Universe Alpha 7:

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Chapter 6 - Dubious Expectations

"If you'll excuse me, I'd like to talk to Lieutenant Baz for a few minutes." Ensign Lord said cautiously.

"Okay, but be sure to come back whenever you want. We'll be happy to have you join us." Tracey said sincerely.

"Thank you. I will." Ensign Lord said appreciatively before hurrying away.

Lexi noticed another group of their guests arriving in the lounge and quietly asked, "Are we supposed to just wait here for someone to tell us what to do next?"

After a moment to consider, Tracey cautiously said, "We could, but we probably shouldn't. Since we're cadets, they probably expect us to take the initiative and be outgoing."

"Don't you want to stay and eat?" Tobar asked curiously.

"Honestly? No. I think that we're a little too anxious about things to be able to fully enjoy the food right now." Tracey carefully explained.

"I can't imagine what that must be like. It sounds awful." Tobar said grimly.

"I think it all evens out eventually. Not being able to enjoy the food today might make it possible for us to appreciate it that much more some other day when we're feeling relaxed or when we're celebrating." Tracey quietly explained.

"No Tellarite would ever feel that way." Tobar said with certainty.

"Not every Human feels that way, either. I was just trying to explain what I'm feeling." Tracey explained.

"Hang on. Wait right here. I see someone that I want all of you to meet!" Lexi said quickly before dashing away.

"We'll be right here. Go ahead." Tracey said after her.

"Do we have to stop eating now?" Tobar asked anxiously.

"Not yet. Lexi bought us a few minutes. Go ahead and enjoy your food for as long as you can."

* * * * *

After a brief conversation, Lexi returned to their table with a woman in tow. Despite the uniform that she wore, Tracey could tell from across the room that the diminutive Earth-Asian woman was a Starfleet officer. She carried herself with a level of self-assuredness and authority that could not be denied.

"Guys! I just wanted for all of you to meet Lieutenant Commander Angeles. She's the Chief Engineer." Lexi said past an enthusiastic smile.

Tracey was the first to stand, but the others soon followed.

"It's a pleasure to meet you in person, Chief Angeles." Tracey said respectfully.

"Lieutenant Sturgill, I presume... you're younger than I expected." Chief Angeles said slowly.

"Yes, ma'am. But the captain has been making sure that I'm well prepared before he turns me loose to work on my own." Tracey said seriously.

"The scuttlebutt around the lower decks is that if this ship weren't chosen for the honor of hosting your pioneer program, that we were due to be decommissioned in the very near future. If that is the case, then I am exceedingly grateful that you and your teammates are here."

"Thank you, ma'am. I think that part of the point of all of this is to see if me and my teammates have what it takes to become your teammates. No matter how good we are, if we can't integrate into the crew, then it doesn't mean a thing." Tracey said frankly.

"Yes. I suppose that is something that needs to be investigated before implementing your training program more widely." Chief Angeles said thoughtfully.

"It's easy to do the right thing when there's peace and quiet and no big rush. When the times get tough and the pressure's on is when you'll find out if your 'teammates' will take a bullet for you or throw you to the wolves to save their own skins." Hart said frankly.

"That's Hart. He's in security." Tracey said, as though that explained everything.

"Sounds like a good place for him. He seems to understand human nature." Chief Angeles said seriously.

"Not just Human." Hart interjected.

Chief Angeles nodded her agreement to his amendment.

* * * * *

As Admiral Hanson led a group of five rotund furry-faced women to join Chief Angeles and the cadet officers, she asked, "What are all of you doing over here by yourselves?"

"Eating." Hart said simply.

"We were just standing by until we could have the honor of meeting our esteemed guests." Tracey said diplomatically as he stood to greet the incoming contingent.

In response to Hart's incredulous look, Tracey very nearly restated what he meant. Even so, Hart and the rest of the cadets joined Tracey in standing. Although Tobar was the last to stand, he did it quickly enough so that it still counted as a show of respect.

"Alexandra, Dr. Trallv has some expertise with working in a male dominated field and a different cultural perspective on the subject might be interesting for both of you to discuss."

"Yeah. I'd like that." Lexi said happily, then turned to Chief Angeles and hopefully asked, "Would you come with us and tell us about what it's like to be a woman in Starfleet?"

"Honestly, I don't usually think about things in gendered terms, but I wouldn't mind being included in the discussion." Chief Angeles cautiously responded.

Admiral Hanson seemed delighted by the answer, then quickly said, "Next I would like to introduce Dr. Trallv's colleague, Dr. Blaggond lorin Jop."

"What a beautiful name." RJ said in astonishment before anyone else could respond.

Tracey, Hart and Lexi gave him matching dubious looks.

"Sunshine and meadows." Dr. Jop said with a warm smile, then distantly added, "My parents used to say that that was what my name really meant. They always intended for me to be an artist."

"Being a doctor is close to being an artist." RJ said frankly.

"How is that?" Dr. Jop asked with interest, obviously drawn in by RJ's strange observation.

"Just like an artist, you take something ugly, like an illness or an injury, and using the tools of your trade and your skill and creativity, you make something beautiful and healed and whole out of it." RJ struggled to explain.

"No wonder your eyes are brown." Hart whispered as he moved past RJ and back to his place at the table to get his drink.

"Dr. Jop, it is my pleasure to introduce Cadet Ensign Robert Parker Jr. He is learning the duties of the communication station." Admiral Hanson said pleasantly.

"Yes. It is a genuine pleasure to meet you as well." Dr. Jop said delightedly.

RJ beamed at her positive response.

"Next, I would like to introduce Dr. Poshners bav Tlagh. She's a xeno entomologist who has been working with the team." Admiral Hanson said pleasantly.

"Are you from Janus VI?" Dr. Tlagh asked Rocky in a burst, apparently not even seeing anyone else.

"Yes. I am." Rocky immediately responded.

"Dr. Tlagh, may I introduce Cadet Ensign Rock, the ship's newest navigator." Admiral Hanson said with a smile."

"Actually, Ensign Rock was granted a field promotion..." Tracey attempted to interject.

"Are you familiar with the Devil Grubbs of Janus VI?" Dr. Tlagh asked Rocky quickly, not showing any indication if she had heard Tracey's addition.

"I am somewhat acquainted." Rocky slowly admitted.

"If you have the time, I have some questions to ask you about their natural environment." Dr. Tlagh said enthusiastically.

"Certainly. Once introductions are made, I'd be happy to talk with you." Rocky said pleasantly.

"That being said, it's my pleasure to introduce Shanki Fras, Dr. Trallv's administrative assistant." Admiral Hanson said happily.

Some obligatory greetings were insincerely passed around, simply for form's sake.

"Cadet Ensign Xon is studying to be an executive officer. It occurred to me that much of the organization and scheduling that he is being taught is probably like what you do on a daily basis. If that's the case, perhaps the two of you might find some common interests to discuss." Admiral Hanson said encouragingly.

The identical incredulous blank stares from Xon and Shanki gave evidence to the fact that Admiral Hanson was spot on regarding their similar mindsets.

"Last, but certainly not least, I am pleased to present Wuffim Frellv, a graduate student working with Dr. Trallv." Admiral Hanson said as she indicated the brunette Tellarite woman with bright blue eyes.

"It's nice to meet you." Tracey automatically said for the cadet group.

"Is it?" Wuffim asked, seeming to be genuinely puzzled.

Tracey blinked with surprise at the unexpected response.

"No. It's not really, but we're expected to say that it is." Hart said frankly, then added, "I'm pretty sure that this is as awkward for us as it is for you."

"Well, I suppose that's comforting in some strange way." Wuffim said hesitantly.

"Good. Because no one here is trying to make this more difficult for you than it has to be. Sometimes it just doesn't look that way." Hart assured her.

"Well, good then." Admiral Hanson said happily, then quickly added, "Since you all seem to be getting along so well, I'll leave you to it and circulate to see how our other guests are doing."

"Would anyone like to help themselves to the buffet? You'd be welcome to sit with us." Tracey pleasantly offered.

Admiral Hanson smiled before hurrying away.

"Tobar? Will you stay here and hold our table while we escort our guests through the buffet line?" Tracey asked hopefully.

After a curious look, Tobar looked back to his half-full plate, then smiled as he said, "Yeah! I'll be right here!"

* * * * *

"So, are there not a lot of female doctors on Tellar?" Lexi asked curiously.

"There are plenty of female doctors, but not many research scientists. Our team came together because we had complimentary skills and interests. So far as I know, our being women actually had very little to do with it."

"Why aren't there that many women scientists?" Lexi asked curiously.

"I think maybe it's because after all the hard work and dedication of attaining a healing certification, there's a desire to put those skills to immediate use. The more patient oriented fields yield immediate validation and gratification, thus proving that the years of study were applicable in a real world situation. Fortunately, I was able to resist the lure of individual patient practice and pursue my interest in researching some of the more troublesome maladies of the current age." Dr. Trallv said as they slowly walked to the buffet table.

"Starfleet has similar job categories that are popular to the point of almost being romanticized. They're sought after for a sense of esteem and are sometimes looked upon as being a goal unto themselves." Chief Angeles added seriously.

"Like the helm..." Lexi quietly stated.

"I suppose that depends on whether being on the helm is the objective or a stepping stone on the way to a greater plan. If it's the objective, then the best thing to do is acknowledge that and begin contemplating what you want to do next on your career path."

"Can't I just want to be a helmsman?" Lexi asked cautiously.

Dr. Trallv absently made food selections as she waited for Chief Angeles' answer.

"I'm just saying that if being a helmsman isn't your ultimate goal, then deciding on your next objective is important. Don't waste yourself in a position where you don't really want to be. Keep your eyes on the prize. Keep moving forward." Chief Angeles said passionately.

"I think that she's giving you good advice. Don't stop striving because you achieved something. If you stop moving forward, it's nearly impossible to regain momentum." Dr. Trallv said firmly.

"You just achieved something, didn't you? I heard that you were being honored for some big discovery but I don't think anyone ever told me what it was." Lexi said as she walked alongside Dr. Trallv while taking a plate for herself.

"We haven't made an official announcement about it yet. Our findings are going to be reviewed at the Vega colony and if our findings are upheld, then we'll announce to the universe that we've developed an effective treatment for Arcturian eyeworms." Dr. Trallv said seriously.

Lexi froze in place for a moment, then discretely set her empty plate out of the way, since she wouldn't be needing it.

* * * * *

"Were you being sincere when you said that about my name?" Dr. Jop curiously asked.

"Yes. Of course." RJ quickly answered, then explained, "Because I'm in communications, I guess I pay more attention to how things sound than most people do. I don't know if your name is lyrical or harmonic or what. But for some reason I find the sound of it interesting and pleasing to the ear."

"What was your name again?"

"Well, with the rank and all, there's quite a bit to it. The long version is 'Cadet Ensign Robert Matthew Parker Junior', but everyone just calls me RJ."

"Arjay... what a funny 'chirpy' little name. It makes me smile." Dr. Jop said happily.

"I know that you must be hungry. Why don't we get you some food before I start boring you with tales about a trailer park in Georgia."

* * * * *

"What is it that you wanted to know about the Devil Grubbs?" Rocky asked casually as they walked away from the group.

"Well, I realize that you're not an entomologist, so you probably won't know details about their physiology, but I was hoping that you might know something about their natural environment and perhaps some of the adaptations that they might have made over your world's history." Dr. Tlagh said enthusiastically.

"I am familiar with the grubs, at least in the sense that they inhabited the cave system where I grew up. The only natural defense that I am aware of is that they're highly alkalic, which is very distasteful to my people... in fact, just thinking about them makes me feel like I'm still tasting them to some degree." Rocky finished slowly.

"Are the Horta the natural predators of the Devil Grubbs?" Dr. Tlagh asked curiously.

"We may have been one of them. If times get tough enough, you'll eat what's available, even if it's normally distasteful to you." Rocky said frankly, then added, "But I think that the Noctorum Cave Bats are probably their greatest predators."

"Noctorum Cave Bats aren't native to Janus VI, are they?" Dr. Tlagh asked cautiously, uncertain if she remembered correctly.

"They appear not to be since they've been archaeologically documented on several other worlds. But even if they're not native, they've gained a relatively good foothold in our ecosystem."

"Who knows how many indigenous species might have gone extinct on Janus VI because someone didn't bother to bioscan their cargo."

"I can't speak to that, but while we've been talking, I have been looking through my personal data node. If you would be interested, I have located records of three distinct instances of Janus VI Devil Grubbs that I have personally encountered. Although it isn't a visual record in its current form, the data could be rendered in a 2-d or 3-d format, if that would be desirable to you."

"May I infer that these records of yours contain more than external visual information?" Dr. Tlagh asked hopefully.

"Yes. Of course. Visual information is of little use to me. What my equipment does by default would be considered an intensive scan by most standards."

"Do all Horta use such scanning devices?"

"Only when we leave our planet. In our native environment, our natural senses are more than adequate. But when interacting with races that depend on sight and sound so extensively, we find it necessary to augment our natural senses with technology."

"So, did you encounter the Devil Grubbs while you were preparing to join Starfleet?" Dr. Tlagh asked curiously.

"Yes. In the course of learning the functions of my scanning equipment I explored the area near my home... my backyard, if you will."

"Do you know of a place where we can go to render some of your images? I'm excited to see what data you've collected."

"If you wouldn't mind helping me set up the interface, we could use any standard communication viewscreen as an output device."

"I can't tell you how excited I am to examine the life cycle of a silicone-based life form."

"I'll be happy to share that information with you, but you should be aware that I, too, am a silicone-based life form."

* * * * *

"I'm not sure your admiral has any idea what it is that we do. Just because we do similar jobs, she assumes that we'll have things in common, and that we'll automatically get along." Ms. Fras said irritably.

"The majority of what I do is anticipate and prepare for contingencies. That which others witness is the resulting action when I am called upon to resolve a situation."

"Tell me about it! Most of what I do is actually behind the scenes. They really have no idea." Ms. Fras said with annoyance.

"What's with the uniform? Do you really work here?" A Tellarite woman irritably interrupted as she approached.

"Yes. I do. How may I be of assistance to you?" Xon asked politely.

"Why are you keeping it like a sauna in here?" The little furry woman snapped.

"We have various species from many different climates on this ship. The temperature is kept at a level that the majority can be most comfortable in." Xon explained succinctly.

"Well, it's too hot! If you don't turn the temperature down I'm going to melt into a big greasy puddle."

"That would be unfortunate." Xon said without any inflection to indicate if he were teasing or serious.

"Are you people trying to save money on the heat? It's colder than a well-digger's butt in here!" A significantly shorter, fatter and hairier woman snorted angrily.

"Then I will make it warmer for you..." Xon said calmly to the second woman.

Without missing a beat, he turned back to the first woman and said, "...And I will make it cooler for you."

Before anyone could react, he turned to Ms. Fras and continued, "If you will excuse me, I won't be a moment."

"I'll go with you." Ms. Fras quickly announced.

"As you like." Xon said as he began walking away.

* * * * *

"How can a little tiny thing like you be in security?" Wuffim asked as they walked toward the buffet tables together.

"I just am. Would you like for me to kill someone for you to prove it?" Hart asked simply.

Wuffim laughed at the offer, then looked around before conspiratorially saying, "Grisg Maf, he's the young guy, right over there."

Hart followed her gaze, then slowly asked, "Would you prefer for him to be missing and presumed dead or do you need to have a body?"

"Whatever's easier for you, I guess." Wuffim said uncertainly.

"He's young and appears to be healthy. We're not in a good place to contact slavers, but considering the level of civilization in this part of space, we might be able to get a decent price for his organs."

"I guess so..." Wuffim said slowly, less and less sure that Hart was joking with her.

"If you'll wait here for a few minutes I need to make a few calls. Before we do anything, we need to be sure what condition the body has to be in when we turn it over."

Wuffim was stunned for a moment, then quickly said, "No, no. Don't do that! I was just kidding!"

"Are you sure? I'll split it with you right down the middle. No one's going to give you a sweeter cut than that." Hart asked in a wheedling tone.

"Thank you. No." Wuffim said firmly.

"Oh well, it's probably best. I wasn't really feeling that ambitious anyway."

Wuffim looked at Hart uncertainly for a moment, then stepped forward to take a place in the serving line.

* * * * *

As the group approached the table, Tobar quickly asked, "Can I go and get more food now?"

"Sure. Thanks for holding the table for us." Lexi immediately answered.

Tobar launched himself toward the buffet table without a second thought.

"So, Lexi, have you already decided where you'd ultimately like to end up with your Starfleet career?" Chief Engineer Angeles asked as she took her seat at the table.

"I've been focusing everything I've got on becoming a helmsman. I never even thought about what I was going to do next." Lexi said honestly as she, too, was seated.

"Let me tell you from personal experience that it's perfectly normal and natural for a person to believe that they've 'won' the race when they've accomplished something significant." Dr. Trallv said seriously as she took the seat opposite the pair.

"That's right." Chief Angeles confirmed, then added, "This is the type of race that most people 'lose' by giving up rather than by failing outright."

"But is it giving up if you're happy where you are?" Lexi asked cautiously.

"Oh, there's nothing wrong with that. There's only a problem when you give up on your dreams..." Chief Angeles began.

"Or when you stop dreaming." Dr. Trallv interrupted.

Chief Angeles nodded her wholehearted agreement, then added, "I'm at the point in my career where I want to be right now. When I get closer to retirement, I may look into getting a planetary posting. But for now, I'm exactly where I want to be, doing what I want to do."

"So you're not saying that I shouldn't be a helmsman?" Lexi asked uncertainly.

"No. We're saying that if you want to be more than a helmsman, now is the time to set your sights on your new goal and start investing your time and effort into making your dreams a reality." Chief Angeles said firmly.

"So I don't have to do anything special because I'm a girl?" Lexi asked hesitantly.

"Every now and then, usually when you least expect it, something gender-related will pop up. For me, most times it's someone very loudly assuming that I got an assignment or promotion or something due to some imagined quota system." Chief Angeles said frankly, then continued, "People will like you or hate you for their own reasons. Sometimes gender is an easy justification for whatever prejudiced beliefs they already had. In the end, it doesn't matter. Do your job. Don't give the haters too much attention and things tend to work themselves out. Don't get me wrong. Sometimes, you need to stand up for yourself. But it's a waste of your time and energy to react forcefully to every slight."

"I believe there is an Earth saying, 'Choose your battles'." Dr. Trallv said seriously.

"Good advice." Chief Angeles heartily agreed.

* * * * *

RJ, Dr. Jop, Tracey and Tobar all returned to the table at basically the same time.

"If you haven't tried this yet you should! It's really good!" Tobar happily exclaimed as he indicated a soupy, mostly vegetable dish filled to the point that it was nearly to overflowing.

"What is that?" Tracey asked curiously.

"The nameplate said 'Chow Mein', but that's all I know about it." Tobar said before taking a large bite.

"It's an Earth dish. As I understand the origin, it's a dish made by one culture to emulate the taste and style of another culture. Purists of either culture tend to look down upon it as not being 'authentic', but regardless of what they say, it remains popular simply because so many people enjoy it." Chief Engineer Angeles said instructively.

"Ish goot." Tobar struggled to say around a mouthful.

"I think I'm going to go back and get some of that. Does anyone else need anything while I'm up?" Lexi asked casually.

"Would you mind bringing me a few more of these crispy crackers from the center table? They are just delightful." Dr. Jop asked hopefully.

"Sure! I'll be right back!" Lexi said before dashing away.

* * * * *

"I'm still having trouble believing that a group of ordinary children are going to be running the ship." Dr. Jop said honestly.

"We're not ordinary." Tracey said simply, then explained, "After testing hundreds of kids who were interested in joining the mentoring program, a group were judged to be good enough to be allowed to attend the academy. Out of all of them, a select group were chosen to participate in this pioneer program. We literally are the best of the best."

"Getting a little full of yourself, aren't you Trace?" RJ asked with a little extra southern twang for emphasis.

"It's not my ego, it's a fact. A normal kid couldn't do what we do." Tracey said firmly.

"I'm not disagreeing with you, I'm just saying that it sounds conceited when you say it like that." RJ said frankly.

"I'm not going to go around saying it to random people, but when it's the topic of conversation, I'm not going to shy away from it." Tracey said honestly.

"What did we miss?" Hart asked as he and Shanki Fras took places at the table.

"Tracey telling people that we're 'special' and better than everyone else." RJ said frankly.

"So it's just Tracey being Tracey, huh?" Hart asked as he glanced at Wuffim to see that she was settling in comfortably.

"I don't go around bragging, do I?" Tracey asked with concern.

"No. It's nothing you say." RJ said slowly.

"It's the attitude." Hart interjected. "I get that it's just you being who you are."

"I didn't realize that I had an attitude." Tracey said honestly.

"Your mom's a starbase commander, right?" RJ asked carefully.

"Yeah." Tracey cautiously answered.

"Then you're probably used to being around officers and other high-ranking people. Stuff like that just seems normal to you." RJ said speculatively.

"I think he's onto something. Your normal is probably a whole lot different from my normal." Hart said frankly.

"Up until the mentoring program I never really thought of myself as being different from anyone else." Tracey said honestly.

"Except better." Hart said with a teasing grin.

"Maybe. Okay? Being a Starfleet brat set me apart from regular kids who didn't always have military order and protocol around every corner and behind every curtain telling you what you can and can't do."

"So maybe you don't see yourself as being 'above' other people, but it's more like you see yourself as being 'apart', or at least as something other than what they are." RJ said speculatively.

"Aren't you the same way? Just because you're beautiful to look at doesn't mean that you can think of regular people as being something different from what you are." Tracey accused.

"As far as I know, Loi's the only one who's ever given me a second glance. Even then, he's a lot more attractive than I am." RJ said frankly.

"Loi's the only one except Tracey. It sounds like he's totally been checking you out." Hart said with a mischievous grin.

"We can talk about this later. We're with our honored guests." Tracey quickly interjected.

"Don't mind us. This is just getting good." Dr. Trallv said with a delighted smile.

"Yes. Tell us some more about how you see RJ as being more attractive than others of your kind." Dr. Jop added playfully.

Wuffim nodded her agreement, then steepled her trotter-like fingers as she waited expectantly.

"What's going on?" Lexi asked as she arrived at the table.

She automatically set a small plate of crackers beside Dr. Jop's plate before taking her seat.

"Tracey just admitted that he thinks RJ is beautiful." Hart said with a barely restrained grin.

Lexi thought about that for a moment, then finally said, "Going after other people's boyfriends is a good way to get your butt kicked."

"You tell 'im, Lexi." Hart said delightedly, then fought to contain his laughter.

"You're enjoying this a little too much." Tracey observed.

"Wuffim and I were just talking about something like that." Hart said simply.

"We were?" Wuffim asked dubiously.

"Sort of. I just think that a society needs their disruptive elements, like sociopaths and psychopaths, to remain healthy." Hart said unrepentantly.

"Do you really see yourself that way?" Wuffim asked curiously.

"No. Not completely. But I do see that within me."

Before anyone could comment, he quickly added, "I also see that within you, Tracey and everyone else. We each balance it in our own ways... some better than others."

"Since you believe that, do you think that people like that should be allowed to run loose?" Tracey asked with interest.

"Yes. For the most part. They need to be contained and controlled within reason, of course, but they provide a necessary function within society to keep it healthy. How do you build a muscle without resistance? How can you decide what's good if you've never confronted something bad? Since you're medical people, maybe you could think about it working kind of like a vaccination."

"How do you mean?" Dr. Trallv asked with interest.

"Instead of trying to get rid of people who have strange beliefs or different ways of thinking, You use them to help your community build up a resistance to unreasonable and outrageous things. If you never learn how to fight it, you'll be overwhelmed by it."

"You make being crazy sound not only reasonable, but almost necessary." Wuffim said cautiously.

"I think that any society that gets rid of or 'fixes' their disruptive elements are setting themselves up to be destroyed or conquered within a few generations." Hart said simply.

"You may very well be right about that." Wuffim conceded.

None of the others around the table seemed to be inclined to comment.

* * * * *

"How are we doing over here?" Admiral Hanson asked as she approached with the captain's wife at her side.

"I believe that my preconceived notions about your 'cadets' have been called into question." Dr. Trallv said frankly.

"I hope that's a good thing." Admiral Hanson said cautiously.

"I expected a group of smiling, eager, smug little aliens, all secure in the knowledge of how perfect they are." Dr. Trallv said carefully, then added more casually, "What I found instead is a group of children who appear to be competent, yet at the same time aware of their strengths and weaknesses."

"Except Tracey." Hart added with a grin at him.

"Yeah. He thinks he's better than the rest of us." RJ said teasingly.

"That's a good thing, isn't it?" Lexi asked curiously.

Everyone turned to look at her with question, but it was Admiral Hanson who finally asked, "Why would that be, Alexandra?"

Lexi slightly cringed at the use of her formal name, but carried on nonetheless.

"Tracey's our lieutenant. He not only needs to know all his stuff, but all of our stuff too so he can lead us." Lexi said reasonably.

"Yes. Ideally, that should be the case." Admiral Hanson confirmed.

"Then Tracey's just like he needs to be for us." Lexi said with certainty.

* * * * *

A movement drew the attention of those around the table.

"Cadet Ensign Xon, Ms. Fras, I hope that you're enjoying the gathering so far." Admiral Hanson said pleasantly as they approached.

"Yes. It has been interesting. I've been most impressed by Ensign Xon's problem solving skills." Shanki Fras said with the slightest smile in Xon's direction.

"How so?" Admiral Hanson asked with interest.

"He appeared to have done the impossible by making it both hotter and colder at the same time." Ms. Fras said, seeming to be impressed by the fact.

"How were you able to accomplish such a thing?" Admiral Hanson asked curiously.

"I made adjustments to the ambient temperature and the relative humidity in accordance with the recommended norms for Tellarite physiology. As I had hoped, the adjustments were enough to make our guests comfortable." Xon said reasonably.

"But with Captain Gravf being in charge, wouldn't the environmental controls already be set for Tellarites?" RJ asked curiously.

"No. They would be set to the Starfleet default settings. It's not the 'ideal' environment for any one species, but rather the mean values for various Federation species." Tracey said informatively.

"But someone who has drastic needs has to make accommodations to conform to the needs of the majority." Xon added impassively.

"You're talking about Rocky, aren't you?" Lexi asked hesitantly.

"Perhaps, inasmuch as he is included in the generality that I was referring to."

"Thought so." Lexi said simply.

"Where is Rocky?" RJ asked curiously.

"He's over by the viewport with Dr. Tlagh." Admiral Hanson said informatively.

"When we saw them, they seem to be looking at pictures of bugs." Grmch added with amusement.

"I guess... if you're into that sort of thing." RJ said uncertainly.

"Alexandra, I have been receiving comments regarding your log entries and was wondering if you have received any correspondence." Admiral Hanson asked curiously.

"Yeah. I got some." Lexi said darkly.

"What's wrong Lexi? Were they mean to you?" Tracey asked with immediate concern.

"No. I had a couple people tell me that I was an inspiration to them... one even called me a hero. That one really pissed me off... Sorry Admiral. I didn't mean to say it that way." Lexi finished timidly.

"Quite alright." Admiral Hanson easily assured her, then leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, "I've heard worse."

Lexi smiled and had to fight to restrain a giggle at the pseudo admission.

"If I may ask, what upset you about being considered a hero?" Dr. Trallv asked curiously.

"It's not that part that gets to me, as much as people acting like I'm doing something really big and special, when all they'd ever have to do is lift their butts off their chairs and do the same exact thing for themselves. When they're whining 'I wish I could be like you' all I can think is why aren't you? What's stopping you? Be the hero! Make it happen!" Lexi finished passionately.

"That settles it. If we ever have to talk to reporters, Lexi needs to be the one to speak for us." Tracey said frankly.

"RJ's our communications guy." Lexi reminded him.

"Maybe so. But you're the one who inspires people." Tracey responded.

Lexi considered for a moment, then slowly started shaking her head before finally saying, "If someone wants to talk to me about things, I'm okay with that. But if someone wants to know about us as a group, RJ should speak for us. Not only is that his job, but I don't want for people to think that I'm all stuck up and all I want to do is talk about myself."

"I can think of one Starfleet admiral in particular who would do well to come to that realization." Admiral Hanson said with a gentle smile at the girl.

"Hold on! There's someone I want you to meet! I'll be right back!" Lexi said enthusiastically before dashing away.

There was a long moment of silence before Admiral Hanson finally said, "She really is the most competent person who tested for a position on the helm."

"I've seen her at work. She's good." Tracey assured them.

"Admiral, how much of the cadets' qualification has to do with their capability and how much is due to their rather 'vibrant' personalities?" Dr. Tlagh asked curiously.

"I won't deny that their personalities were taken into account. While they are all qualified on their stations, they also have the benefit of being able to fit together temperamentally. It is our hope that their complementary strengths and weaknesses will come together to form an outstanding team." Admiral Hanson explained.

"Dr. Tlagh, I'd like for you to meet Lieutenant Fister. He's my mentor and he's a really good helmsman." Lexi said as she guided her reluctant mentor forward.

"Hi." Lieutenant Fister was barely able to grind out.

"Lieutenant Fister, please allow me to present Dr. Fruthers jav Trallv, Dr. Blaggond lorin Jop, Shanki Fras and Wuffim Frellv. You already know Admiral Hanson and I'm sure that you've probably met the captain's wife, Grmch." Tracey said formally.

"Actually, no. I haven't. It's a pleasure to meet all of you." Lieutenant Fister said slowly and cautiously.

"My husband normally works to keep his work life and his home life separate from each other." Grmch said simply.

"Well, if your husband mentioned me at all, I'm the one that has been testing the limits of his patience for the past year." Lieutenant Fister said frankly.

"Fister? That's you? From his ranting and raving I pictured you being more dull-witted and oafish." Grmch said pleasantly.

"I have my moments." Lieutenant Fister admitted, then added, "But I've been putting forth an extra effort lately to try to be better."

"We're all helping him." Lexi interjected.

"How is that?" Admiral Hanson asked with interest.

"Armand isn't good with people but Lexi wants to be able to keep learning from him, so we're doing whatever we can to make sure that he can stay with us." Tracey said simply.

"How is that going?" Admiral Hanson asked slowly.

Tracey and Lexi both looked to Lieutenant Fister for his reaction.

After a moment to consider, he finally responded, "I think it's too early to tell for sure. I have a lot of ill will to overcome. With everyone's help, at least I have reason to hope. That's better than it was before the kids arrived."

"If there's anything me or my team can do to help you, please let us know."

"Thank you Dr. Trallv. I appreciate that." Lieutenant Fister said sincerely.

* * * * *

There was an awkward silence that followed which was finally broken by Grmch quietly asking, "Are you getting along okay with the cadets?"

"Yeah. They're all really smart and weird looking and stuff. And this food is really good. I'm having fun!" Tobar said happily.

"I hope you haven't been waiting on us." Dr. Tlagh said as she approached with Rocky following closely behind.

"No. Not at all. We've just been casually grazing on some snacks while talking." Dr. Trallv said pleasantly.

"Rocky was just showing me some of the most fascinating data on the life cycles of silicon-based insect life... it supports a hypothesis of mine regarding the evolutionary progression of carbon-based life forms." Dr. Tlagh said excitedly.

"I didn't even know that Rocky knew about anything other than navigation." Tracey said frankly.

"I don't actually know all that much. I just happened to have scanned some Janus VI Devil Grubbs while I was learning to use my scanning equipment." Rocky said simply.

"What the data that Rocky gathered suggests is groundbreaking. As soon as we're done with our current project, I'm going to petition the Federation to lead a scientific delegation to Janus VI to investigate further." Dr. Tlagh said passionately.

"If you'll let me know when you're sending your request, I can alert some people on Janus VI to be on the lookout for it and expedite the approval process."

"Thank you. That would be much appreciated." Dr. Tlagh said gratefully.

* * * * *

"Do you still want me to kill him?" Hart quietly asked under his breath.

Wuffim followed his line of sight to the young portly Tellarite man.

"No. That's alright. I suppose that it's good that I have someone near my own level to challenge me. If defeating Grisig is going to mean anything, I need to do it honestly, by humiliating him, then grinding his face into the dirt." Wuffim finished with a predatory smile.

"You remind me of my mom." Hart casually remarked, then noticed as Grisig Maf turned and looked cautiously in their direction.

Wuffim and Hart reacted in unison, giving the sweetest and most innocent smiles in the universe in return.

Both noticed when Grisig visibly shuddered, then forced himself to look away.

"Even if we don't kill him, we can definitely torture him." Wuffim said with a predatory grin.

"Yup. Just like my mom." Hart said matter-of-factly.

"Is that a good or a bad thing?" Wuffim asked curiously.

"Neither. It just is." Hart said simply.

Wuffim considered for a moment before responding, "That's probably the best answer for that question."

* * * * *

"Dr. Trallv, do you or your team members have any questions for the cadets before we move on to other things?" Admiral Hanson asked hopefully.

After a long moment of silence, Dr. Jop finally cautiously said, "I was curious about something."

"What might that be?" Admiral Hanson asked curiously.

"Considering the ages of these 'cadets', I was curious to know how their parents have reacted to them being here. I have to admit that if I had a child, I would be reluctant to let them out of my sphere of influence, much less on a space journey with complete strangers." Dr. Jop said seriously.

"Never having been in that position myself, I could only speculate. Do any of you have any idea of how your parents feel about you being here?" Admiral Hanson asked the cadets pleasantly.

After a moment of looking around, Tracey was the first to answer.

"My mom is a Starfleet base commander, so it's probably different for me. I don't know if my mom ever dreamed about me 'following in her footsteps' or anything like that, but I have no doubt that she's proud of the choices that I've made and that I'm following through with them."

"Yes. I can see why a base commander would see this being a valuable opportunity for you." Admiral Hanson easily agreed.

"I don't think my dad's really big on the whole Starfleet thing like Tracey's mom is." Lexi said thoughtfully, then paused before explaining, "I just get the feeling that he's worried that because it's just him trying to take care of me all by himself that he thinks that I'm missing out on something by not having a woman in the house to tell me about girl things. No matter what he does or how hard he works, it's like he feels like it's not enough."

"I can imagine feeling that way in a similar situation." Admiral Hanson easily agreed.

"Yeah. Well, my dad's always helped me with my Starfleet stuff and told me I was good enough and to keep trying and stuff like that. So when the Starfleet Academy announced that they'd test people for the mentoring program, he was right there telling me that I could do it. I miss him and I bet that he's lonely and worried about me, but I know he's proud, too and that he believes in me. So I'm going to do this and I'm going to do my best. When I'm done, I'll be able to go back and show him what I did, and then he'll know that him loving me is enough. He's doing okay." Lexi said confidently.

"Maybe you should speak for us. You can really pour the emotion into it." RJ said frankly.

"It's probably best if you give people the facts. If you need for me to be emotional with them, I'll be there." Lexi assured him.

"What about you RJ? How is your family dealing with you being here?" Dr. Jop asked curiously.

"It's really hard to describe. All my life I've been a screw-up. I've made my dad and my brother ashamed so many times I couldn't tell you all of them. Then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I'm good at something! Because of that, you can't really blame my dad and brother for being caught off-guard. I know that my dad is proud of me, but I think he's still holding back really believing it because... well, let's just say that even when I've got the best intentions, I usually make a mess of things. So, even though I know that he's cheering me on, I also have the feeling that he's there, bracing himself, ready to catch me in case I fall."

"And your brother?" Dr. Jop asked in a leading tone.

"That's the scariest part of all. He's looking at me like I'm some kind of hero and he wants to be just like me. I'm afraid that I'll say or do the wrong thing in front of him and that he'll get hurt trying to follow my example." RJ said anxiously.

"What about Loi?" Lexi asked inquisitively.

At Dr. Jop's curious look, RJ explained, "Loi's my boyfriend back home. We've only been together a couple months so it's still hard for me to think of him as being part of my family... even though, in a way, he's more my family than anyone else."

"How do you get that?" Tracey asked with interest.

"Me and my brother are actually parts of my dad's family. Loi is my family. I mean, in most things, it works out as being the same thing, but when I'm thinking about the future, I'm thinking about it with Loi."

"Leave it to the communications guy to get hung up on the wording." Tracey said teasingly.

"Xon? What about you? How does your family feel about you being in the mentoring program?" Admiral Hanson asked pleasantly.

"They who are my parents see the logic of the Federation and Starfleet. She who is my sister has attained her healing certification and is currently serving as a doctor on the USS Yorktown. Due to these facts, further interrogation regarding the costs and benefits of a long-term career in Starfleet was unnecessary. When I expressed an interest, the only logical course was to pursue it." Xon said in a perfectly measured tone.

"How did Vincent figure into all of that?" Rocky asked curiously.

"Were it not for he who is my brother, I would likely not have seen any appeal in the possibility of joining the mentoring program." Xon answered simply.

"What about you, Rocky?" Dr. Tlagh asked with a smile down at him.

"My mother... let's just say that she has her hands full... despite the fact of her not literally having hands." Rocky slowly explained, then continued, "Suffice it to say, she is aware of where I am and what I am doing, and she approves. I would not be here were it otherwise,"

"So, if I'm getting Horta physiology right, your mom is the literal mother of every other Horta alive on the planet right now. Is that right?" Dr. Tlagh asked cautiously.

"Yes. That is correct." Rocky succinctly agreed.

"With that many kids, how does she manage? I mean, does she even know one of you from another?" Dr. Tlagh asked curiously.

"The thing that qualifies me to be a member of this crew is what makes it possible for her to know all of her children. Although it is difficult to describe to a sighted being, the Horta have a particular spatial awareness. Mother, as a function of her being a true mother to us all, is aware of the location and condition of all of her children at all times, regardless of where they are on the planet." Rocky carefully explained.

"But she still let you go?" Dr. Tlagh reluctantly asked.

"Yes. She willingly accepted the disconcerting emotions related to my absence from her 'vision' to give me the chance to become something more than what fate seems to have decreed." Rocky said with the proper respect showing in his tone and inflection.

"When I come to visit, it's her you're going to tell, isn't it?" Dr. Tlagh asked cautiously.

"Yes. You wouldn't be granted access any other way." Rocky said simply.

"Hart? What about you?" Lexi asked cheerfully.

"What about me?" Hart asked darkly, in an obvious attempt to forestall her question.

"How do your parents feel about you going to the Starfleet Academy and being picked as a cadet?" Lexi pressed.

Hart looked around the gathering and it was unclear if he were gauging their interest or looking for an escape route.

Regardless, he finally answered, "My parents are kind of protective of me."

The incredulous looks from those around the table nearly made him laugh.

A smile that he wasn't able to repress made its way to his lips before he calmly said, "I grew up on mercenary ships around criminals and some of the scummiest beings that you'll ever meet. My parents were extremely protective of me because they had to be. If they hadn't made the right choices and threatened the right people, I'd either be dead or a whole lot more screwed up than I am right now."

"After that, how did you end up deciding to enter Starfleet?" Wuffim asked curiously.

"I grew up learning about right and wrong from the 'wrong' side. I guess I met some good people and was lucky enough to find a path to the 'right' side of things. I decided to take it and make the best I could of it while I had the chance. It's one of those things where I thought that if I didn't go for it, there might never be another chance for me." Hart said honestly.

"And after all that, you ended up in Security?" Wuffim asked incredulously.

"Sure. From growing up on the outside, I know all kinds of sneaky ways to get in." Hart said frankly.

A few looks went around the table, but no one seemed willing to dive more deeply into Hart's assertion.

* * * * *

"Thank you all for sharing your stories with us. I can't think of a better way of honoring our respected guests than by letting them get to know us." Admiral Hanson said to the cadets, then to the group in general she continued, "While we have a moment, I thought that I would give a brief overview of our plan for the coming week."

"Would you like for Lieutenant Fister and I to leave you alone for this?" Chief Angeles asked cautiously.

"No, no. There's no need for that." Admiral Hanson assured her.

"Do you need for me to gather the others of our contingent?" Dr. Trallv asked cautiously.

"Only if you want to include them. This will simply be an overview of our itinerary." Admiral Hanson explained.

"No need to bother them while they're eating." Dr. Trallv said simply.

Admiral Hanson easily accepted her decision, then continued, "Tomorrow morning, after we've all had some rest, the cadet crew will be taking their stations on the bridge and we will disembark Tellar Prime for the Vega star system."

"No disrespect to any of you, but you really don't have to do this on our account. We'll feel just as honored if you allow the experienced officers to pilot the ship." Dr. Trallv assured her.

"This milestone is what this group has been training for. I've been assured that they are ready." Admiral Hanson said firmly.

"Dr. Trallv, if I had any doubt about the fitness of any officer under my command, I wouldn't allow them to take their station. I promise you that all of us are ready for this. Please allow us to share this experience with all of you. This is the greatest gift that we have to give you." Tracey asked anxiously.

"I suppose that the 'first time' is something special, and that being invited to share in that is a special honor. Thank you for wanting to share it with us." Dr. Trallv said respectfully.

Admiral Hanson beamed at Tracey with grandmotherly pride for a moment, then quietly said, "The cadet crew will conduct us to the Vega colony where you can have your work evaluated. Once you've completed that, we will conduct you back to Tellar and from there, on to Earth, where you will receive the accolades that you and your team so richly deserve."

"I was actually dreading this. Despite growing up among the elites of Tellarite society, I've always disliked the pomp and finery. I know how to play the game and I can play it well. We will do what we have to do to gain the full support of the Federation to institute our treatment throughout all the various Federation worlds. That's the honor that I'm waiting for, knowing that suffering people will have a chance at full recovery." Dr. Tlagh said passionately.

"We'll do our part to get you there." Tracey said in the tone of a vow.

"Thank you." Dr. Tlagh said sincerely.

Log entry: Cadet Ensign Alexandra Lorraine Gelt - 20050415-23:18:33

Everything I believed... well, I still believe it, but it doesn't seem as important as it did this morning.

It's like working and giving it all you've got to reach the top of the mountain and when you get there you find out that you climbed the wrong stupid mountain!

I'm going to have to think about things and decide what I most believe and what is most important to me.

I guess that maybe before you start fighting to defend your beliefs, that you need to know what they are. What seemed like such a solid set of goals turned out to be smoke and mirrors.

As far as work... we arrived.

Our guests came on board.

We had a reception to welcome them.

We talked...

and talked...

and talked...

If anyone tells you that being in Starfleet is all about meeting cool aliens and space battles, you need to get them to turn off the TV and spend some time in the real world.

I know I usually end these things by telling you to be strong and make it happen and stuff like that, but this time I think I have a more important piece of advice for you.

Talk to people. Learn how to hold up your end of a conversation. Find ways to be interesting. Figure out how to draw people out so that they'll talk to you.

It's a skill no one tells you that you'll need.

With it, you can get promotions and get help all along the way.

Without it... you might end up having to fight to keep a job doing what you're good at and that you love doing.

Lexi, out.

* * * * *

Log entry: Cadet Ensign Hart Korrigon - 20050415-23:55:55

I'm still in security.

I still can't talk about it.

Hart, out.

* * * * *

Log entry: Cadet Ensign Robert Anthony Parker Jr - 20050415-23:34:26f

I did it!

Well, that might be more impressive if I said what 'it' was.

The first 'it' was that I reconfigured the communications console to interface with Rocky's VODR module. After all the preparation, it went just as smoothly and easily as I could have asked.

The next 'it' was that I was able to establish contact, request a vector and all the other communications duties that I've been training for.

For some reason, I expected it to be a lot harder than it turned out to be.

I guess that since all the texts that I studied kept telling me about all the things that could possibly go wrong, it never occurred to me that things might actually go 'right'.

I guess another 'it' might be that I was able to hold my own in the chit-chat with the doctors and officers and the party the admiral threw in the lounge.

It's not like I've ever done anything like that before, but still, I think I did alright.

Dr. Jop was really nice. That made it easier for everything else to work out.

I did it!

Tomorrow, I'm going to do it again!

I can't wait!

Loi, I miss you.

RJ, out.

* * * * *

Log entry: Acting Ensign Rock - 20050415-23:33:04

Regardless of my talent.

I saw my place in the universe.

Perhaps despite my talent.

I saw the center of myself.

Perceived worth.

Intrinsic value.

Being more than the sum of my parts.

Rocky, out.

* * * * *

Log entry: Cadet Ensign Xon s/o Sufaal h/o Sukaan - 20050415-23:50:02

One being's vice is another's virtue. I will not expound. It is simply an observation.

As has become a matter of course, I have continued to be surprised by Tracey's adaptability and resourcefulness in response to unforeseen circumstances. Not only are these traits beneficial in practical terms, but also in the sphere of interpersonal relationships.

I also take pause at the fact that the least outwardly social member of our group, that being Cadet Ensign Korrigon, was able to establish an amicable relationship with the least outwardly social member of the group of doctors. Had I been in a position to interact with her, we would likely have no common interests and would have invariably ended up sitting in silence. I respect Cadet Ensign Korrigon's ability to overcome such a challenge with apparent ease.

Likewise, Acting Ensign Rock was able to engage in what appeared to be pleasant conversation with another of the doctors. They appeared to have some common interests in insects or silicone-based biology. Once again Acting Ensign Rock has surprised me with his adaptability. I would not have believed that a non-bipedal being would be able to integrate so successfully.

Cadet Ensign Parker seems to have overcome that which hindered his progress. His performance at his station was acceptable. I believe that his performance in a social situation could most accurately be described as 'charming'.

Cadet Ensign Gelt appears to have received personalized attention from not only the Starfleet officers but also the medical personnel we will be conducting to the Vega Colony. While I do not know what was discussed, it appeared from my vantage point that all involved felt that it was a productive meeting.

Callie, Be well. My thoughts are with you.

Xon, out.

* * * * *

Log entry: Acting Lieutenant Tracey Ephram Sturgill - 20050411-23:39:25

I think that if we were able to get through this evening that we can get through anything.

I don't have any problem believing in my crew and their abilities running their stations. But when it comes to not saying or doing dumb things in a social situation, that's something else altogether.

I got roasted for being a little too pompous or something. Maybe I am. I don't know. I don't really care about that.

The thing I was most worried about was that RJ was going to stick his foot in his mouth in front of the admiral and everyone. It turned out that he was probably the most charming person at that table tonight.

I never once thought that Rocky might have a problem talking to anyone, but that's mostly because I didn't really think about it. Anyway, he didn't. He was fine.

Xon and Hart both hooked up with people right away and started talking to them. If anyone had asked me, I would have said that they'd both end up standing by themselves, not saying a word to anyone.

Lexi, on the other hand, was the belle of the ball. She had people talking with her three and four at a time. I never had any doubt about her ability to socialize. It comes to her naturally.

All in all, I'm willing to call it success.

Tomorrow we take our stations and work full shifts.

Don't worry.

We got this.

Denny, Price, I miss you. You're not forgotten.

Tracey, out.

To Be Continued...

Editor's Notes:

I am really impressed by the whole chapter. I loved the way that all the cadets were able to convey their feelings and thoughts about their own and other's interactions with the honored guests.

We have been treated to a special meeting of minds, and I believe not only the cadets, but everyone there learned at least a few important things about themselves and everyone involved.

I am certainly ready for more.

Thank you MM for another wonderful chapter.

What's happening to Vincent?

Darryl AKA Radio Rancher