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A grandmotherly looking woman slowly walked up to the podium. It took a moment for people to quiet as they realized that the woman was wearing an admiral's formal dress uniform.
"Thank you, everyone, for being here today. I am Admiral Sonja Hanson. For those of you who are unaware of the significance of this occasion, allow me to explain."
"Following some recent events, Starfleet was inundated with hundreds of inquiries about the Starfleet Mentoring Program. The existing program that Starfleet had in place would consider one or two candidates per year, so as you can imagine, they were ill equipped to evaluate so many."
"I, and some of my colleagues, suggested that rather than let so much enthusiasm and potential go to waste, we allow the candidates to undergo rigorous testing at the Starfleet Academy to evaluate their fitness."
"All those present who have completed testing, congratulations, regardless of your ages, you have been accepted to the Starfleet Academy as cadets. You may enroll in the standard or accelerated courses in the coming semesters, as best suits your situation."
After a moment for the excited murmurs to subside, the admiral continued, "However, there are some among your number that have been selected for a further honor. Will the following individuals come forward and stand by me."
"Cadet Ensign Korrigon."
"Cadet Ensign Gelt."
"Cadet Ensign Parker."
"Cadet Ensign Xon."
"Cadet Ensign Rock."
"Cadet Lieutenant Sturgill."
Everyone watched as four humans walked up beside the admiral, one was a preteen girl, one was a barely teenage boy, the remaining two were teenage boys in their mid-to-later teens. Joining them were a young teenage Vulcan boy and what appeared to be a moving pile of rocks of indeterminate age or gender.
"These six have been selected to participate in a pioneer program whereby they will be trained by experienced Starfleet Officers during actual missions. Depending on how they perform, this may be the next step in the evolution of the Starfleet Mentoring Program. We'll just have to wait and see." Admiral Hanson said seriously, then turned to the six cadets lined up at her side and said more quietly, "Cadets, report to TerraMain, dock four, in one hour. Dismissed."
* * * * *
"Lexi? How are you doing? Do you need for me to come and get you?"
"No, Daddy. I'm not done yet."
"Has it been really bad? Why haven't you called sooner?"
"I couldn't. We've all been testing and doing drills and working as hard as we can to prove that we're the best and that we can handle it."
"So, have they decided if you'll be going to the Starfleet Academy yet? And have they said if you're going to get a break to come home, first?"
"Over a hundred of us passed the first screening and came to the academy for testing. About sixty or seventy kids either quit the first week or were thrown out. Out of who's left, about fifteen were selected to enter the academy."
"Where does that leave you?"
"As one of the six candidates selected for the new Starfleet Mentoring Program that they're trying out. I'll be transporting to TerraMain in about half an hour. When I get there, I'll find out what ship I've been assigned to."
"When will you be back?"
"I don't know. As soon as I know what my mission will be, I'll tell you when we're expecting to be back at earth... If I'm allowed to, you know, if it's not top secret or something."
"Do you need anything?"
"No, Daddy. Everything's taken care of."
"I'm so proud of you. Remember to call me if you need anything at all."
"I will. I promise. I have to go now, I'll be leaving in a few minutes. I love you, Daddy."
"I love you too, Lexi. I'm so proud, I don't have words to tell you how much."
"Don't get too proud yet, Daddy. I'm just getting started."
* * * * *
"Do you think we'll all be on the same ship?" One of the older teenage boys asked nervously as he stared at the closed door to dock number four.
"We might just be meeting here before we're split up." The other one said frankly, then glanced down at the preteen girl standing at his side.
"Did I miss anything?" A pile of rocks asked in a computerized voice as he seemed to undulate across the deck with a scraping sound.
"No one's said anything. We've still got a few minutes before we're supposed to be here." The preteen girl said confidently.
"Good. After what we went through at the academy, I didn't know if this was going to be another test." The pile of rocks said frankly, then added, "My name is unpronounceable in your language, but you can call me Cadet Ensign Rock, or Rocky if you like."
"I'm Lexi. It's nice to meet you, Rocky." The preteen girl said seriously.
"Before we get into who you are, I'd like to know what you are." One of the older boys said honestly.
"My species is known as the Horta. Although our government hasn't formally joined the Federation, our planet exists within Federation space. So when I applied for the Starfleet Academy, they allowed me to be considered." Rocky said simply.
"Thanks. I'm sorry if I sounded like a jerk. I've just never seen anyone like you before. It's nice to meet you, Rocky. I'm Tracey and this guy is RJ." Tracey said pleasantly.
"A pleasure to meet you as well." Rocky said in what sounded to be a happy computerized voice.
"Have they started, yet?" A young teenage boy asked as he hurried up to the gathering.
"No. We're just waiting for someone to show up and tell us what to do. I'm Tracey, this is RJ, Lexi and Rocky." Tracey said graciously.
"I'm Hart. I was trying to call home and subspace wasn't cooperating with me... planetary alignment or something." Hart said seriously.
"Yeah. I had trouble, too." Tracey confirmed.
"So you're not from Earth, either?" Hart asked with surprise.
"RJ's from Earth, I'm from Coffelt." Tracey said simply.
"Hey! I know where that is!" Hart said with surprise.
"Really? Not many people do." Tracey said honestly.
"What about you, Lexi? Where are you from?" Hart ask curiously.
"I'm from Earth, too... I guess someone has to be." Lexi finished with a grin, then asked, "What about you, Rocky?"
"I'm from Wisconsin." Rocky said seriously.
After a moment for the humans to puzzle over that, he continued, "I'm just kidding. I'm from Janus VI."
Lexi glanced at her watch and whispered, "It's time."
Just as she did, the sixth member of their group, a Vulcan boy, walked calmly to join the gathering.
Before anyone could say anything, the large door they were standing in front of began to open.
* * * * *
"Cadets, please follow me." A young man, a crewman, said before turning to walk away.
"They told me at the academy that my clothes and stuff were going to be transported aboard, do you know about that?" Lexi hurried to ask as they walked.
"No. But I can check on that for you while you're meeting with the admiral." The crewman said simply.
"We're meeting with Admiral Hanson?" RJ asked with a tremble of fear in his voice.
"Yes. I'm taking you to the conference room. This way." The man said, then indicated the entry to the turbolift.
The six cadets stepped aboard and waited as the crewman said, "Conference room one."
As the lift began to move, they all remained silent.
* * * * *
The cadets stood as a group, where the crewman had left them, outside the conference room door.
It took a minute, but Tracey finally summoned the courage to lead the way into the room.
"Welcome, Cadets. Please take your seats so we may begin." Admiral Hanson said pleasantly.
When Rocky didn't move from his place, just inside the door, Admiral Hanson continued, "Cadet Ensign Rock, why don't you come over here by me, so you can be included in the conversation?"
"Thank you, Admiral." Rocky said timidly as he glided across the floor.
"I suppose we should get right down to business. We have things to do." Admiral Hanson said as she pressed some keys on the small control pad built into the conference room table.
The viewscreen activated, showing the United Federation of Planets logo.
Everyone turned their attention to the screen and waited for whatever was about to happen.
When the viewscreen on the wall finally changed, everyone stared in surprise.
"Lehman?" Hart asked in disbelief.
"Nope. Lehman's my twin. Try again."
"Vincent! How are you doing? Where are you?" Tracey asked with a smile.
"Actually, I can't discuss where I am, but I'm fine. When Admiral Hanson realized that I knew most of you, she thought it'd be good if I was here to welcome you. How are you doing, Tracey?" Vincent asked cheerfully.
"I'm okay." Tracey said honestly.
"What about you, Lexi? Was I right about Starfleet?" Vincent asked with a grin.
"If you hadn't told me the stuff you did, I wouldn't have made it." Lexi said frankly.
"RJ, who would have thought that after the way we first met that you'd be here, now?" Vincent said with a warm smile.
"I don't think I ever really thanked you, Vincent. You changed my life." RJ said seriously.
"I just told you the truth, as I saw it. That's it. If you can do the same thing, maybe you can change some lives, too." Vincent said simply, then turned his attention downward and smiled before saying, "I almost missed you down there, you must be Rocky."
"Are you 'The Hero of Kimber'?" Rocky asked slowly.
"That's what some people call me." Vincent answered frankly.
"Your story is what inspired me to apply for the Starfleet Mentoring Program. With all that you must have had to overcome, you were able to emerge triumphant." Rocky said in awe.
Vincent chuckled, then responded, "Rocky, I'm just a regular guy who faced some things and made some choices. Things turned out so that my story was on the news, but that doesn't mean that I did anything that was more special than what other Starfleet people do every day. I just got noticed."
There was a moment of silence that followed, then Vincent turned his attention to the last member of the Cadet group and formally said, "Greetings, my brother. It satisfies me to see your accomplishment."
Xon's Vulcan facade broke at the statement and a small smile crossed his lips before he responded, "Thank you, brother. I have missed our conversations whilst I have been at the Starfleet Academy."
"Yeah. Well, now that you've been accepted, I expect to see you in class." Vincent said frankly.
"I have only just arrived and am unaware of my schedule, but I will endeavour to attend." Xon responded seriously.
"Don't worry. Starfleet won't let anyone go without an education. I'll see you in our classroom." Vincent said with an air of certainty.
"I will look forward to that time with anticipation." Xon said seriously.
"I'm going to have to go, soon. But before I do, I want all you guys to know that if you're having problems, get in touch with me and I'll try to help you. Remember, I know what it feels like to be a kid in Starfleet. I've had to deal with a lot of different people and situations because of it." Vincent said firmly.
"Thanks, Vincent. I don't know about the others, but I'm going to call you if I get stuck on something." Lexi said assertively.
Vincent smiled, then looked over the group before saying, "Hart? I'm talking to you, too. Lehman, Benny and JonJon have been keeping me up to date on what's happening at New Hope, so I feel like I already know you. If you have any trouble, you call me and I'll help you figure it out. Is it a deal?" Vincent asked seriously.
"Yes. Thank you." Hart said in astonishment.
"Good. Just so that's clear. I've got to go now. Just remember that I've been there and I know how it is. There's going to be things that seem too big and scary for you to deal with. It's alright to be scared, but do it anyway. Some people are going to look down on you as 'cute' or 'privileged'. Screw them. They don't matter. You're there to do a job. Do it." Vincent said as he looked over the group one last time.
"Thank you, Ensign Winters. So far as I am aware, you aren't officially being recognized as a 'sponsor' for this group, but I hope you won't mind if we think of you as such." Admiral Hanson said with a smile.
"Yes, of course, Admiral. I would be proud to sponsor any member of this group." Vincent said professionally, then added more quietly, "Winters, out."
Admiral Hanson turned off the viewscreen, then said to the group, "We have much to do, but I believe that was time well spent."
One by one, the cadets turned their attention away from the viewscreen.
Admiral Hanson pressed one of the keys on the built in control panel, then said, "Captain, when you have a moment, I'd like to introduce you to your new crewmembers."
A moment later, the door to the conference room opened.
When Tracey saw the captain's uniform, he immediately stood and announced, "Captain on deck."
The other cadets stood as Rocky turned himself so he was facing the captain.
Since Rocky was incapable of making any facial expressions, mostly because he didn't have anything remotely resembling a face, no one could tell if he were surprised or not.
Likewise, years of attempting to master Vulcan emotional control allowed Xon to maintain a neutral expression.
The others weren't quite so lucky.
Although none of them behaved disrespectfully, their surprise could clearly be seen.
The unexpected sight of the stout, furry man with a snout clearly caught them off guard.
"I am Captain Gravf. Welcome aboard the USS Copernicus. You are here to be trained. I will see that you are. I will tell you now, so there is no misunderstanding, I have no patience for excuses. I give an order, you carry it out. Keep this in mind." The captain said firmly.
All the cadets were still and silent as the captain walked down the line, examining them with a critical eye.
"Which one are you?" The captain asked in an impatient tone.
"Cadet Lieutenant Sturgill, Sir." Tracey said formally.
"Sturgill, you say? Are you Cassaundra's son?" The captain asked curiously.
"Yes, Sir." Tracey said sharply.
"That bitch is hard as nails. If you've got even half her backbone, you'll do fine." The captain said with a chuckle, then walked to the next cadet in line and asked, "You are?"
"Cadet Ensign Parker, Sir." RJ said firmly, and luckily, he sounded far more self assured than he actually felt.
"Ah, yes. The arbiter. You'll be stationed at communications with Lieutenant Baz to learn your duties. Once you've mastered that, we have some more specialized training for you." The captain said with an evil grin, then walked to the next in line and asked, "What about you?"
"Cadet Ensign Gelt, Sir." Lexi said confidently as she looked up at the horrible, piggish being that was her captain.
"I never thought I would see a day when I would have a tiny little girl as my helmsman... but I've been assured that your reaction times and knowledge of the systems is second to none of the other candidates. Now, all that is left is for you to prove yourself in a real life setting." Captain Gravf said as he looked down into her eyes.
Lexi held his gaze without wavering.
"You'll be training with Lieutenant Fister. Pay close attention. He may have the social skills of a denebian slime devil, but there's no denying that the man is an outstanding pilot." Captain Gravf said before turning to the next person in line and asked, "And you?"
"Cadet Ensign Korrigon, Sir." Hart said in a perfectly professional and respectful voice.
"Ah, yes. The phantom." Captain Gravf chuckled to himself, then continued, "For many, judgements were made, factoring in their accumulated history... but you don't seem to have any... history, that is. You seem to have popped into existence rather recently. In fact, from the timing, I would estimate that it was about the time that you chose to submit your application to the Starfleet Academy."
Hart maintained a neutral expression and waited to be asked a question.
The captain noticed the lack of response, and from his smile, he approved. "According to the placement tests and psychological evaluations, you seem to be particularly well suited for security. So, you will be training with my chief of security, Lieutenant Okawa."
Hart betrayed the slightest hint of a smile at the announcement.
"And who do we have here?" The captain asked as he turned his attention to the young Vulcan teenager.
"Cadet Ensign Xon, Sir."
"Your duty station will be 'Sciences' and you'll be training with Commander Pell. With most of these... Cadets..." The captain said with a dismissive wave, "...I have some idea of what to expect. But you, young man... I'm interested to see what you're capable of."
Xon determined that the statement didn't require a response from him, so he maintained his impassive expression.
"I suppose, by process of elimination, that you would be Cadet Ensign 'Rock'." The captain said as he looked at what appeared to be a pile of rocks at his feet.
"Yes, Sir." Rocky responded quickly.
"The helm and navigation controls have been retrofitted so you'll be able to operate them. We plan on having the remaining bridge stations likewise fitted in due time. Also, I'm happy to tell you, that you're going to have the opportunity to be trained by a true prodigy in navigation, Ensign Lord." Captain Gravf said with obvious admiration.
"Captain, if you're done with the introductions, I believe the newest members of your crew could do with a few minutes to stow their belongings before we disembark." Admiral Hanson said pleasantly.
"Of course, Admiral. I'll see to it." Captain Gravf said simply, then left the room.
"Just so you're aware, I'm going to be accompanying you on this, your first voyage. I will leave your training to the captain and stay out of the way, for the most part. But don't be surprised if I poke my head out of my office from time to time, just to see how all of you are doing." Admiral Hansen finished with a smile.
The cadets remained standing in a line, wondering what they should do next.
"We should be leaving dock, soon. You had better stow your gear. Dismissed." Admiral Hanson said casually.
* * * * *
As the cadets filed out of the conference room, they noticed the same crewman waiting for them that had conducted them from the TerraMain dock.
"If you'll follow me, I'll take you to your quarters." The crewman said professionally.
"Excuse me, what's your name?" Tracey asked cautiously.
"I'm Petty Officer August." The crewman said efficiently.
"No. I think what he means is, do you have a name like a real person?" RJ asked curiously.
"Alonzo." Crewman August reluctantly admitted.
"Your parents named you Alonzo August?" RJ asked as he slightly cringed.
"Yes. My parents, April and Alexander August, chose to name me Alonzo." He responded, as he stopped outside the turbolift, waiting for the car to arrive.
"Would you mind if we call you Alonzo?" Lexi asked curiously.
"That would be fine, as long as we're off duty." Crewman August answered with a smile as he ushered the group onto the waiting turbolift.
"Deck four." Crewman August said once Rocky was aboard. Then he turned his attention to Lexi and said, "I double checked and all your personal belongings have been transported up and should be waiting for you in your quarters."
"Thank you." Lexi said quietly, then explained, "I just wanted to be sure that I'd have more clothes than just what I'm wearing when we leave Earth."
"The crew usually wear their uniforms at all times except when we're in dock and given leave. So even if your things were left behind for some reason, it wouldn't be a big problem." Crewman August said frankly.
When the lift doors opened, Crewman August led them down a hallway, then stopped. "Cadet Parker and Cadet Sturgill, this will be your room."
Tracey led the way inside and smiled when he saw the layout.
"This is nice. I actually expected it to be smaller." Tracey said frankly.
"The Copernicus is an old style Oberth class science vessel. I don't think the crew cabins have been updated since the ship was built. I guess they did things bigger back then." Crewman August said seriously.
"Who's next?" Tracey asked cheerfully as he walked toward the door.
"The cabin across the hall is for Cadet Gelt." Crewman August said simply.
"You get a cabin all to yourself." RJ said with a grin.
"It's a girl thing. Envy me." Lexi said teasingly.
"The next cabin is for Cadet Korrigon and Cadet Xon." Crewman August said as he motioned to the cabin next to Tracey and RJ's.
"And the one across the hall belongs to Cadet Rock."
"Why does Rocky get a cabin all to himself?" RJ asked curiously, then looked down at Rocky and quickly said, "I'm not mad or anything. I just want to know how they decided."
"As I understand it, Cadet Rock requires a specialized atmosphere that would not be accommodating to carbon based life forms." Crewman August said carefully.
"Envy me." Rocky said playfully.
All the cadets laughed and Crewman August even revealed a smile at the statement.
"Do you know if they've done anything about my... medical concerns?" Rocky asked slowly.
"No. Not that they would talk to me about something like that. Do you need to see a doctor?"
"No. I'll be fine for a while, I just need regular treatments to counteract the effects of your oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere." Rocky said frankly.
"You should all probably get your gear stowed. The ship is scheduled to disembark soon and you'll probably be called to witness the departure." Crewman August said seriously.
"Okay. Thanks, Alonzo." RJ said gratefully.
Crewman August smiled at him and gave a nod before walking away.
"Rocky, are you going to need any help unpacking?" Tracey asked curiously.
"I don't believe so, but I'll let you know."
* * * * *
"Cadet crew, report to the bridge." Sounded from the intercom.
Hart and Xon's door was the first to open.
They stepped into the hallway just as Lexi's door opened.
"Do you know how to get to the bridge from here?" Lexi asked the pair anxiously as the other cadets filed into the hallway.
"You get onto the lift, there..." Xon said as he pointed, "...then say 'bridge'."
Hart smiled, but didn't react otherwise.
Lexi rolled her eyes, but kept any comments to herself.
"Are we all ready?" Tracey asked as he checked to see that all the cadets were present and accounted for.
"Yes. I don't want to miss the departure." Rocky said honestly.
Without further discussion, Tracey led the group to the nearest turbolift.
* * * * *
"Cadets, move to your assigned stations and observe the procedure for disembarkation." Captain Gravf said firmly.
Rocky and Lexi immediately oozed and walked, respectively, to the navigation and helm stations.
"Cadet Sturgill, over here by me." The captain prompted a moment later.
Tracey reluctantly walked across the bridge and to the captain's side.
"Cadet Xon." A woman called sternly from the science station. She was an older, human woman and was nearly the height and breadth of Captain Gravf.
"Cadet Korrigon." A woman in her mid thirties said from a seat at one of the stations around the periphery of the bridge. As Hart approached, he noticed a pair of crutches on the floor, under her console.
"Cadet Parker, over here." A man... or possibly a woman, said from the comm station.
When Tracey saw him, or her, his eyes went wide in recognition.
"It appears that everyone is in place. Communications, request departure trajectory from TerraMain." Captain Gravf said firmly.
"Aye, Captain." The man, or woman, at communications said efficiently. Tracey's expression became one of disgust as he continued to stare.
"Navigation, plot a course for Tellar." The captain said firmly.
"Aye, Captain." A soft, feminine voice said from the navigation station.
Tracey turned his attention in that direction and was stunned to find that the woman manning the navigation station was nothing short of breathtaking. While Tracey usually felt more attracted to men, he wasn't immune to the allure of a truly gorgeous woman.
"Course plotted." The woman said in a voice that was music to the ears.
Tracey's attention was drawn by the captain's movement and he followed.
After a moment to look over the plotted course, the captain said, "Very good."
"Course for departure received." Lieutenant Baz said professionally as RJ stood just behind him (or her), watching the console carefully.
"Lieutenant Fister, clear moorings and take us out." Captain Gravf said firmly.
"Aye, Captain." Lieutenant Fister said as he sprang into action.
Tracey was amazed that in only saying two innocuous words, Lieutenant Fister had sounded condescending and rude. For some inexplicable reason, Tracey had an overwhelming urge to punch him in the head.
The sound of the maneuvering thrusters drew Tracey's attention and he watched the reverse angle view on the main viewscreen as they slowly pulled away from TerraMain.
"One quarter impulse." Captain Gravf said firmly.
"One quarter. Aye, Captain." Lieutenant Fister confirmed.
Tracey looked around the bridge and found that his fellow cadets were all absorbed in watching their mentors.
"Is the interface working? Were you able to see all of that?" Ensign Lord asked quietly, in a melodic voice, as she looked down at Rocky, by her feet.
"Yes. My interface is working perfectly. You have projected a very elegant course." Rocky said admiringly.
Tracey felt his heart flutter at the sight of Ensign Lord's smile. The warmth and satisfaction shown like a beacon.
A touch on his shoulder caused Tracey to jump.
"Once underway, we tour the bridge." Captain Gravf said quietly, then walked toward the science station.
"Yes, Sir." Tracey said, then followed.
"Commander Pell, allow me to introduce my apprentice, Cadet Sturgill. You remember Cassaundra, don't you? This is her son." Captain Gravf asked somewhat seriously.
"Yes. Of course. I see the family resemblance. You have your mother's forehead." Commander Pell said in such a flat tone that Tracey couldn't tell if she were being serious or playful.
"Commander, tell me, do you think you'll have any problem training Cadet Xon, here?" Captain Gravf asked casually.
"No, Sir. His academic transcripts show that he has the foundational knowledge required to perform adequately on the science station. His psychological profile from the academy indicates him to be sufficiently strong willed and even tempered to function as a first officer." Commander Pell said seriously.
"So, Cadet Xon, are you ready to start learning from one of the best first officers in all of Starfleet?" Captain Gravf asked with a smile.
"I am." Xon said without the slightest trace of emotion.
"I'll leave you to it, then." Captain Gravf said approvingly, then moved on to the next station around the periphery of the room.
"On this ship, we depend on the security chief to oversee the defensive shields and weapons as well as maintaining a small security force to keep order, usually among our passengers." The captain said frankly.
"If we're a science vessel, why do we have weapons?" Tracey asked cautiously.
"There are times when we're carrying valuable equipment, information or personnel. We need to be able to protect them. Then, there is always the threat of pirates. I doubt that a pirate ship would have reason to seek us out, but if they were to stumble upon us, I'm sure they'd be more than happy to loot whatever we happened to be carrying... after killing us, of course." The captain added with a grin.
"Of course." Tracey parroted.
"Lieutenant Okawa, I'd like to introduce Cadet Sturgill, from the Coffelt colony. He's going to be serving as my apprentice for the foreseeable future." Captain Gravf said pleasantly.
Tracey very nearly gasped at the sight when Lieutenant Okawa turned. Her face was covered by a web of scars and not all her facial features seemed to be located in exactly the right place.
"Coffelt? I've heard good things about your security force. Capable people." Lieutenant Okawa said seriously.
"Yes, Ma'am. We're very proud of them." Tracey confirmed.
"So, Lieutenant, do you think you're up to the challenge of teaching Cadet Korrigon the ins and outs of security?" Captain Gravf asked with a smile.
Lieutenant Okawa gave Hart a long appraising look before saying, "I've got the feeling that, when it comes down to it, Cadet Korrigon is going to prove that he has what it takes."
"Then I will leave him to your tutelage." The captain said approvingly, then started walking toward the communications station.
Tracey's expression became hard as he looked at the officer on duty.
"Lieutenant Baz, I would like to introduce you to my apprentice, Cadet Sturgill, that is, if you aren't already acquainted." The captain said somewhat inquisitively.
"I have seen Tracey at various times over the years, when I have been invited to formal functions at the Coffelt Base, however, I don't recall if I've ever spoken to him before."
"Did my mom send you to watch over me?" Tracey asked in a less than friendly tone.
"Your mother notified me of an open position for which I was qualified. However, she did not ask, nor did I volunteer, to watch over you." Lieutenant Baz said carefully.
Tracey didn't seem to be convinced, but restrained himself from questioning further.
"Lieutenant, how do you think Cadet Parker will do on communications?" Captain Gravf asked, in an obvious attempt to change the subject.
"His evaluation was promising. Having met him, I believe he may exceed expectations. I intend to do all in my power to help him realize his full potential." Lieutenant Baz said frankly.
RJ flashed Tracey a withering 'help me' look at the statement.
Tracey couldn't help but respond with a reassuring smile. When he and RJ met on the first day of testing at the academy, they had been amiable acquaintances, at best. But as more and more of their classmates dropped out or were asked to leave, they ended up becoming friends, somewhat by default.
The captain looked at the forward viewscreen, then said, "Helm, increase velocity to half impulse."
"Aye, Captain. Half impulse." The helmsman responded in, what seemed to Tracey, to be a mocking tone.
The captain led the way to the navigation station in the middle of the bridge, before saying, "Ensign Lord, may I introduce my apprentice, Cadet Sturgill."
The blond woman turned and Tracey was struck again by how attractive she was. Her large, blue eyes sparkled with delight as she looked at him before saying, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Cadet Sturgill."
Tracey found himself unable to speak as he stared at the gorgeous woman.
"Ensign Lord, do you think that you'll be able to train Cadet Rock, using the modified equipment that we have installed?" The captain asked curiously.
"Yes, Captain. I'm going to take his training nice and slow, so we're both one hundred percent sure that he completely understands. But I think we have all the tools that we're going to need." Ensign Lord said professionally.
"Very good. Let me know if you have any need of further accommodation for your pupil to achieve complete mastery of the navigation station." The captain said firmly.
"Yes, Sir. I will." Ensign Lord said confidently.
The captain walked to the other end of the combined helm and navigation station before saying, "Lieutenant Fister, I'd like to introduce my apprentice, Cadet Sturgill."
The man at the helm gave Tracey a quick, appraising look, then turned his attention back to the helm controls before saying, "Hi."
"Lieutenant, do you think that you're up to the challenge of teaching Cadet Gelt the operation of your station?" The captain asked in a voice that was a degree or two colder than he had used in speaking to any of the other officers.
"I suppose I have to be, that is, if I want to stay on the helm. That's the deal isn't it? I train her. I don't get demoted?" Lieutenant Fister asked belligerently.
"No. I believe you misunderstand." Captain Gravf said with a knowing and slightly evil smile. "The deal is, you have one last chance to prove that you want to remain in Starfleet. No one is denying your skills as a pilot. But your complete lack of other skills may yet disqualify you from further service. It is hoped that in helping Cadet Gelt learn the essential skills to become an officer, you might learn some yourself."
"Yes, Sir." Lieutenant Fister said past clenched teeth.
"When we're out of the Sol system, put us on the projected course at warp three point five." Captain Gravf said sternly.
"Aye, Captain." Lieutenant Fister said coldly.
"Cadets, you are free to return to your quarters or you may remain at your posts, as you like. Report for duty, to conference room one, at 07:30 tomorrow, for the morning briefing. Dismissed." Captain Gravf said as he walked toward the command chair.
When Tracey looked around, he wasn't surprised to see that none of the other cadets had left their posts. Each one was intently studying what their mentor was doing, or talking with them quietly.
"If you plan on staying, I'm going to put you to work." The captain said to Tracey firmly.
"That's what I'm here for, Sir." Tracey said seriously.
The captain smiled at the response, then said, "Go to one of the auxiliary stations and sign in. Before this day is over, you're going to be familiar with every piece of cargo and every living being that has been entrusted to our care."
"Yes, Sir." Tracey said with a smile, then walked to the auxiliary station to begin.
* * * * *
When the 'second shift' officers arrived for duty, the cadets looked from station to station at each other before silently agreeing to leave as a group. When the others started moving toward the lift, Rocky fell into line with them.
"Mess hall." Tracey said to the ceiling of the lift, then quietly asked, "So, how was it?"
"I learned much." Xon said simply.
"I think we all did. I was just wondering if anyone's decided that it's too much and wants to go home." Tracey explained.
"No. I believe that this is within my abilities." Xon said thoughtfully.
"I still don't know if my mentor is a man or a woman." RJ said without warning.
Lexi and Hart couldn't restrain a laugh, as much from RJ's words as his flummoxed expression.
When the lift doors opened, Tracey stepped out, then said, "Lieutenant Baz is a Knorran. Their people have four different genders. I'm not sure which one he is, but it's customary at Coffelt to call anyone of unknown gender a 'he' until they correct you... which they usually don't. They understand that our language doesn't have an easy way to refer to them, and as far as I can tell, they don't take it personally."
"Oh, okay. That'll make talking to 'him', a lot easier. I spent the entire afternoon trying not to talk because I didn't know whether to say 'Yes, Sir' or 'Yes, Ma'am'." RJ said honestly.
"Just so you know, there is one thing that you should never ever do." Tracey said seriously as he stopped, just outside the mess hall door.
RJ looked at him with immediate concern.
"Whatever you do, don't call him 'it'. Even though it sort of makes sense to us because it's a gender neutral pronoun, to Knorrans it's like you're calling them a thing." Tracey said seriously.
"That's good to know." Lexi said thoughtfully, then added, "I can't believe we have a Tellarite captain. When I saw him, I thought I was going to pass out."
Tracey smiled at her, then motioned for the group to enter the mess hall with him.
"Tellarites can be mean and nasty." Hart said seriously as the group took their places in the serving line.
After a moment, Hart continued, "They can also be reasonable and nice. They're people, just like anyone else."
"I guess so, but the captain's just really scary to look at." Lexi said anxiously.
"From what I've heard, Tellarites don't like the way we look, either. To them, humans look like they're unfinished. You know, all weird and pink and squishy and too thin." Hart said frankly.
"Speaking of looks, what happened to Lieutenant Okawa? She looks like she was torn to pieces." Tracey asked Hart seriously.
"I don't know." Hart said simply, then calmly added, "And I'll never ask."
Conversation stopped as they made their way to the front of the serving line and started making their food selections.
* * * * *
When the cadets made their way to a table, Lexi thought to ask, "What do you eat, Rocky?"
"From what I've been told, telling you as you're about to eat is not a good idea." Rocky said frankly, then continued, "I will eat when I've returned to my cabin."
"Okay. Well, I'm glad you came to the mess hall with us, anyway, even if you're not eating." Lexi said with a smile.
"Yeah. What do you think of your mentor, Rocky?" Tracey asked curiously.
"Ensign Lord is very knowledgeable. I think I'm going to learn a lot from her." Rocky said honestly.
"Did you even notice how incredibly hot she is?" Tracey asked curiously.
"According to my sensors, her body temperature was consistent with human norms." Rocky said cautiously.
"That's not what I meant. She's probably one of the prettiest women I've ever seen in person. Didn't you even notice?" Tracey asked in disbelief.
"Come down here and look me in the eyes and I'll tell you." Rocky said quietly.
Tracey scooted off his chair, then looked at Rocky from one angle, then another, before asking, "Where are your eyes?"
"Oh, that's right, I don't have any! Now, what was your question?" Rocky asked playfully.
"You're blind?" Lexi asked with concern.
"No. My people have a vibratory sense that operates somewhere between your sense of hearing and feeling. It allows us to use a sort of sonar to visualize our surroundings in a 3D model. Beyond that, the translator that I use to speak has other functions, including sensors, so that I can gather other information. If one of my people were to lose their vibratory sense and become sighted, we would go insane from the overwhelming feeling of isolation." Rocky said carefully.
"How could you possibly know that?" Tracey asked curiously.
"Some of my people have mind melded with your people and have experienced 'sight' for a brief time. From what they said, it was horrible." Rocky said seriously.
* * * * *
"Xon, when we were talking to Vincent, he called you his brother, but when he was at my house, I met his brother Lawrence..." RJ trailed off, not knowing how to word his question.
"And you're a Vulcan." Lexi interjected.
RJ looked at her, then nodded his agreement.
"Vincent is married to 'she who is my sister'. Therefore, I am officially his brother-in-law. He has chosen to call me 'brother'." Xon said simply.
"You're T'Lani's brother?" RJ asked with surprise.
"Do you know 'she who is my sister'?" Xon asked curiously.
"I've never met her, but Vincent showed us a picture of her. She's really beautiful." RJ said frankly.
"I've met her. She is." Tracey said seriously.
"To me, T'Lani is simply 'she who is my sister'." Xon said honestly.
"Wow, you're Vincent's brother." Lexi said as she looked at Xon, then turned to RJ and said, "And he's been to your house. I just met him at a cookout..."
"Excuse me." A man interrupted as he stopped at their table.
"Did you need something?" RJ asked cautiously.
"I am Mr. Whipple, from the Federation's tutoring center. I've stopped by to discuss the arrangements that have been made for your education." The man said with an insincere smile.
"I am enrolled at the Vulcan Academy of Science. I have been assured that I can continue my studies with them and that I may submit completed assignments as I am able." Xon said seriously.
"Well, that may be well and good for a Vulcan child, but the human students might need a more structured learning environment." Mr. Whipple said condescendingly.
"Where does that leave me?" Rocky asked curiously.
"My superiors have promised that we would make any accommodations necessary." Mr. Whipple said with a distasteful look at Rocky.
"Don't go to any trouble on my account." Rocky said in a computerized voice that accurately conveyed his level of irritation, then he turned himself toward Xon and asked, "Xon, do you think you could help me get enrolled at your school?"
"It would be my pleasure to do so." Xon said calmly, then turned his attention to the others at the table and carefully continued, "You may be interested to know that my brother also attends classes at the Vulcan Academy of Science. We have a common class that we attend in a virtual classroom where we are often able to converse."
"That's nice." Mr. Whipple said flatly, then continued, "Now, I need to go over these schedules with you. Everything's already been cleared with the captain..."
"Xon, do you think there'd be room for one more in your class?" Tracey asked simply.
"Two!" Lexi immediately interjected.
"Three." Hart said in a cold voice as he looked directly at Mr. Whipple.
"Four." RJ said with a smile.
"You can't do that! I came all the way out here to facilitate your tutoring." Mr. Whipple whined.
"Sucks to be you." RJ chuckled.
"I'm going to talk to the captain about this!" Mr. Whipple shouted, then stormed away from the table.
"Do you think we're going to get in trouble?" Lexi asked cautiously.
"Not if we all do what we said we were going to do and get enrolled." Tracey said thoughtfully.
"Xon, do you know who we need to talk to?" Hart asked curiously.
"Yes. I made arrangements for my education before leaving Vulcan. With the information available in your personnel files, it should be a simple matter." Xon said seriously.
"Let's do it, before that buttwipe can talk the captain into making us take his classes." Lexi said firmly.
Everyone picked up their trays and headed for the dropoff window.
* * * * *
"Cadets, please report to conference room one." The captain's voice sounded over the intercom.
"I wonder how bad this is going to be." RJ said nervously as he walked out of the cabin with the rest of the cadets.
After a moment to consider, Tracey said, "It may not be that bad. Just remember what the captain told you when we were welcomed aboard."
"What's that?" RJ asked in panic.
"He hates excuses. If he wants to know something, he'll ask you. If he doesn't ask, don't volunteer it." Tracey said firmly.
"Yeah. He seems like he's really fair." Lexi said thoughtfully.
"Conference room one." Tracey said to the ceiling of the lift, then asked, "Did everyone complete their enrollment?"
"Yeah. Thanks to Xon, I did." Lexi said with a smile at him.
"Yes. I doubt that we would have known who to talk to or understood what they were asking if Xon weren't helping us." Rocky confirmed.
"Hart, you good?" Tracey asked with concern.
With a smile, Hart quietly said, "Yeah. Really good."
When the lift doors opened, the cadets walked as a group the few feet to the conference room door.
* * * * *
The cadets filed into the conference room and formed a line before Tracey said, "Cadets, reporting as ordered, Sir."
The captain glanced at Mr. Whipple at his side, then proceeded, "The representative from the Federation Tutoring Center tells me that you have chosen not to conform to the lesson plans that have been made for you."
"Yes, Sir." Tracey said simply.
"Although you have been given the honor of being chosen to participate in this pioneer program, that does not negate the need for a proper education." Captain Gravf said seriously.
All the cadets remained at attention and held their expressions as though they were seasoned Starfleet officers.
"How do you propose that we deal with this situation?" The captain asked carefully.
"We have all enrolled at the Vulcan Academy of Science." Tracey said calmly.
The captain thought about that for a moment, then said, "Problem solved. Dismissed."
"But! But!" Mr. Whipple began to sputter.
"That means you may leave, Mr. Whipple." The captain said to him slowly, as if speaking to a small, and not altogether bright, child.
The cadets filed out of the room, maintaining their military posture, with their heads held high.
* * * * *
"Barracks?" Tracey asked as they approached the lift.
"Mess hall." Lexi said firmly.
At Tracey's inquiring look, she explained, "We didn't get to finish dinner and I'm still hungry."
After a moment to consider, Tracey admitted, "I am, too."
* * * * *
The cadets stayed together and spoke little until they had all made their food selections and, once again, settled in around a table.
"Rocky, I'm just curious. What was it that made you want to be in Starfleet?" Lexi asked, before taking a bite of food.
"Most of my people are miners which, considering the geological makeup of Janus VI, is a good thing. But occasionally one of us notices that there are other planets supporting life in the universe, and we begin to dream about what life must be like elsewhere. When that happens, we're encouraged to reach for the stars and follow our dreams. I probably would be on Janus VI right now, reaching and dreaming, except for one thing. When we received the Federation News report about 'The Hero of Kimber', I realized that the only thing limiting me was myself. It was shortly thereafter that I made my first inquiry about the Starfleet Mentoring Program."
"Reaching and dreaming... I like that." Lexi said with a smile, then asked, "What about you, Hart?"
"What about me?" Hart asked cautiously.
"What happened to make you want to sign up for the mentoring program?" Lexi asked curiously.
"Why do you want to know?" Hart asked suspiciously.
"Because I just do. Okay?" Lexi said frankly.
After a moment to consider the validity of her question, Hart finally said, "I'm from New Hope. One of my friends... Actually, my best friend, Lehman, kept going on and on about his twin brother, Vincent, and what an incredible life he has. I just soaked that in for a while, but then, at some point, I got to thinking about what kind of life I had and where it looked like it was going. This was a little bit after the Federation News report, but Lehman had it recorded and I got to see it a few times... Okay, maybe more than a few times. He's really proud of his brother. But I didn't mind. Anyway, I figured that I'd go ahead and put my name in for the Starfleet Mentoring Program so that maybe they'd send me back a thing saying why I wouldn't be considered, so I'd know what things I have to work on. I never thought that they would do the whole mass testing thing and I never would have imagined that at the end of it all that they'd pick me. I guess it's just lucky for me that all the other cadets were whiney little bitches."
Everyone looked at Hart with surprise as Rocky said, "Excuse me?"
Hart realized what he had said and quickly amended, "I mean the ones who didn't make it. You guys are good enough or you wouldn't be here."
After a moment for everyone to accept Hart's explanation, Tracey said, "It looks like everyone's finished. Do you guys want to go up to my cabin?"
"Yeah. I want RJ to tell us why he signed up for the mentoring program." Lexi finished with a giggle.
RJ smiled at her as he picked up his tray to follow the others.
* * * * *
As soon as everyone was aboard the turbolift, Tracey looked upward and said, "Deck four."
"There's no real story for me to tell. I live in a trailer park in Georgia with my dad and my brother, Willy. For a long time I've been thinking that my only real shot at doing anything decent with my life was to get into Starfleet, but I always figured that that was years and years away."
RJ was interrupted by the doors of the lift opening.
All the cadets automatically followed Tracey to his cabin to continue their conversation.
As soon as everyone was inside, RJ continued, "Vincent's cousins, Loi and Malcolm live in the same trailer park that I do. After some stuff, Vincent talked to me about what it takes to be in Starfleet and... well, to be honest, I think the thing that did it for me is that he acted like I was good enough. He introduced me to some of the members of his Clan and he got me hooked up on the Starfleet Sim and even fixed it so I could take Vulcan language lessons. I guess, after all that, I decided that if Vincent saw something in me that might be good enough, that I'd go ahead and try. I almost talked myself out of it. But my dad and my brother and my... Loi all told me to go for it."
"Your Loi?" Lexi asked knowingly.
"My boyfriend, sort of... maybe." RJ finished regretfully.
"Whoa! Sort of? Maybe? How does that work?" Hart asked challengingly.
"I don't know. I mean, when I left, we were boyfriends, for sure. But now that I got accepted and I'm here... What if he finds someone else to love, you know, someone who'll be there when he needs him?" RJ asked miserably.
"Maybe it'll be you who finds someone else." Hart said simply.
"No. No way." RJ said firmly.
"RJ. Just like with getting into the academy, things aren't going to work out just because you want them to. You have to work for them." Tracey said seriously.
"Like how?" RJ asked uncertainly.
"You'll have to figure it out. But I bet a good place to start would be to write him a long LONG email and tell him just how much you love him and miss him. You can't expect him to just sit there and wait without hearing from you." Tracey said frankly.
"Yeah." RJ muttered, then looked around the room and asked, "Who's next?"
When his gaze stopped on Xon, he was answered with a raised eyebrow.
It took a minute, but finally everyone was looking at Xon expectantly.
"He who is my brother has accomplished many worthy goals and brought honor to his family and his house. To follow the example of such a person is logical. Therefore, I sent an inquiry regarding the qualifications to be considered for the Starfleet Mentoring Program." Xon said very precisely.
"Logical, huh? I'll have to try that someday." Lexi said with a grin at Xon, then continued, "Me, I've been interested in Starfleet for as long as I can remember. As soon as I learned about the Starfleet Sim, I bugged my dad until he finally caved and got it for me. My mom hated it, but between me and my dad, we kept her from taking it away from me. I maxed the score on every station and kept learning everything I could about Starfleet. The funny thing is, it turns out that I barely knew anything at all. If I hadn't met Vincent, I never would have made it here."
"There's a lot of that going around." RJ said with a grin at her.
She nodded, then said, "When I told Vincent that I wanted to be in Starfleet, he didn't act like 'Oh, she's so cute!', he sat me down and told me exactly what I would have to do to even be considered. He told me how I'd have to work and how hard I'd have to study, and then, he took me down to the stable and we started riding horses with Commander Dodds from the Enterprise! Then Vincent and Commander Dodds told me about how hard it is to qualify for the helm and how you have to prove that you're the absolute best to even be considered."
"Vincent and Commander Dodds? No wonder you made it!" Tracey said frankly.
"If I never met them, I wouldn't be here. But what got me here was listening to what they said and putting in the work. I worked my guts out to get here, and now I bet I'm going to have to keep working my guts out just to keep up with everyone else being older than me." Lexi said seriously.
"Chronologically, I believe that I am younger than you are." Rocky said seriously.
"How old are you?" Lexi asked curiously.
"Well, it depends on how you measure the passage of time. On Janus VI, I'm five years old. According to the Federation, I'm three. But, fortunately, the Starfleet Academy only considered how old I am developmentally, which is sixteen." Rocky said seriously.
"Can I still say that you're younger than me? It'll make me feel a lot better to not be the youngest." Lexi asked hopefully.
"If anyone asks, I'm three years old and the youngest." Rocky said warmly.
"I guess that just leaves me." Tracey said quietly.
"Your mom's a Federation base commander. I just figured that that's why you're here." RJ said honestly.
"I never wanted to be in Starfleet." Tracey said frankly.
"Then it looks like you took a wrong turn somewhere." Hart said with a grin.
"A right turn, maybe." Tracey gently corrected, then continued, "Last year, I had one of the worst ideas of all time. Me and some of my friends wanted to do something exciting..."
From the tone of Tracey's voice, everyone knew better than to make a playful comment.
"The six of us decided to fix up this old decommissioned ship from my mom's base and try to find someplace no one had ever been before... I know how it sounds. It's like we were a bunch of six year olds, not sixteen year olds." Tracey said with a self deprecating chuckle.
"We crashed." Tracey added bleakly.
No one spoke, it was possible that no one was even breathing, at this point.
"When I woke up in the wreckage, the first thing I did was check on my friends. I thought that three of them were dead, it turned out that only two of them were. I did what I could, trying my best to help my friends survive, but I knew... we were in the middle of nowhere. No one in the universe knew where we were. And the planet that we crashed on couldn't support human life. In just a matter of hours, we would all be dead from radiation exposure." Tracey said as his voice took on a flat, emotionless tone.
Lexi discreetly reached up and wiped a tear off her cheek.
"After I'd done everything that I could for my friends, I stopped. I knew, without a doubt, that I was going to die... and I was okay with it. Deep inside, I felt like I deserved it, for killing my friends."
"I was standing there, waiting for the end to come... hoping, wishing, praying that somehow, in death, that I wouldn't continue to feel guilt."
Tracey paused for a moment, but didn't seem to even see the others in the room with him.
"Then I heard a voice." Tracey said with a peaceful smile.
A few incredulous looks flitted around the room.
"The voice said, 'Hello? Do you need some help?'." Tracey said with a grin that threatened to break into hysterical laughter.
"I turned around so fast that... I think I fell down. All I know is that when I looked up, there was Vincent, standing over me, offering to help me." Tracey said with a smile.
"So, it wasn't a vision or some crap like that?" Hart asked to confirm.
Tracey laughed aloud at the question, then hurried to say, "No. It was real. I didn't find out until later, but Vincent was given command for the very first time that day, and within, like, a few minutes, he spotted our warp trail and followed it to where we'd crashed. Then he took an away team down to the planet and rescued us."
"I never heard about that." Lexi whispered in awe.
"That's one story that the Federation News didn't pick up on. Which makes me wonder about how many other incredible things Vincent might have done that no one's ever heard about." Tracey said honestly.
"Are you okay now?" RJ asked cautiously.
"Yeah. I had to go through a lot of treatment for prolonged exposure to radiation. But Vincent was there the whole time... he visited us in sickbay before and after his shifts every day and he'd tell us about what was going on on the bridge." Tracey said with a smile, then added more softly, "He'd even sneak cakes and cookies in to us, sometimes."
Tracey looked around the room and saw that everyone seemed to be picturing that in their minds.
"I guess all of you heard about the thing with Vincent and the pirates, right?" Tracey asked as he looked around again.
Everyone either nodded or gave a brief answer in the affirmative.
"That happened while I was in sickbay. Vincent told us all about it, later." Tracey said quietly.
"You were there for that?" RJ asked in amazement.
"Yeah. But I'm getting off the subject. Like I said, I never wanted to be in Starfleet. But... I can't really tell you what did it. While I was on the Yorktown, Vincent talked to me every day, several times a day. Then, after I was back at Coffelt and the Yorktown had left, I got to thinking about what kind of future I really wanted to create for myself. I guess, since I'm here, you can guess what I came up with." Tracey finished with a smile.
"You wanted to be like Vincent." Lexi stated simply.
"I don't think I could ever be like him. But I think that doing this, walking the path that he walked, maybe I'll be able to do some good things and help some people. I won't be like Vincent, I'll be like me, but I think I'll be a better me than I would have been if I'd never met him." Tracey said thoughtfully.
"I think we can all say that." RJ said honestly.
"I can't. I never did meet him." Hart said, obviously feeling like the odd man out.
"No. You met, and became best friends, with his twin brother. I think that's probably close enough." RJ said with a smile at him.
Lexi glanced at the terminal on Tracy and RJ's desk, then quickly said, "I've got to write an email to my dad before it gets too late!"
"I think all of us probably need to be doing something like that. We have to meet in conference room one at 07:30. Do we want to meet at 06:30 for breakfast in the mess hall, so we all have a chance to wake up and eat before our shift?" Tracey asked as he looked around the room.
"Yeah. Meet here or in the mess hall?" Lexi asked curiously.
"The mess hall. And just so you know, anyone who isn't in the mess hall by 06:45, the rest of us are going to come up here and drag you out of bed." Tracey said seriously as he looked around the room to be sure that the message was received.
"Got it." Lexi said easily, then she looked down and asked, "Are you ready to go, Rocky?"
"Yes and no. Being around you, included with you. It's a new experience for me. I don't want it to end." Rocky said honestly.
"Don't worry. This is just the beginning."
I just learned that MM had written this story a couple of days ago. He hadn't finished it yet, in fact, I think he had only written about half of it.
The story is fascinating, and I have already fallen in love with most of the people here.
'Demon In the Dark' was my favourite episode in the original Star Trek series. That's the one about the miners who met the last living Horta. She had layed a huge number of eggs, which the miners assumed were just rocks. Obviously, Rocky is one of her offspring. I like him a lot.
It is still amazing how much Vincent has meant to so many people. He has made a difference in so many lives, and has grown up and become such a positive influence on a lot of people.
He sure didn't start out that way. Oh no, not at all.
Now to get to those last two words just before I started my notes. They said, "The End." MM, Them's fightin' words, man. Don't you dare stop here. I will hunt you down, you know that don't you?
Great chapter, MM, you had me crying several places there.
I can hardly wait for more!
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher
(I was just kidding. I couldn't help it. -MM)