructors wanting them to stay off of game trails since nocturnal animals would also use them and would be able to see much better than the kids could. This he pointed out to everyone to prevent anyone from suggesting it and getting knocked down a grade.
The down side of not using a game trail was it meant an overland trip with Jason using his knowledge of the stars to guide them in the proper direction. After nearly an hour and a half, something told him to stop. He hadn't seen anything, hadn't heard anything, but the feeling was there and he went with it. He held up a waning hand and took a knee to give himself time to figure out why he suddenly felt like there was danger close by.
It took almost forty-five seconds before he noticed what Saul, slightly below him, had seen fifteen seconds prior. It was movement in the form of shadows backlit on the ridgeline by the polar lights. Slowly, he pulled out his ballistic rifle and started to assemble it.
Most of those below Robin glanced around nervously, clearly not knowing what was going on. A few of the kids started to mutter about not having weapons since they all had energy weapons and were not allowed to use them during the height of the star storm. As they started looking around more wildly with each passing second, Saul finally spoke up softly but forcefully, "Knock it off guys! There is something moving along the top of the hill and I don't think we want whatever it is to come this direction because we are all making noise. Besides, after living out here for as long as we did, I can tell you, some of the critters out here can smell fear. Now settle down. He's got us covered and our instructors both have ballistic weapons as well."
Mr. Dietrich slowly scanned the ridge before he spotted what both Robin and Saul were seeing. He glanced over to Mrs. Reid with a roll of his eyes. "Did you notice it?"
"No." Mrs. Reid admitted. "To be honest, I was starting to wonder what the heck Robin was doing myself."
Jason glanced over to the two instructors, both of whom were unslinging their own ballistic rifles. "There is a reason we have compete trust in Robin."
Robin glanced back and noticed both the instructors had their own weapons at the ready. Satisfied the others were well protected, he pulled out a small optic scope from his pack and attached it to the top of his rifle. He then used it to take a better look. It took a few moments for him to find one of the figures, but when he did he once again wished he could take a picture. It was a grey wolf, actually a pack of them. He kept the largest of them fixed in his scope for a few seconds, then moved it slightly so he could spy on one of the cubs. A smile crossed his face as he wished he could go get it and keep it for a pet. Unfortunately, not even Gavin's social status rated the ownership of anything that could be kept outside of a cage, so he just as quickly dismissed the idea. On the other hand, he couldn't tear his eyes off it. The small canine just was so cute and beautiful he felt a little sad as, after a few more seconds, it moved behind some trees and out of his line of sight.
Finally, he carefully moved back down to the others. "It's a wolf pack! Man, those are the coolest things I have ever seen!"
Mrs. Reid kept her rifle at the ready but did glance over at Robin and grin. "I saw my first wolf last year. They are truly majestic animals."
Robin felt a shiver go up his spine as he glanced up to the top of the hill and watched as the last member of the pack moved down the other side of the ridge and out of everyone's view. A moment later, one of them let out a long howl. "Every time I think Zong couldn't get any better, it does!"
Saul chewed on his lip for a moment before glancing over, "You picked up on them like a full minute before the rest of us did!"
Robin shrugged, "And you saw them before our teachers. We worked as a team and we are all better off for it." He then looked over at Jason, "They are moving down the other side of the hill away from where we want to go, but I think we should give them some time before we continue."
Dillon licked his finger and held it up. He then looked at the others. "From what I read, wolves have great noses, so we should angle back to the east, so we stay downwind, then we can cut back toward the stream."
Two hours later, with the new camp set at the base of a rocky outcropping with only one way to easily access the new campground, Dillon glanced over to Mr. Dietrich, "So, did we pass?"
Mrs. Reid snickered, "What do you think?"
"I'm hoping I got an Outstanding." Dillon stated with a wide grin.
"We'll send you all up for review for one." Mr. Dietrich sighed, "I saw nothing you could have done better. To be honest, you all picked up on a few things we didn't even have on our list to consider. Your idea of keeping downwind of the wolves was an extremely good one."
Robin forced himself not to pump his fist upon hearing he may have helped two more from the camp get outstanding grades. As a distraction, both for himself as well as the instructors, he pulled out his gold panning stuff, "So can we try for gold here?"
Mrs. Reid shrugged, "To be honest, I don't really know if there is gold in this stream or not. We are directly down stream from the mountains, though, so it can't hurt to try. Just remember, you all have a long hike back to the pick-up location tomorrow and you all still have your first round testing to deal with while we work to finalize the new classes."
Jason shook his head, "Robin and I don't. We all have taken all our tests, and if we passed then we are good."
"Same with me, and Dillon, Mrs. Reid," Teri spoke up. "We only have laser rifle testing and can't take it until tomorrow evening or the next day, after the first wave of the star storm passes."
Saul glanced over, "I just came out on this 'cause Robin said… But it's good I did since it gives me another shot at it. Besides," Saul sighed, "it's the only test I didn't pass…" He let out another long breath, "Man did my whole testing group look like a bunch of screw-ups. I am amazed any of us passed it."
Robin moved over to the stream with Jason and Dillon, each getting a healthy amount of sand from the bottom of the stream. "So what did you all do wrong?"
Saul sighed, "Well, the first time we got a radio message of a large fast moving storm, so we had to move since we were on the beach and the waves and wind would have ripped up the camp. The message said we only had thirty to forty minutes..." He then shook his head in total disgust. "They failed all of us twenty minutes in."
"Why?" Teri almost demanded to know.
Robin couldn't help it, he snickered as he saw the answer in the middle of his head.
"What's so funny?" Saul demanded to know with more than a little anger.
"You forgot to totally put out the fire." Even as he said it, he instantly regretted it. The last thing he wanted to do was look like a freak to the others.
Saul gasped so loudly it almost sounded like he had been punched in the gut. He also had to scramble and finally dive into the water to prevent his gold pan from floating down steam since he had dropped it. As he pulled himself out of the cold water and shivered he stared at Robin for several seconds before finding any words. "How… How did you…"
Jason also eyed Robin with some astonishment but spoke up. "Probably because it is the only thing I can think of that would get you all an auto-fail right out the gate. Of course I would not have guessed it, but now, after Robin mentioned it… well, it makes total sense. I can't see any other instant failures so early into a test like this."
"There are a few others." Mr. Dietrich admitted, "Such as not checking the camp for safety, which in their case meant not setting it up below the high tide mark, but yeah, the fire is a pretty much instant failure thing, especially considering the backdrop was a storm warning and as you have all been repeatedly told, wind can fan embers back into a fire in no time."
He then turned to Robin, "Still, mighty fine guess. You could make a fine instructor for us here one of these years."
"He sure would." Mrs. Reid agreed. "Not many could guess at an instant failure point of a test he was not even at. To be honest, we don't have many, but fire safety is a huge key to all ISTAZ training and testing. To not put one fully out after getting a storm warning is pretty bad."
Dillon nodded as he suddenly understood, "And with a storm comes wind. You could have started a wild fire!"
Saul moved back to the fire, tossed his gold pan off to the side and pulled out some dry clothing. He totally stripped, toweled off, and changed, not really caring who was watching. "Yeah, we were total idiots. I still can't believe none of us caught it before we started hiking up the hill away from the beach."
"What about the second and third time you tested?" Dillon asked.
"After the fire thing, we had to retake the whole course, so we only got one more shot." Saul grunted as he pulled a dry heavy warm shirt on and started to hang his wet stuff close to the fire so it would dry. "As far as what I screwed up on the second time, I have no idea. But only half of the others passed and only passed. I know we did stay on a game trail for a while, but got off after one of the others spotted cougar tracks. We also decided to set up camp right after it started raining, and one of the e-domes was damaged by a falling branch. To be honest, I was just so glad Dwight passed to give us our second team member with a passing grade; I didn't worry about it too much. Besides, it was the last night before we shipped out to our zone, so we didn't have much time. Once we got back we did a gear check and hopped in our shuttles for zone drop off. Both Dwight and I were so tired the first day we went to sleep while the others set up our first camp."
A bit of a grin passed over Saul's features as he thought back to those first few days. "By the time we woke up, Robby and Ricky were about done with one of the coolest sand castles ever and Ryan was busy fishing. It was so awesome… the only sounds were birds and waves hitting the beach."
Saul wiped a tear out of his eyes, "God, I can't believe I may never see those guys again!"
Teri gulped, "We'll do everything we can to find them…"
Saul managed to give her a weak smile but it quickly faded, "So will I, but…" He choked back a sob and moved up next to the stream feeling all eyes were on him. He took a few seconds to fill his gold pan with sand then swirled out some of the lighter easy to get out stuff. Finally he started talking again, knowing the others were waiting on him. "Ricky… he's the one who fell off the cliff… I would have never even thought about ISTAZ without him…" Tears started pouring down Saul's cheeks as he spoke between sobs. "He came up to me at Dal-Houston and asked why I was alone and if I wanted to join him… without him there would have been no team… He recruited all of us… even Dwight… Now he's dead and I… I was too scared to go to the edge of the cliff to help… All I did was watch, then at the end I helped hold the rope… I didn't even try to do anything else… all because I'm afraid of heights… even after living on the 987th floor of my tower!"
Dillon put his pan down and moved up behind the distraught boy. He knelt and gently wrapped his arms around the now bawling boy, "Looking out over a cliff with no walls or windows for support is way more scary than looking out a tower window. You did what you could. It might not seem like much, but from what I have heard, if someone hadn't held onto the rope and pulled, you would have lost others. Your whole team did everything it could…"
"It wasn't enough!" Saul managed to shout out between crying and trying to take in air. At the same time he grabbed onto Dillon's arms and gripped them so tightly Dillon had to fight the desire to pull him loose.
Mrs. Reid moved up and knelt. She gently used her left hand to push up on Saul's chin so she could look into his tear and snot smeared face. "You don't have to do this… no one is going to think less of you for going back up to the space station once the star storm is over."
Dillon sent a sharp look at Mrs. Reid before speaking, "But, if you want to do this, need to do this, then you have a spot on the team who took me in and we will be here for you. We don't care what CHZ you are from, or what social caste you are part of back on Earth. You are an ISTAZ kid and that is something way more important than what CHZ you are from or what your community status was or is. You are my teammate!"
Robin nodded it total agreement. "Saul, what Dillon just said is right on the mark. You did what you could. Someone had to do what you did, and someone had to do what Dwight did. You worked as a team to try to save his life."
Robin paused and let out a long breath before continuing. "You know, there is a chance he didn't die."
"He fell…" Saul shook his head. "The cliff was like fifty meters high, and Dwight said he hit an outcropping about twenty meters down and then slammed onto the beach… he was moving, but there is… there was no way… the tide was starting to come in and he was below the high water line."
Saul continued to use Dillon for support as he forced himself to calm some. "I'm sure he washed out to sea otherwise we would have found him when we searched the beach. If he could have somehow managed to crawl up to the base of the cliff we would have found him. We searched the whole thing for like a week!"
Mr. Dietrich shook his head slowly, "Both of you have valid points. Should you all come up with enough missing kids I'll take the whole lot of you down to the beach in question so you can all look and see what you can find. In the mean time we have kids out there right now who need your help, including the other two from Saul's team. You should focus on ways to find those and then we can look at the long shots."
Saul kept hold of Dillon's arms as he looked up at the polar lights and took a few calming deep breaths. "If we ever do go back there, I'm going to cry even worse than this, and no matter what we can't take Ben."
Mrs. Reid nodded her understanding, "It looks like you will have all the support you could ever need, Saul. For now, let's change subjects, see if there are any gold flakes around here and enjoy the rest of the night. It is not often you can see the kind of polar lights we are having tonight, nor can most humans say they did so while camping out underneath them with friends."
After several hours and very limited success on gold panning, the kids retired. Once the adults were sure the kids were settled, they moved a bit away so they could talk. Mrs. Reid glanced back over her shoulder the back over to Mr. Dietrich. "Did you see anything any of them did wrong? We can't send them all up for an Outstanding!"
"I got nothing," Mr. Dietrich snorted. "They all contributed with ideas far beyond what we would normally give Outstanding Grades for and Robin is just plain scary with his ability to pick up on every detail and pitfall we set up. The wolves were not in the plan, but they handled it well."
Mrs. Reid shook her head with some amazement. "I still don't know how Robin picked up on them so quickly. I mean, Saul spotting them before I did, I kind of get. I realize he lived out here and survived for months. I am sure he learned to look for small details, but Robin had the problem pegged well before Saul. I have never seen anything like what the kid has done and continues to do!"
"He did way better than I ever could dream of." Mr. Dietrich admitted. "Look, I know we are not used to this, but they deserve Outstanding Marks. By now, Command will all but expect it out of anyone with Robin, so don't worry about it."
Mrs. Reid glanced skyward and watched the ribbons of polar light dance across the sky for a few seconds, "About the only thing he didn't do was find a lead on the two missing kids from San-San Forest Sixteen." She sighed, "Which is too bad, because finding those who split off from their teams, even by accident, are low priority and with limited resources they are probably in the most danger."
"It's a tough decision, to be sure." Mr. Dietrich nodded in agreement, "But if we are going to find enough kids to prevent San-San from demanding we scrap part of Adventure Quest and start colonization here, we have to focus on finding the full teams… At least I hope they're still in full teams. After all this time there is a good chance of arguments leading to bad blood. I wouldn't be surprised if several of them split off from each other."
Mrs. Reid cringed at the thought. "For their sakes, and the future of Zong, I hope not."
While the adults were talking, Robin was in the weird place between being awake and going completely to sleep. Beside him in the tent Dillon and Saul chatted quietly, neither one wanting to go to sleep, and both wanting to talk about the team which had 'adopted' them.
As conversations between boys often do, the subjects being discussed started to bounce around some. Within twenty minutes Dillon asked if Saul or any members of his team ever saw a rescue flyer.
Saul let out a long breath. "No… In some ways I'm glad we didn't though." He rolled over to prop his head up with his head in his hand and his elbow on the floor of the tent. "If we had been that close to a rescue and it missed us, it would have killed what little hope we had left. I'd have kept running in the direction the flyer went until I fell over!"
With these words a new vision exploded in the middle of Robin's brain. Robin blinked as the he found himself in a very small clearing with a fairly steep hill off to his left, in the direction of the sun. Looking around he realized the open hole in the dense forest showed some signs of charring, but it was pretty old and in the middle of the area a single dead, partial burned, tree stood. A closer look revealed it had its bark split and the ground around its roots appeared to be badly disturbed.
Suddenly a voice of a very muscular boy of about fourteen, who was starting to show signs of facial hair development moved up to stand next to Robin. "Man, it must have been a powerful lightning bolt to have blasted up the ground like it did!"
Robin looked at the tree then glanced up, letting him know the vision he was having was from a boy much smaller than the teen talking. "How come the ground blew up?"
A longhaired girl, wearing a badly torn shirt joined the discussion. "Maybe the lightning superheated the water in it and the roots shattered like the bark on the parts we can see did."
Another boy, very skinny, with his arm in a sling, winced as he shrugged, "Doesn't really matter. But this sure looks like a good place to stop. Besides, my pack is really starting to rub me raw!"
The muscular boy glanced around and nodded. "Yeah, we have plenty of food for a few days since we took down the deer and both you and Foster need a good rest." He then glanced over to the girl with the badly ripped shirt. "This would be a good place to test trying to make clothing out of the deer skin since it is open and we could better get it decently sized for you"
"What about water?" A blond girl wondered as she shook her half empty canteen for emphasis.
The muscular boy glanced skyward, "As humid and hazy as it is, we'll probably get rain, so let's be ready to catch some. If it doesn't rain, we'll spiral out from camp and find water in the morning."
The boy with the sling turned to look at Robin, "Hey Foster, can you help get my pack off?"
Robin quickly dropped his own pack and moved to help the taller boy. As he moved behind the kid, another boy tossed his pack next to the one Robin had just dropped. "Be careful Foster. I am out of stuff to re-bandage Lenny's arm."
Lenny started to kneel as he spoke, "Marlin, let it go. You did the best you could with what was left of your pack. It doesn't even hurt any more. I just wish I could move it and use my hand better."
"I just hope they can fix it when we get rescued." The muscular boy stated with serious concern. "The break didn't heal right at all."
Lenny started to respond with the unmistakable sound of a magnetic drive came from overhead. As all eyes turned in the direction of the sound, a low flying lander appeared, but its flight path took it just far enough away from the small clearing to where those inside never got a chance to see the kids below. It then continued off in the direction of the sun.
Foster watched the other boy, who had thrown down his pack, turn and run up the hill. A moment later the muscular boy shouted out, "Foster, stick with Marlin since you already dropped your pack too!"
Robin turned and sprinted trying to catch up to the older, stronger, and faster kid. He didn't even look behind him to see what the others were doing.
By the time he got up to the top of the small hill, he couldn't see the lander, but did see Marlin still running in the direction it went. Without a second thought, he took off after the boy. After nearly fifteen more minutes of running, he finally caught up to Marlin, who was looking down a steep embankment with a pretty fast moving river in it. On the other side he could see the lander well off in the distance circling a spot. Marlin knelt and eyed the craft. "We have to get over there!"
"How?" Robin found himself asking.
Marlin looked around as he started to move down the steep embankment. Suddenly the dirt gave out from under him and he tumbled the rest of the way, landing in the river with a loud splash.
Robin shouted for help, while sliding on his butt to move more safely to get down to the river. Unfortunately, he ran into the same problem as Marlin. The ground gave out and sent him down much faster than he wanted. Within moment he too was in the swiftly flowing river. He gasped and forced his head above water so he could take in a deep breath of air before going under again. This happened several times, until he started to lose strength.
Just as he was about ready to give up, however, the river turned and left him in a calmer area. Marlin was right there to help him get to shore. The two exhausted boys ended up on the muddy bank panting and hugging each other. It took over an hour to regain enough strength to really take a look at where they were at.
Marlin glanced up, noting the sun could still be seen, but was behind a bank of building clouds. "We're on the other side of the river."
Robin gulped, "How are we going to get back to the others… we don't even have our packs!"
"Let's get up hill and go back up stream, then see if we can go in the direction of the lander we saw. Maybe they were setting up a field camp or something."
"What if we don't find em?" Robin felt the boy he was looking through start to panic.
"We still have our vests and I have a battery charger and rifle. We'll hunt and fish for food until we find a way back over the river and then catch up to the others."
Robin knew the small boy could hear the hollow sound to the words, but with no other options he got up and followed Marlin.
For nearly two and a half days, the boys trudged through the thick forest. Much of the time it was in heavy rain, which made navigation difficult and footing treacherous. They stopped twice to pick some edible berries, but other than short rest periods they didn't stop and didn't sleep.
Finally, they came to a large clearing with a lake below. Night was just starting to fall, but there was enough sunlight to see something reflecting close to the water. The boys moved to investigate.
What they found was both horribly disappointing and extremely welcome. There was a campsite with a lightly damaged E-dome still standing along with a quartet of field packs. A deep indentation in the ground close to the lake clearly marked where a lander had come in, parked for a while, then left. There were also several bandages, some still crusty with old blood, right next to the spot where the lander had been parked.
Marlin called out a few times hoping there was someone at the camp, all the while knowing it had been abandoned. With a few tears in his eyes, he moved up to one of the discarded packs and picked it up. His eyes locked onto the tag, "Foster… This is Jacquelyn's pack from Forest Team One!"
Robin moved up to one of the other packs and kicked it over. His eyes instantly saw the large blood stain around the shredded left shoulder strap. "This is Keb's! He joined Forest One to give them their second Wilderness Night Operations guy. Looks like his communication unit blew up too!"
Marlin came over and looked at the pack. "Yeah… and it was right over his shoulder when it went." He glanced around at the remains of the campsite. "We aren't the only ones who got lost after the star storm. I bet they have all sort of people looking for teams!"
Robin found himself sitting on a large rock next to where the campfire pit had been built. "So now what? They aren't coming back here!"
Marlin started digging around. "Well, their equipment looks to be in about the same shape ours was, so they just left it. We got all sorts of gear here." Marlin lifted up a laser rifle out of one of the smaller tents and looked it over. "They even left their weapons." He handed it over to Robin, "Might as well take it Foster."
"I'm not certified…"
"Like I care at this point. Look, with both of us armed with laser rifles we'll both be able to hunt, and the next time we see a bear, you will not just piss it off by shooting a stunner at it."
Robin finally accepted the rifle and put it over his shoulder. At the same time he started digging through a couple of the other packs, scrounging what he could. A quick glance over to Marlin told him the older boy was doing the exact same thing with the other packs. After nearly two hours the boys had assembled enough gear to fill up two packs and had each caught a pair of fish for their first real meal in a couple of days.
As Marlin lit the fire he looked over, "You know, Foster, there are only five packs, sleeping mats, and bags here. Didn't Team One have seven members?"
Robin, who now realized he was looking through Foster's eyes, responded, "Yeah, I almost joined them, but you guys needed another spelunker, so I went with you instead." He looked around at the five packs. "Um, we don't have Rachelle or Paige's pack here. Paige was part of my team to start with. She joined Team One to give them their second Wilderness First Aid person and Rachelle went with her."
Marlin stuck a stick through one of the fish they had caught earlier and stuck it over the fire cooking it the quickest way he could think of. "Do you think all the ISTAZ kids from our forest training camp are lost out here?"
Robin shrugged, "Maybe… At least most of Team One got found and we know they are looking for us. The real question is, what do we do now? There is no way the rest of our team is going to be able to find us, and we won't be able to find them."
Marlin nodded slowly and looked around. "What if we just stay here?"
Marlin made a wide sweep with his hand, "Look, we have high ground here to camp, a lake to fish out of, there are lots of berries around here, and I bet deer and stuff come here to drink, so we can hunt them. We'll build a big fire every night and have a really big one ready to go if we ever see or hear a magnetic drive. Surely they'll find us sooner or later, or at least come back for some of this stuff!"
Robin jerked out of his vision and sat straight up. His stomach rumbled as he looked over at the other two in his tent, both of whom were sound asleep, albeit muttering about fishing out of a lake and finding an abandoned camp ground.
Robin tore open a pair of emergency ration packs and downed them with astonishing speed; he then glanced over at Dillon and Saul again. He realized his weird ability had transferred to them, but since both were sleeping it had done so like a dream. He briefly wondered if he should wake them, but decided against it. The less who knew what a freak he was, the better.
He carefully pulled on his pants, grabbed a jacket and slipped out of the tent. The cold air of the pre-dawn caused him to shiver lightly.
Off to the side Mrs. Reid glanced over from where she had positioned herself to watch over the area and guard the kids. "You OK, Corporal?"
Robin glanced over, somewhat surprised anyone else was up. He shook his head to clear it and get rid of the last of the vision. He then moved around the backside of a few larger rocks to relieve himself which gave him a few precious seconds to think. With a great deal of nervousness, he moved back around and looked down as he spoke softly, "Ma'am I know this is going to sound really strange, but do you know where five of the seven kids from San-San Forest One were found?"
Mrs. Reid's eyebrows shot up, "Um, yeah… How did you know we only found five of them?"
Robin ignored the question. "How far away is the lake from where we are now?"
Mrs. Reid's eyes went wide as she cocked her head to the side. "Who said anything about a lake?"
Robin let out a long breath, "Ma'am, please… how far from the lake are we, and are we on the same side of the river or the opposite side."
The twenty-eight year old woman started to say something but she simply couldn't find the right words. Instead her jaw dropped open as she eyed the slender red-haired lad with total confusion.
Robin rubbed his hand through his hair and spoke with a bit of desperation in his voice, "Sometimes I get these gut feelings… and sometimes they're right. I just need to know how far away from the lake we are."
Mrs. Reid shook her head vigorously like she wanted to wake up. When this didn't help she frowned deeply, "From where we are, only about twelve kilometers, but it's in the wrong direction from the pick-up point… It'll put us over 17 kilometers from where we are supposed to meet the shuttle."
"OK," Robin shrugged then spoke with a great deal more force, "so we'll need to get moving fast. The real question is, can you get us there?"
This time her eyes narrowed, as she studied Robin for any sign of this being some kind of joke. She certainly wouldn't put it past Jasper to give a kid some extra information to play some kind of sick prank. The man's sense of humor was well known to be somewhat twisted. However, as she looked into Robin's eyes, all she saw was desperation. "I have some non-electronic maps… So between Mr. Dietrich and me, we can get you there…"
"Then get him up. I'll get the others."
Mrs. Reid held up her hand to stop Robin, "First off, you realize if we head out in the dark, your test will not be considered done, right?"
"I don't care. All it will do is give you more reasons to give the others an Outstanding. There are kids from the San-San ISTAZ there, I know it." Robin fired back. "If we have twelve kilometers to get there then have to hike back to the extraction point, we are looking at thirty kilometers... We can do it if we really push!"
Mrs. Reid slowly nodded, "Yeah, we probably could, but if you happen to be right and there are kids there, kids who have been out on their own for months, do you think they will?"
Robin cringed and looked down at the ground, "Probably not…"
The concern and dejection in Robin's voice was enough for the instructor to take a bit of a leap of faith. "OK, I'll tell you what. You try to get a few more hours of sleep so you are well rested. We will then head to the extraction point. Before we head back to camp, I'll pull rank and have them fly us to the lake for a quick look around."
Robin's shoulders slumped as he managed to nod.
Mrs. Reid patted the boy on the back, "Even if we don't find them, it will let you see how they were living. It may give you some ideas."
"They're there." Robin stated with absolute certainty. "I know it."
Mrs. Reid gently turned Robin around by his shoulders and gave him a light shove back toward his tent. "In the long run we will get there only a couple of hours later than if we left now, and if you are right, we'll have transport to get them safely back to camp. Now, go get some sleep before I add this to the report and you miss your Outstanding Mark for being too eager."
Robin tossed and turned the rest of the night, getting a little rest but no sleep. By the time they broke down the camp and started hiking to the pick-up site, Robin was seriously regretting the limited sleep he managed to get. Seeing the gold-shielded shuttle waiting for them was a giant relief. Still, as he climbed the ramp he turned to Mrs. Reid. "We go to the lake, right?"
She nodded and moved up into the pilot compartment. A few minutes later the craft took off and banked hard to the east. Fifteen minutes later the craft did a loop around a large lake and set down at the water's edge.
Robin was at the door before the craft came to a full stop with his pack slung over one shoulder. He hit the panel to open the door and jumped out, not waiting for the ramp to come out. He then moved toward the ring of stones marking where the campfire was and called out as loudly as he could, "Marlin! Foster!"
Jason quickly followed and made his way to the circle of stones. He put his hand over the pit and pulled it back. "It's still real hot! How in the world did you know?"
Saul was next out. He paused as he saw a tent tucked just into the trees; only it was not a normal one. Instead it was made out of animal hide. As he moved toward it, a girl appeared. She was very skinny and her eyes were wide. Saul's jaw dropped in astonishment as he ran up to the girl, "Guys, over here!"
Before anyone else could so much as make a move, two boys came out from behind a similar animal hide tent. The taller boy was limping badly, but doing his best to run. The younger, smaller one shouted, "We're here! We're here! Don't leave!"
Robin quickly moved up to the older boy. "Hey, we aren't going anywhere…" he then grabbed the stumbling older boy. "I got ya, Marlin! Let me help you. Are both Rachelle and Paige here?"
Foster came over with tears of joy in his eyes, "Paige was taking a bath." He pointed down to a spot mostly sheltered by tall reeds. "Rachel is over there." He quickly turned and pointed to the girl Saul was handing an emergency rations pack to.
At the shuttle door, Mrs. Reid and Mr. Dietrich exchanged stunned glances while the shuttle crew rushed past with medical supplies and food. Mr. Dietrich was the first to find his voice, "This has to be some sort of a trick!"
Mrs. Reid moved slowly down the ramp and listened as Robin talked to the two boys. "Well, if it is, it sure as hell is a good one! Somehow, Robin even knows the kids' names and identified one on sight… I'm pretty sure names were not in the reports, and I'm certain photo's weren't!" She let out a long breath as she watched Robin talking to all four of the now crying survivors. "I didn't even know names, other than the kids from the Mountain-Forest Camp, all I knew was what their ID numbers were!"
While the shuttle's medic looked over the four kids Robin broke away from the group and walked around the camp. It was as astonishing as it was primitive. All the kids had managed to make clothing out of deerskin and two of the tents were also made from deer. A third, larger one, was made out of bear hide. As he moved up he noticed one of the tents had actually been sewn together by using a long piece of hide as string and had been looped into holes punched into the skin. It wasn't exactly pretty, but it sure worked.
Once again, he wondered about how people used to do things. Did they make clothing and shelters out of animals? Looking around, he bet they did. Finally, he moved back to the group. "You guys are amazing! How come the animal skins don't stink?"
Marlin looked over doing his best to force himself not to cry, but still failing, "I read about it once in an old history book my mom has on her bookshelf." Seeing the looks he managed a smile, "Yeah, real books. My mom collects them… anyway, it took some trial and error…"
"More error than trial," Foster said between bites of his first taste of candy in months while wiping his eyes to clear tears.
Paige giggled with a high-pitched sound showing she was beyond giddy at finally being found. She fingered her crude shirt made out of deer skin as she started speaking. "It has to be scraped and cured over a fire, along with some other stuff. Once we figured out the basics we started getting better at it. We screwed up a lot at first, though. Until we smoked them, they attracted bugs and started smelling bad real fast like. It wasn't until a couple of weeks ago we realized the younger ones made softer clothing than the bigger ones."
Conversation continued as Robin and the others helped the kids into the shuttle. Robin moved back to sit next to Marlin who was on a medical cot. "How did you find Paige and Rachelle?"
"They found us. They saw the fire we built every night. Paige said they saw it for like three nights before they finally stumbled across the camp. That was like months ago. We talked about hiking south, but I would have never made it with my ankle. I tried to tell them to leave me, but they wouldn't."
Robin almost asked how he hurt his ankle, since he had made it to the lake fine, but quickly dismissed the idea. Word had already spread about it being his idea to check out the old camp. He didn't want to give away just how much he actually knew.
The moment Robin felt the lander start to descend, he cringed. There was no way he could explain this one away, and unlike the short hike with Mrs. Anderson, this time there were several kids and adults who all knew about his gut feeling.
Foster glanced over as he noticed, "What's wrong?"
Robin tried to brush off the question, "Just tired."
"I think he's worried about people thinking how creepy it was to be right about you guys." Saul responded. "It even trips me out some."
"Who cares?!" Jason jumped in. "The important thing is, Robin was right!"
"Amen!" Paige stated. "I don't care how you did it, Robin. You are awesome and if you ever want to come tour San-San you can stay with me and my folks. We'll take you around to see some pretty cool stuff. My dad is a department head in the Historical Bureau and can get you in to all sorts of our museums."
Robin managed a weak smile. "Sounds neat, but I just want to crash for a while. I really am beat."
Foster slid over and grabbed Robin's pack. "I can carry it for you…"
Robin managed a grin, "Thanks, but rule one is to keep your gear with you." Robin stood and yanked the pack over his left shoulder then struggled to get his arm through the other strap.
"Man, you really do looked wiped!" Marlin stated as he forced himself to sit up from the medical bed and help Robin secure the pack properly.
Mrs. Reid glanced over and nodded. "He was up trying to convince me to lead a hike to the lake you were at, hours before sun up. I bet he didn't get any sleep the rest of the night."
"Just some rest." Robin admitted with a yawn.
"We'll make sure you have the rest of the day off. The critique of the test and resupply can wait." Mr. Dietrich smiled while ruffling Marlin's hair. "Besides, it'll be a few days before the next star storm wave passes and we can get a transport up to the space station. Until then, we have four new camp members to tend to and get settled."
Jason quickly agreed, "We'll handle clean up and find places for everyone, Robin, go crash for a while."
Robin quickly exited the lander and made his way to his team's building. Even as word spread of the finding of four of the missing kids, his exhaustion and worry over what others would think of him became too much. He didn't even bother to undress or stow his pack. He simply dropped his pack at the side of the bed and kicked off his boots. He was sound asleep before his head hit the pillow.
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