9. TROUBLE ON OO-OLI 10*

The Challenge Centre on Oo-Oli 10 is like a theme park.
Is it as innocent as it seems?

Bea and Tony go with Chip and Hais to Dr Darque’s Federation Challenge Centre on Oo-Oli 10.  The challenges are computer-controlled games which are supposed to test the skills needed by a Federation agent.  Chip is desperately keen to be an agent, so she is miserable when she does badly in the tests.  When Dr Darque gives them a telling-off for larking around, Chip tells the others he’s a crook.  They laugh at her.  Then she disappears.

Length : 35 000 words.
1

“TAKE THE CHALLENGE.”

The little convoy of Awk trucks trundled over the stony plain.  From my cruiser, patrolling above them, they looked like a line of white boxes, with big black numbers 1 to 7.

Behind a rock to the west, two animals like green hippos climbed to their feet, disturbed by the passing convoy.  I swooped down, and my stun-cannon put them to sleep.

I was an agent of the Galactic Federation.  My mission – to escort this bunch of Awks from Station 16 to Station 17 on Zindi 5.  The job had gone smoothly so far – but I knew it wouldn’t last.

I dived to check the next part of their route, which wound through thick jungle.  A big ugly face poked out of the trees, with teeth that would mince an Awk truck.  I used my stun-cannon – and was just in time to use it again as a monster charged at Number 1.

I had a busy time – diving, swooping, using the stun-cannon as lots of animals jumped out of the trees at the trucks.  I breathed a sigh of relief when they got safely through.

I flew ahead to scout.  When I came back, Number 7 was snooping around the last monster.

“Number 7!”  I called over the radio.  “Take your place.  Now!  Stay with the others.”

So I missed the yellow pancake that squelched Number 1.  Of course, the others scattered.

I spotted another yellow pancake flopping through the air, and traced it to a bunch of cavemen with a huge catapult.  I swept them with the stun-cannon, then went back to the route and dropped a green flare.  “Gather at the flare.”

They answered me with a chorus of moans.  Why should they obey me? Number 1 had trusted me – and look what had happened to him.

I shouted them down.  “Gather at the flare!”

Slowly, they turned, and the five white boxes straggled towards the flare. Five?  Yeah.  During the fuss, Number 5 had vanished.  I never knew what happened to him.

The rest of the trip was a nightmare, because Number 2 hadn’t a clue where to go.  I had to shout instructions at him while I fought off one attack after another.

At last, I herded the survivors into the white dome of Station 17.  I landed the cruiser, threw back the hatch, and climbed out, returning from the make-believe planet Zindi 5 to the Federation Challenge Centre on the real planet Oo-oli 10.

The three girls – the Bean, Chip and Hais – crowded round me, all talking at once.  As usual, Chip’s voice was loudest.  “Did you see it?  Splat! That was brilliant!”

I grinned.  “I never saw it coming.”

“You made a total mess of that.”

“You should speak.  How many did you bring through?  How many? Three, was it?  Three?”

“Let’s see your report.”

At the terminal on the wall, a voice said,  “Greetings, agent.  On behalf of the Federation, thank you for taking that mission.  Please give your name.”

“Tony.”

“Thank you, Tony.  Please wait a moment for your report.”

In a short time, it came up on the screen.

GALACTIC FEDERATION

Name of Cadet : Tony
Mission : Escort Awk convoy from Station 16 to Station 17 on Zindi 5.
Report : A brave attempt.  Unfortunately you left the group at a vital time, losing two units.  You restored order well.
Result : In this mission, you did not show the skill necessary for a Federation agent, but you did show promise.  Keep trying!
Score : 71%

“What does it say?”  asked Chip excitedly.  “What does it say?”

I gave her a feeble grin.  The trouble is – I am an agent of the Galactic Federation.

A few months ago, I was just Tony Trent, age (nearly) 13, at school in Milton Avon, Scotland.  Then my cousin and I accidentally discovered the secret Earth base of the Federation.  We trained as agents, and became Troubleshooters, to tackle emergencies on Federation planets.

My cousin’s name is Beatrice Harrison.  She calls herself Bea, but I’ve always called her the Bean.  She’s a skinny kid of 11½, but she’s brainy, and I like her with me in the team.

During our training, we visited a planet called Dancer 61 where we met two sisters, Chip and Hais, and their family.  They look like Earth people, except that their skin is bright red-brown.

Hais (say “haste” without the t) is about the same age as the Bean, but Hais is fit.  She’s quiet and thoughtful.  I like Hais.

Chip is about my age, with a round, cheerful face.  I like Chip.  Most of the time.

Chip and Hais persuaded the Bean and me to go with their family for a few days’ holiday.  We went to Oo-oli 10, to the “Federation Challenge Centre” which had loads of buildings containing games boasting, “Do you have the skills to be a Federation agent?  Take the challenge.”

I read my report into my wrist unit, like a watch with a computer screen. The translation in their units caused a yell of laughter from Chip.

When she recovered, she asked,  “Who’s next?  You, Bean?”

“No,”  said the Bean quickly.  “I don’t want a turn.”

“Go on, Bean.  See if you’re good enough to be a Federation agent.”

The Bean used her snippy voice.  “Thank you, Chip, but I am not going to try that game.”

“Oh!  Well, how about you, Hais?  You’re not stodgy.  You’ll have a go.”

Hais wasn’t hard to persuade.  She climbed into the cruiser, and pulled down the hatch.  We watched the outside screen, which showed the display in her cabin.

Hais was sky-high.  The attacks were different from ours, but just as nasty, and she escorted all seven of her Awks safely through.

She refused to read out her report, but Chip wasn’t shy about doing it. “Galactic Federation.  Name of Cadet: Hais.  Mission: You know.  Report: An excellent piece of work.  You did your duties with intelligence and efficiency.  Result: You have the talent to become a top-class agent.  Well done!  Score: 97%.”

Hais tried to hide it, but she was super-chuffed.  I knew, because I could sense her feelings.

That’s the main reason why the Federation wanted the Bean and me to be agents.  Young Earth people can sense the minds of other races.  I could do that, even if I was rotten at escorting Awks.

“97%!”  said Chip, patting Hais on the shoulder.  “Tony, what did you score?”

“71%.”

“71%?  Did I hear you say 71%?  Only 71%?  What did it say?  Not good enough for an agent?”

“It did show promise.  By the way, what did you score?”

“65%.  Not bad for a beginner – and not much less than 71%.  I thought a real agent would score more than 71%.”

The Bean tried to save me.  “Chip, stop teasing Tony.”

That was a mistake.  First, it made Chip feel sorry she’d been nasty to me. That slipped over into feeling sorry for me.  I watched her nervously as that slipped over into fancying me.

That’s why I only like Chip most of the time.  She fancies me.  It’s embarrassing.  It would be bad enough if she simply looked at me – but, when her attacks come on, she wants to kiss me.

I headed for the door.  “Let’s find another game.”

“Yes, let’s,”  said Chip, hurrying after me – and trying to hold my hand.

Outside were gardens – patches of grass and flowers, around the low white buildings containing the games.  I backed across a grassy strip, keeping out of Chip’s reach.

“Come on, Tony.”  She was laughing, partly kidding – but I didn’t like the other part.

She grabbed for my hand.  I snatched it away, and ran – off the grass, and onto a gravel road beside a high mesh fence with jungle beyond.  I glanced over my shoulder.  Chip was chasing me.  I turned right, where the road went into the jungle, between two high fences.  Oops!  The road soon ended at a locked gate, as high as the fence.

Chip laughed, and called.  She didn’t use her wrist unit, but her mind said it was something like,  “Caught you now!”

I looked desperately around – and spotted a small gate in the fence beside the big one.  I pushed through it, and ran down a stony track, with the tangled jungle at each side, and almost meeting overhead.  Chip chased me.  I ran on, down the curving track, deeper into the jungle, out of sight of the gate.

This was too stupid to go on.  I stopped to tell Chip – in time to see her trip, and sprawl all her length.

I ran back.  “Chip, you all right?”

“I… I think so.”  She sat up, and rubbed her right knee.

She climbed slowly to her feet – and grabbed me!  “Tony!”  She looked into my face, and pulled me closer, while I tried to wriggle away.  “Chip, please!”

“You two!”

At the angry shout, Chip let me go as if I’d gone red-hot.

It was a man, probably older than my dad, but not much taller than me.  He was grey – grey suit, grey hair: even his skin had a grey tinge.  I knew who he was: his face smiled from posters in the entrance hall of the Centre. “Dr Darque welcomes you to the Federation Challenge Centre.”  But his face wasn’t smiling now.

He snapped,  “What are you doing here?”  He used a wrist unit, but he spoke English.

I put on my smarmiest smile.  “We were… playing.  I’m sorry, Dr Darque.”  I said Darkue.

“Darque.”  He said Dark.  “Stupid child.  Darque.”  Dark again.  That hadn’t made him friendlier.  “What’s your name?”

“Tony.”

“Hrm.  And yours?”

“Chip.”

“You should not be here.”  He took a gun from his pocket.