Universe Alpha 7:
The Reflection of Home

Copyright © 2015 by MultiMapper and CSU Productions
All Rights Reserved

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Author's Note: Contributions made to this chapter by Greybear.

Chapter 48 - The Other End of the Rainbow

Vincent awoke in darkness and sensed that something was wrong.

He lay silently, puzzling over what seemed so out of place when it finally occurred to him that what was missing was the hum of the Yorktown's engines. Once the fog had cleared from his waking mind, he remembered that he was back on Earth. He was, in fact, at the Southcrest ranch... in Texas.

As he reached to turn on the bedside lamp, all thoughts of time splits and alternate universes fled his mind as pain erupted throughout his body. The joint pain that had almost become a 'normal' part of his life paled in comparison to the soreness that he felt, most notably in his legs.

It took a moment for him to realize that what he was feeling was the aftereffects of horseback riding.

He had to force himself to get out of the bed. But knowing that he had pain medication available in his backpack was enough encouragement to get him moving.

With the way he felt, he seriously considered not working out. It was his day off, after all. And he would be leaving on a new mission the next day.

Even as he was thinking about it, he was dressing in his new workout clothes.

After all, he had been given an unprecedented gift and been shown an amazing amount of trust when Thaelan had offered to share his family's style of fighting. He would essentially be throwing that gift away if he slacked off and did less than his best when he was out of Thaelan's sight.

If nothing else, it was a matter of personal honor. But beyond that, it also occurred to Vincent that a good stretch might help to ease the sore muscles in his legs.

* * * * *

When he got to the bottom of the stairs, Vincent looked around to be sure that no one else was up.

He peeked into the living room and saw the large Christmas tree, dark and ominous simply by virtue of its size. With the predawn light just beginning to glow in the picture window behind it, the Christmas tree actually looked sort of eerie.

As he walked away from the living room, it occurred to him that it might be nice to take the opportunity to do his workout outside. He had never been what one would consider a 'nature buff' before, but having the opportunity to enjoy a workout in a serene planetary setting was a rare treat after so many months aboard a starship.

* * * * *

Vincent carefully went through his warm up stretches as he kept some small amount of his attention on the horizon where the sun threatened to rise at any moment. There was a chill in the air, but he knew that as soon as he was in motion that he wouldn't even notice it.

With the tightness and soreness of his muscles, Vincent decided that doing his gymnastics routine would be most productive. It would allow him to stretch his muscles and work the kinks out.

He oriented his workout so that he could have a full view of the sun as it began to rise.

With the sight of the sunrise serving as inspiration, Vincent slowed his gymnastic routine as much as he possibly could. He used his strength and precision to move into each pose and hold it at its maximum extension for as long as he could bear it.

The tranquil sensation that Vincent often felt when he worked out seemed to be magnified by the serene surroundings. His mind was set free, except that this time he wasn't sorting through problems and inner turmoil. All he felt was peace.

* * * * *

After slowly working through one power move after another, Vincent felt like doing something a little more active.

He pulled himself into a handstand, then did a walkover and started tumbling, end over end across the lawn.

As he was tumbling, he caught a momentary flash of someone standing and watching him.

He completed his maneuver and turned to verify what he had seen.

"Please don't stop." Ben said quietly.

"I'm done." Vincent said simply as he walked to join Ben, then smiled as he added, "Actually, I lost track of time. I usually don't work out this long."

"You do this every day?" Ben asked with surprise.

"I work out every day, but not always gymnastics. Today I wanted to do something to stretch my muscles. I was really sore this morning." Vincent said frankly.

"Do you need anything for the soreness?" Ben asked with concern.

"I've been having joint pain from a growth spurt, so I'm already taking some pain meds." Vincent said seriously.

"Just let me know if there's anything I can do." Ben said as he led the way into the kitchen.

"Okay. But I'm feeling fine right now." Vincent said simply.

"I'm guessing that after that workout, you're probably just about ready for breakfast." Ben said speculatively.

"Do I have time for a shower, first?" Vincent asked hopefully.

"Sure. You take all the time you need." Ben said warmly.

* * * * *

Vincent thoroughly enjoyed the sensation of a 'water' shower. As he was dressing in his 'civvies', he thought about Cory and Sean's concern for him and how they went out of their way to remind him of how to be 'Vincent' again.

As he walked down the stairs, he could hear Ben talking quietly to someone in the kitchen.

"Feeling better?" Ben asked when he saw Vincent walking through the doorway.

"Yeah. I don't mind the sonic showers on the Yorktown, but the water shower really feels nice." Vincent admitted as he followed a hypnotic scent, drawing him toward the coffee maker.

"Chip says the same thing. There's some juice on the table." Ben said as Vincent reached for an empty coffee mug.

"Okay." Vincent said absently as he poured himself a mug of coffee.

"I'm not sure that coffee is good for someone your age." Ben said reluctantly.

Vincent flashed him a disbelieving look for a moment, then turned fully to face Ben before saying, "I promise, it won't stunt my growth."

Hazel had her back to them and was peeling potatoes. Vincent got the sense that she was listening to their every word, but was choosing not to get involved.

As Ben seemed to be struggling with the decision, Vincent set the mug down, then made a conscious effort to stand to his full height to prove his point.

"Sorry, Vincent. I guess I still remember you how you were when I first met you." Ben finally relented.

"That seems like another lifetime." Vincent said honestly as he picked up his coffee mug and fought down the urge to smirk at the double meaning.

"To me, it seems like yesterday." Ben said frankly.

Vincent set his coffee down again and gently hugged Ben as he quietly said, "I'm alright. I promise."

"When I heard about what happened to you at Kimber IV..." Ben trailed off as he returned the hug.

"I'm alright. Really." Vincent repeated.

"Excuse me, Ensign. But that's my husband, you've got there." Chip said playfully as he entered the kitchen.

"Sorry, Commander. I couldn't help myself." Vincent said with an impish grin as he immediately pulled away.

After a moment to pour himself some coffee, Chip said, "He is irresistible, isn't he?"

"You two sit down at the table so we can fix breakfast." Ben chuckled.

Vincent picked up his coffee again, then walked to the table as Chip swooped in to give Ben a 'good morning' kiss.

* * * * *

"That smells good!" Keith proclaimed as he walked into the kitchen with Ethan following a step behind.

Vincent was surprised to feel a slight twinge when he saw Keith give Ben a quick, affectionate hug.

He didn't usually think about losing his parents. Honestly, there were just too many other things that demanded his attention to think about it much. But every now and then he was reminded that they were gone.

"Good morning, Vincent. Are you sore this morning?" Ethan asked as he took a seat at the kitchen table.

"I was, a little. Between my workout and my meds, I'm alright now." Vincent said before taking another sip of his coffee.

"Should I go up and get Channing and Chance?" Keith asked as he poured himself a glass of juice.

"Give them a few more minutes. I'm betting that the smell of the cooking food will wake them up." Ben said frankly.

Chip looked at what Ben and Hazel were doing for a moment, then turned his attention to the boys and asked, "Who wants to help me get the grill going? If we're going to be having brisket this afternoon, I need to get it started now."

"Yeah. I'll help." Keith said simply, then drank down the last of his juice.

Chip looked at Vincent inquiringly.

"Need coffee." Vincent said in a low, primal voice.

Chip smiled as he said, "You can bring your coffee with you and just watch, if you want."

Vincent shrugged, then carried his mug to the coffee maker to refill it.

* * * * *

The morning chill was still in the air, which made Vincent appreciate the warmth of his coffee that much more.

Keith and Chip seemed to be dedicated to their task, whatever it was. But within a few minutes of watching, Vincent was cold and bored.

When he walked back inside the house, he found Ethan in the kitchen with Ben and Hazel.

"Do you need any help?" Vincent asked automatically.

"No. Everything's going fine. Chance and Channing are in the dining room, if you'd like to go in and enjoy your coffee." Ben said as he kept the majority of his attention on cracking eggs into a large bowl.

"Okay." Vincent said simply as he walked to the coffee maker and found that it was brewing another pot.

"We'll bring in a carafe of coffee when it's ready." Ben promised him.

"Great. Thanks." Vincent said sincerely before leaving the room.

* * * * *

"Since Chip and Keith are home, and since I was able to get all my work done last night, I'm going to be able to take the day off so I can prepare for, and participate in, the barbecue today." Ben announced at breakfast.

"I'm sorry to spring this on you, all at once. I know that you were probably planning for us to have some quiet time before Keith and I have to take off again." Chip said quietly.

Ben laughed then said, "We go through this nearly every time you come home. Believe me, I understand that when you come home that you want to make the most of every minute."

"Thanks." Chip said with a warm smile at his husband.

"Were you wanting to do anything special while you're on Earth?" Ben asked curiously.

It took a moment for Vincent to realize that the question had been directed at him.

"No. I think I've done everything that I wanted to. I mean, it might have been nice if I'd been able to stop by my old school in Orlando and say 'hi' to everyone there, but with preparing for the officer's exam and then leaving on a new mission tomorrow, there's just no time." Vincent said frankly.

"What's your next mission?" Justy asked curiously.

"I'm going to be assigned to a Vulcan science ship. That's all I know about it." Vincent said frankly.

"I bet that's going to be weird." Justy said honestly.

"Maybe." Vincent said thoughtfully, then added, "I'll let you know."

"Whether it's weird or not, I think it will be a good learning experience." Chip said frankly.

"Wow! That sounds like something that's gonna suck!" Justy said with a grimace.

Chip chuckled, then said, "I don't think it's going to be that bad. Vincent may have to adapt a little to adjust to the new circumstance, but that's something we all need to learn how to do."

"Are you going to show me how to make the barbecue sauce today?" Keith asked suddenly.

Chip looked askance at his son at the abrupt change in subject.

"You said you would, last time. You didn't make it already, did you?" Keith persisted.

"No. I'll be making it right after breakfast." Chip said with a reluctant smile.

"Will you show me how?" Keith asked hopefully.

Chip finally gave up trying to restrain it and let out a chuckle before saying, "I suppose it is about time for me to pass the family secret on to the next generation."

"Will you show me, too?" Justy asked hopefully.

"I think it may be a few more years before you're ready to bear the responsibility." Chip said with a grin.

* * * * *

When breakfast was over, Chip and Keith went to the kitchen to begin their 'top secret' barbecue preparations.

Vincent noticed that as soon as they were out of the room, Justy crept to the dining room door, and peeked around the corner. Then, when the coast was clear, he dashed out to spy on them.

As Vincent left the dining room, he realized that he didn't have anything that he needed to be doing.

He had already completed his Starfleet Officer's exam. He had taken his final exam for school when he was back on Vulcan.

He briefly considered going horseback riding, but he didn't want to go by himself. Not that he could have remembered how to saddle a horse, even if he wanted to.

As he walked into the game room, intending to sign on to the Starfleet sim, just for something to do, he remembered that he had wanted to investigate the differences between Starfleet and Vulcan standard operating procedures.

* * * * *

"Here you are. I thought you might have sneaked away to have a nap." Chip said warmly as he walked into the game room.

"No. I was just trying to get an idea of SOP on a Vulcan ship." Vincent said seriously.

"I imagine that you'll have plenty of time to consider the differences once you're on board. I can't imagine that you'll have a very demanding social life on a Vulcan ship." Chip said frankly.

"I just feel like I need to prepare for my first 'real' mission." Vincent said honestly.

"I can appreciate that, but I think that you're probably as prepared as you're going to get. Now it's time for you to take all your training so far and put it to use. I'm sure that there will be things that you aren't prepared for. But it's like that for everyone. This is where you get to think on your feet and problem solve." Chip said honestly.

"It's sounding more and more like Justy might be right about this." Vincent said anxiously.

"Nonsense. Overcoming obstacles and solving puzzles is all part of the experience. If it were always predictable, there'd be no point." Chip said frankly.

"I guess I'm about to find out." Vincent said reluctantly.

"While I've got you here, I was wanting to ask you some more about what you were saying yesterday." Chip said quietly.

"What about yesterday?" Vincent asked in puzzlement.

"About your visitor from the future." Chip prompted.

"Oh, yeah. I guess maybe there were some things I left out of my report. But a lot of stuff has happened since then and besides, I had already written a really detailed report about all that stuff back when it happened... for Admiral Morrow." Vincent said frankly.

"That doesn't really help us out in this timeline, or reality, or whatever this is." Chip said honestly.

"Yeah. I know. But there's not much to tell. You see, the reason the visitor came back was to fix my quantum resonance frequency. He said that if he didn't fix it, that when the split happened, I wouldn't exist anymore. Not only that, I never would have existed and everything I've ever done in my life wouldn't have happened." Vincent said thoughtfully.

Chip slowly nodded as he considered what Vincent was saying.

"So, I guess that means that anyone at Kimber IV who was saved because of what I did would be dead now, and because of that, a lot of things would have turned out differently." Vincent said seriously.

"Yes. I can see how that deviation would change future events." Chip said frankly.

"But he didn't really tell me much, he just helped me fix my quantum resonance frequency so I'd still exist after the split happened." Vincent said seriously.

"So you don't know 'how' it happened, 'why' it happened, or if it's going to happen again?" Chip asked slowly.

"No. But I got the feeling from the way he talked that it was a really big huge one-time thing." Vincent said honestly.

"Is there anything else that you can tell me that might help?" Chip asked hopefully.

"There's a few more things, but Admiral Morrow made me promise not to ever talk about that stuff with anyone because it's top secret. It's all stuff that Starfleet already knows, but they want to keep it a secret from everyone else. It's not anything about the split, anyway. It's more about the time travel and quantum resonance frequency thing." Vincent said seriously.

"Well, even so, it's possible that the information you've provided might help us formulate some sort of hypothesis about this whole mess." Chip said frankly.

"That's really all I know. He said it was going to happen. Then, it happened. That's it." Vincent said simply.

"There's my little duck!"

Chip turned suddenly and asked, "Aunt Jackie?"

Before he could say any more, he was pulled into a hug.

Vincent watched the scene with a smile.

When Jackie was finished hugging Chip, she turned to Vincent and asked, "How are you doing, young man?"

Before he could answer, he was being hugged within an inch of his life.

"What are you doing here, Aunt Jackie?" Chip asked curiously.

"Well, I knew that you and Keith were back on earth for a few days, so of course I wanted to stop in and visit for a bit. But when Justy told me that Vincent was here, too, I decided that there wasn't any reason for me to wait." Jackie said firmly.

"Why don't we go into the living room where we can be more comfortable?" Chip asked warmly.

"I'm not interrupting anything important, am I?" Jackie asked as she looked at the computer where Vincent had been working.

"No, Ma'am. I was just looking up some stuff for my next mission. It's not important." Vincent assured her.

* * * * *

Once everyone had settled into the couches, they took a long silent moment to appreciate the beauty of the massive Christmas tree before Jackie gently asked, "How are you doing, Vincent?"

"I'm fine. It's been so long since I've had a whole day off, I don't know what to do." Vincent finished with a smile.

Jackie looked at him with concern, then quietly said, "You were so closed off when you left, I've been concerned about how you were dealing with things."

"I think Vincent's done pretty well. Since he left earth, he's saved a countless number of lives and made a name for himself throughout the Federation." Chip said frankly.

Jackie glanced at Chip, then carefully said, "That's not what I meant."

Vincent thought back to the days before he left on the Yorktown. While dealing with the 'extra' memories was something of a chore, he could usually navigate them without too much difficulty. However, when it came to those days of his past that were filled with so much pain and confusion, he found that he couldn't separate what had happened in which reality.

Finally, he decided to share just as much with her as would put her at ease.

"A day or two after I joined the crew of the Yorktown, I started seeing a counsellor to help me sort through things. Every now and then I still get sad or angry about something, but I think I'm doing about as well as anyone could be." Vincent said thoughtfully.

Jackie smiled at the response and quietly said, "I'm glad. Some people have trouble admitting when they need help."

"Thaelan told me that if I got someone to help me with things before it got too bad that it would be easier to take care of it than if I waited." Vincent said honestly.

"Thaelan? That's an odd name." Jackie said with a curious smile.

"You're not talking about Ensign Thaelan who transferred from the Enterprise, are you?" Chip asked suddenly.

"Yeah. He's the officer in charge of my shift in Deflector Control." Vincent said with a curious look at Chip.

"I'm sorry, Vincent. I didn't make the connection that when we transferred him that he'd be put in your department." Chip said regretfully.

"Don't worry about it. He was kind of a jerk when he first came aboard, but we sorted him out." Vincent finished with a smile.

"We had to get him off the Enterprise before the entire engineering crew got together and pitched him out the nearest airlock." Chip said with a grimace at the memory.

"Well, I'm glad he didn't work out on the Enterprise, because he's really been a big help on the Yorktown. I can't think of anyone else that I'd rather have as my shift officer." Vincent said seriously.

"Chip, were you going to get that brisket started sometime soon?" Ben asked from the living room doorway.

"Oh, right. The grill should be hot enough by now. I lost track of time." Chip said as he quickly stood.

"Oh, are you having a barbecue today?" Jackie asked with a smile.

"Yes. You'll be able to stay, won't you?" Chip asked hopefully.

"I wouldn't think of missing out on your brisket. Go on now. Don't make me have to wait on it." Jackie said with a shooing motion.

"How are you doing, Aunt Jackie? I didn't know you were here." Ben said as he walked into the room and gave her a warm hug.

"I'm doing as well as I can be." Jackie chuckled, then asked, "Do you need any help preparing for the barbecue?"

"I think Hazel and I have everything well in hand. But if you don't have other plans, I know that we'd enjoy your company." Ben said gently.

"What do you say Vincent? Care to join us?" Jackie asked pleasantly.

"Sure." Vincent said, then followed them out of the room.

* * * * *

The idle chatter in the kitchen didn't interest Vincent in the least. But for some reason, he couldn't make himself get up and do anything else.

Justy and Dean stopped in for a while, mostly to finagle some cookies from Ben, but Vincent didn't really feel like tagging along with them on whatever adventure they were about to embark upon.

He was content to sit in the kitchen and sip his coffee while listening to the family gossip and chit-chat among Ben, Jackie, and Hazel.

* * * * *

"Dad! We're going into town. Do you need for us to pick up anything?" Keith asked as he raced into the kitchen. Ethan, Chance and Channing followed a moment later.

Ben considered for a moment, then looked at Hazel with question.

Finally, he said, "No. I can't think of anything. What did you need to go into town for?"

"Sodas." Keith said as he started out of the room.

"We have sodas in the fridge." Ben said cautiously.

"Yeah." Keith called out as he led the procession toward the door.

* * * * *

Justy barreling in from the back door and on through the house caught Vincent's attention.

Dean walked in much more calmly and announced, "The first guests just arrived."

"That works out very nicely. I think we're just about done in here." Ben said happily.

"I can finish the washing up, Mr. Ben, if you would like to see to your guests." Hazel offered seriously.

"Thank you, Hazel. I appreciate that." Ben said as he quickly washed his hands.

"Daddy, this is Mr. Jeremias." Justy said excitedly as he led a man and a young girl into the kitchen.

Ben chuckled, then said, "Actually, this is Mr. Gelt, Jeremias Gelt. And if I'm not mistaken, this young lady at his side must be his daughter, Lexi."

"Does Commander Dodds really live here?" The girl asked hopefully.

"Lexi! We're guests here. Show some manners." Jeremias gently scolded.

Lexi gave her father a sour look, but restrained herself from asking anything further.

"I think Pop just went down to the stable. Come on." Justy said happily.

When Lexi didn't move, Justy stopped to look at her with question.

"You're the Hero of Kimber." Lexi whispered in awe as she stared at Vincent.

"Yeah. I guess." Vincent said shyly, then thought to add, "Most people don't recognize me. I've grown a lot since then."

"I don't understand." Jeremias said as he looked at his daughter's awestruck state.

When no one seemed willing to offer an explanation, Vincent quietly said, "I'm a crewman... well, I was a crewman on the USS Yorktown when it happened. There was a damaged reactor at the Kimber IV colony. It was leaking radiation, and was about to blow up. I was the only one small enough to squeeze in there and shut it down, so I did."

"Now I remember, I did hear about that." Jeremias said distantly, then quietly asked, "That was you?"

Vincent timidly chuckled at the absurd question and responded, "Yeah."

"The Federation News said that he saved some really important guy from being killed and he's the only person in the Federation to meet this new alien race and that he captured some PIRATES!" Lexi said with escalating excitement.

Vincent's first reaction was to explain what really happened, but he recognized that Lexi was caught up in an emotional place where she was feeling more than thinking. So, no matter what he said, she probably wouldn't hear him.

"That's about right." Vincent finally conceded.

"You're the one that Lexi's been going on and on about. I can't believe we're actually getting to meet you." Jeremias said with a smile.

"Yeah. It's a small universe." Vincent said with a grin.

"Did you still want to go out and see Pop?" Justy asked hesitantly.

It seemed as though Lexi didn't hear his question as she continued to stare at Vincent in wonder.

"Give her a few minutes. I think she's stuck in a feedback loop." Vincent finally answered for her and spared Justy a grin.

When Vincent turned his attention back to Jeremias, he saw a distant, thoughtful expression.

"Why don't you two sit down? We can talk, if you want." Vincent said cautiously, not sure if either one of them were hearing him.

"Can I get you some coffee?" Ben asked as he walked to Jeremias' side.

That seemed to jar Jeremias out of whatever he had been focused on.

"Yes. Thank you." Jeremias said quickly, then thought to ask, "We aren't too early, are we?"

Ben smiled good naturedly and said, "Not at all. We're going to have people coming and going throughout the day. Sit back and relax. And if you or Lexi need anything, just be sure to let me know."

"Thank you." Jeremias said absently as he finally took a seat at the kitchen table.

Apparently, Lexi had come out of her stupor enough to notice what her father was doing and also sat down.

"Do you take anything in your coffee?" Ben asked as he placed a mug before Jeremias.

"No. Thank you." Jeremias said with a distracted glance at Ben.

"How old are you?" Lexi asked Vincent curiously.

"Nine."

"So am I!" Lexi said happily.

"You're awfully big for a nine year old." Jeremias said slowly.

"Yeah. I've had some monster growth spurts in the past few months." Vincent said frankly, then added, "They really hurt."

"So, Jeremias, what brings you to Texas? If you don't mind me asking." Ben asked as he took a seat at the table.

That seemed to snap Jeremias out of his wandering thoughts and he said, "When Lexi was born, my wife decided that she wanted to quit her job and be a full-time stay-at-home mother. But as Lexi got older, Theresa became bored and felt the need to 'discover herself'. In the course of her self discovery, she got involved in some crazy religion."

"A cult?" Ben guessed.

"I'm not sure. I hesitate to call them a cult because although they're a bit on the evangelical end of the spectrum, so far as I can tell, their other members aren't quite as... enthusiastic as Theresa. It seems that she took some biblical scriptures about hating and abandoning your family far more literally than most of the congregation." Jeremias said slowly.

"I think I know that one." Ben said thoughtfully, then recited from memory, "If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple."

"That's the one." Jeremias said wearily.

"So she just left?" Ben asked curiously.

"Yes. She completely abandoned any semblance of thought or reason and chose to believe only in her religious faith. To her, anything not explicitly stated in the bible isn't real. Last time I saw her, she was so completely divorced from reality that it was impossible to talk with her." Jeremias said sadly.

"So that's why you moved?" Ben asked gently.

"Yes. I was concerned that she might come back and try to indoctrinate Lexi into her faith, so when I found that Dyson Industries had a position coming open in Texas, I applied for it."

"Well, I'm glad that you're here. You're doing a great job." Ben said with a smile.

"It's been difficult for Lexi, starting over in a new school." Jeremias said regretfully.

"I want to be in the Starfleet Mentoring Program, like Vincent." Lexi said firmly.

Vincent smiled at the declaration and quietly said, "Well, they don't just take anyone who asks. If you really want to get into the mentoring program, you've got to work really hard to prove that you're good enough."

"What do I have to do?" Lexi asked immediately.

"First, you have to get good grades." Vincent said seriously.

"I do." Lexi said happily.

"Next, you have to study about the things that you'll need to know on a Starship, to do your job. Stuff like math and science."

"I already take math and science in school." Lexi said cautiously.

"Yeah. But what you're learning in school is just the stuff that civilians need to know. If you want to get into Starfleet, you need to learn more than what your school is teaching you." Vincent said thoughtfully.

"Like what?" Lexi asked curiously.

"You have to figure that out for yourself. If you want to be an engineer you need to study different stuff than if you want to work in communications." Vincent said frankly.

"I want to be a helmsman." Lexi said without hesitation.

"From what I understand, there's a lot of competition for the helm. I'm not saying that you shouldn't try for it, but if you do, you need to realize that you'll have to be the absolute best at everything."

Lexi nodded thoughtfully.

"You also need to study the Starfleet codes." Vincent said slowly.

"I've read them." Lexi said happily.

"It's not enough to just read them. You have to study them and understand them." Vincent said firmly, then added, "If you're wanting to go to the Starfleet Academy, I guess they'll teach you that stuff while you're there. But if you really want to get into the mentoring program, then you'll have to learn it for yourself. You have to know all the rules before you can do the job."

"That's a lot to learn." Lexi said cautiously.

"Yeah. And that's not all. You also need to know how to work as part of a team. You need to know how to lead and how to follow."

"But I'm only nine." Lexi said in a small voice.

"So am I." Vincent said frankly and waited for a moment for that to sink in.

Finally, Lexi asked, "Is that it?"

Vincent shook his head, then said, "When you're on a starship, everyone is always depending on each other to do their jobs. One of the most important things that you need to learn is how to be honest. If someone asks you if you know how to do a job, you can't lie or pretend that you know something that you don't. You have to tell them the truth. And if you promise to do something, then you have to make sure that you do it. People have to be able to count on you or you're not doing anyone any good."

"That's a lot." Lexi said with concern.

"Yeah. Another thing is, you have to keep yourself going. It's not like being in school where they stand over you and tell you what to do and what needs to be done next. It's up to you to wake up each morning, do your job, do your schoolwork, then do any extra studying that you need to."

"Maybe it would be better if you focused on trying to qualify for the Starfleet Academy." Jeremias suggested to his daughter.

"But it's almost ten years before I can do that!" Lexi whined.

"If you really want to try to get into the Starfleet Mentoring Program, then study hard and learn as much as you can. When you're ready, you can talk to Commander Dodds about it and maybe he'll sponsor you, like he did for me." Vincent said honestly.

Lexi slowly nodded her head as she considered.

"But how about right now I introduce you to Commander Dodds? Even if you aren't ready for the mentoring program today, it'd still be good for you to get to know him." Vincent finished with a smile.

"Can I?" Lexi asked her father hopefully.

"Go ahead." Jeremias said with a tender smile at his daughter.

* * * * *

"Commander Dodds, this is Lexi. She wants to be in the Starfleet mentoring program." Vincent said as they walked up to where Chip was saddling a horse.

"It's nice to meet you, Lexi." Chip said formally, then turned to Vincent and asked, "You didn't make any promises, did you?"

Vincent chuckled, then said, "No. I explained about all the stuff that she'll need to learn about before you can even think about sponsoring her."

"Good. I'm curious to know how many applications for the mentoring program Starfleet received after your story was broadcast." Chip said thoughtfully as he mindlessly continued what he was doing.

When Vincent noticed that there were three other horses saddled, he cautiously asked, "Are you going riding?"

"I like to get a few of the horses saddled early in the day when we're having people over so if anyone feels like going for a ride, they can just mount up and go." Chip said frankly.

"Do you want to go for a ride, Lexi?" Vincent asked curiously.

"I don't know how." Lexi said regretfully.

"I can't think of a better time for you to learn." Vincent said honestly.

"If you'll hang on until I'm finished here, I'll go with you." Chip said pleasantly.

Lexi looked from Chip to Vincent in wonder and didn't seem to be able to find any words.

At Chip's curious look, Vincent quietly said, "Feedback loop."

Chip nodded, then went back to saddling the horse.

* * * * *

"Watch Vincent, he'll show you how it's done." Chip said as he stood by, in case Lexi needed his help.

Vincent checked to be sure that Lexi was watching, then mounted the horse in one fluid movement.

"Can you do that?" Chip asked cautiously.

"I think so." Lexi said thoughtfully, then hoisted herself up and into the saddle. The move wasn't anything close to being graceful, but she was able to get up without any help.

"That's good. Just wait for a moment while I mount up, then Vincent's going to show you where the maneuvering thrusters are." Chip said with a smile.

* * * * *

After a little time to get Lexi familiar with the 'controls' and some good natured chatter, Chip, Vincent and Lexi started riding out into the pasture.

"It's really pretty here. It's not anything like Maryland, where I grew up." Lexi said in wonder.

"There's no place else like it." Chip said with a smile.

After a moment more of riding at a casual pace, Vincent quietly said, "Lexi wants to be a helmsman."

Chip smiled at the announcement, then said, "That's a fine ambition to have, but there's a lot of competition for the helm."

"That's what Vincent said, too." Lexi said honestly.

"I told her that she has to be the absolute best, if she wants to be a helmsman." Vincent interjected.

"That's true, especially if you narrow your focus to just that one goal." Chip said thoughtfully.

"What does that mean?" Lexi asked curiously.

"Well, at least at the academy, you have to take several general study courses, but then you have the choice to specialize in as many or as few positions as you want. If you focus on qualifying for the helm to the exclusion of all else, then you really do have to be the best of the best to be offered a commission and selected for Starfleet service." Chip carefully explained.

"Besides that, when you work on the bridge, you have to be able to work all the stations, not just the one that you specialized on." Vincent interjected.

"That's right." Chip said with a smile at him.

"Because of that, when I'm working the helm I'm always keeping track of what's going on everywhere else on the bridge, in case there's an emergency and I have to take another station for some reason." Vincent said seriously.

"You work the helm?" Lexi asked in wonder.

"Yeah. I got real lucky. Captain Byrne, that's my captain on the Yorktown, he decided that he'd help to train me how to be an officer. So he made sure that I knew what I needed to know on all the stations, you know, the book stuff. Then he got the people who work those stations to teach me what it is that they do each day when they work their shifts. After that, I got assigned to be backup crew, so I could cover for breaks and lunches at each of the stations. Then, on the trip from Coffelt back to Earth, I was assigned to work full shifts, each day at a different station."

"I had heard rumors that you were in command during the pirate incident, but you know how stories like to grow as they're being passed on." Chip prompted.

"Yeah. That was another part of my training. Captain Byrne thought that to learn about what it means to be in command, that I should actually be in command, at least for a little bit. At first, he'd put me in command when he was on the bridge, just to see how I was going to do. After that, he'd leave the bridge and let me be in command on my own for a little while. I think the captain and Commander M'Butu were really busy planning what they were going to do when we reached the Coffelt base when the pirate thing happened. I was in command, I made some decisions, and you heard about how things turned out."

"Initially, I was nervous when I found out that you were being posted to the Yorktown. I felt that it would have been much better for you to be on the Enterprise, where I could keep an eye on you. I'm glad things turned out the way they did. I guess I didn't give Leland enough credit." Chip finished with a smile.

"Well, I think, at first, Captain Byrne was kind of letting me go on my own to see what I was going to do. Even after the thing at Kimber IV, he never really acted like he was paying attention to what I was doing. I mean, yeah, he was proud of what I did, but I didn't feel like he was even paying attention to if I was studying or learning anything about becoming an officer. I guess he was leaving that completely up to me. I'm not sure what finally did it, but when we got to New Hope, Commander M'Butu told me that him and the captain decided that they would help me."

"So your captain and first officer helped you to study?" Lexi asked cautiously, to verify her understanding.

"Not exactly. As far as all the book stuff, that was all on me. Lieutenant Bowers, that's the head of my department, he helped me by telling me what books I needed to study, but it was up to me to study them. He never followed behind me to see what I was doing. The only time we ever really talked about it is when I would finish something and ask what I needed to study next."

"It's something like that at the academy, too. Quite a few new cadets never learned to motivate themselves. In fact, it was even frustrating for me, when I was there. But I've since learned that it's one of the most important skills that we can foster in our new people. Having a collection of drones who just follow along and only do what, and as much, as they're told is of no use to us. We might as well run the ship entirely by automation." Chip said frankly.

"Right." Vincent agreed, then continued, "So after I learned all that book stuff on my own, the command staff showed me how to use what I'd learned for real. It wasn't just words or formulae or methods, it was real, right there in my hands where I could touch it and I could see it work."

"Kind of like the Starfleet sim?" Lexi speculated.

"Kind of, but you know the sim's just a game. No matter how seriously you try to take it, it will always be a game. If you screw up, you just start over. It doesn't really work like that on a starship." Vincent finished with a smile.

Chip laughed, then said, "'Game Over' has a whole different meaning when you're actually on the bridge."

"And it also makes a difference when you realize that every decision you make is affecting real people. When it's a computer sim and you do something dangerous, it's fun and a thrill and if you pull it off it feels pretty good. But if you do something like that in real life, you're putting people that you care about in danger. Even if you don't know all their names, you work beside them every day and eat meals with them and maybe hang out with them on the recreation deck. If you pull a stupid stunt like some fancy starship cowboy, real people could be hurt or die because of it." Vincent said seriously.

Lexi stared at Vincent in wonder. She had obviously never considered the scale of the career she had chosen.

"That's a good way of putting it. The Starfleet sim is an excellent tool for learning the rudimentary skills to operate the different stations and it teaches some valuable problem solving skills, but there is a human aspect of working on a starship that it can't possibly convey." Chip said seriously.

Vincent noticed that Lexi was apparently lost in deep thought, trying to assimilate a new concept into her preconceived notions.

"I don't like the look of those clouds. We'd better get back." Chip said as he surveyed the darkening clouds on the horizon.

"Is that going to ruin your barbecue?" Vincent asked as he turned his horse.

Chip smiled, then said, "The storm will most likely blow on past without doing anything. But we'll probably be eating inside, just to be safe."

* * * * *

When they arrived back at the house, Lexi was still unusually quiet.

Chip went to check on the brisket as Vincent led her inside.

"Did you have a good ride?" Ben asked as they entered the kitchen.

"Yeah. But it looks like it might rain, so we came back early." Vincent said honestly.

"We put out some sandwiches in the dining room for lunch, if anyone's hungry." Ben said casually.

"Do you want to, Lexi?" Vincent asked curiously.

"Yeah. I guess." Lexi muttered.

"Is something wrong?" Jeremias asked with concern.

Vincent waited for a moment to see if Lexi were going to answer her father's question. When she didn't, Vincent quietly said, "While we were riding, we talked about some of the realities of being in Starfleet."

"I still want to." Lexi said suddenly.

Vincent smiled, then said, "Good. We weren't trying to talk you out of it. We were just making sure that you understood what you're wanting to get into."

Lexi nodded, then asked, "Did someone say something about food?"

"In there." Vincent said with a grin as he pointed.

A hand on his arm caused Vincent to stop.

"Thank you." Jeremias said sincerely.

Vincent nodded, then hurried to the dining room.

* * * * *

"Everyone, this is Lexi." Vincent said as he walked in after her.

A few people said 'hi' and a few gave casual waves as they kept the majority of their attention focused on their food.

"Lexi, I'd like for you to meet Lieutenant Wilson from the Enterprise." Vincent said formally.

"You can call me Keith." He said with a smile at her.

"Nice to meet you." Lexi said in an obligatory tone.

"Next to him is his boyfriend, Ethan." Vincent said seriously.

"Boyfriend?" Lexi asked cautiously.

"Yeah." Vincent confirmed, then continued, "Next is Keith's brother, Justy and Justy's boyfriend, Dean."

Both boys gave her a quick smile, but mostly due to their full mouths, no audible greeting was exchanged.

"These two guys are from my ship. Crewman Channing and Crewman... um, Chance?" Vincent finished uncertainly.

"Crewman Livingston." Chance corrected with a grin.

"Why are you introducing us by our ranks?" Keith asked curiously.

"Because Lexi is interested in joining Starfleet, someday. I thought it'd be good for her to know who works on a starship so she can ask you questions, if she wants to." Vincent said seriously.

Keith considered for a moment, then said, "It's good that you're thinking about it now. If you can start learning what you need to know right now, then maybe you won't feel as overwhelmed as most people do when they start at the academy. A lot of people flounder because they have no idea of what they're getting into."

"I really wanted to go into the mentoring program." Lexi said cautiously.

"I don't know enough about how that works to know what to tell you. Vincent's the only person I've ever met that's in the program." Keith said frankly.

"He told me about it. It sounds really hard." Lexi said honestly.

Keith chuckled, then said, "No surprises there. There's no easy way. There's no shortcuts. There's a ton of stuff to learn and you have to know it all before they'll let you in."

"That's just as true for crewmen." Chance said thoughtfully, then continued, "Even though our training course is a lot shorter than the officer's training, it's no less intense."

"You've also got to take into account what the placement tests say. No matter what you 'think' you'd like to do, the placement tests tell you what you actually have a talent for." Channing said frankly.

"That doesn't mean that you have to do what the tests say. If you really really want to do something, you can work extra hard to learn the skills that you'll need. But, as a rule, you normally lean toward what you have a natural aptitude for." Keith said seriously.

"From what I've heard, there aren't a lot of girls in command on starships." Lexi said quietly.

Keith considered for a moment, then carefully said, "I'm sure my pop probably knows more about it, but from what I saw at the academy, I don't think there's as many women trying to be in command. But Commander Uhura is a command officer on my ship and her being a woman doesn't make a bit of difference to anyone. When she tells you to do something, you say 'Yes, Ma'am' and do it."

"I've never seen anyone treat any of the female officers any different on the Yorktown, either. But I think that if someone did that, Captain Byrne would probably drop them off on the next planet that we passed. He doesn't put up with disrespect." Vincent said seriously.

Chance and Channing were both nodding their agreement.

"Are we too late? Did we miss the food?" A man asked as he entered the dining room.

"Uncle Kevin! I didn't know you were coming!" Justy exclaimed joyfully as he bolted out of his chair.

As Kevin was being hugged within an inch of his life, another man walked in and sheepishly said, "Mom let it slip that Chip was having a cookout today and... you know. Suddenly we found ourselves in the neighborhood."

Keith got up from his chair as he said, "Everyone, these are our, well, they're technically our cousins, but we've grown up calling them our uncles, Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell."

Since Justy was still hugging Kevin, Keith walked to Brian and gave him a firm hug.

"I know Chance and Channing, but who else do we have here?" Brian asked curiously.

"Crewman... No, Ensign Winters, from the USS Yorktown and Lexi... I don't know her last name, her dad works with my dad." Keith explained.

"I remember you now, Vincent. You've changed a lot since the last time I saw you." Brian said frankly.

Vincent racked his brain, but couldn't for the life of him remember ever meeting Brian before, in either reality.

Brian then turned his attention to Lexi and conspiratorially said, "No matter what you have to put up with being around these guys, it will all be worth it when the brisket is served."

Before Brian could say more, Justy switched victims and was trying to hug the life out of him.

"How are you doing, Dean?" Kevin asked with a smile in his direction.

"Doing great." Dean smiled.

"Ethan?"

"Good."

Kevin nodded that he accepted their answers.

"I thought I heard you two in here. Why didn't you let me know that you were coming?" Jackie asked as she hurried into the dining room.

"Because we didn't know for sure that we could make it until we were practically here." Kevin said frankly.

"I'm just glad you made it. Chip's in the kitchen preparing the meat, come in and say 'hi'." Jackie urged.

Brian was finally able to get Justy to let loose his death grip and moved the boy to his side so they could walk together into the next room.

Those who were left in the dining room looked at each other for a long silent moment, not knowing what to say.

"Does anyone want to go horseback riding?" Keith finally asked.

"It looks like it's going to rain any minute." Dean said as he looked out the window.

Vincent looked at Lexi and had a sudden inspiration. "Does anyone want to play the Starfleet sim?"

Keith looked at Vincent uncertainly, then at Lexi and smiled. "Sure, count me in."

"Should I go tell Justy?" Dean asked cautiously.

Keith smiled at the question, then said, "Why don't you go ahead and play?"

"I can. I know how. But since I'm really not that interested in Starfleet or anything..." Dean trailed off with a shrug.

"Well, if you want, when Justy comes in and has a fit about being left out, you can let him take over your station." Keith suggested with a grin.

Dean considered for a moment, then broke into a smile and said, "I'm in."

Vincent looked at Chance and Channing with question.

"So, after being trapped on a starship for three months, you expect us to pretend that we're on a starship to play a game?" Chance asked playfully.

"Do you want to play or not?" Vincent asked with playful aggravation.

"Yeah, we're in."

* * * * *

When Vincent signed onto his computer, he was surprised to find that Loi and RJ were also online.

While everyone else was getting signed on to their computers, Vincent quickly typed, "Hey, guys! Are you addicted to the sim, now?"

While he was waiting for a response, he quickly went through his Deflector Control system checks, to be sure that he was ready to play the game.

"Actually, we're working on the Vulcan language lessons." Loi texted back.

"How's it going?" Vincent asked curiously.

"There's a lot of memorization, but the pronunciation is the hardest part." Loi responded.

"Tell me about it!" Vincent cheerfully agreed.

"We want to get through this lesson before Jorgen gets here. I'll talk to you later."

"Just leave me a message if there's anything I can do to help. Tell Jorgen I said 'hi'." Vincent texted with a smile.

"I'll tell him. Dif-tor heh smusma, Vincent."

"Peace and long life, Loi." Vincent typed, then closed the instant message window.

"What was that?" Lexi asked from the computer beside Vincent's.

"That was my cousin Loi. Him and his boyfriend, RJ, are learning Vulcan from the ship's computer in the sim." Vincent explained.

"Is everyone you know gay?" Lexi asked cautiously.

"Not everyone." Vincent answered simply.

At Lexi's inquiring look, Vincent felt compelled to continue, "Commander Dodds and Ben are gay, of course. Because of that, I guess their gay friends and family know that they can come here and not have to hide who they are. So there may be a few more gay people around here than you would meet somewhere else, but really, it doesn't matter if someone's gay or straight or something in between."

Lexi slowly nodded, if not in agreement, then at least comprehension.

"Lexi, are you ready? You're on the helm, so we're not going anywhere without you." Keith asked from his computer.

"Oh, um, yeah. Just tell me where we're going." Lexi said distractedly.

"I've just received our orders. Ethan, contact the station and request departure instructions. Dean, plot a course for Starbase 39 Sierra." Keith said firmly.

"Aye, Captain." Dean said immediately while Ethan worked his comm station.

"You guys started without me?" Justy whined as he walked into the room.

Keith laughed at Justy's pouty expression.

"I took your place until you got back. You're on navigation." Dean said as he stood.

"Oh, thanks." Justy said timidly as he took his place in front of the computer.

After a moment to look over the controls, he stood and gave Dean a quick but heartfelt kiss, before getting to work.

* * * * *

It turned out that the scenario that they were engaged in was far more complex than the one from the previous day.

Lexi did an admirable job on the helm and everyone was fully engaged in the exercise until Ben's voice interrupted them.

"Is anyone in here hungry?" Ben asked from the doorway.

"Pause the simulation." Keith said immediately.

"Aye, Captain." Ethan said as he entered the command.

As everyone was getting up, Vincent said, "It sure would be nice if we could do that on the Yorktown."

Chance gave a delighted laugh and said, "Yeah. When things get crazy, you could just hit 'pause' and come back to it when you're ready."

"Could you imagine putting the whole ship on pause so you could go to the bathroom or get a drink?" Channing asked with a chuckle.

"How did I do?" Lexi asked Vincent cautiously as they started walking toward the door.

"Really good. I think you could probably use more practice, but maybe it just seems that way because just about everyone I know lives this every single day." Vincent said honestly.

"I have the Starfleet sim at home, but I don't have anyone else to play with. It's just me and the computer." Lexi said honestly.

"Get Justy to set you up with the Clan version of the sim. That way you'll be able to play with anyone who's online. I'd do it myself, but I'm leaving on a mission tomorrow." Vincent said frankly.

"Really? You've got a mission?" Lexi asked in wonder.

"Yeah. I'm going to be serving on a Vulcan science vessel. That's all I know about it." Vincent said seriously.

"Still, a real mission." Lexi said in wonder.

Vincent smiled at her expression, then quietly said, "Yeah. It's pretty cool, isn't it?"

* * * * *

Although Vincent had two conflicting sets of memories about the barbecue at Chip's house, neither seemed to bear any resemblance to this one.

Of course, there weren't nearly so many people in attendance as before. Also, the emotional tone of the evening was very different.

Although the occasion wasn't nearly as formal as the reception dinner at Coffelt, there was the same atmosphere of cheerful polite conversation.

Vincent noticed that Ben seemed to be making a point of sticking close to Jeremias and making sure that he was included in as much of the socializing as possible.

After being the helmsman in the simulation, Lexi seemed to have become more comfortable with everyone and chatted amongst them as an equal, despite their varying ages.

"Having a good time?" Chip asked curiously as he walked to Vincent's side.

"Yeah. I am." Vincent said with a smile.

The two of them stood silently for a moment, watching everyone chatting comfortably.

"This is our new reality, isn't it?" Chip finally asked.

"I guess it is." Vincent said with a resigned nod.

"Do you really think it's not going to change back?" Chip asked cautiously.

"I don't know. But I don't think it matters, because we just have today. We have to live in the here and now. If we give up our todays because of what might happen in our tomorrows, then we end up nowhere." Vincent said thoughtfully.

"I love him." Chip said as he looked across the room at his husband.

"Well, that works out pretty good, then." Vincent said with a smile up at Chip.

"I guess it does." Chip chuckled.

* * * * *

As Vincent got ready for bed, he looked back on the evening and decided that it was an example of what he wanted him and T'Lani to be able to do in their own home someday.

His parents had never been very social. The only times he could recall them ever attending any type of function was the birth, wedding or funeral of someone in their family. Although he had never noticed it at the time, it occurred to him that on those occasions, it always seemed that they were going out of a sense of obligation. They didn't really want to go and, in fact, they weren't wanted. But all involved seemed to agree that due to some owed loyalty, they had to be there.

Being with Chip's family, he felt that he had finally been witness to an example of what it is like to have healthy relationships with not only family, but also a community of friends. Seeing Jeremias and Lexi being brought into the group for the first time had shown him just how easy it was.

Vincent smiled as he thought about Lexi and what an incredible road might lay ahead for her. She was smart and strong willed. If she had the drive and determination to stick with it and not abandon her dreams, she might very well exceed everything he had been able to accomplish.

After taking his pain medication and vitamins, Vincent put the pill bottles back into his backpack and took out his data padd.

He brought up the image of him and T'Lani, on their wedding day.

He propped the padd on the nightstand where he could clearly see it, then got under the covers.

A smile crossed his face as he gazed at her image, until his eyes drifted shut.

To Be Continued...

Editor's Notes:

Another interesting chapter, and one with a lot of insight into the differences in the two Universe' people and events, as we see how things diverge from one to the other.

I was pleased to see that Chip has resolved his internal misgivings about what to do, in terms of his life with Ben.

I found myself a bit choked up at his telling Vincent how he felt.

There just aren't that many people that either one of them can confide in besides each other.

The more chapters of the Alpha 7 universe saga we read, and when we compare them to the equivalent main Universe stories, and the farther they diverge from one another, the more interesting the developments seem to be.

I am so pleased that MM took on the task of watching the activities in both places and gave us the opportunity to witness the different situations as they unfold.

I can't be certain, but I seriously doubt that anyone else could have pulled it off nearly as well, if they could have done it at all.

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher


A Note from Greybear:

If I didn't know any better, I'd swear that MM has been inside either my head or those of my characters. Seeing Justy more relaxed and acting like a kid his age more in this story that in either the CSU or the E-Tour series has been a refreshing sight to behold. I look forward to the next chapter of this awesome story!