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Jim Ausfahl

 

January 5, 2249

Doctor Dimetrius Aiglekdos, frustrated by his eminently unsuccessful efforts to diagnose and repair the circuit board, put it back on the SensorDesk before him and lowered himself into the chair behind it. Sensors registered his presence and others made assorted measurements of his status. From a small portal on the desk’s surface, a cup of coffee rose, its steaming surface filling the office with a rich aroma. Absentmindedly, Aiglekdos reached for the cup and sipped the brew it held. He recognized it as Centaurian Mountain, decaf. The desk and chair, with their multitude of sensors and modest internal supply of makings for his preferred foods and beverages, had been one of his off-hours engineering projects a couple of years before, one of the few that had been as well worth the effort as it had turned out, and that other engineering professors were starting to copy. One of the other professors had coined the name, as he recalled it. The Starfleet Academy professor sighed. Designing and building a system that could learn to anticipate almost all of his needs had been less of a headache than trying to fix the single, obsolete, almost ancient epoxy circuit board the Academy’s Museum of Spaceflight had asked him to tackle. Building a new board would have been easier, but authenticity and original components as much as possible were the watchword with the Museum. It was perfectly reasonable, of course, but at times, utterly frustrating.

Aiglekdos pushed the old epoxy board across his desk. A whole afternoon at his bench had failed to find the final remaining flaw in the board, let alone fix it. Not, of course, that the morning had been one whit better. It had been Warp Theory class. Most of the class seemed doomed to a future of extreme mediocrity as engineers at best. A small handful didn’t seem likely to survive the year at all. The only two with any serious hope of doing at all well were the two Vulcan females. The professor reached for the coffee, indulging in another sip or two, relishing the strong, rich flavor with the subtle hint of bitterness. What had the class nicknamed those two? The Vulcan Twins, that was it. He shook his head in despair at the total lack of creativity. Frankly, they weren’t even from the same clans, and as far as Aiglekdos was concerned, they didn’t even look all that much alike. Still, this class had nicknamed him Professor Dim, just as several prior classes had. He supposed that he couldn’t expect much out of them. Putting his cup down on the small warming plate on the desk, the professor leaned back in his chair, letting his memory of the morning’s class run through his mind.

The lecture had been grinding its way to its conclusion, for which the professor was duly thankful; it had been a wretched class altogether. Within moments of the class beginning, he had experienced the clear and manifest warning signs of one of his vascular headaches; needless to say, it had chosen the one day Aiglekdos had forgotten to bring his medication to halt it. Doggedly determined not to let the headache get the best of him, he had persevered, methodically but boringly going through the basics he needed to cover. By the end of the lecture, he was convinced there was a large, angry Orion trying to kick a way out of his skull. Aiglekdos finished inscribing a simple warp transfer integral onto the display above and behind him. "In summary, then, this approximates the results of the warp drive on a starship and the space immediately around it. By converting the original expression into a line integral along a ten dimensional loaded catenary, the abysmally obnoxious multiple integration over a ten dimensional function is reduced to a comparatively tractable single integral over a simple scalar variable. Are there any questions?"

Aiglekdos looked at the class; their eyes were, for the most part, glazed over. Lectures delivered with a splitting headache, the professor concluded, tended to be somewhere between boring and effective as a general anesthetic; usually, his lectures got glazed responses from none but the small handful of students who were either totally clueless or who had been up far too late the night before, but under the circumstances, Aiglekdos was surprised any of them were conscious. T’Buun and T’Sarin looked at each other and maintained their characteristic, unemotional expressions, but were talking softly to each other, working on their compuclipboards. At the far back of the lecture hall, there appeared to be an intense discussion between two students, only one of whom Aiglekdos recognized. He decided to tackle the Human first.

"Cadet Wesley, please stand up."

Robert Wesley complied, with obvious reluctance. "Yes, sir."

"Would you please be so kind as to share the fruit of your intense little discussion with the rest of us?"

There was no question that Wesley would have much rather have disappeared. Out of all the students in the class, he had proved to be the most inept, of which Wesley was as painfully aware as Aiglekdos was. "Well, sir, the fellow next to me that I was talking to was insisting that you’d made an error on that last expression—either the sign on the integral was wrong, or the endpoints of the integration are reversed. I was just explaining to him that he had to be wrong. I mean, if there was a simple error like that, one of the Vulcans would have caught it in a warp second and made mention of it. Sir."

"Thank you, Cadet Wesley." Aiglekdos looked at the integral; Wesley’s friend had been right. What had one of his mentors called this kind of situation? Humiliating came to mind, but that hadn’t been it. Oh, of course: a unique teaching moment, that was it. The professor decided to make the best of it. "Please sit down. Let’s get a second opinion, shall we? Cadet T’Buun, I should be most interested in having your input on this issue. Is this integral incorrect? And if so, why have you not brought the error to my attention?"

Without being bidden, the Vulcan stood. "The integral is incorrect, sir. The order of the limits of integration is reversed. Reversing the sign of the integral, or the order of the limits would correct the result. As the integral stands, its result would require the ship to have a negative mass, or to be moving backward in time."

"Excellent. As to my second question, why you did not mention this egregious gaffe?"

"We had noticed it, and were double checking to be certain that an error had been made, but before we had reassured ourselves, you had asked Cadet Wesley."

A smile creased Aiglekdos face. "Thank you, Cadet. Please sit back down. Cadet T’Sarin, would you share your opinion of what would happen if the results of this integration, as it stands, were used to set up the control sequence on a warp drive?"

T’Sarin stood, remaining silent for a moment. "There are several possible outcomes, Doctor Aiglekdos. The most probable outcomes involve one or more of several control modules in the warp control system suffering significant, if not destructive, malfunction. This assumes, of course, that the engineering computer’s protective modules did not recognize that the information was grossly inappropriate and reject the input altogether."

"Precisely so, my good Vulcan. If, however, the unthinkable happened and neither the protective modules rejected the input nor any of the control modules blew, what do you conjecture the most likely result of this would be?"

"The resultant fields generated would cause a major degradation in the integrity of the hull of the engineering area of the ship, with secondary decompression."

"I quite agree. For the sake, however, of your classmates who might be less familiar with the erudite vocabulary you used, would you be kind enough to put that in simpler terms? Ones that you are confident that they will comprehend?"

After a moment of careful consideration, T’Sarin responded, "If I have understood the remarks of the other cadets correctly, they would describe the result as ripping a grotesquely large, reproductively active, aesthetically displeasing hole out of the hull of Engineering, venting the atmosphere and the Engineering crew to the Human place of eternal torment."

With considerable difficulty, Aiglekdos suppressed the urge to join the embarrassed titters of the rest of the class. "Very aptly, accurately, and if I may say so, most colorfully described, Cadet T’Sarin. You may sit down." He turned to the rest of the class. "Attention to detail, gentle beings, is the heart and soul of successful engineering. This is what I get for trying to do ten dimensional mathematics with a splitting headache: I end up making a total fool out of myself, and well deserved. It’s a good thing this is a lecture, not me trying to bail out a starship somewhere. Let this be a lesson to us all, myself especially: don’t try to do warp theory when you’re impaired. Class dismissed. I need to get my medication on board and deal with the starship that’s using its lasers for to carve a bas relief on my skull."

While dismissing the class, Aiglekdos had noticed that the fellow next to Wesley had disappeared. It figured, he supposed. On the whole, those who sat in the back row usually had sneaking out on their minds.

A sound from the desktop brought Aiglekdos back to his surroundings. From a portal on the top of his SensorDesk, a handful of small, chocolate covered cookies had been deposited. This contraption’s almost too good, he mused. It’s guessed I’m getting depressed and it’s trying to cheer me up. He reached for one of the cookies and bit down. Dark chocolate, bland cookie, sweet filling with a hint of orange flavor. It must suspect I’m bordering on being suicidal. The professor downed the last of the coffee and the remaining biscuits. Either that, or it’s figured out that I was too nauseated from that stupid headache and the medication to get around to eating supper. Time to head home. He pulled himself out of the chair. Tomorrow will be better. I hope. Either that, or this miserable contraption will have to start putting antidepressants in my coffee.

*****

Morning found Aiglekdos back at his office laboratory, finding his attitude considerably improved by a night’s sleep and a new day. With the previous day’s headache gone, and the obnoxious mind-dulling effect of the medication for it out of his system, it would, he was confident, only be a matter of moments before he found and fixed the simple problem that he had overlooked the day before. Striding to his desk, he looked for the circuit board, but without success. Perturbed, he sat in his chair, scanning the desktop from where he recalled seeing it the previous evening, again without results. It was bad enough that he hadn’t been able to fix the fool thing; losing a valuable historical item was even worse. He stood up, moving toward the bench. Despite his certainty that it had been on his desk, Aiglekdos found the board on the bench. Barely over thirty and the memory is going. If this keeps up, I’ll have to let Medical work me over again. I don’t need to deserve the nickname Professor Dim.

The board found, the professor turned to solving the conundrum of the night before, clipping the board into the power supply and the test apparatus. To his amazement, the board performed flawlessly. This is idiotic. I don’t believe in elves, and I know this wasn’t working last night. And they fixed shoes, anyhow, as I recall the story.

Aiglekdos ran his hand through his mop of chestnut hair. The answer was, of course, simple; someone else had been in the office and, for reasons unknown, had chosen to repair the board. Carefully, he re-examined the door, looking for signs of someone picking the lock. Pranks by students were not unheard of, although they usually focused on disabling things or causing them to perform bizarrely, rather than fixing them. No signs of illicit entry were visible. Returning to his desk, he keyed up a list of all entrants from his departure the night before until his arrival in the morning. There had only been one: someone from maintenance, making repairs on one of the room’s air processing devices in the small hours of the morning. All the database retained was the individual’s identity code. Looking at it, he saw that the code was a relatively new one. Aiglekdos keyed the ID into the system, requesting an immediate, face-to-face conference.

Barely half an hour elapsed before the annunciator chimed. For an instant, Aiglekdos toyed with the thought of redesigning the circuit to call out that someone was at the door, rather than to make the insipid, somewhat annoying chirp. He tabled the thought for a later time. "Come in."

What was clearly the fellow from maintenance stepped into the office. "Ye said ye needed an urgent talk, sir." The accent was thick, and Scottish, but not overly difficult to understand. The man was a little shorter than Aiglekdos, and a few years older, with hair that was still jet black. There was something about the man that seemed familiar, but recognition of what eluded the professor.

"You’re the fellow who repaired the air unit here last night?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes. Actually, I pulled the old unit and replaced it with a new one; I’ll be working on the old unit in maintenance tonight. Surely there’s no problem with it?"

"Not at all. However, there is a question about a circuit board that was on my desk."

"I’m sorry about that, sir, very sorry. Knocked it off while I was doing the replacement of the unit, and, well, seeing as how I broke it, I thought I ought to repair it. ‘Twas only right, you understand."

"You fixed this board?"

"Aye, I’ve just said that I did. One of the little pins that connect a bit of the top part of the etched circuit to the bottom must have fallen out when it hit the floor. Took almost an hour to find out what had happened."

"An hour?" Aiglekdos rubbed one eyebrow as if it itched. "You fixed it in an hour?"

"Well, a wee bit less, really. It was finding the problem that took so long; all I had to do was replace the pin with something with the right conductivity, which wasn’t hard. There’s plenty of material on yon bench, after all."

Aiglekdos shook his head, as if trying to clear it of cobwebs. "I don’t believe this. You’re doing third shift technical support, and you fixed this in an hour? What’re you doing on third shift tech?"

"Earnin’ my keep, sir. A man’s got to eat and all. I like fixing things; technical support seems a fine place for me to be. I’m just back from a tour of duty on the Schirra, you understand."

"But third shift? Why third shift?"

The man shuffled his feet uneasily, like a child caught at mischief. He mumbled something that Aiglekdos couldn’t hear.

"Oh speak up, man. I don’t bite, and even if I did, I’m not venomous."

The man stared at the floor, silently.

"Come on, I’m no prize to look at, but I’m not that ugly, am I? Look at me and try it again. Maybe I can read your lips."

There was a hint of fire in the man’s eyes when he looked up. "If I work third shift, I can sneak into engineering lectures and brush up on a thing or two, and maybe learn a couple of new things as well, while I’m between assignments."

A light flashed on in Aiglekdos’ memory. "Would you have happened to be in my lecture yesterday morning, perhaps sitting next to Witless Wesley?"

"Don’t be so hard on the lad, Professor. He’s a bit slow with the math, still, and he’s lacking confidence, but he’s bright enough."

"I won’t argue that he’s bright; Wesley’s recommendations were so good, they almost glowed in the dark. Perhaps his poor performance is just his getting used to the regimented lifestyle here. Anyhow, I’ll assume that you’re confessing that you’re the one that caught my mistake yesterday." The professor sat behind his desk and consulted the readout. "I still don’t see why you’d settle for a berth in maintenance, man. Look at these credentials you’ve got. Graduated from Starfleet Academy, with highest honors on your degree in engineering; significant time on starships, even if you’ve no more than a year or so per ship. You’ve no business in tech support." He fiddled with the control patch on his desk and snorted in irritation. "Blasted bureaucrats." Aiglekdos looked up at the man across his desk. "I’ll have to ask you to put in for transfer immediately."

"I beg your pardon?" It was obvious the request had met with a less than receptive audience

"Look, Academy Administration has been haranguing me about getting myself a Technical Assistant. What they’ve sent as possibilities have all been total muddle-heads or worse. Half of them don’t know which end of a module to shove into a test station, and the rest haven’t a clue what a test station is. Unfortunately, I’m not permitted to cull starship personnel for an assistant. I guess that’s to keep the good ones from being hired away and leaving nothing but muttonheads in there."

"If that’s their goal, it’s certainly not working." The man shrugged. "I mean, here I am, between starships, and what have the got me doing? HVAC. I could train a chimpanzee to do most of what I’m doing, and the chimp would probably do it better than some o’ the folk I’m workin’ with."

"No kidding. Be that as it may, I need you to cart your little self over to Administration and apply for the position as my technical assistant, so I can snap you up before somebody else does. Follow me?"

The anger and sullenness had evaporated with the explanation, but there remained considerable amount of reservation written over the man’s face. "I follow right enough. But I’m not so sure I’ll want it, generous as it is. I’d not want to be unable to drop in on classes, you understand. You understand, there’s been more than just a few, and unofficially I’ve picked up a good deal that’s useful, make no mistake about it."

"Don’t be an idiot, man; idiocy’s administration’s job." Aiglekdos stared at the ceiling, trying to frame his next comment. "Look, I regularly catch classes in Engineering and other areas, trying to expand my skills. At the rate I’m absorbing them, I’ll have my second Ph.D. in five, maybe six years. Do you think I’m going to let you off that hook? But forget this dropping in on the occasional class: you’re going to be there for every session, getting full credit and top marks, or your hide will adorn my wall. Got me?"

The man’s eyes were wide open. "I’ve got you, indeed. Well, my Grannie said never to turn my back on a golden opportunity, and I guess this is what she meant. How soon would you be wanting me to start?"

"Let me see," Aiglekdos looked at a wall chronometer. "It’s 08:45 hours, near as makes no difference. It shouldn’t take you more than twenty minutes to get to Admin and manage to get the paperwork. Hmmm…. Toss in a few minutes for bureaucratic inefficiency, then time to get Mindy to quit buffing her nails long enough to log you in… A quick nap probably wouldn’t hurt you either, come to think of it. Does noon work for you? Lunch would be on me."

"Noon? Then I’d best get moving."

"Not so fast, there. There’s one little point that we need to clear up: your name."

"Folk in maintenance just call me Monty." He frowned. "’Tis not a name I prefer, you understand. I prefer Scotty. It’s what my friends call me."

"All things considered, I have doubts that you’d list Administration as your friend any more than I would. How about what Administration calls you? It’ll help tremendously getting the fool paperwork done, you understand."

"Montgomery Scott, sir."

Aiglekdos stood up, sticking out his hand. "Lunch at noon, Scotty. I’ve a lab at 15:00 hours, and I’d like your input and assistance. Now git. Time’s wasting." He turned back to the readout and began working. Scott smiled and left.

*****

Wesley was, as was his habit, at the lab early, carrying his armload of reference material. Aiglekdos pretended not to notice, continuing to putter with the device before him. The room filled progressively as the time for the session to begin approached. Sharp on the hour, Aiglekdos faced the class.

"Good afternoon, gentlebeings. Today, we’re going to see how well you’ve learned the basics of trouble-shooting. On each of your benches there is a malfunctioning circuit. Find the malfunction and fix it. You have two hours. Neither I nor my new technical assistant will give you specific answers, but we’ll give you some general guidance if you ask for it." Aiglekdos gestured at a side door. "This is my new aide, Ensign Scott." The aide entered, on cue. "We’ll wander around the room, once in a while. To work with you all."

Obediently, the students applied themselves to their task. Several of the students began making adjustments to the circuit boards that had been lying on their bench. T’Buun and T’Sarin, usually the first to begin making repairs, stood almost idle. Wesley, as always, was clearly struggling. Aiglekdos moved toward the Vulcans, nodding to Scott to descend on Wesley.

Standing between the Vulcans’ benches, Aiglekdos looked at them, smiling benignly. "Is there a problem, good Vulcans?"

T’Buun answered first. "I am getting inconsistent and conflicting readings from the bench test station, Professor. T’Sarin is experiencing the same problems. The inconsistent, conflicting readings create a situation that is most illogical."

Gravely, Aiglekdos shook his head sympathetically. "Dear me. Inconsistencies and conflicting readings from your bench test station? Most odd, I grant you, but illogical? I’m not so sure." The Human winked. "Is it possible that there is an illogical assumption being made somewhere in your thinking?"

The Vulcans looked at Aiglekdos, unsure how to respond. He shrugged and walked on.

Wesley looked up as Scott arrived at his bench. "Hey, Scotty. Promotion, eh? Congratulations!"

"Och, it’s more of a complete change in jobs, Bob. Having problems?"

"You know it. Will you look at these cockeyed readings? Far as I can tell, there’s no way you could damage this board badly enough to get readings even a tenth that weird."

"No, really? Would you be trying to convince me the readings are impossible?"

Wesley shook his head. "Convince, nothing: I’m telling you flat out that they’re impossible. Look at them yourself, if you like. There’s no way that those readings are right."

Rubbing his chin thoughtfully, the Scotsman looked at Wesley’s readings. "Now, if you’re sure the readings are impossible, then what do you think it might mean? My Grannie always used to tell me if you know that something’s impossible, and it happens, maybe it’s time to look at your assumptions. Think it over, laddie. If you need it, I’ll be back in a bit, but I don’t think you will."

As Scott walked off, Wesley closed his eyes in thought, reviewing what Aiglekdos had said at the start of the class. A few moments passed before he looked at the bench again. His brow furrowed, then relaxed as he started removing the cover from the bench test unit. Scott had a point: there were only two possibilities to explain the readings, and only one was credible.

All around the laboratory, students were growing increasingly flustered. Patiently, Wesley removed the last of the connectors holding the cover in place. Lifting it off, he saw the problem quickly: a small gobbet of solder was shorting across two connections. It was a moment’s work to remove it; oddly, it had adhered just well enough to cause a weak short, but not enough to harm the contacts. With the solder removed, Wesley triggered an autocalibration sequence in the bench test unit. The readings were dramatically better, but still wrong. Methodically, Wesley went over every inch of the electronics in the test unit. One component was running too hot. Shutting the power down, Wesley rummaged in the bin of available parts until he found a replacement. Unclipping the old component, he locked the new one into place and re-ran the autocalibration. This time, the readout was perfect. The bench unit repaired, the cadet tested the circuit board that had been put on his bench. It was flawless. He gathered up his materials and the circuit board and went to the front, where Aiglekdos was waiting.

"Professor, I believe I have completed the assignment."

Aiglekdos looked at the wall clock. "Twenty-seven minutes, Mister Wesley, and not even the Vulcans are done, to say nothing of your Human classmates. You sure you’re done?"

A twinkle formed in one of Wesley’s eyes. "I must be, sir. The bench test unit says the board is operational, in fact flawless."

To Wesley’s surprise, Aiglekdos smiled. "Guess Scotty was right. Get out of here, and keep your mouth shut until the lab’s over."

As Wesley left, Aiglekdos caught his assistant’s eye and winked. He turned his attention to T’Sarin and T’Buun, noticing that they were tearing into their bench test unit, too. Happily, Aiglekdos leaned back. It looked like the Vulcans could think beyond the superficially logical after all. He decided to give the other students about an hour before jarring their na´ve, innocent minds into some semblance of insight.

*****

Life began to settle into a new pattern. Bright and early in the mornings, Aiglekdos and Scott would meet to discuss the day’s tasks for an hour or so. After that, there were the classes and the labs and the research. Scott had become Aiglekdos’ other self with surprising ease, to the point that the professor couldn’t understand how he had managed without the man. Aiglekdos planted himself at his desk, accepting the cold glass of tea that it offered him. On the readout, he studied a set of engineering designs that he had been developing for several weeks. Before he could get involved, the annunciator chimed. "Oh, come in, whoever you are. And if you’re an engineer, help me rebuild that stupid annunciator so I don’t have to endure that insipid chirp." Aiglekdos looked up to see Scott entering. "A cheery hello, Scott! Your face would coagulate hydraulic fluid. What’s on your mind? Another devious plot to torture the Engineering Students or a tough problem that you’re consulting on?" Aiglekdos waved his comrade to a chair.

"It’s more the first, I guess." The Scotsman settled into the chair. "I’m more than a little concerned about the students. No matter what we do to them, they don’t seem to think a centimeter beyond the tips of their noses. That’s not good."

Aiglekdos played his fingers across a control surface on his desk, causing a frosted glass to appear out a portal near the Scotsman. "If you are under the delusion that you’re the only one that’s worried, you are in dire need of help. That little lab stunt we pulled a few weeks ago only helped for a short while. Unless you’ve got a way to improve the situation, however, I’m going back to my circuit diagrams and you can replace the chirp on the annunciator with something less boring."

"I’ve a wee thought or two on that, Professor, that you might want to think about trying. About the students, I mean, not the annunciator." Scott drew deeply from his glass."

"Look, Scotty, there’s no way I can take anything new on. I’m overloaded as it is, you know that. I’ve got classes to handle, labs to work with you on, and I’m eyeball deep in these engineering designs, and others on top of them. If your idea is any good, you’re going to have to do it yourself."

"I’m not a teacher."

"Don’t be absurd. I’ve seen you work with the cadets in the labs. You can teach, you just aren’t much with lecturing, at least not yet. You’re a grand teacher; you’re just more the one-on-one kind of teacher, that’s all."

"I’ll grant ye that. Let me run the thought by you, then, and see what you think. It’d have to be strictly voluntary for the students, at least at first, and I’ll need your assistance on a few points, betimes."

"Delighted to be a co-conspirator, especially in the truly devious part. Curiosity is killing me, man. Out with it!"

"It’s simple enough. One Saturday a month, spend a morning in a large shed trying to fix some piece of junk I’ve coaxed out of Space Dock. What with my having served on several starships and all, there’re a number of folks I know that I could tap for discards of an assortment of kinds. Warp engines, field generators, lasers, whatever I can find. There’s plenty to draw on. Total time, four hours, eight to noon."

Aiglekdos scratched the back of his head. "Right. This is just another lab experience, so far. What’s the trap, man? I know you too well to believe you’ll let them off that easily."

A twinkle entered Scott’s eye as he nodded, sending his coal black mop of hair dancing. "Without a wee challenge or two, there’d be no point to it. The tricky bit’s going to be that there’ll be other problems that they’ll not be told about. One session, they’ll have nothing but other junk to draw on for parts; they’ll have to cannibalize or make what they need. That’ll make a team out of them! Another session, I’ll arrange for a bit of junk to interfere with the process, or react to the fields generated and stir up trouble. There’re a number of things that we can do. If you can find the right shed, I’ve a special treat for them on their first session."

"Montgomery Scott, you are a cruel, wretched, mean, and hard-hearted monster. That makes you my kind of man. Let’s talk about what you need and get this put together."

January 14, 2249

The Saturday for the first engineering effort saw Scott at the chosen shed bright and early, making final preparation for his experimental offering to the students. Aiglekdos had experienced minimal trouble wheedling access to an appropriate, large building, and Space Dock had been eager to supply large volumes of scrapped and obsolete components. Setting up work benches, tools and supplies had taken only a little over a week. Scott surveyed the work area. All along one wall stood the set of benches he and the professor had assembled and stocked; along the opposite wall, lit by the sunshine coming in through the windows at the top of the wall some six meters above the duracrete floor, was the ill-assorted mass of cast off material from Space Dock. In the center of the floor stood a small sized matter-antimatter reactor. Everything seemed ready, or so it seemed. Other than the single row of windows that circled the top of the building, there was only one perforation in the walls, the door that allowed entry and exit. The Scotsman rummaged in the material along the west wall, finally locating a piece the right height to use as a chair. Making himself comfortable, he awaited the arrival of those who decided to come.

By 0800, there were a dozen students present. Wesley had arrived, likely more out of a hope of finding enlightenment, or perhaps mercy, than of showing genius; so had the Vulcans, T’Sarin and T’Buun. Even Mercer had made an appearance. Scott closed the doors on the north wall, then faced the dozen students. "Here in the center of the floor, you’ll notice a non-functional matter-antimatter reactor. Your task is to try to get it working by noon, or if that’s impossible, to clearly demonstrate why it is impossible. I’ve no more idea what’s wrong with it than you do. Go to it."

Without delay, Wesley collared Mercer and got him to start helping remove the reactor’s housing, to expose the inner workings. T’Buun and T’Sarin quickly selected benches, assaying what resources had been provided. Several other students began sorting and rummaging through the material on the west wall, to find out what parts might be available to reuse. Within minutes, T’Sarin was running a power cord from T’Buun’s test bench to the reactor, in order to provide power to test the assorted modules and components.

To Scott’s surprise, it wasn’t long before Wesley’s hands were empty of tools, and the hapless engineering student had shifted to helping organize the effort; equally astonishing was the fact that on the whole, the other engineering students rapidly accepted Wesley as a team leader, coming to him with advice, problems, ideas and questions. Under Wesley’s leadership, the test benches were filled with modules and components undergoing testing and repair, and the air was filled with the voices of the students communicating among themselves.

Only a little less than half an hour had passed when Mercer suddenly sat down, shaking his head. Seeing it, another student came over. "What’s up, Mercer? Trying to put pressure on your brain so you can think more clearly?"

"Nah." Mercer looked up. "I’m just feeling a little overheated, Tancready. I guess I’ve been doing more hauling of the large scale stuff than I’ve realized, and probably pushed too hard." Mercer wiped his face with one hand. "This is ridiculous. I’m sweating like a hog."

T’Buun came over and joined the conversation. "Pardon my intrusion, but since you bring it up, I have noticed that the temperature has risen to much more comfortable temperatures. It has, I believe, been rising slowly but steadily over the last seventeen point six minutes. I estimate the temperature has risen to approximately 37.3C."

Having overheard the conversation, Wesley decided action was more to the point than additional opinions and headed to the thermostat. Instead of reading a stable number on the display, the thermostat showed randomly varying patterns. He pried the cover off, finding the inner workings damaged beyond repair. He turned. "T’Buun’s got a point—this thing’s shot. Anyone see Mister Scott?"

The cadets looked around themselves: Scott was conspicuous by his absence.

"Sherman, you look like you’re closest to the doors," Wesley called out. "How about opening them and letting this heat out before the rest of us roast."

The cadet moved toward the doors. They refused to budge. "No luck, Wesley; it looks like they’ve been locked from the outside. Now what?"

"Think we could open them with a battering ram?"

"Not a chance. It’d take a high-powered laser to make a decent dent in them; I think they were intended to handle a modest blast or something. And before you ask, there aren’t any hinges—these babies slide open and shut. We’re totally out of luck with these doors."

To his surprise, Wesley found that the other cadets, even the Vulcans, were looking to him to guide them out of their predicament. "I don’t suppose any of you have communicators on you, do you?"

There was a chorus of variations on "No."

"That figures; that’d make my life too easy." Wesley closed his eyes tightly, thinking. They popped open as he turned to Mercer. "How’s your aim throwing things?"

"Pretty decent. Why?"

Selecting a modest sized chunk of scrap metal, he handed it to his fellow cadet. "See if you can break one of those windows up there."

Mercer hefted the chunk of metal in his hand, mentally weighing it and measuring the distance to the window. His arm flew forward, propelling the bit of scrap against the window. With a deafening clang, it struck a pane, bouncing off causing nothing more than a small, silver-gray mark in the center.

"That’s got to be transparent aluminum, I’d say," Tancready offered. "Given the doors being almost indestructible, it figures. No way we’re going to break that."

Refusing to accept defeat, Wesley stared at the window. "It looks like the transparent aluminum panes are set in simple extruded aluminum frames." He turned to the two Vulcans. "T’Sarin, T’Buun, if Mercer jumped on one end of a lever, propelling a large bit of scrap against one of those panes, could we build a lever-and-fulcrum contraption to propel it hard and fast enough to knock one of the panes out?"

"There are numerous uncertainties," T’Sarin pointed out levelly. "There is considerable margin for error. However, even using optimistic assumptions, I do not believe so."

Looking up, Mercer asked, "How about if I was carrying Wesley when I jumped, T’Sarin? Would that provide enough force?"

"It is possible. A five to one ratio on the arms of the lever might suffice; there is room for the long arm to swing."

T’Sarin had barely finished her analysis before Wesley moved into action. "Tancready, you and Sherman find a bar six or seven meters long. T’Buun, you work out the elements of the trajectory so you can get the fulcrum placed optimally. Mercer, you and I need to find something for you to jump on, and a bucket to handle our projectile. The rest of you, get going building something we can use as a fulcrum."

Despite the rising heat, or perhaps because of it, the cadets scurried to the tasks Wesley had assigned. As the last pieces were fit together, T’Buun shifted the lash-up into place, and T’Sarin dropped a lump of metal onto the bucket. Gingerly, Mercer clambered up to where he could jump onto the platform on the short arm of the lever. With equal care, Wesley hoisted himself up, letting Mercer carry him piggy-back.

"Ready, Wesley?"

"No. Jump anyhow."

Mercer jumped, landing squarely on the plate on the short lever arm, driving it against the duracrete floor and sending the payload flying against the window, the two cadets sprawling on the floor. Rather than breaking, the aluminum frames only bent. Sweating freely, Wesley looked at the damage, shaking his head. "Tancready, Sherman, another hunk of scrap. Need more mass. T’Buun, T’Sarin…"

Wesley wasn’t allowed to finish his sentence. The two Vulcans moved to Wesley and Mercer, each hoisting one of them over their shoulder. By the time the bucket was reloaded with piece of trititanium, the two had ascended the fulcrum, locked their free arms around each other’s waist and were ready to jump. T’Buun looked back, to be sure the bucket was loaded, then nodded to her fellow Vulcan. In unison, the Vulcans leapt, landing side by side on the small platform. Faster than Human eyes could follow, the lump of scrap trititanium rocketed into the frame and through it, taking out several panes of transparent aluminum as it did so. Heat billowed out the window, cool air pouring in to replace it.

Unsteadily, Wesley stood. "Good work, gang, all of you. You beat the heat, despite the odds. You guys were great, do you know it?"

"Indeed they were, Cadet." The cadets turned, to see Aiglekdos and Scott appear out of hiding. "And so were you."

Scott smiled. "In the real world of starship engineering, lads, especially if someone’s firing on you, you can’t assume you’re facing only one problem. As my Grannie has been known to point out, it’s not like problems will cooperate and come one at a time, at a convenient pace. More likely, they’ll wait until your back is turned and gang up on you."

"And when they do," Aiglekdos added, "you can bet they’ll do their best to make your life as difficult as possible. I expect to have delivery of antimatter for this unit sharp at noon. Don’t disappoint me; get it ready."

*****

Having received a summons, Wesley arrived at Aiglekdos’ office a moment or two early. The professor was absorbed at a task on his work bench, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. After a few moments, Wesley coughed, hoping to divert him from the bench.

"I know you’re there, young man; no need spraying my office with microbes to let me know it." Aiglekdos selected a component from a nearby bin. "Food stash’s to your left, boy. If you think you can handle it, get coffee and a sandwich for us both. If you don’t think you can handle coffee and a sandwich, get me one, and get yourself whatever you think you can handle. This consarned gadget’s being cantankerous. It’s going to take me a few more minutes than I’d thought."

Surprised by his reception, Wesley obeyed, sliding a cup and plate at professor’s elbow, keeping the other for himself. Aiglekdos pointed. "Just pass me that microwave welding wand, will you? And don’t get any crumbs on the bench."

Wesley extended the wand. "If I might be so bold as to ask, sir, what are you making?"

"Ask all you want, but I’m not going to tell you." The Professor adjusted something that Wesley couldn’t quite see. "Much too much bother to tell you. Now, if I can get it going, that’s the best way: I’ll show you." For a few minutes, the Professor stared at readouts from his test equipment. Satisfied, he turned to his student. "Just step back a couple of meters, will you? And take your cup and plate with you. Let’s see if it does what it ought."

Carefully, Aiglekdos disconnected the board from the bench test unit and connected it to a power supply and a cable from the computer. An array of semi-formed blobs appeared. Aiglekdos snorted derisively. "Out of focus. Figures. Hold on." A small screwdriver appeared from a pocket and began to adjust small screws. Slowly, the images took a clearer shape, ending up as replicas of Aiglekdos, looking like he was peering at something in front of himself. "Mercer should have kept his lip glued. This’ll teach him to complain about my peering over peoples’ shoulders too much."

"Clever, Doctor, but do you think it will get us over having you stare over our shoulders? I mean, they’re just images."

"Holo images with a trick. Watch." Aiglekdos walked toward the closest image of himself. Carefully, he moved until he exactly matched the image. After several minutes, he appeared out of the projection, right in front of Wesley. "The system self-adjusts for interference, using a modified dynamic phase conjugate reflector. Now, when I perfectly matched myself to one of my images, every movement I made out of it was interpreted as interference by the circuit, so it adjusted me out of the picture. I was effectively invisible until I stepped out of the holo image. Mercer’s going to hate this, but it’ll teach him to function under pressure. That, or it’ll break him before anyone’s life depends on his holding up under stress." Aiglekdos walked through the image, visible the whole way this time, and killed the power. "Don’t you blab, now. I don’t want Mercer’s little surprise spoiled. Grab a chair."

Wesley sat down. Aiglekdos sat, facing him, both men in front of SensorDesk. "Son, correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re struggling pretty hard in engineering."

"I can’t really deny it, can I? You’re teaching two of my classes. I’m floundering. I shouldn’t be—I was good enough at engineering before I got here, but I’m sure in trouble now."

"At least you’re not deluding yourself. Mister Wesley, I wish to propose a deal. Would you be interested?"

"I guess I’d like to know what you’re offering before I answer that."

"I’m glad you’ve the wits to be cautious. Look, there’s nothing illegal, immoral or dishonorable about the proposition. What I propose is that Scott and I tutor you on the side, to try to cram enough engineering into your head to get you passing marks in your engineering classes. Game?"

A combination of enthusiasm and caution crept onto Wesley’s face. "That’s a generous offer, Professor. I can’t deny that I’m on the verge of being cut from the Academy over my poor performance in engineering classes. What’s the catch?"

"If we can get you tutored to the point that you pass your Engineering classes, and don’t get cut from Starfleet Academy, you’ll agree to get out of Engineering."

"Sir! That’s hardly a fair request!"

"Warp static. I didn’t say drop out of Starfleet Academy, I said get out of Engineering. Be honest with yourself. You just don’t have the soul of an engineer, Wesley. You belong in Command. You’re a captain, not an engineer. When things fell to pieces in Saturday’s session, you dropped tools and took command, assuming you hadn’t already taken command—which it looked to me like you had. Even Mercer took orders from you. You’re a natural-born captain, Cadet. There aren’t many folk like that, and I don’t want it wasted."

"No way, sir. Combat’s not something I’m up for. I’m just not a fighter, and I know it." Wesley looked squarely at the floor in front of his feet. "I guess I’m more or less a coward hiding behind a tool kit."

Rather than answer, Aiglekdos exploded out of his chair, reaching for Wesley’s throat. Without thinking, Wesley caught the professor, sending him sprawling across the floor.

Gingerly, rubbing a sore shoulder, the professor got up. "Not a fighter, boy? Seems to me you’re wrong. You fight fast, and you fight mean."

"I apologize, sir, but you attacked me. All I did was respond to protect myself."

"Right. ‘All I did was respond to protect myself,’" Aiglekdos mimicked the cadet’s voice in a sarcastic, almost singsong, tone. "So, you would have sat on your hands and smiled like a lobotomized baboon if you saw someone attack me, or Scotty or Mercer?"

"Anyone that takes Mercer on deserves what Mercer will dish out. Sir."

"Now cut that out. You’re dodging my question. Would you watch from the sidelines as Mercer pounded the lights out of Scott or me or one of your classmates?"

Wesley sighed. "No, sir, nor would I stand idle if someone jumped a civilian. I can see where you’re going with this, sir, but I’d still be unwilling to kill someone."

"Really? Even if they were trying to kill you? Or me? Or…"

"I’d try anything short of killing, sir," Wesley interrupted.

"Good, good." Aiglekdos nodded in approval, rubbing his hands together. "Totally correct. But when you run out of alternatives, and it’s kill or be killed, perhaps along with a dozen or more shipmates, what are you going to do? Roll over and try not too bleed too much as you die?"

"I guess there are always alternatives, aren’t there?" Wesley was starting to become nettled.

"Always? Bah! Only in the hallucinations of armchair captains, son. Out in the real world, sometimes there aren’t. Those armchair captains don’t seem to remember that there’s a lot of rabid dogs out there in the universe." Aiglekdos leaned forward, punctuating his remarks by tapping Wesley in the middle of the chest. "Bottom line, Cadet, it’s come down to kill or be killed. All of your other alternatives have been tried and failed, and it’s more than just your sorry carcass at stake; there’s a shipload of other folks depending on you. Answer me: kill or be killed?"

For a moment, Wesley stared vacantly, clearly deep in thought. "You’ve made your point, Professor. If I had to kill or be killed, I guess I could do it. But I’d be thoroughly sure that I was down to a kill or die situation first."

"You’d better be sure you’ve tried every other avenue, or you’ll be a lousy captain—and if you outlive me, I’ll haunt you for the rest of your career, maybe longer if you don’t make sure you’ve tried everything short of lethal force. Do we have a deal?"

Wesley nodded. "We have a deal. Thank you, sir."

"Then get out of here and study. Be here at 0700 sharp tomorrow, and we’ll get started. Don’t you disappoint me, Robert Wesley."

*****

The Saturday Morning Engineering Lab Practical quickly became the talk of the Engineering school, with Scott himself being turned into a minor celebrity as well as a repository for an almost endless stream of ideas to pull on unsuspecting, unwary students flowing in from both faculty and cadets. Equally, with Scott’s assistance, Aiglekdos’ reputation as a professor soared. Under the steady tutelage of the two men, Wesley’s performance improved quickly, and although he showed no sign of achieving excellence as an engineer, he at least was reaching to adequacy.

Aiglekdos found himself buried in the endless annoyance of end-of-term details, struggling to keep his mind focused on his tedious task despite the drowsiness brought on by an overly indulgent lunch. Unexpectedly, an unfamiliar voice rang out.

"Hey, perfesser, someone’s at da door. Ya want I should let’im in, or do I snuff ’im?"

Aiglekdos rolled his eyes in amused agony. "Let them enter. I don’t need any dead bodies on my doorstep."

Scott stepped into the office, a hint of an impish grin on his face. "Do you like the new sound on your annunciator, Doctor?"

"Well, it beats the tar out of the idiotic chirp, I guess. I should have known you would be behind a change on the annunciator. Seems to me I asked for it." The professor triggered a contact on his desk, causing it to provide beverages for both. "I hope that’s not its only voice and phrase; the gangster threatening to kill someone is going to get pretty tiresome before long."

"Don’t fret yourself, Doctor. I’ve well over a hundred different voices and phrases in there for you. Several of the engineerin’ cadets were more than happy to lend their talents to the effort; I think it was payback for our wee Saturday mornin’ antics. It’ll choose among the voices randomly." The Scotsman took a deep draught from the frosted glass before him. "Magnificent! I’ll have to be building a desk like yours for myself."

"I shall look forward to hearing all of the different voices, Scott. I think. And if you build a copy of this desk, talk to me; I can give you a couple of thoughts I’ve had. May I assume that you’re here to warn me that you’re off somewhere for the weekend?"

"Indeed I am, Professor." He took another mouthful from his glass. "Although I must confess, your hospitality tempts me to stay. Still, it’s been a while since I’ve visited my Grannie, and I think it’s about time I dropped in on her. Since my folks died, which is when I came back to the Academy you understand, I’ve been tryin’ to watch over her a wee bit, not that she needs much watchin’ over. I’d like to pay her a visit. That is, if you’ve no need of my assistance."

Aiglekdos stared at the demands of the endless sheets on his readout. "Frankly, I don’t expect to have much going on other than this obnoxious paperwork, Mister Scott." He looked up at his assistant. "Tell you what, all of this can safely sit and rot until Monday, and no one will care one way or another. After listening to you quote that grandmother of yours about every third or fourth sentence over the last several months, I’m dying to meet the woman. Let’s make it a joint excursion; that way you can both visit her and enjoy my hospitality. I give you my word to be on my best behavior."

"I don’t know, sir." It was clear that the thought of his boss joining him on a trip home had never occurred to the Scotsman. "Her home’s more than a wee bit off the beaten path, and you might find the available accommodations a little less comfortable than what you’re accustomed to."

"Humbug, Montgomery Scott! If she’s half the woman she sounds like she is, meeting her is well worth the trip and some difficult accommodations." It was clear that Aiglekdos was determined.

Scott sensed that this debate was one he had no chance of winning. "There’s a stratoliner headin’ over there about 23:00 tonight, Professor. It’ll get us to Scotland in the wee hours of the morning, but it’ll be midday before we reach Grannie’s house. If you can be ready to go before then, that is."

"Come on, it only takes a couple of hours to get to Scotland from here, Scotty. You know I know that."

"I know it full well; it’s not getting to Scotland that’s the trouble, it’s getting from any city to Grannie’s place; it’s out in the Highlands, you understand, a long way from much of anywhere."

"I’ve suffered worse than a few long layovers." Aiglekdos rolled his eyes. "Trying to straighten out some of my students has been worse than long layovers."

"Well, if you don’t mind the length of the trip, and havin’ to make a few transfers from one kind of transportation to another…"

"Book passage for us both on the stratoliner, and I’ll meet you there, Scott. Book passage for two."

*****

The stratoliner flight had unloaded the pair at Prestwick, from whence they had taken high-speed rail north and east to Aberdeen, where they climbed into a bus that carried them along a road that ended in a small village deep in the mountains of the Scottish Highlands. Scott had mentioned the name, but somehow it hadn’t registered.

Aiglekdos drew in a deep breath. "I could learn to like it here, Scott. The scenery is magnificent, and just smelling the fresh air is almost as good as a night’s sleep." The professor looked around himself. "All things considered, I think a stop at the local mercantile, or its equivalent, would be very much in order."

"’Tis over there, Professor, but I’d be getting a room at the inn, first, to stow our baggage." Adding emphasis to his remark, he shouldered the strap of his carry on luggage, and began to lead the way. "No offense, but you might let me do the talking for us both."

"Good idea; my North American accent is as out of place here as yours is appropriate. After you."

Only a few moments saw the men ensconced in their lodgings and back in the foyer of the inn, Aiglekdos incongruously carrying an empty knapsack. The expression on his companion’s face asked the question without words. "My plan is simple, Montgomery: bribery! Somewhere around here there has to be a merchant that provides the edible little impulse luxuries that we all crave once in a while. Enough said?"

"Aye, enough." The Scotsman nodded. "’Tis time for you to meet McTavish, then." He moved toward the door. "Follow me."

Moments later, the duo entered a nondescript appearing building bearing the faded label "McTavish’s Mercantile." To enter the shop was to feel wafted back centuries, perhaps into a Dickens novel. Behind a wood-and-glass display case, a man of middle years sat, watching them as they entered. "Montgomery, lad, good to see you again. You’ll be visiting your Grannie, I’m sure. Who’s your shadow?"

"I’m Dimetrius Aiglekdos, and I expect you’re McTavish," he asserted, before Scott could reply. "How’s my guess?"

Rather than respond directly, the man turned to Scott. "He’s not another one of those stuffed shirts trying to lure the Grand Dame away from here, is he, Montgomery?" There was a subtle tone of near hostility tainting the shopkeeper’s voice.

"No need to get your dander up, Angus; he’s my boss." Scott looked at Aiglekdos out of the corner of an eye. "If you’d have kept that lip of yours buttoned, the professor would not have had any such a thought."

"Nor shall I, Angus." There was sincerity in the professor’s voice. He looked McTavish squarely in the eyes. "I’m as confident of my skills as any man living, but I’ve the wits not to try talking her into leaving the magnificent surroundings here. Seems to me I’d be wasting my breath."

McTavish nodded. "Well, at least you’re no fool. What will you be wanting?"

There was a brief twinkle in Aiglekdos’ eye. "Enough of her favorite teas, biscuits and whatever else she fancies in terms of dainty edible delights to fill this knapsack."

Before moving, the shopkeeper turned to look at Scott. "I’ll vouch for him, Angus."

With surprising speed, the proprietor loaded the knapsack with an assortment of goods, closing it to signal his task was finished. Without even bothering to check the total, the engineering professor handed the storekeeper his credit chit, allowed his retinas to be scanned, authorizing payment. He hefted the knapsack onto his shoulders, somewhat surprised at its weight. "My thanks, Angus McTavish." Aiglekdos headed for the door.

As Scott moved to follow him, a package appeared from under the counter. "Montgomery, if you’d deliver this for me to the Grand Dame? It’s just a bit of a thank you for a kindness or two she’s done me."

Gravely, Scott nodded, accepting the parcel. "I’ll deliver it personally, with your respects, Angus. And thank you in advance." He hurried to follow his companion, then finally to lead the way.

Only a short walk took the pair out of the village, past roads and other signs of Human activity. The only indication that the route they took was anything other than unexplored territory was a small foot path, barely worn enough to be clearly visible. Aiglekdos followed his technical assistant along the path, stopping to admire the occasional clump of wildflowers or to appreciate a particularly notable view, hurrying to catch his companion again. The twosome covered a little over three kilometers before an old, Scots croft, nestled gently into the side of the slope of the Highland mountain, came into view.

"I expect that would be your grandmother’s home."

"Aye, it is. Aileen Scott’s her name, being my late father’s mother." Scott turned, halting progress for a moment. "Don’t let that wee croft fool you, though. Back in the days of the Eugenics Wars, the fellow living in it cut back into the mountain to make a shelter in case the conflict ever raged out this way. The owners that have followed have expanded it once or twice."

"All the more reason to lead on, my friend. I always appreciate things that are more than meets the eye." The professor moved toward the cottage at a brisk clip, almost forcing Scott to break into a run to regain the lead.

As they moved closer to the croft, the front door swung open, revealing a woman of stark, white hair and mature years, yet equally clearly both physically and mentally spry. "Montgomery! Good to see you. Who’s that behind you?"

Again, rather than allow Scott to make the introduction, the professor took control. "Dimetrius Aiglekdos, at your service." He bowed slightly. "If Angus McTavish has done his job properly, I’ve come with a knapsack full of your favorites, if you’ll extend the courtesy of your abode to two travelers."

She turned to her grandson. "Montgomery Scott! If this is another one of those daft, fancy-pants, smart-alec dimwits you’ve dug up to try to marry me off to, I’ll, I’ll…" She sputtered into silence, unable to find threats and maledictions sufficiently dire to match the suspected misdeed.

"Grannie, please!" The man’s face flushed in embarrassment. "He’s my boss, the professor at Starfleet Academy. Could we at least let the poor man empty his knapsack and get a wee bite or two before you shred him?"

Rather than feeling offended, Aiglekdos showed clear indications of amusement. "He shows good sense, Madam. At least allow the condemned man a last meal before execution. It’s traditional, isn’t it?"

Aileen Scott looked the man up and down. "I’ll grant you that much, but mind—it’s only a reprieve, not a pardon, laddie." She disappeared into her dwelling, the two men following.

"Don’t say you weren’t warned, Professor," Scott whispered.

Once inside the home, the Scotsman relieved his employer of the knapsack and began laying its contents out, putting a pot of water on to boil for tea. Aileen looked at Aiglekdos. "Professor, eh? Of what?"

"Engineering; warp drives and lasers are my area of particular expertise."

She snorted. "Well, you can’t be too much of a fool, if you decided to take young Montgomery on with you, I’ll grant that." The woman pursed her lips slightly. "Still, if all you’re good for is piloting textbooks and filling young minds with useless trash they’ll try to forget as quickly as they’re on a starship, there must be something wrong with you. All the really good ‘uns are out there blazing trails. Except young Montgomery, and no doubt he’ll be back there before long."

The younger Scott was almost transfixed in horror at his grandmother’s brutal analysis. The professor allowed his head to droop slightly. "I wanted to be a starship captain so badly, I could taste it, but I flunked one exam, and the door to trailblazing in space was closed for me. I still dream of it, of course. It’s all there in Masefield’s poem, centuries ago:

"‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,’

"There’s more, but the poem captures the allure, the insatiable desire better than anything else I have ever read."

Clearly scandalized by what she was being told, the Grand Dame looked at the professor, complete disbelief etched deeply into her face. "Poppycock, young man. I don’t believe a word of it. There isn’t an exam at the academy that would do that, if you failed it, and I know it. Don’t try to fool a Grannie, lad; we’ve been around too long to fall for it."

He stared at the floor for a moment longer before looking up and answering. "Oh, if you think about it, you’d know there is only one, and that’s exactly the one I failed: the pre-deployment physical. I’ve got a rare genetic disorder called Mahlgren’s Disease. At the standard pressure in a starship, I’m fine. Drop it much below the 450 millibars and I start to bleed, mainly into my lungs. Totally unfit for space duty." Aiglekdos shrugged. "I’ll figure a way out there someday, though if it kills me."

There was almost a look of sympathy on the elder Scott’s face. "At least that makes sense. That explains how someone with a few wits is still at the Academy. What do they call you?"

A smile returned to the professor’s face. "Professor Dim—well, behind my back, anyhow. You can skip the professor thing, though, and just call me Dim. It’s just folks here, right?" He lifted his empty cup and extended it to his assistant. Scott poured the tea. He nodded his thanks and tasted it. "Scott, if the Food Service at the Academy ever finds out you’re this good with tea, I’m going to be out a fine technical assistant."

"I’ll never tell, Professor." Suddenly at ease, Montgomery re-filled his own cup and his grandmother’s, taking a seat where he could see both. "Grannie’s an engineer by training, too. If she hadn’t been so busy raising my dad and his siblings, then keeping me as close to civilized as she could, she’d have been out there pushin’ back the frontiers, too. You might want to talk to her about your thoughts on tryin’ to boost warp efficiency; like as not, she’ll have a thought or two we’ve not come up with."

Aileen canted her head to one side. "Well, out with it. What sort of nonsense are you thinking?"

Aiglekdos nibbled a biscuit briefly, to buy time to organize his thoughts. "Right now, the main problem in getting warp drives to achieve higher pseudo-velocities seems to be getting fast enough heat dissipation in the circuits, so that the drive can take more excursions through subspace in a given second. Most folk are trying to find fancier and fancier ways to get rid of the heat. Now, what your grandson and I have been kicking around takes another approach altogether. What if we could reduce the heat generated by, say, half an order of magnitude?"

"There’s no way, lad. That’s a direction we went down a dozen times when I was a young lass, and too many times since."

"Have you got a compuclipboard I can use? Montgomery and I think that we may have found a different way, one that might get us past Warp Six—possibly as high as Warp Seven, maybe better. I’ll show you, if you’re interested. Montgomery, you remind me if I’ve forgotten any details. The basic trick is simple: if we can generate the warp field and drag it along with the ship, rather than having to regenerate the warp field every time…"

Out of nowhere, it seemed, the elderly woman produced three compuclipboards. "First time anyone’s made sense talking about reduced heat generation in five decades. Grab a compuclipboard, boys. They’re linked together; write on one, and all of us will see it. Strut your stuff, youngster."

Within minutes, all three were hunched over their respective compuclipboards, wrangling over the ideas the men had had, working together as if they had known each other all their lives.

February 19, 2259

One semester became two; then semesters flowed into years. Scott managed to get further degrees, and move into full blown professorship, working hand in glove with Aiglekdos, terrorizing the engineering cadets into becoming quality engineers. Scott, especially, was well on his way to becoming an academic legend at the Academy, his Saturday Morning Practical having become a required course for all engineering students.

He was occasionally lent out as a consultant from time to time, occasionally requiring his spending a month or more on one of Starfleet’s ships or a merchant marine vessel or two, finding problems no one else seemed to pinpoint. Before long, Scott was spending more time off campus, doing assorted engineering tasks for Starfleet, than he was spending on campus. The collaboration between Scott, Aiglekdos and his grandmother had engendered improvements in the engineering of the warp drive, and Scott’s last several months had involved overseeing the final phases of the refitting of several Constitution-class ships, such as the Yorktown, the Hood and, most recently, the Enterprise. The Scotsman sat in his office, pouring over reports on the ship’s status, making sure that all was up to grade. His annunciator chimed.

"Come!" The Scotsman looked up from the reports, seeing his friend. "Aiglekdos, what’s eatin’ you? From the looks of your face, it must be bad news. Surely you’ve no complaints from the Deneva run I just got back from, man; things were pretty decent."

The professor was indeed long faced. Before answering, he sat down. "Bad news indeed, and it’s not the Deneva run. It’s your grandmother, Montgomery. She was leaving the Mercantile. There was a surface vehicle coming. Its brakes failed, and she wasn’t able to evade it."

Scott’s face paled. "I’ve got to get to her, Dim. How bad is she?"

"Bad, Scott. I’ve got other professors to cover for us both for the next week. You’ll need a friend with you, I think." He stood, putting a hand on Scott’s shoulder. "She didn’t make it to the hospital, Scotty; the emergency med techs said she was dead on the scene. I’m truly, deeply sorry."

Tears running down his face, the Scotsman looked up. "You don’t have to come, Dim."

"I’ve booked the stratoliner for us both. She was a grand lady, Scott, and a real engineer, perhaps the finest I’ve ever worked with, other than yourself. I need to be there, to honor her. She deserves it."

Standing, Scott looked around himself. "I don’t suppose any of this is all that important. I’ll be getting packed, then."

"I’ve got ground transport waiting. There’s only about an hour before the flight."

"She wanted to be cremated, you know. She wanted her ashes put into an escape orbit—out of the plane of the galaxy." He wiped tears from his face. "I promised her I’d manage it."

"We’ll manage it somehow. Come on. There’ll be time on the flight to work it out."

"Grannie was the only reason I left Starfleet, did you know that? I wasn’t all that close to my siblings, or their children; after my folks died, we all sort of went our separate ways. She was really all I had."

"I’d guessed." Aiglekdos realized his friend and colleague was suffering the emotional equivalent of shell-shock. He guided Scott out the door, being careful to lock it behind them. "But the Grand Dame was worthy of your time and effort."

"Aye, that she was. She was every bit the engineer that her father was. Her maiden name was Briggs, you know, her father being Briggs of the Lemoyne-Briggs transformer. Her mother was a professor of literature; that’s why she knew so much poetry along with the engineering." At the professor’s gentle prodding, Scott planted himself in the transport.

Aiglekdos joined him. He leaned forward, looking at the driver. "Take us to the stratoliner pad." He turned to Scott. "Neither of you ever mentioned that. Look, there’s no need to go back to your quarters and pack; I’m sure McTavish can sell us whatever we need for a week. We’ve more important things to do." Other than the surface transport moving forward, Aiglekdos got no reply.

The trip to the stratoliner pad was quiet; there was hardly more talk on the flight, though on occasion, Scott would bring up some story or memory that illustrated some point about Aileen Scott, her life, or what she had meant to him over the years. Once they were at Prestwick, they were surprised to be met by McTavish, with ground transport to take them the rest of the way. McTavish shared a few stories with the men, further illustrating the character of the Grand Dame, as McTavish still called her. Arrangements for the viewing and the services had already been made by Scotty’s sister and husband, and the cremation had been bought and paid for long before. All through the events related to the family and the community paying their last respects and saying their last goodbyes to a woman who had clearly had a dramatic, positive impact on an entire community, Montgomery had maintained a controlled, virtually Vulcan appearing appearance. It almost seemed as if he was failing to truly connect with the events swirling around him, which caused Aiglekdos some degree of concern. Ultimately, people returned home, leaving Scott with a cylinder of ashes. Whether it was because the reality had finally set in, or because there was no longer a mass of people doing the talking, he began to open up a little more.

"Dim, have you had any thoughts on sending Grannie’s remains above the galactic plane?"

"I’ve been working on it. Unless you’ve a better idea, it seemed to be logical to transport up to the orbital shipyard and see if there’s a captain or a chief engineer up there who’s going to be going out on a starship soon, and see if they’ll take her ashes and fire them out a photon torpedo tube. As many cadets as we’ve touched over the years, there’s got to be at least one, maybe more." He shrugged. "If nothing else, we can transport back home rather than use a commercial carrier. That is, if you’re game."

"’Tis as good an idea as any, I guess. We’ll need to get clearance, mind you."

"Already cleared; I’ve made good use of my free time. All we need to do is get our things together and call them to lock on." Dim reached out, laying his hand on his friend’s shoulder. "It’s your call, man. If and when you’re ready, we can go for it."

There was silence, for a while, which the professor chose to respect. Finally, looking around himself one last time, he looked up. "What few things I’ve got, I can have together in ten minutes. Can you be ready?"

"I’ll be ready."

*****

The twosome materialized on the transporter deck of the space dock. Aiglekdos looked at Scott, who was clutching the metal cylinder with his grandmother’s remains. To the professor’s eye, the engineer looked much like a frightened three year old, clutching a prized rag-doll for comfort. The technician at the controls of the transporter reacted before either of the men could.

"Mister Scott! I expect that you’re here to inspect the Enterprise before she leaves tomorrow. Her captain left strict orders that he should be summoned when you arrived." A contact on the console was triggered. "If you’ll be kind enough to wait for him, here?"

Morosely, the Scotsman nodded, descending from the transporter. "I’ll be more than happy to see the Enterprise’s new captain, but I’m up here on other business." He looked over at Aiglekdos, then back at the technician. "Personal business, you understand. Maybe the lad will be kind enough to help with it."

A door on one side of the transporter room slid open, allowing Captain Christopher Pike to come in, a compuclipboard under one arm. "Scott! It’s been years! I haven’t seen you since we were together at the Academy!"

Clutching the cylinder closer to himself, Scott looked up. "Good to see you, Christopher. You’ve done well, I see."

Pike blushed a little. "I guess. I’m the captain of the Enterprise these days, Scott. Did you get the message I sent you, two or three days ago?"

Professor Dim decided to intervene. "He hasn’t checked his messages in five or six days, Pike. His grandmother just passed away, and he’s been pretty much wrapped up in handling things."

Crestfallen, Pike looked at his one-time classmate. "I didn’t know. I’m sorry. I know how much she must have meant to you."

"Aye, she was about the only reason I stayed earth-bound, the last few years. You mentioned an offer, lad. I suppose I ought to hear it."

"I just got transfer orders for Larry Marvick; he’s been transferred to Starfleet Engineering, so I need a really good chief engineer. There’s no one that knows the engines and warp theory like you do. I want you to be my chief engineer on the Enterprise, with me when we leave in the morning."

For the first time since he’d told Scott the bad news, Aiglekdos saw the hint of life in Scott’s eyes.

"I don’t know, Christopher. I’ve been ground bound for a while, and I’d have to put in for a transfer back to space duty. There’d be a mountain of paperwork, and you’ll be leaving tomorrow."

The compuclipboard came out from under Pike’s arm. "It’s all in here; all it needs is your signature in a couple of places, and everything is done. I’ve even got official approval to backdate it."

"But what about the Academy? Who’ll teach the engineerin’ students the practical things they’ll need to survive?"

"Mercer." Both men turned to Aiglekdos. "I got a message from him yesterday. The engineering deck on his ship got hit by Klingon fire; only he and two cadets weren’t wounded to the point of incapacitation. Mercer was the only experienced engineer left standing—and the shrapnel had torn a hole in his right arm. The way I get the story from the two cadets, Mercer declared it was Saturday Morning Practical, only with the Klingons harassing them instead of you and me, put a tourniquet on his arm, and went to work on getting power back. It cost him his arm, but he and those two cadets got the ship running. The Klingons never knew what hit ‘em. We’ll give Mercer your office."

"They’ll have his arm regenerated in a couple of weeks, Professor, and he’ll be back in space." Scott half-way smiled. "He’s good. I’m glad those Saturday Mornin’s have done some good."

"He won’t be back in space, Scott. About three percent of people can’t be coaxed to regenerate lost limbs, and it looks like Mercer’s among them. He was looking to see if there might be a slot for him at the Academy, rather than his having to go on permanent medical disability with Starfleet. There’s no reason for you not to go, Scott, other than not wanting to go. You’ve got endless runs in deep space as a consultant engineer under your belt; you’ve done the Deneva run twice and I can’t remember what all else. You’ve got more practical wit than any engineer Starfleet has, and there really isn’t a being in the universe that knows the insides of a starship like you do."

Indecision played across the engineer’s face. "I don’t know, Dim. I just don’t know." He clutched his grandmother’s ashes a little more tightly.

There was one card left to play, and Aiglekdos decided it was time. "Do it for Aileen, then. We had some good talks, your grandmother and I, when you were off elsewhere. You know she wanted to be out in space, running a starship engineering department, but she chose to stay here for you. That’s why you’ve stayed here for her. If you can’t go for yourself, man, go for her. The Enterprise is her child too, you know, in a way: the updated field coils in the drive are the result of the engineering discussion we started when you first took me to meet her. Do you remember that verse from Masefield I quoted that day?

"‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,’

"She and I both felt it, but neither of us could answer the call for good reasons. I know you feel it, too."

Scott still looked undecided.

Pike finally added one more comment. "If you can’t do it for me, or for yourself, do it for Professor Dim, Scotty. He can’t go; you can. I already asked him, and he turned me down flat for medical reasons. I need you, man."

The engineer finally looked Pike in the face, the glint in his eye now a fire. "Aye. Grannie always said I should never turn my back on opportunity. Where’s that compuclipboard?" He handed the cylinder of ash to Pike, taking the board and signing it. "You’ll not mind launching the cylinder into space later, will you? It’s Grannie’s ashes, you understand. She wanted them sent above the plane of the galaxy, at escape speed."

"Not at all, Scott. It will be an honor to pay respects to the late Doctor Scott. She can even have full military honors, if you like; she probably deserves that much and more." It was clear Pike was overjoyed to have Scott.

Aiglekdos smiled and stepped back on the transporter pad. The technician understood the look from the engineer, sending him back to the Earth.


Author’s Note:

Although the piece was written with the tall ships of an earlier era in mind, I believe that Masefield’s Sea Fever expresses the drive that has driven and still drives Mankind to explore the uttermost reaches of this Earth; that has put humans on the moon; and that will ultimately put humans on other planets in this Solar System and perhaps on planets circling other stars, better than anything else I’ve read, a sentiment that I have put in Aiglekdos’ mouth. Since I’ve quoted the first two lines of one stanza, it seemed to me prudent to share the rest. The full text follows:

Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea's face, and a gray dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

--John Masefield                    


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This story can be found in printed form in ORION ARCHIVES 2229-2265  THE BEGINNINGS2
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