Summary : Did you ever wonder why Keith's team went to Arus, while Jeff and the others went aboard the Explorer? It wasn't as simple a matter as you might think, and for Commander Hawkins, it involved a very hard choice. Five Go Forward By Rob Morris SPACE EXPLORERS ACADEMY, EARTH There were more than just twenty of them, but these twenty were all anyone talked about. Cadets par excellence, admired all the more because they were not the stuck-up fools most such favored cadets ended-up as. If anything, they pushed themselves ever harder with each compliment, and never denigrated a cadet who hadn't made it--just reminded them that anything is possible with enough determination. It was a good time to be a cadet, even with the threat of approaching war. The man many credited for this was simply called the Commander. James Hawkins was both exactly what you'd expect from someone leading such a group and yet he was also the ultimate subversion of all such beliefs. He had been called a diplomat with the voice of a mack truck, and he was followed for his adherence to the rules as well as his willingness to depart from them when reality intruded on nice clean regulations. It was good that he was such a man, leading such cadets. For the choice before him was the stuff of Solomon with the Two Mothers and Truman being told of the Atomic Bomb. He well recalled that some said Solomon had endangered the child in question, and that others said Truman had made a biased choice based on bad information about the costs of a land war. Hawkins was not about to debate either of those points, or any one in any case remotely like them. The time had come in those past times to make a choice, and then to live with the outcome. Just as it had for him then and there--and his decision would alter the fate of worlds. "Krik and his people went directly for The Sea Team. It's where their brilliance lies, and it was no surprise they snagged it early on. Even with that, their hard work meant that people already vastly overqualified were now thrice again the blindingly obvious choice for the post they sought." The Sea Team was not and never would be restricted to water-based missions. "Cliff of course had his team try out for all four slots to bring back something for when they dedicated themselves to becoming The Land Team. He wanted no regrets, he said. Wheels are on the ground, and grounded his team is. It is no surprise that the other teams typically ask his to play the opposition in war games--even forcing two of those teams to compete against each other for the right to face them. Because they are just that good." Similarly, denying The Land Team any mission for which they were qualified based on there being no land involved was something only done if better qualified personnel were readily available. "That leaves The Air Team and The Space Team---wholly undecided. Because the credentials and test scores of the two competing teams have made my job all but impossible." The two teams that had been decided on stood at the rear. The Commander's choice would let them know who became their peer-ranked leader, and who entered the nebulous but potentially infinitely exciting world of Special Ops--and the best rumor said that a secret mission of galaxy-shaking importance awaited The Space Team when they were selected. "Care to bet on whether its Jeff's or Keith's bunch gets the nod, Krik?" Krik took his response down a notch, and hoped that Cliff took the hint. The Commander had few buttons to press, but talking at the same time he was definitely met the mark on that front. "I am no octopus, my friend." "Octopus?" "I don't have suckers, and I don't take suckers' bets." Having pushed the limits of what might be heard, the two fell silent and watched the two teams in front of them. They were not quite a mirror of each other, yet that was there as well, probably making Hawkins' choice all the harder. "The few places that Pidge and Chip differ in the mechanical genius they lend to their teams cannot be said to matter. Space Explorers have to be ready for anything, yet you can never be ready for everything. Whatever they don't know now, experience will fill in. If you weren't fraternal twins, I'd have to suspect you were anyway." He looked next at Wolo and Sven. Men not apt to say much appreciated his few words. "There is the ancient story of an officer assigned to supply, because that was where his genius lay. When asked how he stood the dullness and lack of spotlight, he merely said : Isn't this my assignment, which I was told to do well? They also serve who stand and wait, and those we can rely on also know how to move when called on. I only wish one of you was the better support." Another two men who could be twins but weren't loomed large because they simply could not do otherwise. "I've found in my time that big lugs are either big bullies or have big hearts. They are the anchors of their teams. Rocky--Hunk--many are the times I've seen glares from you solve minor disputes. Your strength is quiet when it needs to be, bombastic when it is called for. Though losing either one of you would make food distribution on our journeys ahead a far simpler matter." The next two could not be more different, yet when Hawkins chose to conflate them, somehow it worked very well. "The military functions on two types of people--people who keep their mouths shut and follow orders, and those who speak their minds plainly and don't care whose ego might be offended. The latter is about the only quality that unites Lance and Ginger, and while one is certainly more apt to do so, it does not help my choice at all. For if I place the quieter one in an odd and untoward situation, and the risks were not made clear, what does it mean for the morale of the team? On the other hand, if the louder of the two is allowed by their nature to overplay the risks, isn't that potentially a morale-killer? Both are different approaches to the same goal, and as with Chip and Pidge, real life will make the adjustments training has not and could not." At the top of each team stood young men who were also different. One was quiet and studious, focused as a laser. The other was actually more apt to question orders than Lance, if such a thing was possible. Yet they were also the same in one important area : The others would all line up behind them without hesitation, for they were the natural leaders, the type of young people who one usually saw once in a generation, almost never at the same time on the same side. "Jeff--Keith--if I asked for ringers to be placed in the cadet structure, youthful-looking veterans to motivate the others, I'd ask for men who were like you. But you are the real thing, and you are the primary source of this excess of riches I find before me. The heart of my dilemma lies with you two. The test scores came back. Each member of your team beat the others in critical spots. But those spots were all close as well, and the total score for each team fell within the testing margin of error. No matter how we calculated it, or from what point of view we approached things, the results remained such that the scores alone cannot dictate which team becomes the Space Team. It requires a command decision on my part. While I don't like to waffle, I am also not a man to flip coins. I must by the end of this week decide. The two contending teams are dismissed. The Sea and Land Teams remain here for further instructions." While minor grumbling came from the two decided teams, they did as they were told, while friends and rivals departed. Outside the assembly chamber, Keith Kogane made what he thought to be the logical move. "People, our forces out there are being pressed by the Drules, whose paranoia kicks in every time we so much as long-range scan a planet. They need fresh faces and fresh blood--the vets out there have said as much--and the Commander needs to make a decision. Well, I've decided to help him with it." Jeff spoke, not out of suspicion of the only one to match him in marksmanship, but out of concern. Keith's ideas tended to be big, and usually needed to be taken down a notch. "Help him how? We've all been interviewed to the point he knows how often we cut our nails and brush our teeth!" Keith spoke with the conviction that was his trademark. "By removing my team from contention for the Space Team slot. We need to get out of here, and into the Drules' faces. We have each others' respect, but all that's doing right now is checkmating the Commander. If I withdraw our name, it shows hesitancy on my part, and makes his choice all the easier." Jeff was almost fuming, but kept himself from jumping Kogane. "And what does that do for me and my team? Winners by default? A trophy we never earned, an honor handed to us when we did nothing to deserve it?" Keith caught the tone in Jeff's voice, but did not rise to it just yet. "We're each equally deserving. Don't you get it? If someone doesn't make a choice soon, it may seem like the Commander just flipped a coin anyway. I know the Space Team will be well staffed by all of you, and I like to believe you think the same of us. I want this honor, Jeff. But not if it's going to get in the way of a Space Explorer's First Duty." Lance's tone was not as even as either of the two leaders. "Bull! You can't decide such a thing for all of us, fearless leader! If Hawkins came in here right now and said we lost out because Ginger takes orders better than me, I'd fight, kick, whine and then congratulate her and Jeff while knowing what ribbing I'd take from you four. That would be fine. They won, we lost and that's the way it is sometimes. But if you even try and give up, you better hope your Ki is at its best, because I'll clobber you!" Hunk pointed at Keith. "And I'll hold you while he does. You're also forgetting something, Keith. The Commander has more experience than everybody in this room combined. That means he has criterion for figuring this mess out that we don't. You take it out of his hands like that, forget Air Team--we may not even make the cut as Maintenance Staff." Rocky nodded in agreement. "I'll go ya one step further. Anybody gets noble and tries to pull out like that--I'll resign my commission. Where I come from, there's nothin' so dirty as a fixed fight. I'm bettin' on the Commander." But not all spoke out against Keith's idea. "Lance is right--I am better at taking orders than him. But that only applies to initial mission parameters. In simulations, he was way better at accepting orders when they changed in mid-mission--almost twenty-five percent more adaptable. Maybe---maybe what Keith said is the only way to help the Commander settle this. Otherwise, we're too even." Ginger's voice had notably been down an octave, which oddly gave it more, not less impact. Jeff shrugged. "If the Commander really can't do this one--we'll suggest what Keith said. Who knows? Maybe we'll just ask who he likes better, if that'll break this stalemate." The brothers and fraternal twins returned. Pidge spoke first. "We listened in on what we could, but they seemed to catch onto us, so we skedaddled!" Chip was out of breath. "But wait'll you hear what we learned!" Later, the two team leaders did their best to act surprised when Hawkins called for them. It wasn't hard, because they were still stunned. "An obstacle course, sir?" "An ultimate obstacle course, Jeff." "Commander, our skills have been razored down by computer and man alike. Even the Amalgamus Project wasn't able to find that edge you wanted to see. What good will an obstacle course do?" "Keith, this particular obstacle course has surprises that will in my estimation finally provide that last bit of missing information. We run it tomorrow morning and it stops when either someone finishes it or you all get stopped." Jeff looked very uncertain. "Sir, The Drules do use trickery, but their edge is blunt force. I fail to see how even the cleverest and hardest obstacle course gives us anything on handling that." Hawkins stood up. "That's because it's not for you to see, Jeff. It's for me and me alone. Dismissed!" Outside his office, two confused young men conferred. "Do we train for it?" Keith shook his head. "Either we have it now or we don't. Plus, to train, we'd have to know how the course was set up." Jeff looked back at the Commander's office door. "I've never doubted him before, Keith. I won't start now, but he's not making it easy. Maybe you had the right idea, after all." "I dunno, Jeff. He's got that tone in his voice again. The one that made me want to try my best when I first signed up. No, he's not making it easy. But do you want it easy?" The two let out a resounding 'No' and went to inform their teams that Chip and Pidge had it right. THE NEXT MORNING No one was late, or showed signs of duress or fatigue. Not when so much was riding on the outcome. The teams had even kept Rocky and Hunk from their midnight snacks--much to the chagrin of those who got too near them during breakfast. "The Land Team is acting as Security outside this gymnasium, while the Sea Team serves that role inside with us. No one will be able to compromise this test course once I have signaled to begin. Remember that when this is done, you will still be friends and comrades, and that the ones who come in second will still carry a high honor that no one can belittle. Jeff--Keith--are your teams ready to begin?" The two spoke as though with one voice. "SIR!!!" Jeff got into position. "I could stand to be part of the Space Team. This old Solar System's getting a mite crowded. I'll bet the special mission is a whole load of unexplored worlds, ones the Drules don't even have a clue about." Keith got into position. "I could be happy with the Land Team. As we send new colonists out to the worlds we find, we'll need to avoid the same mistakes we Humans made before. Like in 1999, when we nearly blew ourselves up." "The word is GO!" Hawkins used no noisemaker or weapon to mark the start. If the leaders weren't paying attention to his voice, it would prove a telling point in his choice. Both responded and got going. Hawkins shouted after them, again a test of their attention. "You may not interfere with each other, and while you may aid each other as you see fit, remember doing so may diminish the standing of your team as it costs you precious time." Tires on the ground; Rings in the air; barrages that started and stopped with no quickly discernible pattern. As expected, both men passed all the obstacles in the first stage, enabling Hawkins to set the next two out. "Hunk-Rocky--You are GO!" The ground didn't shake as the two beefy young men went out, but that same ground did make it clear it felt their presence. "Hey, Rocky!" Rocky shook the tire off his foot. "I'm not normally all clumsy like that. I ain't lettin' it slow me down none." Seeing no signs his comrade had a sprained ankle (or anything that could be used as a post-competition excuse) Hunk used his few seconds of lead time to reach the second set first. As expected, the leaders took off when the first of their subordinates arrived. "Normally, either of them is as agile as they are big." Jeff nodded at Keith's comment as they moved for the tunnel-crawl, followed immediately by the ledge-crawl. "I can't hold it against Rocky for a sticky tire. But like we needed that bad break?" Hawkins prepared the next two. "Sven--Wolo---GO!!" The targeted barrage suddenly went from anything that moved to only targeting Wolo's moves, at least for a few bare moments. Sven glared. "Machines should never take it personally!" As Wolo backed toward the first pit, usually no danger and easily crossed when one saw it, Sven used his belt to pull Wolo down to his back, where the targeting mechanism lost him. Re-securing his belt, Sven glanced back at the still-recovering Wolo. "I am sorry!" "Don't apologize! You did what you had to--and this course is not yet done." Wolo picked up the pace like a fanatic, and the gap was almost closed as they met Rocky and Hunk, who used their appearance to move ahead across ropes to meet Jeff and Keith. "Maybe I should become Maintenance--it looks like this course could sure use some." "You got that right, Hunk!" Jeff had actually regained a little time for his team as he and Keith entered a slide area, where each dropped flat with arms folded and legs raised. "Huh!? So how come you're still moving faster, Keith?" Keith's extra speed almost cost him as deceleration proved difficult, causing him to nearly miss colliding with the ladder wall. "I don't know--I think someone's been using that slide as a greased baker's chute." But up the long ladder they went, with Keith suddenly boosting his speed. Jeff chuckled. "Pace yourself, pal--we still have two sections ahead." "Jeff, get moving. Don't you feel how loose these rungs are?" Jeff had not, and suddenly both the one he was holding and the one his foot rested on gave way. Keith was quick, but tossed Jeff back to the rungs below. A leap was needed to bring Jeff back within pace. Keith faced him as they reached the top. "You still have one of those rungs?" Jeff showed and then re-pocketed one. "Keith--you don't think?" "That's just the problem, Jeff--I do think. Although I just can't believe it." Rocky and Hunk met them again, leading to their next departure. Rocky rubbed his ankle, not wishing to admit that the ledge-crawl's uneven surface had nearly done him in. "I just wanna get out of here." Back at the start, a man who was now under scrutiny signaled the next two. "Ginger---Lance---GO!" "Makes me wish I'd kept my big mouth shut that first day, pretty lady. Then, maybe you and I would have had a chance." Ginger knew how to shut him down--as did most of the cadets, female and otherwise, by that point. "Really? And here I was, waiting for you to even open your mouth just once!" The idea that he would ever be hesitant was counter to Lance's nature, but he moved to compensate for his error and caught up. When they crossed the second set of ropes, one gave way on Ginger, who snagged on to the next one with her crossed feet before resuming the evened-out chase. "I'm fine---don't you dare slow down because of me, Lance." "You may be fine---but why did that rope give way all of a sudden? Should that be happening here?" Later at the terminus, Pidge and Chip arrived, almost exactly even, but it had been decided. Every little incident had cost Jeff's team precious seconds, and even if Chip had come out ahead, the cumulative effect was all the same. Ginger walked over to shake Lance's hand. "I guess our big mouths and high voices will have to do their talking somewhere else, Lance." Jeff shook his head. "Not so fast, Ginger!" Keith nodded. "Jeff is right. This isn't decided---" Keith looked at the rung Jeff had held with disgust. "---not by a longshot!"