Universe Alpha 7:
The Opposite Heaven

By MultiMapper
Copyright ©2002-2023 MultiMapper and CSU Productions.
All Rights Reserved.

For full disclaimer and Copyright information visit Copyright/Disclaimer Page. Continuation of viewing this document is deemed acceptance of all terms on the preceding link. While these stories are provided for free, I would appreciate it if those who were able would consider contributing to this artist via my Patreon.

Chapter 40

Waking from a deep sleep, it took a moment for Vincent to realize that what had awakened him was a bone deep ache in his shoulders and elbows.

The ache was familiar enough, although the intensity was more than he remembered.

It seemed to take a bit of convincing, but he was finally able to roust himself out of bed.

As he stood, the pulling sensation in his groin area alerted him to the rampant erection demanding his immediate attention.

Vincent gave a weary sigh, then crossed to the bathroom to take care of morning business, doing his best to ignore the boner, so he could prepare for his workout.

When he finally dressed himself, he noticed that his shoes were tighter than usual, and he resigned himself to the fact that he would have to go to the quartermaster's office later in the day to requisition new shoes.

* * * * *

His first stop was at the sickbay, where Vlad was kind enough to give him some minor pain medication to ease his soreness along with the vitamin shot that he always got when he was having a growth spurt.

Vincent arrived at the gym earlier than usual, and went through his routine to dress and prepare for his workout.

But rather than go through his stretches, as he normally would, Vincent found an out of the way place on the exercise mat and settled in to get comfortable. Thanks to T'Lani's guidance and instruction, he was able to reach a meditative state quickly.

* * * * *

"Good morning, Vincent. How does this morning find you?" Thaelan asked as he approached, dressed in his workout gear.

Vincent opened his eyes and smiled before saying, "I'm doing fine. How are you?"

"Very well. Are you feeling well enough to spar with me this morning?" Thaelan asked quietly.

Vincent's answer was to lunge at Thaelan, to attack.

Thaelan's immediate defense proved that he had been expecting Vincent to attack him.

The battle between them proved to be much more controlled and fluid than that of the day before. The attacks that both used were precise and powerful. Vincent's meditation beforehand coupled with Thaelan's years of experience allowed both to push themselves to their limits.

Those watching the display were captivated by the ruthless efficiency of the attacks and defenses.

One of Thaelan's attacks was finally able to overcome Vincent's defenses simply by virtue of the strength behind the move.

Vincent took the hit to his midsection, unable to avoid it, but refused to acknowledge the pain. Instead, he immediately took advantage of Thaelan's slightly extended reach to suddenly twist and simultaneously hit the back of Thaelan's knee and head butt his shoulder. The combined impacts had the cumulative effect of throwing Thaelan off balance.

Before Vincent could make use of his slight advantage, Thaelan dropped to one knee and lashed out with a powerful kick, aimed right at Vincent's head.

Vincent's immediate response was to bend over backwards until his hands touched the mat, then to do a basic walkover. The applause that echoed in the gymnasium registered in the back of Vincent's mind, but he remained focused on assessing Thaelan's position and developing a strategy to, at the very least, inflict as much damage as he'd been dealt.

* * * * *

It turned out that he wouldn't get his revenge until nearly twenty minutes later. The spar between them was hard fought, and neither gained an advantage until Vincent finally saw an opening. Perhaps, it was due to Vincent hitting the back of his knee earlier, or maybe Thaelan was just getting tired. But, for whatever reason, the odd way that Thaelan was positioning himself when he would lunge forward, gave Vincent the slightest opening.

Vincent immediately dropped a shoulder and launched an attack at Thaelan's neck, which he knew would cause Thaelan to counter and lunge.

As soon as Thaelan moved into the anticipated position, Vincent dropped, twisted and attacked Thaelan's knee and ankle in one simultaneous move.

As he knew it would, the combined assault caused Thaelan to fully lose his balance and hit the mat with a satisfying ::oof::.

Vincent immediately rolled out of the way and sprang to his feet, back in his primary defensive posture, when he noticed that Thaelan wasn't making any move to get up.

After a moment, Thaelan quietly said, "I believe that we have achieved today's objective."

Vincent took a step back and formally disengaged from the exercise before stepping forward to offer his hand.

"Are you alright?" Vincent asked with concern when Thaelan took his hand, but didn't immediately pull himself to standing.

"I simply had the wind knocked out of me. That was an impressive move. It shouldn't have worked." Thaelan said slowly, then began to pull himself up.

"Yeah. You started twisting your leg a funny way when you lunged, so I figured out how to use that to give me an opening." Vincent explained happily.

Everyone in the gym was still watching them as they slowly walked off the mats.

"If I am to keep training you, I will need to increase my own training. It appears that I have gotten sloppy." Thaelan said as they entered the locker room.

"Naw. You don't need to change a thing. I like it that I can still find ways to get in under your defenses." Vincent said with a grin.

"I would be doing you a disservice if I allowed myself to fight at less than my peak efficiency." Thaelan said as he looked at Vincent seriously.

"Yeah. I guess. But it was still nice to be able to get you, at least once." Vincent said happily.

"Do not get used to it." Thaelan said firmly, before slowly walking to a cubicle to change.

* * * * *

"Good workout?" Joe asked as he noticed Vincent and Thaelan carrying their food trays up to the table.

"Best yet." Vincent said with an ebullient smile.

Joe noticed, then looked at Thaelan inquiringly.

"Vincent was able to identify and exploit a vulnerability in my defenses. I have decided that I must redouble my efforts to solidify my foundational skills if I am to keep up with his training." Thaelan said carefully.

"So, I guess this means that if Vincent ends up getting into a hand-to-hand combat situation, that he should be able to hold his own." Joe said with a proud glance at Vincent.

"Yes. I believe he should do quite well. However, my purpose is not to train him to 'hold his own', I am training him to 'win'." Thaelan said firmly.

"That means I still got a lot to learn." Vincent said, then let out a sigh.

"You have learned quite well. But your body still needs to gain strength and stamina, both are achieved through repeated practice." Thaelan said sagely.

* * * * *

Joe noticed the hurried way that Vincent was eating and quietly asked, "Are you starving or did you have something that you needed to do before work, this morning?"

"Both." Vincent said around a mouthful then, after swallowing, continued, "We're supposed to arrive at Coffelt today, so this might be my last chance to talk to the guys."

"I'm sure they appreciate your visits and all the attention that you've given them." Joe said warmly.

"I guess. I know how hard it was for me to deal with stuff, just in my own head. If I didn't have you guys... I don't know... I just had to help." Vincent finished as he stood, then quickly carried his tray away.

"So, he's sort of paying us back by helping those guys?" Darin asked uncertainly.

"Paying it forward. We helped him, so now he's helping someone else who needs it." Joe said quietly.

"On the surface, perhaps. But I have the feeling that helping those boys in sickbay is also helping Vincent to recover from some things in his past." Thaelan said speculatively.

Joe slowly nodded as he thought about what little he knew about Vincent's life before Starfleet.

* * * * *

"How are you guys doing this morning?" Vincent asked as he walked into the convalescent ward.

"Honestly, I don't know whether I'm relieved that we're almost home, or if I want to ask the captain to just keep going and take me on to earth." Tracey said nervously.

Vincent thought about it for a moment, then said, "From what I saw on the flight recorder, I bet that you could probably go to earth and qualify for Starfleet training, easy."

Tracey looked at Vincent with surprise at the statement, then looked away.

"Of course, I don't know how they'd feel about a pilot who runs away from his problems." Vincent added slowly.

"Maybe they'd think that he'd keep their ships a lot safer." Sung said cheerfully, "I mean, when a Romulan ship shows up all of a sudden, they'd know that Tracey would turn the ship around and haul ass out of there."

Vincent saw the devastated look on Tracey's face, then turned to Sung and quietly said, "Not helping."

Tracey's despondent look prompted Vincent to continue, "Seriously, Tracey, as soon as you've dealt with everything here, think about Starfleet. It'd be wrong if you didn't use your talent as a pilot to help people."

"And your mom would be all kinds of proud and happy and stuff if you told her that you wanted to be in Starfleet." Sung added helpfully.

"Yeah. There's that, too." Vincent slightly chuckled.

"Do you really think I could do it?" Tracey asked thoughtfully.

"Yeah. I know what it takes to be in Starfleet. You got the smarts. You got the talent. All we've gotta see is if you got the balls." Vincent said frankly.

"Tracey fixed up a scrapped shuttle and then piloted it himself to take us somewhere that no one else had ever been. Is that balls enough?" Sung asked challengingly.

"Maybe. But let's see how he handles the next couple days. If he can manage to get through that, I think he'll be able to handle anything that Starfleet can throw at him." Vincent said seriously, then rushed to say, "I'm almost late. Good luck, guys!"

"Bye, Vincent." Tracey called after him.

* * * * *

"Good morning, Ensign Winters. Before you take your station this morning, the Captain requested that you meet with him in the conference room." Ensign Montag said from the communications station.

Vincent noticed that none of the other Alpha Shift bridge were on duty before turning back to the lift and saying, "Thank you."

* * * * *

When the lift doors opened to the conference room, he found most of the senior staff seated at the table, and a few talking casually just inside the room.

"Good morning, Vincent. How are you doing today?" Lieutenant Simms asked pleasantly.

"I'm fine. What are we doing here?" Vincent asked curiously.

"Sometimes, when we have an event planned during the upcoming shift, the captain likes to have a meeting to give us an overview of what he expects. That way, we're all working toward the same goals." Lieutenant Simms said pleasantly.

The lift doors opened and Darin stepped out, looking uncertain of what he was supposed to be doing.

"Everyone, please take your seats. I'd just like to have a short briefing before we start our shift." Captain Byrne said from his place at the head of the table.

Vincent and Darin waited a moment, to see where everyone else was sitting, before settling in at two unoccupied seats.

"If all goes to plan, we will be arriving at Coffelt today. Although the ship is in desperate need of supplies and repair, we need to keep in mind that the Federation Base at Coffelt is acting as our host, and being very generous." Captain Byrne said, then paused to look around and confirm that everyone was paying attention.

"So, keeping that in mind, we will need to be sure to make efficient use of our time so that we may be underway as soon as realistically possible. But at the same time, many of us will be expected to attend a formal welcoming ceremony, which will include prominent citizens from the Coffelt colony. Make no mistake, regardless of the situation on the ship, we will still be representing the Yorktown and Starfleet." Captain Byrne said seriously.

"Commander M'Butu, anything to report in advance of our arrival?" Captain Byrne asked as he looked askance at his first officer.

"Only that slight scheduling adjustments have been made to provide the manpower needed when we arrive. Many have had their days off rescheduled and their duty shifts slightly extended. I don't anticipate any problems." Commander M'Butu said efficiently.

After another pause, Captain Byrne turned to ask, "Chief Morgan, how are your preparations for arrival?"

"All departments have submitted their maintenance and supply requests, in order of their priority. By the time we arrive, we should have a comprehensive list to follow." Chief Morgan said efficiently.

"Dr. Perry?" The Captain prompted professionally.

"I'm concerned about one of my patients transporting down to the planet. I believe it would be best to err on the side of caution and take the crash survivors down in a shuttle." Dr. Perry said seriously.

"But you will be able to attend the welcoming ceremony? Cassaundra would be disappointed if you couldn't attend." Captain Byrne said in a leading tone.

"Barring unforeseen circumstances, yes. I will be there." Dr. Perry said with a smile.

Captain Byrne glanced at Vincent, then back at Dr. Perry and said, "Make sure that Ensign T'Lani knows that she is also expected to attend. It seems only proper that Ensign Winters be accompanied by his wife."

"I had planned on T'Lani accompanying me on the shuttle. I'll be sure that she's informed." Dr. Perry said then glanced at Vincent and smiled.

"Ensign Winters, I know it's short notice, but you will be needing a formal uniform for this function. Let your command officer know if you need to leave for a bit to make those arrangements." Captain Byrne said seriously.

"I already have a formal uniform being made. It should be ready before I go off duty." Vincent said with a smile.

"Very good. Then, if there is no further business, I suppose we should get up to the bridge and start our day." Captain Byrne said pleasantly.

Vincent looked around to see if anyone else had anything new to add. After a moment, people started getting up and heading for the lift.

"I always hated formal dinners when I was living with my parents. I hope that this will be a lot more fun than those were." Darin said honestly as they walked toward the lift, then waited their turn.

"Even if it's not, this is part of our job, too." Vincent said frankly.

Darin chuckled, then said, "After all the hell I went through to get away from my parents, and I still have to do stuff like this."

Vincent smiled as the lift door opened.

* * * * *

Although Vincent still felt some excitement knowing that he was actually working on the bridge of a Constitution Class starship, the actual job was beginning to become routine.

Joe was at the Deflector Control bridge station, but Vincent didn't have any 'professional' reason to go over and visit with him, so he went to begin his duties.

When he signed into his workstation, he found that he had an unusual number of emails, but the vast majority of them were congratulating him about the capture of the pirates or his making the Federation News.

He quickly set those 'personal' emails aside and did a few odd tasks, answering questions about previous reports that he had filed, and eventually ran out of work to do.

Of course, he gave breaks and lunches to the senior command staff when they were due, but since the captain and Commander M'Butu were both on the bridge, he didn't get a chance in the command chair.

He was even able to work it into his schedule to give Joe a break and a lunch. From Joe's reaction, he was not only grateful, but also as proud as any father could be.

When Vincent returned from his own lunch, he could almost feel the tension in the air as he walked onto the bridge.

"Ensign Winters, please come over here, by me." Captain Byrne said before Vincent could return to his station.

"Since we will be arriving at Coffelt shortly, the backup bridge crew is on standby." Captain Byrne said seriously.

Vincent glanced at the station where he had been working earlier to find various people on the auxiliary stations. He knew most of them and which stations they normally worked.

"I would like for you to observe the steps that need to be taken to prepare us for approach. Docking and disembarking are the times when there is the most potential for human error, and it's up to the person in command to see that everyone is working in concert." Captain Byrne said instructively.

Vincent nodded that he understood, but remained silent.

"Helm, when we reach the Coffelt system, drop to half impulse." Captain Byrne called out authoritatively.

"Aye, sir. Half impulse." Darin responded immediately.

"Communications, notify the Coffelt Base that we will enter their system in approximately eight minutes." Captain Byrne said as he turned toward the communications station.

"Aye, Captain." Lieutenant Patterson said professionally.

"Commander, full scans on approach." Captain Byrne said as he turned the other way to look at the science station.

"Full scans in progress." Commander M'Butu said immediately, never looking away from his scanners.

After a long, quiet moment, Captain Byrne turned to Vincent and asked, "What do you think we should do next?"

Vincent considered for a moment, and two answers came to mind. The first and safest answer was to quote directly from the Starfleet manual about the procedure on a standard approach to a Federation Starbase.

Before he could really think it through, the second answer came spilling out of his mouth. "Well, if it was me in command, I think I'd request an approach vector above or below the planetary orbital plane, well out of the path of any inter-system traffic."

"Why is that?" Captain Byrne asked curiously.

"I just figure that, considering the shape that we're in, it's still possible that something could go wrong. I mean, I hope it doesn't, but we've got enough bad control circuits that it's really possible. Because of that, I'd feel better if we weren't maybe going to block the primary approach route to Coffelt if something gives out at the last second." Vincent said carefully.

After a moment to consider, Captain Byrne said, "Communications, would you please contact Coffelt and request an emergency approach vector outside the planetary orbital plane? Make sure you inform them that we are not declaring an emergency, only choosing to exercise caution, given our condition."

"Aye, Captain." Lieutenant Patterson responded immediately.

Vincent looked at the captain with surprise at the announcement.

"Your instincts have proven to be quite good, thus far. I'm willing to trust them, at least until our systems are a bit more stable." Captain Byrne explained quietly.

"Coffelt has given us coordinates for approach." Debbie said quickly.

"Relay the coordinates to the helm." Captain Byrne said seriously.

"Aye, Captain." Lieutenant Patterson immediately responded.

Captain Byrne motioned for Vincent to come close, then brought up the coordinates on the chair console.

After a moment to read through the coordinates, Vincent slowly said, "So we're going to proceed on a standard approach until we're inside the orbit of the fifth planet, then go Z plus six thousand kilometers and approach them from above."

"Yes. And if we should have any difficulty at any point along the way, this course will ensure that we will not inconvenience any other traffic." Captain Byrne said professionally.

"Does the Coffelt have a space station? I know about the base on the planet, but I don't remember seeing anything about a station or a platform or anything." Vincent asked curiously.

"They have a standard docking structure held in a geosynchronous orbit above the base. It should have the rudimentary equipment that we will need to institute repairs, but it's nowhere near the level of a box dock or a full station." Captain Byrne said seriously.

Vincent nodded slowly as he thought about the various repairs that they needed that he knew about.

All of a sudden, Vincent heard as well as felt the change in the ship's engines.

As he looked up at the main screen, he saw that they had just entered the Coffelt system. And, as instructed, Darin had brought them out of warp and down to half impulse.

"Lieutenant Bowers, how are our shields?" Captain Byrne asked simply.

"Deflectors showing normal function." Joe answered immediately.

"It's always best to check when we come out of warp. If the deflector's going to give us any problems, that's usually when it will happen." Captain Byrne said quietly.

Vincent slowly nodded, not remembering if Joe had ever mentioned that before.

"Captain, we have an incoming transmission from the Coffelt Base." Debbie said efficiently.

"On screen." The Captain said immediately.

Vincent fought not to smile when he saw Commander Sturgill's image fill the forward viewscreen.

"Welcome to Coffelt, Captain Byrne... and you, too, Ensign Winters." Commander Sturgill said warmly.

"Thank you, Commander. It's always a pleasure." Captain Byrne said pleasantly.

"For us, as well. I know you must have a million and one things that you need to be doing right now, so I'll leave you to it. But I'll look forward to seeing you and your command staff at the dinner this evening." Commander Sturgill said graciously.

"Yes. We will see you then." Captain Byrne responded formally, then added, "Yorktown, out."

"Coffelt, out." Commander Sturgill responded, then the screen switched to the view of the planet that they were approaching.

"Helm, take us in." Captain Byrne said firmly.

"Aye, Sir." Darin responded immediately.

Vincent looked over to Darin to see how he was doing. After being on the helm such a short time, Darin was about to have to do one of the most difficult and precise maneuvers outside of combat.

As the ship began to rotate clockwise, Vincent wanted to run to the helm and take over the controls.

Vincent looked around and noticed that he wasn't the only one confused by what Darin was doing and many of them had their heads tilted to one side, unconsciously trying to compensate.

As the planet and the starfield continued to rotate on the screen, Vincent looked over to see what the captain's reaction was.

The captain was watching his chair console with interest, but didn't seem to be upset.

"We're upside down." One of the backup crew blurted out, as if everyone else on the bridge hadn't been paying attention.

"If you'll notice, so is the orientation of the docking platform." Commander M'Butu said seriously.

"Steady as she goes, Ensign Cooper." Captain Byrne said slowly as he watched their progress on his chair console.

Vincent could hear the maneuvering thrusters firing as Darin worked the helm controls.

"Steady. Very good." Captain Byrne said even more slowly.

"Just like threading a needle." Darin said in a voice of intense concentration.

"Without touching the sides." Commander M'Butu added with a smile.

"Three... Two... One..." Darin called out, then happily announced, "Docking complete."

"Very good, Ensign Cooper. Flawless." Captain Byrne said with a smile.

"So, we're supposed to be upside down?" The backup crewman asked hesitantly.

"Tell me, you aren't here to cover the helm, are you?" Commander M'Butu asked the crewman cautiously.

"No, sir. Communications." The young man said nervously.

"Good." Commander M'Butu said quietly.

"Everyone, secure your stations, then turn them over to your relief. Meet in the conference room at 17:00 hours and we'll transport down together." Captain Byrne said firmly, then stood and started walking toward the lift.

Vincent looked around, not sure if he was supposed to do something before leaving.

"That was some awesome piloting." Darin's relief said as he stood by, waiting for Darin to relinquish the helm.

"Yeah. I've always wanted to do that." Darin said as he quickly went through his system checks.

Vincent smiled at the response and walked to the helm to wait.

"I've always said that he's the best pilot in deflector control." Joe said as he walked to join them.

"Okay. It's all yours." Darin said as he finally signed off, then added, "I stand relieved."

"Oh, yeah. I have the helm." His replacement said quickly as he took the station.

"So, are you guys ready to do a lot of maintenance and repair work?" Joe asked with a smile.

"Um, we've got to go to that dinner thing, down on the planet." Vincent said hesitantly.

"Yes. That's tonight. But tomorrow... you're working for me again." Joe said with a smile.

"Really?" Vincent asked happily.

"That's right. Both of you, report for alpha shift in the morning and be ready to crawl through jefferies tubes and squeeze under consoles." Joe said warmly.

"We'll be there." Darin said with a smile.

* * * * *

As they were walking toward their cabin, Vincent suddenly stopped and said, "Go on ahead. I need to swing by the quartermaster and get some bigger shoes."

"Already? I guess it's a good thing that we don't have to buy you new shoes, we'd be bankrupt!" Darin said playfully.

"It's not like it's my idea." Vincent said frankly, then turned to go back to the lift.

* * * * *

"Hey, that looks nice." Vincent said as he walked into the cabin, carrying his new shoes.

"Do you think I need to run it through the fresher, first?" Darin asked as he looked down at himself.

"You might as well, since we have time." Vincent said as he noticed the formal uniform on his bed.

"Right." Darin said, then started to undo his uniform tunic.

"My feet are killing me. I hope they stop hurting before we go to dinner." Vincent said as he sat on the edge of Darin's bed and started pulling his boots off.

"From what I've noticed, most people at formal dinners look like their shoes are too tight. They try to look like they're happy, but you can see in their eyes that they're really not." Darin said seriously.

Vincent glanced at Darin to find that he had removed his shirt and was starting to take off his pants.

"Remind me to stop by the sickbay and get a shot before we leave. Even without counting my feet, I still need it." Vincent said seriously as he stood.

"Do you think that maybe you need to take a rest?" Darin asked with concern, standing in only his underwear.

Vincent immediately shook his head, then said, "Dr. Raul already checked me out and said that it's a growth spurt that's making me feel this way. It's gonna hurt just the same if I'm working or laying around doing nothing, so I might as well be learning as much as I can for my Officer's exam."

Darin was about to walk to the bathroom when he stopped and looked at Vincent consideringly.

"What?" Vincent asked cautiously, when he noticed.

"It's strange, I just noticed that your hands and feet seem to be... I don't know, out of proportion." Darin said slowly.

Vincent looked down at himself, but didn't notice anything wrong.

"I think that's how it is for some guys. As you're growing, your hands and feet do that, then the rest of your body has to catch up." Darin said thoughtfully.

"Great. So on top of everything else, I'm gonna look freaky." Vincent groused.

Darin laughed, then said, "No. Like I said, I think it's normal. I seem to remember someone calling it being 'coltish', you know, the way a newborn colt is sort of gawky and angular."

"Yeah. That makes me feel a whole lot better." Vincent said dryly, then walked past Darin, into the bathroom.

"I do my best." Darin said with a grin as he followed.

* * * * *

"How are your feet?" Darin asked as they rode the lift to the conference room.

"Better, I think. At least, they're not hurting me at the moment." Vincent said honestly.

As the lift doors opened, they saw everyone gathered, all decked out in their formal dress uniforms.

"Are you ready for this?" Darin asked playfully.

"There's only one way to find out." Vincent said frankly.

"You'll be fine." Darin assured him, realizing that Vincent actually was feeling a bit anxious about the impending formal affair.

"After a discussion with Chief Morgan, it has been decided that we will transport down to the planet via the docking platform's transporter. So, we will be meeting on Deck H at the airlock. Please be aware that the docking platform maintains point seven gravity." Captain Byrne said before walking toward the lift.

Vincent and Darin shared a curious look, but said nothing as they waited for their turn.

* * * * *

When the lift doors opened, Vincent realized that he had never left the ship by way of the airlock before.

He didn't know why it seemed like such a significant thing, but somehow it seemed to alter his perceptions about the boundaries of the ship.

"Watch your step." Lieutenant Simms warned as they walked as a group toward the airlock.

Vincent's immediate thought was to look for some obstruction or trip hazard in their path.

As soon as he stepped through the airlock, he realized what the Lieutenant's warning had been for.

The different gravity very nearly made him stumble.

Once he had recovered his balance, he noticed that Darin was the only other one that seemed to have been bothered by the different gravity. He supposed that the rest were old hands at this sort of thing and didn't even notice anymore.

"Since you haven't been to Coffelt before, I should probably let you know about Commander Sturgill. Her husband might also be at the reception. Since he isn't a military officer, he's to be addressed as Mr. Hill and his wife as Commander Sturgill." Lieutenant Simms said seriously.

"Tracey never talked about his dad. I didn't even think about him being there." Vincent said thoughtfully.

"As I understand it, although Mr. Hill is Commander Sturgill's husband, he isn't Tracey's father. I honestly don't know what their situation is, and I wouldn't want to be the source of speculation and rumors. I just wanted you to know, to hopefully avoid an unintentional incident, later." Lieutenant Simms said quietly, then stopped as they approached the large, cargo transporter.

Vincent noticed that there was a pattern on the floor plates of the transporter. As everyone else took their places, he reasoned that the markings indicated the boundaries of the personnel transporter on the surface.

He automatically took his place in 'the pecking order' and Darin fell into place at his side.

A nod from the captain was all it took, and the world seemed to shimmer out of existence all around them.

* * * * *

"Welcome to Coffelt!" Commander Sturgill said warmly.

"Thank you, Commander. Although you already know many of my staff, please allow me to introduce them. May I present Commander M'Butu, my first officer, Chief Morgan, my chief engineer, Lieutenant Patterson, my chief communications officer, Lieutenant Clark, my chief helmsman, Lieutenant Heinrick, my chief navigator, Ensign Winters, our mentoring pupil, and Ensign Cooper, our helmsman and the most recent addition to the bridge crew." Captain Byrne said formally.

"Cooper? You wouldn't happen to be the inventor of the Cooper Bridge, would you?" Commander Sturgill asked curiously.

"Yes, Commander." Darin answered smartly.

"And, of course, Ensign Winters is also known to me as 'The Hero of Kimber'. We're fortunate to have such elite guests joining us, this evening." Commander Sturgill said happily.

"We are honored to be invited. Thank you, Commander." Captain Byrne said cordially.

Commander Sturgill smiled at the response, then said, "Please, come with me into the lounge. Our other guests should be arriving shortly, and I know that they'll be overjoyed to meet all of you."

Captain Byrne led the way, followed by his senior staff, in order of their rank.

* * * * *

"Since our guests are only just arriving, I'll allow you to mingle and introduce yourselves. When we sit down to dinner, I'll make more formal introductions." Commander Sturgill announced as they entered the large hall.

As Commander Sturgill started to walk away, Vincent walked to her and quietly said, "Commander?"

"Yes, what can I do for you, Ensign Winters?" Commander Sturgill asked pleasantly.

"Later, when you have some time, I'd like to talk to you for a minute or two." Vincent said seriously.

"Of course. I'll be sure to set aside a few minutes after dinner so that we can talk privately." Commander Sturgill said gently.

"Thank you, Commander." Vincent said and finished with a smile.

* * * * *

"I didn't realize that there would be any children here, maybe I should have brought my sons." A woman said when she spotted Vincent.

"Unless your kids are Starfleet officers, I doubt that they'd have too much fun, here." Vincent said frankly.

"Wait... Aren't you... You're 'The Hero of Kimber'!" The woman said happily.

"Yes, ma'am. That's what they're calling me." Vincent said as he fought to maintain a neutral attitude.

"They said that you stopped those pirates, just a sector away from us, how is someone your age able to do something like that?" The woman asked in amazement.

"A lot of people, from my guardians all the way up to Starfleet Command, allowed me to do important things and make important decisions. What it comes down to is trust. I've worked really hard to be worthy of it and they've taken one chance after another on me. Even though I'm young, I don't think that age matters that much. No matter how old you are, it's all about proving that you can be trusted to do important things." Vincent said seriously.

"But aren't you missing out on the chance to just be a kid?" The woman asked with concern.

Vincent smiled at the question, then said, "I'm still a kid, no matter what. Maybe I don't get to do exactly the same thing as other kids my age, but that doesn't change who and what I am."

"Still, you're such a somber little guy." The woman said with concern.

Vincent fought not to flinch at the description and calmly said, "It's the uniform, Ma'am. Regardless of my age, I'm here representing the Yorktown and Starfleet. I promise, when I'm off duty, I'm not like this. I sometimes even smile."

The woman chuckled at the comment.

"As you already know, I'm Ensign Winters, or Vincent, if you prefer." He said in a leading tone.

"Oh, yes. Where are my manners? It's a pleasure to meet you, Vincent. My name is Victoria Brandt, I'm the governor of the Coffelt Colony." She said warmly.

"You're the governor? How is someone your age able to do something like that?" Vincent asked as he fought to restrain his smile.

Victoria gave a delighted laugh at the question, then quietly admitted, "You know, people actually have asked me that, as well as asking me how I can be a mother and a governor at the same time."

"Then I guess it's just like with me. You're a mother, no matter what. You may not do everything exactly the same as some other mothers, but that doesn't make you any less of one." Vincent said seriously.

"Yes, Ensign Winters, that's exactly right." Victoria said warmly.

"Ensign Winters, I was wanting to introduce you to Governor Brandt, but I see that you've already met her." Commander Sturgill said pleasantly.

"Yes. We've just been discussing how much we have in common." Victoria said with a warm glance at Vincent.

"People underestimate us because we're young." Vincent said as he tried to maintain a serious expression.

Commander Sturgill looked from Vincent to Victoria for a moment, then cautiously said, "I suppose they do... and probably to their later regret."

Victoria and Vincent shared a meaningful look, but neither answered.

"Husband." T'Lani said as she and Dr. Perry approached.

"Commander Sturgill and Governor Brandt, may I present Dr. Perry and my wife, Ensign T'Lani." Vincent said in his best attempt at a formal introduction.

"Evelyn, it's so good to see you again." Commander Sturgill said happily.

At the same time, Governor Brandt said, "Wife?"

"I assure you, given the relative life cycles of Humans and Vulcans, it is logical." T'Lani said reasonably.

Governor Brandt considered for a moment, then said, "If it were anyone else, I think I would have reservations."

"We get a lot of that." Vincent said frankly.

"The dining room is just through there. If you'd like to go on ahead, dinner will be starting shortly." Commander Sturgill said with a smile.

"Thank you, Commander." Vincent said formally, then glanced at T'Lani with question. He did his best to hide the fact that he was telepathically being coached in the proper etiquette in their situation.

To the observer, T'Lani simply gave an almost imperceptible nod, then Vincent walked to Governor Brandt and extended his elbow as he asked, "May I have the honor of escorting you in to dinner, Governor?"

Governor Brandt was delighted by the gesture and said, "Yes, you may."

Once she had laid her hand on his arm, he began to slowly walk, conducting her into the dining room.

He escorted her to the place setting with her name card on it. After going through the motions of holding the Governor's chair as she was seated, Vincent got to go through the same production with T'Lani.

Just as Vincent was sitting down, a man walked into the room and T'Lani said, "Husband, may I present to you, Dr. Bland. He is the Chief Medical Officer at this facility."

"Dr. Bland, may I present my husband, Ensign Winters of the USS Yorktown." T'Lani said with perfect formality.

"It's nice to meet you, Doctor." Vincent said graciously.

"Likewise." Dr. Bland said as insincerely as was humanly possible.

Although the doctor had only given a single word response, Vincent felt an automatic dislike for the man.

As Lieutenant Patterson entered the room, Vincent slightly stood, although he had no idea what the significance of the gesture meant. But if T'Lani told him that it was what was expected, he'd pretend to stand up.

As more and more guests entered the dining hall, Vincent had less occasion to acknowledge the formalities.

"I don't believe we've met. Although I feel as if I know you." The person beside Vincent said while taking a seat.

"Same here. You're Lieutenant Commander Carmondy, aren't you?" Vincent asked pleasantly.

"I'm surprised that my reputation precedes me, however I'm sure that most everyone here recognizes 'The Hero of Kimber'."

"A lot of people may recognize me, but that isn't the same as knowing me. I'm still trying to adjust to people expecting me to be a certain way because they heard my name or saw my picture on the news." Vincent said frankly.

"Yes. I believe that often happens in cases of sudden fame."

"I'm sorry if I'm being rude by asking, but are you a guy or a girl?" Vincent quietly asked.

"If those are the only two choices that I'm given, then I suppose that I'm a guy." Lieutenant Commander Carmondy said frankly.

"I'm sorry, I just thought it was best to ask, since I didn't know." Vincent said weakly.

"It's nothing to be worried about. You may refer to me in masculine terms, if it pleases you to do so. My people have four distinct instances of gender. Although male and female genders do occur among my people, I am neither... or both. It's difficult to discuss in this language, you don't have the words that I need." Lieutenant Commander Carmondy said in frustration.

"That's okay. You said that you don't mind if I call you 'he', that's all I really need to know. I think any more will just give me nightmares." Vincent said frankly.

Lieutenant Commander Carmondy laughed at the response, which drew the attention of some of the others around the table.

* * * * *

"Now that everyone is here, please join me in welcoming our honored guests. First, we have Captain Byrne and his command staff from the USS Yorktown." Commander Sturgill said pleasantly.

A round of polite applause sounded from the other guests around the room.

"Next, the leaders of the Foxtrot Division, security wing. Lieutenant Commander Carmondy, Lieutenant Horvath, Lieutenant Keegan and Lieutenant Tonk." Commander Sturgill said proudly.

Vincent joined in the applause that followed the introduction.

"And finally, our honored local guests from the Coffelt colony, Governor Brandt, Lieutenant Governor Kilroy, and Attorney General Seamus." Commander Sturgill concluded.

A final round of applause sounded for the named individuals.

"Professionally, I would like to thank Captain Byrne and his crew for their contribution to the safety and wellbeing of the colony by detecting the pirates in the neighboring system. Personally, I would like to thank them for rescuing my son and his friends, and saving their lives. In a few short days, you've managed to protect and preserve everything that was precious to me. I will be eternally grateful." Commander Sturgill said as she looked directly at Captain Byrne, then waited for him to respond.

Captain Byrne stood and looked around the room before saying, "It was our honor to be able to play some part in removing the threat of the pirates from your lives. I'm sure that most of you have heard of the contribution of Ensign Winters. He is in training aboard the Yorktown, learning exactly what it is that we're doing out here. I have to say, if he represents the upcoming generation, then I have newfound optimism for our collective future and I am honored to be able to contribute to his education."

"Thank you, Captain Byrne. Ensign Winters, would you like to say anything?" Commander Sturgill asked with a quick smile in his direction.

Although the answer was a definite 'no', he couldn't say that. One of the first things that he had learned on the Yorktown was that sometimes he had to force himself to do things that he really didn't want to.

In much the same way Captain Byrne had done, Vincent stood and looked around before saying, "Thank you, Captain Byrne, I'll do my best never to disappoint you. And if you have hope for the future because of me, then so do I, because of you. It's only because you agreed to train me and trusted me to do real work that I've ever been able to accomplish anything. I think that what the next generation needs most to make the future turn out right is people like you."

Vincent promptly sat down, then looked around to see if there were any indication that he had said something wrong. Everyone seemed to be pleased, so he counted it as success.

"Next, I would like to express our pride and gratitude to Lieutenant Commander Carmondy and the Foxtrot division not only for their continued protection of this base and the surrounding area, but for their exceptional achievement of subduing the pirates and recovering the goods stolen from various ships in the area." Commander Sturgill said then looked at Lieutenant Commander Carmondy, prompting him to say a few words.

Lieutenant Commander Carmondy stood and took a step back from his chair before saying, "It is our honor to be given the privilege of protecting this oasis in space. It gives us purpose. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Ensign Winters for one further achievement."

Vincent was turned in his chair and looked in surprise at the Lieutenant Commander, not knowing what he was talking about.

"Although it may not be apparent to those looking at the happenings from the outside, Ensign Winters did something quite out of the ordinary. When he spotted the pirates and recognized their trap, he notified Coffelt Security. It was thanks to his decision, that we were able to do our jobs. In light of that, I would like to present Ensign Winters with a token of our esteem and declare before all of you that he is recognized as an honorary member of the Foxtrot Division Security Wing." Lieutenant Commander Carmondy said as he accepted a cloth bundle from an Andorian security officer that had earlier been identified as Lieutenant Tonk.

Vincent reluctantly stood and stepped forward. He was handed a flight jacket with the Foxtrot Division insignia on the left chest, and a Clan Short symbol on the left sleeve.

"Thank you." Vincent said in sincere gratitude as he accepted the flight jacket and put it on.

As Vincent was walking back to his seat, Commander Sturgill turned to Governor Brandt and asked, "Governor, would you like to say a few words?"

"I think what needs to be said has been said. We're grateful to all of you. Thank you." Governor Brandt said succinctly.

"Thank you, Governor." Commander Sturgill said with a smile, then looked around the table before saying, "I would like to thank all of you for attending. Please, enjoy this meal."

As she said the words, a bevy of waiters spilled into the room, carrying the first course of dinner.

* * * * *

"Does the jacket fit correctly?" Lieutenant Commander Carmondy asked quietly from Vincent's side.

"Yeah. It's great! I can't believe you even got my Clan Short patch." Vincent said happily.

"When we talked to your ship, in advance of your arrival, we were put in contact with a Crewman Duckworth to get accurate measurements, so we could prepare your jacket. He sent us the specifications for the Clan Short emblem and instructed us where it was to be placed." Lieutenant Commander Carmondy said informatively.

Vincent smiled, then said, "He told me that he was measuring me for a formal uniform. That explains why he thought about it before anyone else did."

"I'm glad to see that you are pleased." Lieutenant Commander Carmondy said with a sincere smile.

Vincent was about to take a bite of his food, then thought to ask, "Do you have any idea what we're eating?"

"It's a local stalk vegetable called 'punima', that has been made into a soup. I am told that it is similar to an earth plant called 'asparagus'."

Vincent gave a little grimace, but decided to go ahead and give it a try.

About two spoons was all that he could tolerate of the strongly flavored soup, but he managed to eat it with more or less of a smile.

* * * * *

The rest of the dinner consisted of other local foods. Vincent was happy to find that even though the piece of meat on his plate looked somewhat bizarre, it tasted like chicken. In Vincent's estimation, the dessert was more a work of art than a food. But the delicate crystaline structure slowly dripping something that looked like honey dissolved when it touched his tongue, and was pleasantly sweet.

When the dinner had concluded, they made their way back into the main hall, where they were served coffee.

"Welcome to the team." Lieutenant Tonk said with a smile.

"Thank you, Lieutenant. When I was getting my phaser training, I thought about what it would be like to be in security, but I never really thought that I'd be a member of a security team." Vincent said frankly.

Lieutenant Tonk looked surprised, and asked to verify, "You've had phaser training?"

"Yes. Just the basics, really. But I like to go to the phaser range when I get the chance." Vincent said honestly.

Lieutenant Tonk looked around then quietly asked, "Would you like to see our phaser range? These formal gatherings tend to drag on endlessly, we will be back before they finish."

Although Vincent knew that he probably shouldn't, the prospect of a reprieve from the stuffy formality was too much to resist.

"Yes. I think I would like that, very much." Vincent said honestly.

* * * * *

Leaving the reception turned out to be no more difficult than walking out of the room.

As they left, Vincent noticed that Lieutenant Commander Carmondy, Lieutenant Horvath and Lieutenant Keegan were following them.

"How far away is the phaser range?" Vincent asked curiously as they walked.

"Not far. Just the other side of the admin building and a few buildings down." Lieutenant Tonk said casually.

"They put it there so that the residences wouldn't be bothered by the noise." Lieutenant Keegan said as he caught up to them.

That sounded reasonable to Vincent, so he followed along until they reached a gated fence.

"Here we are." Tonk said as she stepped forward to open the gate.

"I didn't expect it to be outside." Vincent said honestly as he followed her in.

"Sometimes I wish it weren't. We get some nasty storms here." Tonk said frankly.

"We spend too many hours a day indoors. I'm happy to get whatever time I can outside." Lieutenant Horvath said honestly.

"Choose your weapon." Lieutenant Commander Carmondy said as he opened the weapons locker.

Vincent immediately went for the standard issue, pistol grip phaser.

"Old school. I like that." Lieutenant Tonk said approvingly.

"I like a little more stopping power." Lieutenant Horvath said as she picked up a phaser rifle.

"She likes blowing away little holographic blips of light with a weapon that can drop a rampaging Targ with one shot." Lieutenant Keegan said with a roll of his eyes.

Vincent smiled at the comment, then noticed that everyone was moving to the open field opposite the fence.

Lieutenant Commander Carmondy was standing at a small control panel as he said, "Ready... Steady... Go!"

Vincent raised his phaser and as soon as one of the holographic blips of lights appeared, he fired.

He was slightly distracted by the sound of Lieutenant Horvath's phaser rifle, but not so much that it affected his targeting.

* * * * *

Lieutenant Commander Carmondy called an end to the target practice far sooner than Vincent would have liked.

"Out of respect for our host, we should return to the gathering." Lieutenant Commander Carmondy explained in response to Vincent's disappointed expression.

"Yeah. I guess so. But thanks for this. I really enjoyed it." Vincent said honestly.

"This action merely reinforces our claim that you are part of our team. Perhaps next time, we will try hand-to-hand." Lieutenant Commander Carmondy finished with a smile.

Vincent immediately stepped back and assumed his primary defensive posture.

All of them seemed to be surprised by the action, but as if against her will, Tonk stepped forward and assumed the opposing posture.

"Oh God! It's another one of Tonk's 'for the honor of Andor' fights." Lieutenant Keegan huffed.

Tonk's initial attack was faster than Vincent anticipated, but his reflexes were honed to the point that he was easily able to deflect it and efficiently counter with an attack of his own.

About three minutes into the fight, Lieutenant Commander Carmondy bellowed, "ENOUGH!"

Both Vincent and Tonk withdrew and fell into their defensive postures.

"Now is not the time for this. We are invited guests and have a duty to our host." Lieutenant Commander Carmondy said slowly.

Vincent immediately moved into the posture to disengage from the exercise, then turned to Lieutenant Commander Carmondy and said, "You're right. But when it is the right time, I want to finish that."

"Agreed." Tonk said immediately, "I will look forward to your next visit to our colony, so that we may continue."

Vincent smiled at her, then walked with his new teammates back toward the reception hall.

* * * * *

"It looks like you've been in a little scuffle. Was there a problem?" Darin asked when Vincent walked back into the main hall.

"No. It was nothing. But I guess I need to clean up. Do you know where the bathroom is?" Vincent asked as he looked around.

"Go past that plant and turn right." Darin said as he pointed.

"Thanks." Vincent said happily, then hurried away.

* * * * *

After cleaning up, Vincent returned to the main hall and walked to where T'Lani, Dr. Perry, Commander Sturgill and Dr. Bland seemed to be chatting amiably.

"T'Lani tells us that you were spending time with the security wing." Commander Sturgill said fondly.

"Yes, Commander. I think it was sort of their way to welcome me." Vincent said seriously.

"We may be a small colony perched on the edge of nowhere, but I couldn't possibly be more proud of my security teams, especially this week." Commander Sturgill said happily.

"I imagine that the Tango Division is feeling a bit left out with all the attention being given to the Foxtrot Division." Dr. Bland said frankly.

"Yes. Well, when they go out and subdue a dozen pirate ships, I will be happy to give them an abundance of praise and attention." Commander Sturgill said with a smile.

A man walked up to Commander Sturgill and whispered something to her.

She glanced at Vincent, then whispered back to the man.

The man nodded and seemed to be waiting.

"Ensign Winters, it seems that my son is requesting your company. Would you mind?" Commander Sturgill asked gently.

"I wouldn't mind at all." Vincent said immediately.

"Good. Then, my husband will take you to the medical center to visit with him." Commander Sturgill said as she indicated the man at her side.

Vincent gave the man a single nod, then followed when the man turned to leave.

* * * * *

"I don't know what's been said already, but I want to thank you for helping Tracey. He's told me not only about the rescue, but how you've helped him to deal with the trauma of the crash." Mr. Hill said gently.

"I'm just glad that Tracey was willing to accept my help. I hope that it was enough." Vincent said honestly.

"I can only imagine the sense of responsibility and the guilt that he must have felt. I feel safe in saying that your help has made all the difference."

Before Vincent could respond, they entered the medical center.

"Dr. Argyle, I would like to introduce Ensign Winters, the Hero of Kimber." Mr. Hill said proudly.

"It's an honor to meet you, young man." Dr. Argyle said pleasantly.

Vincent was momentarily taken aback by the androgynous doctor, but quickly recovered and surmised that he must be of the same race or species as Lieutenant Commander Carmondy.

"It's nice to meet you, too, Doctor." Vincent said cordially.

"Ensign Winters?" A tall, thin man asked as he approached.

Vincent turned toward the man and looked at him with question.

"My name is Eric LeClair, I'm Sung's father." The man introduced himself.

"It's nice to meet you, Mr. LeClair. Sung's a great guy, you must be really proud." Vincent said with a smile.

"I thought we'd lost him." Mr. LeClair said as tears began to well in his eyes.

"But you didn't. He's back home with you." Vincent said gently.

"Thank you." Mr. LeClair whispered before hurrying away.

"Tracey's right through here." Mr. Hill said quietly.

Vincent nodded and followed.

* * * * *

"How's it going?" Vincent asked as he walked to Tracey's bedside.

"Everything's fine. I just wanted to ask you a really big, kinda huge, favor, before you went back to your ship." Tracey said hopefully.

"Sure. Ask me whatever you want." Vincent said as he noticed Mr. Hill, hovering close by.

"Well, I, um... I sort of wondered if you could be here and help me when I have to talk to Denny's parents." Tracey said nervously.

"That can wait. You need to recover from your injuries." Mr. Hill said with concern.

"I need to do it now. I won't be able to rest until I've done this. And it's going to be a lot better if I can do it with Vincent here to help me." Tracey fought to explain.

"I think Tracey's right. He's going to have to face this sooner or later, and putting it off is only going to make it harder." Vincent said seriously.

After a moment to consider, Mr. Hill quietly said, "I'll see if they'll be willing to talk to you."

"Thank you, Dad." Tracey said in nearly a whisper.

* * * * *

Once they were alone, Vincent quietly asked, "How are you, really?"

"Okay, I guess. I knew this was going to be tough. I guess it could be a lot worse." Tracey said honestly.

"Just let me know if there's anything I can do." Vincent said weakly, wishing there was something more he could do to ease his friend's emotional suffering.

"Just help me face Denny's parents. I think that once I get past that, I'll be okay." Tracey said tiredly.

"I think so, too." Vincent said with a small, reassuring smile.

* * * * *

Vincent stood at Tracey's bedside for a few minutes in silence, knowing that there weren't any words that he could say that would make Tracey's wait easier.

Finally, Mr. Hill walked through the door, followed by a large, muscular man.

"Ensign Winters, may I introduce Mr. Rasmussen, Denny's father." Mr. Hill said quietly.

"I'm sorry." Tracey said as his eyes filled with tears.

"What happened?" Mr. Rasmussen asked in a flat, emotionless voice.

"The controls failed, one after another. I did everything I could, but there wasn't any way I could keep us from crashing." Tracey fought to explain, past his tears.

"According to the engineering report, their ship had been outfitted with faulty circuits. The people who sold the control circuits intentionally reengineered them so that standard diagnostics couldn't detect the fault. That means that there is no possible way Tracey could have known that the control circuits that he was using were bad." Vincent said seriously.

"I know that none of that will bring Denny back, but I promise that I did everything I could to keep everyone safe. I never meant for any of this to happen." Tracey said as tears slid down his cheeks.

Mr. Rasmussen stood silently for a long moment before responding, "Before you left on this trip, Dragon came to us and explained what it was that you were doing. He considered it a rite of passage. Sort of 'leaving the nest' as it were. He knew, as we all did, that there were dangers in what you were planning. That was the point. He wanted to do something dangerous and face the unknown to usher him into adulthood."

"Like the kahs'wan." Vincent said quietly.

Mr. Rasmussen nodded at Vincent, agreeing with the sentiment, then said, "My wife read the official report and understands that it wasn't your fault. She's inconsolable right now and is harboring a lot of anger and resentment about this, but on some level, I know that she understands. It may be a while before she'll be able to look you in the eyes again."

"I understand. I just wish that there was something I could do to make it better, or to take away some of your pain." Tracey said honestly.

"But there isn't anything anyone can do for that. Hopefully time will dull the pain and eventually heal this wound." Mr. Rasmussen said regretfully.

"If you think of anything that I might be able to do to make it easier, please, let me know." Tracey asked hopefully.

"If I think of anything, I'll remember your offer." Mr. Rasmussen said slowly, then turned to leave.

"I'll walk you out, Pete." Mr. Hill said as he moved to follow.

* * * * *

"You okay?" Vincent asked Tracey gently.

"No." Tracey answered simply.

"Is there anything I can do?" Vincent asked quietly.

"Blame me. Scream at me. Hate me." Tracey said as his tears started to fall again.

"You want to be punished." Vincent said softly.

"I want it to stop hurting. I want everything to be right again." Tracey said in a begging whisper.

"I've talked to your mom and dad. I've talked with Sung's dad and now Denny's. All of them understand that the crash wasn't your fault. But as far as I know, there's one thing none of them has said, and I think you need to hear it." Vincent said gently, then placed a hand on Tracey's forehead.

"For whatever you did or didn't do, for whatever decisions you made, I forgive you. We all forgive you." Vincent said gently, but firmly, leaving no room for doubt.

"But, you can't, it was my fault..." Tracey tried to explain.

"Yes. And we forgive you, for all of it." Vincent said simply, then pulled his hand away.

Before he could put the hand back at his side, Tracey grabbed it and held it firmly.

"It's okay, Tracey. It's over, now. You can start fresh." Vincent said with a slight, hopeful smile.

After a long moment, Tracey gave Vincent's hand one final squeeze, then released it.

"Thank you for everything, Vincent." Tracey said sincerely.

"You're welcome for everything." Vincent said with a smile, then quietly added, "Remember, friends are forever. Just because I won't be visiting you in sickbay every day doesn't mean that I'm out of your life." Vincent said with a smile.

"Yeah. And if you happen to be on Earth when I go to the Starfleet Academy, maybe we'll be able to get together." Tracey said as he forced a smile for Vincent's benefit.

"Yeah. We'll do that." Vincent said with an answering smile that was no less pained, then quietly added, "I've got to get back to your mom's party."

"Oh, Lord! I'd rather be in sickbay!" Tracey chuckled.

Vincent smiled at the response, then quietly admitted, "Me, too."

Tracey and Vincent exchanged one last look before Vincent left.

* * * * *

"Oh, I'm glad you were able to join us, again." Commander Sturgill said as she spotted Vincent walking into the room.

"Yeah. Do you have a couple minutes to spare? I need to ask you something, kind of important." Vincent asked hopefully.

"Yes. I suppose we could step into the alcove, if that would be private enough." Commander Sturgill said as she indicated the space she was talking about.

"Yeah, that's fine." Vincent said as he walked with her.

"What is it that you were wanting to talk to me about?" Commander Sturgill asked quietly.

"Well, I heard that Tracey's friend, Price, didn't have any family. I just wanted to make sure that something's being done for him." Vincent said slowly.

"That's really more a community matter than a Starfleet one. I can't say for sure, but I would suppose that some sort of ceremony will take place to properly lay him to rest." Commander Sturgill said honestly.

"I guess what I need is to talk to someone about putting up a stone or a marker or something. So if someone wants to remember Price, they'll have a place to go. Can you help me find someone who can do that?" Vincent asked hopefully.

"Please allow me to make those arrangements. I'll be sure to arrange something tasteful." Commander Sturgill said gently.

"Okay. If you want. But please send me the bill for it. It means a lot to me to be able to do this." Vincent said seriously.

"I understand that this is important to you. Expect to hear back from me in the coming weeks." Commander Sturgill said sincerely.

"Thank you, Commander."

* * * * *

"Where were you? Just about everyone else has left." Darin said as he approached.

"I just had some things to do." Vincent said as he looked around and found T'Lani looking back at him.

A momentary telepathic conversation later, she was joining him and Darin.

"I don't know what you've got to look forward to, but Darin and I are assigned to Deflector Control in the morning. So we're probably going to need our rest." Vincent said frankly.

"I believe Medical will also be quite busy, storing the medical supplies we will be receiving." T'Lani answered simply.

"Then I guess we'd better get back to the ship." Vincent said decisively.

Darin and T'Lani walked with him toward the doorway that would take them to the transporter room.

To Be Continued...

Editor's Notes:

It certainly is nice to see a new chapter in the life of our friend Vincent. With every new installment of this story, or of Frontier, we learn new insight into just what makes Vincent, and his friends and colleagues so special.

I loved the docking maneuver. It is something we don't usually think about, but there is nothing saying that such and such a direction is really up or down. A spaceship can travel or maneuver in any plane.

I'm not sure just why, but I am finding myself with tears in my eyes quite often while reading new chapters of MM's stories; I feel so sorry for Tracy. I hope he can finally forgive himself for the loss of the lives of his friends who didn't make it back alive.

Like all memories we retain, eventually, they will fade from the forefront of our perceptions. Having said that, I must realize that at Tracy's age, being so vulnerable is something that he would never have thought of without having experienced such a shocking development.

The fact that someone deliberately sold defective parts that had been disguised as new ones would never have entered his mind.

I think perhaps Tracy will decide to work hard to make it more difficult for anyone to repeat such an event, possibly by developing some sort of test to determine the proper operational parameters of mission critical merchandise to be sold.

I suspect we will meet him again in due time.

Great chapter, as always.

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher