Neck and Neck

On their way to the flat, desert, plain of the playa, Tommy and Bear pack had to pass Orca pack’s campsite, and so Tommy stopped to invite the Orca pack cadets to come along. The Orcas gladly accept­ed. Orca pack was from deGrasse Tyson and Bear was from Armstrong City, so they didn’t meet very often, but the two packs were more friends than rivals. They had worked together on a few successful charity projects the past couple of years, and so they were happy to see each other. Members of the two packs instinctively paired up by speciality, which was fine with Tommy since he enjoyed Miyoko “Tomorrow” Smith’s company more than their common speciality might suggest. 

On the playa, hundreds of Jr. Planeteers gathered around the place where it had been announced the Jamboree’s leader board would be displayed. At the center of the excited mob, a distinguished, silver-haired workman, who despite his years was still lean and robust, toiled over a pile of equipment. Looking up from his work for a moment, the man worried that if so many exuberant kids kept haphazardly pressing forward, someone could get trampled. Without a moment’s hesitation, the man plucked a black metallic pylon from his pile of equipment, and then stabbed it firmly into soil of the playa. Instantly, the pylon emitted a circular windshield-field, an invisible force-field fence, around the workman. Tapping the remote control displayed on his wristwatch, the man increased the radius of the fence until the crowd thinned out around its perimeter, and the young Planeteers pressed against the invisible barrier looked like fish in an aquarium gawking at the transparent walls they couldn’t comprehend. 

Satisfied, the workman went back to work. He pulled a holographic projector from his pile and tapped his wristwatch again. Gracefully, the projector levitated up until it was a few meters above the heads of the crowd, and then came to rest anchored in midair. Tapping his wristwatch again, the projector flared and then appeared to be replaced, like a magic trick, by an inverted pyramid. The four faces of the pyramid were divided into three rows of multicolored ribbons that slowly slid around the hologram like three scrolling marquees. Each ribbon was further divided into brightly colored panels displaying the names of the competing packs and each pack’s point standing in the merit badge competition. 

The distinguished man looked up, smiled at work well done, and began packing up his equipment.

“Look, there you are,” Tommy said to Miyoko, pointing to the name of Orca pack in the “Citizenship in the Solar System” category. Bear pack had already won that badge the year before, so they weren’t in the running today. “Look at the margin between you and the second place runner up,” Tommy said. “There’s no way they can catch up. You might as well start celebrating winning your merit badge right now.” Miyoko Tomorrow was too modest to acknowledge her friend’s compliment, but a smile like the crescent of a new moon betrayed her joy.

Each of the three marquee rows slid around the pyramid at its own rate, and now it was Miyoko’s turn to embarrass her friend with compliments. “Look, there you are at the top of the standings for your ‘Robotics’ badge and…” Miyoko inhaled sharply and the words in her throat came to a dead stop. Several people next to her noticed the same thing she had seen, and one of them gasped, “It’s a tie!” A hubbub rippled through the crowd. “That almost never happens,” someone else said. “Bear pack 1641 is in a dead heat with…Wolf pack 4002!”

“Tommy, this is terrible,” Miyoko said. “You can’t trust the Wolf pack,” she said. Her face reddened. “They’re…, they’re…,” she repeated, but was too angry to finish saying. 

The previous year, the Orcas were well on their way to winning the competition for their “Cybersecurity” merit badge with a creative and one-of-a-kind counterintelligence software project. But suddenly without any of the customary alpha demonstrations of their code, the Wolf pack swept in at the last minute with essentially the exact same project, plus a few extra bells and whistles, that won them the merit badge. The Orcas were devastated. Even a year later, Miyoko Tomorrow was struck dumb by the experience. But Tommy Tomorrow had no such reluctance. 

“They’re cheaters,” he said. “They did the same thing to us and Robin pack in a different category last year, and I don’t know how many others. Then they just grinned innocently and accepted a handful of merit badges.

“I don’t know how they cheated,” Tommy said, “but I know they must have, and I bet they cheated you too.” Tommy paused, looking at nothing, lost in the past. “I never knew I could feel so bad after they beat us that way.” 

Miyoko looked down at the dust of the playa, then up again at Tommy, with gratitude in her eyes. He understood. 

Tommy had no idea why he felt flustered when he returned Miyoko Smith’s gaze. But in a panic to do something instead of falling into the bottomless gravity well of her eyes, he gulped and said, “I think we’ll get even with Wolf pack this year. We’ve been working on a very special robot all year long, and now we’re ready to compete. You can come and see what we’ve done—I mean, since you’re a friend—I mean, a good friend—“ Tommy felt as if the Mojave desert was in his throat. “—I mean, you’ve got as much reason as we do to give the Wolf pack what they deserve. I wouldn’t—I mean, I don’t think anyone—would mind if you came to our camp to see what we’re making.” Tommy cleared dry sand from his throat. “I mean, if you have time.” 

When Miyoko smiled shyly, stroked a lock of her waist-length black hair, and said, “Yes, I’d like to see,” Tommy’s throat suddenly felt fine. As a matter of fact, a satisfied warmth flowed through his chest as if he’d just drunk a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream on top, on a snowy day in winter.

Before Tommy and Miyoko could say another word, a wave of turbulence spread through the crowd, and a gruff voice rose above the hubbub. “Coming through, coming through,” said the mean-spirited voice. “Make way for the pros. Coming through. The Wolf pack is here.”

Tommy looked up to see the Wolf pack, including their leader, Bruno “Forever” Cardellini, elbowing their way through the throng. Most packs were small and had a “Tomorrow” as their leader, but Wolf pack was true to its name and was lead by a tough guy. Bruno, who was only 14 years old, but tall and muscular enough to often be mistaken for an adult, looked up at the reader board, then down and askance at Bear pack and Tommy Tomorrow. “Ready to get beat again this year… loser?” said Bruno Forever. 

Tommy’s face burned hot as a rocket’s exhaust. 

Most packs had only one Forever, their “muscle”, but Wolf pack had several. Most packs were born and raised in low-gravity colonies, but the Wolf pack Forevers were born on Earth and were uncharacteristically big and strong. Most packs strived to be peaceful, but the Wolf pack strived to win, no matter how. All and all, the best strategy for Tommy, Miyoko, and their respective packs was to back away from the bullies in front of them and make a retreat. That was the peaceful way. That was the Jr. Planeteers’ way.

Tommy had taken two steps back when Bruno Forever half-turned to his friends and said, “See? I told you teddy bears and stuffed whales were wimps.” Bruno turned back and smiled smugly, daring anyone to contradict him. 

Tommy stopped in his tracks. Milo Forever, on the other hand, was stepping forward with his head down and fists knotted, on his way to “pounding” the Wolf pack as he had always advocated, when he was blocked by Tommy’s right shoulder. Miyoko was gritting her teeth, adjusting where her weight was centered, and getting ready to earn some demerits for bad conduct. Meanwhile, an anonymous chorus of cadets too young to appreciate the notion of “consequences” chanted, “Fight! Fight! Fight!

Tommy faced Bruno head-on; his blue eyes as bright as electric sparks beneath a shadowy scowl. All the while, he considered the best vectors of attack for what was surely a suicide mission: Tommy wasn’t stupid; he knew the Wolf pack had them outmatched. But sometimes it’s better to lose a small fight if it means you can scar your enemy enough to make them think twice about fighting you again. 

Tommy gave a private signal to his pack to get ready for Wolf pack to make the first move, when a top priority announcement came over the wristwatches of the eighty or so Jr. Planeteers surrounding the reader board. 

Ten-hut!” thundered their watches, while their wristbands flashed like strobe lights. “Company, prepare for inspection! This is not a drill!

Bruno Forever glowered at his wristwatch, then at Tommy Tomorrow, unsure of which priority to obey. “Come on, Bruno,” said one of Cardellini’s friends, “you heard the order. We’ve got to go!” Bruno’s friends had to drag him away as he growled, “This isn’t over, Cameron. We’re gonna settle this later!”

By the time the cadets assembled into neat ranks and files and standing rigidly at attention waiting for further orders, all thoughts of fighting had escaped their heads. A score of meters in front of the cadets, a flying jeep piloted by a Sr. Planeteer and escorted by two more cadets wearing jet-packs, landed on the playa. From behind the assembled ranks, the distinguished-looking man who had innocuously put up the reader board, casually strode forward between two files of Jr. Planeteers. When he arrived at the jeep, he threw his adjutants a subtle but crisp salute, then handed his tools to an adjutant who promptly stored the gear in the jeep. By the time the man was settled, the pack masters for the Bear and Wolf packs came flying to the playa from opposite directions on their own jet-packs, and then landed in two small clouds of dust. The jet-packs inhaled fresh air and exhausted a cool stream of ionized atmosphere that smelled and felt like a breeze after a lightening storm. The two pack masters stood at rigid attention. “Ah, I’m glad you got my message,” said the distinguished-looking man. “Follow me.”

Seeing that his indispensable guests had arrived, the commanding officer nodded to one of his adjutants, who while standing at ease in his sharply cut, perfectly fitting uniform like a red granite statue, announced through his wristwatch, “Dress right. Dress! Col. B. Davidson Dubois on deck. Prepare for inspection!

Col. Dubois casually strolled down the first rank of cadets and stopped in front of Miyoko Tomorrow. “Oh, Cadet Smith, good to meet you at last,” he said with a smile. The Colonel’s augmented-reality data goggles recognized each cadet he met and displayed their service record. “The organization you created for your Citizenship in the Solar System merit badge is doing tremendous work. Keep it up.” Miyoko was surprised that the colonel even knew who she was, but she managed to humbly mumble a thank you, and he moved on.

Even though they were standing at attention, the cadets could barely contain their surprise that the Col. Dubois was slowly walking in front of them with the Bear and Wolf pack masters in tow. Col. Brent Davidson Dubois, retd., of the interplanetary Rangers, was one of the most respected law enforcement officers in a generation. When he was an ornery kid, Brent Dubois had been a Jr. Planeteer, and he credited that experience for helping shape him. Now that he was retired, the colonel modestly volunteered his extraordinary skills and services to guide other generations of Planeteers. And one thing he had learned as a commanding officer, was how to spot a looming fight among the ranks and channel their youthful rivalry into a more useful direction.

“Ah, Mr. Cameron and Mr. Cardellini, you have an exciting day tomorrow. I understand your projects are similar and that you’ll compete head to head. Mr. Cardellini, do you think you’re ready?”

Now that he was speaking to an adult, Bruno’s tone changed completely from when he was accosting kids near his own age. “Absolutely, sir,” said Bruno charmingly. Tommy thought butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. “With all due respect to Bear pack, sir, our projects might appear similar—on the surface that is; not deep down in the code where it counts—but I assure you the Wolf pack project is superior,” Bruno said. Then remembering to be as flattering as possible, he added a crisp, “—Sir!”

Col. Dubois turned to the Wolf pack master, Sergei Cardellini. “Pack Master Cardellini, You must be proud of your son. Are you as confident as he is?”

“Absolutely, sir,” said the senior Cardellini, displaying a toothy grin and echoing his sons reply. “My pack is going to clean up, tomorrow.” Cardellini could barely keep from smirking over his pun.

The Colonel can’t be buying this, can he?” thought Tommy. The young Jr. Planeteer thought the elder Mr. Cardellini was obviously the one who had taught his son to be so smarmy. Tommy never liked the elder Cardellini; there was something oily about him that set off Tommy’s radar. Bruno was already a bad kid, but Tommy had no hopes for Bruno’s self-discipline if his own father was the Wolf pack master. In short, Tommy Tomorrow was not happy.

“And how about you, Mr. Dimbleby?” said the Colonel. “The gauntlet has been thrown down. Are you up for the challenge?”

An “aw, shucks” sort of grin came over George Dimbleby’s face before he said, “Well, my kids are awfully good, sir, and they’ve worked like the dickens to win. But it’s the lessons learned from giving it your best that’s important, right? Not just the winning or losing. Anyway, that’s what I teach the kids.” The elder Cardellini struggled not to roll his eyes. “But the best ones to ask, sir, are the cadets.”

“Well, Mr. Cameron,” said Col. Dubois, “I’ve asked everyone but you. What do you think your chances are?”

Tommy Tomorrow had been jubilant, angry, scared, and outraged all within the last few minutes. But now that he had heard good-natured Mr. Dimbleby’s comment, Tommy felt more at ease for some reason. “We’re going to do our very best, Colonel. That’s the Planeteers way,” he said, standing straight and tall. “And may the best pack win.”

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