I’m looking for the name of a book…

Update: this book is called The Vandarian Incident, by Martyn Godfrey. All credit to /u/Futurebot from the Tip Of My Tongue subreddit. Story of finding this book here.

Don’t you hate it when you can’t remember the name of something? Of course you do. Everyone does.

I’ve been looking for the name of a book for a number of years now. Every now and again, I Google a few things about a plot in the vain hope that I’ll be able to find something that will point me in the right direction, but because I can’t remember anything specific such as names of characters or places, or anything that would lead me to a title or ISBN, I don’t ever find anything.

Still, I Google.

What’s even more frustrating is that even though I can describe the plot is great detail, everywhere I’ve asked hasn’t been able to name the book that I’m talking about.

I don’t really care about the book itself. Even if I did find the title I probably wouldn’t be able to buy a copy. The only physical copy that I did read was probably destroyed, or exists in a place I no longer have access to. But still, it grates that I can remember everything about the plot, but nothing about the actual book.

I’m looking for the name of a book that I read in my childhood/early teens in the early 2000s, but the copy that I read was second hand and relatively old, so it was probably published in the late 90s. It was a sci-fi/adventure book for kids/young adults (thin, probably only a hundred pages or so in the standard novel form-factor), with the cover depicting the mostly desert landscape of the planet the book was set on, with a “moon-buggy type” vehicle with large wheels (also mentioned in the book) jammed halfway in a small dust valley.

TL;DR: it’s the story of a human male training to become a pilot at a prestigious space academy on a desert planet that’s attacked by another non-human race gearing up for a major battle. The main protagonist and another cadet save the day with a little help from his mentor.

About 80% of the plot follows below (sorry, this is long), but for the life of me, I can’t remember any specific details that would make it more Google-able, just what the storyline was. Plot follows, (other details in brackets), “quotes for almost-quotes/terms/phrases from the book itself”.

It’s the story of a guy on a different planet, who has been sent to some space academy for training. It’s the last one of the tests he has to pass to become some sort of cadet, and despite the fact that he’s human (the space academy accepts candidates from all species), he’s passed each of the tests thrown at him extremely convincingly (humans are seen as a lesser species). (The book is set in a universe in the future, where other intelligent species have been discovered and co-exist with humans. The planet that they’re on is not in the same solar system as Earth, and the academy is one that trains pilots of some kind, either freighter or fighter pilots that then go on to work all across the galaxy.)

The last test that he must now face is the hardest one of all: he’s dropped off in the middle of nowhere and has to make it back to the academy. With limited water and supplies, it’s going to take everything he’s got to make it back alive due to the harsh conditions of the planet (it’s a desert, with very low humidity — the book makes special mention of this after he sustains a cut, saying “and with (insert planet’s name here) low humidity, there was no risk of infection”). But there’s a twist, something he doesn’t know about: a sandstorm (or some other catastrophic weather event, the book specifically mentions this as a unique feature of the last test, as a kind of “x-factor” that “candidates” aren’t told about to prove their survival skills) is about to hit, which will truly test the limits of his ability to survive. The person that drops him off in some sort of chopper is his “mentor”, who has overseen his entire education at the academy.

There’s a bit where he realises a sandstorm is about to hit (something about sudden drops in temperature, or the wrong temperature for that particular time of day), and he has to take shelter in a hole in the ground, covered on the top by a thin layer of silt for protection.

He survives the sandstorm and continues on his way back when he sees some sort of jet — a scouting ship — fly overhead. He puts two and two together, and realises that their planet, a lonely outpost on the edge of space, is being invaded. The jet’s heading towards the south pole, to the base where the academy teachers spend their vacation.

He starts heading back towards the academy with haste. On the way, he almost dies from thirst but as he’s about to die from dehydration, his head plunges into a plant, a native plant to the planet which has roots that hold water — the book then describes him as sucking from the root to extract a few measly drops of water for his “cracked, parched lips”. Refreshed and reinvigorated, he continues his journey north towards the academy.

Meanwhile, the mentor that dropped the main character off earlier checks on another of his students, a female of another species notable for being very beautiful, very intelligent and having (pale?) blue skin. This female student is currently undergoing her penultimate survival test, where candidates are expected to camp out solo for some period of time, again with limited supplies, after which she will be picked up and flown back to the academy. The girl offers the mentor a drink of water — the book specifically mentions this as a notable gesture due to her limited supplies as part of the test, but the mentor declines and asks her about her supplies. She replies saying her food and water resources have proved “adequate” so far. Satisfied with her progress, the mentor boards his chopper and starts heading back towards the academy.

Eventually, the main protagonist makes his way back to the academy, only to find it’s been obliterated. Completely vapourised by some kind of ion-based/(antimatter?) weapon that leaves no trace besides a crater in the ground where the academy once stood. There’s nothing left, and everyone the protagonist once knew on the planet is gone, presumed dead. The only structure still standing is a “pump shed” of some kind, which houses the water pumps for the academy and a number of surface transports – the moon buggy type vehicles with oversized wheels to compensate for the dusty environment.

The main protagonist is sneaking a drink from one of the water pumps when he meets the female cadet from earlier. There’s some residual water in the pipes from which the main protagonist drinks, then they find a moon-buggy type vehicle (the same one on the cover of the copy of the book I read), the one with the massive wheels. It’s still got power, and with that, the two characters form a plan: head towards the south pole, find out what’s going on and who’s attacking the planet, and see what’s going on. But then they notice tyre tracks, and a missing buggy: unbeknownst to them, it’s their mentor, who apparently has the same idea that they do. They decide to follow him, but driving on the planet is hard and their mentor is more experienced than they are: catching up to him will be difficult.

They take it in turns driving. On the way, disaster strikes: the guy is driving with the girl resting when they hit one of the silt-covered pits mentioned earlier, the same one that the male used to take shelter from a sandstorm earlier in the piece, only this one has a much larger pit underneath the thin layer of silt. They’re thrown out of the buggy, and either the girl or guy breaks their leg. They manage to splint it, but the buggy isn’t going anywhere. Somehow, their mentor comes back and rescues them (how, I can’t remember, and now that I think about it, it might have been the mentor that broke their leg, I’m not entirely sure. It’s possible that the mentor may have realised the futility of his situation and realised that he needed some help.)

There’s a part during their journey south, where the two of them are gazing up at the stars above, reflecting about their hopes and dreams. The guy says he wanted to a freighter pilot for some well-known company, which would grant him a prestigious license, some kind of all-access pass to the galaxy, including the ability to visit “(something)-class planets”. The guy then asks the girl about where she comes from, and if she can point it out in the stars. Later, after the girl has gone to bed, he looks towards the star called Sol, the ninth planet of which is Earth, which is where he’s from.

There’s another part during their drive where they speculate about who they could be following. One of them isn’t sure, but the other uses logic to say that as they haven’t caught up to them, it must be someone of a particular species known for their incredible stamina. (It’s possible one of them are hopeful that it’s the same species as the mentor.)

Our trio set off, this time in the mentor’s buggy. On the way though, the fighter jet they passed for earlier comes back. They dive out of the vehicle mere moments before it, too, is obliterated, vapourised, by a smaller version of the weapon that was used to destroy the academy. With no vehicle and limited supplies, they start the make the journey on foot. It’s fortunate, because they’re already pretty close.

Eventually, they arrive at the south pole of the planet, whose environment is much more lush than the rest of the planet, which is dry and hot by comparison. Then they see it: a massive mothership of some kind, a ship that holds even more of the smaller, more agile fighters they encountered earlier. But there’s a bigger problem: the lodge that would be usually used by teachers from the academy on holiday now has bad guys all over it, and worse, they seem like they’re preparing for some kind of full-scale assault.

From here, we enter the end-game, and my memory gets a little hazy about the details.

The main entrance of the ship is protected by some kind of force-field, but the two students manage to get on board (right before it takes off?), after the mentor provides some kind of distraction and is left on the planet after the mothership takes off. They climb through a ducting system, and realise that sabotage is the only way to bring down the ship. The ship has some kind of space/warp/antimatter drive that means if they turn some wingnuts the right direction, it will set off some kind of catastrophic chain-reaction, resulting in the destruction of the ship. On the way to the engine bay, they pass a cafeteria. The girl can sense the engine room using her sixth-sense, and when they get there, it’s weird because this flux/warp/space/antimatter drive produces no sound, only a gentle hum, a detail specifically mentioned by the book because of how different it would be to what you might think a space engine would be.

Our main protagonist guy climbs down the ducts, and onto the top of the engine. There’s some kind of putty that he has to remove before he can turn the wingnut/bolt, which he does, and he realises that he’s turning it the wrong way at first, then the right way – but things start to get very noisy.

The two students escape the mothership via the fighter jet bays — there are chutes which automatically deliver them into the cockpit of a fighter jet, and that’s how they escape. They come across a friendly vessel, which they hail by saying something like “if you see an enemy fighter on your scopes, please do not open fire. I repeat, please do no open fire: I mean you no harm, and can hardly keep this thing flying in a straight line”.

The story ends by the good guys picking up the injured mentor on the planet. Both cadets pass their exams with flying colours and are awarded the highest commendation, with the main protagonist also getting an invitation to fly for one of the most prestigious freighter companies in the galaxy, along with the exclusive license that it offers, which was always his original dream.

Any ideas?

Last modified: Sunday, 16th September 2018

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