Rob Simmons lay on the floor, half under the table and half out, trying to figure out how he'd come to rest there. Bright red punch dripped off the edge of the table onto his chest, seeping into his white suit. The back of his head stung from hitting the floor.
"You idiot!" Tara Henderson raged above him, frantically brushing at her dress. She stepped back from the table, "You almost ruined it!"
Another face came into view. Duncan Rushford, her date for the dance. He shook his head at Rob in disgust, "Nice going, bubblehead."
Rob grimaced at the insulting term usually reserved for light-gravity world natives. He cautiously pushed himself up and pulled away from the table as a catering robot flew to the table with a rag in its hand. The robot quickly worked at the spilled punch on the table. Rob looked down at his suit and grimaced again. If he went home right away and soaked it perhaps a cleaner could save it. Perhaps he should. From being ignored by most of the compatible females at the dance, tripping while dancing, and then the punch episode, the progression for the night continued to slide from disappointing to horrifying.
Gilly Horton rushed to his side, helping him to his feet. Her brows knit with concern as she studied his face, "Are you alright?"
Rob gave her a sheepish look, "Yeah, I'm fine. Nothing broken."
"Come on, let's get you cleaned up," she said, taking his hand and leading him into the back kitchen area.
In the gymnasium, an upbeat dance tune invited everyone to dance. Rob didn't think so. He didn't need to trip and fall on someone again. As catering robots continued their work providing snacks and drink for the school dance Rob stood still while Gilly attacked the front of his suit with a clean damp cloth.
She shook her head at him, "I don't think this is going to come out. What were you trying to do, anyway?"
"Pour her a cup of punch. I guess I missed. I still don't know how I ended up on the floor."
"A rather spectacular fall which included your feet flying up in the air. I have no idea what you see in her," Gilly stepped back, wrinkling her nose at the big red stain that covered his chest.
Rob looked down at the spot. Mother would have a fit when she saw it. He sighed, "Thanks for trying."
She looked up at his face, scowling, "Now, don't you listen to what was said! You're just going through a growth spurt. My brothers go through clumsy stages all the time and then it smooths out."
"I wish it were only that," Rob said, the truth hanging on him like a dead weight.
"It is only that," Gilly insisted. "And one of these days you'll find a woman really worthy of your interest. Someone smart, intelligent, who is more your equal. Tara doesn't know a bionoid from a housebot, for goodness sake!"
Just like Gilly to think that way. To her every girl should automatically know the basics of robotics. With Gilly back with her boyfriend on the dance floor, Rob quietly left the Spring Dance. He snagged one of the taxis waiting outside. For him, the night lay in ruins.
Why did he lunge for the table, insisting on pouring Tara a drink, anyway? She was at the dance with her boyfriend, idiot though he may be. But, ever since he'd seen her in the foyer of the school turning into the corridor for the Earth University of Liberal Arts as he turned into the halls of the Earth University of Advanced Sciences, he'd been captivated.
From Tara's human heart-shaped face, sweet smile, luminous light brown eyes surrounded by jet-black hair, to the graceful way she moved. To Rob, it equaled perfection.
The taxi arrived home. Rob slipped into the house, but not fast enough to keep Mother from noticing the huge stain.
She took the jacket and dress shirt from him the moment he changed. "How did you mange to get a stain like this at a school dance?"
"Long story and I would rather not talk about it," Rob said before escaping into the bathroom for a quick shower.
The hot water felt good, but it didn't relieve the tension he felt inside. He looked at himself in the mirror as he toweled off. Fly-away blond hair, scrawny limbs, thin and narrow chest, no muscles anywhere. Sure, he might be a little taller now but if he couldn't stay on his own feet what good did it do?
He worked at his computer for a while until he heard everyone head for bed. The events at the dance continued to play through his head in slow motion, not allowing him to relax enough for sleep. It also kept him from concentrating on the design on the computer. He switched it off and headed downstairs. Maybe watching a stupid movie on late-night holo-vision would get it out of his head.
The ground level of the house lay in darkness except for a few safety lights in the kitchen and near the front door. At the base of the stairs Rob turned right, padding his way to the family room. Only, someone had beat him there.
Ben sat slumped at the far edge of the big couch. The room remained dark except the light cast by the movie playing on holo-vision. Rob took the other edge of the couch.
He turned to ask what movie was playing when he noticed moisture on Ben's cheeks. Rob stopped, shocked. Could Ben be crying?
Rob turned away, shifting his feet, uncomfortable. He tried to focus on the movie. There were enough action sequences he should have been interested, but he couldn't concentrate.
"You might as well hear now," Ben suddenly said.
Rob turned his head as Ben wiped his eyes, "Hear what?"
Rob's mind raced to the near past, trying to pinpoint what he could be talking about. In a few months Ben would graduate with honors from high school, so it couldn't be a test. He had lots of friends, and the chess tournament had gone well.
"I don't know how I'm going to tell Dad," Ben said in a subdued voice.
Rob thought some more, but it just didn't make any sense. Finally he asked, "Tell him what? I don't get it."
"I tried out today. The Galaxy Patrol Academy had an early placement test since so many wanted to try out. I flunked," Ben answered in a dead voice.
Rob sucked in his breath. Attending the Galaxy Patrol Academy had been Ben's sole goal in life ever since Rob could remember. No wonder he looked so upset, "I don't get it. You have the grades."
Ben gave a humorless laugh, "It wasn't the grades. I don't have the reflexes. I grew another inch, and I'm so clumsy even a Voraxian could beat me in a wrestling match. A whole year down the tubes until the next class opens up for new recruits."
Ben rose in one rapid movement and quickly left the room. Rob watched him leave, not knowing what to say. It didn't make sense, Ben was always active. He'd never noticed any clumsiness, but then he'd never looked for it, either.
Rob looked back at the movie. In a way, he felt relief to know he wasn't the only one falling over his feet. On the other hand, in Ben's case it cost him the chance to become a Galaxy Patrol officer. Nothing as bad as Rob embarrassing himself in front of Tara.
Rob stayed up longer than he should have, his mind tiredly working over everything that happened that night. Well past midnight he dragged himself up to his bed.
The alarm went off far too early. Getting himself to school on time literally felt painful. Ben remained subdued. Judging by how cheerful Mother was, Rob guessed he hadn't broken the news.
Ben's predicament occupied Rob through his classes. He would have been distracted from a lack of sleep anyway, but his worries made it even worse. It just didn't make sense. Ben and Nate were always wrestling and playing full body video games, unlike Rob. What was it about his reflexes that were so off that he didn't make the grade?
He sat down in Professor Anfosis' class, determined to concentrate enough to finish the robotic rebuild in progress. Fortunately, he'd taken apart and rebuilt several of the same model in the past. Nothing out of the ordinary stopped him in the rebuild. Part of his mind marveled at that, as he'd expected the test to be harder. He set a broken motivator unit on the corner of the desk after replacing it and pushed the test button on the back of the robot head.
The robot head swiveled, the eyes lighting up. "Diagnostics proceeding."
"Very good," Professor Anfosis said, picking up the motivator unit and taking it to the front of the class with him.
Rob sat back while the other students around him worked to finish their own rebuilds and trying to find the malfunctioning component. Some muttered quietly how they only wanted to build new robots. Rob looked at the robot on his desk as it finished its diagnostic tests. He didn't mind. Knowing how things were repaired would help design easily repairable robots in the future. Besides, if most of the components were still viable, why throw the entire robot into the recycler?
He felt it first. A deep shiver swept along the floor and up his body through the chair and desk. Parts in the bins along the other side of the room clattered against each other. The windows flexed, and warped. The lights above his head blinked. Even the air trembled.
Rob turned towards the window, his eyes frantically searching for the source. All he could see outside were clear blue skies.
"Everyone to the shelters!" Both of Professor Anfosis' heads shouted.
A thunderous shockwave of sound hit the building. The building itself creaked, the windows flexing even more. Rob scrambled for the door, afraid the windows might give way. An alarm sounded through the classrooms and halls accompanied by flashing red lights.
While the shrieks, yells and screams made it sound like chaos, the students quickly formed orderly neat lines. They rapidly descending one floor into a series of shelters located at the core of the University building. Heavy bulkhead doors closed behind them, sealing them off from the rest of the building.
Rob looked around the shelter in distaste. Who knew how long they would be stuck inside while whoever attacked the city. Most likely it would be Shadow. The growth and influence of the Shadow Syndicate concerned everyone, especially Galaxy Patrol. Every night the news reports pored in about their newest crimes across the populated worlds
When younger the conflict had felt abstract to him. He wished he could still feel that way. But now, after the attack that almost killed Mom, Dad's injury last year, and now Ben wanting to join up made it so much more personal. And scary. The thought of Dad outside fighting off the attackers added fuel to his thoughts.
"This is horrible!" Tara stood nearby, complained to her friends, shuddering as she looked up at the ceiling, "Why can't anyone stop them? Where's Galactic Patrol?"
Hunting for people with good reflexes, apparently. Rob didn't even try to talk to her, not in the mood for further embarrassment. But he could watch. Rob slid down a wall, setting his computer on the floor next to him. Tara moved her wrist upwards in a graceful arc, looking down at the time. Her wide expressive eyes cast worried glances around the room.
Okay, so maybe the squeal she emitted when another shudder went through the building could be annoying. But, everything else was so… nice.
Rob sighed and grabbed his school computer. He would drive himself crazy thinking things like that. Somehow, Ben needed to attend the Academy. That meant that this time next year Ben must pass all tests with flying colors.
How could they make sure that happened?
Ben needed training. That much Rob knew with a certainty. But, where to get it? There must be an easier way than the huge rooms needed for elaborate interactive holographic training. Ben had the book knowledge down, but could they do something at home to get him caught up with the necessary physical skills?
A vibration in the wall behind his back rattled the air in his lungs. Good grief, Ben wanted to go out there and meet the fighting head-on?
The hours went by slowly. By the time the Principal declared the area clear and the shelters opened, Rob's brain felt exhausted from thinking so much. He waited for more than an hour for a taxi as every student in the entire building tried to head home at the same time. With Galactic Patrol declaring the area off-limits for all transports except evacuations vehicles, the taxis and a few busses were the only options.
Mother met him at the door, enveloping him in a hug, "Your father called about the attack. Did they hit the school?"
Rob gave her a brief squeeze before pushing himself away, "I'm fine. I didn't see any damage to the school. Who attacked?"
Mother frowned, "A Shadow slave ship. Someone needs to stop them, before we're all turned into slaves."
Rob shuddered. No doubt, the news channels would already be guessing at the total number taken. Ben stayed glued to the holo-vid, following the reports. Rob retreated to the basement and his makeshift lab. To drown out the news reports drifting down to him from upstairs he turned on a music entertainment channel.
He sat down in front of his main workbench, looking at his latest creations. A short lab-bot moved along the floor, cleaning it of any grains of dust that managed to make it through the regular cleaning cycles.
His mind wouldn't engage. He tried working on the upcoming science fair project, but after the second stupid mistake he stopped. After dinner he resorted to a video game, the repetitious working of the controller easing his nerves.
The computer-controlled robot fired a shot at his character, ending the game. Rats, he couldn't even win a silly video game. Rob shut down the computer and went to stand over the wad of circuits and wires on the workbench, pleading with his head to make sense of it.
His eyes went up to the computer, and then back down at the experiment.
Perhaps he could combine it all?
Rob swiftly moved back to the computer, turning it back on. Mother came down before heading for bed, reminding him with a yawn to get a good night sleep. Rob later couldn't recall if he said anything back to her. His brain brimmed with ideas, schematics and points to research, and he struggled to get them down in a cohesive and understandable format.
The next morning he groaned when the alarm went off. Only a few hours of sleep again. This was going to kill him.
His bedroom door burst open. Meggy flew in, jumping on his bed, "No school today! We get to stay home!"
"Getoff!" Rob complained putting a pillow over his head.
"Come on, sleepyhead! Going to waste a day off?"
Meggy bounced out of the room. A moment later he heard her bouncing up and down on Nate's bed whose complaint was loud enough to be heard all the way down the hall. Rob managed to doze a few more minutes before his daydreaming brain abruptly focused in on one vision.
Of course! It would work perfectly for the base!
Rob threw off the covers and hurriedly dragged on some clothes. Mother was so pleased to have everyone home for the day she didn't complain his shirt wasn't tucked in all the way. After a quick bite of breakfast Rob retreated to the basement. He went to work clearing out another corner. Mother would surely complain about it later, but Rob needed the room.
Convincing Mother two days later to allow him to use some of his science fair winnings on parts and equipment proved to be a more difficult task.
"The money is for your advanced tuitions," Mother insisted as she studied the plans for a new robot she'd been working on for the last few weeks. "You know without that we couldn't afford the school you're going to now."
"And we have that school paid for the next two years. I can build some of what I need with the tools I've designed and built, but not everything. This is really important Mom. You have to trust me on this, I'm not playing around with something silly here," Rob insisted. He held the epad in his hand, glancing down to look at the numbers even while knowing there would be nothing on the list he could cross off to make the total amount look smaller.
She studied his face. "What are you up to?"
"Something that could help Galactic Patrol."
She started to smile with amusement, and then stopped, realizing Rob's face continued to remain serious. She held out her hand for his sheet. Her eyebrows went up as she read down the list, "You have a few big items here. Want to give me details?"
Rob shook his head, the self-doubts rising, "Not until I have a prototype working. If I need help, I'll be sure to ask."
She sighed, "Your Dad isn't going to like this."
"You don't know that for sure. Once I get it working, he might like it a lot."
She chuckled, "You have me curious! Okay, we'll do it. Let's see what that mind of yours can do."
The incoming parts filled every spare inch in the basement, leaving him with little paths between workstations. It didn't remain that way long as he used every spare moment to assemble the new device in the far back corner. Rob boxed up and moved several of his older experiments to the big shelves on the other side of the basement.
The programming proved the hardest. Rob downloaded and looked up all the Galactic Patrol missions he could. He created a data spider to collect everything possible on training techniques at the Galactic Patrol Academy and inserted them into the logic cubes.
Then came time to start testing.