Chapter 1

My name, and I’m not making this up, is Baxter Moon. I’m a second year space scout at the Galactic Academy of Scouts. We all call it GAS for short.

Before I came here, I was just plain Baxter Moon, happy-go-lucky kid. That was until the day I entered a video game contest playing Star Scout Seven-4D. Much to my surprise I won. Even more to my surprise, the grand prize was a full scholarship to the elite Galactic Academy. Second prize was a ten-meter, paper-thin screen, super-duper high definition TV. On a lot of days, I was pretty certain I got shafted mega time.

“Pull up, Baxter! Pull up!” GiS shouted, banging both his hands and his feet off the top of his head. If his face could have turned color, I’m sure it would have been beet red.

“I can do this,” I said, slowly, with all the confidence I could muster.

I adjusted the pitch of my shuttle just a touch to the left. I held my breath and watched on the front view window as a rock-like asteroid, twice the size of our shuttle, slid by missing us by a paper’s width.

Zenna and Elvin each breathed a little sigh of relief. It was nice to know my crew had such faith in me.

“You can’t do this, Baxter!” GiS screeched. “It’s too dangerous!” It was funny, when things were calm, GiS was always so prim and proper, well at least as prim as a chimp could be. Only as soon as things got a little dicey his calm, proper demeanor would go flying out the window.

“I can do this,” I repeated. “I just need a little faith from my crew.”

“I trust you, Baxter,” Zenna said, as upbeat as ever.

While it was nice to have Zenna’s support, her vote of confidence didn’t exactly boost my confidence. Zenna is a great girl, like the sister that I never had. A sister that I get along with, I might add.

She’s as strong as an ox. Well, actually four oxen. Certainly, if there is a fight I want her on my side. She also has a great feel for things mechanical and electrical. If it’s broken she can fix it. If it’s not broken she can improve it. Just don’t ask her how she did it. She won’t be able to explain.

The thing with Zenna is… How can I word this nicely? Let me put it this way. Mentally, she’s slower than mega-thick molasses on Pluto. Whatever they did to Zenna to improve her physical strength made the part of her brain that processes certain bits of information not quite right. I guess nature likes to balance things out, no matter how much science tries to tip the scales one way or another.

I eased the shuttle’s control joystick gently to the right. The left side of the ship lifted ever so slightly. Another couple of boulder-sized asteroids passed harmlessly underneath.

“This is not the proper action!” GiS insisted, hairy arms crossed over his chest.

“Cutting through this asteroid field saves us three hours on our trip,” I insisted back.

“Yes, but only if we make it there alive,” GiS said, being even more insistent.

“Details, details,” I said with a smile. I was hoping that if I smiled enough, both my crew and I would have more faith in my judgment.

Elvin’s fingers glided over his control screen as he entered some calculations. “Actually, we save three hours and twenty-two minutes,” he said.

“See?” I said.

Elvin performed a few more calculations, running his fingers over the console so nimbly they were a blur. “Of course, we still have three thousand four hundred and seventy-seven more asteroids to avoid. Give or take one.”

“That just happens to be my lucky number,” I said.

Elvin looked at his screen. “I estimate there is a 1.3456 percent chance of success.”

“That just happens to be my other lucky number,” I said.

Elvin is Zenna’s twin brother. While they may be twins by birth, or pseudo-birth in this case, they certainly aren’t identical twins. In fact they are extreme-opposite, or anti-twins. While Zenna has dark hair, brown eyes and is tall and powerfully built, Elvin has light hair, green eyes and is short and definitely not powerfully built. On windy days back on Earth you could use him as an old-fashioned kite. Except for his agile fingers, he is the biggest klutz I have ever seen, and that’s being kind. I’ve seen him fall out of bed when he was awake. I’ve seen him fall off a tricycle that wasn’t moving. I’ve seen him trip and fall over a painted line on a floor. Though that time he claimed both his shoes were untied. When I pointed out his shoes had Velcro instead of laces, he noted studies showing how when loose, Velcro ties can be just as dangerous as laces. I didn’t argue. I may not be the brightest laser in the tool kit, but I can recognize an argument I can’t win.

On the up side, what Elvin lacks in muscle and coordination he makes up for in sheer brainpower. The dude is smart. If they cloned a new Einstein he’d be Elvin’s student and Elvin would have to speak slowly to him. If I didn’t know Elvin was flesh and blood (because I’ve seen him bleed so much) I’d swear he was a living, walking computer.

“Baxter, on September 7th, 2096, the day we started at the GAS, you told me your lucky number was 17. I remember it very clearly, it was around 13:05:04 and you were wearing that ripped green shirt with the holographic tongue. The one the commander hated so much.”

“My lucky numbers change to match my mood,” I said.

I pulled the control stick back rapidly, pulling the ship up. A jagged asteroid that had to be bigger than my parents’ house, passed underneath us. I steadied the shuttle.

I saw two more massive asteroids coming toward us; one on the left, the other on the right. I rolled the shuttle to the side, slipping between them. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Dive! Dive! Dive!” GiS shouted, while flailing his arms and legs and anything else he could flail.

“We’re not in a submarine,” I said, holding steady.

“I am your commanding officer,” GiS said, which was kind of sad and scary, sad because it was true, scary because like I mentioned before, he’s a chimp. Obviously, he isn’t just any chimp. He’s a genetically improved chimp. GiS is smarter than your average chimp. He’s much smarter than your above- average chimp. In fact, he’s smarter than most humans. The world classifies him as a genetically improved simian (or GiS). Still, to quote some dead old writer, a chimp by another name is still a chimp. Okay, maybe that’s not the exact quote, but you get the idea. My boss is a chimp — literally. Sometimes I have a bit of trouble dealing with a commanding officer who is supposed to be lower than me on the evolutionary scale.

“I can’t believe I have to take orders from a blooping monkey…” I mumbled under my breath. Thing is, I didn’t mean to say it out loud at all.

GiS looked at me. “This is no time for you to go into one of your I-can’t-believe-I’m-outranked-by-a-simian moods!” He looked at me, took a deep breath and then went into lecture mode. “First off, I’m not a monkey. I’m a chimpanzee. We come from totally different families. Chimps are larger and smarter than monkeys. My DNA is 97 percent the same as yours.”

I jerked the shuttle to the side, barely avoiding a particularly nasty looking, jagged asteroid.

“I know. I just feel weird taking orders from somebody who wears a diaper,” I said, keeping one eye on the view screen, but still nodding my head toward him.

GiS stood on his command chair and put his hands on his hips. He squinted at me, his forehead beetling. It was a look only an angry chimp could give. I knew he was fighting back the urge to jump up and down and hoot at me.

“For the hundredth time, Baxter…”

“Actually this is the hundredth and thirty-second time,” Elvin corrected.

“For over the hundredth time,” GiS continued, “this is not a diaper! It is an ultra low cut, form-fitting, pair of official simian uniform shorts.” He looked up in the air with dignity. “Long pants are too warm and itchy!” he said. “They aren’t designed for really hairy legs. Maybe your bald legs…” He put his leg out and bent it backwards and forwards and over his head, looking at it admiringly. “Plus, these allow me full flexibility,” he said.

“You’ve made your point,” I said, as I pitched the shuttle every so slightly to the left.

“Besides, Baxter, GiS is older than we are,” Zenna, always the peacemaker, added. “He’s not even a teenager anymore.”

“Yes, that’s another fine point,” GiS agreed. “Not only am I chronologically older, but it’s a proven fact that chimps mature faster than humans.”

Those were all good points. That still didn’t mean I had to accept them. “Okay, you’re smart and you outrank me. I understand that, but that still doesn’t mean I’m wrong!” I asserted, keeping one eye on GiS and the other on the view screen and windows. “I’m Sigma-II Squad’s pilot. You have to trust my instincts!”

“Just as you need to trust mine,” GiS said. “After all, as you like to point out, I am a chimp. Instinct is one of the many things we excel at.”

“Yeah, that and eating bananas,” I said without thinking. Talking without thinking is one of my bad habits. I’m hoping I’ll grow out of it. Of course the way my day was going I wasn’t sure I was going to live long enough to outgrow anything.

I quickly turned away to focus my attention on the hail of asteroids that were coming toward us. I didn’t need to look at GiS to know he was glaring at me. I felt his angry gaze on the back of my neck. I couldn’t worry about that now. I needed to keep both eyes glued to the navigation window at the front of the shuttle. The window showed nothing but a bunch of deadly rocks, so congested the screen almost looked as if it was one giant rock. The nice thing about flying a shuttle, though, is we’re not limited to what we can see out the front window. The front of the shuttle is lined with view screens that show what’s happening around us from every conceivable angle. I scanned over the screens; frantically searching for any crack in this wall of space rock. Little rocks would be no big problem, the shuttle’s shields would handle those. I wasn’t even worried about the huge rocks — the planet killers. Sure they could splatter us like a bug under a size 16 shoe, but they were so big I knew I could maneuver around them. The things that made the hair on the back of my neck stand at attention were the midsized asteroids. They could be anywhere from the size of a big watermelon to the size of a whale. If one of those hit us, that would be major trouble. I wasn’t about to let that happen. I scanned the view screens again, looking for my opening. I noticed a small space in a barrage of rocks just to the left of us.

I tilted the control stick to the left and pushed down just a nudge. The shuttle dipped. A huge, spiked asteroid that looked like a metallic porcupine passed overhead. I had to time this right.

I squeezed the thrust button, just a pinch.

The shuttle’s engine gave a quick extra burst. The shuttle jumped forward. I dipped the head just so slightly. I could see there was a huge, triangular rock jetting toward us. I needed to make sure the porcupine rock had completely passed over, before I dodged the triangle. Pulling this off it was going to take a lot of skill and even more luck.

Suddenly, the ship started to spin. Red warning lights started to flash. It’s never a good sign when red lights flash.

“Uh oh,” Elvin said, looking at a control panel. “That last one nipped our tail. Control will be reduced 55.55 percent.”

“Great! Just what we need when we are trying to navigate through an asteroid field!” GiS said, arms and legs crossed. “You should have listened to me!”

“Not helping here, GiS,” I shouted as I struggled to keep the shuttle steady.

The triangular space rock was barreling straight at us. I didn’t have the controls to maneuver around it. I had to go to plan B and fast. The only problem was I didn’t have a plan B.

The killer rock was growing bigger and bigger on our view screen. This called for a desperate measure. I popped the safety cover off the control stick’s red fire trigger. “I’m opening up fire now!” I shouted, squeezing the trigger, not once but three times. When in doubt go for the overkill.

“No,” GiS shouted.

It was too late. The energy bursts from the nose of our shuttle hit the approaching rock dead on. The laser blasts shattered the one big, deadly rock coming toward us at breakneck speed, into a lot more than one, not-quite-so-big-but-still-quite-deadly-rocks zooming toward us at break-pretty-much-everything speed.

I knew this would happen, but I was sure the shields could take it.

“The shields can take this barrage. Right?” I asked.

“I wish you’d asked me that before you fired,” Elvin said, concentrating on the numbers flashing across his control panel. “The shields were built to handle a few asteroids hitting us. I estimate we are about to be hit by over three thousand asteroids. The sheer numbers will cause the shields to overload…”

“Oh great, now you tell me,” I said. The shuttle rocked with the collisions. I fought to maintain control. Smoke started pouring out of both GiS’s and Elvin’s control panels.

“Navigation, shields and drive are down!” Elvin shouted. “This is only the beginning — of the end!” A warning siren started to blare all around us. I guess that was just in case we didn’t notice the smoke and the flashing lights.

Elvin looked at his panel and shook his head. “We’ve taken hull damage,” he looked at his screen, “everywhere!” he said.

“Could you be a bit more specific?” I asked. He shook his head. “I could, but it won’t matter.” He pointed to the main window, which was unfortunately still quite functional.

I gulped.

There was a monstrous, mother of all asteroids bearing down on us. It had splat written all over it. Even though it had to be a few hundred kilometers away, it still dominated the window and all the view screens. Without navigation there was no way I could avoid it.

“Not good. Not good at all,” I said.

“I still have faith in you, Baxter,” Zenna said.

I was glad somebody did. I had maybe five tics to think of something. The first thing that popped into my mind was, “Mega-bloop, I’m dumb!” While that may have been true, it wasn’t especially helpful. Another thought jumped into my brain. It was a desperate thought. But it was all I had.

“The tractor beam!” I said. “It’s still functional. Right?” Elvin glanced down at one of the gauges on his panel. “Yes, tractor beam is still functional.”

“Great! We’re not space dust yet!” I said.

“Baxter, I know physics isn’t your strong point,” Elvin said slowly, “but tractor beams bring things toward us.” He pointed to the screen. “That thing is already barreling toward us!”

“Yes, but if we reverse the polarization of the beam, I’m betting we can use it as a pool stick, to bump the asteroid over us,” I said.

“That could work,” Elvin said.

I looked over at Zenna, who was already bent down under the control panel working away.

“How long will it take you to reverse the beam, Zenna?”

Zenna studied the panel. “At least thirty seconds.”

“How long before impact?” I asked.

“Exactly twenty-nine seconds,” Elvin said.

“Oh, that’s just not going to work,” I sighed.

GiS shook his head. “Well, at least you still have your amazing math skills,” GiS said, not even trying to hide the sarcasm in his voice.

I looked up at the view screen, still totally filled by the image of rocks. I wanted to take my eyes off the screen, but I couldn’t. It was like a bad hover-car wreck — you don’t want to look at it, but you can’t help yourself. We were as good as squashed. I braced for impact. Not that it was really going to make much of a difference.

“Simulation off!” a voice yelled.

The red lights stopped flashing. The smoke cleared. The blaring stopped. Everything around us, except for our chairs, faded away. The next thing I knew, my crew and I were sitting in the simulation room. Without all the holograms active, it was just a small boring room with yellow reflective lines crisscrossing its walls.

Commander Jasmine’s voice boomed in over the loud-speaker. “Scout Baxter Moon, please report to my office immediately.” You didn’t have to be nearly as bright as Elvin to tell she was angry — extremely angry.

I fought back a gulp as I stood up from my chair.

I nodded to my crew and made my way to the door. As I left I heard the others talking.

“I’m actually impressed. He lasted 12.4 tics longer than I calculated he would,” Elvin said, missing the point that we still failed.

“He should have listened to me and we’d all still be alive,” GiS said, seemingly missing the point that it was a simulation and we were alive.

“I still have faith in him,” Zenna said, seemingly missing the point that if it wasn’t a simulation we wouldn’t be alive.