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When the airlock opened into the next room, JJ looked around with amazement at a realistic mockup of a high-tech storage module—metal-walled and crowded, with every piece of equipment stored so as to use the available space with maximum efficiency. What had happened to the simulator and transporter? This time they had walked straight through a door, and here they were. No matter which direction she looked, the detail was stunning.

“This rocks!” She spread her arms wide and took a step forward, feeling a strange lightness. She said over the suit mic, “Hey, I think I’m getting the hang of this spacesuit thing.” She raised her armored arm. “It doesn’t feel as heavy as when I put it on.”

“Mine feels different, too,” King said, taking a step with slow grace, like a dancer. “Almost like … like everything is lighter.” They all moved through the airlock door and into the chamber beyond. No question about it—JJ had never felt so light in her life.

“Yeah, how’d they do this in a simulation?” Dyl wondered aloud. He was walking without the difficulties he had endured ever since the accident.

“Group hypnosis?” Song-Ye suggested. “Or just gullibility? Pfft.”

“I think we would have noticed being hypnotized,” Dyl disagreed.

JJ’s mind, intrigued by the puzzle, went into high gear. “Helium packs? No, not enough buoyancy. Springs?”

“Wires suspending us from the ceiling?” King added, but he waved his gloved hand above and around JJ, proving that there were no strings attached. “Maybe an air cushion on the floor, like an air hockey table.”

Dyl chuckled. “Why not antigravity generators? Microscopic silent jet boosters?”

“Try less fiction and more science, Junior,” Song-Ye said.

“You want science?” JJ wished that Mr. Zota had chosen her friend Tony for their special team instead of a snooty diplomat’s daughter. “Did you know astronauts sometimes train underwater in their suits to mimic working in zero-g? Neutral buoyancy—that’s science.”

“What about magnets?” King said. “If our suits had magnetic material, and the ceiling was covered with electromagnetic plates, they could lift us up just enough so that it would feel like we’re in lower gravity.”

“Good one,” Dyl gave King a spacesuited high-five.

“But why all the bells and whistles for this simulation?” JJ mused. “Any of those solutions would be far more advanced than anything we saw at the Challenger Center.”

“My invitation did say that this simulation was special, available by invitation only,” King answered.

JJ felt a flutter in her stomach, and realized she was having almost as much fun as if she were flying. “I don’t know about you guys, but I think I’m going to explore first. You think we should take off our suits?”

“Not yet,” Dyl said. “Commander Zota must have had us put them on for a reason. Why don’t we wait?”

“Okay, ‘suit’ yourself.”

Dyl turned his faceplate toward her. “Ha, ha.”

She could tell that her brother was enjoying his newfound freedom of movement; if the suit was responsible, he might not be ready to take it off.

Without mentioning the seemingly reduced gravity, Song-Ye looked around the moonbase chamber they had entered, and said, “Why aren’t we in some sort of lab or control room? This is an awfully weird place to bring us through an airlock to. It looks like … ”

“Like somebody’s garage?” Dyl finished the sentence for her.

The chamber did seem like a storage room, with suit components, laboratory equipment, cylinders of compressed gas and fuel, as well as tools, sample-collection devices, and sleek embedded computer screens, all stored in a well-organized, compact manner.

“Mr. Zota, sir, are you there?” King transmitted, and they all were surprised to hear no response. “Mr. Zota? What should we do next?”

They heard only silence. “He is running the simulation all by himself,” Dyl pointed out. “Maybe he isn’t at the comm station right now. Not a problem.”

“Great,” Song-Ye muttered.

JJ, though, was most intrigued by the airlock hatch marked Main Control Center, leading into the adjacent chamber. It was obvious where they were supposed to go. Moving forward with unexpected ease, as if she half-floated with each step, she reached the far door and opened it. “Ready or not, here I come.”

“We’re all holding our breath,” Song-Ye assured her in a sarcastic tone.

“Just go ahead, JJ,” Dylan said.

Moving through the hatch into the next chamber of the moonbase, JJ took a few light steps. She hadn’t realized the Challenger Center building was big enough for something like this to fit inside it.

When she looked around, she stopped in shock. Before her, at a familiar control panel, stood two adults wearing flight suits. She recognized the woman as Noor Ansari, the moonbase chief who had spoken to them in the recorded greeting Commander Zota had played. The man beside her was compact, with a moustache and gray-frosted hair.

Moving forward and unable to stop his momentum easily, Dyl careened into JJ from behind. “Whoa, what are you doing?” They both stumbled forward into the Main Control Center, as the two adults turned to them in astonishment.

“Hey,” King said, emerging beside them. “I thought Mr. Zota said we were going to be alone in this simulation.”

Now that they had arrived in the control center, JJ expected the two adults to welcome them. Instead Ansari crossed her arms over her chest and her eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Zota? Would you be referring to Commander Zota?”

“How many Mr. Zotas do you know?” Song-Ye asked.

“None,” said the man in the flight suit. “Until about a half an hour ago. I thought it was all a joke—and in rather poor taste.” His voice was crisp, with a marked British accent. “But now I can’t tell if that Zota fellow is having fun at our expense. How the blazes did you four get here?”

JJ was surprised. “Weren’t you expecting us?”

“We were expecting someone, of course,” the British man said, “but you must admit the whole thing strains credulity.”

“We’re eager to debrief you,” Ansari cut in. “I’m Chief Ansari—Chief will do. And this is Major Fox. But first, why don’t we get you out of your spacesuits? We’ve got plenty of breathable air in here. You won’t need them.”

“Fun while it lasted.” JJ shrugged, and detached her helmet. “But I’m ready for the next adventure.”

The man regarded them all with a rather distrustful gaze, as if guarding them, while Ansari departed and returned with an armload of flight suits. “I had to guess on the sizes.”

In a flurry of disassembly, the four companions took off the components of their suits, while the British man stowed each piece in the storage chamber behind them.

Ansari tossed them each new clothing as they emerged from their spacesuits. Dyl, the first one ready, caught a work outfit and leaned against a rounded wall while putting it on.

Commander Zota had made him set aside his crutches when he put on his spacesuit, and Dyl didn’t seem to need them. JJ was glad to see her brother slide into the blue moonbase jumpsuit so easily. When she had her own spacesuit off, JJ noticed that she remained lightweight. It wasn’t some trick of the suit.

“Thank you, Ma’am,” King said politely to Chief Ansari, holding the flight suit against himself to check it for size; the pants legs looked as if they might be a bit short. JJ’s new clothes fit her perfectly, while Song-Ye, the smallest, had to roll up the pants into cuffs to keep from tripping over them.

Ansari watched them intently. “Now perhaps you’d be kind enough to introduce yourselves.”

After the cadets announced their names, Fox said, “And it’s about time you lot told us how you got here.”

It seemed like a strange question. JJ wondered if these two teachers didn’t work the simulations very often, or maybe not on weekends. “The usual way, I guess?”

Dyl nodded. “Mom dropped us off.”

“City Bus Route 4,” King replied.

Song-Ye looked bored already. “Limo … Lincoln Stretch Town Car, to be exact.”

Instead of moving on to further orientation, Ansari and Fox seemed to grow angry at their answers.

“You are all obviously too young to be taking on a mission of this importance.” Major Fox sounded as grumpy as the high school football coach when their team lost. “This is quite a serious matter. The implications, the repercussions … ” He began to trip over his words.

Chief Ansari added a stern response, “You children may see this as one grand adventure, but while you’re on this moonbase, we are responsible for your lives.”

Song-Ye flashed JJ a look that said, Can you believe this? and JJ found herself smiling in return.

“Wow, does everyone take these simulations so seriously?” Dyl asked.

Chief Ansari’s eyebrows shot up, and Major Fox looked taken aback. Fox sputtered, “Simu—you think this is a simulation?”

JJ was losing patience with the strange attitude. These people were wasting time.

“You can’t possibly believe that!” Ansari said.

“They don’t,” Fox snapped. “That’s space rubbish, pure and unrecyclable.”

“But it is a simulation,” King said. “Mr. Zota is right on the other side of that wall, and the parking lot is through the hall and out the front door.”

“We’re willing to play along, but only so far,” Song-Ye said. “Let’s just do the exercise.”

Dyl, though, anxious to move around, had made his way to one of the oblong windows. “Hey, guys—get over here and take a look. This isn’t like any model I’ve ever seen.”

Ansari watched the genuinely puzzled expressions on the faces of the four students. “You’re serious? If this is a simulation, how do you explain the fact that you arrived through an airlock, into Moonbase Magellan, wearing spacesuits?”

Fox made an impatient noise. “And how do they explain the lunar gravity?”

Dyl pushed himself away from the window and gave a little hop. His eyes went wide. “I hardly weigh a thing, so it wasn’t the spacesuits.”

JJ bent her knees and sprang upward. Her head struck the ceiling hard enough that she was sure she would have a lump. “Ow!”

“These are the special guests we’ve been waiting for?” Fox muttered, shaking his head. “What did they teach them?”

“Commander Zota had us put the spacesuits on,” King explained. “We thought it was cool that he got permission for us to wear them.”

At the mention of Zota, Chief Ansari seemed on her guard once more. “We received a transmission from your ‘commander’ just before you arrived, telling us to be on the lookout for you. But our next supply lander is due in a few days, from the ISSC, so we thought you’d be aboard it. Instead, you just appeared in the ESM.

“What’s an ESM?” Dyl asked.

“Equipment Storage Module,” Fox said. “Did you have any briefing at all? What were you expecting to accomplish here?”

“All right, enough is enough.” Song-Ye turned and marched back through the bulkhead doorway into the equipment chamber. “I’m calling my driver to pick me up early.” When she reached the airlock door, however, she was startled. “Hey, this isn’t the door we just used.” She looked through a round viewing port into a small chamber that led to a second door and—according to what she saw through the window in the next hatch—more of the lunar surface.

She started to open the airlock door, but Fox bounded forward and grabbed her arm. “You can’t go in there wearing only a flightsuit!”

The Korean girl was indignant. “That’s the way out.”

“Indeed it is, young lady, and you are in no way prepared for it.”

JJ had also come into the ESM, and when she looked through the airlock, she was startled to realize that the walls, the controls, and the second hatch all looked very different. Nobody seemed to know what was going on.

They returned to Chief Ansari in the Main Control Center.

“You talked to Commander Zota?” JJ asked. “He would have explained everything.” What was going on?

“I didn’t speak with him directly.” Ansari looked thoughtful. “The message was a data transmission marked Urgent. It had the highest security classification, with all of the correct codes—codes that warn a base commander not to ask too many questions.”

“What’d it say?” King asked.

Fox said, “Our orders were to receive you as members of our crew, to put you to work and train you in the necessary daily activities on the moon-base.” He shook his head. “Further inquiries were definitely discouraged.”

Ansari said, “We’ve been pretty short-handed up here since we cut back to only four crew members, so we are not disappointed to have extra personnel. But, that still does not explain how you arrived here.”

JJ stared out the windowport at the lunar landscape. “I can’t explain.”

Major Fox sighed in exasperation. “Just one straight answer! That’s all we’re looking for. Did you pilot your own ship? If so, it should have taken you days to arrive. Where did it land? What supplies or equipment did you bring?”

“No ship, no days of travel—we just came through the airlock,” Dyl protested.

“Instantaneous transport, then?” Ansari glanced at Fox. “I’ve never heard of such a project, but they may have higher clearance than we believed. I thought all of Earth’s innovative projects had been abandoned. Maybe this is a good thing.” She looked back at Dyl. “Will we be allowed to use your transporter?”

“There is no transporter,” Dyl insisted.

“How else could you simply appear in the ESM?” Ansari asked.

“Pfft,” Song-Ye lifted her hands in exasperation. “This is an elaborate hoax, and I don’t like being made fun of.”

“I saw a movie once,” Dyl said, “where most of the space program was a hoax, especially the Moon landing. In the movie, everything was filmed on a set.”

Song-Ye smiled. “Exactly. You’re finally making some sense, Junior. This is probably just one huge movie set.”

“I don’t buy it,” King said. “How you do explain the gravity? And where did that changing room go?”

“Okay, somebody’s got to say it, and it might as well be me. We’re here. Really on the Moon,” JJ said. “Deal with it. We know this much: we didn’t fly here. I would have insisted on being in the pilot’s seat, and Dyl would’ve been scared silly since high speeds freak him out, whether it’s in a rollercoaster, an airplane or a car.”

“Hey!” Dyl objected.

“We’re still waiting for answers,” Fox said.

Being carefully vague, the cadets explained that they had been invited into a special training program, during which they had somehow found themselves here at the base.

Major Fox shook his head once more when they were finished. “So, again, that really doesn’t explain a thing.”

“No,” Chief Ansari said wryly, “but we’ll leave it at that for now. Regardless of how they may have gotten here, we certainly have no way to return them to Earth. Our orders were not to ask too many questions. Besides, our visitors were sent here to work.” She grinned. “And we can use the help. We might as well get started.”


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