Back | Next


At the appointed time on Saturday morning, Mrs. Wren dropped JJ and Dyl off at the Challenger Center. With well-practiced movements, Dyl opened the car door, swung his legs out, positioned his crutches, and hauled himself up.

JJ scrambled excitedly out of the car. “Love you, Mom! We should be finished by four. I’ve got my cell phone.”

“Love you both whole bunches,” their mother answered automatically. Shutting the car doors, JJ grinned and gave her mom a thumbs-up. Mrs. Wren smiled back and drove away.

Moving quickly on his crutches, Dyl made his way to the door while JJ gave their mom a final wave. The parking lot looked empty, and JJ assumed the other invitees had already gone inside. She wondered how many had actually been invited.

“It’s not open,” Dyl yelled. He stood by the entrance and rattled the door to demonstrate. “This is a problem.”

JJ walked toward him. “We’re not too early. Where is everybody?”

He groaned. “It’s the wrong time, isn’t it? Or the wrong day maybe? What if we were supposed to go to a different Center? Did you bring the invitation?”

JJ took a deep breath. It didn’t take much to send her brother into “nervous mode.” She got out the mysterious card and scanned it again, but she had already double-checked everything. “Pretty sure there’s no mistake. Don’t be such a worrywart. You read the invitation as many times as I did.” She sat down on the step and turned her eyes to the tall rocket model that stood outside the front door. Its sleek shape certainly looked impressive.

As if he didn’t believe her, Dyl pulled an index card from his pocket and verified the information. He nodded to himself. “Check.” During his year of homeschooling with the Sutros, he had gotten into the habit of writing everything he needed to know on index cards and carrying them around with him. Dyl looked at his watch. “We’re three minutes early”

“It’s Saturday morning, just relax.” In truth, JJ was as eager as her brother, but she tried to stay calm and collected. Pilots and important space mission personnel had to be calm and collected.

Though it made Dyl feel more secure to put details in writing, she was too impatient to record everything as he did. JJ had a pretty good memory, and as far as she was concerned, if she couldn’t remember it, it must not have been important in the first place. Dyl eased himself down and sat on the steps, while JJ climbed onto a waist-high cement wall to get a better view of the parking lot. “Here comes someone now, turning into the lot, it’s a—whoa—a limo!”

Dyl gave a snort. “Right. Why didn’t you just say star-ship?”

JJ ignored her brother’s scoffing remark. “Someone’s getting out. A girl about my age, and she’s coming this way.”

The girl was short and thin, with straight black hair that hung halfway down her back. She came up the walkway toward them as the limousine glided away. JJ jumped down off the wall to greet her, grinning. “Hi, I’m Jenny June, but my friends call me JJ.” She pointed toward the steps, where Dyl remained seated; he couldn’t move easily enough to jump up. “And that’s my brother Dylan.”

“Just Dyl,” Dylan corrected.

The new girl did not smile. “Park Song-Ye,” she introduced herself coolly.

JJ pursed her lips for a moment. “Your name is Park?”

The girl crossed her slender arms and frowned irritably. “Park is my last name. It’s Korean. My given name is Song-Ye.”

“Then why did you say your last name first?” Dyl asked curiously.

Song-Ye barely gave him a glance. “Because that’s the way we say it in Korea. My father is a diplomat from South Korea, and we’re very proud of our culture.”

“But you’re not in Korea, are you?” Dyl persisted. Sometimes when he got an idea in his head, he just couldn’t let go. “Why—”

“Song-Ye, did you say?” JJ cut in quickly. “That’s really pretty.”

Song-Ye rolled her dark brown eyes and shrugged one shoulder. “Whatever.”

Though a little put off by the girl, JJ decided to cut her some slack. Maybe Song-Ye wasn’t used to getting up early on weekends.

Just then, a tall young man jogged up, his light brown skin beaded with sweat. JJ wondered where he had come from, since she hadn’t noticed any cars. He was dressed in jeans, Nike basketball shoes and a well-worn Seanjohn t-shirt. He nodded politely to each of them while he caught his breath. “Name’s King.”

“King?” Song-Ye cocked her head at him. “As in, ‘Who died and made you king?’”

JJ was surprised at the girl’s rudeness, but the newcomer grinned. “Nuh-uh. First name’s Elton, but everybody calls me King.” He glanced at his watch and gave a satisfied nod. “Three blocks from the bus stop, and I made it exactly on time.” They went through a new round of introductions. It turned out that they came from different schools, which made JJ curious about how widely the invitations had gone out … and why there weren’t more eager students here.

“You here for the private advanced mission?” King asked.

“Yes, but the door’s locked and we can’t get in,” Dyl said. “And it’s nine o’clock right now.”

As if his words triggered a response, the entrance to the Challenger Center unlocked from within with a loud clack. The door swung open to reveal a handsome, white-haired man in a blue flight suit standing in the doorway. JJ immediately recognized Commander Zota.

“Greetings, cadets. I am your Flight Director for today. Please come in.”

“Cadets?” Dyl asked. “You mean us?”

Zota held the door open for them.

“Yeah, as in, a few of us are total space cadets,” Song-Ye muttered.

Dyl swung forward on his crutches, shooting the Korean girl a mischievous look. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

As they went inside, JJ threw a last glance over her shoulder, but saw no cars in the parking lot, no students rushing for the door. She felt oddly disappointed. “I expected more people to show up. Who wouldn’t jump at a chance like this?”

Zota cocked an eyebrow at her. “I invited only you four.”

“Really?” JJ looked at her brother in surprise. “But why did you pick—”

“All in good time.” Zota led them down the short entry hall. “Today, we’ll use the advanced briefing room, where you’ll learn more about each other and about your mission.” He opened a door that JJ hadn’t noticed on their trip to the center only a few days earlier. Good, something new already. When the others hesitated, JJ bounded through the door to look around. Dylan entered last.

Though the room was small, it held a lot of equipment they hadn’t seen in the primary briefing room. The walls were covered with at least ten high-resolution viewscreens, each of which showed a different view of Earth transmitted from satellites. A silver panel blinked with rows of multicolored lights; other consoles had rows of toggles and buttons. The room’s ceiling was black and glittered as if lit by thousands of stars.

“Cool,” Dyl whispered.

JJ caught her breath in delight. “If I had this in my room, I don’t think I’d ever go to sleep. I’d just lie there stargazing.”

“Looks pretty accurate, too,” King said, pointing out patterns overhead. “There’s Orion the hunter, Cygnus the swan, Ursa Major … ”

Song-Ye scoffed. “What are you, an astronomer?”

“Amateur,” King admitted. “But yeah, I’ve got my own telescope at home.”

“How’d they do this?” Dyl asked pointing to the ceiling. “Fiber optics?”

“Yes, excellent,” Commander Zota said. “All part of the immersion experience. Please, make yourselves at home.”

Though it was a sunny autumn day outside, the room’s windows were completely blacked out. A model of the solar system set into the starry ceiling provided plenty of light, however, especially from the “sun” at the very center.

King gave a low whistle. “Pretty nice set-up you’ve got here, sir.”

JJ walked over to the corner where King stood, admiring what seemed to be a complex communications center. “Cool,” Dyl added, joining them. “This is way more HALO-esque than anything we saw last time. They must keep the really high-tech stuff for the advanced missions.”

Song-Ye sighed heavily. “Who cares, it’s just a big toy.”

“I find it interesting that you would think so.” Commander Zota regarded her. “But I assure you, it is much more than a toy. Perhaps it’s time we began our briefing. Everyone, please find a seat.”

Consulting a printed sheet he held, Zota said, “Now, if you will be so kind, I’d like to verify the information I have about each of you. Mr. Elton Elijah King?”

“Present, sir,” said the polite young man. “But most people call me King.”

The commander nodded and made a note on his sheet. “According to my records, you are a member of your school’s student council, an amateur astronomer, and an Eagle Scout.”

“Actually, sir, I haven’t made Eagle yet. I’m still working on my project.”

“Ah.” Zota jotted something on the paper. “Tell us about your family.”

“I’ve got twin sisters who are in third grade. My mom works at a library, and Dad’s a butcher at Costco. But music is what my family is really all about. We like all kinds of music. Sometimes my parents get a gig for a few nights in a jazz club, where Mom sings and Dad plays horn. We do all right. Our Irish Setter is named Copernicus, like the astronomer, or Copper for short. That’s about it.”

Zota moved to the next name on his list. “Park Song-Ye. I assume we should address you as Song-Ye?”

“Sure, why not?” the Korean girl said without looking at him.

“You are fluent in five languages, an honor student, an accomplished dancer, and adept with electronics. In fact, when your class was here for a simulation last week, you handled the emergency in quite an interesting manner, did you not?”

Song-Ye blushed and pretended to study the carpet. “Some people found it interesting.”

JJ wondered why the other girl was being so gruff and why Dyl seemed to find her intriguing.

“What’d she do?” Dyl asked. “Pull the fire alarm and evacuate the building?”

Song-Ye glanced at him with a flash of interest. “No, but maybe next time … ”

“Actually, Cadet Park managed to access the administrator’s console and reprogram part of the simulation, so that the asteroid was deflected and never came close to the space station.”

Dyl smacked his palm against the center of his forehead and muttered, “The Kobayashi Maru solution? That’s total overkill.”

“Whatever,” Song-Ye said. “I didn’t want to lose.”

Zota raised an eyebrow and said in a mild tone, “And yet the point of the exercise was to learn to work as a team.” When she didn’t answer, he said, “Tell us about your family.”

Song-Ye gave a noisy sigh. “My father is a diplomat for the Republic of Korea. My mother is a heart surgeon. They’re both really important and busy. We move a lot.”

“Any brothers or sisters? Pets?” JJ asked.

Song-Ye shook her head and studied the carpet again.

“Donovan Dylan Wren, Jr.,” Commander Zota read from his notes.

“That’s me,” Dyl said, “but—”

Song-Ye snickered. “You’re Junior. I think I’ll call you that.”

“I go by my middle name,” he insisted. “Just call me Dyl, like the pickle.”

“Actually, that’s spelled differently, Junior,” Song-Ye whispered.

Zota nodded, making a note. “Indeed. You are a fast learner, excellent at video games without being addicted to them, a proficient cook, and a good writer. Tell us about your family.”

“Dad died a few years ago. Mom’s been single since then and works two jobs to support us. Our cat’s name is Spock, I don’t have any brothers, and JJ’s my only sister. She can tell you about herself.”

“Very well,” Zota said. “Jennifer Juniper Wren.”

“Mom calls me Jenny June, but my nickname is JJ. That’s what I prefer.”

“You take flying lessons, are superior at math and problem-solving, are quite daring, and have excellent reflexes. Is there anything you’d like to add about your family?”

“Our dad was a firefighter. His brother is my flying instructor. And I’m always ready to fly.”


Back | Next