Universe Alpha 7:

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Chapter 5 - Exercises and Excuses

After his talk with the captain, Tracey made a point of seeing that Xon went to break. All the while he kept close watch on RJ, just to be on the safe side.

When Lieutenant Baz finally returned from his break, he seemed to be filled with renewed determination.

The lieutenant talked quietly with RJ for a moment, then made a call to summon another communications worker to the bridge.

A few minutes later, an ensign walked onto the bridge and took control of communications, and after a brief conversation with her, Lieutenant Baz and RJ walked together to the turbolift.

As Tracey watched them leave, he sincerely hoped that they would come up with a way of helping RJ to learn his duties.

* * * * *

The morning progressed without incident. Tracey noticed that Hart seemed to be absorbed in his work, but just when he was about to go over and ask him if he needed a break, a security ensign arrived to relieve him.

Lunches and breaks came and went without incident. Tracey was briefly in command while the captain took his lunch, but Commander Pell was present on the bridge, so Tracey didn't feel unduly nervous. Hart continued to work diligently on the security station and saw to his own coverage for his lunch and breaks, but Lieutenant Okawa did not return during their shift.

Lieutenant Baz and RJ returned to the bridge about an hour before the shift was over.

Although Tracey was understandably curious about what was going on, he remained at his auxiliary station and did his best to surreptitiously keep tabs on what they were doing.

From Tracey's point of view, they seemed to be having a productive conversation.

* * * * *

When the second shift arrived to take their stations, it was all that Tracey could do to restrain his curiosity about how things were going. He was able to hold it back until they got to the mess hall, but only just.

Once everyone had made their dinner selections, they settled in around a table.

"What happened with Lieutenant Baz?" Tracey asked anxiously.

"We talked and decided to try some different things to see if they'll work." RJ said simply.

"Do you think it'll help?"Tracey asked hopefully.

"Maybe. It's really too soon to tell. But I think it's going to make a big difference just knowing that he'll listen to me if I feel like something's not working."� RJ said honestly.

"Yeah. I bet it's frustrating. I hope it works out."

"Don't start doubting me, Tracey. You said that you believe that I can do this. I'm counting on you to keep on believing In me until I can prove a few things to myself." RJ said anxiously.

"You've got it, RJ. I believe in you. Stay on task and keep moving forward. If you're ever in doubt, I'll be right here to back you up." Tracey said passionately.

"Okay. I just needed to be sure." RJ said with a grin.

* * * * *

"So, how is everyone else doing today?" Tracey asked as he looked around the table.

"I am still concerned that I do not have access to the security and communications bridge stations." Rocky said from beneath the table.

"I'll have to talk to Lieutenant Okawa about it in the morning, but I think that we could probably get the security station done tomorrow." Hart volunteered.

"Are you going to need help with the modifications?" Tracey asked curiously.

"I don't think so. But if I get stuck on something I'll either figure it out myself or ask someone in security to help me, just the same as anyone else doing my job." Hart said challengingly.

After a moment to process the surprise, Tracey cautiously asked, "What's up with that?"

"Lieutenant Okawa has been treating me like a real member of her crew. In fact, the only person who's been treating me like I'm not competent to do my job is you." Hart said frankly.

"I didn't mean anything by it. I just want to be sure that you know that I'm willing to help if you need it." Tracey tried to explain.

"Okay. I got that." Hart said as his anger began to subside.

"If it bothers you, I'll stop offering to help." Tracey continued.

"Would you just ease up on it a little bit?" Hart asked hopefully, then added, "I know that we're all cadets, but we're doing our jobs just like the regular crew."

"I can try." Tracey offered weakly.

"Maybe if you tried treating the rest of the crew the same way you treat us that it'd make it easier." Lexi cautiously suggested.

"I cannot speculate how Lieutenant Commander Pell would react to being addressed in a patronizing and condescending manner. However, I am certain that it would not be received favorably." Xon said reasonably.

Hart grinned at his roommate, but remained silent.

"No. What I meant to say was that Tracey should start talking to us like he talks to them, not talk to them like he talks to us." Lexi quickly explained.

"Yes. That might be best." Rocky interjected.

"You guys are probably right. I guess that since the captain made you my responsibility that it seemed right for me to kind of watch over you and try to help however I can. I didn't realize that I was talking down to you." Tracey said repentantly.

"The captain made our training your responsibility, but if you think about it, the rest of the crew is your responsibility too. By focusing all of your attention on us you are, in essence, neglecting the greater part of your duty. You are not here to learn how to be the 'cadet' lieutenant in charge of the 'cadet' crew. You are learning the duties and responsibilities of a captain and your concern should be for your 'entire' crew." Xon stated seriously.

"I guess that instead of worrying so much about if all of you are ready, that I need to take a long look at myself and see what I need to work on." Tracey reluctantly admitted.

"Remember that if you need any help that we're all here for you." RJ said frankly.

"I think the biggest help that I needed was to be told that I was doing it wrong. Now that I know what the problem is, I can work on fixing it." Tracey said honestly.

"Look at that." Lexi said suddenly.

Everyone at the table followed her gaze.

Mr. Whipple was sitting alone and had a notable scowl.

"Do you think that we'd be as miserable as him if we took his classes?" Lexi asked speculatively.

"Probably." Hart answered simply.

"I get the feeling that he'd probably be trying to force all of us to work according to his lesson plans instead of us doing the lessons that we need to be doing." RJ said thoughtfully.

"Sounds about right." Hart agreed.

"I think that we made the right decision." Rocky said frankly.

"You know, even though I've had tons of schoolwork to do since I've been here, I'm starting to feel smart for the first time. I'm used to feeling like I'm only understanding part of what they're trying to teach me and then I have to fight and struggle to figure out the rest. I never would have thought that the Vulcan Academy of Science would be easier than regular public school." RJ chuckled.

"I would speculate that the educational evaluation at the Starfleet Academy might have made it possible for the Vulcan Academy of Science to provide you with lessons within your ability and tailored to your style of learning." Xon said thoughtfully.

"Yeah." RJ easily agreed, then got a look of confusion before asking, "If they could figure out how to teach me all the way across space, why couldn't Lieutenant Baz figure out how to teach me right here?"

"I'm guessing that it's because he didn't think about it." Tracey said honestly.

"It seems to me that the responsibility for your education should fall to you. Lieutenant Baz has superior knowledge that you lack, but depending on him to determine how to teach you that information is beyond the scope of his duties." Xon said carefully.

"But he's supposed to teach me." RJ halfheartedly objected.

"Xon's right." Tracey confirmed, then continued, "I was mad at Lieutenant Baz for not recognizing that his teaching technique wasn't working, but now that we've recognized the problem, you really need to show that you want to learn by doing your part."

"Yeah. I guess that's kinda unfair of me." RJ said reluctantly.

"Lazy." Lexi said sternly.

Everyone looked at her with surprise.

"Do you want to figure out how to learn this stuff, so you can learn more stuff later or do you want to be spoon fed your lessons by Lieutenant Baz?" Lexi asked frankly.

"Do I have to answer that right now?" RJ asked hesitantly.

Lexi rolled her eyes and waited for the answer that she knew would be forthcoming.

"Why can't I just let Lieutenant Baz try things until something works?" RJ asked hopefully.

"If you wanted to do things the easy way, then you should have stayed on Earth. You're here to work. If you won't do that, then you should quit and leave." Lexi said firmly.

"No. I know what you're saying is right. I just don't like it." RJ grumbled.

"You don't have to like it. You just have to do it." Hart stated simply.

"Yeah. But it's not fair that I'm the only one who has to figure stuff like this out." RJ whined petulantly.

"Life's not fair. Time to put on your big boy pants and get over it." Hart informed him in a no nonsense tone, then added, "All of us have different things that we have to work through."

"And even if we don't have things right this minute, we're sure to have some before our training is over." Tracey added.

"But I believe that the only way that this is going to work is if each of us is willing to take responsibility for our own training. We can help each other, but we each need to learn to depend on ourselves." Rocky said thoughtfully.

"It's like what Vincent told me." Lexi said seriously. "It's only going to happen if you make it happen. If we wait to be told what to do and only do as much as we're told, we'll fail."

Tracey nodded somberly, then added, "That's part of what it means to be in Starfleet."

"So I guess this means that now that we're all settled in, it's time for us to stop pussyfooting around. It's time to stop playing it safe and doing things the easy way." Lexi said firmly, then added, "We need to take things to the next level."

* * * * *

As the group left the mess hall, Xon quietly said, "If you will excuse me. I must make a subspace call for an unspecified amount of time."

"Is there a problem?" Tracey asked with concern.

"No. Not at all. I have mentioned previously that I attend a virtual class with my brother. The class will begin in one quarter of an hour." Xon said simply.

"Can we go with you?" Lexi asked hopefully.

"I believe that since you are an enrolled student, that you would be welcome to attend. But I should warn you that within the classroom, we are only permitted to speak Klingon." Xon said honestly.

"Oh. I guess that wouldn't work." Lexi said in a deflated tone.

"If you wish to contact Vincent, you may do so directly with a text message or a video." Xon said simply.

"I know that you said that it would be permitted by the school. But would you mind if one of us went with you?" Rocky asked cautiously.

"So long as all who attend behave in a manner befitting the Vulcan Academy of Science, I would have no objection." Xon said seriously.

"Then I'd like to go with you. I think it'd be nice to do something not work or school related for a little while." Rocky said honestly.

"Do you speak Klingon?" Xon asked as he looked down at Rocky nonjudgmentally.

"Yes. Although I haven't had much of a chance to use it since I learned it. I think a little practice would be good." Rocky said happily.

"Then we should go. Class will begin shortly and I typically prefer to have a time to converse with my brother before the class officially begins." Xon said seriously.

"Should I go somewhere else to give you privacy until the class starts?" Rocky asked slowly.

"That is not necessary. There are certain subjects I prefer not to discuss in the open classroom, but it is nothing of a personal or sensitive nature." Xon said simply.

"Oh, alright." Rocky said happily, then turned slightly before saying, "I'll see you guys later in the conference room."

"We'll see you there. Have fun." Tracey said for all of them, then watched as Xon and Rocky entered the waiting turbolift.

* * * * *

"When class begins, would you prefer to stream live video or use a static image as an avatar to represent you? If you choose to use an avatar, it will be necessary to establish it before joining the room." Xon asked impassively.

"Since I don't make facial expressions or gesture, I don't know if there would be any reason to stream." Rocky said frankly.

"I should mention that those who choose avatars are typically not included in discussions as frequently. Perhaps the instructor believes that they are obfuscating their presence to discourage their inclusion." Xon said speculatively.

"Then I'll stream. I don't want anyone to think that I don't want to participate."� Rocky said decisively.

"I will set up a padd that will allow you to stream from your place on the floor." Xon said simply.

"I can do it if you need to set up your own." Rocky quickly responded.

"It is done." Xon said as he placed a padd on the floor, positioned so that the camera could easily see Rocky.

"Thank you. It will just take me a moment to link to the padd. Will you tell me what I need to do next?" Rocky asked hopefully.

"Yes. I will talk you through the connection process as I connect."

* * * * *

Tracey was surprised at how difficult it was not to ask RJ and Hart if they needed his help. In RJ's case, it was simply because Tracey knew that he had been struggling. Hart appeared to have an enormous amount of work to do. Although Hart wasn't showing any signs of being overwhelmed, the sheer volume of it made Tracey want to offer to ease Hart's burden.

Although Lexi had also been studying diligently, Tracey didn't get the sense that she needed any help at all. He didn't have any justification for his conclusion, since it was a feeling. In the end, no one asked him for his help and he knew better than to offer. But as a consequence of his attention focused on the others,Tracey didn't get as much of his own work done as he could have.

* * * * *

"Vincent told us to tell you 'hi' from him." Rocky said as he and Xon entered the conference room.

"Did you have a good visit?" Tracey asked curiously.

"We exchanged greetings, then attended our conversational Klingon class. There was little extraneous conversation beyond that." Xon stated impassively.

"They asked lots of questions about me during class and seemed to be interested in what I had to say. Everyone was very respectful." Rocky said happily.

"It was a classroom primarily of Vulcans. I would not expect them to behave otherwise." Xon said down to his companion.

"Since I tested as being able to speak Klingon adequately, if not proficiently, I don't know if I could officially join the class, but as long as no one is bothered by my attending, I think that I'll continue to go."Rocky said thoughtfully.

"I am under the impression that the instructor would appreciate more people with a better familiarity with the Klingon language to be attending the class. Many times my brother and the instructor carry the majority of the conversation due to the absence of others who are fluent." Xon said informatively.

"Is Vincent really that good?" Tracey asked curiously.

"Yes. He has stated that he was taught the vocabulary of the Klingon language via telepathy by his clan. He wishes to continue with the class to refine his application of the vocabulary. It appears that even for Humans, the nuance and inflection of the spoken Klingon language can pose a challenge to replicate." Xon said speculatively.

"It's hard for me to imagine a classroom full of Vulcans trying to learn such an expressive language." Tracey said thoughtfully, then added with a smile, "Especially since Vulcans aren't chatty people."

Before anyone else could respond, RJ said, in fairly passable Vulcan, "Language is more than vocabulary. It is an expression of culture that helps to define a people."

There was a long moment of silence before Tracey reluctantly asked, "Did you just say something about teacups?"

"That's one of the entry level exercises for the Vulcan language lessons on the ship's computer in the Clan version of the Starfleet Sim." Lexi said informatively.

RJ smiled at Lexi, then said in English, "That's right. Even before I got my test results, I wanted to learn other languages... especially Vulcan."

"Do all of you speak Vulcan?" Tracey asked as he looked around the group.

"I mostly know phrases." Lexi immediately answered, then clarified, "If I need something, I can probably get across what it is, but I don't think that I could manage a conversation."

Tracey looked to Hart inquisitively and had to wait a moment for him to respond, "I don't speak proper Vulcan. I picked up the language while I was living on mercenary ships. I guess the best way to describe it would be 'gutter Vulcan'."

"I cannot imagine such a thing." Xon said honestly.

Hart smirked at the response, then said in Vulcan, "The mercenaries and traders sometimes have to speak Vulcan to do their business, but they don't have to speak it well."

After a moment to process what he had heard, Xon slowly said in English, "I am not certain if it is your pronunciation or your inflection that sounds vaguely like Rihannsu."

"Wait. What's that?" Lexi quickly asked.

"The language of the Romulan people." Xon said simply.

"Yeah. I think the guys talked like that on purpose, just to be annoying." Hart said with a grin, then broke into a full smile before saying something else in a language that Xon didn't quite recognize.

Before Xon could formulate a question, RJ asked, "Was that Orion? Or Swedish?"

Hart laughed at the question, then answered, "It's Lower Orion. I never learned the formal level of Orion. But I'll admit that the person I learned it from was from one of the Earth's Nordic countries. So it's possible that there might be a little Swedish mixed in there too."

"How many languages do you speak?" Lexi asked Hart curiously.

"Eight. But when I went through the testing at the academy, they determined that I only spoke five of them well enough to be considered 'proficient'. I actually don't think that I speak any of them properly; just well enough to do what needs to be done." Hart said honestly.

"My level of discourse in Federation Standard and, of course, Vulcan, is such that I may confidently engage in conversation using all but the most technical and field specific terms. It is my intention to achieve at least the same level of competence in the Klingon language." Xon said seriously.

"I should probably try to do that too... being in communications and all." RJ said thoughtfully.

"You must have achieved an adequate level of proficiency to be accepted into the training program for communications." Xon said reasonably.

"I don't know about that. When I went into testing at the academy I got the feeling that they'd already decided where I was going to be placed. Just about all my practical tests had to do with communications." RJ said frankly.

"Remember that everything that you ever did on the Clan version of the Starfleet Sim is counted as part of your testing. If you did something really good when you were playing, they probably noticed it and decided to point you in the right direction to use your best talents." Lexi said seriously.

"I guess that makes sense. From what the Clan guys told me, the scenarios that I was getting when I'd play weren't really like anyone else's." RJ said thoughtfully.

"When we were welcomed aboard, the captain called you 'the arbiter' and said that you'd be getting some specialized training. This sounds like it's part of the same thing." Tracey supplied.

"Yeah. I was wondering about that. He hasn't said anything about it since then." RJ said frankly.

"I think he's probably waiting until you and Lieutenant Baz can get things worked out with your regular training before he piles more stuff on you." Tracey said honestly.

"Yeah." RJ confirmed with a sigh, then added, "And I'd better get to work on figuring out how to mix the principles of Visual Learning with the communications lessons if I'm ever going to be able to really take my station."

"You'd better get on it." Tracey agreed.

"Actually, I think that we all have things we should be working on." Rocky said simply.

"Right." Tracey said before turning his attention back to his studies.

* * * * *

Although they had worked together previously and sometimes helped each other, Tracey was surprised to find that their silent conference room seemed to be an inspirational atmosphere for studying. The energy in the room was a nearly tangible thing.

Lexi was the first of them to break the long silence, declaring that her work for the night was complete.

Within minutes, the others, including RJ, all reached good stopping points.

Tracey was understandably curious as to how RJ was faring with his studies, but he felt that it would be wrong for him to inquire. It was important for him to allow RJ the dignity of resolving his issues in his own way. The accomplishment would be that much more precious to RJ if he solved the mystery on his own.

* * * * *

As days passed, the cadet crew steadfastly maintained their focus on their duties. Although it took some time, Tracey was finally able to accept that all the cadets were capable of seeing to their own wellbeing and didn't need for him to be hovering over them.

After that, everything seemed to run smoothly both on the bridge and during their study sessions.

As promised, Hart had seen to the security station upgrade. Tracey noticed that he had asked one of the members of the security team to help him with one aspect of the retrofit, but regardless, Hart did the work himself and saw to it that it was done correctly.

* * * * *

Friday morning came much faster than Tracey could have imagined possible.

He had held himself back, thus far, by an act of sheer will.

But like it or not, they were scheduled to arrive at Tellar near the end of their shift and certain things could no longer be put off.

With more than a little reluctance, Tracey approached the communications station.

"Lieutenant Baz, could I speak with you for a few minutes?" Tracey asked seriously.

"What do you need?" Lieutenant Baz asked impatiently.

"To speak with you." Tracey said simply, then continued, "You can call in the backup crew or someone else from communications, if you need to. I'll wait.

Lieutenant Baz seemed to be about to bark a response, but must have thought better of it and said, "RJ can handle it for a few minutes."

"Good." Tracey said before turning and walking away from communications, not bothering to look back to confirm that Lieutenant Baz was following.

* * * * *

"Conference room two." Tracey said to the ceiling of the lift.

"How long are you expecting this to take?" Lieutenant Baz asked cautiously.

"My best guess is between five minutes and three hours. It really depends on how many screaming matches we get into before it's all done." Tracey said frankly.

"I'll do my part to keep this as brief as possible." Lieutenant Baz said seriously as the lift door opened.

"We have a deal." Tracey said as he led the way off the lift.

* * * * *

As soon as they were alone in the conference room, Tracey asked, "Is RJ going to be ready to man the communications station when we leave Tellar?"

"I think so." Lieutenant Baz said regretfully.

"I need for you to know so."

"That's all I've got."

"Then we'll have to make it work. What do you need from me to help RJ be ready?"

"From what RJ's told me, you've encouraged him to take responsibility for adapting my training to be more accessible for him. I think that that is the greatest help that you could have given. He's shown marked improvement in the past few days."

"Is there anything else you can think of that I can do to help?"

"No. Not at this time."

"What about the retrofit of the communications station? Are you going to be able to get that done today?"

"I wasn't planning on it, but I suppose that this is as good a time as any to see if RJ can work on the circuitry in something other than a theoretical sense. He'll either sink or swim." Lieutenant Baz said seriously.

"RJ did really well on his engineering testing at the academy. I get the feeling that RJ is at his best under pressure and doing for himself. It's when he's counting on someone else to help him that he tends to abdicate his responsibilities."

After a moment to consider, Lieutenant Baz slowly nodded, then said, "He should be made aware of his pattern of behavior."

"Let's get him comfortable manning his station before we throw too much more at him."

"Yes. That might be best." Lieutenant Baz agreed.

"Good. Then the only other thing that we need to discuss is how we're going to get along with each other."

"I think you made it clear that when it comes to the cadets, you expect to be in charge. Since the captain seems to agree with you, at least for the moment, I suppose that I'll have to follow your lead."

"I don't want to be at odds with you. There's no reason that we can't work together to help RJ."

"I agree in principle but try to keep in mind that a team needs a leader. If we start behaving like we're both trying to take control of RJ's training, it's going to be sending mixed signals. This is Starfleet. We can't seem ambiguous about who's in charge."

Tracey thought about that for a moment, then said, "If you can tell me your vision of how you'd like for things to unfold in RJ's training, I'll do my best to support you and encourage things to go in that direction. As long as it's working, you'll have my complete support."

"Thank you, Tracey. I think with the way things have progressed, that will be the most productive way to proceed."

* * * * *

Good to his word, just after returning to the bridge, Lieutenant Baz spent a few minutes talking with RJ before turning him loose on doing the retrofit on the communications station. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Baz went to an auxiliary station and took over the routine operations of communications.

Tracey was surprised and pleased to see the way that RJ confidently did the work.

Once the retrofit was completed, Rocky was called over to test the system. Tracey held his breath as he watched from a distance, but was happy to find that RJ's work was done right the first time. There wasn't any need for recalibration.

Tracey caught Lieutenant Baz' eye and could see his pride in RJ's achievement.

* * * * *

"Lieutenant Sturgill, pay close attention as we approach the Tel star system. Although I'm certain that you've studied about this and done drills, nothing can compare to the real thing." Captain Gravf said seriously.

"Yes sir." Tracey responded smartly.

"I don't know if you're aware, but the Tel solar system is surrounded by a debris field at the very edge of the gravitational influence of the local star."

"Is that like the Oort cloud in the Sol system?"

"Yes. Although a bit more dense."

"So, are we going to drop out of subspace once we're inside the cloud?" Tracey asked curiously.

"That is usually left to the captain's discretion. Arguments can be made for supporting either decision."

"What do you like to do?"

"It really depends on the crew that I'm running with. I make the choice that is of most benefit to the most people."

"What are you planning to do with this crew?" Tracey asked cautiously.

"That's what we're going to decide right now." Captain Gravf said simply and waited for Tracey's reaction.

"If we come out of warp outside the Oort cloud, then we'll have to pay close attention to the ice and debris. Helm, navigation and sciences will have to be on alert in case there's anything in our path that might be large enough to penetrate our shields. Since we have a crew that's in training, it's probably best for us to come out of warp outside the Oort cloud so that they can have that experience." Tracey said thoughtfully.

Captain Gravf smiled, then said, "It's good to know that you aren't automatically choosing the easier path for the cadets."

"If we wanted the easy path, we could have stayed on Earth and practiced on simulators." Tracey said frankly.

"Do you think that you'll be up to the task of keeping your crew calm and focused?" Captain Gravf asked curiously.

"I'm sure that all of them already know what to expect. I doubt that they'll need for me to hold their hands through this. But if they do need something, I'll be there for them." Tracey assured him.

* * * * *

Tracey went back to his auxiliary station and did his best to be aware of every detail of what he was going to need to do when they finally arrived. At the same time, he also tried to maintain constant awareness of what was going on at every one of the bridge stations.

He knew that they were almost at the Tel solar system and that soon 'his' cadets would be asked to perform a maneuver that, while not necessarily dangerous, might be potentially challenging.

"Mentors. Please step away from your stations. Allow the cadets to take us in." Captain Gravf announced without prelude.

There were a few surprised looks from some of the mentors. It was obvious that they weren't expecting the order. But one by one, they each took a few steps back to watch their students from a respectable distance.

"Lieutenant Sturgill, you have command." Captain Gravf said as he made a show of logging off his chair console.

Tracey walked to stand beside the command chair and logged in, then firmly said, "Navigation. We're going to drop out of warp thirty-six thousand kilometers from the outer edge of the Tel system's Oort cloud."

There was a long silent moment, then Rocky responded, "Yes, sir. Thirty-six thousand kilometers."

Once he had received the response, Tracey called out, "Helm, be prepared for evasive."

"Aye, sir." Lexi said confidently.

"Security, I need phasers on standby, in case we need to clear our path." Tracey said as he glanced in that direction.

After pressing a few buttons on his console, Hart responded, "Phasers standing by."

"Sciences, be prepared to scan for potential threats." Tracey said as he glanced at the captain's chair console to get a sense of how close they were to dropping out of warp.

"Aye, sir." Xon said impassively.

There was a long moment of silence as everyone waited.

Captain Gravf stood from the command chair and gestured for Tracey to take his place.

Without taking his eyes off the chair console, Tracey sat down and watched their progress.

As soon as they were within range, Tracey said, "Helm. Take us out of warp."

"Aye, sir." Lexi responded immediately.

"Ahead one quarter impulse." Tracey said seriously.

"Ahead one quarter." Lexi parroted as she worked her controls.

The main viewscreen was filled with a slight haze that didn't really show much of anything.

When he noticed, Tracey quickly said, "Tactical on main screen."

"Yes, sir." Xon responded as the screen changed.

Suddenly hundreds of little multicolored specks filled the screen. Tracey knew that each and every one of them were traveling at a different speed and trajectory. There were three that appeared to be slightly larger than the others and each of them had a tactical readout showing their size, density and composition.

"Xon, are you seeing anything that we should be worried about?" Tracey asked as he noticed a trickle of sweat falling down his spine.

"No, sir." Xon answered calmly.

"Status of deflector shields." Tracey called out.

"Deflectors are at optimum." Xon responded informatively, then added, "Entering Oort cloud in three... two... one."

"Main screen to forward view." Tracey said as he glanced at his chair console screen for a moment.

The view on the main screen was like a small scale fireworks show as small bits of rock and ice impacted the shields and were obliterated.

After a moment of watching the spectacle, Tracey finally said, "Navigation, project course to Tellar."

"Standard approach course projected and laid in." Rocky said professionally.

"Maintain course and speed." Tracey said for form's sake.

"Aye, sir." Lexi automatically responded.

Tracey looked around the bridge and couldn't help but feel a swell of pride for 'his' crew and their performance.

"RJ, contact Tellar Main and request approach trajectory." Tracey said firmly.

Unfortunately, the look of terror in RJ's eyes wasn't completely unexpected. However, it only took RJ a moment to regain his emotional control and respond, "Yes, sir."

Tracey watched as RJ performed his duty, occasionally glancing to Lieutenant Baz, either seeking confirmation that he was doing the right thing, or perhaps seeking reassurance.

After less than a minute, RJ finally announced, "Approach trajectory received."

Tracey looked over the information before saying, "Rocky, adjust your course to Tellar Main's approach vector and put us into a parking orbit."

"Aren't we going to dock at Tellar Main?" Rocky asked with surprise.

"No. Not yet. Maybe they have to clear other traffic first. We've been instructed to wait." Tracey responded as he glanced at the response that RJ had received to verify his understanding.

"Aye, sir. Course set and laid in." Rocky said professionally.

"Lexi, you good?" Tracey asked as he glanced in her direction.

"Real good." Lexi said with a grin, then thought to add, "Sir."

The next few minutes were a blur of anxiety and determination as each of the cadets performed, for the first time, one of the most common and basic maneuvers in Starfleet history.

* * * * *

As soon as the ship was in a stable orbit, holding the position that they were instructed by Tellar Main, Tracey was at a loss as to what he should do next.

"Mentors, I will expect your evaluations by the end of the day. You may relieve your trainees, or not, as you see fit." Captain Gravf said as he walked up beside the command chair and waited for Tracey to notice.

When Tracey did, he logged off the chair console and said, "I stand relieved."

"I have command." Captain Gravf said simply as he took the vacated seat.

* * * * *

Although the remainder of the shift was a mixture of tension and restrained jubilation, nothing of note happened. The ship remained in a parking orbit until the second shift arrived to take their stations.

As all of them were in the process of relinquishing their stations, the captain announced, "Cadets and mentors. The admiral has scheduled a reception for our esteemed guests at 20:00. You are all expected to attend. Dress is formal. Dismissed."

* * * * *

As soon as all the cadets were alone on the lift, Lexi said, "Aww, man! I was wanting to dock the ship."

"Maybe next time." Rocky said from her side.

"Maybe it's best that you didn't get to. I think we just got a dose of reality." RJ said thoughtfully.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Lexi asked curiously.

"Please enter or state destination." The lift's computer voice said formally.

"Lift, hold." Tracey said before looking to RJ with question.

"Everything doesn't always go the way we want it to and sometimes there's a lot of hurry up and wait." RJ said seriously.

"I guess so. It just would've been nice if I'd really been able to dock the ship. I've been wanting to do that since forever." Lexi groused.

"Chances are that you'll be able to do the docking maneuver when we reach the Vega Colony. We're going to be the bridge crew for the whole trip." Tracey said seriously.

"Actually, there is a one in three chance that Lexi won't be the one to dock the ship, depending on which shift is on duty when we arrive." Xon said informatively.

"Not necessarily." Tracey said before Lexi could respond. "If we really wanted to, we could probably tweak our course and speed to change those odds quite a bit."

"Could you really do that?" Lexi asked with surprise.

"When the captain's put me in command, he hasn't been telling me what to do each step of the way. He tells me the outcome he expects and leaves me to do it. So, unless he orders me to do things a certain way, I can probably work it out so that we will arrive at Vega during the first shift." Tracey said frankly.

"Do we not have a timetable that we are required to conform to?" Xon asked cautiously.

"Yeah. I've seen our orders. We're supposed to get them there by a certain date and time. There's nothing that says we can't get them there a little bit earlier." Tracey said seriously, then looked upward and said, "Lift, resume."

"Please enter or state destination." The lift's computer voice repeated.

"Oh, yeah." Tracey grinned, then replied, "Mess Hall."

* * * * *

"Formal uniforms." RJ said with disgust.

"This is another part of our job. If you're going to be in Starfleet, you'll be expected to act as a diplomat to represent Starfleet and the Federation." Tracey said as he led the way through the serving line.

"I might need some help with that. We didn't do a lot of formal functions at the trailer park." RJ said, revealing his nervousness.

"It is better to be thought of as a fool than to open your mouth and confirm it." Rocky said in a computerized voice that was unusually free from inflection.

"What?!" RJ yelped, fairly certain that he'd just been insulted.

"If you're not comfortable in a formal situation, your best bet is to keep quiet. People will make assumptions based on your silence, and that will usually work in your favor." Rocky stated simply.

The group made their food selections, then found a table where they could all sit together.

"But what if someone asks me something?" RJ asked thoughtfully.

"Answer them." Tracey said, then added, "Just resist the urge to tell long convoluted stories and don't try to impress them by pretending to be something that you aren't. You're a Starfleet ensign. That's all they really need to know about you."

"Cadet ensign." RJ quietly corrected.

"In case you didn't notice, our formal uniforms are standard issue officers uniforms. At a diplomatic function, you'll be expected to behave like any other ensign; no better, no worse." Tracey said frankly.

"But how do I act like an ensign?" RJ asked nervously.

"You're just another one of the bridge officers, so just try to act like one of the mentors... except for Lieutenant Fister... don't act like that." Tracey added with a slight grimace.

RJ thought about it for a moment, then quietly asked, "Should we do something to try and help him?"

"I don't know how much help we'll be, but if any of us see him having trouble, we should probably try to jump in and bail him out. This is probably going to be a lot worse for him than it is for us." Tracey said gravely.

"Maybe I should stick close to him." Lexi said reluctantly.

"I don't know what the admiral has in mind, but at most formal functions that I've been to, they actively try to keep people who work together from congregating, so that they'll be more likely to circulate and meet new people." Tracey said frankly.

"Do you think that the rest of us should take turns watching out for Lieutenant Fister?" Rocky asked curiously.

"No. I'm pretty sure that he wouldn't appreciate that." Tracey said immediately, then added more slowly, "Let's just keep an eye on him and if any of us see him having trouble, we can step in and do our best to help him out."

"Tellarites have a reputation for being rude and argumentative. Maybe he'll fit in with them." Hart said thoughtfully.

Tracey smiled at the suggestion, then said, "I hadn't thought of that. I guess our alternate plan might be to try and act more like Lieutenant Fister."

"I cannot foresee that going well." Xon said seriously.

"There's something else you should probably know about Tellarites..." Hart reluctantly interjected.

"What's that?" Tracey asked curiously.

"Well, in Tellarite society, it's kind of a... I don't know, a thing. I guess that for Tellarite females, clothing is kind of optional." Hart stammered.

"They go around naked?" Lexi asked in astonishment.

"Not all of them, but sometimes, yeah." Hart said uncomfortably.

"The majority of the people we'll be picking up are women." Tracey said into the silence that followed.

"I believe that it is becoming an accepted custom for Tellarite women of a certain academic or professional standing to consistently wear clothing. My research on the subject suggests that currently, public nudity is looked upon as being somewhat 'common'." Rocky said informatively.

"I hope so, because once you've seen that... it really sticks with you." Hart said before pushing his unfinished plate of food away.

"Coffelt is fairly distant from Tellar, so I haven't run into that. But there have been Knorran customs and behaviors that Humans weren't comfortable with. My mom always told me that if something like that happened at one of our formal functions that I was supposed to explain that we have a different custom or whatever and then discuss it with them, if they're comfortable talking about it." Tracey said thoughtfully.

"If you can't manage that, then just try not to stare... or giggle." RJ said with a smile.

"Pointing should probably be discouraged, as well." Xon added in an almost playful tone.

"I'll just be proud of myself if I can keep from blowing chunks." Hart said frankly.

There were a few indulgent smiles from around the mess hall as other diners noticed the laughter coming from the cadet table.

* * * * *

"It feels wrong not to be studying." RJ said honestly.

"I know. But just when we started getting into it, we'd have to stop and go to the reception." Tracey said honestly.

"Yeah." RJ agreed, then reiterated, "It just feels weird."

"Why don't you take a few minutes to write to your boyfriend? I bet that he'd be happy to get an unexpected message from you." Tracey suggested.

"I don't know what I'd tell him that I didn't tell him last time." RJ said frankly.

"Tell him about doing the retrofit on the communications station today. That was kind of a big thing." Tracey said with a smile.

"I don't want to bore him with a bunch of technical stuff that he doesn't understand." RJ said reluctantly.

"If you share what excites you, he'll be excited for you. Even if he doesn't understand, it'll make him feel good that you're including him in this part of your life." Tracey said honestly.

"Yeah. You're probably right. I'm not really good at this whole boyfriend thing. I guess that I'm always worried that Loi's going to find someone who's better and who's... you know, there with him and stuff." RJ said anxiously.

"If you share your life with him, that's a lot less likely to happen. Distancing yourself from him is probably the thing most likely to push him away." Tracey said imploringly.

"I got it. Thanks, Tracey."

* * * * *

"So, we just put on these different jackets and that means that we're dressed up?" RJ asked incredulously.

"Are you complaining?" Tracey asked curiously.

"No. I just had the feeling that to get dressed for something that's as big a deal as this is supposed to be, that it'd take us a lot longer."

"Well, your boots have to be shined and you need to have a decent haircut, but since we're so new on the ship, all that stuff is already taken care of." Tracey said frankly.

"Oh, yeah." RJ said absently, then walked into the bathroom.

Tracey automatically followed and stood at RJ's side, looking in the mirror to check their appearance.

After a long silent moment, RJ cautiously asked, "Am I good enough?"

"You wouldn't be here if you weren't." Tracey answered with a smile.

RJ rolled his eyes, then said in a patronizing tone, "I meant for the reception."

"I know what you meant. But I feel like it's my job to remind you that you were chosen for a reason. Starfleet doesn't invest their time and resources in things that aren't likely to pay off." Tracey said frankly.

"I never thought about it like that." RJ said with surprise.

"For being in communications, you sure seem to have trouble reading between the lines." Tracey chuckled.

"It's just so different from what I'm used to. I'm in the habit of holding myself back. I understand what you're telling me about being good enough. I really do. But there's something inside of me that makes me want to... I don't know... underachieve or something like that. It's what I'm used to. It's what I'm comfortable with." RJ said in frustration.

Tracey looked at RJ with surprise at the words and finally said, "You've already succeeded. You're here..."

"I know that! But the more I do, the more will be expected of me! I can't help but feel like I'm setting myself up for a fall... a really big fall!" RJ screamed before he'd realized that he was doing it.

After a moment to calm himself, RJ quietly continued, "Tracey, I'm not strong like you."

Without thought, Tracey pulled RJ into his arms and held him firmly before saying, "If you think that I'm strong, then trust me. In fact, don't just trust me, trust the team. If we see you falling, we'll either catch you or we'll all fall with you, together as a team... well, except for Hart, maybe."

RJ was caught off guard by Tracey's addendum and he couldn't restrain a laugh.

Tracey released RJ from the hug, then quietly said, "I've faced failure... the biggest failure possible. What I learned is that you have to keep going. You have to keep living. It's not until you give up and let it stop you that you've really failed."

"I just don't know how to keep from feeling this way." RJ reluctantly admitted.

"You can't." Tracey said simply, then explained, "Trying to push it down and make believe that it isn't there only makes it stronger. Feel it. Deal with it. Then move on."

RJ thought for a moment, then cautiously asked, "How do I do that?"

Tracey laughed at the question, then said, "You just did it. You gave it voice."

RJ looked at Tracey with confusion.

"You put your feelings into words and defined what's bothering you. That's the hardest part. Now that you've done that, you can decide what you need to do next." Tracey said with a smile.

Before RJ could respond, the other bathroom door opened and Hart walked in, carrying his formal uniform tunic over his arm.

"Something wrong?" Hart asked cautiously, sensing that RJ was having some sort of a problem.

"RJ was just saying that he's afraid of failure." Tracey said simply.

The look of betrayal on RJ's face accurately conveyed his surprise.

"Oh, that's right. You went to a regular school, didn't you?" Hart asked as he slipped off his cadet jacket.

"Yeah. So?" RJ answered cautiously.

Hart turned to RJ and looked him in the eyes before asking, "Did you ever fail?"

"Yeah. Sometimes, no matter how hard I worked and studied, I couldn't get an A. And sometimes I'd even get a C or D." RJ answered slowly.

"No. I'm talking about an F. A big fat zero. Have you ever tried your best and completely and utterly failed?" Hart asked seriously.

"Not really." RJ finally admitted.

"Okay. Have you ever run a race and come in last?" Hart continued.

"No." RJ said more easily.

"Who did?" Hart asked curiously, and seemed to be determinedly working toward some point, although neither RJ nor Tracey had a clue what it was.

"I don't know. I think when we were running track it was timed. So everyone who finished within the time limit was counted as passing and got an 'acceptable' grade. I think everyone else just stopped running when the time ran out, so no one really came in last." RJ said thoughtfully.

"So no one failed?" Hart asked seriously as he pulled on his formal uniform tunic and began to fasten it.

"I'm pretty sure that there were a few of the girls who sat out now and then because they weren't feeling well, so I guess they failed." RJ said uncertainly.

"They didn't try, so they didn't fail." Hart said simply, then continued, "I wasn't there, so I can't speak for you. But from what I've seen, it looks like a lot of schools are so worried that kids might get their precious little feelings hurt and not feel like they're the most special snowflakes in the universe that they never teach them how to deal with failure. If you never fail, then you never learn how to pick yourself up and overcome whatever knocked you on your ass to begin with."

"Have you ever failed?" RJ asked cautiously.

Hart grinned, then looked at himself in the mirror before turning and leaving the restroom.

"Do you remember what I was saying about Hart before?" Tracey asked in a leading tone.

"Yeah." RJ said numbly, still assimilating what Hart had just said.

"Forget it." Tracey said with a grin.

RJ absently nodded, then suddenly said, "I can't believe you told Hart about what we were talking about. I thought I could trust you."

"You can trust me." Tracey said simply, then explained, "But I don't have all the answers. I have a feeling that if all of us are going to get through this, we're going to have to help each other. I don't plan on telling everyone about the things you tell me, but I have no problem giving them an overview about what's going on with you, in case they might have some idea that I haven't thought of."

"Well, it looks like it worked out that way with Hart." RJ reluctantly conceded.

"Remember when Lexi helped Rocky solve that complex problem?" Tracey asked slowly.

"Yeah. I thought that was amazing." RJ admitted.

"We can only help each other if the team knows that someone is needing help. We're all in this together."

* * * * *

As per their earlier arrangement, all the cadets gathered in the hallway five minutes before they were scheduled to arrive at the reception on the recreation deck.

"This is gonna suck." Lexi said simply.

"Yeah. Probably." Hart agreed.

"It's part of the job." Tracey told the group half-heartedly.

"Can't we just retrofit some more bridge stations or something?" RJ asked hopefully.

"I don't have access to the auxiliary stations." Rocky supplied.

"Yeah! I bet if we all worked together, we could get all the stations on the bridge done tonight." Lexi said hopefully.

"Meanwhile, back in the real world, we have to go to this thing." Tracey said firmly.

"Any last words of advice?" Hart asked cautiously.

"Remember what we learned about Tellarites, about their culture and customs. Don't expect them to be as reasonable as Captain Gravf. We're going to be representing Starfleet, the Federation and the Copernicus. Don't let their attitudes draw you into behaving badly." Tracey said seriously as he looked around the group.

No one responded, so Tracey continued, "And also remember that if any of them cause you too much trouble, tell Hart so that he can deal with it."

Looks of surprise went around the group and it was RJ who was finally able to ask, "What?"

Before Tracey could tell them that it was just a joke, Hart quietly said, "Be sure to give me enough time to make it look like an accident."

* * * * *

Tracey led the group of cadets, dressed in their formal uniforms, off the turbolift and onto the recreation deck.

"Exactly on time, I like that." Captain Gravf said from nearby.

Tracey gave a slight smile and a nod at the acknowledgement.

"Cadets, I would like to present my lovely wife, Grmch and my youngest son, Tobar." Captain Gravf said proudly.

Tracey felt that he should say something, but was truly at a loss for words at the sight of the short, hairy, morbidly obese, woman-ish being beside the captain and the slightly less hairy, grinning piggish boy beside her.

"These are the cadets that I've been telling you about." Captain Gravf said to his family, then turned to Tracey and said, "Lieutenant Sturgill, would you like to introduce the cadet crew?"

"Of course, sir." Tracey said smartly, then looked to Grmch and said, "I'm learning command from Captain Gravf, I am Lieutenant Tracey Sturgill and I'm from the Coffelt colony. Next, I'd like to present my first officer and science officer, Ensign Xon of Vulcan. At his side is my chief of security, Ensign Hart Korrigon from the New Hope colony. Standing behind Xon and Hart is my chief of communications, Robert Parker Junior from Earth."

"There's no way I'm going to be able to remember all your names." Grmch said in a flustered voice.

Tracey smiled warmly at her and said, "We don't expect you to remember the names of a bunch of alien creatures. In fact, we don't even expect you to be able to tell us apart. If you want to know who any of us are, please feel free to ask. We won't be offended."

"Thank you very much." Grmch said with surprise, then added, "To be honest, I never have been able to distinguish one human from another."

"I've heard that a lot at the Coffelt Colony." Tracey assured her, then continued, "That being said, I think that you'll probably be able to remember my navigator, Ensign Rock from Janus VI."

As Tracey gestured toward the pile of rocks at their feet, Grmch and Tobar both seemed to be confused.

"You may call me Rocky, if that's easier for you." Rocky said seriously.

"What are you?" Tobar asked in wonder.

"I am a Horta. Once the introductions are done, perhaps we can talk more and I'll answer any questions that you have." Rocky said pleasantly.

"Yeah!" Tobar said excitedly.

"Last, but certainly not least, is my Helmsman, Ensign Alexandra Gelt from Earth." Tracey said as he indicated Lexi.

"A girl?! On the helm?!" Tobar barked.

"Oh. This should be good." RJ whispered to Hart with a grin.

"Yeah. A girl on the helm." Lexi said contritely, then continued, "When you're done talking with Rocky, I can tell you about all kinds of things that girls can do."

"Why don't you go and get yourselves some refreshments? Our honored guests will be arriving shortly, once they've had a few minutes to freshen up." Captain Gravf suggested.

"Yes, sir." Tracey answered for all of them, then led the way to a buffet table in the center of the massive hall.

Tobar looked up at his father with wide, hopeful eyes.

"Would you like to go with the cadets?" Captain Gravf asked his son in a leading tone.

"I want some of that food." Tobar answered honestly.

Captain Gravf smiled at the response, then said, "I've told the cadets to expect you to be tagging along with them on this voyage. Go and join them if you like."

"Is that little Human girl really your helmsman?" Tobar asked cautiously.

"Yes. But I suppose that you'll be able to see that for yourself in the morning if you'd like to join me on the bridge and see what it is that I do while I'm away from you and your mother." Captain Gravf said to his son with a grin.

"But you said that I can have some of that food. Right?" Tobar asked to confirm.

"Yes. Go ahead." Captain Gravf chuckled, then placed a hand on his wife's shoulder as he watched his son scamper away.

* * * * *

As the cadets approached the buffet table, Lexi suddenly asked, "What are you doing here, Alonzo?"

Crewman August smiled at her and said, "I'm in ship's services, so one of my duties is to act as an usher, porter or waiter when the situation calls for it."

"How's your writing going?" RJ asked curiously.

"Slowly." He said frankly, then explained, "I have a full-time job. Factor in time to eat and sleep and it doesn't leave much time for writing."

"Let us know if there's anything we can do to help you." Tracey said sincerely.

Crewman August chuckled, then said, "That's just the way it is. If I had all the time in the universe to write, then I'd have nothing to write about. It's all about maintaining a balance."

Before any of them could say more, Tobar arrived and started heaping food on a plate.

After seeing that he wasn't going to slow down, Tracey cautiously told him, "You can come back for more as many times as you like."

"Really?" Tobar asked happily.

"If we run out of food, it's my job to bring more." Crewman August told Tobar seriously.

"That's your job? We eat as much food as we want and you just keep bringing it?" Tobar asked with delight.

"Yes. Tonight, that's my one and only job." Crewman August confirmed.

"I didn't know anyone had a job like that. Maybe Starfleet isn't so bad." Tobar said before carrying his heavily laden plate to a table so that he could start eating.

"Can I get you anything, Rocky?" Lexi asked as the cadet crew made their final selections from the buffet.

"No. Thank you. But if none of you are opposed to the idea, I believe that I would very much like to spend some time speaking with Tobar. I can't quantify what it is, but something about him intrigues me." Rocky said seriously.

"Yeah. I think the captain would like it if we let him hang out with us." Tracey said frankly.

"There's Admiral Hanson." Lexi said as she stepped away from the buffet.

"Then our honored guests can't be too far behind." Tracey reasoned, then quickly added, "Let's go ahead and eat what we can while we have the chance. It's possible that we won't have time to do anything but talk the rest of the night."

Rather than answer verbally, the other cadets made their way to the table that Tobar had chosen.

* * * * *

"Here you are!" Admiral Hanson said delightedly as she approached the cadets' table.

All the cadets immediately stood to attention.

Approaching with the admiral was a Tellarite woman who was both shorter and wider than Captain Gravf's wife. One notable characteristic was that her beige facial hair had obviously been trimmed, almost sculpted, to give her a somewhat stylized appearance.

Tobar was surprised when the cadets all got to their feet and, after a moment of hesitation, he stood with them.

"Cadets, I'm pleased to introduce Dr. Frurthurs jav Trallv, the head researcher of the team who have made an incredible breakthrough that will be heralded throughout the Federation." Admiral Hanson enthused.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Trallv. We're honored to have you aboard." Tracey said diplomatically.

"Am I to understand that these children are members of the crew?" Dr. Trallv asked with surprise.

"Yes. These are the best and brightest of the up and coming generation." Admiral Hanson said proudly.

"So, is this some sort of a field trip, so that they can experience what it's like to really be on a starship?" Dr. Trallv asked the admiral slowly.

Admiral Hanson looked at Tracey expectantly, silently asking him to explain.

"My crew and I will be manning the bridge stations and conducting you to the Vega colony." Tracey said carefully.

Dr. Trallv was speechless as she looked at the group of children before her.

"You'll be able to speak more later. Just now I'd like to introduce you to Captain Gravf's wife. I just know that you two will get along." Admiral Hanson said as she gestured for Dr. Trallv to walk with her.

As the admiral walked away, the entire group sat down and began eating again.

"Well, that wasn't so bad." Lexi finally said.

"Let's see if you still think so after thirty or so times of doing that." Tracey said frankly.

* * * * *

"Would you mind if I joined you for a few minutes?" A woman's voice asked hopefully.

Tracey was surprised to see Ensign Lord looking at him expectantly.

"Please do." Tracey quickly said, then thought to add, "Ensign Lord, this is Tobar. He's Captain Gravf's son."

"It's nice to meet you, Tobar. Your father is a good man. I have a great deal of respect for him." Ensign Lord said warmly.

"But you're a Human." Tobar said in confusion.

"A person's species doesn't matter to me. What's important to me is what kind of a person they are. Your father is one of the best people that I know. And I wouldn't feel one bit different about him if he were a Human or a Klingon." Ensign Lord said seriously.

"I think that all of us feel just about the same way about the captain. He's our captain. His species doesn't make one bit of difference to any of us." Tracey said frankly.

"I thought my father was telling stories when he said that working in the Federation made everyone equal." Tobar said slowly.

"There are still plenty of people out there who don't like other species, and some of them are even in Starfleet. But if you're stuck serving with someone like that, you'll never trust them, especially if you're from one of the species that they don't like. So people like that usually won't become captains or admirals because no one wants to follow their vision." Ensign Lord said seriously.

"Hatred of people who are different will always be there." Hart said simply, then explained, "If the day ever comes when you can honestly say that all species are treated equally and behave equally, then you need to pull your head out of your ass and take a long hard look at reality."

"Hart's our little ray of sunshine." Tracey said to Tobar with a grin.

"You don't believe in equal rights?" Lexi asked in astonishment.

"That's legal stuff. That's a whole different thing." Hart quickly explained.

Lexi nodded that she understood.

"True equality exists at the lowest common denominator and nowhere else. All the species are different. It's not some made up prejudice, we're all different biologically and culturally." Hart said firmly.

"Are you saying that you don't like Tobar because he's a Tellarite?" Tracey asked cautiously, not really believing that that was what he was saying.

"No. I'm sure that Tobar's fine. What I'm saying is that pretending that the Federation has made everyone equal is a dangerous lie. We need to admit that we're all different and each of us needs to use our differences to work on being the best people that we can be. If we stop trying to be better than we are, both individually and collectively, we'll all suffer for it. Sameness and mediocrity is what causes civilizations to fall." Hart said with absolute conviction.

"Excuse me, but I am intrigued by one point you made. You said that equality exists at the lowest common denominator. Could you, perhaps, provide some supporting evidence for that claim?" Xon asked cautiously.

"Cattle being led to the slaughter are all equal. No individual is better or worse than another. In a forest of trees it doesn't matter if one tree is centuries old or if another is barely more than a sapling. When that forest is clear cut, they're all just wood. When everyone is equal, they're seen as having only the value of what they have in common. In our case, we're all meat." Hart finished gravely.

"I'm not." Rocky immediately interjected.

"Except Rocky." Hart conceded with a smile down at him.

To Be Continued...

Editor's Notes:

It certainly is a pleasure to read a new chapter in this story. It seems like forever since I've seen one.

As strange as it might seem. I think I am going to like Tobar. He is young and has a lot to learn about humans and other species that he has not had a chance to interact with yet, and having an opportunity to interact with the cadets may take a certain edge off his preconceived attitudes and assumptions about people.

He is, after all, the Captain's son. His father is a very interesting and intelligent person, someone who has learned a lot about people of many different species and with different abilities and personalities.

We all have preconceived ideas about others, usually based on our upbringings, and our contact with those who are different than we are. It is how we deal with our own feelings and the feelings of others, than help us to become better people.

Of course, I am ready for more, but I do realise it takes time to come up with more of those things called words.

Thank you, MM for writing this wonderful story.

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher