The Forbidden Island

Excerpt from chapter 1 of book 7 of the Explorer Academy series from National Geographic.
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Fiction by Trudi Trueit
Illustrations by Scott Plumbe

“We’ve got ’em this time!” whispered Bryndis to Cruz. “We’re going to beat Team Magellan!”

Things did look promising. For nearly an hour, the four explorer teams had been battling it out in Orion’s CAVE (Computer Animated Virtual Experience). Cruz was frazzled. He could tell his teammates were, too. Lani’s cheeks were flushed and shiny, a chunk of Sailor’s ponytail had escaped its band, and Emmett’s emoto-glasses resembled a couple of chocolate doughnuts left in a car on a hot day. Dugan shifted like a goalkeeper ready to defend against a penalty kick. However, this was no soccer match. This was a brain-busting, heart-hammering, take-no-prisoners geography bee.

Each team had 30 seconds to answer a question from Professor Modi that might or might not include a holographic element. Get the question right, and their teacher moved on to the next team. Get it wrong, and you earned a strike. Three strikes and your team was out.

Cousteau and Magellan were the only teams left. Back and forth they’d gone in the virtual reality chamber, tossing out facts about cities and countries, bodies of water, deserts, mountains, parks and monuments. Now both teams had two strikes. Cruz’s team had already answered their question correctly. If Magellan couldn’t do the same, Cousteau would be crowned geography bee champion.

The prizes were worth the torture. The winning team would get first pick on their next mission. Every member would also be awarded 100 bonus points. Finally, each would get a high definition ultra-sensitive ingression analysis upgrade to their Portable Artifact Notation and Data Analyzer (PANDA) device. Cruz wasn’t exactly certain what that meant, but it sounded good.

Standing in a holographic forest of aspen trees with golden leaves, Cruz drew in a hopeful breath. He wanted the rewards, sure, but he also needed to win at something!

“Fifteen seconds!” Professor Modi now announced.

Cruz looked up at the white-barked aspens, their autumn leaves fluttering against a vivid blue sky. This place was beautiful, but he had no idea where they were.

“Magellan won’t get it,” Lani said quietly to Cruz. “I only came across it while reading about how trees communicate.”

She was kidding, right?

Lani caught his look. “It’s true. Trees can communicate with each other using fungus filaments known as mycelium. See, the mycelium grows into the tree roots, allowing some trees to connect using chemicals and electrical signals. One tree can tell others when it’s in pain, or warn of dangers, like insect infestations or drought.”

She wasn’t kidding.

Cruz was still a bit skeptical. “You’re telling me trees talk to one another?”

“They do more than that.” Her eyes brightened. “They take care of each other, too. Older trees will send water and nutrients to saplings through the system to help them grow. It’s called the mycorrhizal network.”

“Time!” called Professor Modi. “Zane, I’ll need Magellan’s answer.”

“Uh … ” Zane swallowed hard. “We’re gonna say … Utah?” Professor Modi lifted his tablet. “Pando is a grove of more than 47,000 aspens spanning 100 acres that share a single root system…”

Cruz elbowed Lani. “Hey, I bet they have great conversations.”

She rolled her eyes.

The professor was still talking: “… It’s located in the Fishlake National Forest in Utah.”

Team Magellan cheered. Team Cousteau groaned.

“Crikey!” Sailor did a facepalm. “Will it ever end?”

“It will, and soon,” declared Professor Modi. “We have five minutes left in class, just enough time for a final tiebreaker.”

The cave erupted in applause.

“The category is a place on the map,” said Professor Modi. “I will begin listing clues. The first team to buzz in and correctly identify the location will be declared the winner of this year’s freshman geography bee.”

A red buzzer on a stand materialized in front of Dugan.

“Teams, a reminder to confer before you answer,” said their teacher. “I can only accept your first response.”

Cruz felt a breeze cool his forehead. A carpet of green grass rolled under the soles of his shoes. The meadow headed for the wall behind their professor, ending at a rocky coastline. Beyond the shore was a wide blue sea. To his left, Cruz saw steep, jagged cliffs, and on his right a dirt road.

“Clue number one,” said Professor Modi. “You are on a tropical island that measures 63 square miles. A trio of volcanoes, now extinct, is responsible for forming its triangular shape.”

Team Cousteau circled up. They threw out a few possibilities, like Jamaica and Vanuatu, but nobody was certain.

“Better to wait than make a wild guess,” advised Lani.

Magellan wasn’t hitting their buzzer, either.

“Clue number two,” continued Professor Modi. “The original Polynesian inhabitants called this island Rapa Nui, but we know it by a different name, thanks to a Dutch explorer who landed here on a particular day in 1722.”

“Polynesia!” Sailor grinned at Lani and Cruz. “We’re in the South Pacific.”

“Could it be Kaho‘olawe or Ni‘ihau?” Cruz named the smallest islands in the Hawaiian chain.

Lani bit her lip. “Kaho‘olawe is triangular, but–”

“The landscape’s wrong.” Cruz realized his mistake.

“Ni‘ihau isn’t triangular,” noted Lani.

Professor Modi was clearing his throat. Neither team had answered. “Clue number three: The island is known for its ahu and moai.”

“Ahu?” Dugan rubbed his chin. “Isn’t that sushi?”

“You’re thinking of ahi,” said Bryndis. “Tuna.”

Moai. The word sounded familiar to Cruz. He started to ask Lani if it could be a Hawaiian word when she blurted, “The big heads! You know, the stone statues on–”

“Easter Island!” piped Sailor.

That was it!

“Does everyone agree?” asked Dugan. When all hands shot up, he smacked their red button.


It blared through the CAVE. Cruz saw that Zane had his hand on Magellan’s button. Oh no! Both teams had buzzed in at the same time!

Kwento moaned. “Another tie.”

“Cousteau was first,” said Weatherly.

“No, Magellan,” countered Femi.

Voices filled the CAVE as the rest of the explorers ventured their opinions.

“Hold on, hold on!” Professor Modi was typing on his tablet. “I’ll check the replay. The first team to ring in was…”

A hush fell over the room. Cruz felt his heart beating in rhythm to the word that pulsed in his brain: Cousteau. Cousteau. Cousteau.


Cruz crumpled. They’d lost.

“Team Magellan, I’ll need your answer,” said Professor Modi, but it was merely a formality. Magellan would get all the great prizes and bragging rights. Cruz stubbed his toe into the grass.

“Christmas Island,” said Zane.

Cruz’s head shot up. He locked eyes with Lani. Her jaw dropped. So did his.

“That is incorrect.” Their teacher shifted his gaze.

“Cousteau, you now may–”

Dugan pounced. “Easter Island.”

“Correct.” Professor Modi smiled. “Congratulations, Team Cousteau!”

Cruz slapped palms with his teammates. They’d won the bee!

Professor Modi was gesturing to the wall behind the teams. The hillside the explorers stood on now continued up to a U-shaped volcano, its cone long since blasted away. A giant stone head materialized only a few feet from Cruz. A few yards to the right, another appeared on the grass slope, then another and another, until a dozen or so moai were scattered across the meadow. Only one head stood straight. The rest, some with shoulders peeking above the ground, were either tipped forward or backward or leaning to one side.

“You are standing at the base of Rano Raraku volcano,” explained Professor Modi. “This is the main quarry where the Rapa Nui mined tuff to carve these moai. There are more than 800, ranging from six to 30 feet high. Each one weighs as much as a school bus.”

Several explorers had their hands up.

“Questions will have to wait until tomorrow,” said their teacher. “We’re already running overtime. Again, congrats, Team Cousteau.”

The lights were dimming in the CAVE. Cruz felt a cold ping on his head. The chubby white cumulus clouds of a moment before had become ominous dark cumulonimbus thunderheads. The sky tumbled and churned like a stew boiling over a pot. A zigzag of light flashed.

Boom! It began to hail. Shielding their heads, the explorers raced for the exit. The ice pellets bounced off Cruz’s head and arms. They stung!

Weatherly was waving her OS band in front of the scanner at the door. “It won’t open!”

Others also stepped in to try but the sliding partition did not move. The hail was coming down harder and faster. The chunks of ice were getting bigger, too.

“Ow!” yelped Lani when a jawbreaker of a hailstone smacked her shoulder.

“Take cover!” yelled Professor Modi. He motioned to a long, horizontal bulge of rock jutting out of the side of the volcano. “I’ll try to stop the program from the main panel.” He ran for the console in the opposite corner of the CAVE, while the explorers scrambled to safety under the ledge. Cruz was on the end, closest to the professor, yet could hardly see him through the white curtain of hail. Their teacher was frantically typing on the keyboard, but the weather was only getting worse.

Cruz hit his comm pin. “Cruz Coronado to Fanchon Quills.”

“Fanchon, here,” came the reply.

“We’re in the CAVE,” Cruz cried, “and we need–”

“What game are you playing? It sounds like you’re dropping marbles on a tin roof.”

“No game … We’re in trouble … We’ve got hail the size of tennis balls coming down in here. Fanchon, we need–” Cruz’s jaw fell open.

It was white. And huge. And coming right at him!

“Cruz?” shouted Fanchon. “CRUZ?”

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