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Welcome to my page and the stories that I have written.

Writing for me is an escape from the real world and where I get to decide what happens to the characters.

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Chapter Four – Surveillance And Disclosure


By Jules

Author Notes – thank you for everybody who is still reading. It truly means a lot that people are reading after such a long time of being away. I hope you enjoy this next instalment.

This is the second story in my new series, and it would be helpful for you to read Please Tell Someone as this story continues straight into a new page from the ending scenes of that story.

This particular chapter does not have a lot more action happening, but is necessary to set up some of the key events yet to come later in this story.

The reason for this title will not become apparent until much later in the story, but was thought of ten (10) years ago or more, when the original plot came to me long before I added in the new adoption arc.

Any legal references, laws, requirements for reporting abuse, the steps taken afterwards, court proceedings and outcomes and interview protocols are all fictional. Some are based loosely on real laws and circumstances, but a lot are fabricated to suit my story only and have been changed to suit the plot I have derived. The same with which authorities are involved and their individual roles and responsibilities.

With some of my medical procedures, I have used real techniques and treatments to a certain extent, but there are some that are completely invented for my stories as well and are totally fictional and should not be used for real people. They are used to progress my stories and include for specific scenes as required.

Given that SeaQuest is set in the future, medical technology would have changed greatly, with new procedures and medications and medicines being discovered and put into practice.

Chapter Four – Surveillance And Disclosures

towards the end of the previous chapter:

Nathan whispered very softly, “Please don’t shut out the people who care and want to help, Lucas.”

And now the story continues:

Lucas’ brief unscheduled catnap was interrupted a few minutes later, as a number of crew members arrived at the mess hall for their own breakfast. A group of four people crashed through the doors, chatting away as they approached the serving tables, each picking up a tray.

The teenager was startled awake by the new voices and the clinking sound of crockery and cutlery, as trays were gathered and they began forming an orderly line. Rubbing at his face, the boy sat up and noticed that he had an impromptu audience.

‘Oops’ he thought to himself, he definitely had not intended for this to happen.

The teenager gave a sheepish grin to hide his embarrassment, “I told you this was a bad time of the day for me,” he gave as a quick fire excuse, shrugging off the possibility of there being any other reason for him falling asleep at the table.

I guess I will head to my cabin for a while,” he added with some hesitation, not knowing what else they wanted to hear. He hoped that none of them intended to follow him to try and talk. He wasn’t in the mood for any in-depth conversation or even to give a cheery ‘good morning’ yet to them.

I think that is a very good idea, Lucas,” Bridger agreed, holding off on wanting to debate anything where they were standing.

Thank you for breakfast, Don,” the boy said as he walked towards the set of doors leading out. He didn’t give any indication about what his schedule was going to be for the day.

My pleasure, Lucas, any time. Don’t forget to come back in here later today,” the head chef called out, receiving a hand gesture in acknowledgement of his statement. There was no further confirmation of what meal time he intended to return for.

After watching Lucas leave, Ben proceeded to line up in the queue with his own tray for breakfast. Kristin and the Captain sat down at the table that the teenager had left behind, with the chef promising to bring out their first meals of the day to them. Coffee was of course included with that offer.

Ben rejoined them with his overflowing tray. Sitting down to be included in the casual conversation, Miguel, Tim and Jonathan Ford arrived in the mess hall. They also took trays and selected their varying choices for breakfast. The Captain gestured for them to join their table.

Good morning, Doctor Westphalen and Captain,” Ford said formally. “We are all in here early this morning.”

Pleasant morning greetings were exchanged between everyone as Miguel and Tim took up seats at the table.

I have to start my day shift after breakfast, so I was up earlier so that I could tend to my plants,” O’Neill commented in answer to Ford’s comment.

My shift starts after I finish here too,” Miguel added as his reason. “What is your excuse today, Krieg?” not daring to ask Doctor Westphalen or the Captain.

I have some important things to attend to this morning, Ortiz,” Ben said cryptically, but his usual jovial persona then changed. “Unfortunately there were certain individuals seated at this table before you arrived that were awake and up even earlier.”

Who?” Ford asked, trying to think of the duty roster for other crew members on-board. Most day shifts on the Bridge didn’t start until seven o’clock in the morning. He had not been thinking about their resident computer geek being up at such an early time.

Lucas,” Krieg answered. “Something was definitely bothering that kid, apart from what we already know about. Though my stellar efforts last night probably went a long way towards that too,” he added in self reproach. “Before you three came in here a few moments ago, we discovered him slumped over the table here sound asleep. At least Don had seen to it that he had eaten decently this morning.”

Commander Ford looked about the faces at the table wearing a puzzled expression. He didn’t note that coming from Miguel and Tim. Jonathan assumed that he was the only one out of the loop about anything that happened the previous night involving the teenager.

I haven’t seen Lucas since he left the recreation room,” Ortiz piped in. “Surely he went back to his cabin to sleep last night?”

Tim nodded his head in agreement, “He was pretty upset from what I could see like I told you, but it wasn’t all your fault, Ben.”

Nathan told me about the incidents involving those horrid men yesterday that occurred even earlier than your movie night,” Kristin interjected. “By the time he came down to the science department, I could tell that something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. He didn’t stay there long enough for me to find out. He was trying to avoid any scrutiny, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to hide his anxiety. I think Lucas only went down to my laboratories looking for a safe haven until he got himself a little more under control emotionally.”

He probably suspected that someone would follow him back to his cabin after leaving the movie, and tried to find an alternative place,” Ortiz surmised.

Movie?” Ford asked, following that somehow Lucas had become upset and was looking to hide away from everybody and find some space for himself.

I am sorry you were not invited last night, Commander,” Krieg replied. “After you heard his choice words to Murphy near the moon pool, I drummed up an impromptu social night, with only a handful of people. I was trying to create a more social atmosphere, where he could relax. The Captain and I limited who the guests were because we weren’t even sure if he was going to turn up in the first place. It wouldn’t have mattered who came in the end anyway after the epic failure that the night turned into.”

No problem, Krieg,” Ford remarked. A movie night seemed a little low key to him compared to some of the other social events that the Morale Officer held.

Those seated at the table were part of Bridger’s small network; Krieg felt the need to continue a little more about how their young friend was fairing in general after yesterday.

Lucas stormed past Bridger and me in the corridor and declared that he wasn’t talking to the human race for the rest of eternity. He had a whole lot more to say back in his cabin to me though when I tried to talk to him. That time he wasn’t holding back and I got the first real glimpse of how he has viewed his whole situation since coming on-board, and I can’t say that I blame him.

Firstly those two idiots in the Captain’s quarters who were supposed to be putting the new furniture pieces together. Followed by Murphy tossing aside any help he was trying to offer about the computer system. Both times involved people attempting or succeeding in getting inside his personal space physically, which he is dead set against for obvious reasons.”

Lucas admits to feeling disillusioned about how standoffish people are about his offers to help around here, and the efforts that he has been putting in just to fit in around here in general,” Krieg explained. “He stated to me that almost every day since arriving here, and every time he turns around, someone finds it necessary for him to justify his presence on-board. Yesterday it happened more than once on the same day, deliberately. I guess even a nice, quiet and withdrawn kid like him has a breaking point too, because it was close to snapping. His tirade didn’t last long, and he was more pessimistic than angry by the time I left his cabin.”

The movie I chose had a boxing storyline to it,” Krieg informed Ford. “Tim told us that he observed Lucas trying to shield himself from the sounds and images on the screen with a cushion. I didn’t know that it would trigger bad memories about his father for him.”

The doctor had made a mental note the previous night to say something to him about his efforts being positive ones. Now seemed like the perfect time, and to prevent Ben from berating himself over something that was out of his control. None of the people seated at the table thought less of him. More importantly, she was convinced that Lucas most likely wouldn’t do so either.

Now you listen to me, Lieutenant,” Kristin lightly scolded, pointing a finger at him, but using a gentle tone of voice, noting that his own guilt was the enemy at the moment.

Nobody blames you for how he was feeling last night, Ben. You tried to do something nice for both the Captain and Lucas, and a movie that I suspect holds memories that you and Nathan’s son shared together as good friends. You are a caring person and you were merely carrying out an act of kindness,” she said. “ I am a doctor, so don’t even think of arguing with me,” she added with a smile.

The other men except Bridger gathered around the breakfast table were grinning at the chastising the Ben was receiving from Kristin. It was clear though from the expression on his face, that the man still wasn’t totally convinced that his actions hadn’t caused more hurt for the teenager.

Tell that to Lucas,” Ben said, looking direct back at her. “You both saw like I did, how tired his face looked when he was sleeping across this very table. At an hour that he is quite convinced needs to be recorded as a crime.”

Nathan couldn’t help but mull over some of the comments that Ben had shared around the table, spoken by Lucas. He wished the teenager had shared more of what he was feeling with him earlier in the day in his quarters.

Kristin is right, Ben,” Bridger interjected, “You tried to do something positive. We need you to be the happy and carefree person that we usually see and keep being his friend. And I will repeat that I do appreciate what you tried to do last night for my benefit concerning Robert. I hope you will share more of the times you spent together when you feel like doing so.”

By now, everyone at the table had finished their meals, and were down to their second and last cups of coffee before departing to start their duties. It was still relatively early, and more crew members were coming in for their own breakfast. From this table, they could speak without worrying about being overheard too much. With Bridger seated at the table, most crew members thought that the Captain was conducting a morning briefing about the vessel and intended to steer clear.

Since all of us are gathered here around the same table, we may as well have a little impromptu meeting amongst our little network,” Bridger suggested. “Those who are currently present anyway. I may as well let you in on what new pieces of information and interesting clues that I found out about Lucas yesterday. Firstly in the morning when he was working on the holographic program in my quarters. Secondly, later in the evening when I went to check up on him after he left the movie so suddenly.”

Krieg tried to do what the Captain was asking; push his guilt aside. The man was right, Ben needed to act like his normal self. He was intrigued by the ‘new’ information being offered. He noticed that everybody else sitting at the table was eager to listen too.

Bridger turned to the doctor first, seeing that he did have everybody’s undivided attention, “You told me yesterday morning that Lucas wanted to ask me a question about something, but didn’t tell you what.”

That’s right, Lucas told me that it didn’t really matter and wasn’t that important after he left your quarters,” Kristin stated, recalling the words she had previously repeated to Nathan from the teenager.

After he found you in there asleep in your chair, Sir,” Krieg chuckled with mirth. There were three sets of raised eyebrows after this curious comment from Ben. “Hopefully the new armchair we put together for you this morning will be a little more comfortable for the next time you decide to take a snooze.”

Anyway…..” the Captain said, trying to divert the conversation back to what he was saying. “I found out what the question was. After you left Ben, and while you were escorting those two clowns to the Bridge, Lucas stayed when I asked him to. Reluctantly at first because of what had happened, but then he and I talked for a few minutes. He began looking around at some of the artifacts and historical pieces I have on display in my quarters and asking about their origins.”

What he was really doing apart from looking from a general interest point-of-view, was hedging away from something he was finding difficult to ask me. He admitted to me himself that he had been trying to pluck up the courage to ask the question for a few days,” Bridger continued. “On a good news front, he may not have any family that he can count on to help him through these difficult times, but he does have friends outside.”

Ben was the first react, “Friends? Well of course he does, he is a likeable type of kid. That is great isn’t it?”

Two best friends he tells me,” Bridger revealed and nodded at Ben’s remark. “I know very little about them yet, but Lucas wanted to ask me if he could contact them to let them know where he was living now. Being placed aboard SeaQuest with only last minute notice, he tells me he didn’t get the chance to tell them beforehand.”

That is fantastic news, Nathan,” Kristin said with a smile. “We asked about other family members that could be contacted, but didn’t consider that there was another possibility. I hope you told him it would be alright to contact them.”

Yes, of course I did, but I didn’t quite understand why he was so nervous. He told me that he trusts these two friends with his life,” Bridger reported. “He was quite relieved when I told him could. He told me that he would tell me more about them both at another time.”

So when is he going to contact them?” Ben asked, wanting to find out more about these friends. The loyalty and dependability between these two mysterious friends and Lucas must run deep. Considering that the teenager wouldn’t let too many people on-board yet get close to him, and that he had willingly told Bridger.

Lucas told me that these two particular friends have helped him through some dark times in the past, unbeknown to his father,” the Captain informed them. “That is why he was so anxious about asking me. He assumed I might tell him ‘no’ and wasn’t so sure that he wanted to take that chance. He told me that his father doesn’t know much about these friends, and would prefer it to remain that way, for their safety.”

The Captain spoke directly to Tim O’Neill, “I told Lucas that he can speak to you quietly about gaining a secure line to be able to talk to them whenever he is ready, with my full permission.”

Yes, Sir,” Tim nodded in acknowledgement.

However, that may not even happen now, after what happened in his cabin after he left you, Kristin,” Nathan forewarned.

Why not?” Miguel asked before everybody else. They were all thinking that some genuine progress had been made in the right direction.

Lucas had a stroke of inspiration at the last minute about being able to contact them secretly and devised a way without anybody else knowing,” Bridger informed them.

When I first arrived outside his cabin, I thought he was talking to someone inside the room. I must admit I felt like a bit of a dirty rotten stool pigeon, standing there listening to his private conversation without permission.”

Naughty, naughty, Sir,” Krieg accused with a brief laugh, but was aware that the Captain may not have found anything out if he had revealed his presence to the teenager.

I don’t plan on making it a habit, I promise,” Bridger replied. “I am trying to be honest with him from the start, I told him that myself. Finding this out happened by pure accident and wasn’t intentional at all. I trust you will all keep what we have spoken about here today between us only.”

Somehow he has hacked into the computer system of the SeaQuest, and created a secure line for himself through one of his online gaming platforms,” Bridger described.

According to his own words, if he did it correctly, nobody should be able to track his movements. And he uses a secure password and alternate user-name anyway.”

Oh you have to tell us, Captain,” Ben begged.

He won’t be able to tell you, Krieg, otherwise Lucas will know,” Tim pointed out plainly. His words had the desired affect, and they all realised that they would have to keep anything they heard secret and to themselves.”

I will leave you finding that out from Lucas yourself, Ben,” Bridger responded. “He only spoke to one of these friends, not both of them. They all seem to have these alter egos or descriptive user-names for each other. I cannot remember what the other name was now. Unfortunately I didn’t get to learn their real names either.

Ben was already making a mental note to himself. When he had been talking to Lucas in his cabin a few days ago, the teenager had outright refused to reveal any of them. It was unfair that Bridger had found out about at least one without even trying. He wanted to know what this nickname was that the boy used online. Krieg was convinced that he could find out without his friend getting suspicious.

Bridger paused talking for a moment before continuing. “You should have heard the reaction of this friend,” he started to smile. “It was obvious that some time has past since they have seen each other in person, or been able to keep in touch through any other form of communication. Lucas sounded excited to be talking to this person and the rare moment of happiness was evident in his voice.”

For the first few minutes, the friend couldn’t contain the overwhelming anxiety from his voice either as soon as he heard Lucas’ confirm that it was really him talking. He was literally finding it different to string two coherent words together until he accepted that it was Lucas. From what I able to gather, these two friends have been worried for several months about what happened to him. Lucas promised that he would have kept in contact if he had been able to.”

What do you mean by that comment, ‘what happened to him?’ Krieg questioned. Leaving such an open ended statement didn’t bode well.

Bridger’s mood turned a little more sour at this point, with his face showing his displeasure, “Lawrence Wolenczak apparently turned up unannounced at Stanford College suddenly one day and without any prior warning. The last time these friends saw him was when he was being shoved into a car by his father. Lucas was ripped out of there before being given the opportunity to explain to anyone where he was going, or the chance to say goodbye.

Kristin looked like she was about to smash the coffee mug sitting in front of her into little pieces. Being a doctor, she was normally a very caring and kind person, and had endless amount of compassion and patience. In relation to Lawrence Wolenczak, that was changing with everything she was learning about how he had been treating his son. After finding out about the physical abuse the teenager had been receiving only recently, they could only assume that he would have found himself in a similar situation on that occasion.

Here is something else that none of you will be too happy to hear either,” Nathan forewarned. “They were convinced something bad had already happened, because they were searching the daily obituary pages of the online newspapers, expecting to see his name mentioned.”

The sobering expressions on those seated at the table reflected how they felt at hearing such a statement.

We may have to keep on our toes around here in the near future,” Bridger pre-empted. “Lucas didn’t exactly tell this friend yet that he was living on a U.E.O. classified submarine under the ocean. He commented that it was best that they didn’t know his whereabouts for now. He told this friend that he was with people who were trying to help him, but didn’t elaborate further or give out our names or level of involvement.”

That is a positive step in the right direction that he understands that we are doing that,” Miguel remarked.

What are you thinking, Ben?” Kristin asked, seeing the puzzled expression the Morale Officer sitting across the table wore.

“The invitation I made to the movie night…..,” he answered, pausing and thinking a little more before continuing. “When I mentioned what kind of social night I had in mind, he brought up a little more about himself in the form of a story. He told me about a friend who lived with a grandfather, and owned a large collection of old vinyl music records, cassettes and compact discs. There were also a lot of old movies according to him, though he had only seen it once.”

“Maybe this person the Captain heard him talking to over the gaming platform, is the same friend,” Tim added, following Krieg’s train of thought.

“I cannot remember the name of the grandfather, but I guess that is not that important at the moment,” Ben stated.

“This friend that I heard Lucas talking to wanted to make sure that ‘we’ as those people, were taking care of him and could be trusted,” Bridger said in complete seriousness. “From the warning tone in his voice, he was prepared to take action if he was told or thought otherwise,” he added.

Everyone seated at the table were totally floored by that statement. They were all doing their best to make sure that nobody was intent on bringing harm to him, physically or any other way.

“The next question was straight to the point, asking if he was safe,” Bridger informed them.

“That is great that someone else apart from us is not afraid to bring up or ask that question of Lucas,” Ben declared.

“Lucas confirmed that he was safe for now, but he was offered alternative living arrangements by this friend any-time he chooses to leave SeaQuest. For as long as he needs,” the Captain continued. “It may not sound ideal to us right now, but Lucas said he would keep it in mind.

The friend told Lucas that the both of them could be a car in ten minutes to rescue him. He seemed pretty darned determined to do it if Lucas gave the word and wanted them to,” the Captain continued. “Lucas didn’t directly turn him down and say ‘no’ either. He said he would keep it in reserve for another time.”

From the way they were talking, I think we can presume that these friends know a whole lot more about Lawrence Wolenczak than we do at the moment. There was no love lost when his name was briefly mentioned. This person repeated what Lucas has already stated to us, that his father is bad news and is going to be difficult to stop in trying to gain back control of his son’s life.”

Do they know about the abuse that he has been suffering through in the past?” Kristin weighed in.

Yes, they must do on some level, and I assume that is why Lucas was offered rescue and sanctuary,” Bridger answered. “There was a hint of acknowledgement that he had been on the receiving end of some punishment after leaving Stanford campus. He was silent again when it came to giving away any of the details, even to this friend.”

Tim O’Neill was finding it difficult to understand like all of them, how a parent had some to treat their child so terribly. The teachings that he had learned by attending a Catholic Church taught him that children were supposed to be loved by their family. Compared to Lucas, his own childhood and upbringing had been very different.

More information was beginning to emerge about the man, Lawrence Wolenczak and what lengths he had gone in the past. For his son, it was clear that he had ensured that any contact with the rest of the world was monitored and controlled. How much more would they find out about such tactics? And were they ready to hear them?

It wasn’t long before those topics of conversation that were brought up and changed his mood entirely. Any relief he had gained through talking evaporated in an instant,” Bridger revealed, recalling the sound of the teenager’s voice. “Lucas told this friend that these ‘good people’, meaning us, had found out about what his father was doing.”

That must have come as a shock to them?” Krieg voiced. From what they were hearing from the Captain, Lucas was willing to open up a lot more to this friend than he had with any of them. Even Bridger himself.

The Captain nodded his head in acknowledgement of the man’s correct assumptions.

That boy is still berating himself harshly over allowing his darkest secret being found out at all. He even had trouble getting the words out of his mouth. For a brief moment I thought the situation was going to mirror the emotional outburst he had in his cabin in front of me,” Nathan commented. “For him it is a sign of nothing but failure on his part of not being able to distance himself enough away from anybody.”

I would go so far as to say that it is playing on his mind an awful lot. The one true factor that is driving every action and reaction even here on-board. He is scared that his father is going to find out that somebody else has discovered the truth about his home life. I have seen it first-hand. The fear that he is currently carrying around just beneath the surface, is unmistakable and very prevalent.”

Lucas has established quite a few safety measures as best he can, to enable him to cope with his father’s tyranny,” the Captained explained. “Secretly hiding away from any threat is a one such method we found out by accident. No doubt there are probably others that nobody even knows about. There were discussions with this friend of at least one other, that is far more sophisticated in its set up and planning.”

What is it?” Miguel Ortiz asked with intrigue, seeing the same question and interest on the other faces around the table.

Some of them had already seen a demonstration of the teenager’s ability to solve problems. Lucas had already shown a level of intelligence that was extraordinary for someone his age during the short time he had been on-board. Computers, language, technology, advanced programming, the list was already impressive. What other skills did he possess?

Bridger answered with another question of his own, “With the training that you have all received as personnel aboard this vessel, and as members of the military service in general, I am sure you are familiar with the ‘defence readiness condition’ alert system that was devised by the armed services?”

You mean the Defcon system?” Ford queried, not sure what that had to do with Lucas and his unnamed friend.

Yes, Commander, that is precisely what I mean,” Bridger said with a grin. “Lucas has developed some kind of comparable system for these friends. From what little I understand about it so far, it correlates directly with how much danger he is at any one time. I don’t have details yet of all the individual levels, but as of right now, he told this friend that he is at Defcon Level Four.”

Level Four?” Kristin spoke up, with a puzzled expression. Like Jonathan Ford, she was trying to draw a line of reference of how such a system related directly to their youngest crew member.

Doctor Westphalen, the system that the crew of this vessel adhere to states or prescribes that there are five graduated levels of readiness for the military,” Tim O’Neill filled in for her. “It starts as Level Five, which is least severe and worsens to Level One which is most severe.”

I know there is such a system, but how does that involve Lucas?” Kristin commented, knowing the bespectacled man had meant well with his reply. Being a civilian doctor, those in the military downplayed what knowledge she had about their operations and regulations. She didn’t always agree with them, and certainly wasn’t afraid to voice her opinion when they encroached on her staff or their duties.

Lucas severed the connection to the internex a few minutes after declaring this level,” Bridger told them. “From that moment onwards, all communication and chatter between them is to be in some kind of secret code. And he will contact them, not the other way around.”

A secret code that we may never be able to properly decipher,” Ortiz pointed out. “If it is anything like any of those computer languages that he mentioned while figuring out the coding problem to my station, then we are all sunk.”

I think Lucas only brought up the secret code because he still doesn’t feel safe from his father’s reach,” Nathan added. “The assurances that I have personally given him haven’t been enough.”

Ben Krieg made himself sit up a little straighter, taking on a determined stance. “Thank you Captain, for new pieces of information. It is great to hear that Lucas has past friends who are willing to help him and have done so previously. As for myself, I need to be doing something positive now, here on-board, as one of his newer friends. Not waiting for someone to come and rescue him away from here.”

What do you want to do, Ben?” Bridger queried. “I think you have been doing a very fine job so far. You have been his confidante and gained his trust to a certain degree already in such a short space of time.”

With your permission of course, Sir, tonight I am going to try the social event route,” Krieg explained, ignoring the Captain’s praise. “Instead of a movie night though, just a little impromptu party. Some snacks and finger foods to eat, and some non-alcoholic drinks. A little music and a positive but relaxed atmosphere. That should eliminate any awkwardness like what happened last night.”

Do you think he would be willing to attend?” Kristin asked. She liked what the young Lieutenant was trying to achieve, but after seeing the teenager last night and this morning, perhaps Ben was being overly optimistic.

I am hoping to appeal to his better nature that it is not just for his benefit,” Ben answered. “Other than that, pure intentional and unashamed begging on my part.”

The group gathered around the table laughed at that comment from the Morale Officer. They were aware of how Krieg used charm to persuade others into doing things or co-operating with his unusual plans.

Actually, you may not have to do that, Ben,” Bridger commented. “When I finally did alert Lucas to my presence outside his cabin door last night, I mentioned to him about skipping out on your movie night. He wasn’t going to admit to what caused him to leave so suddenly, but he did feel guilty enough about not telling you. I hinted to him that he may not be able to turn down your next invitation so easily.”

Well, that’s settled then,” Ben declared with renewed energy. “Everybody seated here is invited of course, including both of you Commander Ford, and Doctor Westphalen.

I think I will still use a little restraint on the number of guests invited and keep them low. I am sure Don won’t object to turning out a few platters of eats that will tempt our young friend.”

I can supply some of the background music if you want, Krieg?” Tim O’Neill offered.

Sure Tim, that would be great,” Ben said with thanks. “Turn up in the recreation room a few minutes beforehand to set up. Other than that, the atmosphere will be low-key and without routine. Just a chance to mingle, talk and share some good food for a couple of hours. That way, there is no heavy onus on anybody to do anything specific, but to turn up and be themselves.”

I am heading down to my science department, Ben, but if you need any other assistance before tonight, you can approach me at any time,” Kristin advised. “I have quite a lot of work that I want to achieve before then.”

The group began packing up their trays and crockery, planning to leave and attend to their own duties for the day.

Bridger told Jonathan Ford that he would be along in a few minutes, but was sharing a last minute conversation with Kristin.

Tim and Miguel were discussing genres of music for the night’s promised activities as they left the mess hall together to start their day shifts. Miguel offered a few of his own pieces from his own collection of music for O’Neill to use.

Ben watched everybody leave, intent on staying long enough to talk to the Head Chef. Grabbing his tray, he proceeded to approach the serving counter.

Just returning these, Don,” Krieg shouted out to the man.

The breakfast line up had slowed a little. There were still hot dishes on offer for last minute stragglers or late risers. The avocados on toast had gone down a treat, and there were none left. There was still a healthy amount of scrambled egg with bacon pieces available.

Don the chef, wiped his hands on his apron, walking over to collect the tray, but wondering why Krieg had decided to do it this morning. Normally the guy left his tray on the tables for someone else to clear away like most of the crew on-board.

That will be a first from you. Keep that up and I will think that you are up to no good,” Don commented. “Lucas is proving to be a good influence on you in the good manners department, Ben.”

Now that hurts, Don,” Krieg fired back in his own defence. “I am doing you a favour.”

In return for…………?” the Chef gauged, knowing there was a reason behind it. “With you doing the asking, I can’t help but be suspicious.”

About what?” Ben countered. “I came here to return my breakfast tray, and ask if you wouldn’t mind helping me out for later on this evening.”

Here it comes……,” Don pre-empted, waiting to hear the man’s request.

I am having a little get together tonight, for say no more than ten people. In the recreation room at about six o’clock,” Krieg explained. “I wanted to know if you would make up some finger food platters. I would be needing some sodas and other drinks to wash everything down with. Nothing too fancy or complicated, but a nice assortment to go around.”

And you are only just telling me this now!” Don challenged, looking down at his watch. The number of people didn’t sound too many, but still. “A little warning in future would be nice, Krieg,” the chef proclaimed.

Ben knew that he asking a lot and not allowing a lot of preparation time, “This isn’t for me this time. I am organising a little social night that will include Lucas.”

That who the food is for?” the chef asked. He was tempted to ask Ben what he had done to the kid to try and make up for. The chef knew the man was making some genuine efforts where the teenager was concerned, so he refrained from bringing the matter up.

Some music, some eats and a little relaxed talking, nothing more. It will be for everybody, but I am hoping to lure him there a little later with an open invitation,” Ben answered. “He told the Captain that he was going back to his cabin when he left here. I hope it was to get a little more sleep, so I will ask him later when he is awake.”

He did look tired when he came in here, even before the Captain arrived,” Don remarked. “Alright Krieg, I will help you out and supply the platters and drinks. We don’t know everything he likes yet, but I will put together a few samples that I hope he will find tempting. There will be enough for everybody. You are going to owe me.”

Thank you,” Ben said cheerfully, as he turned and started to leave, heading off to find and planning to speak to Bridger. “I will definitely owe you,” he added as he exited the doors.

Arriving back in her science departments, Kristin was met by one of her senior staff members who was brimming with excitement.

Doctor Westphalen, what you have achieved in the last few days is tremendous, and I know everybody down here is very thankful for your extra efforts and dedication,” the woman stated.

Thank you Jane, for your sentiments but what are you talking about?” Kristin asked politely. Her duties over the past week weren’t out of the ordinary or anything that should be deemed as ground-breaking. If she wanted to be brutally honest, the current pace of testing was behind schedule. And some areas had not received anywhere near the amount of attention that was planned.

All the labelling you did,” the woman said, her expression turning one of confusion. At first the technician thought that the doctor may been downplaying her role, but now she noticed that Kristin really didn’t understand what her words of praise were for. “Both laboratories, one and two. All natural specimens and all the geology samples have been been carefully named with all the correct genus and common names.”

All of them?” Kristin said with more than a little surprise. That was a task she had been hoping to achieve over the next several weeks. To hear now that it had been carried out was very strange. Nobody had been authorised or assigned yet to carry out such a task, because they were all busy with more pressing work demands.

I am sorry, I assumed that you did it,” Jane replied. “I don’t know who else would have done it.”

Walking with the young woman into the first laboratory, “Show me what has been done,” Kristin instructed, wanting to view first-hand what the young woman was pleased about.

Gazing at each individual specimen in turn, she could see what had been done. The science department had made a great deal of progress since she had given Lucas a tour through these laboratories. A number of slides had now been prepared for the non-living specimens, dead coral samples, rock and sediments.

Looking intently at the slides, she could see the labelling that had taken place. With each being hand-written in very small and neat print, she now knew the identity of the person who had done it.

Lucas told me that he was almost finished working on the software that I asked him about, but he didn’t mention anything to me about taking on any of this work,” Kristin said with gratitude in her voice. She could guess fairly accurately at how long it may have taken him to do them all. Where he had found that extra time she didn’t know.

The next laboratory is done as well,” Jane informed her. “All of the animal, plant and micro-organisms.”

Kristin was shocked again, and exited the first laboratory, only to enter the second. She had heard the woman mention that both sections had been completed, but it took looking about now for her to fully comprehend just how much work the teenager had done without saying a word. She hadn’t seem him down here during the day when she had been working. How many hours had he been doing this without her team noticing?

The young man that is staying on-board here,” Kristin said as she saw that Jane had not put a face to the name. “He has done all of this, I recognize his hand-writing. I must thank him as soon as I see him.” She remembered the game they had played and enjoyed together testing each other’s knowledge. Lucas had gone above and beyond what she would ordinarily expect and put those skills into practical use.

Well he has done a great job,” Jane applauded. “It will make a big difference to us down here. I hope you will pass along thanks on our behalf.”

I plan to make sure that he receives full credit for what he has done,” Kristin assured her. “I expect him to be down here a little more frequently so you will be able to pass along your thanks directly to him. Though he may act too shy at first. He is still finding his way around down here and the rest of the vessel.”

I will remember that if I see him. I will go back to my own duties now,” Jane stated, leaving the doctor alone with her own thoughts.

Kristin assumed that he would be sleeping in his cabin after leaving the mess hall, so talking to him would have to wait until he was awake. She would be passing on all of the praise and comments being made by her staff.

Walking through the corridor on his way past the moon pool, the Captain stopped and did a double-take when he spotted a familiar figure sitting on the backless stool, petting Darwin.

I thought you were going to get some more sleep this morning?” Bridger brought up as he came up alongside the teenager.

Sleeping is over-rated,” Lucas declared with a half grin, trying to downplay the man’s concerns. The truth was he had returned to his cabin, but sleep still wouldn’t come naturally. The short doze across the table this morning had been a mistake that he hadn’t been able to replicate. His mind was on overdrive and proving hard to shut down.

What are you and Darwin planning to do today?” Nathan asked, genuinely interested in the progress the teenager was making with the vocorder program. He had been maintaining his own method of communicating with the dolphin on his island and thought that well ahead of its time. This new concept invented by Lucas who was so young was fascinating.

Mainly revision work today,” Lucas replied, playing with various buttons on the controller. “I still cannot get into the tank to swim and play with him yet,” he added glumly.

Directly any further comments away about his stitches, the boy changed subjects entirely, “I did go by your cabin before coming here to look at your new furniture.”

Oh, what did you think?” Bridger questioned. “Ben and I struggled getting one of the armrests into the correct alignment. Eventually we got it to work. I think they look great. I haven’t had the chance to try them out.”

The sofa looks comfortable and large enough, but rather plain and boring in the colour department if you ask me,” Lucas answered. “Not that I have a whole lot of experience with furniture or décor to base that opinion on.”

Well boring and plain suits me just fine, thank you,” the Captain said with stoicism. “I told Commander Ford that I didn’t have any preference for the fabric or the colour, so you will have to take that up with Ben.”

That is alright then, I will tell him that he is plain and boring,” the boy said with a small laugh.

Did someone mention my name?” Krieg asked as he approached the moon pool. The man was carrying a clipboard in his hands. “I thought you were supposed to be sleeping?”

Bridger knew what Ben was there to do, and didn’t want to be seen putting any pressure on the teenager’s decision. “I am headed back to the Bridge, but I will talk some more with you later.”

The teenager ignored Ben’s question about sleeping entirely. It was the second time within less than half an hour that someone had brought up the same subject. It was different for him, and he couldn’t do it on command just because it was the expected thing to be doing at a certain time.

The furniture in the Captain’s quarters, I took a peek before coming here” Lucas told him with a little teasing in his voice. “When I brought up about the fabric colour choices, he mentioned that you were responsible for selecting and ordering them. That is why the colours are plain and boring.”

That’s it, you are off the invitation list,” Ben taunted back, using the comment as a casual way of introducing why he was standing there.

What invitation list?” the teenager questioned. “What are you planning now?”

I am having another get together with a few of the crew tonight,” Ben started to say, but saw the immediate change of expression on the boy’s face. “Don’t worry, it won’t be another movie night I promise.”

I am sorry I left there without telling you, it wasn’t you,” Lucas apologised, unable to mask his guilt well enough. “Please believe that it wasn’t anything you did.”

There was never any obligation for last night,” Ben said with some honesty, not wanting to bring up what Tim had witnessed. “On the next movie night, you can pick what we watch.”

Thanks for understanding,” Lucas responded, trying to deflect any further discussion on the topic, he asked a question of his own. “What is tonight supposed to be all about?”

By agreeing to come tonight, you will go some way towards restoring your good name in my books….,” Ben joked, seeing a hint of a smile from the teenager in return. He dropped the act and continued, “Tonight isn’t about anything specific. A very small group of people, mingling with some music, talking and generally just having a good time.”

Ben….,” Lucas said, giving a tired sigh. He didn’t want to sound ungrateful, and Bridger was right about owing him, but he didn’t know if he had another social night in him today. He looked back at Krieg’s grin and expectant face, and felt worse because he couldn’t give a concrete yes or no.

Krieg could see the reaction, and the temptation to say ‘no’ on the tip of his tongue, “Hey, no obligation remember, just like yesterday. Come if you want to, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t.” Although the morale officer was silently hoping that he would agree.

I will be there,” Lucas agreed, but didn’t give any other assurances. “Oh and tomorrow I can start to give you a demonstration of that software that I designed for you,” he added, completely changing the topic of discussion again.

You finished it already?” Krieg said with surprise. When talking to the teenager only a couple of days ago, he had mentioned that he was working on it, but it had only been half done at that point.

All done, and you can start using it once I show you how,” Lucas confirmed, pleased that he had been able to do something for Ben that would make his job easier. “Today, I want to keep working with Darwin for a bit longer.”

No sooner had he made the comment though, the dolphin swam away in the opposite direction, headed out of the moon pool tank.

Or maybe not,” he remarked. The distraction of talking to the Captain and then Ben had taken away the animal’s co-operation on working with the teenager and his vocabulary for now.

Don’t take it personally, Darwin probably had a better offer of a fish,” he said with amusement. I had better get back to work too,” Ben commented, knowing that there was some set up work to do in the recreation room in a few hours.

The teenager gave a small grin in return. For the next few hours, he would have to find something else to keep himself occupied. To be honest, any motivation to start anything complicated had disappeared when his aquatic friend had left.

Krieg was counting on tonight’s activities to keep the teenager’s attention a little longer than the previous night. He was banking on the presence of the Captain and Doctor Westphalen as being the back up plan to help with that.

By the time five o’clock in the afternoon came around, the recreation room was a hive of activity, with Ben Krieg being right in the middle of the chaos. Tim and Miguel were getting the music organized, still deciding between them which genre to play. Both had bought quite an impressive repertoire to utilise. They weren’t sure what would appeal to everybody in the room at the same time.

The food tables had been set up, and Don had brought in a number of tempting platters of finger foods. He had slapped Krieg’s hand away on a number of occasions, telling him to wait until everybody had arrived. The chef himself was asked at the last minute to join them if he wanted to, but respectfully declined. There wasn’t anything on the table that was unusual or too fancy.

The Captain and Doctor Westphalen arrived almost an hour later together, when everything was almost in place. Ben had done a terrific job at setting up the casual night with not a whole lot of time to do so. Commander Ford was one of the last to arrive, dressed in casual off-hours attire.

Bridger walked over to Ben, wanting to ask where the last guest was, but he was beaten to the punch before being able to ask anything.

Lucas was reluctant to agree when I asked him,” Ben commented, “But he said he would come.”

No sooner had he made the statement, Lucas walked through the door of the recreation room, a small smile on his face as he greeted Tim and Miguel. His expression changed to a slight frown at listening to the soft, gentle music playing in the room. It wouldn’t normally be something he would choose, but kept silent about its lack of appeal to him.

Hi,” he said simply to everyone, standing beside the Captain. Kristin was beside Nathan. Everyone exchanged pleasantries, but the lack of spontaneous conversation was evident.

Lucas had taken a hot a shower, hoping the steam would revitalise him and help him to stay awake a little longer. Before turning up to the recreation room, he had been working on Ben’s inventory program back in his cabin, and adding a few last minute touches. After telling Ben that it was ready to put into action, he wanted to double check that it was the case.

By now, he was starting to feel very lethargic. He didn’t want to fall asleep in front of the small gathering like he had done this morning in the mess hall. At the moment, with the messages that were being exchanged between his brain and the rest of his body, that was a distinct possibility.

When Bridger had challenged him near the moon pool he hadn’t felt as tired as he did right now. He was hoping to get away with showing up to apologise to Ben for the movie night, but nothing more. He had never been a social butterfly, and wasn’t interested in being one tonight. An hour should be enough, less than two in mixed company was his goal.

Glad you could make it, Lucas,” Ben declared with enthusiasm. When he surveyed where everybody was standing in the room though, he didn’t like what he was seeing.

Ben swiftly grabbed a cold drink, pushed it into teenager’s hand, “Come on, everybody here has met each other before, this is supposed to be a party, not a nun convention. There is a great big sofa over there to sit on and talk. Some of you go over there,” he instructed. “Other people can stay here near the food tables. We are not mannequins, spontaneous and embarrassing dancing is permitted and encouraged.”

This brought a burst of laughter from the teenager, “To this music, Krieg? You must be kidding. Thankfully I am not much of a dancer anyway.”

Captain Bridger and Jonathan Ford grinned at the energy that Ben was bringing to the event, enough for everybody all on his own. In keeping with his wishes, they moved towards the large sofas, happy to join in some conversation.

Just remember gentlemen,” Krieg warned his two senior officers. “The same rules apply tonight, that there will be no talk of work inside these walls. They are meant for you too, Doc,” he directed at Kristin.

I will be on my best behaviour,” the red-headed woman promised, picking up one of the drinks, and trying to be a little more involved in the social atmosphere Ben was trying to create.

Kristin was trying to figure a way to talk to Lucas and thank him for his efforts in her science department, but with the teenager was still standing next to Ben near the table of food. Adhering to his wishes, and taking into account the teenager’s quiet mood, she doubted that he would appreciate the spotlight. She would have to wait to talk to him on his own another time.

Ben glanced over at Lucas, seeing him standing near the buffet table and surveying what was on offer. There was something else though that caught his attention. The boy appeared almost apprehensive and anxious, looking sideways in either direction, watching for anybody being too close. There must have be a reason for it, but Krieg couldn’t think of a viable answer.

You can try anything you like,” Krieg encouraged, grabbing a plate himself and placing more than a few morsels onto it, hoping the boy would follow and at least try some. “Some of these look great. I must remind myself to tell Don about what a fantastic job he did on the food.”

Lucas gave a small grin, and picked up a plate too, hoping to direct Ben’s attention away from the nervousness bubbling beneath the surface. In the back of his mind though something else caused the half smirk to disappear very quickly. He almost dropped the first piece he selected, and had to alter his grip at the last second to mask his clumsiness.

You can never make them understand!’ echoed back as his mind silently but harshly admonished himself.

Tim and Miguel joined the two of them, grabbing a plate each and perusing what was laid out. They were impressed with the selection as well, making a few appreciative noises at the smells and visual display.

How come there isn’t any chips for dipping and guacamole, Krieg?” Tim asked. “You keep telling Ortiz and me that you are some kind of connoisseur for Mexican cuisine, but I don’t see any of that reflected here on the table.”

Don must have played it safe tonight with the menu he gave us. You can both blame Lucas here for that little omission from tonight’s treats,” he poked in fun at the teenager. “Turns out that our young friend here is allergic to them. I already told him that my Mexican themed nights are ruined.

Lucas coped the jibe without being offended, but didn’t elaborate further.

I am allergic to some foods too, Lucas,” Tim admitted. “Some seafoods, not all of them. In the past, I have had trouble identifying which ones affect me and which ones don’t.”

Carrots for me. I usually break out into itchy and embarrassing hives,” Miguel interjected with slight annoyance. There had often been an disagreement between his mother and grandmother at home when he was growing up. His mother knew of the allergy, his grand-mother didn’t believe that they were the caused a problem.

None of you people are going to be fun at any of my parties,” Ben huffed with mock indignation. He was pleased that Tim and Miguel had shared their food allergies, so that Lucas wouldn’t feel like he was the only one being singled out.

With a few uneaten pieces of food on his plate and what remained of his drink, Lucas took them away from the table, towards the sofas. He didn’t know what Ben and the others wanted to talk casually about and no interesting topics were coming to mind. Tim had gone to change the music to something with a little more beat to it, but kept the volume low enough that it wasn’t being intrusive.

Ben and Miguel were still by the food table, exchanging a few recipes that they had tried in the past. Krieg liked spicy food, as did Ortiz, so there was a lot of common ground between them.

Sitting down, fatigue was washing over Lucas in waves, settling in like a heavy curtain. He was surprised that the Captain and Kristin hadn’t noticed it when he came into the room. Even Ben hadn’t said a word when they were standing near the food table. He doubted he was hiding how tired he was very well from anybody at this point.

Bridger offered a smile when the teenager sat close by. He was pleased to have the company. Kristin and Jonathan Ford were talking about vacations they had taken to various places. Both of them lived and breathed their jobs, even outside of their normal hours. Any minute now one of them was going to stray into work related territory.

Lucas was the first to make a random statement, but with his defences down, he didn’t realise that he was allowing the person listening to learn more about himself. “This is very different to from the investment parties that I am used to attending. At least this looks like real food.” He placed one of the samples into his mouth.

Been to a few of those type of events in the past?” Bridger asked cautiously, noting the mistake that had been made, but waiting to receive a little more detail. They probably weren’t that much different to the meetings he had attended with the Naval brass over the years. Plenty of food and refreshments provided, but usually strictly all military talk and very little achieved from any of them.

Lucas had finished the food, “That was nice enough. The food that the events I was forced to go to was often too rich for my simple taste. Stupid things like scraping dead snails out of their shell with the end of a toothpick, raw fish on tiny little crackers and Caviar served on small triangles of toast,” he added with disgust.

‘Not that I would have been allowed to try any of them anyway’ Lucas conceded miserably to himself as memories started to creep into his psyche.

Business meetings I suspect?” Bridger assumed. The part that of the boy’s speech that he had picked up on was ‘forced to attend’ in addition to the other disapproval voiced from Lucas.

Mostly endless hours of boredom spent with a bunch of stuffed-shirt people who didn’t speak a word of English. Japanese, Korean and a few other nationalities,” Lucas answered. “I wouldn’t recommend going to them to anyone, and there was never any good food and only high priced alcohol flowing from the bar.”

Nathan assumed from those admissions, that Lucas may be capable of speaking more foreign languages than French. How these people were associated with his father, Lawrence Wolenczak and his World Power empire was pure speculation.

Lucas finished the last two pieces of food on his plate, and drained the last of his soda. Tim was filling his own plate at the buffet table, and tasting a few of the samples.

The Captain had been drawn into the conversation with Kristin and Commander Ford, and was currently turned away from him. Miguel and Ben were over where the music was pumping out from, and arguing over the next choices.

The teenager had promised Ben to turn up, and as far as he was concerned, that was what he had done. He had even eaten some of the food, and mingled as much as he felt was necessary. The sofa he was sitting on was inviting, but he didn’t want the same situation as this morning in the mess hall. He needed to leave before he fell flat on his face in front of them. Somewhere in his not too distant future, he saw another much larger face to face apology going to Ben for spoiling another of his social nights.

Thankfully, nobody had glanced in his direction, or saw him stand up from the sofa. Lucas surprised himself with how smoothly his exit was.

A couple of uninterrupted hours of sleep, free from nightmares and current negative thoughts was what he was aiming for. Walking down the corridor away from the recreation room, he headed back to Mammal Engineering and his cabin.

Bridger turned around to say something to Lucas about what Jonathan had said, but noted that the sofa to his left was now vacant. There was an empty cup and plate nearby.

Looking about the room to spot the teenager, there was a new sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Oh Ben,” the Captain called out, standing up and taking another glance at the faces around the room. Everybody who was supposed to be in the room was except for one.

Krieg came walking over to Bridger, about to ask why he had been summoned, but Kristin spoke first from behind him.

Where is Lucas?” she asked. Jonathan Ford and her had been enjoying their casual exchange, but had lost track of the time for a few minutes. They had seen the teenager talking to the Captain and sharing a story, but hadn’t heard what they were talking about.

Lucas is missing again?” Ben said with dismay, looking about the expansive room himself. He noted those few people who were present, but the one face he was searching for was not amongst them. “He managed to slip out just as silently as the last time.”

He appeared to be calm when he was talking to you Nathan, not more than a few minutes ago,” Kristin interjected. “I saw him get food from the table at least once before coming down and sitting on the sofa.

Lucas was eating some of the delicious samples that Don provided for tonight,” Bridger reported. “There wasn’t much on his plate, but he did try some of them. After that he was sharing with me some of the experiences he has had with the business parties that his father has hosted. There weren’t too many similarities and according to the strenuous dislike and opposition coming through in his words, they were events he would rather not be associated with.

You know, he is starting to give me a complex concerning the lack of my ability to keep or maintain his attention during any of my social events,” Ben tried to joke, but his attempt at humour fell very short of the mark. He hazarded a guess that there was much more going on with the teenager, and suspected more than just bad memories had been plaguing him for a number of days.

The small group of people were now gathered around the sofa, wondering what may have triggered the teenager to react badly. They had been fairly careful with their topics of conversation, but that may not have been enough on this occasion. Trying to pick up on his mood was still proving to be quite difficult, despite their best combined efforts.

Please everybody wait here, I will go and see if I can find out the problem and what caused him to leave,” the Captain requested, putting his own drink aside.

Bridger made his way down to Mammal Engineering trying to go back over the short amount of time Lucas had spent in the recreation room in an attempt to identify something that may have made him feel uncomfortable. The teenager had inadvertently provided a few small, select bits of information about the business events that his father had hosted at their home, and how boring they were.

The teenager had revealed that most of the guests were foreign, but had not shown any signs of being upset that Nathan had been able to tell at that point. Disgusted and irritated about the length of time he had spent at those events, and the choice of menu, but he had not sounded distressed or strained. Nothing had sounded particularly out of place, but alarm bells were definitely ringing that he had chosen to leave again suddenly for a second night.

On his way past the moon pool, he had contemplated heading down to the science department first. That is where Lucas had gone first last night, looking for sanctuary in Kristin’s domain. This time he took a punt about where the teenager had headed to after the recreation room, hoping that he hadn’t found another designated hiding place yet.

Approaching the small cabin, he paused for a moment, pondering what mood or frame of mind he would find the teenager in. The accusation of checking up on him again without a valid reason could very well be coming his way. If that was the only thing bothering Lucas, then he could accept that criticism.

Knocking on the hatch door to the small cabin, he waited patiently for a few moments, before turning the handle and taking a chance by entering. He was pleased to see that the occupant was at least inside. He wasn’t so sure whether or not he would be on the receiving end of some words of denial that there was a problem and a very closed off attitude. Looking across the small cabin teenager, he now knew the reason for him leaving Ben’s party early.

There was no loud music playing at present, but perhaps that had been an omission on his part and he had forgotten to turn it on this time. Bridger sighed to himself once he was standing close enough to take a good look at Lucas’ face. The boy was currently laying on his bed, on his left side, sound asleep. Apparently too tuckered out to acknowledge the knock at his door.

The teenager had not heard the door open, or anybody enter the cramped space of his room. From previous observations, it was unusual for his senses not to be in a state of heightened alert. They couldn’t be at that level though, unless you were taking reasonable care of yourself, and that included good food and enough rest. Bridger doubted that Lucas was achieving either of those things in the correct quantities since arriving on-board.

The fatigue that had been on display in the mess hall early this morning before breakfast, had returned ten-fold this evening. Getting through the day purely on coffee fumes and stubbornness, the boy was over-tired and worn out. Nathan had seen him working by the moon pool with Darwin, and spoken to him before Ben had shown up. There had been a comment or two made about him carrying out other tasks during the day.

They may have been acting like concerned friends, but the Captain had the impression that they were missing meaningful clues, and bypassing some of the self-explanatory signs. They were taking the time, but failing to come up with the right answers. None of them could claim to be making great crossroads or being successful by looking carefully beneath the surface.

Then another reason for the Lucas’ tiredness crept into the back of Bridger’s mind and presented as a valid alternative. His eating schedule was still somewhat irregular, and his sleeping pattern unpredictable and hard to nail down. Maybe he was coming down with a virus and getting sick and didn’t want anybody to notice, especially Kristin.

Nathan didn’t want to disturb the boy from the sleep he obviously needed, but he wanted to make sure there wasn’t something more sinister starting to brew that they should know about. Very gently, he laid the palm of his hand on the teenager’s forehead, checking for the tell-tale sign of a fever.

The Captain was relieved when the temperature of his skin felt normal, without any heat present. A more plausible reason for Lucas leaving Ben’s party early could be that he was worried about dozing off in front of other people. Wanting to avoid any embarrassment in front of the few crew members he was in contact with on a daily basis.

Lucas must have felt someone’s presence in the room on a subconscious level, and the hand, because he began to stir at the intrusion. Bridger was rewarded with a sliver of blue appearing from beneath barely raised eyelids. Tired eyes, opened and drooped twice, before closing one final time. There was no fever, but Nathan felt a shiver run through his body. It was clear to the Captain that the boy was merely exhausted.

Thankfully, this time around he had not scared Lucas to death by disturbing him. The boy’s half-hearted attempt to wake was tough to watch, and a sign that something else was happening right under their very noses. Instead of lifting his hand away too quickly and losing the contact, he carded it softly through the boy’s hair. The tactile gesture only bringing about regret that he needed to use such a method in order to gain a truthful, non-verbal answer to the question of whether he was sick. Bridger intended the action to be soothing and would help ease him back to sleep with an unspoken apology.

Bridger watched him silently, growing more concerned by what they were not able to see going on internally, ‘Why are you doing this to yourself?’

The small cabin was still much too cold for his liking, thankfully this time, one of the blankets that Ben had delivered was hanging over the foot end of the bed. He reached for the fluffy polyester fabric and gently spread it out over the youth. Lucas gave a contented sigh at the additional warmth and buried his face deeper into the fabric of the pillows.

‘What are you not telling us?’ was the unspoken question he wanted to voice out loud. Nathan was fairly certain if he was awake and more alert, Lucas would pull away from his harmless action with suspicion and unfamiliarity.

The Captain returned to the recreation room, “I am sorry, Ben, but you can scratch any further participation from Lucas for the next several hours and the remainder of the evening.”

They were surprised that Nathan had returned so quickly, especially after assuming that Lucas may be needing someone to talk to or listen to what was bothering him. Bridger was the only one that the teenager would allow to provide any level of comfort and support.

Too exhausted to even wake when I knocked on the door and entered his room. He is sound asleep in his cabin,” Bridger informed them. For a few minutes, I was worried he might be coming down with a virus, but he didn’t have a temperature. He couldn’t even wake himself up to protest or object when I checked.”

Tim O’Neill looked down at the time on his watch, “But it is barely seven o’clock at night?” he stated.

He looked exhausted this morning in the mess hall,” Kristin replied. “I should have checked up on him a little more throughout the day and made sure that he was taking better care of himself. His stitches and bruising needed checking again, so the opportunity was there to me to use subversion to achieve that. Unfortunately there was only so much hovering I could do before tempers were at risk of fraying.”

Your not to blame, Kristin,” the Captain replied to the doctor. “None of us are. Despite the positive inroads we have already made collectively, the majority of the time Lucas is still keeping the doors to his world firmly closed.”

I have a hunch about what has been going on over the past several days,” Ben spoke up. All eyes within the small group turned towards him, keen to hear his suggestions and ideas.

You know what might be going on?” Bridger questioned. Shedding light on the problem would be most welcome. Ben was probably the most observant of any of them when it came to Lucas and noting his actions and moods. The boy had even shared a few of his angry and unhappy thoughts with the morale officer.

Until now, that is all it has been based on a few little things that I have witnessed,” Krieg answered. “With your permission, I would like to conduct a little covert operation later tonight. Even as tired as you describe Lucas being now, I doubt his sleep will last long.

It may take a little altering of my day shift roster for tomorrow, Sir,” Ben noted, “I will watch his nocturnal activities for a few hours without drawing attention to myself.

Can that be done at such short notice, Commander?” Nathan asked Ford in relation to the duty roster.

That can be arranged, Captain,” Ford confirmed. “The lieutenant can be given some extra time off during the day tomorrow to catch up on his own sleep.”

Tomorrow morning, around breakfast time, let us all meet early in the Ward Room,” Krieg suggested. “I will make sure there is plenty of hot coffee on hand.”

Commander Hitchcock will be on the Bridger at that time, Captain, so she would be capable of maintaining control as the crews commence their shift change. She would also be able to cover the time that you and I would be absent,” Ford explained. “I can inform her later in the day about what was discussed to keep her in the loop so to speak.”

Does anybody else have any objections to this plan of action?” Bridger asked, looking over at Tim and Miguel. He didn’t like them sacrificing their free time so early in the morning. From what Jonathan said about the roster and such an unorthodox method of surveillance, he was grateful for Ben’s input about what might work.

I will make the time whenever it needs to be, Nathan,” Kristin declared. For Lucas she was willing to be as flexible as necessary. She was apprehensive about how the teenager would react if he spotted Ben following him around.

Miguel was already thinking the same as Doctor Westphalen, “I don’t envy the position you are going to be in Krieg when Lucas finds out what you are doing.”

Same here, Ben, but I don’t have a problem with turning up early before my shift begins,” Tim O’Neill replied.

Thank you all for your co-operation,” Bridger said sincerely.

If I fail and get it wrong, then my actions will only be a reflection on me, not anybody else. I am willing to take any flack from Lucas that may be headed my way if that happens,” Ben said in answer to their concerns about his shadowing activity being discovered.

I will either be able to confirm or deny my theory of what the problem is with our young friend. However be warned, that if I am proven right, then none of us are going to be happy with what I have to to report,” he gave as a final remark.

Twenty minutes before nine o’clock at night, Ben Krieg and the Captain were having a discussion near the moon pool.

Are you all set? Do you need anything else to carry this out?” Bridger asked. “I am about to head to my cabin in a few minutes to read.” It was going to be difficult not to be involved in Ben’s plans, but he wanted to give the Lieutenant the best chance possible for this to work in their favour. With more than one person involved, they would probably both be discovered, and gain nothing for their efforts except an unhappy and distrusting teenager.

No almost set, Sir,” Ben answered. “I don’t really have a concrete point of attack in mind. Mostly I will be guided by what Lucas himself is doing, or wants to do. I just have to make sure that I stay out of sight and earshot. “I know your nerves are probably going to be on edge, but try and relax. I am doing this for him because I want to help Lucas, not set him against us.”

Thank you,” Bridger said with genuine gratitude. He was thinking again that Ben definitely had his heart in the right place when it came to the teenager’s well-being.

Kristin reported that everybody in the science department should have finished their day’s work and left the area within the next half an hour,” the Captain told him. “She didn’t schedule anybody to do testing or sampling work tonight. It is going to be difficult for her not to check up on the both of you, but she understands the reasons why this is a one person operation.”

Commander Ford gave me a run down on which crew members will be around tonight in specific areas for the night shift,” Krieg stated. “Tim and Miguel will have their usual day-shifts scheduled after the meeting in the Ward Room tomorrow morning. Both have offered any assistance during the night should I need it.”

That goes double for me,” Bridger asserted. “If you need anything from me or if Lucas decides he wants to talk at any time tonight, you know where my door is. Good Luck.”

I have one more stop to make on the Bridge,” Ben commented. “Katie is still there on duty, and I want to talk to her before my observing begins.”

Ben made his way towards the Bridge with a confidence to his footsteps.

Good evening, Commander,” Krieg addressed Katie Hitchcock cheerfully, knowing that the tone of voice he was using would bug her to no end.

Jonathan Ford told me you wanted to see me about something before my shift ended, Lieutenant,” she said in an authoritative voice.

Then he should have told you that it is for a very good reason,” Ben countered. “I want you to give me the tablet device that you use to monitor the progress Lucas is making on repairing the door locks.”

I don’t really have any objection,” Katie replied with some puzzlement. “Why can’t you ask Lucas for the one that I gave him?”

I want to use it in the Ward Room tomorrow morning as part of the demonstration that I am setting up for the Captain and other crew members who will be present,” Ben answered. “I know you will be here so that Ford and Bridger can attend. I can’t ask Lucas for the one you gave him, or he will become suspicious about what I am going to do tonight.”

Lucas has been doing some good work, Ben,” Katie said in defence of the teenager. Her opinion had completely changed about his skills over the past few days.

Even she had to admit to being surprised that he had been working solidly and without complaint for a couple of days on the assigned task. When the Captain was trying to involve the teenager more into the day to day activities of the vessel, she felt a little ashamed about judging his ability based on his age. Since then she had seen first-hand for herself that he was quite capable of tackling some of the more complex computer bugs that had been plaguing them recently.

Commander Ford had him work on Miguel Ortiz’s station when it was showing signs of malfunctioning. After offering to rewrite the coding and uploading the patch, the station continued to operate within normal parameters. Lucas had saved her team from needing to take on more additional work when they didn’t have the technicians to spare at the moment. There was no monetary benefit coming him way for any of the assistance that he had been providing, which was a little unfair.

I have no doubt about that, Commander,” Krieg returned. “I have the utmost belief in his abilities from what I have witnessed myself, but there is something else going on at the moment. Something that has me worried about him, and definitely has Bridger and Kristin concerned. No data will be altered or erased while it is in my possession. I promise to return it as soon as the meeting is finished.”

I will be holding you to that, Lieutenant,” Katie said as she handed him the tablet, but held onto it for a few moments longer before releasing it to him.

Nowadays she was loathe to admit that Ben possessed a natural charm that often put others at ease. She had been one of those people to be drawn in when she married him. This time around she hoped that he would be able to help their newest crew member.

I hope you can help figure out what is bothering Lucas,” she added, in a friendlier, more personal tone shared quietly between just the two of them.

By six a.m in the morning, Ben made his way towards Mammal Engineering and Lucas’ small cabin. It had been a long uneventful night, but during that time he had managed to confirm what strategy the teenager had been employing. Now came the time when he had to share what he had observed. Part of him wished he had noticed it before now and spoken up sooner, but hindsight was a fickle thing sometimes.

Before heading to the Ward Room to set up the meeting that the had arranged, he wanted to make sure that Lucas was in his cabin, and hoped that he would remain so for the next couple of hours. The kid had only gone to bed a short time ago, and there was a very real chance that he was still awake. Out of habit he knocked lightly on the door and waited for a reply, but was pleased when he didn’t hear a voice on the other side inviting him in. Ben opened the door and silently entered, unable to shake the feeling that he was intruding.

Music was playing inside the small space, and Lucas was laying on the top bunk, facing towards the hatch door. Thankfully he was sleeping and hadn’t heard his early morning visitor. Maybe his sleep wasn’t quite deep enough yet, as Ben saw his facial expression change from being peaceful to a frown. There was no blanket covering him, but Krieg didn’t want to take the risk of disturbing the teenager. Lucas mumbled something incoherently and tossed about restlessly, trying to find a comfortable position.

Forgive me, but you can’t keep going on like this,” Ben quietly pleaded with his sleeping friend. There was a sense of guilt associated with what he was about to do this morning, but the flip side of that same coin told him that as a good friend he had no choice.

Half an hour later, Ben was putting the finishing touches to the hot coffee that was brewing in the Ward Room. The cups were laid out in a neat row. Now all he had to do was wait.

Kristin was the first to arrive, “Good morning, Ben,” she greeted him warmly. Upon closer inspection of his face, she could see that he had kept up his end of the bargain and been awake all night.

Morning Doc,” he said to her in return cheerfully. “Would you like a cup?”

Definitely, but this time I will return the favour. You go sit at the table and I will bring you one along with my own in a minute,” she offered.

Plenty of sugar this morning please,” he requested.

The Captain was the next person to arrive, “Hello to you both. I sure could use one of these myself,” he added, going about fixing his own coffee.

The three of them took up the same positions around the table they had occupied during the first meeting in this room. There was no awkwardness between them, but they hadn’t brought up the question yet that was showing on each of their faces.

Bridger was about to speak as they waited for everybody else to join them, but the morale officer got in first.

I just came from checking on him in his cabin,” Ben commented. “He was in there but hasn’t been in there all that long. The music was playing again, but he was quite restless. I am hoping that he will stay asleep while we are in here.”

I was going to go there myself, but kept chastising myself not to,” Kristin replied. “Let us hope that he does get some rest for a few hours.”

Before the Captain could make any further comment about him wanting to check on Lucas before coming to the Ward Room, Jonathan, Miguel and Tim all arrived together.

Morning pleasantries were exchanged between them, but nobody mentioned the early hour start to the day. The coffee pot was the first place they congregated around for a few moments, before taking their brews to the table to join in the discussion.

So how did everything go?” Tim O’Neill asked casually, but then thought that perhaps he should have waited until Bridger had addressed them all.

This is Ben’s show this morning, so I am going to let him control everything that goes on in here,” Nathan commented. “I am sure we are all anxious to hear the outcome.”

Ben was about to stand up to talk, but then changed his mind. “Thank you, Sir. There isn’t a right or wrong method to doing this today, but I have to conduct this in my own way.” As he glanced around the table, he was pleased to see people nodding their heads at his approach.

I am going to tell you what I saw, but also mix in a few questions to each of you as I go,” Krieg informed the small group. “For those of you coming in after the Captain, Lucas is currently in his cabin sleeping, but has only been doing that for a short time.”

Firstly, I want to point out that Lucas wasn’t doing anything wrong last night. I mean none of us sitting around this table thought that anyway,” Ben started to explain. “Everything that I saw happening falls directly into the category of what I was talking about in the mess hall yesterday morning.”

And what is that?” Miguel interrupted. “I don’t think any of us thought he was doing something he shouldn’t be.”

Lucas is doing all of this to prove himself, and it would be safe to say that his actions were being done deliberately.” Ben answered plainly. “Or course he doesn’t see it that way, and is probably trying to convince himself most of all. There were other reasons apparent too that I was right about too, but I will get to those shortly.”

Let’s start at the beginning of the night shall we, after most of you had gone back to your own cabins,” Ben began. “I finished talking to Katie on the Bridge about nine o’clock.” For the first time those gathered around the table could see an electronic tablet laying in front of Krieg. As he spoke, he was fidgeting and running his hands long the cover and spine.

It was assumed that he would bring up its purpose in time. Ben rarely used one in his day to day activities as Supply Officer, so its presence now was intriguing.

Katie may have made the mistake of being dismissive and reluctant to let Lucas work on the computer systems a number of days ago, but she has definitely changed her tune since then. Last night she was telling me how happy she was with the help that he is giving. That has been the exception of course, compared to some other people in the last couple of days.”

Unlike the Captain, I couldn’t just stand outside the kid’s cabin and wait until he made an appearance. There was no way to know what time he may show up or if he was going to come out of his room last night at all.” Bridger smiled at his Lieutenant over the reference of him having overheard Lucas’ conversation with his mystery friend.

Lucas may have been exhausted earlier in the night when you followed him, but it was only about fifteen minutes after I began my surveillance that he emerged from his cabin. Two hours sleep was all he probably gained in total, and I doubt that was anywhere near enough of what he should be getting. The first port of call was to spend twenty minutes with Darwin near the moon pool. He didn’t bother using his vocorder, and was happy enough to pet and talk softly to the animal. I was too far away to hear the one-sided conversation.”

Kristin wore an expression on her face that demonstrated how less than happy she was with the amount of time that the teenager had been asleep. She refrained from interrupting Ben’s report, but somehow they needed to come up with a better solution that was going to work about his sleeping pattern.

After that, he walked to the mess hall, where he took advantage of the coffee pot like we are doing right now. After heating up one of the noodle packs, he sat at the same table as yesterday. The area was dark in there except for recessed lighting coming from the back of the kitchen. He didn’t bother turning any other lights on and was content to spend the next thirty to forty minutes eating a small light dinner on his own.”

I know he has only been on-board a short time and isn’t exactly comfortable around us yet,” Tim remarked. “Surely it cannot be healthy for anybody to spend the majority of their time alone. How does someone his age become so accustomed to being in their own company?”

I do know how you feel Tim, and I have asked myself that very same question before today,” Bridger replied. “Obviously it is a less than an ideal situation, but hopefully one that we can start working towards changing as a team.”

Before ten p.m., he returned briefly to his cabin and grabbed the corresponding tablet device to this one, and the electronic tool he has been using to decipher the numerical code. There were still a few crew members moving about in the main corridors, so he chose one of the more isolated sections of the boat and began working away on those door locks. From what I could see, the time frame for each varied from forty minutes, to over an hour.”

You will be a little more relieved to hear Doc, that the bruising to his hip wasn’t causing him as much pain as it was two days ago. He went back to sitting in the middle of the grated floor for some of the time. Something definitely on the positive side in all of this.”

Now, my first question is directed to you Commander,” Ben said to Jonathan Ford. “When Lucas first approached you to help, how many doors did you and Katie work out he would be able to accomplish?”

Lucas came and saw me after he repaired your door lock, Krieg,” Ford answered. “That was before he even did the extra coding work on Miguel’s station. And it was before he headed back up-world.”

Yes I know that, but originally you told him that the number of doors that may need fixing was over two hundred. Since starting this little campaign of repairing the locks, how many do you estimate he should have completed by now?”

Well that is a little difficult to do. When we found out he was injured, I didn’t want to put any additional pressure on Lucas or make him feel obligated to do them when he wasn’t feeling well. Doctor Westphalen would not have wanted him doing any task with his stitches being sore. The Captain was advising us that he wasn’t sleeping a lot and wanted to allow him flexibility. Which I was prepared to do for as long as he needs.”

He was the one who approached me in the mess hall over lunch about working on Miguel’s station because we were short handed. Lucas has been fairly determined to keep contact with any of us to a minimum where he has a choice and there hasn’t been a whole lot of time pass since then to make any great inroads,” Ford pointed out.

I told him that I expected the whole process to take several months to finish them all, and that is a time frame that I am adhering to, given the number of other bugs that have been creeping through the systems lately. I have seen him standing in the corridor working on the problem at least once, but that wasn’t for too long because he admitted that he was hurting. To answer your original question though, I would hazard a guess that he may have completed ten locks,” Jonathan presumed.

Ben picked up the tablet and turned it on, knowing Ford would be able to read the screen. “You know what this is of course,” he began for others around the table so they knew. “This is how Katie has been monitoring Lucas’ progress.”

Jonathan nodded his head, “Yes, I showed this to him when he first started. Where he has to record the locks that he has repaired and the details, time and date stamp each entry and put his initials. I told him that it is necessary for all of that to be done because the brass uses the data to determine the budget that is allocated for such projects next time.”

Take a look at this then,” Ben instructed, handing over the tablet, and waiting for Ford to scan the data. “I will let you tell everybody what you see with the maintenance work logs.”

Ford thought that Krieg may be exaggerating a little at first, but as he concentrated on what was in front of him, he reached a concerning and stark point when a pattern began to stand out. He emphasised his confusion more by sitting up straighter in the chair and using a finger to trail down the small screen.

Ford looked up briefly at Krieg, “There has to be at least………,” falling silent again as he continued to read downwards.

Ben nodded, seeing that the man understood was he was trying to say. “Take a look at the time and date stamps too. They ones we are interested in are easy to identify.”

There has to be at least twenty marked as being completed,” Ford said with complete amazement. “When did he find the time to do all of these, going by the time each of them were taking?”

I counted closer to twenty five, but yes, at least that number that you mention,” Ben agreed. “All with his initials beside them.”

Let me take a look at that, please,” Bridger instructed. Ford readily handed over the tablet, knowing that the Captain would be alarmed as he was. Kristin stood up from her chair and was looking over Nathan’s shoulder.

From what I was able to personally observe last night, he completed at least five overnight,” Ben informed them. “He stopped about three a.m. this morning, but I think that was because his leg was cramping up on him from sitting too long.”

Everyone seated in the room was stunned to hear Ben’s version of events. Despite being over-tired earlier in the night according to the Captain’s own words, Lucas had been working well in to the early morning hours.

Where did he go after that, back to his cabin?” Kristin asked, starting to pick up on a worrying trend about the boy’s work habits.

Oh if only he did that,” Krieg reported. “He went back to the mess hall and had another cup of coffee. Then I followed him down into your department.”

What was he doing in the science laboratories at that time of the morning?” Bridger queried. “There would not have been any experimenting going on for him to watch. In fact there should not have been any staff about at all.”

There wasn’t anybody about,” Ben confirmed. “He was in laboratory three, where all the living plants and the hydroponic system is set up. I couldn’t get into the room itself without being spotted, but in his hand he was carrying a pen and some small labels and a roll of protective tape. He was only there about an hour before leaving. I didn’t get a chance to check what work he was doing in there.”

I know he was doing in there,” Kristin spoke up, drawing everyone’s attention again as she sat down at the table. “I wanted to thank him personally yesterday for the efforts that he has been making. After breakfast, I didn’t get the chance to see him until your party last night, Ben, and that seemed to be the wrong place to bring it up.”

What has he been doing for you?” Nathan asked. “You told Ben and I that he was working on a software program to set up a scheduling program for your staff. And a way to allow them access to the database from more than one area at a time.”

Yes, that is true, and what he negotiated with me to gain some time to work on his own experiments. As far as I am aware, he has not started those yet,” Kristin replied. “Jane, one of my technicians came up to me rather excited yesterday morning after breakfast when I returned to get started for the day. She thought I had done the work.”

What work?” Tim O’Neill asked, though everybody else was thinking the same question.

Although I haven’t been able to establish an extensive testing and sampling schedule yet with my people, there were already hundreds and hundreds of specimens that had yet to be labelled. The laboratories house all of the natural specimens and all the geology samples and somehow, Lucas has taken the time to carefully and correctly label them all,” Kristin advised.

How do you know it was him?” Miguel questioned. “Depending on how long he has been doing it, that would be a significant amount of writing to do. How does he know all the correct names?”

Oh he is smart enough to know them, he and I played a little game before he went up-world,” Kristin said with a fond smile at the memory. “Computers maybe his true passion, but Lucas is a very bright boy and demonstrated a vast general knowledge of scientific terms. It was his distinctive neat and small hand-writing that gave away who had done it all.”

The living plants and specimens in laboratory three was the only area that hadn’t been done up until last night,” the doctor reported. “My staff would not have had the time to achieve that amount of the labelling for several more weeks at least. It was considered a lower priority in the scheme of other projects.”

When he left the movie night and came down to my department, he told me that the software program for me was almost finished. He was trying to mask how he was feeling by telling at the time. But in the small conversation we shared, he was quite pleased that he was almost finished. He revealed that he shouldn’t be long before he would be able to show me and my staff how to use it,” Kristin continued.

You are not the only one he has been creating software for either,” Ben announced. “After fixing my own door lock, he has been working on creating a program for me to use for my inventory. This was something that only he and I knew he was working on. When I spoke to him earlier yesterday near the moon pool, he told me that it was finished as well.”

That is some kind of work load that he has taken on,” Tim remarked, going over what had been discussed.

Does anybody else here have any other work that he has been completing on their behalf?” Ben enquired.

Lucas completed that coding work for my station and uploaded the patch,” Miguel mentioned. “He did ask to complete the coding in his own cabin from a downloaded file. Come the start of my shift the next morning, it had already been done. I spoke to Commander Ford about it.”

Thats right,” Ford agreed, “Because I expected him to come and inform me once it was ready. He had anticipated that there was quite a few hours of work to do to fix the problem. In that instance there isn’t any work log that would show how long he was working, or the times.”

Krieg continued to give details of his shadowing activities. “By that time I was getting a little drowsy myself and would have gladly joined him for the second cup of coffee in the mess hall. He was finished with the labelling and the door locks, and it was closer to four a.m. and I thought he might be heading to bed.”

I assume he didn’t do that?” Bridger commented. In the back of his mind he was still trying to add up all the different projects that he was working on, both for himself and the crew.

No, he went back to sitting on the small staircase leading down to moon pool, leaning against the wall. Staring off into the water, deep in thought about something by himself. Darwin must have been out feeding at that time, but Lucas didn’t make any effort to find out where the dolphin was at that hour. He didn’t look like wanted company, but he desperately looked like he could use a friend or two,” Ben remarked with a touch of regret that he hadn’t been able to make his presence known.

He sat on those stairs for more than an hour. It was closer to five-thirty a.m. before he made any effort to go back to his cabin and attempt to sleep. Half an hour later, I am checking on him before coming here. “So after a long night, my gut feeling was unfortunately right,” Ben filled in.

Here we have someone who is living through what can only be described as a very traumatic and uncertain time in his life, coupled together with being shoved amongst a virtual group of strangers. In his own words he is trying to fit in, so he spends time during the day in his cabin, working on these various projects for everyone. Pushing and pushing himself.”

There you have stated previously, Captain, there has been too much upheaval for Lucas recently and not enough time for him to sort it out in his head. From incidents like what happened on the Bridge twice, like you mentioned, it is clear that he is still scared and afraid. Even though we have been doing everything we can to offer support, he isn’t sure who he can turn to talk to.”

We can probably collectively guess at a list as long as your arm of what might be on his mind. What is going to happen once his father becomes involved? How long he is going to be staying here on SeaQuest? Valid concerns, but short on any answers for Lucas to be satisfied with.

Not only is he secretly working long hours throughout the day and keeping busy without many breaks in-between unless one of us is insisting or encouraging otherwise. We can see from those work logs for the door locks how many were completed and the times. At night time, he continues to working different hours opposite to everybody else, thinking that few people are going to notice. He is probably happy enough to work in the middle of the night because it means less people that he has to deal with.

For the last several days, Kristin may have been taking great care of his physical injuries. And the Doc is probably in a much better position to stimulate his thirst for knowledge and cater to the high demand of his brain. The Captain has been doing his best to encourage him to eat more on a regular basis. Our best combined efforts haven’t been a raving success yet, even with Don helping too.”

As for sleeping, I would go so far to say that he is actively avoiding it,” Ben said. “All of that work and the stress that he is carrying around has culminated in what you saw last night, Captain, after he left the recreation room. That probably explains why he fell asleep in the mess hall yesterday morning. Maybe he mistimed going back to his cabin before being found out. Lucas is working himself too hard, just to fit in and to feel like he is contributing, but it is also to forget all the other uncertainty and turmoil he is facing.”

Since learning the awful truth about what his father has been doing, I am sure that some of us have been asking the glaring question in front of us about how he is coping. How has he been doing that? It has been clear at times that he has taken a step backwards and hasn’t been coping so great. At other times, it would be fair to say that he has been acting with a lot of maturity for someone his age. With some understanding of the burden head, we now have the answer staring us directly in the face…..” pausing and looking at the faces listening from around the table.

Lucas is working himself into a state of exhaustion because it is the probably only way that he can gain a few hours of restful sleep during the early morning hours. Then the same relentless routine begins again all over again the next day. He is trying to compensate for the chaos, fear and anxiety that is going on inside of him. Why? Simple, he is doing everything he can to mask what he is feeling, and denying the battle within.”

The faces that stared back at Ben could scarcely believe the Morale Officer’s very candid outline. Their emotions were a bubbling cauldron. The silence in the room was deafening as they digested everything that had been said to form their own personal points of view. And more importantly trying to gain a sense of what Lucas was putting himself through. Everybody at the table was stunned with the accuracy that was being thrown out onto the table in front of them about Lucas.

Ben spoke again, seeing that his words had hit home.

I didn’t tell you any of this to make anybody here feel guilty. That is not why I volunteered to do this in the first place,” he promised. “All of us seated here are trying to make a difference and become his friend, there is no denying that. And we have all been making some positive steps forward to help him adapt. But we have to be realistic that there is a long way to go and the road ahead is going to get a lot rougher before it smooths out. Lucas isn’t exactly going to make it easier to gain his trust, or show on a map which direction he plans to go.”

Tim O’Neill asked the obvious question that they all wanted to ask, “What do we do then? Does anybody have any good suggestions?”

We can’t very well confront him out in the open about all of this,” Miguel pointed out. “And its not like he has been doing anything wrong, like you said Krieg.”

You are correct Ortiz, we cannot say anything, because that would have the total opposite affect on him. He would only view anything like that as treason and with suspicion. It wouldn’t be long before he would be trying to hide from everyone again, or maybe doing something worse. None of us wants that. This has to be handled very delicately and keeping Lucas’ wants and needs as the focus on any solution,” Ben responded.

Captain, I think this is where I throw the ball into your court,” Krieg said, turning to speak directly to Bridger.

What did you have in mind?” Nathan asked, noting the Ben had already come up with at least a partial plan.

Lucas needs to get totally off SeaQuest, even if it is only for short time or a few days. I know the schedule at the moment is crazy with everybody being under pressure to get the vessel fully operational. As Captain that falls to you most of all,” Krieg explained. “I know how important computers are to him, but it would act like a circuit breaker, giving him time away from anything that resembles work. Somehow we need to convince him that such a move is a good thing for a bit of true relaxation.”

Even if that was remotely possible,” Ford interjected, trying to think how it could be achieved. “The Captain has been promising Lucas that he doesn’t need to leave until he feels safe. Given the unknown situation with his father, that may be a tough ask.”

Which is why the request has to come specifically from the Captain,” Ben agreed. “And wherever you decide is a good place. Lucas probably wouldn’t go anywhere without you being there, Sir.”

Nathan was looking back at Ben, mulling everything over in his head. He also considered what Jonathan had said about the promises he had made to Lucas. He was adamant that the teenager wasn’t leaving this vessel unless his safety could be guaranteed.

With the software he had been working on for me complete, and the same with yours Kristin, maybe that will free up a little of his time. But he will probably find something else to fill that void left behind quickly enough,” Ben reasoned. “Assuming we can get him away for a break of some kind, when he comes back we approach things day by day until we can hammer out a better solution.”

Just as Ben finished speaking, the Captain’s PAL communicator chirped.

This is Bridger,” Nathan answered.”

Sir, this is Hitchcock contacting you from the Bridge.”

Is there a problem, Commander?” the Captain asked. Katie knew of the meeting they were having, and he doubted she would have felt it necessary to interrupt unless the matter was important.

Chief Crocker just reported to me, Sir, that Lucas was speaking to him on the Bridge a short time ago,” Katie informed him. “I don’t know how suspicious he was with O’Neill and Ortiz both missing from here as well.”

That is only about two hours sleep he has had,” Kristin quietly commented, looking down at her watch and noting that the time was almost seven thirty in the morning.

Did Crocker mention what he was there for?” Bridger asked. “Is he still there now?”

Lucas was looking to speak to Commander Ford about the door locks, but couldn’t find anybody about, including you, Sir. That probably seemed more than a little odd to him. Chief didn’t want to outright lie to him either. Crocker told him that a few of you were having a meeting somewhere to explain you all being absent at the same time. I thought it prudent to let you all know that he may be headed that way because he did leave a few minutes ago. I don’t know if he will go searching as far as the Ward Room.”

Thank you, Commander, we will wrap things up here now, and go back to where we need to be,” Bridger advised her. “I will find Lucas after I leave here so he doesn’t come looking for everyone. I will attend the Bridge just as soon as I can.”

Yes, Sir,” Katie said, before ending the conversation.

Well then, you all heard her, and we had better scatter,” Bridger said, getting up from the table. “Leave everything with me, Ben. I don’t know what I am go to be able to arrange, but I will come and find you when I know more. Thank you everybody for your time this morning.”

The other crew members followed suit, getting up from the table. Coffee cups were now empty. The team members from the janitorial crew would take care of cleaning them and clearing them away and returning them ready in time for their next use.

Jonathan Ford and Miguel were the first two people to leave, telling the group that they were headed back to the Bridge.

Mr O’Neill, when you start your day, can you please contact Admiral Noyce for me, and set up a conference with him. I want to be able to talk to him as soon as he has a spare moment,” Bridger instructed. “I will take that call in my quarters on a secure channel.”

Yes, Sir,” Tim answered. “I will contact his office as soon as I leave here.” The young lieutenant then followed his fellow crew members, leaving the Ward Room and intending to start his shift.

Now there was only Ben Krieg and Kristin Westphalen left with the Captain. The expressions on their faces said so much that they didn’t need to put how they were feeling into words.

I am headed to bed and for a few hours of sleep myself,” Ben said tiredly. Krieg was pleased that everything was on the table, but not happy with the measures that needed to be taken to find out the answers. He had seen the concerns and worry on the faces of the Captain and the doctor as he spoke to the group.

Despite there being a small network of people involved, everybody was looking to the three of them to lead the charge. No matter how much support they had already offered to Lucas, and how many positive steps they had taken, they were both blaming themselves for not seeing the additional signs early enough.

Ben, I can scarcely put into words how much I want to thank you for your efforts last night, and from the beginning,” Bridger said, trying to encapsulate the man’s kindness as a friend into a sentence or two. “Please get some rest for a few hours today. I took what you said about trying to get Lucas away from here for some relaxation. I don’t know how successful I am going to be. But if what I have in mind plays out, then I am going to need you soon.”

You know you can count on me any time when it comes to doing anything for the kid,” Krieg promised. Giving Doctor Westphalen a cheeky grin as he left the two of them, and headed back to his own cabin.

He really did some great detective work last night,” Kristin commented. She could see the concern for Lucas on Nathan’s face, as she gave his shoulder a friendly squeeze.

Yes, he did,” Nathan answered, “You have been too,” he added, turning to her and appreciating that she was just as invested in Lucas’ well-being as he was.

Nathan, when you do see Lucas, could you please send him down in med-bay. I would like to check on his stitches please,” Kristin reminded him. “I won’t give away anything that was discussed here this morning.”

What are you planning to do? Kristin queried, having heard the man tell Ben that he had formulated some kind of plan. After his instructions to Tim, she knew it involved the Admiral somehow.

Bill said he was willing to help where he could,” Nathan stated, “So here is the first chance he is going to get to show he means it. I am going to call in one of the many markers he owes me. I will come and find you later,” he added cryptically.

back in Bridger’s quarters:

Thank you, Lieutenant,” Bridger said as he took the video-link call from his communications officer.

Good Morning, Bill,” Nathan addressed him, in a tone that he knew his long time friend wouldn’t be able to ignore.

How is everything going on-board the SeaQuest, Nathan?” Admiral Noyce answered. “Sorry to disappoint you in saying that I don’t have any more information at this stage about the case with Lawrence Wolenczak.”

The vessel nor that poor excuse of a man is why I am contacting you this early, Bill,” Bridger stated. “Lucas is the focus though. You and I are going to have a little discussion about what is in his best interests.”

How is he coping?” Noyce enquired. “What do you mean by saying his ‘best interests’, Nathan?”

Bridger spent the next several minutes giving the man an outline of the surveillance that Ben Krieg had carried out and the conclusions that he had drawn in direct answer to the Admiral’s question. Nathan didn’t leave any details out, and filled him in on the details of all the programming and other work that Lucas had secretly been doing for the crew.

The Captain also went on to explain about the two separate incidents that had occurred after Robert Cooper’s departure. He described what Lucas had said to Ben about how he was feeling about his placement aboard SeaQuest. He also told Noyce about the trouble the teenager was experiencing first-hand about trying to fit in and the work load that he was placing on himself. Bridger was convinced that he owed it to Lucas to make sure that the Admiral was kept appraised of everything, no matter how difficult it was to accept.

The details of the movie night were truncated to protect Ben and the efforts he had gone to about creating a relaxing atmosphere. Nathan reinforced his earlier statement about how much fear Lucas was carrying around, by reiterating what Krieg had added.

What do you want from me, Nathan?” Noyce asked. After hearing how exhausted the teenager was and given the uncertainty of the situation with his father, he wasn’t going to have much of a choice. Guilt over his role from the beginning was strong, and he hadn’t made any substantial moves yet towards making amends to Lucas.

Time, Bill,” Bridger answered with a sly smile, “I know the maintenance schedule is shot due to the number of bugs that are still plaguing Commander Hitchcock and her team. You probably already have your little calendar full of days that you are marking off, waiting for us to be ready. However, this is about Lucas, and that is one area that I am not willing to compromise on at the moment. This time it is going to cost you.”

Where would you take him if he agreed to go?” Noyce queried. Nathan had just informed him that he wanted to take Lucas away from the SeaQuest.

Bridger told him of his plan and where he was thinking of taking Lucas. “Kristin would probably come too if I asked her. When I first came on-board she told me had she had tried to find me to discuss my research. At the time she was quite skeptical that my location kept being reported as unreachable. Maybe it is time I showed them both what I have been partially working on for the past six years.”

Noyce spent the next few minutes thinking about Bridger’s offer, and suggestions. He shuffled a number of the papers around on his desk as he tried to work out something that would suit all parties involved.

I am prepared to give you what you seek, Nathan,” Noyce replied. “I think there is a way for you to get what you want, and for me to get the best use out of your crew and vessel while you are absent.”

How so?” Bridger commented, in the back of his mind he was a little irked at Bill. ‘There always has to be a catch’ The man was still trying to figure out a way where the U.E.O. could take advantage of the situation.

Noyce could see the less than impressed expression on Bridger’s face, and could see the man about to give him an earful. “Hear me out,” he pleaded first.

The U.E.O. is desperate to see her back in the water operational, Nathan,” the Admiral pointed out. “Some smaller, undecided nations are looking to us to provide the proof that we can deliver the protections in the oceans that we promise. Then they will be quite happy to counted amongst the league of countries that have already joined in peace. After all that nasty business with Stark, we need to be seen as coming out on top again.”

Not at the expense of Lucas’ emotional and psychological well-being you don’t,” Nathan shoved back defensively. “I am not going to let him be used as some pawn. We are doing everything we can here to prevent that at the moment with this father. I am not going to let you turn around and do exactly the same thing so you can gain some political ground.”

No no, you have it all wrong, let me explain for a minute,” Noyce said, hearing the determined words, but knowing that his friend was more worried about Lucas than causing waves.

Bridger sat down at the small desk near the holographic screen, waiting to hear this idea that the Admiral was about to share.

I am sure that you are aware of the Naval Air Station situated at Key West?” Bill prompted.

I am familiar with the place, but haven’t been there for a long time in an official capacity,” Nathan answered. “There have probably be a number of changes since I was there last. The last time was before Carol and I were told about Robert. I think he spent some time there during his training.”

No doubt he probably did, Nathan,” Noyce agreed. “Referred to as N.A.S. Key West, it is recognized as a training facility for air-to-air combat fighter aircraft of all the military services. There have been a considerable number of changes of the top personnel there since you left the service, and Robert would have been stationed there after his time at the academy at Pearl Harbour.”

What has that got to do with me wanting to get Lucas off SeaQuest for a break?” Bridger asked. Robert had wanted to fly since he was a very small child, and eventually he had seen that dream become a reality. Unfortunately his time as a pilot was short-lived, but now wasn’t the time to spend wallowing on lost opportunities. He was still very proud of what he son had achieved, and that could never be taken away.

Key West is chosen for that kind of training because the nearby aerial ranges offer favourable flying conditions in that area year round,” Noyce started a long-winded explanation. The station and the associated offshore air combat ranges are equipped with some of the most sophisticated combat training systems available. They can track and record all kinds of aerial manoeuvres.”

On a broader scale, it also involves the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security including many of the other federal agencies that were overhauled when the U.E.O. came into effect. The United States Coast Guard,Air National Guard, Army National Guard units and allied military forces. There was so much red tape involved before with each of them having a slightly different mandate about operations and their mission.”

The station plays host to quite a number of Fighter Squadrons, and a detachment that I know you and your crew will be more associated with, the Special Forces Underwater Operations. There is a school based there and their headquarters,” Noyce finished his monologue.

Bridger knew some of what Bill had spoken about. They both had first-hand dealings with a number of the personnel from some of those specialised branches during their younger years, and later when they became more senior figures of the service.

Nathan was about to repeat his question of ‘What does that have to do with anything…..’ before Bill finally brought up his idea.

SeaQuest and your crew could head down there to Key West. You and Lucas would be close enough to leave for your break. Whilst you are away, I am sure that either Commander Ford or Commander Hitchcock would be in a position to be able to demonstrate her capabilities to a few senior military faces through her corridors.”

Bridger made sure that Bill could see his dramatic eye roll at the tactics he was employing. “How long are you planning for?” without making any firm commitment one way or the other about attending the station. “With a good speed and smooth conditions, the distance could be covered in about twenty four hours. But I would be looking to leave here earlier than that. I would have to talk to the both Commanders about what you are arranging at N.A.S.”

I can give you four days, Nathan, sometime after that, once you have made your way back at Pearl, I plan on making a personal visit to SeaQuest. I won’t be able to complete the tour in Key West due to some other important meetings that have been scheduled during that time,” the Admiral advised.

Bill Noyce then thought for a minute about Lucas’ age, and added an alternative suggestion in case Florida was not a place that Bridger had in mind to take the break.

If you wanted to take Lucas somewhere else, Nathan, then there are options there too. I can arrange some suitable accommodation for the three of you. A separate room each for Kristin and the boy and a private rental car to take them to some of the tourist spots. I am not up to speed with what the best adventure parks are, but I could do some digging on some teenager friendly places and activities.”

Nathan gave a small smirk, noting that the Admiral was doing his best, given the difficult pressures he was under, and coupled with his sudden request for leave at an inopportune moment. “Not an enormous amount of time by any stretch of the imagination, but I am thankful that you are giving it to me and it is a start I suppose,” Bridger said with gratitude.

I am honestly not sure what fun activities he will want to do, but I was going to try the relaxation route first. I have a few ideas in mind that don’t involve being on time or somewhere specific. Hopefully I will be able to stimulate his senses, but get him to slow down and take some time out. If Lucas wants to go to an adventure park or other touristy places, then that might be something else to consider for another time when the schedule isn’t so hectic.”

Since the vessel is going to be in that area anyway, on that fourth day, I may arrange for a few specific people to join us for a first ‘unofficial’ get together. We can all head back on the launch early on the fifth day. SeaQuest won’t be that far away for us to meet back up with them and continue back before your arrival.”

Are you finally prepared to let a few other people into your world, Nathan?” Noyce teased. Bill knew where his friend was intending to go, and knew that it was a huge step forward for the man.

The Admiral had personally scrutinised each of the crew members left over from Stark’s darkest hour, and made the decision to leave some in their chosen roles. The two senior officers on-board were driven by their own aspiring ambition, their sense of duty and their desire to succeed. They relished situations that demanded a cool head, to take control, problem solve and think outside the box. Both Katie Hitchcock and Jonathan Ford were both highly respected and well qualified individuals, and hand-picked to provide a multi-faceted and dynamic challenge for Bridger. All fine qualities that would serve the SeaQuest and the rest of her crew on any mission.

Individually, they provided different approaches and methods of command. Together, they would bring out his best skills, and support him superbly in the role as Captain. Nathan had allowed some trust to grow between himself and some SeaQuest team members in such a short space of time. Bill could only view that as being something positive.

Bridger may say that he was doing this solely for Lucas’, but it was also proving to be a huge benefit to himself as well. A man like him had so much to offer in life yet, both as a leader of a military vessel. And he was too valuable to lose for the contributions he was making in the scientific community with his dolphin research. More importantly, he had so much to offer someone younger as a teacher and a friend who would listen.

I was only planning on inviting Lucas and Kristin if she is agreeable, but given how close we are going to be, it seems silly not to show them,” Bridger answered. “They wouldn’t need a launch to get there from the SeaQuest. I have a know someone who conducts daily tours from Miami through to Key West. He will know where I am and be able to bring there.”

When are you planning to leave the SeaQuest?” Noyce asked.

I have to broach the subject with Kristin first, and Lucas most of all. Maybe they will both turn me down,” Nathan replied. “But if they do choose to come, I should be able to commandeer a launch before tomorrow morning. Doing it that way will cut down the travel time on the launch considerably.”

I could arrange a helicopter to get the three of you there if you choose,” Noyce offered. “You are back to being a higher ranking naval officer now, Nathan. There are perks that are associated with that and can be utilised if you choose to do so. I used one of the Air Shuttles to get to you last time to invite you back.”

Not at this stage, thank you,” Nathan said. He thought using either method was a little over the top, but want to stomp all over the Admiral’s generosity, so he didn’t voice that opinion out loud. “Lucas told me himself that he gets air sick quite frequently on planes. I am not sure if he has ever been on a helicopter before, but I imagine flying around in one may have a similar outcome. He has travelled on the launches before without feeling nauseous, so I will choose that method of transport.”

Well I am sure you know him a little better by now than I do by now,” Noyce conceded. “I know you and Kristin will make the best choices you can on his behalf.”

I am not so sure that Lucas is going to be all that happy to hear that you are planning to come on-board when we get back, Bill,” Bridger voiced. “I will omit that little detail until we return. Hopefully by then he will be better rested and be more willing to accept you being here in person. Maybe I can build it into the conversation during our break so that it isn’t so much of a shock.”

I will advise you as soon as the arrangements have been made,” the Admiral promised. “That should give you enough time to talk to Lucas about the reasons for my presence.”

I will stay in touch and keep you informed,” Bridger stated, preparing to end the video-link call. There were a few things to do first before any trip could be organised.

I will do the same, Nathan,” Noyce affirmed. “Hopefully I will hear some positive news from you before tomorrow. I will be in my office for the remainder of the day, and you know where to contact me after that. I may need to reach you while you are away in case there is any developments on the legal side of things.

After severing the connection, Bridger tried to make a mental list of the things he needed to do, and in what order. Of course he wanted to rush right down to the teenager’s cabin, but that may not have the result that he was hoping to achieve. He needed an ally on his side first, so that would be his first point of call after leaving his quarters.

As Captain Bridger left his quarters, he used his PAL communicator to page Jonathan Ford on the Bridge.

Yes, Sir?” Ford asked, answering the chirp from his corresponding personal communicating device.

Jonathan, I am sorry that my meeting with Admiral Noyce took a lot longer than I originally planned, I have only just finished talking to him,” Bridger apologised. “I have to talk to Kristin down in the science department, then I will make my way to you. We have a new course to start plotting and I want to be under-way as soon as possible, please.”

Acknowledged. A new course. Can I ask where we are headed to, Sir?” Ford queried. The Executive Officer had to admit that he was more than a little curious. Up until yesterday there had been no plans for the SeaQuest to head out into open waters.

Somewhere nice and tropical, Commander, the Florida Keys,” Bridger answered. “I will be along to give you more details as soon as I can. There are some other things that need to be arranged before tomorrow morning.”

I will start plotting the course now, Sir, and advise Commander Hitchcock,” Ford confirmed. ‘The Florida Keys’ that piqued his interest even more about what Noyce and the Captain had planned for the crew.

Now that he had spoken to Jonathan about setting a designated course, he could afford to take some more time for his next task this morning. He was headed down to the science department to talk to Kristin as he had advised Ford. He had to cross his fingers that she would be willing to listen to his unusual offer.

Entering the science laboratories, there were a number of Kristin’s staff traversing the area with various pieces of paraphernalia in their possession. Test tubes and glass beakers were the accessory of the day. Bridger didn’t know which area she would be in at this time of the day.

Luckily for the Captain, Kristin was in the small staff kitchenette, talking to one of her staff members. “Good morning, Nathan, I wasn’t expecting to see you this early in the day down here,” the red-headed doctor greeted him. “This is one of my technicians, Jane Edwards,” she added in introduction.

Nice to meet you, Captain, Sir,” the young woman said, feeling a little flustered at having to meet the person in charge of the whole vessel. “Doctor Westphalen has told me so much about you.”

Painting me in a positive light, I hope,” Bridger said, giving her a warm smile. He could see she was nervous.

Oh my, yes,” Jane replied enthusiastically. “She has told me about some of the remarkable work you have been doing with your dolphin,” she gushed.

Thank you. I would love to talk to you more about it, but at another time. I am a little pressed for time this morning,” Bridger said with reluctance. He usually had a lot of patience and time when the subject was brought up and would share as much as he could. But unfortunately not today.

Could I please speak to you privately?” Nathan asked Kristin. “I apologize Miss Edwards, the matter I want to discuss needs Doctor Westphalen’s personal input,” he added tactfully.

No problem, Captain, I have some work to carry out to fill my day,” the blond-haired woman said in response. “I will go over those samples you showed me this morning, and give you my best analysis by this afternoon.”

Thank you, Jane,” Kristin said to her. “I look forward to hearing your thoughts and the data that came from the experiment that you have been conducting.”

The Captain and the doctor watched the young technician leave the kitchenette, leaving the two of them on their own. “A little over zealous at time, but she is a great worker and a tremendous asset to my staff.”

Follow me to my office, Nathan,” Kristin instructed. As they walked, the doctor gave a verbal run down to some of the work that her and the scientific team were setting up in her department. After a short walk, they arrived outside a small door. The lettering on the outside had her name, her title as Chief Medical Officer, and as the head of the scientific personnel on-board, and a number of letters.

As they entered, Bridger couldn’t help but read it all, impressed what he saw. “With all of your qualifications and the different hats you wear in this place, sooner or later you are going to need a bigger door,” he said with a good-natured laugh. He would have liked to heard more about the work she was planning to do, but he didn’t have the time to indulge at the moment.

How did your meeting with Admiral Noyce go?” Kristin asked as she offered him a seat. The Captain refused, not planning to stay all that long. “I assume whatever the two of you discussed is behind the reason for your visit into this area.”

Bridger didn’t answer straight away, thinking for a moment, and trying to get the words in the correct order first.

Surprisingly well,” Nathan commented casually. “I was expecting a lot less co-operation from him.” Then he decided that he was probably going to get this all wrong anyway.

Kristin could see his momentary hesitation, and wondered if the meeting had not gone as well as Nathan was telling her.

What is your own work schedule like down here over the next few days?” he asked, knowing that Kristin liked to keep herself busy on a regular basis.

Kristin wasn’t quite sure how to reply at first. Obviously there was more to his question than what could be drawn on face value. “I thought you were supposed to be working out a solution for Lucas. Why are you asking about my work schedule?”

Nathan threw caution to the wind and knew he would just have to lay all of his cards on the table. “Bill has been told about what has been happening. There still isn’t any word from the legal department in relation to making Lawrence Wolenczak accountable for his actions. I have convinced him to give me four days leave to take Lucas away on a break away from SeaQuest.”

That is good news. So you thought Ben’s idea of him needing to get off the vessel had some merit,” Kristin remarked, still wondering how she fit into the plan. “Four days isn’t a long time, but I guess anything is better than nothing.”

Oh don’t worry, it comes with whole list of strings attached of course,” Nathan said, his tone of voice having a slight edge to it. “I was able to negotiate the time away, but in return the SeaQuest and her crew are headed towards the Florida Keys today.”

Today?” Kristin said in shock. “Why so soon?”

Bill wants to show off the SeaQuest, ready or not to the personnel at the N.A.S. Station, located at Key West,” Bridger told her. “He wants to dangle a carrot in front of them to prove that she is capable and ready. The admiral is intending to use Jonathan and Katie as the glorified tour guides for these people.”

I take it you don’t approve of what he wants to do?” Kristin asked, still feeling a little lost in the conversation.

That’s the best part, I won’t be there to have to worry about it. Jonathan thrives on that sort of military protocol, I don’t. Katie will enjoy showing them all the technological advancements that are on-board, and know how to pronounce their names,” Nathan said with a grin. “I don’t have to play Mr Nice Guy at all whilst they are on-board.”

You don’t?” Kristin asked sceptically. “Wouldn’t Admiral Noyce want you to be there because you are the Captain? And I have it on good authority that you are a nice fellow once in a while,” she joked.

I want the four days I have at my disposal to begin tomorrow morning,” Nathan explained. “I am intending to take a launch when we are closer. From there it will only be a few hours travel time. Bill was willing to provide a plane or helicopter, but I don’t think Lucas would enjoy either mode of transport if given a choice.”

Tomorrow morning is rather short notice, have you even discussed your plans with Lucas yet? Does he know where you intend to go for this break? Has he even agreed to go along?”

Nathan could see that she didn’t quite understand what he was trying to say, and wasn’t reading between the lines enough. “I came here to ask you to come along first.” He could see the impact his words had on her. “I need to know I have an ally on my side, before I do go and ask Lucas if he wants to come. I have no idea what I am going to do if he turns me down.”

Kristin shoved her hands deeply into the pockets of the white laboratory coat that she was wearing. If Nathan had been able to see her hands, he would note that they were clenched tightly together as fists.

Nathan, I don’t know what to say,” she replied, see the hopeful look on his face. There was a lot of work that she was supposed to be doing. “I am very flattered of course that you would consider asking me.”

Say you will come,” he urged with a grin. He saw Kristin looking about her office, taking in what was sitting on her desk, and probably thinking about the rest of the expected workload. He could see the inner struggle of wanting to agree, but feeling guilty for her team needing to cover her absence.

This is for Lucas, remember,” he pointed out. “He needs us to be working together as a team.”

That is not even remotely fair,” Kristin tried to argue, knowing that by using the teenager’s well-being as a bargaining chip, the man had practically guaranteed her co-operation. She wouldn’t be able to turn down the chance to help Lucas. “Where are you intending to take him?”

To the place you have been so keen to go to all these years. My place, my island. I can show you some of the research that I have been working on with Darwin,” Bridger answered. “Bill offered all kinds of teenager fun activities if I wanted them. Accommodation and vehicle hire. I turned him down, and told him that I don’t think that is the type of break he is needing right now.”

Four days it is,” Kristin said, reaching a decision and holding out her hand to seal the deal. “I will talk to my staff today and appoint someone to act in my place.”

Thank you. There is plenty of room at the house, with enough guests rooms for you and Lucas,” Bridger informed her. “I will get Ben to make up enough supplies for us for that amount of time. Hopefully it will provide you with a little relaxation as well.”

Do you really think he is going to agree?” Kristin asked. “Should we be taking anybody else with us?”

The best I can do is ask him,” Bridger answered her first question. “He is still fearful about his father, so I honestly don’t know how he is going to react when I ask. If he refuses, then all of the plans that I have going around in my head won’t even be needed. I am not going to pressure him into leaving, even for a break he desperately needs, if he doesn’t feel safe.”

I told Bill, that since the SeaQuest is going to be based near Key West, on the fourth day, I intend to invite some of the crew to join us,” Nathan continued. “Only a select few that Lucas will feel comfortable with. If they come in the morning, then I can organise a few activities on the beach, and then end with a barbecue. Now that I am Captain again, I am going to have to allow people to get to know me better as well. Part of that is to lift the veil of secrecy that I have been clinging to about my island.”

I thought about arranging for Ben to join us from tomorrow and pilot the launch, in case Lucas was looking for a friend a little closer to his own age,” Bridger commented. “But if he does agree to come, I think the two of us can manage to keep him occupied for the first few days without needing too much extra help.”

Bill also advised me that when this little exercise in Key West is completed, then he is planning a personal inspection of SeaQuest,” Bridger forewarned. “I have no intentions of tell Lucas that today. That is something that the two of us are going to have to prepare him for.”

That is not going to be a smooth or well received visit when the admiral does come on-board,” the doctor predicted.

Tell me about it,” Bridger agreed. “But at the moment, I want to focus on one day at a time. Dealing with any of that is going to have to wait.”

Are you going to ask Lucas to come once you leave here?” Kristin queried. “Do you want me to be present when you do so?”

I am going to go and find him now,” Nathan answered. “Let me try asking on my own first, and see how that goes. I want him to be able to make the choice without feeling pressured or obligated.”

Don’t forget to remind Lucas when you do find him, that I want to check on his stitches,” Kristin reminded. “If you need me to help organise anything for the journey once he agrees, please come and tell me.”

Thank you,” Nathan said as he opened the door to her office. “Keep your fingers crossed.”

Good luck, because you are going to need it,” Kristin stated.

Leaving the science department, Bridger’s stride was a little more confident. Kristin’s positive response had been the first major hurdle to his plan, and he was grateful for her participation.

Looking down at his watch, the time was now nine a.m. in the morning, and the Captain headed toward Mammal Engineering hoping that the teenager may be still in his cabin. Reaching the small hatch, he listened, trying to detect any music playing inside the room. He couldn’t hear anything. He politely knocked and waited. After a few moments of continual silence, he opened the door, but alas the small cabin was empty.

Although Ben had reported him asleep earlier, now he was awake again and the time difference suggested that he wasn’t maintaining a long enough period of rest. The Captain hoped that he hadn’t chosen to start any work already today.

Bridger walked past the moon pool, but the teenager wasn’t there. Darwin wasn’t in the tank either, so his search continued.

Entering the mess hall, he inwardly relaxed when he spotted the person he was looking for, sitting at a table, facing away from him and talking quietly to the head chef, Don.

Good Morning, Captain,” Don greeted him.

Lucas raised his head and turned in his seat at the mention of the Captain. “Hi,” he said with a slight smile. There was a fork in his hand, which he laid aside on the table.

Come to join us for a coffee, Sir?” Don queried. “Lucas was just enjoying another one of my mother’s recipes. Lasagne, made with loads of cheese on top. Probably the wrong time of the day for such a heavy dish, but our young friend here doesn’t seem to mind.”

No, I am afraid not, Don, maybe later. I have already had my two cup quota for the morning before ten a.m,” Nathan answered.

Bridger moved around to the other side of the table, taking in the almost finished plate of food in front of the teenager, and the half-empty glass of juice. He was very pleased to see him eating, no matter what it was.

I hope I am not interrupting you from finishing, Lucas?” Bridger commented. “Carol used to make quite a mean lasagne herself. It is one of my favourites. I will have to try your mother’s recipe sometime to compare, Don.”

Anytime, Captain,” Don replied. “There is plenty available, and I will have to make a few new batches before the hordes descend on this place for dinner tonight. I asked this young man to be my taste tester for the morning, making sure that my efforts were satisfactory. Lucas here has been trying my first attempt of the day.”

Are his efforts satisfactory, Lucas?” Bridger asked, playing along. It was great to hear that Don had taken positive steps forward this morning in encouraging the boy to eat. He may not have bothered if they waited for him to make the decision himself.

It’s great,” Lucas reported. “I don’t think I am going to be able to do your portion sizing the justice it deserves, Don. But in my humble opinion, you can never have too much cheese,” he added with a grin. He picked up the glass and finished drinking the juice, but pushed the plate of remaining food away.

No problem, Lucas, I think you did just great,” Don remarked. “Apart from judging my food, Captain, the two of us were sitting here discussing ex-wives. Or in his case, yet to be girlfriends,” he directed towards the shy teenager.

Lucas coped the joke and was happy enough to reject the premise with a healthy helping of sarcasm. “Let me see, fourteen years of age, the place where I currently live is classified, and I don’t know how long I am going to be here. I don’t have a driver’s license or my own car , no money on hand to buy flowers or presents, and no job with a steady pay-check. I am not totally sure what poor girl would be interested with all those sparkling positive traits. I am definitely not looking at the moment, but maybe some day,” he added, laughing at the very suggestion.

‘Thank the heavens for that’ Bridger thought to himself, not wanting to dash the young man’s romantic future entirely. There was enough on his plate at the moment, without trying to complicate it any further. Lucas didn’t believe that where he was living was a permanent option, so that was an opinion that needed work in order to change.

Please don’t listen to any of Krieg’s advice on that subject,” Don pleaded. Ben was a fine person and very charismatic when it came to paying attention to the ladies, but he was known for his many spectacular failing attempts at flirting. Although he had been married once, Ben wasn’t ready for another serious relationship or settling down either.

Bridger and Lucas were both smirking at the chef’s idle remark.

Wherever Ben is right now, he probably feels like his ears are burning, and has no idea why,” Don commented casually, chuckling as he tried to envisage the indignant scowl on Krieg’s face if he was seated at the same table.

Lucas stopped laughing, and turned his head, glancing around the room and towards the doors, “I haven’t seen him yet this morning at all. Where is Ben today anyway?”

I haven’t seen him in here for breakfast either,” Don commented, but then saw the brief expression that crossed the Captain’s face. Apparently Bridger knew the answer.

I have some matters I need to attend to on the Bridge,” Nathan announced, skipping over the teenager’s question about Ben. “I came in here because I was looking for you, Lucas.”

The teenager fired two short questions back at Bridger, “You did? About what?”

Kristin wanted me to remind you that she needs to see you this morning,” Bridger answered. “When you are finished there, I have something I wanted to talk to you about in my quarters.”

The Captain’s subterfuge didn’t seem to working, with the boy’s expression changing to one of suspicion. The part about Kristin was straightforward enough, he expected that she might be checking up on him sometime today. Bridger was being entirely too vague, and there was nothing accidental about the choice of venue. Bridger was choosing somewhere private for the two of them to ‘talk’, so his wariness level had been raised.

I will come with you to the Bridge before going to see Kristin,” Lucas stated. “I want to talk to Commander Ford about the work that I have been doing for him.”

Don, I have some other matters that I need to discuss with you later today as well,” Bridger commented, hoping that the chef wouldn’t ask for him to elaborate in front of the teenager.

I am always here, Captain,” Don answered, but didn’t miss the expression on Lucas’ face.

Thank you for the food, Don,” Lucas said as he got up from the table, and headed out of the mess hall.

Maybe what the Captain wanted to talk to them about today was completely unrelated, but he could see the wheels of the teenager’s sharp mind turning already. He hoped that Bridger didn’t take too long to tell the boy what was going on.

As they walked to the Bridge, Lucas looked over at the Captain, waiting for him to start a conversation. When the man didn’t, he knew something was definitely on his mind. Suspicion began to change into concern. Admiral Noyce may have been talking to Bridger, and that was the reason for the privacy and the hedging.

Approaching the dome doors to the Bridge, the siren wailed to signal their presence, and the hydraulics kicked into gear, slowly parting the two heavy structures and allowing them access.

Captain on deck,” Chief Crocker announced and providing the appropriate salute of respect along with the other crew members present.

As you were people,” Bridger responded, returning the gesture.

Commander Ford approached, “Good morning, Captain. And Lucas.”

Good morning, Commander, how are the preparations going that I ordered?” Bridger questioned, deliberately leaving out the place name.

Proceeding nicely, and we should be under way within the next hour, Sir,” Ford answered dutifully. “Commander Hitchcock has been informed of your orders, but I think she is waiting for a fuller explanation from you about our intended destination.”

Morning,” Lucas said politely. “The SeaQuest is going somewhere?” Bridger may have a valid reason for being secretive, because he had orders of his own to carry out.

Bridger sighed inwardly, wishing that Lucas had not picked up on that so quickly until he had a chance for them to talk.

Didn’t you tell me that you wanted to discuss something with Commander Ford?” Bridger asked, changing the subject.

You wanted to see me, Lucas?” Ford asked the teenager. In the back of his mind, he was going over everything that he had heard in the Ward Room.

Ah, yes I did, but its not that important right now. It sounds like you and the Captain have other work to do,” Lucas replied. Back in the mess hall he had made a mental list of things he wanted to bring up to the Commander. Having heard that SeaQuest maybe going somewhere, he found his mind wandering and forgetting what they were.

There was one other matter that he did want to bring up before exiting the Bridge. Halfway through the silent walk he and the Captain had taken, Lucas realised that Bridger had completely glanced over his earlier question about Ben’s whereabouts.

Commander have you seen Ben this morning during your shift?” Lucas enquired. “I haven’t seen him at all, and Don says he didn’t have breakfast this morning either.”

I did see Ben this morning,” Ford answered truthfully. “Krieg reported to me this morning that he didn’t get much sleep last night, so he asked me to change his roster. He is in his cabin at the moment, catching up.” The man could see Lucas mulling over his answer, trying to decide if he was being told the full story or not.

Was he feeling sick?” Lucas asked with concern. “Did anybody try and find out if something was bothering Ben?” Krieg wasn’t the type of person to feign illness, or let a lot of things get under his skin. Usually his personality was the opposite and Ben was able to put a positive spin on most situations. If his friend was awake during the night, then there must have been a reason behind it.

Ford and Bridger were beginning to see Lucas’ worry about his friend grow. They wished that he kept half of that for himself.

I was planning on showing him the completed software program that I have been working on for him to help with his inventory system,” Lucas explained. “I was going to use a few hours this morning to demonstrate to him how to use it. But it is not urgent, it can wait. I went past his cabin when I first woke up to tell him, but nobody was there when I knocked. If he is sleeping now, I will wait until later in the day to tell him.”

I am sure that Krieg is just fine, Lucas,” Ford said, trying to quell the teenager’s worry for the absent Supply Officer. “Ben reported to a few of us, including the Captain that he was awake for a considerable amount of time last night.”

That is correct, Ben did mention that, and he looked tired to me this morning,” Bridger commented, thankful that Jonathan had kept to the basic facts.

Well I wish he had come and found me, I would have kept him company if he couldn’t sleep,” Lucas remarked. “I was wandering the corridors myself last night at various times, but we didn’t cross paths.” Both men were confirming what he already knew, but nobody was coming up with a valid enough reason.

You were awake a lot last night too?” Bridger asked, trying to sound like the teenager’s admission was something he was hearing for the first time. “Was there something bothering you that you want to talk about?”

No,” Lucas answered a little too quickly. The one word response giving him away that some problem had been plaguing him. “Like I told you near the moon pool yesterday, sleep is over-rated. Some nights it takes quite a while for sleep to find me.” ‘If it ever does at all’ echoing inside his brain.

The Captain and Commander exchanged knowing glances at the teenager’s comment of having trouble sleeping. They were surprised at his minor slip and how honest he was being.

I have some boring Captaincy work to do here for the next fifteen minutes,” he told the boy. “Why don’t you head down to see Kristin and I will meet you in my quarters after that like we arranged?”

Sure, I can do that,” Lucas replied. There was an air of mystery surrounding everything the Captain was doing this morning. “I will go and see Kristin before she comes looking for me.”

The two adult men watched the teenager walk towards the dome doors, but they also saw him turn his head around and look directly back at them with a questioning expression as he exited the Bridge. Thankfully all of the secrecy would soon be over.

Lucas is already guessing that something is going on, Captain,” Ford pointed out. “He has this natural intuitiveness and can pick out small details that other people wouldn’t even think twice about.”

Yes, so I noticed,” Bridger commented in return. “Let’s really hope that he agrees to my offer, because I haven’t got an alternative plan to fall back on if he refuses.”

Ford was standing by respectfully, but like the teenager, he was hoping to hear a whole lot more about this plan that Bridger was hatching and counting on to work. He was the first crew member to be advised that the SeaQuest was pulling out of Pearl Harbour and headed elsewhere.

Commander, I know you are wanting to know the details too,” Bridger started. “Admiral Noyce has given me four days leave. As I mentioned to you earlier, our destination is the Florida Keys. How long do you estimate before we reach them, taking into account the weather, ocean currents and the speed of the vessel?”

From the calculations that I made over the last hour, Captain, I can report that we should cover that distance with no trouble. The seas around that area can be unpredictable this time of year, but we should be there within the next twenty-four to thirty hours.”

Thank you, Jonathan, at this stage, I have managed to convince Doctor Westphalen to accompany me on this little excursion. Now it is just Lucas that I need to talk to,” Bridger explained. “The other details that I hinted at, include arranging to borrow a sea launch for use in the early hours of tomorrow morning.”

Kristin is speaking to her people now and appointing someone appropriate to take her place for that short time,” Bridger advised. “Once I have spoken to Lucas, I also need to have Ben arrange the launch and make sure that it is fully stocked. I told Don, the head chef that I need to speak to him as well, but couldn’t give him any details yet because Lucas was in the mess hall finishing a meal.”

Ford was surprised that the Captain had spoken to the doctor and that she had agreed to come along. He would have thought that persuading her would be just as tough as Lucas.

Walking over to his Captain’s chair and sitting down, Bridger brought up a map of the Florida Keys area. “I gave you orders to head towards here,” he pointed out to his second-in-command. “I am sorry that I couldn’t be more specific until now. This is where you and Commander Hitchcock will be headed to with the rest of the crew on-board.”

Key West,” Ford recognized, following the Captain’s finger trail.

I am sure that I don’t have to tell you or Katie what is there?” Bridger commented.

N.A.S. Naval Station, Sir,” Jonathan answered, nodding his head. “I am familiar with the place and how big it is. I have been there, but I believe Katie has spent more time there than me.”

That probably works more in my favour then, Commander, because I am going to ask you to be a gentleman on this occasion and for you to step aside for her,” Bridger replied. “When you reach Key West, I would like Commander Hitchcock to take over the Captaincy for that few short days.”

Sir?” Ford questioned. He had no problem with Katie taking over the top job, she was a skilled officer. There were times when they co-operated together and shared command as Captain. Both of them were aspiring to reach such a rank in the future based on their service records and experience.

Getting the leave from Admiral Noyce came with strings attached, just like I told Doctor Westphalen,” Bridger explained. “Upon arrival there, he is expecting either yourself or her to conduct a number of tours for some of the top brass and personnel there. The Admiral cannot be there himself due to other commitments, but he is wanting us to put on a good show for some of the ambassadors. He wants to show SeaQuest off, and prove to them that she is operational whenever we are needed.”

I am certain Katie will relish the opportunity, Captain,” Ford remarked.

You are a fine commanding officer, Jonathan, and I am not trying to steal your thunder, or take away your chance to command when I plan to be elsewhere,” Nathan asserted. “I thought her thorough knowledge of the SeaQuest’s external and internal workings and electronic systems on this occasion were what the Admiral was looking for. I promise that was the only reason.”

Will you be requiring anybody to pilot the launch for you, Captain?” Ford enquired. “I can arrange anybody you like. Tim O’Neill, Ben Krieg, even Miguel Ortiz all have the required experience and skill.”

Thank you but no, I did consider asking Ben Krieg to accompany us, especially if Lucas does agree to come,” Bridger answered. “Upon further reflection, if he does say yes, I am going to pilot the launch myself, for just the three of us. I am sure that Ben will try and object loudly to being left behind.”

Krieg will certainly be trying to put his name forward to pilot the launch,” Jonathan agreed. The Captain’s assessment of the Morale officer wanting to go with them definitely correct.”

I am planning to take Kristin and Lucas to my island, Jonathan,” Bridger stated. “I know that many of you have been curious about where it is. I don’t want to broadcast its location to everybody in the world, but it has become apparent that I cannot keep it a secret forever either.”

Wow, that is very generous of you, Sir,” Ford remarked. ‘So, they were about to find out where this mysterious island was that Bridger had been living on before being lured back by Admiral Noyce’ he thought to himself.

The Admiral was offering other teenager friendly alternatives for Lucas, but I turned him down and told him that I have other more mundane ideas in mind,” Bridger explained further. “Plus with the SeaQuest being that close to home, Darwin can be allowed to make his own way back to the secluded lagoon he is familiar with. He will know where to go, and I hope that having him there will be of benefit to Lucas.”

I will speak to Katie myself and tell her about taking over command in my absence. Unfortunately by doing that, she will have to wait just a little longer to find out the location of my island.”

On the fourth day, I will make arrangements for yourself, and the members of our little network, including Ben to join me on my island, along with Kristin and Lucas. I will arrange for some additional supplies to be brought with you so that we can have a barbecue. It will be an overnight stay for those who choose to do so. I don’t have enough extra guest rooms at the moment to offer everybody who comes, so tents and sleeping bags it is for those who agree to attend.”

I cannot see there being many objections to that type of lodgings just for one night, Sir,” Ford responded. “Will we need to take a launch there as well and directions from you?” With this statement, he had already confirmed that he would be accepting the invitation. He couldn’t deny that he was more than curious himself, and it offered a way of learning more about Bridger. The U.E.O. files on the Captain provided by Noyce may have given some background information, but that didn’t make up for first-hand observations.

Bridger smirked widely at the Commander. “No, Jonathan, I am going to keep the location a surprise even from you a bit longer yet. Along with yourself and Ben Krieg, the other people to attend if they say yes are Miguel and Tim. I want to maintain a relaxed atmosphere by inviting crew members that Lucas is already comfortable spending time with, and keep the numbers low.”

Once I have spoken to Lucas and he agrees to come, then I will approach Tim and Miguel in person to invite them along.”

On that fourth morning, I will arrange for a man by the name of Eddie Adamson to pick up those attending from Key West, along with anything else that I will need. He is a long time friend, and has a large cruise boat called the Sally. He conducts daily tours that start from Miami and continue throughout the Florida Keys. He will know where to bring you.”

Glancing down at his watch, Nathan wrapped up their conversation. “Now I just have to talk to Lucas, and we have already past that fifteen minutes by several more. He will be waiting for me. Anything else that needs to be discussed, can wait until after I talk to him.”

Good luck, Captain,” Ford said with sincerity, hoping the teenager would accept Bridger’s plans were based on good intentions.

Lucas walked into the science department with his hands in his pockets, looking for Kristin. The doctor has finished a meeting with one of her senior staff members, Joshua Levine, asking if he would stand in for her as acting Medical officer. The reason for her absence was kept out of their discussions, and he didn’t pursue matters further by asking her to explain.

Levine had gone back to his own duties, and Kristin was intending to talk to Jane Edwards again about some testing that she wanted to set up. Before she could search for Jane, Lucas approached her from the opposite direction.

Morning, Doc, the Captain said that you wanted to see me,” he greeted her.

Good morning, Lucas,” Kristin returned. “Yes, I did tell him that. Time to me to check those stitches of yours.”

Do we really have to do that today?” the teenager asked with reluctance. “Every time I come down here, you only want take my blood or check up on me.”

It won’t take very long,” the doctor said, noting that he wasn’t going to be combative as the two of them started walking towards med-bay. “Have you eaten today?”

There you go asking that same question again,” he said in mock protest, but with a small smile. “I just came from the mess hall. Don and the Captain can vouch for my presence and confirm that I have eaten breakfast.” He was still getting used to her asking him about his meal times. One way or the other he was probably going to have to get used to it. Someone caring this much about his eating habits and general health was uncharted territory.

Kristin closed the door to the room as they entered, “Shirt please,” she instructed. “How have your pain levels been lately?”

My hip isn’t bothering me so much now. I can even sit down on the floor again, but it starts to ache if I stand too long in one position,” Lucas reported to her. “The stitches don’t hurt, but they have been getting itchy.” Kristin didn’t bring up that Ben had reported him sitting on the floor during the night, a few hours ago.

That is a good sign that your stitches are healing properly,” Kristin informed him as she warmed her hands and began removing the protective coverings. “The bruising is still present, but it shouldn’t get any worse or darker from this point. It is starting to show signs of changing colour on the outer edges, but may take another couple of weeks to disappear altogether.”

My stitches don’t pull when I am moving about now, or lean up against something. I don’t feel them either when someone pokes or prods wrong,” Lucas stated, feeling her gentle touch.

I am very pleased to hear that,” Kristin commented. “In another four or five days, these stitches should be ready to come out. I will make another assessment about them at that time.” The doctor noted that the teenager still needed to gain some weight. Internally, she was still berating his father for the punishment that he had endured.

You can put your shirt back on now,” Kristin advised him. “Anything else going on that you haven’t told me about this morning?”

Nothing comes to mind,” Lucas affirmed. Then he thought for a minute and wondered if she knew about Ben. Seeing as how she was adamant about keeping tabs on everybody on-board, maybe she knew something about his friend.

Can I ask you a question, Kristin?” The tone of his voice made her look up and give him her full attention.

Of course you can,” the doctor said, finishing making a note in his file. It was the same voice laced with concern that he had used the night he had found Nathan asleep in his armchair.

Do you know of anything that might be bothering Ben at the moment? I mean the guy is usually so outgoing about everything. Sounded rather odd to me.”

‘Apart from being worried about you’ she wanted to tell him. “I did see Ben, quite early this morning, he admitted to feeling tired. Why do you ask?”

That is what Commander Ford and the Captain reported about him too,” Lucas replied. “I haven’t seen him about today, and Don confirmed that he hadn’t been to the mess hall for breakfast. When I was on the Bridge not too long ago, Ford confirmed that Ben had asked for his shift today to be altered. Apparently he is in his cabin now sleeping because he was awake for the majority of the night.”

I am sure that Ben is fine, Lucas,” Kristin said, trying to quell his concern. “He organised the party that we attended last night and was pushing everybody else there to mingle and have a good time. This morning, he and I were sharing a cup of coffee and I didn’t notice that anything was troubling him.”

Yeah, well I hope that is the case then,” Lucas commented, pleased to hear the doctor’s observations. Maybe he was just over-reacting. “Like I told the Captain and Commander Ford earlier on the Bridge, I was awake for a considerable amount of time last night as well, but I didn’t see Ben about in the corridors anywhere.”

What was causing you to lose sleep last night, may I ask?” Kristin queried, surprised that the teenager was owning up to his nocturnal habits.

Whatever was keeping Ben awake can’t be all that bad then, as you mentioned, he seemed fine at those other times,” Lucas stated, completely glossing over the doctor’s question about himself. “Maybe I was worrying about nothing. Anyway I can’t stay longer,” he added too quickly, avoiding any further chance to discuss his sleeping pattern.

Lucas headed to the door, but turned around to speak to her, “I promised you yesterday that the software program that I was creating for you was almost complete and ready for demonstration. I can now reveal that it is finished and I can show you and your staff when you are ready.”

Thank you for doing that, and I know my staff will appreciate all the work you have done,” Kristin praised, unable to keep herself from making the next comment. “I hope you didn’t push yourself too hard to get it finished?”

Kristin wanted to address the reason for his haste, but didn’t want to create waves with the teenager. “Do you need to go somewhere now?” she asked. The doctor noted that it may not have been his concern about Ben, or her question about his own restless night that was causing him to act with some hesitation as he prepared to leave.

The Captain asked me to meet him in his quarters when I was finished here with you,” Lucas told her. “He mentioned that there was something that he wanted to talk me about.”

The teenager had not suspected that Kristin already knew the reason behind Nathan’s request.

Do you know what he wants to talk to me about?” Lucas asked casually. “He wouldn’t even give me the slightest hint or a clue.”

Kristin didn’t want to outright lie to him, and released the breath that she was holding as he continued out the door of med-bay without expecting her answer.

‘Nathan, you are doing to need all the luck you can get’ she thought to herself.

Bridger was coming down the corridor to his own quarters, muttering to himself about being late, and predicting that Lucas may not be in such a charitable mood. To his surprise, the teenager himself turned the corner a few seconds later.

Sorry, I got caught up talking to Kristin down in med-bay,” Lucas apologised. He was relieved to see that the Captain was only turning up now too. “I thought you may have been waiting around for me.”

The Captain gave a small laugh in return, “No, seems like we are both right on time. Here I was thinking that you were going to be waiting inside for me. I got caught up talking to Commander Ford a lot longer than I anticipated too.”

The two of them entered the spacious quarters together, with Nathan closing the door.

You can take a seat on the new sofa, or wherever you feel most comfortable,” Bridger offered. The man was pacing back and forth, trying to mask his own wavering and stalling tactics.

This is fine for now,” Lucas replied, choosing to sit on the chair beside the holographic desk.

I trust that your check up with Kristin went smoothly enough?” Bridger asked with genuine curiosity.

From what he could see, the boy appeared to be in fairly good spirits, and had attended this impromptu meeting upon his own accord.

Yeah, I told her that my hip wasn’t giving me so much trouble now except for odd occasions when I stand up too long,” the teenager answered truthfully. “Kristin changed the dressings on my stitches and told me that she may be able to remove them soon. She made a few other comments too, but mostly a good report that everything is healing like it should.”

I am very pleased to hear all of that coming from her,” Bridger remarked with a smile. “Even better to hear that you are not hurting so much any more.”

Ben’s comments about what methods he was using to cope kept echoing back at him. Nathan was finding it difficult to form a structured sentence that wasn’t going to make him sound like a bumbling idiot and tripping over his own words.

The vibe in the room between them started to change and the teenager couldn’t shake the hairs on the back of his neck rising. The teenager was beginning to have that ‘deja vu’ feeling all over again. When Bridger had told him about the crew finding out about his darkest secret. A feeling of dread began to emerge and descend, and he could scarcely sit still on the chair.

The expression on Lucas’ face changed, and he wanted to get this over and done with. “Captain, what is going on?”

That obvious huh,” Bridger said, stopping his pacing, knowing that his own nervousness in broaching the subject was causing the boy to become more suspicious about his true intentions.

‘Just tell me’ Lucas wanted to say, but he found his mouth drying out and he could hear the sound of his own heartbeat in his chest.

Bridger thought the best way to start was to applaud the efforts he had been making in general on the vessel to help others. “Word has reached my ears from a number of different sources about the great work that you have been doing here lately.”

Lucas was about to respond, but decided not to at the last minute, allowing the Captain to continue. He had no idea who had been talking about him or what they had been saying.

Unfortunately his next partial sentence could not have come out more wrong for Bridger.

I have made arrangements for you to be able to leave the SeaQuest……,”

He didn’t even finish before he noted the boy’s complexion turn a few shades paler.

For a moment Lucas felt like all of the air had suddenly rushed out of his lungs at once. He stood up, his face a mixture of displeasure and borderline panic.

With great effort and restraint, and his voice completely devoid of any emotion, he responded as best he could, “I understand. I will go and get my stuff together.”

The teenager was about to take a large step backwards away the Captain, wanting to escape and not stay another minute in the room to embarrass himself. You should have known better! he shouted harshly at himself.

Nathan placed his hand on the boy’s arm, stopping him from leaving, but could feel the muscular tremours. Fear that was what he was coursing strongly through his veins and feeding his insecurity. But why?

Bridger could see the crestfallen face and the sombre mood that was threatening to engulf him. He didn’t want to allow Lucas leave upset this time, like he had done from med-bay a few days ago when Kristin and Ben were present.

Nathan noted the boy’s attempt to avoid all eye contact and his efforts to withdraw from any kind of physical touch. “Hey hey, what is going on? Please talk to me for a minute,” he pleaded, trying to figure out the reason for the boy’s sudden defensiveness.

The teenager’s facial expression changed again briefly to one of contempt and defiance, “Don’t concern yourself about me, Captain! This is nothing that I haven’t dealt with before. I guess I owe you something for putting up with me for this long. I have managed to get by on my own in the past.”

Bridger was taking him off SeaQuest permanently. By allowing himself to grow complacent in recent days, he had forgotten the most important rule that he had set for himself when first coming aboard. Don’t let anybody get too close.

In his mind, Bridger went over the words he had uttered, and then he was silently kicking himself for not making it clearer from the start. Any residual anger Lucas was holding onto, dissolved in an instant.

Slowly lifting his face towards the Captain, he was begging to understand the man’s change of mind. Emotions threatening to take over any rational thought, “I don’t have any place else to go,” Lucas whispered. You promised that I wouldn’t have to go back!

No, no, that is not what I meant at all,” Bridger pledged. “I am sorry, I should have worded my offer a whole lot better than that. Please forgive me.” The teenager thought that he was being removed from the boat. “I promised that you wouldn’t need to leave here unless you felt safe, and I meant that,” he reiterated with emphasis.

Lucas stared back at the man, with a small voice screaming inside his head. For a few moments, the teenager didn’t know if he could to believe him or not, but he was relying so much on and wanting this man’s words to be truthful. Very few people had ever offered to help him before, and he found himself clinging to the very notion with an unquantifiable desperation. Bridger was the first man that he had begun to trust or laid any kind of hope in being able to keep him safe from his father.

I am so sorry, Lucas,” the Captain beseeched. “I was trying to mix up my words and sound positive about how much I have appreciated the work you have been doing on-board lately. In the end all I did was the exact opposite.”

I am going to take a break from SeaQuest for four days, starting from tomorrow morning. I asked you to come in here to talk because I wanted to ask you in person to come with me,” Nathan revealed.

But I thought that you…..,” unable to finish the sentence. Solace was pouring out of him, and his limbs felt like they were turning to jelly. He stumbled backwards, forcing himself to sit down in the chair before he ended up on the floor in an untidy heap. He was unable to hide the sheer relief from his face and body language.

Bridger pulled the other chair near the desk over beside him, sitting down and leaning in closer, and giving the teenager all the time he needed to recover. He wanted to keep apologising and keep saying the word ‘sorry’ but that wasn’t the answer Lucas was seeking right now. He placed a supportive arm across the teenager’s slim shoulders.

For a minute there……..,” Lucas began but stopped. “My heart and brain always think the worst first and occasionally jump to the wrong conclusion. Like I have mentioned before, it is something that happens automatically,” he added with a hollow laugh. Slowly he exhaled, letting out a breath and demonstrating how much fear he had been holding inside for those few brief moments.

You are not going back to him,” Nathan reassured him, placing his free hand over the boy’s and squeezing gently, meaning it as an unspoken solemn vow. He was delighted to feel the teenager return the gesture with his own hand and grasp his tightly in silent thanks.

Bridger allowed the teenager some time to regain some composure, berating himself for such a monumental blunder.

Let me ask you again,” Nathan began speaking softly. “And this time I will do it properly.”

Lucas gave a small smile in return, feeling stupid for such an over-reaction, but knowing that the emotions had bubbled up too quickly and taken control away from him.

Lucas, I am going to be taking a small break away from SeaQuest starting from tomorrow morning. I would like to invite you to come along.”

Before answering, the teenager decided to do a little more background checking and ask a couple of questions of his own. “What is this break you are talking about taking all about? Why did you decide that now was a good time to do it?”

In the back of his mind, he remembered about finding Bridger asleep in his quarters early one evening. He had even mentioned to Kristin that it can’t be easy doing his job all of the time. Even though he had only reclaimed the Captaincy of the vessel in recent weeks, maybe he was feeling tired and stressed. The answer might be taking a few days to relax and recharge.

The Captain didn’t want to dob Ben in completely or blurt out that he was the one needing to take a break.

Admiral Noyce needs SeaQuest to start travelling towards the Florida Keys today, and be ready to give a demonstration to some military personnel and foreign ambassadors over a few days. Commander Hitchcock is going to be asked to show them around and be tour guide. I want to get away while the maintenance work on-board is coming to an end and she is fully operational. After that time, this place is going to get too busy with new missions for me to be able to take leave.”

Where are you planning to go?” Lucas asked, pulling his hand away from Bridger, and standing up. He was trying to get the blood circulating again through his system, and quash any lingering anxiety.

Well since I we are going to be in that vicinity, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to go home to my place,” Bridger answered with a smile. “I was going to show you around my island?”

Your island? The one that you have been trying so hard to keep a secret all this time,” Lucas teased lightly, still silently deciding if he did want to accept. The Captain noted that he hadn’t answered yet.

The teenager was rubbing his hands together, “What would we be doing there if I decide to go?” unable to stop fidgeting as he tried his best to to explain the reason for his cautiousness. Looking back up at Bridger as he spoke, “Nobody has ever asked me to go anywhere before,” he admitted.

With that statement, Nathan could see that it wasn’t a simple case of saying yes or no to his invitation for Lucas, and he understood better the reason for his delay in answering. “Relaxing mostly and slowing down to take in the salt air and the warm water.”

I thought we could both use some good company ourselves, so it wouldn’t be just me and you going,” Bridger forewarned, “I thought there was someone else here on-board who has been under pressure too and could use some down-time too.”

Who else did you invite?” Lucas asked, more than curious. At least that meant that the Captain wasn’t doing this purely for his benefit.

I asked Kristin, and she readily subscribed to the idea,” Bridger replied. “She had been trying to find my island and talk about my research before even coming on-board SeaQuest. I think you will agree that she has been doing some long hours as head of the science department.”

Not to mention having to play doctor to me at the same time,” Lucas interjected. Then deliberately taking a deep breath, he gave the Captain his answer. “I will come with you.” My father shouldn’t be able to find me on a secluded island in the middle of the ocean.

You will?” Bridger said enthusiastically with a grin, but wanting to double check the teenager was comfortable with the decision he was making.

Yes, I don’t have any ideas that I can contribute, but I mean it could be fun. I don’t know if you have enough room at your place,” Lucas said jokingly, some butterflies of excitement of his own beginning to form at the prospect of going to a new place connected directly to the Captain. Up until now the man had been adamant about keeping his personal sanctuary a secret, so to be invited, along with Kristin was something completely outside the box and unexpected.

That is great,” Nathan confirmed, very pleased after the disastrous start he had been facing. “We have spend quite a bit of time today getting everything organised, but we have enough hands to get sorted.

The weather should be to our advantage this time of year. The rains are a month or two away and the humidity should be fairly low. Have you ever been to Florida or the anywhere near the keys?”

No, I haven’t travelled much at all before, and only remember living in California,” Lucas answered.

Our aquatic friend will be joining us too. Once the SeaQuest reaches the warmer waters of the Florida Keys, I will let him out, and he can swim home. It will take a few hours for us to cover the same distance in one of the launches. Don’t worry, Darwin knows the way better than I do and will probably beat us there.”

Darwin is coming too?” Lucas asked the rhetorical question, but then his grin dipped a little, “I won’t be able to go swimming with him once we are there though, due to my stitches.”

The Captain had just confirmed that the mammal would be joining them, which was so great. He hadn’t even given any thought to the dolphin being left behind, and he would have felt guilty in doing so. There were plenty of people on-board who would offer to take care of him, but it wouldn’t be the same thing.

You will be able to see and interact with him everyday, even if you can’t get into the water. There is no way I would be able to stop Darwin from going home, when we are going to be so close,” Bridger commented. “The lagoon is his natural environment and familiar to him and where is spent the most amount of time with me.”

Well I will help out where I can about getting ready,” Lucas proclaimed. “This whole idea is your brainstorm, but I think there is someone else that should be considered for needing a break too.”

Who?” Bridger replied, noting that the teenager had someone specific in mind.

I think that Ben may need a break away from here too,” Lucas replied. “I was worried when you and Commander Ford mentioned about him not sleeping well all of last night.”

Bridger gave a smile at the teenager’s thoughtfulness, “Admiral Noyce isn’t going to let all of my team go away all at the same time, especially when he is trying to show her off. But don’t worry, I already thought ahead for you about Ben.”

You did?”

Yes, and I do agree that he has been working hard around here, a lot of the crew have been, given the amount of maintenance that has been necessary. And the continual problems with some areas,” Nathan explained. “On the last morning, I will make arrangements for a friend of mine to pick up a few crew members that I will be inviting along to a barbecue that I plan to host on the last night. Only a few people will be invited to begin with, I am still trying to keep the location of my island a secret for a little while longer.”

That sounds neat,” Lucas stated. It sounded like the Captain had thought things through fairly well in relation to Darwin and addressing the problem of other people wanting to come along too.

I expect for Ben to protest loudly at not being able to go, and I did honestly consider bringing him along from the beginning. However, for the next few days, I will only be inviting you, Kristin and Darwin of course. That will allow the three of us to enjoy a few days without worrying about any work or needing a schedule.”

Have you ever been on vacation before, Lucas?”

The teenager gave an unfinished response as the two of them started walking out of the Captain’s quarters and into the corridor.

Nope, never…….” the teenager replied casually, as though it didn’t make a difference or matter.

Lucas failed to note the disquieted expression on Bridger’s face in hearing the answer to his question. Such lost opportunities during person’s childhood could never be gained or replaced. Parents were only blessed with so many chances involving their children and to make them count. Lawrence Wolenczak couldn’t even be bothered to make the effort in his young son’s life.

Let’s go and tell everybody our good news,” Bridger suggested. “After that, you and I need to start making a list of everything we are going to be taking with us, and anything we could possibly need over four days.”

To be continued…………………………


Author Notes:

Sorry folks, Lucas isn’t around a lot in this chapter except for a few scenes apart from sleeping. I am still building everything very carefully and slowly towards certain points and I am deliberately taking my time to do it. There are lots of new hints and clues left behind in many scenes for later.

The next chapter will be learning all about Bridger’s Island for future reference in many plots. I am not sure yet if it everything will be covered in one chapter or if there will need to be two. There will be a lot of Bridger and Lucas spending time together. The next chapter will not only introduce the island, but some new and multiple permanent characters.

In a few places now, I have made specific mentions of certain dishes. I know during SeaQuest episodes that real meat products like beef had been outlawed and illegal. I also know that they had meat substitutes, hydroponically grown, modified and genetically altered foods. So any meals in earlier chapters, this one or in future ones, that are meant to look like dishes containing meat, for example lasagne, that we would know now are meant to look like those we would be familiar with. I know some of these dishes could be done without the meat or to look differently, but that is not what I have chosen for now. Please note that any dishes containing cheese are purely invented by me for the story and characters (I cannot consume any dairy foods at all).

The question from Bridger to Lucas directly about whether he has been to Florida before, has specific meaning and reference to a future story Triggering the Nightmare

The ending scene between Lucas and Bridger was only a slight homage to the episode Whale Song where Nathan tells Lucas that he is getting pulled off SeaQuest for other reasons. Lucas is still believing that the whole idea of being on SeaQuest is temporary, no matter how many promises he gets and from who. I need that to continue for a while yet, so I wanted that to be his first reaction to Bridger’s poorly worded offer for a break.

In that brief moment, Lucas forgot about the offer from his friend Shep that was made about coming and staying with him if he needed to.

Thank you for reading. Enjoy. Any reviews gratefully accepted and cherished forever. This story still has quite a while to go yet. The good stuff is yet to come. There isn’t so much hurt in this story for Lucas, but hopefully the angst will start to ramp up nicely. There is a lot more of that to come yet.

Tribute to Richard Herd – Admiral William Noyce – passed away 26th May 2020. Thank you for the memories, your character will live on in my pages and stories forever.


Chapter Three – Taken


By Jules

Author Notes – For this story, there will be mentions of stories that are yet to be written but are earlier than this one. This story was written a long time ago (over 17 years ago), but I felt there were parts that needed more and that were rushed or not complete enough, and I wanted some more scenes in certain areas that include some of my new arcs.

For this plot, it is assumed that Adam Cartwright has returned to the Ponderosa permanently after completing his college years. And I want to include some good and caring scenes between Adam and Joe as well as some of the other times.

There are a lot of stories to come in the time line before this one yet, where events have shaped Joe’s personality and caused him to have mixed feelings and emotions for someone of his age in different situations. There are other times where his usual cheeky self shines through as he gets a little older. But I am trying not to give the all of the plots away for those stories, so there are clues, but perhaps not the full story about some characters and events.

There have been a lot of additions made to what was previously written in this chapter. It has more than doubled in size, and I hope you like the new material. This chapter is long, but I couldn’t split it any earlier. There was even more to come that I will now have to be included in Chapter Four.

Sentences from particular characters where the words are mis-spelt or where it looks like a connecting word or two are missing – are deliberate in some cases. The same thing I do when I write dialogue for Hop Sing. It is done for characters when they are under the influence of alcohol like Frank Richards, but also because that is the way that I have them speaking. Charlie the head foreman is one instance. It is also done in limited cases where I deem the character to have a lower level of education.

Chapter Three – Taken

from the end of the previous chapter:

Outside, the gentle spots of rain started to fall and within a few minutes became heavy soaking rain with flashes of lightening that danced across the sky and rumbles of thunder as the clouds released their burden.

And now the story turns another page:

The nightly air temperature changed dramatically with the heavy showers of rain that had resulted from the approaching afternoon storm. Moisture was still in the air, but the humidity had dropped away, leaving behind the fresh scent of pine needles.

Ben Cartwright had quietly entered his youngest son’s bedroom wanting to check on Joe. This was intended to be his last task for the evening before retiring to bed himself.

The storm outside was still producing bolts of lightning, and rumbles of thunder across the sky.

The thunder had been loud enough on more than one occasion to threaten to wake Joe from his sleep. It was no secret within their close knit family that Little Joe often reacted badly during thunder storms. Perhaps from even earlier when Marie was alive. Ben recalled a few nights when neither of them had gotten much sleep during the night until the noise and howling winds had settled down once morning came.

The fear had grown stronger from when he was very young, about six years old, but the cause had little to do with the absence of his mother. Instead it had come about mostly due to the actions of some ruthless men who had come to the ranch with wicked intentions. Their callous actions that night had set off a chain of events where nobody would have been able to predict the lasting outcome that came about. And those same feelings and emotions had endured and survived to resurface again on countless unsettled night’s such as this one.

The Cartwright family had been assured by their doctor, Paul Martin, that time, support and understanding was what Joe needed. The best diagnosis he had been able to give to them was that Joe’s anxiety would gradually subside and disappear on its own as he grew older.

Adam could see his father fighting his inner desire to get up from his desk and ascend the staircase. He had watched his father battle himself for the past twenty minutes with a mixture of wanting to give Joe space, but hating that the idea that his son may be suffering alone. Joe was a little older now at fifteen, and Ben tried where he could to allow Joe to grow in confidence at his own pace.

Hoss and Adam had both done the same, allowing Joe a little more freedom as he grew into a young man. Perhaps it was a little easier for them than it was their father. He loved all of his sons unconditionally, and wasn’t afraid to show it. For Ben, Joe would always be the one to worry and fret more anxiously about because of him being the youngest.

Adam could see that his father was growing weary. After Hoss had gone to bed, the two of them had spent the remaining hours going over the figures and clauses of their bid by lantern.

“Pa, why don’t you go up to check on, Joe,” Adam suggested. “The lamp in his room has probably burned down now, then you can go get some sleep yourself.”

Ben looked up at his eldest son, giving a warm knowing smile. Adam knew who had caused his attention to stray away from the books. They had all received a good scare today with Joe having to get stitches.

“I don’t want to leave you down here finishing this contract off on your own, son,” Ben replied, lifting his arms over his head and stretching at the taunt muscles. “I have been sitting too long at this desk though.” He loosened the knot tying the neckerchief around his throat, and undid the top button of his shirt. It had been a very long day.

“There isn’t much more to do,” Adam reported. “The figures are all accurate, and the clauses that we want have been included. I am about to head up to bed myself shortly. I have a fairly early start in the morning myself if I want to see this document submitted on time.”

“Alright, I might do just that,” Ben acquiesced as he rose from the chair.

Ben clapped a hand on his son’s black clad shoulder with heartfelt appreciation, wanting to say a few final words. “I must thank you, son, after everything that went on here earlier today with Joseph, you have been a pillar of strength. This contract needed to be finished tonight and you have put in an enormous amount of work to see it completed on time. I am very grateful for you sticking with it.”

“With winter approaching in a couple of months, this ranch is going to need the extra financial stability that comes from such a new and important venture in the area,” Adam explained. “All I did was my small part to add up some figures and try and sell our argument that we are ready with the man power, equipment and trees. The hardest part in all of this is yet to come if we win to actually see it through to fruition and we have to start cutting those logs.”

“We can talk more about it in the morning at breakfast, but I just wanted to say ‘thanks’ tonight,” Ben replied. “This isn’t the first time you have taken on such a challenge with the timber operation, and I have every faith that you will help us achieve our goals on this occasion.”

“Thanks, that means a lot to me,” Adam remarked.

Adam watched his father head up the stairs, leaning back against the chair he was sitting in. Once upon a time he found himself in a similar frame of mind to where Joe currently was. He had wanted to prove himself and insist on how ready he was to others; when in fact it was very obvious how unprepared he was.

It really did mean a lot to him to have his father’s unequivocal approval. When he first started with the responsibilities of the timber operation, he had made enough mistakes to cause him to doubt his own commitment to such a large undertaking on a full-time basis. With time, patience and experience, his efforts and aptitude were finally being rewarded from the men that he employed and his own family believing in him.


After reaching the landing at the top of the stairs, Ben made sure that his footsteps were a little softer as he approached the closed door to Joe’s bedroom. Pulling on the handle, he pushed the wooden door open and entered.

Walking over to the bed he noted that the blanket was tangled beneath his sleeping son. He stood beside the bed for a few moments, pondering how he was going to solve the problem. Joe must have sensed someone else in the room, and turned over onto his right-side, towards his father. The boy’s peaceful expression changed to a frown and he gave a soft whimper at the pain due to his injured arm and rolled onto his back, changing positions a second time.

The disturbance to his sleep was short lived and he began drifting back to sleep, and Ben was able to fuss with the bedclothes, laying them back over his slumbering son. He placed a gentle hand on his son’s forehead and could feel the low grade fever that was present. Perhaps that was the cause of the blanket being in disarray in the first place. Joe leaned into the coolness of his father’s hand and gave a contented sigh at the familiarity.

“Goodnight, Joseph,” he whispered as carded his hand through those soft dark curls.

Ben padded over to the window, wanting to check that it was closed. As he adjusted the curtains, a distant rumble of thunder could be heard outside. His last task of the evening was to extinguish the small flame that remained from the lamp.

By three a.m., the house was very quiet inside, with all of the occupants sleeping. Ten minutes later, Joe sat up in bed, listening intently and trying to figure out what had awoken him so suddenly. He rubbed at his throat, grimacing at the dryness. His room felt claustrophobic and hot. The curls at the front of his hair were damp with sweat and stuck to his forehead.

Joe thought about calling out to one of his brothers, but decided that he could manage to get his own drink of water to ease his parched throat. Throwing back the covers, he was surprised to see that he was only wearing his pants and no shirt. It was fairly unusual for him to go to bed without changing into a night-shirt.

The stitches in his arm twinged, reminding him that they were there, and Joe turned his head to note the crisp white bandage adorning his upper right arm. Now that he was awake, it was hurting. Maybe that is what had caused his sleep to be disturbed in the middle of the night.

Standing up, he padded across the wooden floor boards, not bothering to put on his robe or any footwear. He was only intending to go downstairs long enough to get a drink of water. He didn’t need to dress up for something so simple when he would be returning within a few minutes.

Opening his door, he listened intently again as he made his way over to the landing above the main stair case. The rest of the household was silent. For a brief moment he thought about going back to retrieve a robe when he shivered in the cooler morning air. Brushing the damp hair on his forehead aside, he continued down the stairs slowly as his eyes adjusted to the darkness.

At the bottom of the stairs, Joe paused, holding onto the bannister, frowning a little at the disorientation he was feeling. Apart from his painful arm, he didn’t have an answer to describe the change in his equilibrium. He had best get his drink of water and go back to bed. A few more hours sleep sounded good to him.

Making it to the kitchen, he stopped at the sink and water pump. Picking up a metal cup that hung from a hook on the back wall, he held it under the tap with his right hand, grimacing as his stitches protested at the movement. Joe used his left hand and pushed the handle up and down twice before he was rewarded with a splash of cool water. The majority of the clear liquid made it into the cup, but some split over the edges onto his hand.

The temperature of the water was much lower at this time of the morning, and helped to quench his thirst and sooth his dry throat on the way down. He finished most of the contents; some remained at the bottom as he set it aside. He should not have drank it so fast. The water was now sloshing about in his stomach uncomfortably and starting to make him a little nauseous.

Joe didn’t remember having any dinner earlier that night, and maybe it was his empty belly that was reacting because he didn’t have anything to eat. There were are few hours missing from his memory. He vaguely recalled Doctor Paul Martin being in his room and tending to his arm, but he didn’t remember falling asleep. There was a bear cub and Hoss helping him, but after climbing into the saddle, the ride home back to the Ponderosa wasn’t so clear.

Reaching up and brushing aside the sweaty curls again, he was beginning to feel too warm, but was confused because he was certain that he had been wearing his sheep-skinned lined coat when the bear had scratched him. He didn’t know where it was, and now he was standing in the kitchen without wearing a shirt.

Tipping the remaining water down the sink, he rehung the cup in its proper position, his aim at the hook skewed, and he had to do it a second time. Walking slowly out of the kitchen, his intention was to go back to his room and lay down on the cool sheets and go back to sleep. He was hoping that his uneasy stomach would subside soon.

Before he could put together a coherent thought, Joe changed direction from the staircase, and laid down on the settee. His eyes slowly drifted closed despite there being no pillow supporting his head. Laying in this position, his body temperature began to climb, with his sleep not deep enough and becoming more restless.


The grandfather clock standing in the living room had just tolled four a.m. when Ben Cartwright woke up in his own bed. Not alarmed exactly, but something was amiss. He listened from the darkness of his room for a moment, trying to pinpoint the reason for his rest being disturbed. He couldn’t hear anybody moving about on the second floor or on the staircase.

Curiosity got the better of him, causing him to get up and put on his burgundy robe and slippers before exiting his bedroom. He was about to head downstairs when he saw the door to Joe’s bedroom ajar. He remembered closing it earlier in the night, maybe that was the sound he had heard. He went to investigate further.

Pushing the door open a little more, he noted that the bed was vacant, and the blankets had been thrown aside yet again. Joe should have been sleeping like the rest of the family at this time of the night. Leaving the room to go in search for his wayward son, Ben walked downstairs into the living room.

When he reached the bottom of the stairs and entered the cavernous room, he was greeted with an unusual and most perplexing scene. The very person he had come in search of, but not where he expected to find him. Joe was laying on his belly along the settee. Ben had forgotten about his son being only clad in his trousers when he had fallen asleep after Paul’s administration and his pain medicine.

The boy was still wearing the same pair of pants, without a night-shirt or any kind of blanket to ward off catching a chill. The white bandage around his upper right-arm stood out starkly in the low light. The was no way to know how long ago Joe had come down here and fallen asleep.

“Joseph,” Ben whispered softly, loathe to wake him, but wanting to move his son back to his room. The boy would be much more comfortable back in his own bed. He was tempted to just lift the boy’s slender frame and carry him, but knew at fifteen, that his son would not want to be treated in such a manner.

When he was much younger, Little Joe had shared many special times of being carried to bed in his father’s strong and loving arms. Nowadays the affection between them was just as strong and relished by both, but somethings had changed with the passage of time. Hoss taking on the task of carrying his brother, and Joe probably wouldn’t object as strongly. With Adam or himself attempting the same act, it would be viewed very differently, with embarrassment and humiliation.

Joe was caught between growing out of his childhood years and beginning the journey to being accepted as a young adult. And that included everybody, including family. Unless he was sick or injured, and even on those occasions in the past he had tried to argue that point and prove himself.

Ben laid a hand on the exposed skin his son’s back to try and rouse him, but frowned when he found it was much warmer beneath his touch. Very warm, and causing enough concern for him to put his hand on Little Joe’s forehead. His suspicions were soon confirmed, and there was no mistake. Fever.

“Pa?” came the response from Joe as he felt his father’s hand. He began to sit up, half-asleep and wincing in discomfort and reaching over with his with his left hand and rubbing above the bandage encircling his injured arm.

“What are you doing sleeping down here, Joe?” Ben asked calmly. “How long have you been laying on the settee?”

Joe blinked owlishly back at his father, trying to decipher the questions. The expression on his face was one of confusion, and Ben decided that any answer could wait. With his son sitting up, he put his hand on his forehead again, trying to determine how high his temperature was. Noticeably warmer than it had been when Paul was present, and probably why his son was acting more docile at the moment. Tired and feeling poorly; not an encouraging combination.

“Something woke me up……….,” Joe started to explain, pausing half way through the sentence as he gathered his thoughts. “I came down here to get a drink of water, but I don’t know how I ended up here. I didn’t have any supper and I don’t even remember going to bed in the first place.”

Joe used the palm of his right hand to rub tiredly at his eyes, and then looked about the room, trying to gain his bearings before glancing back at his father’s patient face. His father had asked him a question, and would be expecting an answer. The boy was still trying to work out when exactly he had come downstairs.

“I don’t know, Pa,” he answered truthfully, a crease appearing on his forehead as he tried to force himself to think.

Ben used his hand to smooth out that frown, noting the dampness to his curls. Ben sat down on the settee beside his son and wrapped an arm him. A shiver ran across his slim shoulders, despite the presence of the fever.

“You fell asleep after taking Doc Martin’s medicine for the pain in your arm, Joseph” Ben recounted for him. “Don’t worry about anything else for the moment. You need to go back to bed and rest. When you have had some more sleep, you can have something to eat.”

“I got some fresh water from the kitchen pump, but that isn’t sitting in there so well at the moment,” he complained, rubbing his stomach in a circular pattern gently with his hand. He yawned expansively, and then a second time in quick succession.

“Why don’t you go up to bed, son,” Ben suggested, feeling his son beginning to lean sleepily against his shoulder. Any further complex discussion could wait until Joe was feeling better. “Change into a night-shirt and I will be along in a moment.”

Joe didn’t give a verbal answer, but nodded his head, crunching his face up as such a motion caused his headache to spike. He cautiously stood up, waiting for the mild dizziness to subside and walked slowly to the stairs.

Ben watched his son ascend step by step at his own pace until he had safely reached the top landing.


Once he was certain that Joe was in his room, he went to the kitchen, filled a bowl with cool water from the pump. After grabbing a soft cloth, he went back into his son’s room, hoping to do what he could to lower his temperature. He wasn’t alarmed enough yet enough to send for the doctor, but wanted to monitor his son until he was satisfied that the fever has passed.

Upon entering the room, he walked over to the opposite side of the bed and set the bowl of water on the bedside table. Ben moved a chair closer to the side of the bed.

Taking the cloth and saturating it the water first, and then wringing out the excess, he set about trying to bring down his son’s body temperature.

Joe had done what his father has requested about changing into a night-shirt and pyjama bottoms. The trousers he had been wearing were had been discarded haphazardly on the floor in front of his dresser. “You just lay there and go to sleep, Joe,” Ben crooned softly, taking a hold of his son’s left hand, watching his son open his eyes, following the sound of his voice.

Joe was laying on his back, the covers were still laying partially beneath his body. Caught somewhere between awake and asleep, he turned his head on the pillow as the folded damp cloth was laid on his forehead. The relief was almost instant, extracting an audible sigh in respite from the boy, but it didn’t take long before Ben could feel the heat being absorbed through the fabric. He repeated the process of wetting the cloth again.

“Sorry Pa, now I am keeping you awake…….,” Joe apologized, his voice fading away, leaving the sentence incomplete. He wanted to say something else to his father, but as he words started to form on his lips, his eyes drifted closed. Ben gave his son’s hand a gentle squeeze before laying it beside him.

As a father, he would continue this vigil for as long as he was needed. This task was one he had done many times in the past for all of his boys. Giving comfort and reassurance to any of them where he could, even at times when they openly protested about being able to manage without his fussing. Adam and Hoss had grown into confident young men, but over the past several years, like their younger brother, they had their fair share of illnesses and injuries. Each of those occasions had required him to take care of them, just like he was doing now.

Watching any of his children suffer during any kind of ill-heath was unpleasant. Even now, Joe was restless, constantly moving about, but unable to find a comfortable position. The fever had remained stubborn and it had taken another good half an hour before Ben had been able to feel a distinct change that his efforts were working and beginning to make a difference.

One hour later, Ben rose from the chair he had been sitting in, stretching his back muscles that had stiffened from being too long in the one position. He could do with some coffee and hoped that a fresh pot was brewing on the stove.

Joe’s fever, though still present, was mercifully a great deal lower, but he wanted to remain vigilant for the rest of the day. Picking up the top end of the blanket, he covered his son partially to his waist, wanting to keep his feet warm, but not wanting him to become overheated by pulling it all the way up to his shoulders.

Thankfully, Joe had rolled onto his side and had fallen into a more restful and deeper sleep, his head sinking further down into the soft downy pillow. The water in the bowl was tepid and needed to be changed. He felt it was safe enough to leave his son alone and head down to breakfast. He would ensure that Hop Sing had something nourishing ready for his son when he awoke a little later during the morning.

Half an hour ago he had heard sounds coming up from the kitchen to signify that Hop Sing was awake and preparing breakfast for the family. Not long after that, Ben was certain he had heard the heavier footsteps of Hoss on the staircase. Some of the men were due to depart on a cattle drive this morning that would take over a week, and his larger son would want to make sure they had everything before starting his own day of work.

Glancing through the window, the sun had just begun peaking above the horizon to start a new day. The clouds in the sky had been scattered by the new, fresh breeze that teased the leaves of the trees.

Walking to the door, he glanced back towards the bed, and was pleased to see Joe was still sleeping peacefully. A hot cup of coffee sounded very good right now.


Carrying the bowl of water, Ben made his way into the kitchen, preparing to discard the contents. Entering the doorway, he was met by Hop Sing.

“Good Mornin’, Mista Cartwright,” the small man greeted him with surprise. “Why you have bowl water,?”

“Morning, Hop Sing,” Ben answered. “Though it has not been an entirely good morning so far.”

Seeing the questioning look on the oriental face, he went onto explain further. “I have been awake since four a.m. this morning.”

“Why you wake so early?” Hop Sing queried.

“I came downstairs to find Joseph sleeping on the settee, with no shirt on. His temperature had grown much higher; from his injured arm I suspect. He was confused and complaining about an upset stomach and that he fell asleep without eating any supper,” Ben reported.

“Lil’ Joe get better?” the man asked, his concern for the youngest family member evident.

“He is sleeping a little better now then he was,” Ben conveyed. “I was using the water in the bowl to cool him down for the past hour and a half.”

“I make Lil’ Joe something to eat.” Hop Sing asserted as he took custody of the bowl. “Keep for later when he wake. Need to eat for arm to get better.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing, that would be appreciated. I am sure that Joe will be happy with whatever you decide to prepare.”

“Hot Coffee pot on table already. I bring breakfast out,” Hop Sing said as he went back to bustling about the kitchen.

Ben smiled to himself, knowing that the small man would have everything under control. Sitting down at the table, he reached for a cup and saucer in front of his usual seat and filled it from the coffee pot. The aroma was strong and very welcome, he hoped the taste would be just as good. He needed a good kick start to what was already going to be a very long day.

“Good Morning,” came the pleasant deep voice from Adam as he reached the bottom of the stairs. Most mornings, he made it to the breakfast table before anyone else.

“Morning, Adam,” Ben greeted him with a smile as he put down the cup he had been holding.

Adam sat down on the right-hand side of the table, but as he was pouring his own first cup of coffee, he couldn’t help but glance at his father and note the mild tiredness.

Although he was used to his father putting in a hard day’s work and rising early to match the demands of the ranch, today he couldn’t help but think that there was another reason for being at the table first. Adam decided to wait a little longer before broaching the subject further.

Hop Sing appeared from the kitchen with three large serving dishes, placing them in the centre of the table. “Morning, Mista Adam.”

“Good Morning, Hop Sing. You seemed to have been very busy already this morning,” Adam commented.

“Hop Sing busy, very busy,” came the response, with no further details provided. The small man was muttering in his own language as he went back into the kitchen. His statement wasn’t so out of place. Even on a quiet day, the small cook could be seen working away diligently in the kitchen at a furious pace.

Before any further conversation could be exchanged, the sound of the latch on the front door being opening drew the attention of both men seated at the dining room table. The wooden structure opened and was then closed again a few moments later. The direction of the footsteps signalled someone was entering the house.

From his position at the table, Adam saw his larger, younger brother, enter the house, remove his hat and place it on the credenza. Adam raised an eyebrow that another family member was up early today.

“Morning, Pa, Adam,” Hoss said as he approached the table and took up his seat, ready for breakfast.

“Good morning, Hoss, what has you up and so active this early in the morning? Adam queried. “Hard at chores before you have eaten any breakfast doesn’t sound like your normal routine at all.”

“I had some things to sort out before I got started today that’s all,” Hoss replied. “Those fellas outside are getting ready to leave on that drive this morning, and I wanted to talk to Dan Toliver before they headed out.”

“That yard out there is so muddy out there this morning after all that rain we had last night. The mules were having a hard time getting loaded up ready to leave. Their hooves are caked in the stuff not to mention everything else that touches the ground. Charlie was hollering at the men to make sure they were cleaning out the mud from each animal. Dan had the other men packing down the yard as best they could to smooth out the worst of the ruts. It is probably going to be slow going on the trail for the first few hours until that black soil dries out some,” the large man reported.

“I will try and give you a hand when I get back from Virginia City, but that won’t be until after lunch at the earliest,” Adam offered.

“Morning son,” Ben said as he started to put some of the hot food onto his plate. He held the platter out to Hoss who accepted it.

The comments Hoss made about the condition of the yard were no surprise to him. The problem arose from time to time with heavy downpours, and it made an awful mess. He may have to take some of the men off other less important work this morning to help.

“Thanks Pa, I am so hungry, I might have to eat the dish too,” Hoss said, as he used his fork to serve himself a large portion. He was mindful to leave enough for Adam and his younger brother who was yet to make an appearance.

“You spoke to Dan Toliver, son?” Ben asked with a curious expression on his face, knowing that the head wrangler’s name had been brought up only last night when the three of them were talking in the living room.

“Yeah, what Joe shared with me when we was camping, kept bugging me so much that I didn’t want to wait until they got back to talk to Dan,” Hoss answered, pouring his first cup of coffee for the day. “They will be gone for the best part of week taking those cattle up to that pasture before the weather starts turning colder.”

“What did you say to him?” Adam asked just as curious as his father as to what was exchanged.

Dan Toliver had worked for the Ponderosa for a long time now, and was respected by the men. To those who were unfamiliar with him, he could come off as too surly or hard-nosed. He wasn’t normally one to be swapping small talk with. You told him what needed to be done, and it was carried out. For the men who worked with the cattle, he was the one giving the orders and he didn’t take kindly to anybody who wasn’t about keeping their mind on the job at hand.

“I told him that someone, or maybe more than that, was harassing and causing trouble for Joe,” Hoss stated. “I made sure to tell him that we wanted to find out who it was, and put a stop to it. I also mentioned to him that Joe didn’t know anything me talking to him.”

“That is probably a fairly good idea too, Hoss, about keeping everything low key until we identify the culprits involved,” Ben said after listening to his son speak. “Joseph can be way too secretive when he wants to be, and if he thinks anybody is watching out for him, then we won’t find out what has been happening at all.”

“I sort of thought that too, Pa,” Hoss agreed. “Even with only us knowing. Joe don’t even know I have told you and Adam yet, and I ain’t aiming to do that neither. I let Charlie know too of course, because he will be around the most during the next week outside and around the barn. He will keep a good look out against any of the men left behind from the drive who might be causing trouble.”

“Dan said that most of the men he has now have been working here for a while, so he couldn’t pick out who might be doing it yet. They will have a couple of campfires over the next few nights, and he was going observe their chatter from a distance. He wasn’t very happy to hear that someone was doing it in the first place. He has a soft spot for Joe, always has done, since he was a little tyke,” Hoss commented.

“Yes, Dan has looked out for Joe as long as the rest of us have done, and Charlie the head foreman too,” Ben remarked, a small smile coming to his face as a memory or two came to him of a much smaller Joseph causing problems for both men. Charlie and Dan were two of their longest serving employees apart from Hop Sing, whom he had come to rely heavily on to keep the operation of the ranch as smooth as possible.

“Something tells me that your plan is going to backfire on you,” Adam predicted with a wry grin after lowering his coffee cup. “If there is one certainty around this place, it is that secrets don’t remain that for very long. I plan to do a little observing of my own with some of the men from today as well, and have a talk with Miss Jones. I want to impress on her, that although her intentions may have been for the greater good, they were only in her own mind, and have done some real harm.”

“Whether she admits to it or not, she has played a pivotal role in eroding away our younger brother’s self confidence involving his attendance at school. And none of us want that for what remains of his education. Joe should be able to make his own decision on going to college when he is ready to do so, and not because someone’s perceived notion of that being the route that every student should take,” the dark-haired man continued.

Adam glanced over at his father at his last statement, waiting to see what the reaction would be. He knew his father had been stubborn lately whenever the subject of Joe’s schooling had been brought up, and it had only caused hurt feelings between father and son. Being Joe’s father, it was expected that Ben would make the choice and determine when his youngest son’s schooling years were completed. The decision about college was another matter entirely and should be a discussion that the two of them had together. Joe should have a large stake and the majority say in any final agreement that was reached.

Ben was pleased that Adam intended to address the situation with the teacher who was causing Joe’s doubt in himself, and had been fuelling the disagreements that he had been part of. He sighed inwardly to himself that he had better give the matter a great deal of consideration in the very near future. He didn’t want to argue or fight with his son over what he wanted to do with his life.

Hoss could see that the conversation had changed from finding out which ranch hands had been giving Joe a hard time. At the moment, that was the priority that he wanted to focus on.

“Dan did tell me about one other fella who might have been someone to watch out for,” Hoss began. He was pleased to see that his words at the desired affect, and that both family members at the table now had his full attention.

“According to him, there was someone by the name of Frank Richards, don’t know enough about him, and I can’t recollect him all that much,” Hoss explained. “Last night, Dan Toliver fired him, told him to pack his gear and get before sunrise. I guess that is the reason he hasn’t had a chance to report what he done to you yet, Pa.”

“Did he say why he fired this man? Ben asked, sitting against the back of the chair. He and Adam both had a large hand in employing the ranch hands that were employed on the Ponderosa, and scrutinizing their backgrounds and previous work experience. Loyal and long time people like Dan Toliver and the head foreman Charlie, had the full authority from Ben himself to dismiss any worker when there was a good enough reason.

“It wasn’t because Dan suspected him of taunting Little Joe, just that he didn’t work out,” Hoss stated. “Been living in the bunk house for less than two months and one of the new starters. He was starting fights with some of the other hands at night over card games and didn’t pick up working with the cattle very much during that time. Dan paid out his wages for his short time here, and he is probably going to be in town today at the local saloon, drinking it away,”

“Well then, based on what you said, I respect Dan’s decision. We have enough work to do around here, without having men on the payroll who are not pulling their weight,” Ben said firmly. “Dan didn’t come to me to get any money, so he probably did it out of his own pocket. I will check next week when he returns and reimburse him if he did.”

“Perhaps it might be time to give an overdue talk to all of the men, about the standard of conduct we expect when working around here and living in the accommodation that is generously provided,” Adam suggested. “They have all been told before about conducting card games and causing trouble.”

“You may be right about that Adam, it wouldn’t hurt to remind them all of their responsibilities around here,” Ben remarked with complete agreement.

“I will take care of it for those men left behind when I return later this afternoon,” Adam offered. “The men that are leaving on the cattle drive this morning can have the rules reinforced for them later.”


The grandfather clock behind them in the living room, chimed the new time of seven o’clock in the morning.

“Time to head up there I guess………,” he said without finishing the sentence.

At this time every day, he took on the unenviable job of waking Joe to come down to breakfast and then proceed to get ready for school. Hoss started to rise from the table, but Ben stopped him from taking a step towards the stair case, already aware of the task his middle son has assigned for himself.

“Finish your breakfast, Hoss, you won’t need to go up there this morning and wake Joseph for school,” Ben informed him, placing a hand on his son’s lower forearm to stop him from leaving the table.

“I won’t, Pa?” Hoss asked with confusion written across his face, sitting back down.

“Your brother is the reason I was awake at four o’clock this morning,” Ben told the two of them. Adam looked over at his father, and saw the signs of concern that were still visible and now had further details on why his father was looking a little tired.

“Nightmares from the storm last night?” Adam surmised. He had heard the sky rattle for a number of hours himself, and the rain had continued with abatement until well after he retired for the evening. He should have gotten up at least once to check on Joe himself.

“Not that I am aware of,” Ben answered, “Though Joseph couldn’t tell me what had woken him up at that hour, when I asked him. I was disturbed by a noise myself, and went to investigate, only to find his room empty, and the covers in their usual disarray. Then went I came down here to the living room, he had fallen asleep along the settee. He was still wearing the trousers we had left on him and no shirt.”

“Getting a little cooler during the early morning hours to be down here dressed like that, Pa,” Hoss pointed out. His own guilt about the injury to Joe’s arm began to resurface.

“Yes, I know, but when I found him down here, his temperature was much higher,” Ben said. “I spent the last couple of hours before coming down here, sitting beside his bed and bathing his forehead with a cloth and some cool water. When I tried to gauge what he was doing down here, the fever was only making his headache worse. Joe told me he gone into the kitchen for a drink of water, but didn’t remember falling asleep. The water upset his stomach, and he went to bed without supper.”

“I sent him back up to his room and then followed up after him to see if I could start bringing his fever down,” Ben concluded. “At least now he is dressed better now for going to bed.”

“Why didn’t you wake one of us up?” Adam asked. “We could have given you a helping hand if you needed it and Joe was unsettled.”

“I didn’t want to disturb you two unnecessarily,” Ben answered truthfully. “There was no point in all of us losing sleep. You both have important work to carry out today. I was prepared to send one of you into town this morning for the doctor at dawn if his fever rose too high or hadn’t started to come down.”

Adam was satisfied with the explanation given, and was aware that his father would have roused one of them if his concern over his brother’s temperature had continued to grow.

“Joe feeling any better now, Pa?” Hoss questioned, but knowing that his father would still be seated upstairs if Joe was still suffering. Paul would have already been summoned if his brother’s health had deteriorated further.

“Before I left his room, he fever was thankfully much lower and Joe had fallen into a much deeper sleep,” Ben said with a small smile. “Hop Sing has been preparing some breakfast for your brother. Something that will be gentle on his stomach if it is still bothering him when he wakes up.”

“Because of the time lost this morning before he was finally getting some decent rest, I thought I would let him stay home today from school,” Ben said, as he lifted and drained the last of the coffee from his cup. He could see the amused glances from both sons over the rim.

Hoss and Adam both exchanged knowing looks with each other that said everything.

Laughing quietly to himself, Hoss remembered the conversation that Joe and he had shared around the campfire about him wanting to finish his schooling early and start working around the ranch. Little Joe had it all wrong about how hard he was finding it to get his father to listen to his side of the argument. All his brother needed to do was use his injured arm from yesterday, and add in a whole heaping of concern.

Their father could try and explain his actions as much as he liked, and they were definitely pleased to hear that Joe’s fever had begun to turn around after a couple of hours. Both older boys knew that there was one other determining factor for keeping Little Joe home from school today. In addition to showing genuine concern for the boy; fussing like an old mother hen was the other reason was the man acting in this manner.

“You said yourself, Hoss, that the ground outside is completely saturated, slippery and muddy from the rain last night. The roads leading into Virginia City are going to be just as boggy in that direction. I would prefer it if Joe wasn’t riding to school on his own in such treacherous conditions as that. His arm is going to be sore for the next few days, and he might come off Cochise on the way there and cause himself a more serious injury.”

After such a long tip back yesterday, and feeling poorly early this morning, I made the decision that your younger brother could use the extra sleep,” Ben said. “You both heard Paul last night, he doesn’t want Joseph lifting anything heavy today with his arm, and that would include his saddle.”

“Right, Pa,” Hoss said, his eyes crinkled around the edges with silent laughter, and he was unable to hide his wide grin on his face at the explanation given.

Hoss was fairly certain that Joe only needed to act the same part well enough, and his brother would be able to have his own way at almost any time and as often as he liked. There was a knack that Little Joe possessed, that enabled him to wrap his father around his little finger if he chose to. Unfortunately, he could also be counted amongst the growing list of people who often found themselves being persuaded or coerced by those same expressive green eyes.

“I am finished breakfast now, Pa,” Hoss declared as he excused himself from the table. “I am going upstairs for a minute and take a peek in at Joe before I head back out to the barn to start my chores.”

“Thank you son, that isn’t really necessary, but thank you,” Ben said, sharing a smirk of his own with Adam. They both knew that Hoss wouldn’t be able to leave the house to start work until he was satisfied that Joe had been taken care of and sleeping peacefully.

“Adam, good luck today at submitting your contract. I know you have put a lot of effort into it. I will see you later on today. The mud will probably be caked onto my boots a foot thick by that time.”

Hop Sing had appeared from the kitchen to begin clearing away the breakfast dishes just as Hoss made his comment about the mud being on his boots.

“Mud don’t belong in house!” Hop Sing scolded him. “You bring mud home and put on floor and Mister Hoss not eat supper tonight.”

“Now that ain’t fair, Hop Sing,” Hoss said in his own defence. “I ain’t even done nothin’ yet, but that ground out there is awfully muddy.”

Hoss stopped talking, watching the cook scurry back to his own domain. He glanced back over at his father and brother who were quietly chuckling at the exchange they had just witnessed. Without further ado, he started up the stairs, with Hop Sing’s words of warning following behind.

“Muddy ground where Mister Hoss sleep tonight if Hop Sing find mud in house,” the little oriental man said, returning to pick up the remaining dishes before anything more further could be said on the matter.

Ten minutes later, Hoss descended the stairs, buckled his gun-belt around his waist and placed his hat on his head and walked out the front door of the homestead.


With Hoss attending to chores outside, and Joe still sleeping quietly in his room, this was the perfect opportunity for Ben to spend talking to Adam about the lumber contract that was being submitted later this morning. The two of them didn’t get to talk together as much as they would like except for when it was quiet, and both were appreciative of the chance.

“That contract took a lot longer to finish last night than I originally anticipated, but I think collectively, we should be pleased as a family with the outcome should it end up being accepted,” Adam told his father as they shared a second cup of coffee. “By the time I was finished pouring over those figures, adjusting and recalculating them, I was utterly sick of looking at numbers.”

“From what you showed me last night, and over the past few weeks as you have been working on it, we are going to have to employ a lot more men to work for the timber operation,” Ben stated. His predictions came about from a practical point of view and going over the demands that were going to be required of them in needing more man power.

“Yes, and the problem that we are going to face with that conundrum, is that some of the new start up mines around here are offering better money to compete with each other. From the couple of operations that I was able to view for myself first-hand, they are very unstable. And that is going to remain the case until they get timber from somewhere to strengthen the walls of those diggings that they are being excavated,” Adam explained.

One of the new mines opening up that Adam was talking about on the Comstock, had been surveyed and registered within the last three months. The size of the land and scale of the operation proposed could see it deemed as one of the larger mineral claims being marked out in the district. The owner was a very wealthy man by the name of Rowland Collins.

At the discussion meetings that Adam had attended earlier the previous week, Collins made it abundantly cleared to all interested parties that the acquisition of timber that he required was much larger in volume than any of his previous ventures. Whichever company was successful in winning his lumber contract, could expect a lot of work to deliver the large amounts needed for the mine. The right bidder could also expect to make a handsome profit at the end of the day.

This was the sort of opportunity Adam saw as a great investment not only for the Ponderosa, but it would also allow the Cartwright family to extend the lumber mill they had up and running. Adam was astute enough to know that the Cartwright’s would not be the only interested party submitting a bid this morning. He suspected there would be a great deal of interest in such a promising venture.

“Costs at the beginning may be higher, but if I have done the calculations correctly, the profits that come once the logging commences will outweigh those,” Adam predicted. “My aim is to hire some more of the local men, but that may not be possible for the entire work force and numbers that I can estimate.”

Adam glanced up at the clock and noticed the time, “I had better make a start,” he stated, finishing his coffee and getting up from the table. “I suspect those roads into Virginia City are going to be boggy like you said. The deadline for tenders to be submitted is noon, and I still have to ride into town first. I want to leave from here by nine o’clock at the latest and still need to change clothes and double check one final time that I have everything in order.”

“After you have finished doing everything you need to do in town, would you please stop by Paul’s office and ask him to come out here when he has a spare moment,” Ben requested. “I want him to take another look at your brother and those stitches, just to be on the safe side and give me peace of mind. I cannot pinpoint the cause of why his temperature would suddenly spike the way it did.”

“That won’t be a problem,” Adam confirmed. “I was planning on checking up on Joe after I go upstairs to change and before I leave.”

“Once you have seen Paul, you might want to drop by and give Joe’s apologies to Miss Jones and Miss Summers at the school. Both of them will have noticed his absence by that time. Miss Summers can send any extra work home that he misses today. I will make a decision on him attending school tomorrow once the doctor has seen Joe and given his opinion.”

“I will be sure to see both teachers,” Adam promised. “And I won’t leave Virginia City without alerting the doctor.”

Ben smiled to himself as he watched Adam head upstairs. They were both laughing at Hoss when he mentioned about wanting to check on Joe before he left to start work. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, and Adam had admitted to wanting to do exactly the same thing. Having three boys who cared and looked out for each other like his sons did, was something to be very grateful for as a family.


Adam completed his morning ritual of shaving and getting dressed. This morning he was wearing a red long sleeved shirt, black trousers and a black vest to complete the ensemble. All of the paperwork that he needed was together in a leather pouch downstairs sitting on his father’s large desk. It would be the last thing that he would collect as he left the house.

Before leaving his bedroom, he thought for a moment about the last thing he needed to do upstairs; checking on Joe. Going to a row of books that stood neatly on a shelf, he pondered which title and subject would suit his sibling. Something adventurous and stimulating to his senses and keep his mind occupied, and perhaps teach him something without Joe feeling it was like being forced upon him.

Approaching Joe’s bedroom door, he softened his footsteps as much as he could and opened the door and walked through. With his keen observation, it didn’t appear as though the boy had moved too much at all after his father had gone downstairs to breakfast. The blankets covered him to his waist, and he was laying on his left side, facing the window.

Placing the book on the bedside table, Adam was now able to see his brother’s face, and was pleased that it was peaceful. Using a gentle hand, he laid it on Joe’s forehead, checking if his fever was still present. Mild heat was still present.

Joe turned his head slightly on the pillow as he felt someone’s touch and his brow creased with slight confusion as he tried to wake himself up. “Adam?” he called out, but his voice was barely above a whisper, and he was falling back asleep. For a moment, a thought started to form in his mind, but it quickly faded away and was lost.

A wry smile crossed Adam’s handsome features, somehow Joe was able to distinguish the subtle differences between his hand on his forehead, checking for fever instead of his father’s. Hoss’ hand was much larger of course and would be even easier to identify. How Joe was able to do it when he wasn’t fully awake would probably remain an unsolved mystery.

“Get some more rest, Joe,” Adam urged quietly, but doubted that his brother had heard his reply. He made a mental note to himself to spend some quality time with his sibling later this afternoon. That would depend on how Joe was feeling when he returned from Virginia City.

Adam closed the door quietly behind him, and headed downstairs.


“Joe was sleeping just now when I looked in on him,” he said as he buckled his own gun-belt around his waist and collected his hat. “I left a book on the bedside table in case he gets bored after he wakes. He still has a very low temperature.”

“That was very nice of you, thank you for the thought, Adam,” Ben said as he rose from the dining room table, and prepared to start his own day.

“Please ride safely this morning,” Ben said to his eldest son as he collected the leather pouch from his desk. He couldn’t keep Adam home because the roads might be bad, but that didn’t stop him worrying any less.

“I will be back when I can,” Adam promised and opened the front door before heading out to the barn to saddle his horse, Sport.

Adam noted that his larger brother had not been wrong about the amount of mud in the yard. The thick, cake-batter-consistent soil was clinging to his boots as he made his way across the ground. ‘What a way to start the day’ he thought to himself.

“Morning Adam,” Charlie the head foreman called out as he entered the barn.

“Morning Charlie,” Adam returned, gesturing a wave with his hand and approaching the man, intending to conduct a casual conversation between the two of them.

Charlie changed the topic to something more specific and troublesome. “I was sorry to be hearing about that nasty business going on again for Joe.” Bad business all round. Hoss was telling me earlier this morning before the men set off on the cattle drive. I thought we had stopped that a while back and it was in the past now? ”

“Yes, we did too,” Adam said, his voice showing his displeasure that history was repeating itself, “We will all have to be vigilant around here again, because from what Hoss reported to us, there has not been just one isolated incident happening. From what Joe confided about to Hoss, it is safe to assume that it could have been occurring over some time.”

Charlie lifted the hat off his head, scratching at his thinning scalp and greying hair, trying to figure out who might be responsible amongst the ranch hands.

“Did you work with this Frank Richards person that was fired last night?” Adam questioned.

“Naw, Dan had him working with the cattle as Hoss probably already told you. Apart from coming into the barn and retrieving the odd item of tack, and lead one of the horses out from the barn, I never spoke to him. Richards never did any work with the men that I am in charge of each day. Sorry I can’t help you more about him,” Charlie apologized, wishing he had information to tell Adam.

“I was hoping to talk to you a little longer this morning, but I got caught up inside and need to make up some time. I will come and find you when I come back. I estimate a little after lunch time,” Adam said as he focused on getting ready to leave.

“I am sure I will be around here somewhere, probably up to my neck in mud by then,” Charlie remarked as he headed off to continue his own work. He hadn’t even put a dent in the list of chores and jobs that needed to be done after the rainy night.

Hoss was also inside the barn, set further back towards the stalls and using a pronged fork on a large mound of hay. He looked up as he saw his brother coming closer.

“I was going to saddle your horse for you older brother, but seeing how particular you normally are, I changed my mind,” he poked in fun.

Joe wasn’t the only family member who was very particular about their horse and how they were handled. Adam was the same when it came to his large chestnut stallion, especially when it came to saddling the animal. Everything had to be just right and the tack was checked twice and sometimes more before he was satisfied.

“So kind of you, Hoss,” Adam quickly returned in jest. “Though he probably wouldn’t have taken to kindly to you trying to handle him this morning anyway.”

“Let me handle him!” Hoss declared with a laugh of mockery, leaning on the handle of the pitch fork. “All someone needs to do for the dang greedy, cantankerous mule of yours, is to put food in front of him. Maybe that way, he will start co-operating or doing what he is told.”

“Unlike your valiant steed, who eats more of the grain bill every month than all the horses in this barn combined,” Adam openly taunted. A slight exaggeration perhaps, but that huge horse didn’t slow down when he was being fed.

“Chubb is a big animal, like me. Needs to eat a lot of good food,” Hoss declared in his horse’s defence, pulling his hat down for emphasis and not about to accept an argument to the contrary.

“Yes, and like his owner can be ornery and complain endlessly when he doesn’t get enough, and then you cannot get a lick of work out of them for the rest of the day,” Adam teased with a friendly grin.

“I had better make a start for Virginia City, or we will be here all day talking about the quirks each of our mounts,” Adam commented. “I will see you later, Hoss.”

“Yeah, be seeing you,” Hoss said, turning his attention back to the mound of straw nearby that wasn’t going to get any smaller just by talking about it.

Once Sport was saddled correctly, he carefully tucked the leather pouch into one of his saddle bags. Adam didn’t want to waste any more time, and mounted his horse after bidding his brother goodbye with a wave. Holding the reins loosely, the animal’s movements were instinctual, and very little guidance was required for him to respond.

They could continue their discussions about whose horse ate the most another time, but he had enjoyed the moment of playful banter. His horse did like his food too, and their father’s horse Buck could be temperamental without even needing a reason. The proud animal beneath him, tossed his head upwards in objection and put on a burst of speed, as though being able to pick up on his rider’s thoughts.

Adam knew he was cutting it a little fine by leaving the submission of their bid until the last minute. He was confident enough that the Cartwright tender would win the valuable contract when all the offers were compared with each other. The profit they could stand to make would set the Ponderosa up nicely for the next several months and hopefully see them successfully through a potentially difficult winter ahead.


With breakfast out of the way, Ben headed upstairs, intent on changing clothes and completing his normal morning routine. Once that was done, he would check in on his youngest son before making a start on some of the endless paperwork that was sprawling across his desk. The end of the month was fast approaching, and the men on the payroll would be expecting to be paid on time.

Thirty minutes later, Ben emerged from his own bedroom, dressed in his usual work clothes, including his distinctive tan leather vest. He went towards Joe’s bedroom, only to see the door ajar and open like it had been several hours ago. With his own door closed, he hadn’t heard Joe stir or his footsteps on the staircase.

Heading downstairs, he was confronted with his youngest son, sitting at the dining room table. He was still wearing a night-shirt, his hair was tussled and uncombed. The boy had his elbow planted on top of the table, and his head tilted to the side and heavily supported by the palm of his hand.

Joe opened his eyes, startled by a noise, and looked back at his father with bleary green eyes, and a slightly confused expression. Tiredness was clearly visible in his posture, body language and every other mannerism.

“Good morning, how are you feeling, son?” Ben asked, noting that he must have only been awake for a few minutes, given his disheveled and lack-luster appearance.

“I am fine, Pa,” Joe answered as he lifted his head and lowered his arm, but immediately gritted his teeth at the discomfort from his stitches. “I must have been laying wrong on my arm in my bed,” he offered in explanation, as fresh concern grew in his father’s brown eyes that he was still experiencing pain.

“Why didn’t someone come and wake me up in time to get ready for school this morning, Pa? Now I am going to be late and have to listen to one of Miss Jones’ lectures about the need for being punctual.”

Ben sat down on the chair beside his son, placing a hand over the boy’s forehead as he answered, “Hoss wanted to come upstairs as usual and wake you, but I told him not to, Joseph.”

Joe attempted to pull his head away from the offending hand, giving a momentary look of annoyance and was about to object, but his arm was hurting enough for him to change his mind. On second thought this morning he was willing to surrender to his father’s caring and fussing, closing his eyes and leaning into his father’s soft, soothing strokes of his hair.

Joe opened his eyes again, and looked back at this father, “Why did you tell him not to?”

Ben smiled inwardly at his son’s brief moment of petulance, but paid no heed to it, “The fever you had early this morning worried me, Joe. Thankfully your temperature is much lower than it was earlier. Hopefully by this evening it will be almost back to normal, or gone completely by tomorrow with any luck.”

“I didn’t mean to keep you awake, Pa,” Joe said, with guilt creeping into his voice. “I don’t remember much after going back upstairs like you asked me to.”

“You only had a few hours of sleep over all, and it looks to me like you could do with more,” Ben said, taking his hand away, but relieved that his son was looking much better and talking to him. “I made the decision that you could stay home another day from school today and let your arm heal a little more.”

Joe was about to open his mouth, but Ben spoke first.

“Don’t tell me that you are fine, Joseph,” Ben challenged with mock sternness. His son used that word far too much for his liking when giving any answer about his health or well-being. “I saw you in pain not a moment ago,” he lightly scolded.

Joe gave his father a small but bright smile, knowing he had been caught out, “Well maybe just a little,” he finally admitted, using his left hand to rub at the bandage. “It still smarts quite a bit this morning,” he added ruefully.

“Doc Martin reported that your arm will be sore for a few more days, Joe. The stitches were only put in last night,” Ben reminded him. “He left another satchel of medicine if the pain keeps on persisting?”

“No, that powder he prescribes tastes horrible, Pa,” Joe replied categorically, scrunching up his face as he recalled the bitterness. “I don’t need anything for the pain yet, honest.”

Before there was any further discussion between father and son, Hop Sing emerged from the kitchen with a bowl of food, and placed it on the table in front of Joe.

“Hop Sing make with little extra salt, but good hot, and will warm number three son from inside out,” the small man announced with eagerness.

Joe knew from previous experience that he would stand beside him until he tried the food and gave his opinion. His stomach wasn’t feeling quite so uneasy at the moment, and growled at the enticing aroma that was wafting up from the table. He was feeling hungry.

The scrambled eggs were hot and soft, he put two forkfuls into his mouth and swallowed before giving a verbal critique. “Tastes great, Hop Sing,” he asserted, taking another mouthful to prove that he was happy enough to eat more.

“Bring Lil Joe juice to drink,” Hop Sing said as he returned to the kitchen.

“Mista Cartwright want more coffee?” he asked Ben.

“No thank you, Hop Sing, I need to make a start this morning or nothing will get done,” Ben answered. “Good to see this young fellow is eating this morning.”

“What am I supposed to do all day cooped up in the house?” Joe asked as he put down the fork. The bowl was not quite empty, but he had eaten all he wanted for now.

“Adam already thought ahead on your behalf in that area, and selected a book from his own collection,” Ben replied. “He told me he set it aside on your bedside table, so you can do a little reading if you want to.”

Joe didn’t want to sound like he didn’t appreciate his brother’s forethought, but was playing with the end of the fork, showing total disinterest in that suggestion.

Ben decided to move onto the next idea, “Why don’t you go upstairs, wash your face and change your clothes. I want to talk to Charlie out in the barn, you can come out there with me if you want to?”

Joe made a face at his father’s offer. Going to the barn wasn’t the problem, he had thought about heading out there himself for some fresh air. At fifteen he was plenty old enough to do just that, without anybody needing to accompany him. Stitches or not.

“Are those the only choices I have?” he asked glumly, looking down at the bowl on the table. Any sign of a smile had vanished and been replaced with a sullen look at the prospect of the rest of his day being filled with monotony.

Ben stood up from his chair. He wasn’t about to put up with any measure of the boy walking around inside with his bottom lip touching the floor all day from boredom.

“Yes, unless you can think of something else?” he said firmly. “The doctor doesn’t want you lifting anything heavy with your new stitches for a few days, so that would include your saddle. Joseph, you can choose between reading the book that Adam left for you, or find another one on the bookshelf. Doing something else quietly for a few hours, or going back to bed for some more sleep. Whichever of those selections you prefer.”

“No, I don’t prefer, Pa,” Joe said, looking up at his father as he spoke. “I will go upstairs and get changed like you asked me. At least going with you out to the barn I can see Cochise. That has to be better company than any book from Adam.”

Ben watch his son for a few moments before speaking briefly about a subject that until this morning, had been setting both of them against each other.

“Son, you have been asking me for months to stop going to school, so that you can work full-time on the ranch with the other men and your brothers,” Ben pointed out.

“Yes, but at least when I do that, I won’t be stuck inside like today with nothing to do. There will be plenty more to do outside and I won’t get bored. I can spend the whole day with Cochise,” he replied, flashing a brief grin at the mention of riding.

Ben was pleased to see the mention of his son’s favourite pass-time going some way towards brightening and improving his overall mood.

“I know that would make you very happy, Joe, but you should already know there is much work that needs to be done around here? You won’t be able to just ride your horse around for fun when you are given the opportunity to work full-time, young man. Hard work!” he teased, giving his shoulder a light squeeze of affection.

“I will come back down in a few minutes,” Joe said, getting up from the table, accepting the offer of going out to the barn.


A short time after going upstairs to his bedroom, Joe met his father near the front door, dressed and wearing his boots. He had run a comb through his tangled locks enough to look presentable.

Walking away from the house and towards the barn, Ben and Joe both got their first view at the poor condition of the yard.

“Hoss was certainly right about the state of all this mud,” Ben commented. The way it was now, working with cattle or horses would become more laborious and cumbersome. The animals themselves wouldn’t like it much either.

The two of them avoided the worst areas in the center of the yard, skirting around the outer edges where it wasn’t quite so thick or sloppy. Joe took a slightly larger stride over one patch of mud, but had to sidestep a bit shorter around the next one.

“How am I going to complete my chores today, Pa, if I am not allowed to lift anything?” Joe asked, being a little more careful on where he was placing his feet. “Collecting the eggs for Hop Sing shouldn’t involve anything heavy, except a chicken or two when they don’t want to leave the hen-house. Inside the barn, my other chores usually include mucking out the stalls and filling the grain bins.”

“Hop Sing already collected the eggs a little earlier this morning, Joe,” Ben answered, frowning with annoyance when he mistimed a step and his right boot was now a different colour to the other, and caked in a thick layer of mud. “He was talking about doing some baking this morning. The bread bin was getting a little low yesterday and he wanted to make a pie for supper tonight.

“As for your other chores, your brothers are more than capable of taking care of them this morning,” Ben added, as he scrapped as much of the excess mud off as he could.

The two of them had reached the barn, and finished the conversation they were having before entering the large cavernous barn.

“I don’t like having to do my chores, Pa. You know that and I am sure that my brothers would be quick enough to attest to that too,” Joe remarked. “They have to be done though, and I like it even less when someone else has to do my share unfairly. Adam and Hoss have their own chores to take care of, and the work that they need to do after that. It makes me feel guilty when they have to do mine too.”

“You have pitched in and done their chores when they have been recovering in bed from an injury or an illness before,” Ben insisted. “They won’t mind today. As for tomorrow, let’s leave it until then to decide.”

“Good morning, half of the Cartwright family,” Charlie greeted them with a grin and a hearty handshake for his boss.

“Hope you are feeling a lot better this morning, young fella?” Charlie directed at Joe. “You certainly look a might better than you did when you came home with Hoss yesterday.”

“Where is Hoss?” Joe asked, looking about the barn, expecting to see his larger brother. He had expected to hear him talking when he walked in with his father.

“Fraid’ you just missed him Joe and Mister Cartwright. He was here afore you came in here, but he loaded up a wagon with tools and timbers and was headed down to a section of fence that needed attending to,” Charlie told them. “He didn’t right say what time he would be back.”

The expression on Joe’s face changed and it fell a little with disappointment that he had only just missed his brother. If he had come out to the barn sooner, he might have been able to persuade Hoss to take him in the wagon. He had been hoping to waste some of the excess time he had this morning with Hoss and watch him take care of the animals.

“Thanks for putting Cochise away for me, Charlie,” Joe said in appreciation. “I hope she didn’t give you any trouble?”

“No more than her owner on a regular day, Joe,” Charlie said, giving Ben a cheeky wink.

Joe coped the jibe about himself well enough, and smiled in return, knowing that the man usually looked out for him and took extra great care of Cochise when he wasn’t there to do it himself. “Did you change her water bucket this morning like I always do?”

“Yes, Sir, Master Cartwright,” Charlie answered, holding onto the suspenders he was wearing with his hands. “Twice, just like you do….,” he started to add, but Joe had already wandered away from both men towards his four-legged friend. “But I guess you will be checking up on me just the same.”

Ben and Charlie watched Joe go over to the stall of his horse. It wasn’t only the boy who was looking forward to seeing a friend today. They both laughed with each other as they witnessed the unique bond that the boy and horse shared. The horse had already begun making noise as soon as Joe had entered the barn, trying to gain his attention.

After entering the stall, Joe peered into the water bucket, and then back at Charlie and grinned with thanks, knowing that the man had carried out his normal routine. There was nothing but absolute trust as he looped his arms around Cochise’s neck. He grimaced for a moment, as the stitches in his arm pulled and made themselves known.

“Doc Martin had to put a number of stitches into his arm,” Ben spoke quietly to Charlie. He had seen his son’s brow crease with the sudden flash of pain, and watched as he altered the angle of his arm that encircled the animal. His son didn’t want to lose the connection and was willing to suffer a little discomfort, in order to spend time with his best friend.

Joe turned his head into the horses shoulder and spoke softly to her, sharing a conversation that nobody else was meant to hear. The horse responded in kind, lapping up the affection she was receiving, lowering her head over his shoulder. The boy had a contented smile his face, feeling her warm breath on the back of his shirt.

“Excuse me if I am speaking out of line, Mister Cartwright, Sir, but there isn’t any better medicine for a boy Joe’s age, for what ails him, then what he is doing right now,” Charlie casually remarked. The love between this particular horse and rider ran deeper than any river, and spoke volumes to anybody who took the time to notice how much they meant to each other.

“No, you are not speaking out of turn, Charlie,” Ben said with agreement, “I think you are right about her company being exactly what Joe needs.”

Putting a hand on the back of his neck and pulling at the bandana that was tied around it, he wanted to talk about another subject. “ I know Hoss already talked to you about someone causing fresh trouble for Joe that we don’t know about yet. I trust that you will come to me if you see or hear of anything?”

“Hoss and Adam both, Mister Cartwright, and they were mad, just like one could expect for being kin. Adam said that he wanted to talk to me more about it when he returned from town,” Charlie answered. He could see the concerned look on his boss’ face and knew what was bothering him. There were those like himself and others close to the family, unhappy that they were having to deal with issues from the past.

“Good, good. Well thank you Charlie, I know the yard is a mess after the rain. I had better take this young scamp of mine back inside for a few hours and get on with some paperwork myself.”

“I will check in with you later, Mister Cartwright,” Charlie promised. “Hoss is already making enough noise about the mud for all of the men, but I suspect we will get everything done today that needs doing. Might take a whole lot longer, and need a bath at the end of it though,” he added with a hearty belly laugh.

“Joseph, you had better come back inside with me now please,” Ben requested.

Joe looked up at his father and was about to argue that very point, but then looked back at his horse, giving her another pat of affection, “Don’t worry Cooch, I will find a way to come and spend some more time with you later.” The volume of his voice was raised just enough for Ben to hear his comment to the horse.

“Oh really now, young man?” Ben challenged, folding his arms across his chest and confronting his son over that notion. “And what exactly do you mean by ‘find a way’?”

“Come on, Pa, you have work to do at your desk,” Joe teased, dodging the question aimed at him. He didn’t know when he would make it back out to Cochise today, but he was confident it would happen.


Upon entering the house, Ben made his suggestion to Joe about how to fill in the next few hours, “Why don’t you go and get that book from your room that Adam left you and bring it down here to read?”

“Fine,” Joe said too quickly, his shoulders slumping at the thought of doing something so boring during daylight hours.

The boy went upstairs and retrieved the book, glancing down at the title. It didn’t sound too bad, maybe Adam had actually chosen something worthwhile for a change. Too many of the books in his collection were filled with the words of William Shakespeare, and flowery pieces of poetry for his liking. His brother was often quoting from them to the ladies he was courting.

Ben sat down at his desk and started looking through the invoices that he needed to sort through. There was a large ledger on the desk underneath his right arm. Recording the figures in there legibly would take up the majority of his time this morning.

Joe returned to the living room with the book in hand, and sat down on the arm chair in front of the fireplace. Ben watched his son open the cover and smiled to himself. Joe needed to give the book a chance, he might be surprised and actually like it. Lord knows that he seemed to devour that dime store crime novel that was up in his own room with a lot more interest.

Half an hour later, it was clear though that the subject of Adam’s book was not keeping Joe’s attention at all. Several times Ben had looked up from his work, only to see his son squirming in the arm chair, fidgeting and constantly moving about, trying to find a comfortable position. There was nothing wrong with the chair, it was merely Joe unable to focus long enough to sit still and enjoy what he was supposed to be reading.

On the last occasion, Ben’s patience was beginning to wear thin. “Joseph will you please find something useful to do for this morning or I will find some school work for you

to do,” Ben threatened, knowing that his son was finding himself at somewhat of a lost end. Boredom was quickly setting in as it had been predicted.

Joe sat up immediately at that suggestion, looking back at his father. “I have been trying to do what you asked, Pa,” he declared. “I can’t help it if I don’t like it.”

Ben was trying to keep his temper from rising. Joe possessed an active imagination, sometimes a little too active if he were to be completely honest and recall some of the mischief his son had gotten caught up in. He let out an audible sigh though, thinking that perhaps it was too much to expect a fifteen year old to be quiet and keep occupied when he really wanted to be outside.

“Hop Sing,” Ben bellowed towards the kitchen.

The small oriental cook answered his name being called, “Why Mista Cartwright yell like that? Want hot coffee?”

“I apologize for shouting, Hop Sing. Coffee sounds wonderful and would be appreciated, thank you. The reason I called out is to ask if you have any small chores in the kitchen, that Joseph could do that would keep him occupied for a couple of hours?”

At first, Joe didn’t think that his father’s suggestion was much of a better one, but kept silent. At least if he was in the kitchen, he would have company. He never had a problem spending time with Hop Sing and watching him cook. There was usually an apple or two within reach that he could munch on.

“Lil’ Joe always welcome in kitchen,” Hop Sing answered, and was gesturing with his hand for the boy to come and join him. Joe was happy to comply, and set Adam’s book aside.

“Bring coffee back to you, Mista Cartwright,” the man said as guided his young charge into his culinary world.

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Ben said quietly, pleased that he might be able to concentrate better now, knowing that Joe had something constructive to do and someone to talk to.


The time in the kitchen with Hop Sing had been progressing well for the first hour, as Joe began helping with the additional baking that was to be done.

Hop Sing usually did a week’s worth of baking of things such as bread, cakes and biscuits that would see the whole family through until the end of the week. When he did this, there only became necessary to bake an occasional apple or apricot pie for dessert during the week.

And this is where he was now, baking a few extra items outside of his normal weekend schedule. Despite all of his culinary expertise, it was often the case that he ran out of pastries and sweet things early due to having to keep up with Hoss’s appetite. Sugar cookies was another treat that Hop Sing made sure was always in ample supply.

Hop Sing didn’t mind cooking extra for his family. From his unique position in the household, he was able to see all of the Cartwright family through his own eyes. He had been there almost from the time Ben Cartwright arrived on the site of the yet to be built Ponderosa homestead. He had seen young boys grow into strong, mature and responsible men.

In Little Joe’s case, he would always have a special place in the little oriental man’s heart. Hop Sing was present when the tiny curly haired baby demanded to greet the world three weeks early. From the moment he saw the little infant, he had sworn an oath in his own native tongue to the gurgling child in the crib, that he would always be there no matter what. As the baby grew into a toddler and then into a small, active boy, those feelings only seemed to grow stronger, until Hop Sing felt more protective than ever over the youngest member of the family.

These feelings had been tested and set aside this morning though after Joe had been invited to help with the baking, and walked into the kitchen. Within this first hour, there was more flour and sugar on the kitchen floor and on Joe himself, than in the mixing bowls or filling the pastry.

Ben had been diligently at his desk, adding up some payroll figures when he heard the initial tirade of Cantonese followed by Little Joe racing from the kitchen with Hop Sing close behind wielding a rolling pin.

“You keep boy out of kitchen! Lil’ Joe too messy, floor all white with spilled flour. Father keep boy busy or no supper fixed tonight for anybody,” he said with finality as he went back into the kitchen muttering a phrase in his own language.

“I was trying to help, Pa,” Joe pouted, giving his best innocent and hurt look towards his father. He had tried to mix the batter the way he had been patiently shown. It looked so easy when he saw it being done at the beginning. Mixing the bread dough had required both hands, but after stirring for a few minutes, Joe had not wanted to tell the cook that his arm with the stitches was hurting from the action. Hop Sing only had to suspect that was true and he would have immediately tattle-tailed to his father.

Joe walked over closer to his father’s desk, and reaching up with his uninjured arm, brushed some of the snow white flour from his curly brown hair. “What do you want me to do now, Pa?” He looked down at the shirt he was wearing and saw that they hadn’t fared much better than his hair and had been showered with the fine white dust.


In Virginia City, not far from the saloon buildings and the mercantile agency, a man by the name of Henry Williams occupied a generous office space on the top floor.

Williams was a man of means and openly displayed his wealth in his wardrobe and mannerisms. His clothes were of the finest quality and made from fabrics that could not be purchased in this town. A pocket watch hung from his brocaded waistcoat by a heavy chain. He planned to improve his financial status over time, and sometimes that involved being prepared to be ruthless and decisive when it come to business dealings. There was a lot of money to be made in growing towns like Virginia City with people like himself knowing how to get it.

The man approached the door to his office, but stopped as he went to slide the key into the lock. Something wasn’t quite right, the lock had been disturbed. In these troubling times, one could not be too careful about their own personal safety and how they maintained it. Pulling a small pistol from the waist coat he was wearing, he took a deep breath, he turned the door knob and burst through the door, keeping the barrel of the firearm pointed out in front of him.

Displeasure crossed his features as he surveyed his office, and came across someone unexpected. He was tempted to keep the weapon pointed at the man, but lowered it after a few moments, and placed it back into its concealed position on his person.

“You didn’t really mean to come in here and shoot me with that puny thing did you,” a voice challenged him. The man behind the voice didn’t show one sign of being nervous or fearing Williams’ or the firearm.

“What are you doing in here?” Williams demanded. “Yes, you were supposed to meet me, I agreed with that. But here in Virginia City, where you could have been spotted leaving my office? Not exactly the ideal situation that is called for on this occasion, or one that I would have wanted.”

After exhaling a large plume of cigar smoke, the man asked a question of his own in return, “Don’t tell me that you have gotten cold feet already?” the man accused casually.

Williams walked over to a small cabinet in his office, and pulled out a short decanter of a dark spirit. He retrieved a small tumbler glass nearby and proceeded to pour a measure for himself. His eyes flickered up towards his uninvited guest with annoyance, “Would you like one?” he asked, not really being in a charitable mood.

The man proceeded to lift up a matching glass that had been sitting beside him. He had already helped himself to a large drink when entering the office. The man was reclining back on a leather arm-chair, and had his legs extended out, with his muddy boots scuffing the edge of a rectangular coffee table. He was dressed in a long travel coat, with the tails showing signs of age and splattered with dried mud.

Williams huffed at the man’s brazen attitude, “You know, I am already thinking that I may have made the wrong decision in selecting you for this particular task.”

“Oh do tell,” the stranger said with a mild laugh. He was amused at Williams’ attempt of standing over him. “Be my guest if you think you can find anybody else from here to San Francisco that would take on your little ‘task’ as you put it.”

“Thomas, I am paying you a substantial sum of money, and for that amount, I expect the job to be done swiftly and without the possibility of any of it being traced back to me,” Williams retorted. “The plan must be put in effect within the next couple of days, before the outcome of the contract is announced. No later, or any advantage that may be possible to gain will be totally useless.”

The other man in the room now stood up from the chair to his imposing full height, leaving his cigar butt in the ashtray. He approached Williams with purpose and grabbed a hold of the front of his fancy waistcoat, extracting a strangled gasp. He made sure that the words that he spoke had the maximum amount of impact.

“You will get your money’s worth, Williams, I assure you. As for all the little details of what is carried out and how, …. well that is for me and only me to decide, get the point?” Thomas said, pushing on the knot of his thin tie upwards, and tightening it around the man’s neck.

Williams was convinced that he had made a dangerous choice of who to complete the job, but he had not anticipated that his own life would be at put at risk. There was something about Thomas that unnerved the person he was talking to. Henry had been in the company of some questionable and vicious men before, but this man was cold and calculating. He could see right through you and know what someone was thinking before they opened their mouth.

Henry Williams didn’t speak a verbal answer, but slowly nodded his compliance with the unwritten terms and conditions of their association.

“Good, I am glad we have an understanding between each other,” Thomas said as he grinned and released his grip and the knot of the tie.

Williams coughed harshly, using his hand to rub his neck while he drew in fresh oxygen. This man that he had hired, Butch Thomas, was certainly someone not to underestimate. Maybe his methods would be a step too far in what he was trying to achieve. Perhaps he had better remind the man of that.

“I don’t want there to be any killing, Thomas,” Williams pointed out, regaining a little of his composure. “That is not what I planned or how I expect this to happen. Someone gets killed, and it is all going to blow up in both our faces. Yours included.”

“Who said anything about killing?” Thomas chuckled at the mere suggestion. “Your instructions for me were to scare this family away from gaining the contract you want so badly, right?”

“Right! The Cartwright family around here are very influential. They have a lot of money invested around here and tied up not just in Virginia City, but in a lot of the ranches further out in any number of directions. A number of other business holdings too from timber, to cattle and horses, mining and freight haulage. From here to Reno, Carson City and Placerville, plus a number of other forgettable places. Ben Cartwright has some serious connections in bigger cities like San Francisco too. And he counts a number of powerful people amongst his friends, including Governors and quite a few Sheriffs and Marshall’s in law enforcement,” Williams explained.

“Sounds like he might be too much of a man for you to handle,” Thomas taunted. “And if he has other kin……., Butch had heard the name of the family in a number of circles, but not enough about any of them individually to identify a weak spot that he could use to his advantage.

Williams was on the defensive and quick to interrupt, “I don’t care about the rest of that for now. I want that contract! Your job is to stop them from getting that timber contract by any means it takes without resorting to killing anybody.”

Thomas was prepared to toy with the man a while longer and listen to the methods he wanted to employee to achieve his goals. “How would you propose I proceed?”

“The less I know about your plans the better, but I can tell you that one of the Cartwright’s will be coming into Virginia City in about half an hour to submit their tender for the contract. You probably won’t be in time to stop that. Ben Cartwright owns a very large spread out of town, but they all come here regularly to conduct their other general business.”

“One of their hands, a man by the name of Frank Richards was fired from there only last night,” Williams revealed. “Given the right encouragement with the taste of liquor, you may be able to coax the right information out of him about the day to day movements of the family. I saw him down in the saloon a short time ago before coming up here. He is already drinking away his severance wages.”

Thomas was intrigued by this little piece of news. Gathering valuable information about any impending target could be most useful.

“There is a whole family of them, Ben is the father and head of the household, and there are three sons. I am not about to do your homework for you. Bend one of their elbows or make them see reason by some other more persuasive means, I don’t care. Find a way to make them change their mind,” Williams emphasised.

Without waiting for permission, Thomas confiscated the pocket watch that hung around Williams’ ample middle, and looked back at the man, daring him to object.

“I will head out now, but you had better be waiting here when I get back,” Thomas ordered. “Because like it or not, I intend to make sure that you get full credit as well as myself for whatever happens to the Cartwright family.”


Downstairs, Thomas waited in a secluded alley way, not far from the Mercantile agency, where people were gathering to watch the interested parties in bidding for the timber contract. Within the first few minutes that he had been standing there, the crowd mulling around the proceedings that were taking place had grown substantially. They were all too busy with their own comings and goings to notice anybody observing from his protected position.

Pulling out the pocket watch that he had taken from Williams, and opening the outer silver case, Thomas glanced down at the watch and noted that perhaps his silent partner had been wrong about the Cartwright’s being a threat to him winning the prized contract. The tender closed at noon, but there was only five minutes left to go before that deadline. In the short time he had be standing here observing the other players, he hadn’t heard any mention of the Cartwright surname.

The other bidders who had already submitted their quotes and documentation for the lumber contract, had started to gather outside the Mercantile agency, waiting to establish the identity of their prospective rivals. Due to the size of the contract, there were only a few serious contenders in the area who would be able to supply the large amount of timber being sought.

Bill Scruggs who had a forest of trees for logging timber over forty miles away from the Ponderosa. A second bid had been placed by a Mister Abner Taylor. Not much was known about his company or his logging operation. The third bidder had sent a proxy to do his bidding for him. The man wanted to remain out of the public eye as much as possible. And that was Henry Williams himself.

Collins’ secretary, a Mister Eugene Nelson stepped out onto the wooden verandah and looked down at his own pocket watch. “Well gentlemen, it looks as though it is almost time to close the tender and start examining the bids.” Nelson said over the bridge of his round spectacles. “Before I announce that the tender is officially closed, is there any last minute bidders yet to place their documentation before me for determination?”

The sound of a galloping horse drew the crowd’s attention and could be heard coming down the street at a great pace. There were whispered conversations amidst the people gathered, speculating on who it could be.

Adam Cartwright soon came into view, pulling up at the hitching rail quite some distance from the agency and bolted down from his chestnut mount, Sport. He reached into his saddle bags and dashed towards Mister Nelson with the pouch containing the papers held out in his hand. By the time he reached the Mercantile, he was slightly out of breath from his efforts to make it on time.

The roads into Virginia City had been even worse than Ben had anticipated, or Adam had thought possible from only an overnight storm. Half way through his journey, he was thankful that his father had been cautious, and opted to keep his brother Joe home today and not allow him to ride along such roads on his own. There were large ruts in a number of areas of the road and some dangerous foot holes in places that would see a horse and rider come to grief if they were not totally concentrating.

“Mister Nelson, I apologize for my tardiness, this morning,” Adam spoke with his smooth, deep baritone voice. “The roads from the Ponderosa into town are very bad in patches.”

Thomas had been standing as far away from the crowd as he could, but made sure that he was able to hear what was being said. He took a step forward from his location, to peek at the last minute contender, observing the late arrival from beneath the brim of his own hat. The handsome and confident man was dressed in a red shirt, and was wearing a black vest and pants. The hat adorning his head was the same matching colour.

“That is perfectly alright, Mister Cartwright,” Nelson returned with a smile as the two men exchanged friendly handshakes. The pencil thin man took the leather pouch containing the documents. “I must admit, I was a little worried that you were not going to make it on time before submissions closed. I am sure that all your papers are in order, Adam. Please give my regards to your father when you return home.”

Nelson now took a few steps towards the rest of the crowd and addressed them as a whole group.

“Gentlemen, as you are probably aware and can appreciate, going over all of these papers is going to take time, and most likely more than one day. My colleague and I will look at all of your bids in turn and assess them according to merit. All of you are requested to return to this same place, one week from today, when my associate Mister Collins will announce the successful winner of the contract. I trust you all have a pleasant day,” he concluded, and then turned to walk back to the temporary and makeshift office he had created inside the Mercantile Agency.

“Henry Williams is not going to be very happy about this at all,” Thomas commented to himself with a chuckle. He watched the man identified as Adam Cartwright walk back to his horse, mount it and ride further down the street.

Thomas casually walked out of his concealed position, and travelled a short distance down the same side of the street. He would have to be careful in making sure that Cartwright didn’t suspect he was being followed.

Williams was right, he would have to do his homework if any plan was going to be successful in altering their intentions. He may as well start gathering what information he could about this particular Cartwright, before returning to Williams’ office.


Adam had not trotted very far down the road, but halted his progress when he saw the very person he was looking for, Doctor Paul Martin. He had been expecting and planning to go further towards his small office up on the second floor of another building. The doctor was walking past a row of stores down the other end of the street.

The doctor looked up when he heard his title and name being hailed by a familiar voice, and stopped to meet up with the man. He smiled as Adam Cartwright stopped his horse, and hitched Sport to the railing after dismounting from the saddle.

Neither Paul nor Adam noticed the stranger, Butch Thomas move close enough towards both of them to overhear their conversation. He knew very little about these Cartwright people, and much of what he heard was hearsay and word of mouth only, or provided by Henry Williams about their previous business dealings. Thomas wanted to find out for himself what sort of men these Cartwright’s were.

This one identified as Adam Cartwright certainly looked like a good enough adversary. Strongly built, tall, and intelligent he would guess after submitting the contract. ‘Was the rest of the family the same?’ Thomas asked himself. Perhaps Williams had been underestimating his competition and gaining this contract may be a bit beyond his reach. Maybe he would need to alter his plan and increase the stakes substantially to affect any outcome.

“Good Morning, Paul,” Adam greeted him, extending his hand and completing the handshake with the silver-haired gentleman known simply by many people in the town as Doc Martin.

“Good Morning, Adam,” Paul said enthusiastically in return. “What brings you into Virginia City today?” The doctor knew there could be any number of reasons. The Ponderosa was a large place and required a lot of hard work from that family to keep it operating smoothly.

“I barely made it in time to submit a bid for a new contact for the timber operation,” Adam informed him. “The roads coming in here were atrocious after all the rain last night.”

“Thankfully, I was able to make it home safely after leaving your house, before that storm settled in for the rest of the night,” Paul commented. “The rain was coming down in buckets. I have already located three leaks in the roof my surgery and office.”

It was the next few pieces of information that he would overhear, that provided Thomas with a whole lot more insight into the family dynamics. And perhaps presented an opportunity to exploit.

“Last night, after you left, it seems that my brother became a little more restless and had trouble sleeping during the early morning hours, and his temperature soared. High enough for my father to become worried and for him to stay with him, trying to cool the boy down. He wanted me to find you in town this morning, and ask if wouldn’t mind coming back out to the ranch to take another look at Little Joe,” Adam explained.

“A fever developed you say?” Paul said, pursing his lips together and pondering the symptoms that were being reported to him. “Joe did have a low grade fever when I examined him, and that was expected to some degree. Hoss brought him back from that hunting trip yesterday, but those claw marks from that bear cub were certainly deep enough to cause trouble. I cleaned them out as best I could before putting those stitches in. Wounds made by any animal are unpredictable at anytime, and there is a risk of infection to watch out for.”

“My father made the decision to keep Joe home from school today due to them both losing sleep, and as a precaution. You know how he feels about his youngest son,” Adam remarked.

Paul Martin nodded his head in acknowledgement, knowing how much truth was behind those words. If there was anything more stable in this world of uncertainty, it was the unconditional love that Ben Cartwright showed any of his sons. Especially towards the youngest member of the family, Joseph, when he was sick or injured. There was no secret to the fact that Hoss, Adam, the workers at the ranch, or the residents of Virginia City that Ben looked out for the boy at every turn.

“I will just retrieve my bag from my office, Adam, and I will get out there as I make my way back from the Wilson farm,” Paul replied. “That is where I was headed to in a few minutes. I hope my buggy can make it all the way out there, considering how badly you told me the roads already are. Rebecca is due to have her baby towards the end of next week, but may come at any time.”

“I am headed back to the Ponderosa very soon; the yard there this morning is a mess too after all the rain. As a priority though, when I get there, I intend to put together a team of the men together and go out to fix the worst of the damage before we lose the sunlight light today,” Adam reported.

“Drive carefully out there, Paul,” Adam warned as he walked away from the doctor and gathered the reins of his horse and mounted. “I have one final errand to complete at the schoolhouse with the teacher, Miss Jones before I head back to the ranch.”

“Tell your father not to worry, and I will see you both soon, and of course, Joe,” Paul said with a small grin, and watched the man ride back down the street in the direction of the school.

Butch Thomas’ mind started filtering some of the information he was hearing. When observing Adam Cartwright, he estimated the man’s age to be a few years shy of thirty years old. The man had been speaking to the doctor about someone else in the family who still attended school. He had assumed from the brief clues given by Williams, that all of the Cartwright’s were grown men. After listening to the short exchange moments ago, it appeared that was not the case.

Fortuity may have just presented an opportunity that he could use to gain an advantage over the Cartwright family. Real leverage, and he would have no qualms about putting to good use if he deemed it necessary. People often responded better to demands when something they cared greatly about was placed in peril. In this case, someone. Neither he or Williams were above providing the right amount of incentive by blackmail or physical force to obtain their objectives.

Williams used money to gain notoriety, and usually hired the people he needed to carry out any dirty work that was required for him. There may be a way to persuade the Cartwright family to withdraw their bid from the timber contract. Applying just the right amount of pressure would be crucial to enforcing that threat.

Thomas quickly withdrew from his current position in the shadows and walked down the street in the opposite direction that Adam Cartwright had taken. He remembered Williams’ comment about the ranch hand drinking in one of the saloons.


The hour was just after lunch when Thomas entered the saloon through the two swinging doors. This watering hole was reserved for a much lower class of patron than people like Williams or the Cartwright family. The smell of tobacco smoke permeated the air and the stench of hard liquor was on every surface, from the bar to the floor.

There were no pretty barmaids to serve drinks in this establishment, and only one poor, down-trodden barkeep, who was pouring whiskey into filthy glasses. Thomas was almost knocked over by another man being hurled through the swinging doors onto the street outside. The result of a good hard punch to the face for being accused of cheating at cards.

Seated at the bar, holding to on an almost empty bottle of whiskey and with his head hanging low, one man drew Butch’s gaze. He walked over to the bar, stood beside him, looking him up and down. He wasn’t sure if this was the right person yet, but wasn’t about to ask his name outright and draw attention to himself. He could be patient for a while longer.

Five minutes later, the man tossed a coin onto the bar beside his empty glass, “Give me another bottle,” he slurred. There was still liquor at the bottom of the bottle he was holding, but he decided that he didn’t want that.

“Don’t you think you have had enough friend?” the barkeep asked, trying to get him to leave the saloon and fall down someplace else. But he picked up the coin and placed the new bottle beside the same glass.

“Hey, don’t you be calling me your friend, I don’t e-even know y-you,” the man declared angrily, wavering his arm about in displeasure, but almost over-balancing and falling off the stool instead. “My money in here is just as good as a-anybody else’s. And that’s good money too. Come from those no-good cow-pokes, think they are better than anybody else, Cartwrights.”

Thomas grinned to himself, confident with the mention of the name Cartwright, that he had found the right man.

“Steady there,” Thomas said smoothly, keeping the man upright, and pouring a measure from the new bottle. “Your money is just as good as any man in here. The name is Smith,” he said to the man, waiting to see if he would give his own name in return.

“Darn-tootin’ it is,” the man said, giving a wide, toothy grin to the stranger who had just poured his drink. He didn’t notice that Thomas had poured himself a drink from the same new bottle. “Richards,” he said, peering back through bloodshot eyes. “You can call me Frank.”

“I heard you talking about them high and mighty Cartwright’s,” Thomas started talking, followed by drinking the shot of whiskey.

“Don’t talk to me about them varmints,” Frank shot back with anger surfacing again. He tried to take another drink himself, but ended up spilling more of the contents of the glass on himself. “That old coot of a boss told me I was no good working with them cows. Said I didn’t know the front end of a cow from the back end. He ain’t a Cartwright, but he works for them and is just as bad as them in my books.”

“Let’s move over to a table friend, where we can be a little more comfortable and talk,” Thomas suggested.

“Why are we doing that for?” came the confused question, but Butch was already moving the bottle and glasses to one of the back tables.

“I don’t like crowds much when I drink,” Thomas replied. “Back here, I can see who is coming and going without worrying about anybody sneaking up on me.”

“Good idea,” Richards said, loosely following what was being said. Walking across the bar-room, he was very uncoordinated and almost sat down at the wrong empty table.

Thomas saw the merits of plastering him with more alcohol, but he wanted the man talking more about the Cartwright family before he lost the ability to think and passed out from being too drunk.

“So you worked for them and they just fired you for no reason?” Thomas asked, choosing his words carefully. “Do you get to talk to the youngest member of the family very much? Joe isn’t it?” trying to remember what name the brother had used in front of the doctor.

“Little Joe they call him; heard some things about him from the other men in the bunk house, but never met him yet. Got told he is a real nice young fella; a little on the skinny side, but got l-lots of growin’ up to do yet I guess,” Richards answered. A few burps escaped his mouth, and he wiped the excess spittle from his mouth on the sleeve of his shirt.

“Those Cartwright’s tend to keep strangers and people who haven’t worked there for long away from the main house and that boy,” Frank continued. “No idea why. I never did get to asking too many questions about the family out there. But I seen them coming and going often enough.”

Thomas frowned at this new piece of information, thinking it was rather odd that someone had worked there for a couple of months, but hadn’t personally met the boss’s son yet. Especially after listening to William’s account of how prominent the family were in the area.

“Maybe he is a spoilt rich man’s son and they have been teaching him bad habits to their way of thinking,” Thomas prompted.

“Don’t rightly know for sure,” Richards answered. “Them older two boys looks down on everybody, especially that eldest one. Would be a shame if the boy was nice like they reckon and they were looking to do that to him.”

Butch listened to the man, thinking back to Adam Cartwright whom seen in the street. The way he was dressed and the fine animal that he was riding; could be who Richards was describing now.

“The b-big one, he is not so bad, and works hard with the rest of the m-men,” Frank slurred about Hoss.

“Why do you w-want to know about them C-Cartwright’s anyway? Richards asked, with his head hanging low over the glass he had just poured. “You ain’t looking for a job out there now are you? Because I lost mine.” Richards was rapidly losing track of the conversation.

Thomas was trying to get Richard to talk more about what secrets he knew about the family. He had gained a few clues, but he wanted more. By now the liberal amount of whiskey had pickled the man’s tongue and he was having trouble following any further questions. He was taking too long to come up with any useful answers and Butch was growing impatient.

“Now I just need to find me some way to make some money,” Richards commented out of the blue about having no job or way to earn a living.

Thomas looked about the bar-room and made sure that nobody was paying attention to the two of them still talking and drinking together.

Butch smiled widely, “I might have a new job for you, if you are interested?” he offered. “You would like a chance to get back at that Cartwright family wouldn’t you? Take back a bit more of that money that they owe you for the time you worked out there?”

Butch clenched a fresh cigar stump between his teeth and lit it, leaning back against the back of the chair, waiting for Richards to make a decision.

“Does it pay any good?” Frank asked hesitantly. He wasn’t risking his neck for a bag of beans like what he got from the old wrangler last night when he was tossed out.

“My friend……… the payout I suspect shall be very good, so long as you do everything I say,” Thomas confirmed with the hint of warning.

Richards looked up at Thomas for a minute, waiting for his brain to catch up with what was being said. “What do you want me to do?” The man was definitely being cautious, even with the copious amount of alcohol he had consumed.

Frank knew he had done some illegal stuff before. Pinching goods from stores when folks weren’t looking, and a few other minor illegal things. Small time potatoes to some people probably. But the tone of this man’s voice told him that something else was being waved under his nose.

“Nothing much,” Thomas answered casually. “I don’t aim to be working for the Cartwright’s, but I am going to take the kid away from them. Keep him quiet for a few days and out of sight.

“Joe?” Richards squeaked out at such an outlandish idea. “You ain’t going to hurt him none are you? He ain’t even growed up full yet.”

“No, I don’t plan on hurting the boy,” Thomas lied. “Just keep him out of town for a few days, then return him to his family, nice and safe like when they come up with some money. A lot of money,” he said in proposal.

“Money is kinda scarce at the moment,” Frank agreed. “I don’t know iffn’ they be hiring the likes of me at any of the new m-mines that are opening up. Working underground don’t rightly appeal to me very much neither.”

“All that dangerous work in one of those dark pits for a few measly dollars a week?” Thomas scoffed in jest. “No siree, not something I will be looking to do if something else came along that wouldn’t require that amount of effort.”

“I reckon Ben would pay anything to stop something happening to any of his sons,” Richards pondered. “That old man Cartwright would probably pay plenty more to get that youngest boy of his back.”

“You meet me five miles out of town on the road to the Ponderosa before sun-up tomorrow morning, nice and sober like,” Thomas instructed. “Don’t be late, or you will be missing out on your share of the loot.”

Thomas was planning on explaining the finer details of his plan once the man was sober enough to understand them. Richards knew the layout of the Ponderosa and where the best section of the road would be to lay in ambush. He may also know of a place where they could stash the boy far enough out of town and away from the ranch without being spotted, once the trap had been set.

Butch made his way out of the saloon, leaving the half empty bottle of whiskey on the table in front of Richards who was now slumped across it. He would do some looking himself out at the ranch later on tonight, just to be certain. If Frank didn’t turn up on time, or was still under the weather, then he would need to enact his own secondary plan to snatch the boy without the additional pair of hands.

Making his way back to William’s office, he didn’t want to stick around long enough to be noticed. Henry stood up as Butch Thomas loomed just inside the wooden door frame.

“Richards proved to be somewhat useful,” Thomas told him. “Everything happens tomorrow, so make sure you go about your business as usual. Have my money ready.”

Once he was alone again, Williams pulled out a checkered handkerchief and used it to wipe away the nervous sweat rolling down the back of his neck. There was no backing out now, he would have to sit back and wait to see what unfolded.


Thomas made his way to an small abandoned building in town where he had been squatting for the past few days. His horse was stabled there, along with the few meagre possessions he owned. His bedroll and saddle bags were there too.

Butch already had two other men in mind that he could use for the job tomorrow in addition to Richards. One, Robert Pierce he had worked with before. The man didn’t talk very much, but was handy with a gun and he didn’t ask a lot of questions about the work he was doing either. They weren’t friends, but they both had been part of a larger group of men that had been used in a previous bank hold-up and stagecoach robbery. He was from the local area too which was a bonus, and he knew how to keep his mouth shut.

The second person, younger and much more prone to shooting off his mouth when he had too much to drink was Danny Griffiths. For now he would suffice well enough until the task was completed and the Cartwright’s had withdrawn their bid for the lumber contract. In this business, there was no guarantee that he was going to share any of the ill-gotten spoils with them.

Thomas only needed these three men for the first part of his plan, he would talk to the other two men this afternoon before heading out along the road to the Ponderosa.

After that, he could make a decision on whether or not to keep any of them around, or split up and allow them to go their separate ways. There was the third option of not letting any of them to stay alive after he had collected the money.

Butch was aware that he wouldn’t be able to rely on getting any of the supplies he needed from here in Virginia City. He couldn’t afford to draw any heat in case someone remembered him later. He didn’t want any of the men he was looking to hire, to being recognized after making a purchase in the local general store

Thomas knew that his associate, Henry Williams wanted this lumber contract badly. It was the only thing that Thomas had heard the man talk about during their infrequent meetings over the last month. Williams had made it abundantly clear that he wanted the contract no matter what. He had reiterated that very fact less than an hour ago in his office. The overweight businessman was supremely confident that his quote was the only one that posed any real threat to the Cartwright family winning outright.

When Collins had first demonstrated his interest in obtaining large quantities of timber within the area, Williams had been quick to pull the new mining entrepreneur aside and forcibly impress on the man, his desire and ability to fulfill the mine’s needs. Collins had backed away from those bullish tactics and openly invited tenders from all over the district before making a final decision.

Thomas wasn’t fussed who he worked for or what that work entailed. He was prepared to take on work that other men baulked at or backed away from. In places some distance from Virginia City, he had quickly gained a reputation of being a harsh man, with a mean fist and a quick draw with his pistol. Folks in this town knew him a whole lot less, and that suited him just fine. Being unknown, he could easily blend into a crowd and hide in plain sight, keeping the true nature of his activities undisclosed.


Outside of the schoolhouse, Adam had completed his last errand in town by talking to Miss Summers about any work that Joe would be missing by being absent today.

He then had a short and informal discussion with Miss Jones, about her attempts to sway Joe into making a decision about college.

When he first brought up the subject with the woman responsible, Miss Jones had clearly been taken aback by this new attitude she had not seen before in Adam Cartwright. She had assured him that the boy must have exaggerated the part she had played. She reminded Adam that Joe was a young man who needed a firm talking to at times, and often day-dreamed out of the window instead of paying attention.

Adam told the teacher that he didn’t have the time this afternoon to stand there and debate with her about what he had learned. He wanted Miss Jones to allow Joe to enjoy what remained of his education, and not constantly make comparisons about what he had achieved as her student. They were two different people and deserved to be treated as individuals, even if they shared the same last name.

Miss Summers had been a very positive influence on Joe over the past several years, and Adam wanted to make sure that she was aware of what the headmistress was trying to do. He reported to her what Joe had shared with Hoss, and the impact that it was having on him wanting to attend school. Rebecca had promised to look into the matter and keep a closer watch on Joe’s grades and aptitude when he was in her class.

Miss Jones was still convinced that she could talk more to Adam and get him to come around to her point of view, but that would have to wait as she watched him mount his horse and started riding away towards the Ponderosa.

Adam needed to get back and inform his father about the state of the road. Hopefully with enough time left in the day, he could get a group of the men together and do some repairs before the afternoon was lost and the sunlight faded. On the journey back, he made note of where the worst damage was, planning to repair those areas first.


After changing his flour dusted clothes, Joe came back downstairs into the living room, but was at somewhat of a lost end of how to spend his time. Within the space of half an hour, Joe had moved from sitting on the settee, to the armchair he had occupied earlier, back to the settee.

The boy had even gotten up and opened the front door, but closed it again, knowing that it was pointless and already guessing what his father’s answer would be to his unspoken question.

Ben was having trouble concentrating on his own work, as his gaze kept watching Joe’s forlorn expression as he examined each piece of furniture in turn. The boy wasn’t deliberately being stubborn or wilful, but his continual moving about the room was distracting.

“Son, would you like to share an early lunch?” Ben finally asked, trying to get Joe interested in something else other than having to spend his time inside.

A few of years, before he turned fourteen years old, Joe had a creative outlet for when he was stuck inside healing from an injury or recovering after illness. From the age of seven he had shown some talent at drawing and spent a lot of his time practicing. Of course his favourite subjects to draw was horses.

Now those sketch books were kept on a shelf in his wardrobe upstairs. Tucked away where nobody could see them anymore and they hadn’t been added to and the pages viewed by any member of the family for more than a year. The beautiful artwork contained within those pages would probably never see the light of day again unfortunately. Ben didn’t have the heart to bring up such a poignant subject today, even if it would help his son pass the time constructively.

Joe let out an audible sigh to demonstrate the level of his boredom, and sat down on top of the coffee table that was in front of the large fireplace. “No thanks, Pa, I am not very hungry,” he answered glumly.

Playing with a deck of cards in his hands, he shuffled them and then began spreading them out in an indistinct pattern. “I am bored, Pa.”

Ben was trying not to raise his voice in exasperation at his son’s disinterest and despondent mood. “Please don’t sit on the coffee table, Joseph,” he requested politely, trying to direct his brooding thoughts towards something else. “How are the stitches in your arm feeling now?”

Joe stood up, looking down at the bandage around his arm. The stitches still hurt quite a lot and he had been trying to ignore the discomfort for most of the morning. It hadn’t been easy with his father being in the same room and continually watching from his desk.

“It’s fine, Pa,” Little Joe answered, but for his father, his answer came out a little too quickly. Ben was about to put down his pen and demand a more honest answer. Before he could do exactly that, Joe deflected any further comment by picking up the book from Adam for a second time. He walked over to the striped settee and sprawled himself on his back along the uncomfortable cushions and opened the cover.

The boy had taught himself over the years to hide his grimaces of discomfort and mask his aches and pains from everybody. A habit that Ben would prefer that he had not learnt quite so well. The family had tried to adapt as best they could and watch for the telltale signs that were often present.

Ben delayed getting up from his desk, not wanting to provoke an argument with Joe. He suspected that his arm had been causing him pain during the morning. When it came to being sick or injured, none of his boys liked the forced inactivity that usually followed. And Joe was certainly no exception, especially when it came to having to be examined by a doctor like Paul Martin.

Twenty minutes later, Ben was suddenly drawn away from his books and ledgers by the total silence of the room. This time he did rise from his desk due to his full view of settee being obscured. Approaching quietly from around the piece of furniture, he smiled tender-heartedly at the reason. Joe was laying on his side, with his knees bent and his legs drawn up in a slightly curled up position, sound asleep. The book had fallen down as he had turned over and was grasped precariously in one hand.

Hop Sing came into the room, silently standing beside him but holding a lightweight blanket he had fetched from the linen chest. Ben smiled at the man’s uncanny ability to know what his family needed. He accepted the blanket and began spreading it over his son with thanks. Using the palm of his hand, he placed it gently across Joe’s forehead, checking his temperature.

Much to his delight, only a small amount of residual heat was present. The fever was almost gone. Joe had frowned at his father’s touch momentarily, but then faded back into a deeper state of sleep. His body was trying to regain some of the lost hours of sleep from last night, and Ben was very pleased with that. Reaching down, he rescued the book from Joe’s sleep limp hand before drawing the edge of the soft blanket up over his shoulder.

Ben couldn’t help but feel the lump in his throat, noting how painfully similar his son resembled his beautiful wife, Marie. The likeness was even more evident when those dark lashes closed over the boy’s emerald green eyes in slumber. The soft brown curls behind his ears and at the back of his neck, made the boy appeared much younger than his age of fifteen years.


Before resuming work at his desk, Ben used the opportunity of his son not being able to note his absence to his advantage. He exited the back door through the kitchen to head out to the yard and speak briefly to Charlie the head foreman. He had forgotten to bring up one matter with the man when he had been out in the barn earlier.

As he started heading back to the house to begin his paperwork again, he heard the unmistakable sound of horses hooves approaching. A few moments later Adam rode into view, stopping short before the middle of the yard, trying to avoid the mud.

“Good to see you return safely, Adam,” Ben said in a pleased tone, as he watch his son dismount and tie the reins loosely to the hitching rail. “Were you successful in getting to Virginia City on time?”

“Yes, I was as a matter of fact, with oh, moments to spare,” Adam replied, his face displaying how close he had been to missing the deadline. From what little I could find out, there were three other bids lodged in addition to our own.”

“Come on inside for a spell,” Ben said, as the two of them walked towards the house. “Did you eat lunch yet?”

“No, but I want to make a start on putting a team of men together and heading out to fix some of the bad patches in the road. You were right this morning to keep Joe from riding on it; there are some treacherous sections,” Adam warned. “I want to get as much done as possible before sundown.”

Ben’s brow creased into a frown at Adam’s report on how bad the road was. By now the two of them were by the front door.

“Oh, before you head inside, please keep the noise down. Joseph is sleeping on the settee,” Ben informed him. “He has been wandering around the house all morning complaining about having nothing to do. He even had Hop Sing chasing him out of the kitchen. His fever is almost gone. Finally tiredness won out not long before you rode in.”

Adam entered the house alongside his father, removing his hat and gun belt, the two of them keeping any sound to a minimum. He would not have been surprised to hear raised voices upon his return instead. He laughed a little inwardly at the thought of his father admitting to having trouble in keeping an active fifteen year old boy entertained.

The two of them moved out of earshot towards Ben’s desk and further away from Joe. “At least he was trying to read the book you left him. Twice.”

“Oh, well that is good to hear that he is attempting to expand his reading repertoire,” Adam said with a pleased look on his face, but it dropped again when he saw the smirk coming from his father.

“Why do you think he finally fell asleep?” Ben offered with a quiet laugh as the expression on Adam changed so suddenly.

“His arm has been causing him some discomfort,” Ben commented with a change to his voice, and all joking put aside. “Not that he would tell me of course. When I asked him about it…..,”

Adam interrupted before his father finished speaking, “Let me guess, he told you he was ‘fine’.

“When I was in town, I managed to complete all of my errands. That includes talking to Miss Summers at the schoolhouse. She intends to talk to him about any work that he missed by being away today. More importantly, she is going to keep a closer eye on him after I told her what Hoss reported to us.”

“That will he helpful at least. Joe likes that teacher and has thrived better under her tutelage, whereas he had been struggling under Miss Jones’ methods of teaching before that,” Ben remarked. He didn’t like comparing the two teachers to each other. They were very different people, but the improved results of Joe’s grades under one and not the other were undeniable.

“On that note, I spoke to Miss Jones and pressed on her that Joe had plenty of time yet to make up his own mind about college. Time was running short, and I wanted to get back here to get started on that roadwork. I suspect there may need to be another meeting with the head mistress yet with myself and perhaps even you to add our weight to any decision that is made,” Adam explained. “She wasn’t quite ready to accept that her actions were responsible for Joe being reluctant to keep attending school.”

“Well, for now, those discussions will have to wait until another day,” Ben responded. For now he hoped that Adam’s talk with both teachers would be enough to let matters settled on their own accord.

“After submitting the contract, I did go looking for Paul at his office, but I didn’t need to go that far,” Adam stated. “He was walking down the street, not far from the Mercantile agency. I told him what had happened overnight with Joe’s temperature. He promised to come out when he could, but he had to visit the Wilson farm first. Another baby is due out that way very soon.”

“I don’t need to see the doctor, Pa,” came the well-known voice from the direction of the settee.

“And all this time you have been underestimating Joe’s power of selective hearing,” Adam poked in jest at his father with a sly grin. “How are you feeling this afternoon, Joe?”

“I thought you were asleep, Joseph?” Ben questioned. He was hoping that his son hadn’t overheard the conversation he and Adam had shared about Miss Summers and the school headmistress.

Both men walked over closer to Joe, watching as the blanket that had been covering him, slipped down from his shoulders as he sat up and pooled in his lap. After seeing Joe rubbing tiredly at his face, Ben guessed that Joe had only awoken at hearing the mention of the doctor.

“Fine!” Joe announced with a slight scowl on his face. “I don’t need to see the doctor,” he repeated. He was most unimpressed on how this day was turning out.

How things had turned against him so much over the past few hours he couldn’t fathom. He had already been chased by Hop Sing when he was only trying to help. He hadn’t been allowed to do anything else before lunch except look at the internal walls of the house. And now, Adam had arrived home only to tell him that Doctor Martin would be coming out to the ranch as well. To prod and poke him no doubt, and tell his father that all he needed was some rest. He had just finished doing exactly that. In Joe’s opinion, more ‘rest’ was the last thing he wanted to do right now.

Ben was about to say a few words, but Adam could see his brother’s unhappy mood about being cooped up in the house and took it upon himself to help out both his brother and his father at the same time.

“I am about to head out to the barn and gather those men together and what we will need in a wagon,” Adam directed at this father, but glancing occasionally at his brother as he spoke. “That road going to Virginia City needs some repairing today.”

“There are quite a lot of dangerous ruts and crevices that have been created due to the deluge and subsequent water run-off from the storm last night,” Adam continued, pleased to see that his brother was listening. “I want to backfill those holes before someone gets hurt. Somebody riding out along that road and not looking where they were going could be put at risk of having an accident. He was giving his father as many clues as he could about the proposal he had in mind by using Joe as an example of ‘someone’ without deliberately saying his name out loud.

On any normal day when he was riding to and from school, or anywhere else, Joe rode his horse at neck breaking speed. Usually when he was too far out of sight, and his father wasn’t watching of course. Cochise could step into an unseen hole, or skid suddenly when Joe was racing her down that long, narrow stretch of uneven ground. Both horse and rider could be put be seriously injured or killed.

Ben was astute enough to pick up Adam’s not so subtle suggestions. “I suppose you would like your younger brother to accompany you this afternoon, whilst you and the men complete this work?” He watched the immediate impact on Joe’s face as he spoke.

Joe’s head quickly snapped up at hearing that his brother might be willing to rescue him from his forced boredom. And there it was, the puppy dog look that Hoss often fell for and was known to quote about. “Could I really, Pa?”

Adam and Ben both rolled their eyes at the boy’s antics and seeing those expressive green eyes and hearing that ‘innocent’ voice that all the Cartwright family knew oh so well.

“I don’t see why not,” Ben began, “As long as you stick with Adam, and listen to everything that he tells you to do, without giving him and argument to the contrary,” he added with a warning. He saw a smile appear on Joe’s face as he nodded his head in agreement of the rules that were being set.

Using his prerogative, he wanted to tack on one more condition in order to gain his permission. As a father, he made sure that going with Adam was only going to happen when one other task had been completed to his satisfaction. “After you have checked over by, Doc Martin.”

Adam almost laughed out loud as he noted a scowl marring Joe’s handsome face in an instant. The expression changed so dramatically and so quickly, it couldn’t be missed. His father joined in as well as they chuckled at the performance.


Being left with no choice but to comply if he wanted any chance of going riding with Adam, Joe waited impatiently for another half and hour. Before long, the three people inside the homestead heard the sound of a horse outside in the yard.

Adam went to the front door and opened it, “The very person that you have been dreading, has arrived to save you from your fate, Joe,” he announced. He watched the doctor climb out from his small buggy, walking towards the house with his small black bag in hand.

“Good afternoon, Paul,” Adam greeted him with a handshake for the second time today. “Joe has been anxiously waiting for you.”

“If Little Joe is waiting for me to come and examine him, then he must be much worse off than you reported to me earlier in town, Adam,” Doc Martin retorted back with a knowing grin. “Thank you for warning me about those ruts on the road here. The wheels of my buggy were in danger of getting stuck on a couple of occasions.”

“Afternoon, Doctor,” Ben said as he stepped up behind his eldest son, and offered a friendly handshake in greeting as well. “Joseph, don’t you have something to say?” he asked, turning his head back towards the settee.

“Your opinion and report will determine if Joe is allowed to leave the inside of this prison this afternoon and go riding with me,” Adam informed Paul.

“Afternoon, Doc Martin,” Joe said politely, but dropping his head in dismay, knowing that soon he would be poked and prodded by the family friend and physician.

“Now that is how I remember Joe greeting me during the last few visits,” Paul said, not offended by the boy’s downcast body language and lack of enthusiasm at his presence. He had many years of practice at treating this young man, and was able to spot when he truly wasn’t feeling well or experiencing pain with some degree of accuracy.

“Adam tells me that you just came from the Wilson farm?” Ben asked, keeping the conversation light as the doctor came into the living room and set his bag down on the coffee table.

“Mrs Wilson is close to having her baby, but I am worried about her having some trouble during the delivery. I may have to make a few trips out there again in the near future,” Paul answered with concern. “For the moment, let me take a look at this young man,” he said focusing on the patient seated in front of him.

“Relax for me Joe, and I promise this will all be over in a few minutes,” Paul spoke gently. He was able to detect some mild apprehension on Joe’s part that wasn’t part of being bored or having to stay inside. “Roll up your sleeve please, I should be able to reach the bandage without you needing to take off your shirt.”

“Place this under your tongue please,” the doctor instructed, holding out a small glass thermometer. He was pleased when the boy didn’t openly object to its presence in his mouth.

Joe nodded his head, but didn’t offer any small talk as he used his left hand to unbutton the cuff and do as the doctor requested. Paul carefully untied the ends of the white bandage, silently watching for any trace of discomfort or pain showing on Joe’s face as he did so. He was half way through unwinding the fabric and the boy had jerked away in pain at least twice, giving a grimace and attempting to turn away.

The doctor used a gentle hand to hold the arm in place a little longer, and push the sleeve a little higher to gain better access to the wounds the bear cub had left behind. “I am sorry Joe, I know this is hurting you.”

Ben and Adam had both seen Joe’s reaction, and saw him briefly squeeze his eyes closed and grimace silently.

“Thankfully, I don’t think there is too much for you to be worried about, Ben,” Paul reported after examining the stitches and taking note of the wound. He took a fresh bandage from his bag and re-wrapped the deep scratches as he spoke. “The wounds still look nasty, but they are nice and clean and there is no sign of infection.”

Paul removed the thermometer and looked at the reading critically, “Your temperature is back to normal, Joe. That is a very good sign of the healing process heading in the right direction.”

“I am sorry if I was over-reacting and called you out here without a valid reason, Doctor,” Ben commented. He was very pleased to hear Paul’s report. “It was quite concerning earlier this morning. Joseph had a headache and acted a little confused when I noticed how high it was.”

“No need to apologize, Ben,” Paul answered. “I don’t doubt that it was higher today than last night. I notice it being slightly raised myself yesterday before I left. I know you worry sometimes, but it is best to be cautious with any wounds made by an animal. Infection can set in and take hold in a very short period of time.”

Paul finished tying the ends of the new bandaged, pulling down Joe’s sleeve, and giving his shoulder a friendly squeeze. “Thank you, Joe, you did very well,” he added in praise.

“Can I go riding with Adam, please?” Joe asked the doctor, with a hopeful look on his face. He had done everything his father had asked of him. Yes his arm was hurting when the doctor was checking it, but he didn’t want to miss out on the chance to go outside because it was bothering him.

Paul looked at Joe for a minute, then up at Ben, before giving his final diagnosis. “I think you should be perfectly alright to return to school tomorrow, Joe. Although I suspect that your arm is still going to sore over the next couple of days. So long as you take care of yourself and avoid playing any rough games, you shouldn’t have any problems. Promise me that you will let your teacher know if it is hurting at any time.”

“I promise,” Joe readily agreed, but he was still holding his breath slightly and waiting to hear about riding today, rather than the rules about returning to school tomorrow.

“In regards to this afternoon,” Doc Martin continued, “I told your father last night, that I don’t want you lifting or carrying anything heavy over that same couple of days. The stitches will give those deep scratches time to start mending, but not if you are using your arm too much. I think you can be released and allowed to join your brother.”

“That really means a lot to me, Doc,” Joe said giving a beaming smile, getting to his feet, and shaking the man’s hand. “Thanks” he added, scurrying up the stairs towards his bedroom.

Ben, Adam and Paul all exchanged smiles at the improvement in Joe’s mood at being told he could go riding.

“Other than his arm, Ben, he is fit as a fiddle,” Paul said in conclusion, packing up his black bag and preparing to leave. “Goodbye, my friends. Let me know if you need me again.”

“Thank you for coming at such short notice, Paul,” Ben gave in genuine honesty. “I really do appreciate it, even if I dragged you out here only to quash my own concerns.”

“You are very welcome,” Paul replied. “I will check on the stitches in a few days, they should be ready to come out in about seven to ten days time. I will probably be travelling back out to the Wilson farm again during that time. Thank you for warning, Adam. Hopefully by the time you make it out there with your men, I will have made it back safely to Virginia City.”


Ben and Adam returned inside after seeing the doctor depart in his buggy in time to see Joe coming back down the stairs and ready to go with Adam out to the barn.

Adam had been putting together a list of tools and equipment he would be needed to put together, as well as speaking to the men about the task. He wanted to depart within the hour if possible.

“I want you to heed the doctor’s advice, Joe, and remember what he said about any heavy lifting,” Ben said, placing his hands on Joe’s shoulders and making sure he had his full attention. “Be careful, please,” he added with a smile, giving the boy a small hug of affection.

“I will, Pa, and listen to what Adam tells me,” Joe affirmed. He accepted that his father wanted to watch over him a little too much at times. Opportunities like the one Adam was offering him didn’t come along very often during a school week. The chance to get out and do things on his horse was going to be great, and something that he didn’t want to miss.

“Make sure that you take your other jacket with you, Joseph,” Ben reminded his son. “The weather is growing cooler by the day in the afternoon, and that breeze may pick up considerably when you are out on that road. I will order you a new sheep-skin jacket next time I visit Mister Perkins store. The season is rapidly changing and snow isn’t that far away.”

“When you get out to the horses, Adam or one of the other men can saddle Cochise for you,” Ben stated. “I know you can do it yourself, but not today,” he added firmly, seeing that his son was about to argue that point.

The first sign of a frown appeared on the boy’s face at the way he was being treated, but he erred on the side of caution about voicing any objections out loud. If he protested too much, his father may revoke any permission he had given. Joe plucked the blue jacket his father had mentioned from the peg behind the wooden door.

“I expect we will be back long before it gets dark and in plenty of time for supper,” Adam told his father as he began directing his brother towards the barn. He was hoping the activity would help stimulate Joe’s appetite at dinner, and he would be hungry enough to eat a little more.

“You can supervise and make sure that I am doing it right,” Adam offered to his brother in compromise as he gathered his hat and gun belt. He grabbed Joe’s smaller, brown hat, and placed it on his head whilst the boy was still talking.

“You don’t do it right, Adam,” Joe complained. “You always do the cinch up too tight, and Cochise doesn’t like it. I have to stop and loosen it for her, before she starts showing me how unhappy she can be.”

The boy was continuing to provide his list of what Adam didn’t do correctly as the two brothers exited the front door. Crossing the yard, they were mindful of trying to avoid the worst patches of sticky, drying mud.


The wagon loaded up with tools and water canteens and some apples, biscuits and sandwiches courtesy of Hop Sing’s kitchen, shuddering its way along the roadway. Three men followed on either side with their horses, another driving the cumbersome buckboard. Seven in total. Joe and Adam followed behind on their own horses.

Once Cochise had been saddled and they had started out, Joe had gone very quiet, not instigating any conversation with his brother as they rode side by side. Adam was watching him carefully enough from beneath the front of his black hat, but couldn’t identify a reason. The boy had shared a few quite words with his mount, and plenty of friendly pats, but nothing else.

“Must be nice to be outside in the sunshine this afternoon, instead of being stuck behind four walls,” Adam commented, waiting to see if he could strike up some casual small talk. When he looked in on Joe this morning, he had promised himself to spend from time with this brother. The way it was happening wasn’t quite the way he had planned out, but would suffice for now.

“It is really nice out here today,” Joe remarked. “Thanks for inviting me to come along, Adam.”

“No problem at all,” Adam replied, but Joe was content enough to be looking about. “Your job out here today is to hand out the tools to the men. And make sure that they bring them back when we are ready to start towards home again.”

A few of the men in the group could be heard snickering together at the length of the leash that Adam placed around his brother in the way of restrictions. But one decisive and disapproving look from Adam had them falling silent. He had known these men for a number of years, and didn’t suspect any of them were responsible for taunting Joe when he was on his own. They were running out of time and had no time for any shenanigans.

To his credit, Joe had nodded his head at Adam’s instructions, and merely pulled his hat down over his ears, ignoring the men as best he could. On a different day, he might have said something back at them, but this afternoon he couldn’t be bothered. Instead he quickened his horse’s pace around the wagon and away from them.

Adam was proud to see that his brother didn’t rise to the bait, and pleased to see a little maturity guiding his reaction.

Ten miles from the Ponderosa homestead, the wagon was pulled up underneath a thicket of shady trees. They followed on for quite some distance, and it was the perfect place to rest the horses whilst the hard labour part of the roadwork was carried out. Shovels and a lot of bending over at the waist were needed to compact the places where the ruts were deepest.

Two and a half hours the men worked, with only one short break to take a drink from the canteens. Joe had eaten two apples, and handed out the other treats to the men. Refilling the canteens would have to wait until he could use the water back at the house. There wasn’t any stream running through this section of road.

Although the work was hard, Adam was pleased with the men and the amount of work that had been achieved in that short time. Surveying the section they had completed, he may need to ride further towards town tomorrow and identify any other bad patches.

Joe had carried out his task as his brother had requested. There was one shovel left and he had started working on one of the smaller areas of road. Adam had seen him put the shovel down and discreetly begin rubbing at his sore right arm after only a few minutes. He walked over to the boy and placed a firm but gentle hand around his upper good arm, and lead him back to the wagon, emphasising him to stay put.

“What did we discuss, little brother?” Adam warned. “Couldn’t help it could you, just had to test out the limitations I set, didn’t you?” he asked with annoyance. The task probably wasn’t the most glamorous job to be handed out. He was trying to keep the doctor’s words in the back of his mind, and give Joe something to do where he could feel like he was helping.

Joe had provided him with a suitably chastised expression, “Yeah, I suppose I did,” he answered dropping his head down, not wanting his brother to berate him like a five year old in front of the other men. To be fair though, that was probably what he deserved. “I am sorry. I wasn’t thinking about the consequences,” said in genuine apology.

If word got back to Pa, he could expect to be on the receiving end of a lecture, laced with disappointment that he had already tried to push the boundaries. Some other form of punishment could have been headed his way with more even time being spent inside.

“Apology accepted. For now, I am willing to keep your disregard of my instructions between you and me,” Adam offered in negotiation. “In return, I expect you to do as you are told until we return home. Understand? We are supposed to be working together, Joe, not against each other. That is what you asked of me six months ago, remember.”

“I do remember, and want us to do that, Adam. I promise,” Joe said with conviction.

Over the past twelve months, Joe and Adam had their fair share of differences of opinion. Their tempers and unwillingness to compromise for each others feelings and point-of-views had boiled over. Spiteful words had been exchanged in the heat of the moment that couldn’t be taken back. Insults had been shouted in hostility and out of anger that couldn’t be unsaid.

Both of them had made an unbreakable pact and agreed to act more like brothers to each other. That bond was unique and special and wasn’t just because they shared the same last name and a father. They were not acquaintances, bitter rivals or strangers passing in the street.

Joe knew that Adam had taught him a lot of new things during that time, and he was grateful. The best skills he had learned were intangible, and couldn’t be bought or paid for with money, silver or gold. They were family, and that had to count for something that couldn’t be measured.

Adam could admit to Joe reminding him of some important lessons as well, and he was thankful. The things that really mattered in life could slip and easily fall through your fingers with an unkind or hurtful word. Their relationship could be shattered beyond the ability of ever getting it back or having the chance to make amends.

Adam looped an arm around his brother’s shoulders. “Come on then, let’s get this wagon loaded back up with the tools and head home to supper.”


That evening, the family settled around the table to a generous supper from Hop Sing, complete with apple pie for dessert. He had managed to save enough pastry and filling from falling to the floor to make two large pies. The top of the pastry was golden and crisp. Hoss could smell them in the kitchen the whole time he had been eating his main meal.

The topic of conversation changed a number of times, as Hoss shared his triumphs and misfortunes with mud and fences. Adam gave his father a detailed report on the roadwork repair from the men. He made mention of having to travel further on the road tomorrow to check more areas. Ben had told Hoss about the doctor’s visit and his decision about Joe returning to school tomorrow.

Ben and Adam both exchanged glances across the dining room table with the lack of chatter coming from Joe. The boy had been noticeably quiet and his lack of interest had definitely drawn a raised eyebrow of curiosity.

Adam told Ben that the road was now safe enough for Joe to travel on for school in the morning. In addition to those remarks, he also suggested that it might be a good idea if somebody rode with him as a precaution.

Hoss had expected to see his youngest brother’s temper flair at the very idea of someone needing to ride with him. A journey he had taken back and forth to school on his own on many occasions. A small amount of independence that had been hard fought and won from his father at the beginning of the school year.

Much to the surprise of everyone seated at the table, only a token comment was made, with virtually no emotion involved.

“I will be fine, Pa,” Joe simple stated rather than giving a sustained and vocal objection. “I don’t need anybody to come with me.” He then proceeded to move the food on his plate around some more.

Watching on for another few minutes, Ben could no longer hold back and wanted to address what was unfolding before him, “Joseph, are you going to continue to play with your food or are you going to eat some, please?”

Joe looked up at his father, and then over at each of his brothers in turn, before glancing down at the plate again. He laid the cutlery together, “No, I guess I am not. May I be excused, Pa?” and got up from the table and walked over to the settee before receiving an answer.

Ben waited for Adam and Hoss to provide an explanation, but received only a shrug of the shoulders from one, and a confused expression from the other. They didn’t have a reason to offer for Joe’s mood. Adam had only been talking fifteen minutes earlier about how his brother had enjoyed being outside riding on Cochise that afternoon.

“I think your brother can be trusted enough to be sensible and ride on his own in the morning, son,” Ben proclaimed. He wasn’t sure if Joe had heard his response to Adam’s suggestion.

What he hadn’t told any of his son’s yet was that he was planning on accompanying Joe, and ensuring that he rode home safely in the afternoon. There were a number of business errands that needed his personal attention, and he planned to be in Virginia City until well after lunch.

After supper, Hoss offered to play three rounds of checkers with his brother. He had enjoyed the apple pie immensely. Hop Sing had offered a keep a slice for Joe when he was ready to eat it. Adam and his father were enjoying a small brandy in front of the fireplace and talking quietly to each other.

Half way through the first game, Hoss had been the first one to notice that Joe wasn’t playing with any enthusiasm. He was barely watching the movements on the board.

With a smirk upon his face, the large man watched as Joe’s eyelids slowly closed to half-mast and then open again. The boy was sitting up, but his posture was beginning to sag and relax.

Now they had half a reason for his pliant etiquette at the dinner table. And probably why he hadn’t felt like eating very much. The short nap before lunch had not bolstered or done much to sustain his energy levels. The ride in the afternoon had used up the last of his reserves that he had been surviving on for the majority of the day. Joe was tired.

“Hey, Pa, take a look,” Hoss quietly, waiting for his father to turn in his chair and take notice of Little Joe for himself. His brother wasn’t going to make it to the end of one game, let alone three.

“Somebody is fading fast,” Adam whispered as he watched his brother fight to the very end with steadfast tenacity. How many times had they all seen that before? Countless would a close estimate. The current time was much earlier than other school nights.

Tonight, the normal battle of wills between father and son over going to bed didn’t look like it would eventuate. On previous nights, Joe would grumble and glance over at the grandfather clock and point out that it was half an hour earlier than the last time. A quick look at this father’s stern, determined face and the boy knew better than to continue challenging his authority.

Ben got up from his blue arm chair, and walked over to the end of settee that his son was currently occupying. The eyelids drooped again as he watched, and was followed by an expansive yawn. As Joe used his hand to cover his mouth, he noted his father standing beside him.

“Hi, Pa,” he said, giving a small smile.

Returning the smile, and resting a hand on his shoulder, “Joe, I think you should be thinking about heading up to bed,” Ben suggested. “You had a very early start and a long day tomorrow.”

For a brief moment, old habits tried to surface, and the words of protest formed on his lips. But they disappeared just as quickly, as Joe took stock of how much his arm was hurting and how sluggish he honestly felt. He wasn’t about to admit to either out loud.

Joe nodded his head, “Sorry, Hoss, I will finish the game with you another time.” He stood up and stretched, trying to loosen the muscles across his shoulders.

“No problem, short shanks, there will be plenty of other nights to follow,” Hoss replied.

The family were unaware how much the hand of fate would step in and change all their lives. Quite some time would pass by, before the two brothers would be able to enjoy a simple game of checkers.

“Good Night, Pa,” Joe said tiredly, rubbing at his face. That only accentuated his fatigue even more.

“Sleep well, son, and pleasant dreams,” Ben replied.

Joe crossed the wooden floor, but then held onto the bannister as he turned and bid goodnight to both older brothers. Adam and Hoss returned the sentiments and watched as he ascended the staircase.

Several hours later, Ben was ready to retire to his own bed for the night. Hoss had already headed upstairs an hour ago. Adam was still downstairs, quietly reading by the fireplace. Before going to his own room to rest for the night, he wanted to make one final check on Joe first.

Quietly entering the room, he was pleased to see that Joe had taken the time to change into sleeping attire tonight. Tonight the covers were undisturbed and mostly in place. Joe’s slumber must been deep enough to prevent him tossing and turning too much in the bed. The lamp on the bedside table was burning very low. The dim light bathing Joe’s peaceful face in a soft, warm hue.

Ben couldn’t help but feel a lump rise in his throat as he watched his youngest son sleep. There were times such as this, when the words to express how much he loved the boy just wouldn’t come. He gently stroked the smooth skin on the boy’s cheek before extinguishing the flame of the lamp and then closing the door as he left the room.


The next morning was Thursday, and Hoss found himself falling back into a familiar routine; needing to wake Joe so that he could get ready in time for school. Ben was also hoping that his son would eat some breakfast today before leaving. Joe had not eaten a whole lot for supper. Hop Sing would send along a good lunch, but there was no guarantee that he would eat at school either.

Hoss came back down the stairs a lot quicker this morning, and saw the curious expression on the faces at the table. There had been no raised voices or shouting coming from Joe about having to get up early.

“Joe says won’t be long, Pa,” Hoss reported. “Woke up in a better mood today too,” he added, thankful that he hadn’t needed to strong-arm his brother into doing what was required.

“That is good news to hear, Hoss,” Ben commented, and then picked up his cup of coffee. Today may actually turn out to be a good and productive day for them all.

While the three men shared breakfast around the table, Adam brought up a fresh topic of discussion while they waited for Joe to make an appearance.

“I could be mistaken, but I thought there were a few unusual noises outside last night,” Adam remarked. “When the sky is still too dark for anything but shadows. Less than half an hour before dawn and it sounded like though it was coming from the barn. I couldn’t see any lights and there was no further disturbance afterwards that woke me up again.”

Ben put down his cup, and had a puzzled look on his face as he listened. “I got up and checked the yard from my own window as well,” he confirmed. “The horses in the barn were quiet from what I could hear, and they usually alert us if something is out of order. Charlie hasn’t come to tell me the hands heard anything from the bunk house.”

“I didn’t hear a peep from anything all night,” Hoss said, before taking another mouthful of food.

“How could you possibly hear anything last night over that breathing that can only ever be describe as snoring, Hoss?” Adam countered.

“I am afraid Adam is right there, son,” Ben added. “I wish you wouldn’t sleep on your back quite so much. There have been a few nights where I have tried to roll you over to help the rest of the household get some decent sleep. Luckily you didn’t wake your younger brother.”

The sound of footsteps on the stairs had them looking up and smiling as that very person in question made his way down to the table.

“Good morning, Joseph,” Ben said cheerfully. His son was fully dressed, with his shirt tucked in neatly, and already wearing his boots. A comb had been used on his hair, and from all angles, he appeared ready for school and was carrying his small bundle of books. They would be placed in his saddle bags just before he mounted Cochise.

“Good morning, Pa and brothers,” Joe answered politely. His greeting lacked any real enthusiasm, but he didn’t look troubled or concerned about anything from the expression on his face. The books were set aside on the end of the credenza so he wouldn’t forget them.

“I suspect you will be pleased to be at school today,” Adam said after exchanging morning pleasantries. “How is your arm feeling this morning?”

“Stiff like yesterday, and hurts when I move it too much,” Joe answered truthfully. “A good thing that I write with my left hand. I will be careful like the doctor said. I don’t want anything knocking against it and causing the stitches to bleed.”

“Hop Sing made extra for you today, Joe,” Hoss proclaimed. In truth, he had been spotted trying to take a small portion of his brother’s ample breakfast. His large hand had been smacked away with the back of a metal spoon by the diminutive cook.

Joe walked to the doorway of the kitchen, “Hop Sing, did you pack a lunch for me today?”

Hop Sing came into the dining room, handing him a small paper pouch, “Joe eat good today.”

“Thank you,” he said, accepting the bag. “Pa, I won’t have time for breakfast this morning. I am going to be late if I don’t leave very soon.”

“Joe, I really don’t like you leaving in a rush like this in the morning, and heading off to school without anything in your stomach,” Ben commented with concern. “There are a few hours yet before you will even get the chance to eat.”

At the dining room table, a friendly tussle had ensued between Hoss and Hop Sing over claiming Joe’s uneaten breakfast. The larger man was determined that food wasn’t going to waste. And the chef was making sure that Hoss wouldn’t steal a single extra morsel.

Adam watched in silence, not wanting to get involved, but used the cup in his hand to hide his mirth at the dispute.

In the end, it was Joe who had inadvertently ended the war, “Hop Sing, let Hoss have it if he wants. I don’t mind.”

“Bless you little brother,” Hoss declared, and was quickly munching away on the spoils. There hadn’t been much on Joe’s plate for him in the first place, Hoss justified.

Hop Sing had relented at Joe’s request, but saved his best scowl for Hoss before he stomped back into the kitchen.

“Sorry I didn’t mean to take so long getting ready upstairs. I will eat today,” Joe promised his father. “I have to ask Charlie to saddle Cochise for me yet when I get out to the barn.”

Ben was pleased to hear that Joe remembered about getting someone else to lift his saddle, but not entirely happy about him riding out without eating first. Looking at the time though, Joe was probably right. The ride into Virginia City may be slower this morning due to the road.

Miss Summers may be willing to accept a good reason for lateness, but Miss Jones would not. The family would be right back where they were before yesterday, with Joe getting berated by the headmistress and losing interest in attending school.

Standing at the front door, he handed his son the blue jacket. “Ride carefully today, Joseph, and I will see you this afternoon.”

Joe picked up his hat and looked back over his shoulder as he stood on the verandah “Bye Pa,” he said, waving and giving a warm smile.

……and like the checker game, neither of them could have predicted what was about to come next.


“Morning, Charlie,” Joe said as he entered the barn, but his face lit up with a grin as the foreman led his freshly saddled horse over to him.

“Thought you could be needin’ her this morning, Joe,” Charlie returned with a friendly smirk. “She has been waiting for you to come out from the house. Would barely stand still long enough for me to saddle her.”

Joe tucked the bag of lunch from Hop Sing into the right saddlebag and after buckling up the strap, accepted the reins from the foreman.

“Thank you,” he said and mounted. “I will need to give her a good brushing when I get back from school this afternoon.”

The boy was about to encourage his horse to move forward, when a voice called out to him at the last minute.

“You forgot these, Joe,” Adam said, handing over the bundle of books that Joe had left behind inside the house.

“I put them there so I wouldn’t forget them,” Joe said sheepishly with a laugh, as Adam slipped them into the left-hand saddlebag.

“Hoss and I should be both working around here in the yard when you get back later this afternoon,” Adam told him. “Please be careful on that road, you saw some of the rough spots for yourself.”

“Thanks, I will be,” echoed back as Joe gave a wave in acknowledgement before riding out of the barn towards Virginia City.

Adam watched until he could no longer see his brother. He returned to the house to finish his morning routine. There was plenty on the agenda for them all to do today.


The sunshine on Joe’s back was warm, with a gentle breeze blowing away from his face. The collar of his jacket flapped about, but the hat on top of his head stayed securely in place. For whatever unknown reason, he heeded the warning from Adam and the promise he had made to his father about riding a little more carefully along the road.

At the halfway point between the Ponderosa and Virginia City, the road curved around a little wider. The thicket of trees that the horses had rested beneath yesterday afternoon, continued even this far out.

Butch Thomas had settled himself in a secluded spot behind one of the larger trees. Robert Pierce was standing behind another larger bank of trees. He would lie in wait and make his move in with the ambush, when the signal was made. Danny Griffiths had been given the task of being the bait for the young Cartwright boy.

After he had sobered up from last night’s heavy drinking session, any apprehensions Frank Richards had about his involvement in Thomas’ plan had evaporated at the mention of money. If something was going to happen to the youngest Cartwright, then he wanted his fair share of the booty. He had provided Thomas enough clues about the movements of the family at the ranch on a typical morning.

The kid might be nice enough, Richards reminded himself. But living with those other Cartwright’s, there was no doubt in his mind that it wouldn’t belong before that would change. Sooner or later, the boy would be looking down his nose at other people, just like he had seen his father and brothers do. Frank came around to Butch’s way of thinking and saw the benefits of using young Joe to teach the other family members a harsh lesson.

When asked a few months later, Joe wouldn’t be able to provide a satisfactory answer to the question about why he hadn’t raced to school on his horse. There were a lot of things about that day which would remain in his memory for a long time to come. There were a few details about that particular morning that he would never forget.

Cochise reacted to the smell of another horse in the vicinity, and returned a greeting of her own.

Approaching the bend in the road, Joe slowed his horse down to a walk, “Where are they Cooch? he asked, looking around and expecting to see a horse somewhere. He pushed the front of his brown hat back a little and scratched his forehead with confusion. Twisting and turning, but remaining seated in the saddle.

There was nothing. Joe started thinking that he was hearing things that were not really there, but Cochise gave another whinny at the unseen horse. He may have been losing his marbles, but he had endless faith in his best friend. Her sense of smell was much better than his own and he trusted her judgment.

Urging Cochise to increase her speed again, they hadn’t travelled much further when Joe came upon a peculiar site in the middle of the roadway. “Stop here,” Joe uttered softly to the horse, carding a gentle hand through her mane. The horse did stop, but he could feel her legs moving around with nervousness. A man was laying in the middle of the road.

Who he was, Joe didn’t know. Looking around at the trees in all directions again, he was trying to find signs of the man’s horse. The mount that belonged to this person could be the one Cochise had been reacting to. However, there was no sign of another horse, mule or animal of any kind. Maybe the man had accidentally fallen off or been thrown and was injured? From this distance, it wasn’t so easy to tell. The man wasn’t moving at all.

Should he head towards Virginia City and find the doctor? Or should he race back to the Ponderosa and get his father or one of his brother to bring a wagon out here? Maybe the first thing to do before any of that was to find out how badly he was hurt. He wasn’t the kind of person who rode away and wouldn’t offer any help; leave someone laying there if they were still alive.

Over in the thicket of trees, the two figures of Thomas and Richards watched the dark-haired young man stop his horse and dismount. They could see the boy craning his neck, trying to see if the unfortunate soul on the road was moving yet or not. Whether he sensed something being out of place, they couldn’t be sure. Even if that was the case, it was too late to stop the plan being put into full swing now.


Joe released the reins of his horse, motioning with his hand on her nose to stay where she was. Walking the short distance, he kept his eyes on the man, trying to listen for any sound. Little Joe wasn’t quite sure what his reaction would be if the man was already dead.

“Hey mister, are you alright?” he asked, bending down and placing his hand on the man’s shoulder. He was startled and found himself falling backwards when the man did move. His eyes were drawn to the menacing barrel of a pistol as Danny Griffiths’ rolled over and pulled himself up into a seated position.

“I am just fine, thanks for asking,” came the reply. The man wasn’t hurt or dead. This was all some kind of trick to get somebody to stop. Unfortunately Joe had come along and found that he was that ‘somebody’ without knowing that he was the intended target. He didn’t have any money on him, and he wasn’t carrying anything of significant value.

For a split second, Joe thought he recognized the man, but he couldn’t remember where or when. He didn’t have time to stop and think about the answer at the moment.

Joe had no gun with him or any other way of defending himself, except his fists, and he didn’t know if he could deliver a hard enough punch to the man that would aid in his escape. His injured right arm was hurting after he extended both hands as he crashed awkwardly to the ground.

Keeping his eyes fixated nervously on the gun pointed at him, he made an effort to talk his way out of the predicament he found himself embroiled in. Maybe he could buy himself time if nothing else. “Look, I just stopped to make sure you weren’t injured or sick. I don’t want any trouble.”

“Don’t seem like this is your lucky day,” Griffiths stated, smirking with a cruel grin, pulling himself up into a standing position, whilst pointing the gun at Joe. He used the fingers on his opposite hand to let out a loud whistle. Joe turned his head, and was alarmed to see two much larger men, emerging from behind the trees and making their towards him.

Frank Richards was set up as the look out to make sure their activities went unnoticed, and came into view as a fourth man. He was still mounted on a horse.

The adrenaline in Joe’s muscles began firing, and his mind was shouting at him to run. He didn’t know who any of these men were or what they wanted. With a gun being waved in his direction, he doubted they wanted to make friends or share the sugar cookies in his lunch bag. The two men were exiting the tree line, and first man holding the gun was distracted momentarily, watching them approach.

Quickly scrambling to his feet, Joe started to take off at a fast run in the opposite direction. His goal was to make it back to Cochise. Mounting his horse, he could be far enough away from these unknown assailants within a matter of seconds.

“Griffiths, you idiot, he is trying to make a run for it. Stop him!” Butch growled with anger. The task he had assigned had been so simple. Lay there and then hold onto the kid there until he and Pierce came out from the trees.

Thomas and Pierce saw the boy trying to make a run for his horse and immediately split up and pursued him. They couldn’t afford for him to get away now.

This far away from home or Virginia City, Joe knew the chance for any of his shouts for help being heard were slim, but he had to try something. Maybe someone else would come along the road towards the ranch and he would be able to gain their assistance.

“Keep away from me. Leave me alone!” Joe shouted in panic, as he tried to quicken his pace. “Somebody help me, please!”

Due to the state of the road, an unseen rock would be his downfall, as he tripped and lost his footing, allowing the three men chasing him to quickly catch up. Joe landed painfully on his knees, and the fabric of his tan trousers was torn open. The skinned knees were stinging, but he tried to get back on his feet again in desperation. Two pairs of rough hands grabbed him from behind, lifting him up and dragging him backwards away from his horse.

“No! Please help! Let me go!” he screamed out a second time, this time louder.

Robert Pierce cut off the boy’s pleas for help, placing his calloused hand over the boy’s mouth and clamping down tightly. The kid was fighting against them as hard as he could. Joe was yelling through the hand as best he could, but his throat was too dry and his cries were being muffled and choked off.

“Danny, do something useful. Don’t just stand there!” Pierce yelled out gruffly. “He don’t weigh next to nothing, but I only have one hand free to move him, while I keep him quiet. We need to get him off this roadway and out of sight behind those trees before someone comes along and sees.”

Once satisfied that the two men were holding the boy in their hands, Thomas walked further towards Cochise, snatching her reins and leading the horse to the tree line. Like her owner, the pinto was shying away from the unfamiliar rough handling and being difficult as well.

Joe continued to struggle against his attackers, kicking and fighting, trying to get free of their grip. His right arm felt like it as on fire, but he doubled his efforts. The two men were too strong and no matter how hard he fought, their hold around his chest tightened like a vice. The hand over his mouth remained firmly in place and Joe was having to draw enough air through his nose into his starving lungs.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cochise giving one of the men a difficult time in tethering her reins to a low branch. Even though he hadn’t been able to make it back to her, his horse was much stronger. Maybe she could find a way to break free and his animal friend could find a way to help him.

Little Joe felt himself being slammed roughly against the trunk of a large tree, and a glancing blow to the temple, knocked his hat off onto the ground. His throat was burning, and his voice was becoming raspy. He didn’t know if he could shout any louder, but tried one more time.

“Shut him up,” Butch ordered bluntly, as he started to get impatient with the stubborn horse.

With Pierce still keeping the boy quiet and holding him against the tree trunk, Griffiths untied the bandana around his neck. He made sure that the boy was watching as he held it out tautly between his hands. There was no way of mistaking what his intentions were. Joe swallowed the lump of fear lodged at the base of his throat.

Danny nodded curtly to Pierce, signaling for him to remove his hand briefly. Joe didn’t waste the opportunity, and as soon as the hand released from around his mouth, he drew in deep breath. He started to scream for help again, but was quickly silenced by a savage slap across his face that was brutal and stung from the ferocity.

The voice that spoke to him was cold and hard. The man deliberately blew a mouth full of smoke directly into Joe’s face. The smell was nauseating. He tried to turn his head away, but Pierce grabbed a hand full of his curly hair, and forced him to face forward.

Joe looked up at the face that loomed in front of him, feeling tears welling up in his eyes, but gritted his teeth and refused to let them fall.

“You will receive much worse than that, if you scream again,” the man promised. His voice was low and dangerous as he spoke, and something about it made Joe shudder inside and take note of what was being said to him.

“Open your mouth, you little bastard,” Griffiths shouted. Pierce yanked on the kid’s hair again, causing him to cry out.

Danny pounced and shoved the wad of fabric roughly into his mouth. He pulled his head to the side and knotted the ends behind his head to secure. The makeshift gag was very tight and the fabric was digging into the soft corners of his mouth. The cords of his neck were straining as Joe attempted to move and twist his head, groaning at the pain, but he was ignored as the discomfort continued to grow.

“Nobody will be able to hear you now, kid,” Danny taunted, as he pulled out a length of course rope. “Now to make sure you can’t run away anymore.”

Joe could feel the rope being looped around his ankles. The man tying him up was right. There was no way he could run anywhere. He was trapped.


Pierce was growing a little uncomfortable with the length of time this was taking, and the disorganisation. Someone could come along here any minute, whether the boy was bound and gagged or not. Whether Richards was watching as look out or not.

“How are we gonna get him away from here now, Thomas?” he asked. “This wasn’t very smooth at all. We have to ride out of here.”

Thomas turned away from his captive and faced his accomplice, “You just leave the thinking to me. I already have this all figured out. It was Griffiths there that stuffed up, but it won’t matter none now anyway.”

“I agree, we do have to get out of here quickly. You two make sure that the horses are saddled and ready to go as soon as I give the word to leave,” he instructed. “Somebody might come along here, but we will be long gone before that happens. There are a few things that need to be taken care of first.”

Butch made sure that he was looking at Joe when he made his next statement, “Young Mister Cartwright here isn’t going nowhere, unless I say so,” he added ominously.

Joe heard the man address him by his family name. These men were strangers to him, but somehow they knew his name. What other things did they know about him? What were they wanting with him? Was the rest of his family at risk of being hurt? He had no way of warning them.

“Remove your jacket,” Thomas demanded.

Joe didn’t understand what the man wanted it for and gave a puzzled expression in return.

Thomas reached down in to his boot, and slowly dragged out a small doubled-sided blade. He made sure that Joe was watching his every move, and understood that the threat of using the knife was real enough. “You either take it off, or I will cut it from your body, myself. Your choice!”

Pierce released his grip enough to move, and Joe used a trembling arm to start sliding his arm out of the sleeve of his jacket. He knew he had no choice, but he didn’t understand why they were confiscating it. He took a little more time with his right arm, and it was almost out when Thomas grew impatient and tore it down his arm. Three sets of eyes were drawn to the white bandage encircling the boy’s arm.

“Well, what do we have here,” Thomas said with a chuckle, running the tip of the blade over the white fabric in torment. “This must be the claw marks that your brother was talking to that quack of a doctor about in Virginia City.”

Joe’s expression said it all. How did this man know about his arm being injured in that fashion, and about Doctor Martin. And most of all, about Adam. He didn’t want these men threatening his family and friends too.

Thomas could see the the curious looks from Pierce and Griffiths as well, and decided to elaborate a little more. “Oh yes, we are in the company of a lad here who took on a bear, and won. He got away with this as a souvenir.” The man had omitted further details about the bear being a cub. The smaller claws had done enough damage.

Butch used the sharp blade to slice through the linen bandage, revealing the neat rows of stitches. Joe had squeezed his eyes closed as he felt the metal against his skin. He was fearful that the man would cut open the new stitches themselves. The bandage fell to the ground, but was already stained with dried blood.

The breeze blowing beneath the trees was now gusty, and had dropped the temperature outside by a few degrees. Joe felt his body shiver involuntarily, but the change in weather wasn’t the only cause. These men that were holding him were ruthless and would use any method to achieve their wicked intentions.

The two men could see that Thomas was taunting the boy and driving his obedience by using fear and intimidation. “We will have to be on our toes now,” Griffiths said with a laugh.

Although Joe was scared about his fate with these men, his anger began to surface at his forced captivity. His body was hurting, and he was trussed up with no way of escaping. He stared back at Thomas with defiance in his green eyes.

Butch watched the sudden change with interest. The boy had shown fear, but now he was attempting to challenge his authority. “Well now, do I see a spark of rebellion?”

Thomas stared intently back, “You listen and heed me well boy,” he said with a foreboding tone. “I can see the questions that you want to ask written across your face. Who we are and what he are going to do with you.”

“Don’t ask too many questions, and you might live through this. You will get told what I want you to know, no more, no less,” he gave in explanation. “For now we want your Pa and brothers to sit up and take note. After they do what we tell them to do, you might be allowed to return to them.”

Somehow the words sounded very disingenuous to Joe, as he looked at the features of his captors worn faces. They hardly looked like the type of men who kept their word to anyone.

The sunlight caught the edge of the blade that Thomas was still holding. “Hold out his right arm.”

Joe fought against Pierce again and tried to keep his arm tucked into his side, but a swift punch to his unprotected stomach, made him gasp out loud and bend over at the waist. Pierce was able to extend his arm out in front of him, and use the bulk of his weight to push Joe back more against the trunk of the tree.

“You may feel this just a touch,” Butch warned with a cruel laugh. Using the tip of the sharp knife, he started at the inside of Joe’s elbow, and dragged the edge along the soft underside of his arm. Joe shrieked and wreathed in pain through the gag with fresh tears welling in his eyes and then running down his face. The cut was shallow enough that it wouldn’t require stitching, but it had definitely hurt a lot. Blood was welling along the length of the wound. A few droplets had fallen off his arm onto the leaves scattered at the base of the tree and their feet.

Pierce had strengthened his grip around the boy’s waist, feeling his knees begin to weaken. The boy had clenched his teeth and was using all of his energy reserves to fight against the onslaught of light-headedness.

Joe was only able to take in part of the conversation from Butch about the reason behind cutting his arm, and taking his jacket. “You see, I need to prove to your family that you are still alive,” he commented casually, taking the blue jacket and proceeding to run it across the fresh blood, allowing it to soak into the fabric. “Proof of life I think they have called it in other places.”

“There, that will do nicely,” Thomas declared, holding the jacket up to see that the front had been sufficiently stained red in a number of places. “I have to provide the right incentive for your family to do what they are told.”

Thomas now agreed that they had stayed in the one place far too long, and they needed to complete the final part of their plan for leaving. He looked at the boy, and could see that he was much more docile and pliant. The knife wound and jacket stunt may have been a little over the top, but it was mostly for show. Not only would it make the boy comply, it would ensure that the Cartwright family, all of them understood that he meant business.

“Now my little friend, it is time for you to go to sleep for a while,” Thomas declared, pulling out a brown bottle and a coloured handkerchief from his pocket. “And when you

wake up, you will be in a nice new place far away from here. Now hold still a minute, because this stuff doesn’t always work instantly and takes a minute to take effect.”

As soon as the cap had been removed from the bottle and the cloth had been soaked liberally in the liquid, the pungent smell was unmistakeable. Ether

Even though Joe was only fifteen years old, he had learnt enough from Doc Martin over the years to know what the stuff was used for on people. And he knew what the outcome would be for him. Little Joe became even more afraid for his life and started to struggle against his captors again.

Joe gave one final burst of energy that he could muster to fight with and use to get away. Using both bound feet, he kicked out awkwardly at an unsuspecting Griffiths. His efforts were rewarded when Danny howled out loudly with discomfort and anger. The attacker reached down, grabbing at his foot where the boy’s feet had made contact.

Griffiths was clearly very unhappy, and riled enough to want to extract an immediate chunk of pain and retribution from his younger assailant.

Thomas had let go a laugh at the boy’s brazenness. “Don’t worry about that now, you can get your payback against him later. He got you fair and square. Gather up his hat from down there, and take this jacket over to his horse.”

Turning back to Joe, “You have some grit about you boy, but for now that won’t do you any good,” he chuckled as he slowly started descending the cloth towards his face.

Joe tried to turn his head in the opposite direction, away from the cloth in and attempt to avoid the intoxicating fumes. Pierce grabbed another handful of Joe’s curly hair forcibly, and pushed his face closer. He could hear the three men laughing with relish at his plight and misery.

Despite the gag still being in position, Thomas held the cloth over Little Joe’s mouth and nose. He bucked his hips and upper body forward, but he had no strength left to give, and his efforts to resist were futile. His groans of pain and cries for help were muffled and barely audible for anybody to hear him.

For a few seconds, Joe had tried holding his breath, but with only being able to breathe through his nose, his attempts failed. He was forced to released the air in his burning lungs and the sweet smelling aroma began invading his nostrils and sinuses. Joe could feel his head starting to swim very badly and he was feeling dizzy and light-headed. He was trying to keep a coherent thought and tell himself that he couldn’t afford to fall asleep in the hands of these men. They were going to take him away from his home and family.

Thomas became impatient with the length of time that the stuff was taking to work and pressed the cloth even firmer against the boy’s mouth and nose. It wasn’t much longer that Pierce began to feel the kid’s desperate struggles become weaker and weaker. Another few moments and they ceased entirely and he felt Joe’s knees buckle and his body go completely limp. He had to adjust his hold around the boy’s waist to prevent him collapsing to the ground.

Joe was now unconscious and totally unaware of what was happening to him. Butch held the cloth in place for another minute before removing it. From previous usage, he knew that the liquid was potent, but it only worked for relatively short periods of time. Recapping the bottle and placing it back in his pocket, he folded the cloth over. He tucked it in the same pocket, wanting to prevent and minimise any risk of being overcome by the fumes. It may be necessary to dose the kid again before they reached their final destination.

Once he had sobered up enough, Richards told them about a line shack he had learned about on Ponderosa land from living with the other hands in the bunkhouse. One that was located further out than the others but was usually kept well stocked up during winter. They could go there, some distance away and the Cartwright family wouldn’t think to look for the missing boy there. They would be able to keep him there as a prisoner until the bid for the timber contract had been withdrawn. After that, the boy wouldn’t be released until a substantial amount of ransom money had been delivered into their hands.

The ride to the shack from the road they were on was about four hours and Thomas had no idea how long the boy would be asleep. The boy’s eyes were closed and his face had slackened, but he slapped Joe across the side of his face with an open hand twice to ensure he was unconscious.

Joe was deeply under the effects and didn’t make a sound or stir at the slaps. Butch removed the bandana from around his own neck, and tied it securely over Joe’s eyes as a blindfold.

“Get a piece of string and start tying his hands together,” Thomas instructed Griffiths. “Then drag him over towards the front of my horse.”

Joe never felt his wrists being held tightly and bound with tough fibrous string in front of him. The man failed to notice the discarded and blood stained bandage that had landed at the base of the tree.

Together, Pierce and Griffiths carried the limp figure between them over to a large grey mount. Thomas was seated astride his horse, and the two men tied the boy face down in front of him. He would be able to detect if the boy was waking up or trying to get loose at any stage of the journey. A blanket was placed over the top of Joe and there was no possibility of him being seen by anybody.

“Make sure that you attach that ransom note I prepared onto his saddle so there is no chance of being lost to the breeze. Leave the hat and the jacket where they won’t be missed.”

Pierce was mounted and ready to leave whilst Griffiths carried out the final instructions. The rolled up piece of paper was tucked underneath the front of the saddle, where it couldn’t be shaken loose by the horse.

Cochise made a noise of displeasure, not liking the stranger being so close to her again. Looking at the nice leather saddle bags, Danny made a last minute decision to pilfer them for himself as a souvenir. Griffiths detached them and they were quickly removed from the horse. Chances were in his favour, and the boy wasn’t going to be needing them again anyway.

Frank Richards rejoined the others as they rode out from beneath the thicket of trees. Four men rode with speed down a different trail with their hostage, further and further away from the Ponderosa.

To be continued ……….

Author Notes – There are some clues in this chapter for other stories and plots. The scene where Adam is talking about six months ago and the words exchanged between Joe and Adam is a future story called Splintered.

The scenes mentioning Dan Toliver, are hinting at the rewrite of the episode “A Time To Step Down” that I intend to do a what happened instead story for “A Time To Step Up” that I intend set somewhat earlier than the original episode.

The mention of Joe’s ability to draw is something that I have created for stories before this one, and will come up again in those. It is one of the new arcs that I wanted to introduce, but there is more to be explained yet in detail. Some of that will happen in Dead Man’s Canyon. And the reasons why they are now stored in a wardrobe will be explained further in a future story Koda

The dime store novel thought from Ben, is a nod to the episode Joe Cartwright, Detective where I wanted to explore where his like of such reading material began. Another story to come in the future.

A new chapter for River Boat Gambler has already been started and progressing nicely. Hoping to update that soon.

Thank you for reading and I would love to hear what you think about the new additions.

Need to go back under the ocean now and complete the next chapter for that fandom and a few others.


Chapter Four – Trees And Elves



Author Notes – This story was begun a very long time ago, and it was never my intentions to leave it unfinished. This first was first published in 2003. I have twelve (12) chapters written – but want to add more to them and edit where necessary.

I will be going back through and editing a few scenes and adding to a few and fixing errors, now that I hopefully understand the Middle Earth world a little better since I first began. I hope to add a sprinkling of “The Hobbit” details in certain places where is needed. There will be a heavier saturation of this time period during the Rivendell scenes.

Strong friendship only – no slash. Very little romance (I am no good at writing that) – And plenty of angst, hurt/comfort. For those don’t know my previous work – this won’t be the Disney version.

This will be a very very long story, with many chapters, and many of those being long as well – just the way I write. And I usually try and describe from the viewpoint of multiple characters for any one scene. As well as describe every rock, tree branch and blade of grass along the way.

I have a very complicated plot planned, and some may not agree how I have altered the course of things, or that I introduce them and Frodo differently than the books or films. Hopefully you will continue to follow and read as the story progresses. If it hasn’t happened yet, or there isn’t enough information about something yet, that is usually deliberate on my part. Sometimes there are subtle clues that I put in chapters, other times I don’t.

This story explores the idea about what might have happened if Strider had come to the Shire to forewarn Bilbo Baggins about the Ring Wraiths that would soon come hunting for the One Ring.

There are other changes that I will deliberately make to the story at a later date to explore how the journey may have changed as a result. “Hint, hint, some big changes that were the whole reason for starting this series”.

Strider had vowed to protect Bilbo when the Ring Wraiths are sent by the Dark Lord but he is unaware that the legacy of who is to carry the Ring to be destroyed falls upon a totally different Baggins.

Hoping to add a few funny, light-hearted moments in this one in between the serious stuff.

All mention of herbs or treatments used in this story or others come about from a little research I did into some and what their effects were. Some of them have been around since ancient times so I have no problem using in this time frame but still am not sure if they would have been grown near Rivendell.

Disclaimer -I do not own any of the characters I write about. I write about those created by J.J.R. Tolkien and marvel at such a story-tellers ability to enthral us all. There are occasional quotes from the movie in this story, just to keep the continuity going strong and to add just at the appropriate time.

Chapter Four: Trees And Elves

this new chapter follows on from the last one:

“Run!” was the suggestion that the two cousins said to each other with their eyes, a little afraid of being in the middle of both an angry Sam and a cross looking Frodo.

and now the story turns another page:

Merry and Pippin were very relieved that Strider was the one to save them both from the wrath of Samwise, and from incurring more than annoyed expressions from Gandalf and Bilbo.

They hadn’t meant to cause trouble or hit their unsuspecting cousin with the apple. Boredom often had the two of them inventing games together, without fully thinking of the consequences for other people or themselves. Both younger hobbits had been accused of taking their antics a little too far times back at Brandy Hall by the Master of Buckland and a host of other family members.

Frodo usually had endless amounts of patience and knew the best games for them all to play when at Brandy Hall. He often taught them other unique things apart from games, like animals and plants. Neither of them could remember a time when their cousin had turned them away or showed any selfish traits.

There were lots of stories and adventures he shared from Bilbo about his travels and all of the interesting and unusual folks that he encountered. Some of those lands sounded very strange indeed, and worlds away from the safety of the shire. He could also speak some of the foreign languages where those peoples came from.

Being able to spend time with their cousin Frodo was very infrequent since he had moved to Hobbiton and was now living with Bilbo. They missed him terribly, and were very excited to be present for celebrating not one birthday, but two. With each marking very different but equally admirable milestones. Frodo’s coming of age at thirty-three and leaving his childhood years behind. And Bilbo’s for reaching an age most hobbits would probably never achieve in their own lifetimes.

“Are you sure you are alright, Mister Frodo?” Sam asked, making sure that the apple had not struck hard enough to leave a mark.

“Yes thank you, Sam, I am completely fine,” Frodo relayed, getting off the couch and testifying that he bore no ill affects from the wayward piece of fruit. Frodo went into the kitchen about getting himself a cool drink of water.

Samwise had wanted to say something further to both of them, but knew it was not his place to chastise members of his Master’s family, even if they were much younger and at fault. He hoped that Bilbo would speak up instead, but it seemed that this afternoon he due to having a smail full of guests, he was prepared to be a little more forgiving. It was only an apple.

“Has you headache eased at all, Frodo lad?” Bilbo questioned, noting that being struck on the head by an object may have caused the discomfort to lengthen in duration.

“Actually it has, but only slightly most probably due to the shortness of my nap,” Frodo answered, giving at disapproving look towards his two younger cousins. “Just a little misunderstanding and poor aim I am sure,” he added.

Pippin’s face showed fear for the possibility of physically hurting his cousin. Merry’s expression came from being concerned about any impending punishment that may be looming for them both.

We are both very sorry, Frodo,” Pippin apologised, fidgeting with the buttons on the front of his vest. “We certainly didn’t mean to wake you up.”

Maybe if your aim had been better, Pip…….,” Merry started to say, only to stop any further comment at seeing a sterner look from both Frodo and Bilbo.

You are not intending to throw anything else around my home, Meriadoc?” Bilbo interrupted. “There has been enough of folk tossing food around in Bag-end the last time Balin and his dwarven friends were here. Otherwise I shall be wanting to speak to your father, Saradoc, and have him find a more suitable task to occupy your time whilst you are here.”

Sam gasped in surprise at the mention of dwarves. They very rarely were seen in the Shire, and even those stories of them being friends with Bilbo had changed over the years. Most residents in Hobbiton thought the eccentric hobbit had created the whole tale of them visiting him to ward off any would-be thieves from searching his home for lost treasure.

Next time, Pippin, let’s play a game outside, and include a ball, which you can throw around as much as you like,” Frodo suggested, wrapping a friendly arm around his cousin. The younger hobbit immediately brightened and gave a grin and a hug in return.

Bilbo smiled at Frodo’s ability to ease Pippin’s anxiousness and find something for them to do. Merry was looking a little more relaxed at hearing the suggestion of going outside. Perhaps it would see him escape Gandalf’s ever watchful eye.

“May I make a suggestion for the afternoon?” Strider interjected. “I will gladly take all of these young hobbits outside, to allow Bilbo and Gandalf more time to talk or prepare for tomorrow’s celebrations.”

“Would you do that, Strider?” Bilbo asked, grateful to the Ranger. His offer would keep them occupied and out of Bag End, even if only for a few hours. “Of course

if Frodo or Samwise wishes to stay I am certain that they would not disturb us.”

Pippin looked over at Frodo, a little worried that perhaps Frodo would take up his uncle’s offer of staying inside. And no doubt if he did, then Samwise would agree with stopping behind as well. But his facial expression soon changed to one of delight as his cousin answered.

“Thank you Strider, I would appreciate going outdoors on such a nice day outside. A little more fresh air may be greatly beneficial and welcome,” Frodo said, pleased that the man was taking such an active interest in himself and his cousins.

“I’ll be coming with you to, Mister Frodo,” Sam said, more of a statement than a request. There had been two incidents already in the short period since his master’s cousins had arrived. The stout gardener was not about to let Mister Frodo go off in their company without accompanying them and being forever watchful.

Earlier observations about the Ranger were taken into account, and the stout hobbit trusted that Strider would not allow any harm come to his master. Sam reminded himself that there may be things that the Ranger might ask a question about, not knowing the answer to. It was his duty to see to all of Mister Frodo’s needs and he aimed to do it to be best of his ability.

“We can go and play in the stream and dream up some adventures in the tall grass Merry,” Pippin said, clearly excited with his new idea. “Come on Frodo and Sam what are we all waiting for?” he said, trying to race to the doorway.

“Hold on a minute there young Took, it might be wise to take some cool water to drink and something to eat later with you if you plan to stay out for a time,” Gandalf suggested.

“Mind you don’t get taking your games too seriously Pippin or ruin your clothes with your rough play after just arriving,” Bilbo said. Previous visits by the two lads Merry and Pippin had caused Bilbo much distress upon time for them to return home when he would have to explained to their parents what had happened to their nice clothes.

Sam went about getting a small basket ready for their afternoon’s activities. There was cool fresh water to drink, apples to eat under the shade of the trees and a few biscuits and some cheese that Bilbo offered from his well stocked pantry.

“I will bring them all back safely before it is time to prepare supper,” Strider said with assurance.

The four young hobbits and Ranger began walking away from Bag End and paused at the top of the hill to decide which direction to take next. It seemed that Merry and Pippin had already made up their minds for everyone and they were already halfway down the hill before Strider or Frodo got a chance to ask where they were being led.

“They seem to have an abundance of energy for ones so small,” Strider commented as he held back his pace a little for Sam to keep up with him. The Ranger had already offered to take the basket from Sam if it became too heavy but the hobbit had asserted that it was not necessary.

“Those two cousins of mine will certainly keep us all on our toes this afternoon I suspect,” Frodo said in reply. He couldn’t help but smile at the exuberance his two younger companions displayed almost every minute of the day.

There were only two occasions when such abundant energy wasn’t present, the first being when they slept at night, and the second being when it was meal time. Although the second one was not a certainty either for Frodo had experienced their enjoyment of food many times. Often both would eat until there was nothing left upon the table and then be still voicing that they were hungry.

A touch of guilt came over Frodo as his gaze fell upon Merry for a few minutes. Deep down in his heart, Frodo was aware that Merry held onto a secret belief that things would return to how it had been before he left Brandy Hall.

Frodo’s departure to go live in the Shire and live with his eccentric Uncle Bilbo had been a surprise to many, and whispered about by many. Doubt had been cast over the older’s hobbit ability to provide an environment where someone much younger could be expected to thrive. Few of them understood that money had never been an enticement, that had the lad agreeing to such an invitation.

Bilbo had come to see for himself that there were other intangible things that Frodo needed. A warm home, good food, and an education were important too.

Guidance, time and patience were required too, and above everything else, love.

Saradoc and Esmerlda had taken good care of Frodo, and they did love him dearly. With Brandy Hall housing any number of adult and young hobbits, there was little opportunity to spend time individually. The boy had always displayed a thirst for knowledge and an unquenchable curiosity about the natural world. Bilbo saw his chance to give that one on one time to Frodo, and not allow him to become lost.

Frodo and Bilbo had spoken on a number of occasions about going back to visit Brandy Hall. To spend time with Merry and his parents, and Pippin as well. But it would never be like it used to be.

Pippin was younger and missed the games and fun times that Frodo often invented for them. The three of them had spent many days off on adventures. Merry on the other hand, would miss that his older cousin wouldn’t be there to answer his endless questions. There were times that Merry found it easier to talk to Frodo before seeking approval or clarification from his own parents for important advice.

When he first arrived at Bag End, Frodo didn’t know if he was going to like living here, or with his uncle. Everything was so unfamiliar and vastly different, but refreshing at the same time. Now he would happily tell anyone who asked, that he was perfectly happy living in Hobbiton and had no plans for that to change.

Frodo was brought out of his own thoughts as the laughter from Merry and Pippin echoed back at him. He couldn’t help but smile that sometimes the simplest things in life were the ones that made you happy and grateful. Family and friends on a lovely clear day.

The shaded trees were only a short distance away. Merry and Pippin had slowed their pace some and were walking a short distance in front of the other three. Frodo found himself wanting to let go a little as well that afternoon and enjoy the sunshine for as long as possible.

Frodo walked a little more briskly towards Merry before turning to him to speak.

“Merry, I have something to tell you,” Frodo in a completely serious tone of voice. He glanced forward ahead briefly making sure that his path in front was clear and unobstructed.

“What is it cousin?” Merry asked stopping his own walking, not reading anything more into Frodo’s words. Pippin wore a curious look on his face too, wanting to know if something was amiss so soon into their journey.

“Tag you are it!” Frodo declared and in less than a half-beat was now racing away from his two astounded cousins towards the long grass and trees.

“Why you… Baggins,” Merry shouted back as he started to run after his fleeing cousin. “You won’t get far dear Frodo,” he added, trying to increase his speed.

Pippin wasn’t going to be left out of the fun and games, quickly tailing Merry, before pulling out in front in his attempt to catch sight of his older cousin. Strider and Sam couldn’t help but laugh out loud at Frodo’s tactics towards his cousins. It pleased Sam no end that his master was having such unbridled amusement at present.

Sam and the Ranger didn’t need to worry about loosing the three hobbits for their laughter soon echoed through the trees, directing the trailing two in the right direction.

They came to a wooded area with a number of very large trees. One in particular looking magnificent with the different hues in its leaves and the stark whiteness of it’s trunk.

The sunlight shone through the leafy canopy, giving the grass beneath a dappled pattern.

Nearby there was a small stream gleaming a few metres away and it was here that Sam and Strider spotted the other three. The water wasn’t very deep, merely a few inches high, but it ran like clear crystal along its course so that the stones on the bottom could be clearly defined. The sound of trickling water invaded the senses, creating a calm and relaxed atmosphere. The scent of green leaves, moss and fresh grass was everywhere.

Merry and Pippin were already involved in a playful frolic, happily splashing each other with the water as they stood in the middle of the stream. The bottom of their breeches were wet from their attempts to soak each other but other than that the rest of their clothes remained mostly dry.

Frodo on the other hand was merely content to stand on the very edges of the stream, far enough away from his two cousins that he not be showered by them. The water was so inviting and he let the coolness run over this feet.

Sam set the basket down under the larger tree and both he and the Ranger watched from beneath it’s shady canopy.

“Why does Frodo not join in with Merry and Pippin?” Strider asked, noting that it the expression on the hobbit’s face was as though he was forcing himself not to go any deeper into the water.

“Tis not natural for a hobbit to be fully submerged in water unless they are bathing Sir, although with Mister Frodo’s cousins you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise,” Sam answered. “That is what my Gaffer always says.”

“My master has other reasons for not wanting to go any further than the edge,” he added and turned his attention to unpacking the basket to avoid the Ranger’s curiosity further.

Strider did not press the subject further at this point in time as it became apparent that he was in danger of putting a dampener on the currently happy atmosphere by asking such a question.

A few minutes later, Merry, Pippin and Frodo all came to join their companions under the shade of the tree. The two younger hobbits were still trying to catch their breath after much activity in a short space of time.

Frodo sat down directly under the tree, separated a little from the others, leaning his back against the strong trunk. He willed himself to relax and enjoy the peaceful surroundings, the breeze gently ruffling his dark hair.

“Do you have any stories that you would like to share with us, Strider?” Pippin asked as he grabbed at one of the biscuits and a piece of cheese that Sam had just set down on a small plate.

“That would depend on the type of story you would like to hear,” Strider answered as he made himself a little more comfortable underneath the tree. He looked over at Frodo, who by now had his eyes closed but was not asleep. He would still be able to hear what was said.

“I want to hear about some of your other adventures,” Merry declared. “Action with swords and fighting,” he added, which made Strider raise an eyebrow at the strong desire and inclination towards stories with violence.

“What about you Sam, what would you prefer to hear?” Strider asked, involving him as much as the others in the conversation and decision.

“You’re asking me, Sir?” Sam asked with a surprised expression. To be in the company of such a man as Strider was indeed unusual to say the least, but more than he could have hoped for. He had his master to thank for that outcome and his current situation of being included.

“Yes, Sam, I am asking you,” Strider affirmed, noting that the young gardener was not used to having been asked what he would like or prefer.

“Beggin’ your pardon, Sir, but if I were to have a choice, and I thank you for the offering, it would be to hear about the elves that Master Bilbo has spoken about,” Sam said with a wishful look.

“If your story has elves in it Strider then you are sure to win Sam’s heart,” Frodo said with a knowing smile, still relaxed against the tree and with his eyes closed.

“Oh, who wants to hear about them,” Pippin said with a little disappointment creeping into his voice. He gave Sam an apologetic look for sounding like the idea was a poor one. He did like elves, but Merry’s suggestion of hearing about swords was much more interesting.

“Would it please you all to know that I know of many stories that would entail both elves and adventure?” the Ranger offered in compromise.

“Do you know about elves, Mister Strider?” Sam asked, not knowing anybody else apart from Master Bilbo who claimed to know as much about such ethereal folk.

“One of my closest and dearest friends is an elf, Sam. He is indeed a true example of his kind. Tall, fair-haired, lithe, an excellent warrior and bowman. Agile and quick on his feet, and blessed with very keen eyesight. Attuned to the beauty of nature and a friend to woodland creatures and other animals alike.”

“He is also of noble birth, a prince no less among his own people. We have had many adventures together during our long friendship,” Strider described, noting the looks of awe coming from Samwise about an elf who was also a prince. He knew he had won Merry and Pippin over too, with his talk about adventures.

“Please tell us more, Strider,” Pippin beseeched, giving his best pout and gazing up at the Ranger with a hopeful expression.

Strider smiled at the young hobbit, and gestured to the spot of grass beside him, urging Pippin to come closer and listen intently to more of his tales. ‘Such inquisitiveness’ he said to himself, from all of their kind. Something he was still growing used to.

As a Ranger, he had encountered hobbits many times during his travels, even outside of the Shire. Alas, at those times the sharing of stories had not been a priority and the little folk had kept more to themselves.

“Is it true what they say about elves being able to sneak up behind you without hearing them?” Merry asked.

“Yes, Merry, it is true. Elves are held in high regard for their stealth and ability to walk along paths but leave little or no trace of their presence as others would do,” Strider answered.

“Master Bilbo has learned me that they have very fair skin,” Sam added to the conversation, trying to remember the descriptions he had heard in the past.

“That is true, Sam, you have remembered your tuition well. Legolas and many others of his kind have very fine features and fair complexions,” Strider gave in response.

“Hey, Frodo, that means you might be part elven,” Merry said, interrupting the flow of conversation for a moment. “I’ve always said that your skin is much too pale for a hobbit, even if you are part Baggins and Brandybuck.”

“Yes, Merry, but Frodo couldn’t be an elf because his hair is much too dark,” Pippin interjected, agreeing that Frodo had some of the similarities in his face that elven people were said to have inherited.

“Elves are said to have hair as fair as their skin, though I have never seen one to affirm this,” Pippin explained giving what little information he knew about them.

“Young Peregrin, I personally know Lord Elrond. He has long hair that is encircled by a symbol of his race, the colour is described as being dark as the shadows of twilight,” Strider replied, pleased that he still held such keen interest from the younger two hobbits.

“Lady Arwen, Lord Elrond’s daughter also has long lustrous hair. A maiden of great beauty, whom has been written into songs and recorded in tales many times. All describe her as having ‘dark braids of hair touched by no frost.’, Strider recited.

“The elves certainly have a pretty way of putting words together don’t they,” Sam reflected with wonderment. Many a times he had heard Bilbo sing songs that he had copied from the elves. All of them had been written with so much poetry and meaningfulness to them, unlike any other music that Sam had ever come across before.

“Does your friend have fair hair, Strider?” Merry asked. “I don’t think you have told us his name yet.”

“Legolas,” Strider repeated to them. “He counts himself as a woodland elf belonging to the Silvan elves whom dwell north-east of Mirkwood forest. Yes he has long fair hair as do most of his kin from that region. Some of the strands are often plaited or braided to keep them away from his face. His father, King Thranduil, also has long fair hair.”

“A strange sounding name I must say,” Merry commented, never having heard a name even remotely similar for someone.

“If you don’t mind Merry, no matter what characteristics I may share or not share with elves, I would need to grow quite a lot taller than I currently am I should think.  I am quite happy to call myself a plain ordinary hobbit,” Frodo said to his cousin.

Frodo was keeping up with the conversation, but not involving himself much, preferring to listen instead. He tried to hide a smile at the suggestion that he might have elven bloodlines further back in his heritage.

“Enough talk about how elves should look, what of these adventures you had?” Pippin demanded, hoping they would get to the good parts of the story soon.

“Ah, I see you are a little over zealous,” Strider remarked with practiced patience.

As the three hobbits and Ranger talked of strange lands and people, they failed to notice Frodo choosing now to depart their company. He did not want to interrupt their discussion and planned only to wander a short distance away to stretch his legs.

“Tell me more about this place Mirkwood you mentioned?” Merry asked. “Bilbo has told us briefly about going there during his travels, and says it is very strange place to be visiting. A dark place, full of mystery and where you can easily become lost.”

“That is true Merry for those who do not know of the hidden dangers in that forest,” Strider said with a fresh note of warning in his voice. “Mirkwood was once a very picturesque part of Middle-earth with many beautiful trees and plants that grew no where else.”

“What are the hidden dangers, Strider?” Pippin asked in a nervous voice.

“Spiders, Pippin,” Strider said as he watched the faces of the three small hobbit’s grow round with fear. “They are very large and look entirely troublesome for those who do not heed the warnings and would cross their path. They are dangerous, and cunning and should be left well alone,” he explained.

“I do not like crawling bugs of any kind, Mister Strider,” Sam commented as his skin suddenly felt all tingling just thinking about coming into contact with such dark creatures.

“I dare say my master would not like them any more than I either, would you Mister Frodo?” Sam asked, expecting to hear a voice in reply.

A memory came to him of a much earlier time when Frodo had found a large bug on his bedding one day. Bilbo was aware of his dislike for them, and promptly relocated it outside. Frodo had not wanted to admit to anyone how much he hated crawling insects or bugs.

All turned their faces in the direction of where they last knew Frodo to be sitting, only a few minutes earlier when there was no reply. To their surprise, the grassy spot was now vacant.

“Mister Frodo?” Sam called out again as he got to his feet and walked around the tree in case his master had sought to lay down and doze in the dappled shade.

“Frodo?” Strider repeated after Sam, he too getting to his feet and concerned that he could see no sign of the hobbit.

“Sneaked away as quietly as the elves,” Merry stated, seeing Pippin nod his head in agreement.

“I believe Frodo would be sensible enough and not wander too far away. Let us take a short walk and see if we can find him,” Strider suggested, trying to quell any fears they held.

“We don’t even know which direction he went in though,” Merry pointed out plainly. They couldn’t see Frodo anywhere within viewing distance from the tree. Not letting others know where he was going. This was quite uncharacteristic behaviour for his cousin.

“We only need to use what evidence is before us and our knowledge of Frodo and I am sure we will be able to pick up his trail soon enough,” Strider told them, remaining positive about his whereabouts.

“What evidence are you talking about?” Pippin queried. He wasn’t able to see any sign that the Ranger was talking about that was left behind to show which direction Frodo had travelled.

“Please come here Pippin, Merry and Sam,” Strider instructed, crouching down on one knee in front of the grassy spot at the base of the tree where Frodo had been sitting earlier.

“Frodo may have moved as silently as an elf, but I am afraid that he does not have the feet to match,” he said, alerting them to the clues by pointing to hobbit sized footprints made during his silent retreat. As they looked beyond the clear markings on the ground and into the long-grass, a definite path could be seen where blades of grass had been trodden on or lay bent over from where Frodo passed by.

Sam now lead the group as they followed the trail to the missing Frodo.

Whilst Frodo’s friends were only just noticing that he wasn’t with them and beginning to worry of his whereabouts, the dark-haired hobbit was enjoying himself immensely.

After a short walk away from his companions, Frodo had come to another larger tree in the wooded area. Whilst this one was not so wide spread with it’s branches, it was much taller and the leaves were of a more natural green colour. The smell was of fading summer, and the breeze ruffled the ends of his hair. Frodo closed his eyes momentarily, and allowed his other senses to take over and immerse himself.

Frodo had always liked climbing trees, sitting perched amongst the higher branches, listening to the sounds that were around him. From such a prominent position he could let the wind blow and rustle the leaves taking him back in time to when he lived at Brandy Hall. He had often climbed trees near there as well before moving in with Bilbo. As long as the weather stayed good and the day hadn’t fallen into nightfall.

Frodo could hear birds somewhere above him, making nests and raising families,singing and chirping as they went about their routine. Sitting up this high from the ground, one could survey out into the rest of the wooded area for a great distance.

The branch that Frodo had chosen was a very large one, and had grown much longer than some others further down the trunk. The sturdiness and strength of the limb would easily accommodate his weight. The young hobbit gazed upwards and spotted another branch, somewhat thinner, but only a fraction shorter in length.

These times, when he completely on his own and able to enjoy what nature had to offer, Frodo found it easier to allow another side to himself to show that was rarely displayed in front of others, including Samwise. There were times when he let his heart rule his body and his actions rather than acting like the sensible hobbit everybody believed him to be.

Frodo stood up on the bottom branch, placing his feet carefully and a little wider apart on the thicker branch. He now reached up with his arms at full stretch and comfortably encircled his hands around the width of the narrower branch above his head.

For the next few minutes, he walked back and forth a few feet in either direction along the branch and then back again towards the trunk, always maintaining his grip firmly on the higher branch. He took extra care where he deliberately placed his feet each time, acting as though it was much narrower where he was walking. Keeping his concentration focused on what he was doing, Frodo was unaware of his companions approaching down on the ground beneath him.

“The trail ends around here,” Merry said, pointing to the spot where the footprints ended. He had not looked up into the tree yet. Strider and the rest of the group had been intent on following the trail along the ground before them, but now they could see little sign of where Frodo had gone next.

The ranger was the first to look up into the branch and notice the young hobbit, grateful that he had done so before the hobbits. A felt a small pang surfaced out of worry for Frodo’s safety as he watched keenly in silence.

“Sam, Merry, Pippin, I have located our friend, but you need to remain quiet and calm before I point him out to you,” the Ranger whispered.

“Why do we need to keep quiet?” Merry asked immediately. The straw-haired hobbit was not about to be deterred by anything that would prevent or stop them from finding his missing cousin. According to his father, stubbornness was something he had inherited from the Brandybuck side of the family tree, just like Frodo.

“Look yonder, Merry, but do not shout out too loudly for what you see,” Strider warned, before raising his arm so they could follow with their eyes.

“Oh my word!” Sam said with a little more volume than he or Strider would have liked. He quickly clamped his own hand over his mouth, but could not hide the fear in his eyes that he now held for his master.

Merry and Pippin were both about to call out to their cousin upon seeing him perched in the large tree, but refrained as Strider repeated his warning of not startling Frodo which may cause him to fall.

“We have to get him down from there now!” Pippin pleaded with the Ranger urgently, as quietly as his voice would allow. The fact that the youngest hobbit was whispering at all or was even capable of such a feat was not lost to his friends. It also demonstrated just how afraid he was that Frodo could lose his balance.

“Frodo has always climbed been the one to climb trees. Even back at Brandy Hall he was told by my mother a number of times how dangerous such an activity could be. He never listened to her though, and assured her that he would be safe,” Merry commented casually, thinking back to earlier times. “He merely made sure to go a little further away into the forest where she and nobody else could see him.”

“I am certain that Legolas and Frodo would fast become good friends, now that I see him doing such things. Legolas too has an affinity for climbing trees, though he has never fallen out of one so far as I know,” Strider stated, trying to reassure the hobbits that Frodo might not be in any direct danger.

“Mister Strider, you have to get him down before he falls,” Sam voiced again with alarm, his fear not having been abated in the slightest by talk of others doing something similar with confidence.

“I agree with you Sam, but we must also be cautious in how we go about doing it,” Strider said, taking the gardener’s smaller hand and urging him to calm down. “If Frodo was to startle suddenly then we would be causing him more harm than good,” he added.

“Let us wait until he has moved away from the edges of those branches before trying to attract his attention,” Strider suggested, noting that Frodo was only just beginning to walk back towards the central trunk of the tree.

Frodo stopped walking about halfway along, still holding tightly onto the branch above. His gaze turned upwards to the branch above as he now tried to use the strength in his arms to lift himself up onto the higher branch.

Sam’s heart was almost in his throat as he watched his master become even more daring than he had ever thought was possible of him. Inwardly he told himself that once Frodo was safely on the ground he would have to have a conversation with his master.

Although Strider was a little concerned himself for Frodo’s safety, upon watching the agile young hobbit, he couldn’t help but be surprised at his flexibility and strength for one so small. There was so much for him to learn and discover about all of these interesting hobbits. They were as unique as the leaves above them. Their individual personalities only beginning to reveal themselves, the longer he spent more time with them.

By now, Frodo had managed to complete his desired acrobatic task by pulling himself up onto the higher branch. He was still holding onto the branch with one hand as he waited to steady his balance properly. It was only now that he became aware of being watched from below.

Without remembering the warning Strider had given a few moments before, Pippin was simply amazed by the feat that Frodo had achieved. The youngest member of the group wanted to show his admiration, and stood up and began clapping towards his cousin.

“No Pippin!” Merry warned, but also forgetting that he too was supposed to be using a softer voice. But by now, the damage caused by both of them was already done, even though unintentional.

Frodo was startled by the suddedn burst of applause from his cousin and the shout of alarm coming from Merry. His tenuous balance was lost as he attempted to grab a hold of the branch, but unfortunately it was not quick enough. His concentration had been interrupted and as he tried to maintain a firm foothold, but all he found was thin air.

His companions were forced to watch in shock, and call his name out in frightful horror as they saw Frodo lose his balance, foothold and grip and fall from his lofty position.

Before anybody could prevent it, Frodo fell off the branch, a smaller twig striking him and scratching across his cheek as he toppled backwards. There was a sharp cry for help as he tried to stop his momentum and then a harsh thud as he fell face first onto the ground underneath the tree.

Strider had tried desperately to reach the tree to try and catch the hobbit, or at least cushion the fall with his own body. However, his honed skills and speed were no match against gravity and ill-fate, and he was not fast enough to stop such a mishap. Frodo lay on his stomach in the grass, not moving or making a sound.

“Frodo!” the three hobbits managed to say in unison as they all arrived a second behind the Ranger and tried to assess how badly he had been hurt.

“Are you alright little one?” Strider asked gently, feeling as though there should have been something more he could have done to prevent such an accident. He had promised Bilbo that he would protect him whilst in the Shire. Frodo’s wandering away from them had been unexpected, he laid a great deal of blame on himself.

At first there was no response, and the Strider thought the hobbit may have lost consciousness after striking his head as he landed. He placed his hands on the hobbit’s slim shoulders and was about to carefully turn him over to see what injuries he had sustained.

“Please be alright Mister Frodo,” Sam pleaded, almost on the verge of tears. “You just got to be.”

“S-Sam…..,” came the raspy reply, Frodo trying to get air back into his lungs.

Strider and the hobbit’s couldn’t help but feel a tangible sense of relief at hearing even that one word escape his lips. Allowing Frodo a few more moments to gather his bearings and composure, he regained enough of his senses to pull himself into a sitting position.

The hobbit winced at the dull ache he felt inside his chest when he did so, but for the sake of his younger companions, he tried to put on a brave face. He looked up and regretted seeing the distressed faces of Sam and his two cousins. The Ranger knelt beside him, checking him over very carefully and waiting for him to tell them what hurt the most.

“I am sorry,” he apologised. “Just got the wind knocked out me I suspect,” he added, but placed the palm of his hand over the spot on his chest that was causing discomfort, trying to rub the pain away.

“Please allow me take a closer look, Frodo,” Strider instructed as he gently undid the buttons on Frodo’s shirt and took a look beneath the hand at the pale skin.

“It is a little reddened at the moment and no doubt you will feel some discomfort for a day or two. There may be some noticeable bruising afterwards,” Strider diagnosed.

“Frodo, I am sorry I didn’t mean to startle you like that,” Pippin blurted out, the apprehension hanging over him clearly visible, that he was the one mostly responsible for his cousin’s fall.

“I must admit I did not know you were watching, but you are not to blame dear Pip,” Frodo soothed, placing a hand on the youngest hobbit’s shoulder and diverting his concerns away from any guilt he was attributing to himself.

“Oh, Mister Frodo, I was so worried about seeing you up in that tree like that,” Sam declared out loud.

“What were you doing climbing that tree anyway, Frodo?” Pippin asked, knowing that his cousin could usually be trusted to tell him the truth.

“I like being around trees, Pippin,” Frodo commented as he allowed himself be pulled to his feet. “It makes me feel good inside to be around things in nature.”

“I bet your not feeling too good inside there right now,” Merry retorted back with a little too much honesty. “This is something that I would normally expect from Pippin. Silly hobbit,” he added, patting his cousin’s shoulder fondly and receiving a fool-hardy grin in return from Frodo.

The comment had the desired effect of lightening everyone’s mood, when Pippin spluttered with indignation. “And just what exactly do you mean by saying something like that, Merry,” he demanded.

The hobbit’s laughter together and at each was the medicine they all needed after such a scare. The afternoon had been a great success to kept them occupied until the fall.

“Are you certain you will be able to walk back without too much discomfort, Frodo?” the Ranger enquired. The dark-haired hobbit appeared to be standing on his own without any trouble and with little sign of any problems with his sense of balance.

“Thank you for asking, Strider, I will be perfectly fine,” Frodo assured him, feeling a little embarrassed that he had caused his friends and companions to worry so much about him.

The group started to head back to Bag End. The frivolity that the hobbits had displayed at the start the journey with had all but evaporated. Merry and Pippin were walking ahead, sharing some idle chatter together. Strider and Sam were talking quietly to each other about the comings and goings within the shire, whilst walking behind Frodo, keeping a watchful eye on him. Frodo was lost in his own thoughts of tasks that he had yet to complete before Bilbo’s birthday party celebration.

The Ranger was readying himself with a plausible explanation for Bilbo and Gandalf, to explain why he had not kept a sharper eye on the lad. His tales of Legolas and Mirkwood would not probably not suffice.

Sam was determined not to let, Mister Frodo out of his sight again that afternoon and convinced himself that he would be able to tell if he was trying to hide any pain. Sam had already promised to make a nice cup of hot tea for them all once they were home. Hopefully the tea would help his master relax and allow any sore muscles to do the same.

The pace returning to Bag End was somewhat slower than it had been leaving, because Sam had wanted to backtrack to their original spot underneath the tree to retrieve the picnic basket and remaining food and water. Frodo was grateful for the cool water and took a drink when offered, and was pleased to keep his walking pace to strolling speed. The headache he had mentioned before leaving Bag End had eased considerably.

Gandalf was talking with Bilbo in the kitchen when Strider and hobbits entered through the front door. Bilbo had been very busy making some of the dishes for the party whilst the wizard was prepared to sit back and enjoy his pipe whilst engaging with his life-long friend in some intelligent conversation and memories of old times.

“What do have we here?” Gandalf questioned with a laugh. “Our much too noisy friends have returned, Bilbo.” He noticed that Merry and Pippin were still trying to escape his piercing gaze but there was also something else.

Frodo walked in front of Strider, but could not hide a few winces of pain as he shuffled his feet along the floor, looking for the words to give in explanation to his Uncle Bilbo. The ranger himself held a strange look on his face also, as though he might be guilty of something.

Sam was the first to speak up inform them of the misadventures of the afternoon. “Master Bilbo, Frodo hurt himself falling out of a tree,” he announced. Frodo and Strider both inwardly groaned, hoping they would be able to relay the details a little more subtly.

“Frodo lad, are you hurt somewhere?” Bilbo quickly asked, wiping his floured hands on a cloth and walking forward with a concerned look on his face. His mind had only yet focused on Sam’s words that the boy may have been injured.

“Only a little bruising, Uncle Bilbo,” Frodo promised, giving his best sympathetic look with his expressive blue eyes. “It doesn’t hurt so much now,” he added, hoping to ease a little of his uncle’s worry.

“My humblest apologises to you, Bilbo but I could not get to him in time to prevent his fall. I will have Frodo sit a minute while I examine the area more closely,” Strider suggested. “I did check on him when it first happened, but was assured that his pain was minimal.”

“Oh don’t go blaming yourself, ranger. I have known you well enough by now to believe that you would not be at fault, Strider. Falling from a tree, Sam is it? Well that doesn’t surprise me one bit with our young Frodo here. He was always a little keen on trees even before he moved here to Hobbiton with me,” Bilbo said as he saw Sam’s nod of acknowledgement that he was understanding the version of events correctly.

And then Bilbo uttered something that took the wizard and everybody else in the room completely by surprise. “Frodo is not the first Baggins to be found climbing a tree.”

The elderly hobbit kept his gaze on Gandalf the entire time as he spoke.

“Bilbo Baggins, I was not entirely responsible for you needing to climb that pine tree in such great haste,” he challenged, coughing as a little smoke rose from his pipe and tickled his throat. “Perhaps you need to take that subject up with Balin upon his next visit.”

“Balin had nothing to do with chasing Thorin and his company of dwarves up that tree, Gandalf, and you know it,” Bilbo said in defence of another long time friend. “I only followed you all up into it because there was no where else to go.”

Bilbo was about to continue into another long tirade about Gandalf’s interpretation of that particular adventure, when he glanced around the room and saw the enthralled faces of Merry and Pippin. Frodo’s expression was caught somewhere between wanting to know how Bilbo had found himself in such a precarious position, and hearing such a tale of his uncle’s travels for the first time.

He had been privileged to hear many of Bilbo’s journey’s to interesting and foreign places. But having to climb a tree because of Gandalf, in the company of a band of dwarves was certainly a new one. Any other stories about the dwarves usually revolved around their boisterous arrivals and loud visits to Bag End. And they usually ended with them pilfering every morsel of food he had in his pantries and larders.

Strider’s shared a small grin as he exchanged glances between Bilbo and Gandalf. The younger hobbit’s had been treated to an even more exciting tale than he had dared to share with them earlier that afternoon. Both of them were both left floundering to find a plausible explanation that would satisfy young curious minds and exonerate either of them from admitting to past misdeeds.

“Frodo, you go with Strider and do what he asks please, while he takes a good look at you. Samwise, you and I will make a nice cup of tea for everybody, and I will add some herbs to his cup that will ease any pain,” Bilbo suggested, changing the subject entirely and shifting the focus away from himself. Frodo’s good manners kept him from asking more questions on this occasion, but he suspected that he would be seeking clarification at another time.

Merry and Pippin decided it best to keep out of the way for a few minutes and were content to move closer to the table where Gandalf was sitting. Pippin couldn’t help but spot the pies that Bilbo had been preparing a little earlier. He reached out his hand and tried to sneak a piece of the dough before his hand was slapped away by Merry.

Merry gave his best disapproving look to his younger cousin, but not before he too was dipping his finger in the soft, edible dough whilst Bilbo and the others were concerned with Frodo. Pippin was about to object strongly at Merry’s double standard, but then saw the delightful smile that resulted from tasting. He soon joined in by running his finger around the inside of the jar of preserves that would make up the filling, and happily popping it into his mouth.

Frodo obediently went with the Ranger into the sitting room where he could be more comfortable on the settee. He stretched out along it and patiently waited for Strider to look at his chest. He didn’t think such measures were needed a second time, but he wanted to cast aside any shadows of concern that Bilbo held about his well-being.

“I did not know you were skilled in the treatment of hobbit,” Frodo said casually as he watched the Ranger use warm, gentle hands that were not normally associated with men or the ‘big-folk’. The touch was light and firm but did not hurt.

“I have learned much about the skill of healing for many races and creatures, from Lord Elrond that I spoke of earlier,” Strider replied. “I was fortunate enough to learn quickly under his careful guidance and from the vast amount of knowledge he possesses.”

“Here is your tea, Mister Frodo, Sir,” Sam announced as he walked over to his master and placed the mug of tea on a small table beside the settee.

Gandalf came into the sitting room and sat down in one of the armchairs. Bilbo followed, but moved closer to the head of the settee, awaiting for Strider to finish examining Frodo.

“I could probably lessen any discomfort for you a little more if I had the athelas plant among my current possessions. I know that it does grow in small pockets throughout the shire, but perhaps not easily identified as it once was in these parts. Often it goes undetected and is known to your kin by another name,” Strider commented, looking towards the wizard for his assistance.

“No, Strider, you would be correct, that plant no longer grows in abundance within this region as it once did,” Gandalf said blowing out a puff of smoke, and accepting a cup of tea offered by Sam. “I believe in common tongue it is known as ‘kingsfoil

“Before you came home, I was just about to start to prepare supper. Would you like to join us, Samwise?” Bilbo asked, knowing that Frodo would appreciate his offer.

“Can he stay the night, Uncle Bilbo?” Frodo enquired with a touch of excitement in his voice. “There are already three of us and there is plenty of space,” he added. Somehow it didn’t feel right that he and his two cousins would be allowed to join in fun and games later on that evening without Sam being there to enjoy them too.

“Mister Frodo, I am just overjoyed you would ask,” Sam commented, very grateful for such an invitation. He had never thought of staying overnight in Bag End unless his master wasn’t feeling well. There had been a few occasions where he had been asked to help keep him company whilst he recovered.

Now he was not only being asked to stay overnight but to be included in the fun with Frodo’s kin. “Are you sure there is enough room, beggin your pardon as you seem to have a number of guests already Master Bilbo?”

“I think that’s a splendid idea, Frodo,” Bilbo agreed, noting the happiness that his agreement invoked in more than one pair of eyes.

“What will I tell my Gaffer?” Sam asked, knowing that his father might frown on such matters, where class and knowing one’s proper place were expected.

“Well Sam, now that Frodo has gone and hurt himself, and with all of these additional guests in my home, I find myself needing an additional pair of hands. Someone with some good old fashioned hobbit sense in case they anything during the night,” Bilbo explained, giving Frodo a sly smile to go with his words. His nephew would have to play along a little for Sam’e benefit.

Gandalf and Strider couldn’t help but attempt to hide pleased grins behind their mugs of tea as they listened to the older hobbit. Bilbo’s ability to try and coax Samwise into thinking he was doing the right thing was a stroke of genius and continued.

“Frodo’s hand will need to be attended to and the bandages changed after his bath. I will need someone who has a sound mapping of my kitchen to help prepare the right sort of tea before bed. There is no substitute better than a good night’s rest, where he can sleep through the night without being disturbed by any lingering discomfort. Merry and Pippin will be full of energy I suspect and therefore they might not be suited to such an important task,” Bilbo stated, providing the stout hobbit with a viable alibi that he could use to tell his Gaffer.

Bilbo knew full well about Hamfast’s views on taking care of those better than themselves. He would use such views to his advantage without stretching the truth too much. He doubted Frodo would like having himself referred to as needing as much help as he said, but he also knew his young charge would be more than willing to endure such remarks if it allowed Sam to join him and his cousins.

“I’ll go and see him Master Bilbo and tell him the same, that Mister Frodo may be needing some company as well as caring for his hurts,” Sam said, now mirroring the excitement that his master had displayed. “If all is right, I will return with a change of clothes and some of my mother’s fresh made confectionery. She made it just for Mister Frodo’s birthday, she said so.”

“Um, we will both come with you to support your story, Sam,” Merry offered, giving his younger cousin a quick jab with his elbow. “We will make sure that you get home safely and back here again.” he added.

“Oh yes, we will won’t we, Merry,” Pippin said positively, following the lead from his older cousin, but unaware of his obvious overacting and mistiming his cue.

“Would that be suitable with you Mister Frodo, Sir?” Sam asked, a little wary as to why Frodo’s two cousins would be offering to go with him. Until however, he remembered mentioning something about his mother’s home-made sweets. At least he knew what they were up to, ‘hoping to get a sample of the delicious candy for themselves, no doubt’ Sam thought to himself.

“That’s quite alright Sam, go now and you can come back and we can have supper and then I will read some stories to you all in my room,” Frodo answered. Like Sam, he too already knew why Merry and Pippin were volunteereing and insisting that they went along too.

Frodo and the three adults watched the trio of younger hobbits head back out of the front door of Bag End and walk the relatively short distance to Sam’s home.

“Those too are incorrigible, Bilbo,” Gandalf said, breaking the silence within the room with a wry smile.

He wasn’t cross with the two cousins, but was not accustomed to such brazen measures taken at any opportunity to gain more treats of food for themselves. One could have been mistaken about the wizard not being used to it after being included in Thorin Oakenshield’s company. The voracious appetite of the two growing hobbit lad’s may have been matched by the dwarves.

“Ah, yes I am afraid they are at that Gandalf, but don’t fret so. Underneath Merry and Pippin are quite sensible even for their ages. They will not do wrong by Sam once they are in the presence of others. They will mind their manners and be nothing but charming to the Gamgee family I am sure,” Bilbo assured him.

“Your pies and delicious pastries smell wonderful, Uncle Bilbo,” Frodo said as the enticing aromas wafted out from the kitchen and to him seated on the settee. A mixture of just the right of nutmeg and cinnamon and a few other sweet smells that were beginning to make him hungry.

“Ah supper will be ready very shortly my dear boy,” Bilbo said with a chuckle, delighted for once that his cooking had such an effect on his young nephew. “I have been very busy since you were gone all afternoon. That apple barrel down in the cellar will need replenishing tomorrow morning as well as a host of my other cooking ingredients.”

“You mean that giant barrel of apples,” Frodo said in complete astonishment. His memory took him back to a month ago when the barrel had first been brought in by Sam’s Gaffer. He had questioned his uncle back than as to why they needed such a large barrel for just the two of them. Although he did enjoy them immensely as a quick snack. They didn’t require any cooking, and he could take a couple of them with him as he walked about Hobbiton.

At the time, Bilbo had replied to his question about the quantity by telling him that it didn’t hurt to have a supply of fresh food wherever possible. Particularly when a certain young hobbit was quite fond of apples and was often found pilfering one or two before heading outdoors for his walks.

Bilbo looked towards Frodo when he finished speaking and saw the boy’s mind ticking over with the information he had just been told. “What are you thinking about?” he asked, clearly seeing an air of mischief coming from his blue eyes.

“I think you have just given me the perfect little idea about how to get back at Merry and Pippin,” Frodo said with a grin as he went to get off the settee.

“Strider, may I enquire if you have a cloak that I could borrow for but a few minutes. I promise it will not come to any harm,” Frodo asked politely of the Ranger.

The man was relieved that Frodo appeared to have suffered few lasting effects from his fall out of the tree. Any distinguishable bruising would not be visible for another day, perhaps two. The bandage around his hand was still in place, and would need to be changed as Bilbo had already hinted at. Thankfully, mild discolouration and being embarrassed by his cousins may be the only reminders of today’s mishap.

“I do indeed, and I have no objections but must ask what are you planning to do?” the Ranger replied. Movement from the young hobbit was unrestricted from what the ranger could see. He was intrigued and curious about this mischievous side of Frodo.

“To give two certain young cousins a taste of their own medicine,” Frodo said as he took the cloak Strider offered. He was even more pleased to see that the cloak was also hooded. Even better for his plans he mused. The fabric was much darker in colour than his own and a great deal longer but that would suit his purpose even more.

By now the adults had a vague notion of what Frodo planned to do. Bilbo and Gandalf usually did not see Frodo involving himself in such activities, but could not deny that they thought a little harmless fun would entertain them all.

“Uncle, could you see that Merry and Pippin come looking for me once they have returned?” Frodo asked as he started heading down into the cellar.

“Yes, Frodo lad, I will tell them,” Bilbo answered with a note of anticipation, as he began clearing away his cooking dishes in order to set the table for supper.

“Looks as though the young apprentice now has an accomplice, Bilbo,” Gandalf laughed, pleased to see that some traits about his old friend has not changed too much with age. “You are not returning to your underhanded and sneaky ways from when you were much younger are you?”

“I shall see to it that you and the Ranger are blamed as much as I am, Gandalf, should it become necessary and we find ourselves at the mercy of a number of angry, young hobbits,” Bilbo teased lightly.

Strider and Gandalf both chuckled at the remark, and waited patiently for the impromptu performance to begin.

Approximately five minutes after Frodo went down into the cellar, Merry and Pippin returned to Bag End, followed closely by Sam who was carrying a small backpack with his change of clothes.

“I see your Gaffer was agreeable to you staying then, Sam,” Bilbo said as he laid plates and cutlery on the table for all.

“Not at first Master Bilbo, I must admit. He wasn’t too keen on the idea at all. I am most grateful for Mister Merry here who helped to repeat the reasons why I was needed that you told me. That I needed to help look after Mister Frodo and your other invited guests. My Gaffer changed his mind then and said it was alright as long as I remember to help out where I was needed most,” Sam explained.

Merry and Pippin were both very pleased with their efforts of being able to persuade Sam’s parents into letting him stay at Bag End. Like their cousin, they would be a little disappointed had they had to return to Bilbo’s home without him, only to have the stout hobbit miss out on the fun.

“Well that is most pleasing to hear Sam, I am grateful that your Gaffer has much wisdom when it comes to such things,” Bilbo remarked. “I am sure that Frodo will be just as happy to hear the news as well.”

It was only now that Bilbo mentioned his name that the three younger hobbits, noticed Frodo was no longer sitting on the settee. He gave a secret wink towards Gandalf and Strider before continuing his charade.

“Where is Mister Frodo?” Sam asked, thinking that maybe his master had gone to change his clothes for dinner or lay down quietly in his bedroom before supper.

“I sent him down to the cellar to get some ingredients for my dessert. I must say I sent him just after you left to go home, Sam. He has been gone a few minutes longer than I would have expected of him. Merry and Pippin, would you two go down into the cellar and see what’s keeping him. Samwise I could use your expertise in telling me if this stew is salted enough if you don’t mind,” Bilbo commented, using a ploy to ensure that it wasn’t Sam that went looking for Frodo first.

“Not to worry, Bilbo, he can’t have gone to far,” Merry said enthusiastically as he urged Pippin to follow him. Both hobbit’s gulped a little at the darkness of the room, even from the top of the stairs and they were grateful that neither of them was about to proceed down there alone.

Strider laughed inwardly at the two hobbit’s paused on the stairs, noting that their fear of the dark only played further into Frodo’s hands. At first Sam had been a little troubled that he was not asked to fetch his master. But he didn’t want to upset Bilbo, his host for the night over not helping him assess the readiness of the stew either. The request seemed a little odd to him at first. Sam was only to aware of Bilbo’s ability to cook up any number of delicious dishes, but he didn’t question the reason given.

Upon seeing Strider’s grin, and the knowing glances exchanged between Master Bilbo and Gandalf, the wizard, he suspected that Frodo’s disappearance and subsequent absence had been staged. He waited along with the adults to see what would soon transpire.

Down in the cellar, Frodo could now hear footsteps descending the staircase, and shrouded himself further into the folds of the Ranger’s cloak. When he had first come down here he had quickly climbed into the almost empty apple barrel. Those efforts to raise himself over the wooden rim had made him wince out loud a couple of times due to the bruising of his chest. He was appreciative that nobody else had been about to hear his sharp intake of breath or rub the problem area beneath his shirt.

Once he had managed to stand inside the barrel, and stop moving about so much, the ache soon eased and disappeared. He crouched down, and knelt on the bottom of the wooden bottom, with his knees bent and touching the inside wall of the vessel. Proceeding to drape the long cloak around his shoulders and fasten it with the fine brooch in front, he was almost set to seek his revenge for the ink staining his clothes.

The last thing he needed to do was to pull the hood of the garment over his head. Being suitable for a man, it was deep enough to shield most of his face and hide his features in shadow. He didn’t have a mirror to go rely on, but used his hands to brush some of his dark curls towards the edges of his face for an even more dramatic and imposing effect.

Now all he had to do was wait until Merry and Pippin got too curious for their own good. From previous experience and knowing first hand of their inability to remain still, he doubted he would have to wait too long.

Frodo heard the descending footsteps, followed by the whispered voices of Merry and Pippin. Once they had reached the bottom of the staircase, they walked together across the floor, neither willing to admit that they were afraid of the dark and determined not to let go of each other in case they lost each other in the enveloping darkness.

Merry and Pippin could vaguely see the distinct shape of wine barrels and other various wooden casks that contained long life food. They were stacked neatly in each corner of the cooler space that made up the cellar. They couldn’t see any sign of Frodo and were beginning to feel as if something might have happened to him.

Both of them were regretting not having the foresight to bring a torch with them that would help see into the darkness, and warn off any perceived threat. An involuntary shiver ran across Pippin’s shoulders, and Merry drew him closer, intending to protect him from unseen dangers.

“Halt, who goes there?” Frodo asked in a much deeper tone voice, disguising his usual pitch. His objective was to make them both jump at a few harmless noises, but to not frighten them too much that would cause any lasting effects.

“Merry, did you say something?” Pippin squeaked in alarm at the voice he heard, gripping his cousin’s waistcoat much tighter.

“Don’t be daft, Pip, I didn’t say anything, it must have been you or that over-active imagination of yours,” Merry said, removing the constricting arm from his middle. He wanted to sound brave and confident, but in truth, was feeling just as nervous as Pippin.

“Meriadoc and Peregrin, you disturb my slumber,” Frodo uttered with a deep guttural voice. He was scarcely able to keep from laughing at the squeaks of fright he could hear coming from his two cousins.

“We didn’t mean to disturb you, Sir, honest. We were sent down here to look for our cousin, Frodo,” Pippin gulped, not recognizing who he was speaking to. He wasn’t even sure if he meant to speak out loud in the first place.

“Frodo?” the voice called out, as though confused at hearing the name. “You must be referring to the other hobbit whom I have eaten!”

“Eaten!” Merry protested, as he felt the blood drain away from his face at such a statement. The hair on the back of his neck to stand up and the skin of his forearms to break out in gooseflesh. The very idea of something eating any hobbit was repulsive.

Frodo slowly began to rise up from inside the apple barrel, giving the appearance of being an dark, hooded and evil spectre. Coming forth to seek out new unsuspecting victims who were foolish enough to venture into its foreboding and darkened lair.

For a few moments, Merry and Pippin froze in place and could only gape with abject horror as they watched a large, cloaked and silhouetted figure rise up directly in front of them. Growing taller and taller and getting larger by the second.

The two frightened hobbit’s could not see the face of the creature before them as it spoke to them. The space where a face should be was shrouded in darkness by the hood of the cloak. They were on the edge of losing any bravery or confidence to fear, clinging to each other tightly as a combined team and convinced that their lives were truly in danger.

“And now, I shall have you as well,” Frodo declared in his altered voice, reaching out with both hands towards his two nervous hobbits. Frodo deliberately turned his face towards his cousins, the dark curls falling across his paler skin. This made it appear as though there was nothing beneath the hood but a strange and unfamiliar entity.

Merry and Pippin both shrieked in tandem with bemused horror, as they got their first glimpse of the white face which was staring back at them with intensity. They noted the blue eyes, but their fear would not release them long enough to recognize anything about them, other than having a cold, piercing stare.

Gandalf, and the two adults waiting upstairs in the sitting room, had been waiting patiently to hear what Frodo had planned for his cousins. Just when they feared that nothing would occur, the trio fought to hold back their laughter in a more composed manner as they heard hobbit’s shrieking and now running back up the staircase.

Merry and Pippin raced into the room after climbing the stairs two at a time, falling over each other’s feet as they sought refuge and safety from the behind the settee. They were quite out of breath, and were trying to draw air into their starving lungs whilst sitting on the floor. They were trying to escape and put any obstacle between themselves and whatever was chasing them from the cellar.

Frodo, had taken his time to climb out of the barrel, and follow the two young hobbits. Now he stood inside the doorway, listening to Merry and Pippin talking over the top of one another to Bilbo, attempting tell their version of events.

“Merry, Pippin, are you alright?” Gandalf asked, finding it difficult not to see the funny side of Frodo’s prank. “Whatever is the matter my dear young hobbits?” he enquired with an over-concerned tone to his voice.

The wizard was doing his best to maintain a sympathetic expression, which is more than could be said for Bilbo and Strider. The two of them were trying to hide their grins and giggles behind their hands, but were failing badly at doing so with success.

“Oh, Gandalf, Bilbo! There is a huge, big monster down in the cellar,” Pippin wailed, as he fought to pull himself to his feet. He grabbed onto and pulled the sleeve of the wizard’s grey travelling cloak tightly for greater emphasis.

“A monster you say? How big was this monster and what did he threaten to do?” Gandalf asked, acting as though he was hanging onto the youngster’s every word.

“At first he was small. We didn’t even see it until it started rising up from the floor,” Merry declared, waving his arms about, and giving a grand demonstration of what they had discovered to Bilbo and Strider.

“The creature said it was going to eat us, and had already eaten, Frodo!” Pippin reported, the volume of his voice increasing dramatically. He did not realise how ridiculous his telling of the story sounded.

“Eat Frodo, you say!” Gandalf cried out with mock alarm. By this time, he knew that he would not be able to hold back his mirth without drawing suspicion. Thankfully his rescuer came as he watched a shrouded Frodo silently creep up behind the two hobbits. ‘The monster’ was about to reveal himself.

Normally, Sam would have been worried to hear such a statement about his master’s unfortunate and untimely fate. Any premature and unwarranted concern was soon cast aside as he caught sight of the floating cloaked figure, out of the corner of his eye.

“Does this monster resemble anything like the one standing directly behind you now?” Gandalf asked, as he casually leaned back in the armchair.

Merry and Pippin froze at the wizard’s words, turning every so slowly, and as soon as they saw the cloak, ran behind Strider who was still seated. “Don’t let him get to us Strider?” Merry cried out, pleading for the ranger to help them when their need was so dire.

“Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took, note what I am about to say to you well,” Frodo warned with his deeper voice.

Strider and Bilbo could scarcely believe the change in voice that was coming from the normally, mild-mannered hobbit. The two of them were forced to quell their laughter and witness the priceless expressions on the faces of Merry and Pippin. By this time, Sam had relaxed sufficiently upon seeing who the manifested monster was, and he too had to hold back from laughing heartily, or risk spoiling his master’s ruse.

The two hobbits were urging each other to turn their faces away and not to look upon the figure, convinced that their eyes were playing tricks. However, the longer they attempted to resist, the more they found themselves unable to force themselves not to look. When it became clear that they may not be able to stop the screams of terror they were barely holding onto, the figure lifted a shrouded arm towards his hood.

Without any further warning, the hood was thrown back, revealing the monster underneath.

“Boo!” Frodo taunted in his own voice. The dark-haired hobbit’s blue eyes were shining with sheer delight at having given his two cousins such a great scare.

Frodo could barely stop himself from laughing as he looked at the stunned faces of Merry and Pippin. The longer he looked at them, remembering their shrieks and whispers down in the cellar, the harder it was to hold the gaffs of laughter back. An unusual, but unbridled display of emotion for such a gentle-hobbit.

By this time, Merry and Pippin became aware that they were the butt of the joke. They could see everybody laughing heartily at their expense. Frodo was laughing and his eyes were watering. Whilst they often got caught up in their own mischief, being caught out like they had been was an uncommon occurrence.

Merry was the first to look display an indignant expression on his face about what they had just been put through. “I suppose you think this is all very funny, Frodo Baggins!” he challenged, taking a step away from Pippin and putting his hands on his hips in a demanding stance.

Pippin nodded his head at the scathing words, and tried to mimic his cousin’s unimpressed look. In truth he was more cross that neither of them had figured out the whole

deplorable episode had been a gag meant to catch them out. Glancing about at the faces in the room, it seemed that everybody had been privy except him and Merry.

“Actually I do,” Frodo answered, straightening himself up and neatly removing the cloak from around his shoulders. “Thank you, Strider, that was most enjoyable. The best fun I have had in a very long time,” he added, still smiling broadly.

“You should have seen your faces,” Frodo teased the two cousins. “I’m coming to get you,” he repeated with the deep voice, and then doubling up again with a fresh wave of laughter at the reaction he had invoked down in the cellar.

“You sure got them good Mister Frodo, Sir,” Sam congratulated, as the laughter began to slow a little. “I bet they won’t be pulling any more pranks on you in a while,” he noted with a grin of satisfaction of his own. He would never have thought up something as clever as that to get back at Merry and Pippin for the ink and tea.

“It was a pretty good trick,” Pippin admitted, thinking about it more and seeing it from Frodo’s point of view. If he hadn’t been so scared by it, and followed Merry’s lead, he might have agreed with Sam that it was most inventive. The youngest hobbit was confident that he would be able to work on coming up with something like that with some time.

“Never let it be said that a Baggins was out done by a Brandybuck and a Took,” Frodo declared proudly in defence of his family heritage.

“That’s two Bagginses, Frodo my boy,” Bilbo pointed out as he sat down in one of the armchairs. “We Bagginses have to stick together you know,” he added with a cheeky wink.

Merry and Pippin could only give their elderly cousin Bilbo icy stares of bewilderment in response. The old hobbit had been part of the whole plan from the start. Because he had been the one to send them down into the cellar in the first place. He had known all along what was doing to happen, or suspected at the very least.

Age may be catching up with Bilbo and slowing him down physically, but his mind was still plenty active. He could clearly be just as sneaky as Frodo when he chose to be. Both Bagginses had been underestimated on this occasion, and together as a team, they were a formidable opposition indeed.

“I am grateful that I shall not be on the receiving end of such revenge or retribution from a Baggins,” Strider commented casually. “I will have to remain forever vigilant around all hobbits living within the shire. They are a most resourceful and unpredictable folk.”

“I guess we are about even at the moment, Frodo,” Merry declared. “You did scare us both good and proper, and that’s all done now.

Pippin wanted to openly object longer about the unfairness of it all, but saw the look on his cousin, and recognized a refreshed sense of determination. For now he was content to follow and give assistance to whatever scheme Merry was hatching.

Merry was not one to be deterred, and he did secretively begin formulating a worthwhile plan of retaliation. The game was still afoot yet. Frodo had won a significant battle, that was true. A sly smile crept over his face as he started thinking. There would be plenty of chances to get back at his cousin as he remembered the birthday celebration that would take place the next day.

Bilbo now invited everybody to join him in the dining room for supper. The banquet that was laid before them was lavish, sumptuous and mouth-watering. Pies were not the only offerings on the table. And there was copious quantities of everything. The elderly hobbit had outdone himself with his generous hospitality.

For the next hour, any chatter around the dining room table ceased as all guests began to sample the delicious array of food and focus soon turned to eating. Occasionally, Frodo would steal glances towards his two cousins and grinning to himself of what had taken place.

Frodo surveyed the faces gathered around the table, with members of his own family present, and friends, both new and old joining together harmoniously in a meal. The dark-haired hobbit smiled with anticipation and a hint of excitement, that the birthday celebrations he would share with his beloved uncle Bilbo tomorrow, should be the best ever.

After supper had been consumed, the younger hobbits had helped Samwise to clear away the dishes. The straw-haired hobbit had offered to help clean up the dining room and kitchen by himself, but was quickly denied by Frodo. Sam was told that this was one night where he was going to be enjoying the fun too. With extra pairs of hands, the tasks were quickly completed whilst the other adults were quietly talking over a bottle of Bilbo’s vintage wine.

With the menial chores out of the way, Frodo took the younger hobbits into his bedroom, intending to read a story or two from some of his many books. For over an hour, Frodo had his cousins and Sam listening and enthralled by every word he spoke. Just as they had done so beneath the tree earlier in the day with Strider.

In the sitting room, the bottle of wine had eventually been swapped for pipes, smoking and sipping at piping hot cups of tea, whilst news and rumours from outside of the shire were shared. Before the topic of discussion changed to recalling old memories, Gandalf commented that he should retire to bed for the evening. There were many preparations for the following day that would require his personal attention.

After bidding the wizard goodnight, Bilbo was about to show Strider to one of his guest rooms that was specifically set up to accommodate big-folk. Gandalf was using a similar sized room, where the bed was much larger and would allow a man to rest in comfort. Other furnishings within the room would also suit the ranger better than hobbit sized furniture.

As they made their way down one of the many passageways of Bag End, they could hear whispered voices coming from behind Frodo’s closed bedroom. Curiosity found them unable to resist looking in to see what was going on. Surely four hobbits would have run out of energy and things to talk about by this time.

Bilbo politely knocked on the door, but as he opened the door and looked in, his eyes lit up and he smiled at a most heart-warming scene before them.

Frodo had been reading to the younger hobbits, but before starting the current tale, Merry had declared that it was his turn to read to them all. Frodo was laying on the far side of the bed, closest to the window, whilst Pippin and Sam were gathered beside Merry on the opposite side. None of them being aware of anything else in the room but the story they were hearing.

“Did you young hobbits wear poor Frodo out?” Bilbo whispered, as he walked into the room. Strider remained in the doorway, not wanting to enter and make any unnecessary noise.

Sam and the others now turned around at Bilbo’s question, surprised to see the dark-haired hobbit, sleeping peacefully on his back. His face relaxed and trouble free, and his breathing had deepened into slumber.

Sam felt his cheeks redden slightly with guilt that he had not detected any signs of his master growing weary. When Merry had begun to read about a sword fight from long ago, he had been listening too closely, and not paying attention to his master’s needs.

“I am sorry Master Bilbo, I did not see how tired he was becoming,” Sam offered in apology.

“That’s perfectly alright, Sam, you have nothing to apologize for,” Bilbo said gently as he picked up a soft blanket that hung over the end of the bed, and spread it gently over Frodo’s peaceful form.

“I suspect all of you, including Frodo, have had much more activity today than he is normally used to since moving here to Bag End. He needs to get enough rest tonight for the celebrations tomorrow. It shall be a special day for him too, and I want to ensure that this birthday party will be just as much fun for him.”

“His hand and chest must not be bothering him too much for the moment, judging how easily rest has found him tonight,” Strider remarked. He did not want to dwell on how much his heart had skipped a beat when recalling the fall from the tree.

“Sam, I will leave you in here with Frodo tonight, for I know you will not awaken him with endless chatter or move about needlessly. Merry and Pippin, lads if you would come with me please, I will settled you both into one of the spare hobbit bedrooms down the hall,” Bilbo instructed. “You have stayed in them before on previous visits.”

“Good-night, Master Bilbo and Mister Strider, Sir, I will not disturb him before morning,” Sam promised, began settling down for the evening on the other side of the bed. He was intending to be as quiet and careful as he possible. The book that Merry had been reading from was set aside neatly on the night stand.

Merry and Pippin bid Sam good-night and followed Bilbo out of their cousin’s bedroom. They were sharing a few last quiet words with the ranger, telling him all about the tales in Frodo’s books.

Frodo turned on his side towards his uncle, and gave an audible sigh of contentment as he pressed his face deeper into the pillow.

The elderly hobbit doubted a thousand lines or poetry or a hundred tales in books could accurately describe how much he loved this gentle lad who had come into his lonely existence and given it meaning and purpose again. There would never be enough chests of gold, or bags of treasure that he would give in trade for the time they shared together.

“Good-night, my dear boy,” Bilbo whispered and gently kissed his sleeping charge on his forehead, brushing the curls from his face with an affectionate stroke of his hand.

To be continued……..

Author Notes: This story was started a long time ago (over fourteen 17 years ago), but I felt there were parts that needed more, and I wanted some more scenes in certain areas and include some of my new arcs.

I apologize for any mistakes I may have made about Lord Of The Rings history or any names I may have mis-spelled. I also hope that I have not wavered too far from people’s takes on the individual personalities of each character.

I don’t mean to make Strider and Bilbo out as so secretive. I just want to keep the idea about the Wraiths coming until later in the story. The fact that Bilbo knows that danger is coming and doesn’t do anything straight away is also not intentional and I humbly ask for readers to believe that’s what happened.

Any medicinal information is only from my own sources and not meant as true procedure to any injury or treatment that I may have used in my story so far or will in the future.

Not much has happened yet. Much more to come. In next chapter, the party preparations take place that I envisaged happened prior to the movie.

I know the appearance of a big person in the Shire would be out of place too, but I need that to make the story work. I just need both people, elves, dwarves and hobbits everywhere to suspend what they know to be true for a while and take what I write as happening.

I have also referred to Frodo as a boy in many parts – not intending for him to be called a human “boy” – just makes the story flow a little easier at times instead of constantly using “the hobbit” and similar descriptions.

Any information that I write in my Lord Of The Rings stories about eating flows on that in the two other fandoms I write – all of my main characters in each fandom are all finicky eaters and just push the food around on a plate or go for long lengths without anything to eat or refuse to do so. The others are like this in all stories that I write about them as well.

There will be other traits for Frodo that emerge over time that are not from the book or the movie, but characteristics that I interpret as part of his overall personality. I want to write a very close relationship between Bilbo and Frodo.

Please review and let me know what you think. I will try and update as soon as I can, but writing time is often not on my side.


Chapter Three – Finding The Balance


By Jules

Author Notes – thank you for everybody who is still reading. It truly means a lot that people are reading after such a long time of being away. I hope you enjoy this next installment.

This is the second story in my new series, and it would be helpful for you to read Please Tell Someone as this story continues straight into a new page from the ending scenes of that story.

The reason for this title will not become apparent until much later in the story, but was thought of ten (10) years ago or more, when the original plot came to me long before I added in the new adoption arc.

Any legal references, laws, requirements for reporting abuse, the steps taken afterwards, court proceedings and outcomes and interview protocols are all fictional. Some are based loosely on real laws and circumstances, but a lot are fabricated to suit my story only and have been changed to suit the plot I have derived. The same with which authorities are involved and their individual roles and responsibilities.

With some of my medical procedures, I have used real techniques and treatments to a certain extent, but there are some that are completely invented for my stories as well and are totally fictional and should not be used for real people. They are used to progress my stories and include for specific scenes as required.

Given that SeaQuest is set in the future, medical technology would have changed greatly, with new procedures and medications and medicines being discovered and put into practice.

This chapter will be building to some of the most important scenes of the whole beginning adoption process, and that is Lucas’ long held secret has just been found out. But I intend to have quite a few light-hearted ones as well and some new things happening as I can.

Sorry folks, but this chapter ended up even longer than all the others so far. That was not my original intentions, and quite a few scenes wrote themselves out of nowhere.

There will be a lot happening in this story as well, so I am not sure how long it will be yet. Quite a few more chapters longer than the first story.

Chapter Three – Finding The Balance

towards the end of the previous chapter:

I thought the Admiral would be calling to tell me…….that my father was ordering me to come home,” unable to make the words form into a coherent sentence, his voice barely above a whisper. He was holding onto his composure by a thread with sheer will power.

And now the story continues:

After a few hours sleep, Captain Nathan Bridger left his quarters, making his way towards the Bridge. He was intending to talk to Commander Jonathan Ford who should have taken over from Katie Hitchcock not so long ago.

He fought hard against wanting to carry out a detour through the corridors, and his real desire to head towards Mammal Engineering to check on their youngest crew member. But knowing exactly how long ago Lucas had left his company to go back to his own cabin and hopefully get some sleep, he didn’t want to disturb the teenager too early this morning.

The siren wailed and the bell rang to signal the opening of the two heavy dome doors.

Captain on deck,” came the dutiful announcement from Chief Crocker.

Good morning, Chief,” he greeted Crocker. Commander Ford, anything out of the ordinary to report this morning?” Bridger questioned, returning the dutiful salute from his Executive Officer.

Good morning, Sir,” Ford greeted the man as he approached the Captain’s chair. “The glitches are still occurring, and Katie spent the majority of her shift last night combing through some of the systems, trying to figure out a cause for them. I believe she has at least one rather radical solution involving the communications station to suggest to you later in the day, Captain.”

I look forward to hearing any progress she has made,” Bridger responded. “I had a rather sleepless night myself for a different reason.”

Sir?” Ford said, taking a look at the Captain’s outer appearance. The man appeared alert and ready to start his shift. “Did you require me to alter your hours on the Bridge this morning?”

No, Jonathan, I will manage fine for now, thank you,” Bridger replied.

Nathan had yet to sit down, wanting to talk to another crew member who was on duty before doing so.

The Captain walked over towards Miguel Ortiz, who was carrying out a number of checks on the W.S.K.R.S. that were currently roaming outside in the ocean surrounding SeaQuest.

Good morning, Captain,” Miguel greeted the man, and giving the appropriate salute as well, which was promptly acknowledged.

Good morning, Mr Ortiz, I just wanted to inform you that Lucas leaving the Bridge yesterday in such a rush wasn’t due to anything you did,” the Captain assured him.

I didn’t know that I was supposed to be screening calls from the Admiral and putting them through with more caution when Lucas was present,” he offered in apology. “Tim told me about your orders to him after it happened.”

Bridger was quick to comment in reply, “You don’t have anything to be sorry or apologize for. What happened wasn’t your fault, but I did get Lucas to open up a little more in the mess hall during the early hours of this morning.

You did, Sir?” Ortiz asked, thinking that it was good that the teenager had been willing to talk to the Captain. Ford now had understood why the Captain had mentioned about not getting much sleep himself.

Nathan beckoned Tim O’Neill to come a little closer, and together with Commander Ford, they were all listening as part of the network.

Lucas did share with me why he did so, but it was quite difficult for him to admit to what he was feeling at the time, even to me. Naturally, he is still holding a lot of unresolved fears inside at the moment, and it is starting to keep him from getting enough sleep at night. I will talk to Ben and Kristin this morning and let them know as well,” Bridger explained. He went to speak, but then changed his mind about the specific words.

The three men standing with him could see the Captain’s hesitation before he continued.

Lucas thought that Admiral Noyce was calling to tell him that he would be returning to his father, despite any of my earlier assurances that I gave to him that such a thing wouldn’t happen without his knowledge,” he stated. He could see that their reactions to such a statement, and could see their empathy for their youngest crew member.

That has to be rough on someone as young as him, thinking that all the time,” O’Neill contemplated, knowing that the teenager was still in pain from recent injuries.

No wonder he ran out of here,” Miguel remarked. “No surprise then that he is up, keeping odd hours.”

He knows that the man could be calling for any reason related to SeaQuest or the U.E.O. instead. So any further calls from the Admiral, please tell me quietly if Lucas is present on the Bridge,” he instructed.

Yes, Sir,” came the trio of replies.

I wouldn’t expect any of us to see Lucas early today. Our little impromptu meeting didn’t end until a few hours ago,” Nathan revealed. “By that time, the coffee had turned cold and wasn’t keeping either of us awake. He would have only gone to sleep after returning to his cabin.”

I know he organized with you to start work on those door locks again this morning, Jonathan, but that can wait until after he is awake and has eaten. These glitches will still be here waiting until then.”

I agree with you on that, Captain. All of us have enough tasks on the Bridge at hand here to work with for now. We can allow Lucas as much flexibility as he needs, depending on how rested he is feeling later,” Ford spoke.

What time is Lieutenant Krieg due to start his duties this morning, Commander?” Bridger asked.

Ford looked down at his watch and then went about recalling the duty roster for today, “Not for another hour, Sir.”

Thank you, lets all return to those regular duties until then,” Nathan suggested. “I don’t know what Kristin’s schedule down in the science department is this time of the morning either, but I will let them both know together.

Jonathan, let’s back track to yesterday and revisit some of the glitches you and I were trying to solve here on the Bridge, and go from there.”

Aye, Sir,” Ford answered, following the Captain back to his chair, and bringing up a set of blue prints for the various areas that they had been previously pouring over.

The Captain’s assumption of what Lucas would be doing at this time of the morning was totally off course. The teenager had returned to his cabin after leaving the mess hall, but never actually went to sleep at all. He was tired, but wasn’t about to admit that to anybody, so he used a fresh shower to try to rejuvenate himself and stay awake and appear more alert for a few hours.

He still had to be careful with the waterproof coverings to make sure they didn’t get allow any water to get underneath and reach his stitches. They were supposed to prevent this, but they were not always foolproof. He didn’t want to have to report to Kristin and tell her that he had gotten them wet.

Intending to head towards the mess hall and get some breakfast, there was something else he needed to take care of first, despite his desire to avoid it. He knew he wasn’t doing himself any favours, or Kristin if he tried to dodge it too long. So once he left his cabin, he headed towards the science department to find the doctor.

As he made his way there, he was trying to figure out what he was going to do today. Working with Darwin on the vocorder was his intention sometime today, and he had promised Commander Ford that he would be starting work on the door locks this morning. But for the first few hours today, he wanted to find somewhere a lot quieter, and where what he was doing wouldn’t scrutinised so much.

Reaching the science department, Lucas could see that Kristin was holding an early morning meeting with a large number of her staff in the first laboratory. There were a lot of people in the room, so it was easy for him to slip into the background without drawing attention to himself. There was a spare chair at one of the tables in the back left-hand corner, and that is where he patiently waited, listening to Doctor Westphalen as she gave instructions.

Once he started listening to the subject matter, he could hear her telling those present, that a large portion of them would be completing paperwork and carrying some basic medical tests. Just as he, the Captain and Ben had done the day before. Kristin was instructing them that they would be attending in smaller groups of two or three throughout the day at various intervals. With the number of staff that were currently in this room, it looked as though her schedule was taken up for the majority of the day and perhaps tomorrow.

You all have your assigned tasks for this morning,” Kristin spoke, “If you have any questions or concerns about your own individual medical reports, you can approach me at any time. Otherwise, we carry on with the sampling schedule that I have already started implementing. Thank you all for your valuable time.”

There were a few discussions between different people in the room, a number of them mingling together and growing louder, so it was difficult to follow even one of them. Within a few more minutes, a portion of the team members had started to disperse. A few were grumbling about the unfairness of having to carry out the medical tests, others appeared to accept their fate and were not so bothered by what was going to be required of them.

It took about ten minutes before the room was almost empty except for Kristin herself, who was at the front of the room, carefully sifting through a number of files. She looked up as the silence began to grow, and noticed Lucas sitting at the back of the room for the first time.

Good morning, what a lovely surprise this early, I didn’t even see you come in here,” she smiled, stopping what she was doing and walking over to him.

Morning,” the teenager replied, giving her a small shy smile in return. “Still too early for my liking,” he replied candidly.

As you probably overheard, some of my own team are planning to mutiny against me in relation to completing their new medical files, just like you and Lieutenant Krieg did yesterday,” Kristin commented.

Whilst talking to him, Kristin thought back to when she had come across Ben Krieg the previous afternoon, pounding on the teenager’s locked hatch door and pleading with him to open up and talk to him. He had told her that a number of crew members had witnessed the youth run from the Bridge in a sudden state of panic, after a video-link call was accepted from Admiral Noyce. The doctor had yet to learn the reason for his refusal to come out and talk.

Whatever the reason had been then, the teenager was not showing any outward signs of anxiety now, nor wanting to hide away from anybody, but there were other markers visible. It was becoming more difficult to try and map his mood swings and state of mind at any one time, or determine a set pattern for triggers. She had to be satisfied with the notion that all of them were still grappling with what had been discovered. Nothing about it wasn’t easy, and finding any one solution to match wasn’t going to work either.

Looks like you are going to be busy today with the number of people that was in here,” Lucas remarked, watching what he thought to be her concentration drifting away from him momentarily.

Did you need to see me?” Kristin queried, looking at his face, noticing the signs of tiredness that he was trying hard not to show. “Did you sleep at all last night,” she added, not being able to ignore what she could see.

A little,” he said with honesty, but dropped his gaze away from her as he spoke. He could virtually feel the doctor assessing his overall appearance, even without her asking him any other direct questions about how he was fairing. He was silently hoping that she wouldn’t dig too much deeper on that front.

From his posture, body language and not keeping eye contact with her, Kristin assumed that by giving the short two word response, the teenager was admitting to not sleeping very well at all. ‘Adaptable’ was the best one word phrase she could come up with to encompass the range of emotions and symptoms he was choosing to display.

Are you having any pain anywhere at the moment?” came the first in a number of questions that Lucas had been fully expecting a few minutes earlier by coming down into the doctor’s domain.

My stitches have been pulling some, and I can’t walk around with my hip too long before it starts protesting, but I don’t need any medication yet,” Lucas said truthfully.

Lucas silently watched the doctor’s expressions and mannerisms carefully, trying to determine any judgement on her part that might be directed at him now that Kristin knew about the abuse from his father. He could see her troubled glances about his tiredness.

He could see that she was troubled by his injuries and that he had not been taking care of himself, remembering back to the argument that had occurred between them. Going back over the questions she had asked him, shame began to creep back in when he recalled the accusations and hostility that he had answered with. He could tell as her words echoed back at him that she hadn’t guessed at the real cause. Not until she had over-heard in the Ward Room like the Captain informed him.

The teenager found his thoughts drifting away for a moment, about the doctor overhearing what had transpired between him and the Captain. Looking at Kristin now, he realised that she knew about the abuse from his father. Today, he wanted to see if there were any further differences that he could pick up on since their exchange in med-bay. Was she treating him any differently?

Kristin was pleased that he was prepared to be honest with her about how he was feeling physically. She wanted know how he was coping mentally and emotionally as well, but one step at a time she reminded herself silently. Patience, support, and plenty of understanding was going to become her mantra for the foreseeable future.

Did you eat yet this morning?” was the next question and that was the most predictable of any he expected the doctor to ask him.

No, not yet, I was going to, but then remembered about the blood sample that you wanted to take from me yesterday,” Lucas answered. “So here I am. I was planning on getting something once we are done.”

Well now, isn’t that wonderful that you decided to come all the way down here and just give into my demands like that,” Kristin said with a hint of suspicion in her voice. She watched his face carefully in case he was genuinely trying to hide something from her.

Don’t get used to it,” Lucas said with a small grin, not offended by her doubts of his intentions. He had probably earned that a little by his efforts with the I.V. and escaping her custody before being formally released.

I thought you would want to do it before I had anything to eat. That is what you said yesterday morning,” Lucas pointed out.

When was the last time you had something to eat or drink?” Kristin asked, pleased that his mind was as sharp as ever, remembering important information from their conversations yesterday.

I had coffee about three a.m. this morning,” Lucas admitted, waiting for her to scold him for drinking a caffeinated beverage at that hour of the morning. “I was with the Captain in the mess hall.”

Oh were you both now!” she said, recognizing that being in there at that hour of the day was part of the reason he hadn’t slept very well. Or more correctly he had not been able to sleep very well, and found himself in the mess hall drinking coffee with Nathan. “I shall need to have a discussion with the Captain about that,” she continued with mock sternness.

Lucas had wanted to tell her what had transpired between them, and what Bridger had said and how he had tried to help quell his fears, but in the end, he couldn’t and left any topic of conversation that they did share to Kristin’s imagination. He had found it easier talking to the Captain this morning, but didn’t want to say that out loud, because he knew that she and Ben had been making efforts to get him to talk to them as well.

The teenager didn’t know if he could have revealed some of the complex emotions, doubts and thoughts that he was experiencing in the mess hall to them, even on a one-on-one basis. He expected the Captain to report back to Kristin anyway about the truth of what had caused him to leave the Bridge in such a rush.

Kristin picked up on his mood sinking a little, putting a hand on his and giving a small squeeze, signalling that she was here for him. Nathan had been the most successful so far in getting him to open up, despite many the questions, concerns and worries of his own he held about Lucas. The two of them sharing some quality time over a cup of coffee was not something to be quibbling about.

That was about five hours ago, normally I would like to see eight hours between the last food or drink before a testing blood sample is taken,” Kristin began to explain. “However, seeing as how I am wanting to do a type match for your blood first, only a small amount will be required for that.”

Really?” Lucas asked hopefully.

Only for the type match. After that happens, I would prefer you to have breakfast and eat something first before anything else this morning,” Kristin forewarned, knowing that encouraging him to eat on a more regular basis was paramount. “You can come and see me later today so I can take the sample for testing.”

Now I have to give you two samples?” Lucas pouted with mock disgust, thinking he had been doing the right thing by coming to see her. But he hadn’t envisioned signing up for giving two blood donations today.

One very small one now, and one slightly larger one later,” Kristin said at hearing his mild protest. “You won’t even notice the first one I promise, and it won’t take very long at all.”

Yeah, that is what you say now,” Lucas grumbled, as he stood up and prepared to follow the doctor into med-bay to give the first blood sample.

You males are all the same, no matter how old you all are,” Kristin started to generalise as she lead the way. “One little needle, and you all suddenly think that you will be giving every drop you have. Not an ounce of bravery in any one of you when it comes to being pre-emptive about your own health.”

Lucas laughed at her casual poke in fun at the male population, but upon entering the room, he felt he had to own up to something that she may not have realised the last time she used a needle on him.

Um, Kristin, there is something I need to tell you, or that you probably should know when it comes to needles and me,” he began to say as the doctor gestured for him to sit on the examination bed.

Something the matter?” Kristin asked, detecting the change in tone of his voice, and knowing that he was being serious now, and all jokes had been put aside.

No, but you probably should be prepared….. in the past when I have had a nurse or anybody giving me a needle…. well it hasn’t always been smooth sailing,” he finished, not knowing how to explain to her about the other times of how he had reacted.

It is perfectly normal to be a little afraid,” she stated, knowing that some people did have established phobias and a problem giving blood samples.

Not scared so much, as in that I normally react involuntarily, not even meaning to,” Lucas tried his best to explain. “It has happened a couple of times, and I don’t really know how else to describe it to you.”

Thank you for letting me know, and I promise I will do my best so that you don’t even know that it is happening,” the doctor replied. “You can look away when I am doing it, if that will help?”

I really don’t know if that will help,” Lucas answered. “I don’t even know what sets it off, but I wanted you to make you aware that what ever happens, it is me, and not you or your technique.”

Like I mentioned, this first sample to determine your blood type, only needs to be a small one,” Kristin explained as the teenager watched her pull out a small black case from a drawer. “This kit contains a number of items that someone who is diabetic may require to test their blood glucose levels on a daily basis.”

Lucas watched with interest as she chose a small item from within the case. It looked harmless enough, and not a needle like he had been expecting.

This is called a lancet,” Kristin named, showing him the small tool. “It has a small specialised needle inside. Hold out your hand please.”

The teenager did what was asked of him, a little cautiously at first. He kept his eyes on Kristin the whole time as she took the lancet and place it over the index finger of his offered right hand. A few seconds later he felt a small distinct but painless prick to the surface of his skin. A droplet of blood welled from it as a result.

Kristin put the tool aside, and used a small tube to collect the sample required. “We used to take a larger sample for typing blood, but with a lot of improvement in this particular medical field, we now only require a tiny amount to get the same answer.”

That didn’t hurt at all,” Lucas said in surprise and a little relief. He felt the needle and could see the blood, but had not felt anything.

That’s good, but I will need the sample this afternoon to be larger for testing,” she forewarned. “It shouldn’t hurt any more than now.” he added, trying to quell any concerns he may still be carrying.

It doesn’t even look like you will need anything covering it,” Kristin remarked, watching as the site had already stopped bleeding. “I will come and give you the results once they are ready.”

Now let’s take a look at the rest of you,” she suggested, seeing his immediate roll his eyes in answer. “Shirt please,” she instructed, waiting patiently for him to comply.

I thought we already did this enough,” he grouched, but started to comply, grimacing at the discomfort as he raised it over his head, pulling the stitches. “This wasn’t part of the deal this morning.”

As Kristin could have predicted, the bruising to his hip area was now darker and angrier looking. Using gentle hands, the dressings were still intact and undisturbed, which was positive news as well. The original bruising to his shoulder area was still mottled and various shades or purple, but not as dark as the boot print.

Without voicing anything out loud, the doctor could see him trying to bite his tongue from making any sound that he was feeling discomfort and pain. Inwardly she shook her head at his stubbornness, but decided that there were larger battles looming in the near future that needed more of her time and energy. At the moment, she had to divert much of that to supporting Lucas, rather than finding fault.

Everything appears to be healing normally,” Kristin declared truthfully. “You can put your shirt back on now, thank you.”

Thanks, do you need anything else from me for now?” he asked, preparing to leave med-bay and head for breakfast.

What did you have planned to do today?” the red-haired doctor asked, hoping that the teenager would opt to rest a little more, but doubting that her unspoken suggestion would happen.

I promised Commander Ford that I would come and see him sometime this morning to start working on looking at the glitches that have been happening with the door locks,” the boy began. “But actually to tell you the truth, I haven’t worked on doing anything else out beyond breakfast.”

Lucas didn’t want to voice to her out loud that his desire to be around other people this morning was already quickly waning.

Please go slow, whatever you choose to do,” Kristin pleaded. “You know where I am if you need me at any time before we meet up again this afternoon. And please drink plenty of water when you can.”

Lucas headed for the door, heading her words and nodding his head in acknowledgement that he had heard her, but not offering any definitive promise in return of his movements.

Lucas was pleased that he had done his good deed for the day and seen Kristin before committing to doing anything else this morning. It was true what he admitted to the doctor down in med-bay, he didn’t know what he wanted to do yet. Perhaps a cup of coffee might sway the decision in one particular direction.

Whilst Lucas was entering the mess hall, Captain Bridger was still carrying out his duties on the Bridge, and his friend Ben Krieg had already having finished his first meal of the day a short time ago.

Head Chef Don was finishing wiping down tables as the teenager entered, most of the morning crowd had moved onto their duties, leaving only a few latecomers.

Morning,” he said shyly, heading straight for the hot tea and coffee station. “Just going to grab a coffee and something light this morning.”

Don watched the boy grab a plate of toast from the serving counter, “There is more available in the kitchen that I just put away if you were looking for something more substantial, Lucas,” he mentioned, but pleased to see some kind of food in the kid’s hand.

Thanks, this is all I feel like for now,” Lucas replied casually, taking up a seat on one of the dining tables set against the wall and off to the side, where the overhead lighting wasn’t so bright. From where he was sitting, the teenager would be able to anybody coming into the area, but those entering may not notice him straight away.

Very shrewd the chef noted silently to himself. He would help the Captain and crew to help the young man fit in easier, but didn’t see the point of hounding or pestering the boy every minute and making him feel awkward. As far as the amount of food Lucas had chosen, perhaps it was not a whole lot, but better than nothing at all he surmised.

Half an hour later, Lucas approached the serving counter, handing over the empty small plate and the empty coffee cup to Don. “Thank you, I will come back later in the day for lunch.”

Any time,” Don responded, taking the crockery from his possession. A lot of crew members just left them on the tables when they were finished. The chef appreciated someone making his morning tasks easier in an effort to be nice. Said a whole lot about the character of a person in his books. The teenager took a cold bottle of water with him as he left the area.

An early morning launch arrival with new supplies and stores had Lieutenant Ben Krieg busy for the immediate future. Whilst he was carrying out the unloading, Lucas made his way towards the Bridge.

Captain Bridger had left only a few minutes earlier for a short coffee break. Commander Hitchcock was still looking to gain his attention to discuss her radical idea with him for the communications station. He would need some more brain cells firing for that discussion after such little sleep overnight.

Chief Crocker gave the youth a smile as he entered through the dome doors. “Captain just left a few minute ago. You just missed him.”

Thanks,” came the reply. “I will catch up with him later in the day.”

Lucas, I didn’t expect to see you here so early this morning?” Commander Ford greeted the boy with surprise, looking down at the time.

Why? This is what we organized yesterday isn’t it?” he replied, not knowing about Bridger revealing about their very early morning talk to a few of the crew.

Yes it is,” Ford agreed, pleased to see the teenager keeping to the arranged timeline. The Commander walked over to a small work station, and picked up the tablet that he had waiting. “This is how Katie will monitor your progress throughout the day.”

For the next several minutes, Jonathan showed Lucas the system that was set up to log all maintenance to any part of the vessel. “When you are finished each door lock, you need to put your initials here, and record the time and date. This is how the brass at U.E.O. attribute costings and allocate any future funding to the required areas.”

Seems like too many people chasing their tails to me, but I will do it like you ask,” Lucas commented, remembering the conversation they had already shared about the pressure being placed on him and Katie Hitchcock from people higher up at U.E.O. headquarters.

Now because of the number of door locks that we know about, don’t be concerned about doing them all within a week,” the Commander instructed. He knew that the boy was doing the work as a volunteer and not getting paid, so he wasn’t expecting as much from him as he would from Katie’s normal technicians.

I will begin a little later , but I did want to do something else to start with this morning, if you didn’t have any objections,” Lucas informed him, taking possession of the tablet.

None at all, whenever you are ready to get started,” Jonathan answered. “Please take it easy, and have breaks at regular intervals or when you need to, because I don’t want to become the next target of Doctor Westphalen.”

I think I have that fairly well covered for now,” Lucas remarked, knowing that the doctor intended to keep tabs on him.

If you have any problems, concerns or questions, you know where to find me for most of the day, and then Katie herself will also be on the Bridge after lunch time,” Ford told him. “Anything you can do to lessen the growing workload in front of us will be greatly appreciated.”

Ford watched the teenager leave the Bridge. He had tried to gauge how the young man was feeling physically, but the boy was playing his cards too close to his chest at the moment. The Commander thought himself to be a vigilant person when it come to leading team members, but he had to admit to himself quietly that he felt a little out of his depth and comfort zone with someone Lucas’s age. That coupled with the complex issues that had just emerged and he felt much less than prepared than Bridger or Krieg.

Upon returning to his own cabin, Lucas had intended to collect his electronic tool and head to the moon pool to work with Darwin for a little while before beginning working on the locks. There were a couple of other projects that he thought about tackling, but in the end he choose one that didn’t require him to leave his personal space.

For the next few hours, he worked on the software program for Kristin’s science department. He had to get up from his computer desk on a couple of occasions to stretch the protesting muscles in his back and hip. The bottle of water he had brought, kept him hydrated.

The seclusion inside his own cabin, allowed him to keep to his plan of gaining some thinking time for himself. He didn’t know how long it would last, and fully expected Kristin and the Captain to be knocking on his door at some point.

Cranking up the music and placing his headphones over his ears, Lucas wanted the music to keep his concentration, but block out anything else that had been going on inside his brain for the past couple of days.

Bridger had kept his own mind busy enough as the hours began to tick by, but sitting in the mess hall now, virtually on his own, they soon started to stray. Should he go and look for Lucas? Before he could answer that question, Kristin entered the mess hall.

Good Morning, Nathan,” she greeted him warmly, filling a mug with coffee and milk, before joining him at the same table.

Hello,” the Captain returned with a smile. He could feel her eyes casting a worried glance in his direction, and now understood how Lucas must have felt sometimes.

You look tired,” she said plainly, knowing what subject was plaguing him at present. The same concern and desire to find a workable solution wasn’t far from her own thoughts.

That obvious, huh?” Bridger answered, but just as he prepared to talk further, Ben Krieg came in wheeling two large boxes on a trolley.

Hello,” he said cheerfully, waving at both of them. “I will be back in a minute, these need to get delivered to Don.”

The Head Chef must have heard Krieg’s voice, and stepped out of the kitchen to meet him. “What do you have there, Ben?” Neither of them needed to put on a display of banter this time around. Lucas wasn’t anywhere to be seen to benefit from their impromptu, light-hearted taunting of each other.

These are some of the equipment and supplies for the coffee and tea station. There are a few more boxes to come from the launch bay yet to follow these,” Ben stated.

Fine, fine, just put them over there in the corner,” Don said, pointing to the corner of the room he had designated to set up for such a purpose. “There will be a cabinet for the non-perishable items put there later today. Any containers of milk and juice can be placed in the fridges out here or in the kitchens.”

Once the two boxes had been lifted from the trolley, both men walked back to the table that the Captain and Kristin currently occupied. The empty trolley was pushed and left beside the table behind them, out of the way.

Captain, and Doctor,” Don said to them. “I just thought I should let you know that Lucas came in here for breakfast this morning. Didn’t have a whole lot to eat, but he did have something. And took some water with him when he left and said he would be back later in the day for lunch.”

Well that is some good news at least,” Nathan commented, happy to hear some positive news and that other people had at least seen the boy today. A few hours sleep must have helped him a little.

I will head back to my duties now, I just thought you would want to know,” the man said.

Thank you, Don, for your efforts,” the Captain said in gratitude.

I haven’t had a chance to spend any time with him this morning and see how he was doing,” Ben remarked. “The launch arrived and since then I have been up to my eyeballs in boxes.”

“I am surprised to hear him up so early, considering what time he would have gone to bed,” Nathan said. “I couldn’t sleep myself and found him in here at three a.m. this morning, sitting on his own again. I was going to check up on him before I started by shift, but wanted to let him get some sleep.”

Lucas already dobbed you in, Captain, on what time you were both in here together sharing caffeine,” Kristin said in mock sternness, until she saw the troubled look on his face.

I managed to find out why he left the Bridge in such a hurry yesterday,” Nathan shared, his voice portraying his growing frustration about the whole situation involving Lucas’ father. He looked back at Kristin and Ben as he spoke. “I wasn’t expecting him to talk much at all, but thankful that he did.

Ben could see the worry on the Captain’s face over the teenager’s emotional well-being. The talk they had shared together appeared to have been profound and had quite an impact on the both of them from what he could see in front of him.

The fear he carries around about his father is very real and cannot be underestimated,” Bridger warned, but decided to keep how badly the boy was trembling between just the two of them for now. “He is trying to accept and understand that we are attempting to help him, but his reactions are spur of the moment or spontaneous. Driven by that factor of needing to escape and an adrenaline fuelled flight response.”

Kristin spoke gently, trying to ease the burden of guilt, and improve his sense of purpose, “If Lucas was willing to talk to you, even briefly, then you have achieved something good, no matter what time of the day or night. None of this is going to be easy, least of all for him.”

Like he had told the men on the Bridge earlier, there was no sugar-coating what needed to be said. “Lucas thought that Bill was calling to tell him that he would returning to his father.”

Ben sat up a little straighter, trying to put himself in the teenager’s shoes. “He still thinks any one of us would let that happen if we could prevent or stop it? After seeing and hearing everything we know so far?”

I have explained to him and repeated that nothing will be happening to him, without his prior knowledge or consent,” Bridger answered. “But at the moment, previous experiences are hanging over him like a heavy chain, weighing him down and dictating what his brain is telling him to do. Reminding him not to trust a whole lot of what he is being promised.”

From what I was able to observe this morning, he appears to be coping well enough on the surface,” Kristin reported. “But I do think it is too early in the scheme of things to tell yet and that everything we are seeing at the moment is merely outer layers. He could be falling back into old habits and be good at masking what he is feeling physically and emotionally.”

He came down to see me quite early this morning in the science labs,” Kristin told them. “The meeting was almost concluded, but somehow he slipped into the back of the room without me even noticing.”

Voluntarily?” Ben questioned, seeing the same unspoken curiosity in Bridger’s facial expression.

Yes, he wanted to honour our agreement on giving me that blood sample before starting any work or eating any breakfast,” Kristin informed them. “He was there to witness first-hand the mutiny of my own staff when I advised them that they would be needing to fill out their paperwork and basic tests.”

I second that motion and vote for mutiny with your staff,” Ben declared. “I will have to teach that kid not to be so honest or agreeable in future.”

The test was quick and painless, and the results should be finished by the time I go back down to the laboratory,” the doctor told them. “Afterwards, I checked his other injuries to make sure that everything is beginning to heal.”

For now, I have only taken a small sample to be able to type his blood. It had been less than five hours since finishing his coffee. He told me he was intending to head for breakfast afterwards, and I didn’t want to deter him from doing so,” Kristin explained. “I have arranged for him to visit me again this afternoon to provide a larger blood sample.”

You got him to agree to give two?” Ben said incredulously.

We should come back then too, as we have not given our own blood samples to you yet,” Bridger voiced.

Thanks a lot, Sir,” Ben grouched out loud. “Throw us both under the bus why don’t you. Why did you have to go and remind her?”

Bridger gave a smirk at Ben’s antics, forcing himself to have a more positive outlook. He couldn’t fall into the trap of focusing all of his energy on wanting to hold Lawrence Wolenczak accountable when it was Lucas who deserved his time and efforts more. He could do with a few more hours sleep himself tonight, no doubt like his young charge.

If he was going to help Lucas get through this enormous and arduous task, then he needed to set aside his own negative feelings. He needed to be supportive and responsive to the teenager without feeling responsible for things that had already happened in the past that were out of his control.

I may need your assistance then anyway,” Kristin remarked. “Lucas did confide with me that he can have an adverse reaction to injections sometimes.”

Did he say why?” Bridger queried.

No, but he didn’t have any to the I.V. that I inserted into his hand, or the injections of Lidocaine I gave him when stitching his back,” Kristin pointed out. “Though, to be fair, his mind was probably trying to deal with the pain more than anything else at that time.”

When he left med-bay, he told me he was headed for breakfast,” Kristin reported. “After that he didn’t have any real plans except for helping Commander Ford with a task they had spoken about.”

That was in relation to beginning to fix the electronic door locks,” Bridger affirmed.

I suspect that that he will be wanting to spend some time on his own over coming days to work through his own thoughts and emotions,” Kristin surmised. “We will all have to keep an eye out, without crowding him. Keeping watch from a distance, so to speak.”

I am heading back down to the science department. It is going to be a long enough day as it is,” Kristin predicted. “I will catch up with both of you, and Lucas later, I promise.”

Good luck, you are going to need a suit of armour,” Ben called out as the doctor headed towards the doors of the mess hall.

I guess we have our own duties to attend to as well,” Bridger commented. The two of them followed after Kristin, Krieg bringing the trolley with him. There was still copious amounts of stock to move this morning before lunch time.

Bridger accompanied his supply officer as far as the moon pool, and looked over at the vocorder control panel. “Whatever he chose to do this morning, it wasn’t talking to Darwin,” he said, seeing that the control was still seated in its bracket.

Captain Bridger left Ben Krieg and the moon pool area, returning to his own long list of problems to sort out for the day that were needed to get the vessel operational. Time was running out and results would soon be expected whether they were prepared and ready or not.

Lucas came in here only a few minutes after you left on your break, Captain,” Ford proclaimed. “He has taken the maintenance log to get started, but said he had something else that he wanted to work on first, this morning.”

Thank you, Jonathan, I just shared a discussion with Kristin and Ben. Our young friend has been to see her this morning as well and she is pleased with his progress to date on his health and how his injuries are healing.”

Let’s discuss the remaining glitches that we have picked up on in here, before Commander Hitchcock starts for the day after lunch,” the Captain instructed. “I have a feeling that what she has in mind will require my full attention.”

Yes, sir,” Ford nodded, knowing a little about the proposal his counter-part intended to bring up to Bridger. It would be a large scale undertaking, but could prove to be beneficial if it was given the green light. The Captain would need to understand her vision a little bit of immediate inconvenience now that could lead to long-term efficiency.

Approximately three hours later saw Lucas emerge from his own cabin, headed towards the mess hall for a late lunch. He had meant to stop an hour ago and stretch his leg, but time had gotten away from him. He was pleased with the progress he had made on the software for Kristin. Still quite a bit of coding to do yet before he could show her any worthwhile results.

When he entered the mess hall, the Captain, Commander Ford, Miguel and Ben were all seated together having their own lunches. Despite craving his own company for most of the day so far, a little human contact with these few individuals wouldn’t go astray.

I will be right back,” the teenager said as he neared the table, but then set off to grab a tray. He didn’t really want any food at the moment, but didn’t think the Captain would let him get away not having something in front of him.

Lucas returned to the table with a plate of sandwiches and a bottle of juice instead of coffee or water.

Hey Lucas,” Ben greeted him enthusiastically. “Haven’t seen you for most of the morning. What have you been up to?”

I have been working on the software that I promised Doctor Westphalen for her science department,” Lucas answered, but didn’t elaborate on wanting to work on his own.

Ford and Ortiz gave waves of hello, but were caught up in a conversation of their own about Miguel’s work station. He noted that most of the lunch-time crowd has dispersed, and the noise levels were much lower.

The teenager chose to sit opposite Bridger, giving him a genuine smile and pleased at the quiet company. “Time got away on me a little. I was going to come in here earlier.”

This was the first opportunity to talk to the boy today, so he wanted to keep the atmosphere friendly and any chatter light and uncomplicated. The Captain noted a keen and instinctive alertness to everything going on around him. “I hope you haven’t been over-doing it today.”

No, going at a safe speed, I promise,” Lucas said with a small laugh. He picked up one half of the sandwich in front of him and was about to take the first bite when his attention was drawn to the conversation that Ford and Ortiz were continuing with.

He hadn’t really been trying to listen in on the conversation, but with a little more volume to their discussion, it was hard not to fall into his natural habitat of computer wizard. Lucas put the sandwich back down, and picked up the juice.

Commander Hitchcock was already telling me about the technical problems she was seeing crop up in other places around the vessel, before she started working with Tim,” Miguel reported. “But she didn’t think that the causes were related,” he added.

What is the nature of the technical problems has she been having elsewhere apart from the Bridge?” Lucas asked.

Miguel went on to describe in detail what Katie had shared with him about various computer work stations throughout the vessel, and what was being reported.

Sounds to me that the protocols about plugging in unauthorised devices are not strong enough, or are not being heeded,” Lucas commented. “I have seen it many times before. People who randomly hook up to systems with personal laptops and tablets that don’t have a shred of virus protection on them, and haven’t even been scanned and analysed beforehand.”

Crew members get sent messages when they first arrive, and explained to them that they need to check with the technical staff before doing so,” Ford informed the boy.

From my experience most of the time, unless you staple it to their forehead, most people throw caution to the wind and have this casual attitude that ‘It will never happen to me’,” Lucas remarked. “But then cry the victim when something happens. Small systems or large operations, the size of the organisation rarely matters, even with one like this that has millions of dollars spent on it. It only takes one idiot to reek havoc for everybody concerned, and often the repair bill is off the charts in wasted time and money.”

That is why the first thing I do with any computer equipment that I work with, new or otherwise, is to make sure that its internal structure and memory are separated from the main servers and have my own specialised brand of protection in place. Because I am not risking my data-banks or hardware on someone else’s stupidity or don’t care attitude,” he went on to explain further.

What would you suggest we do about that, Lucas?” Bridger inquired, impressed by the boy’s candid reply, and noting an edge to his voice when it came to his area of expertise and how systems could be so easily compromised. He could see the first spark of passion ignited by wanting to share his knowledge, but also could also see him grasp the underlying recognition of bad habits that people adopted.

There needs to be a system of guidelines in place to tell people that any personal devices need to be checked when they are brought on-board, before they are hooked up to any of the vessel’s computer systems. And those rules need to be checked on regularly and enforced,” the teenager replied. “Otherwise all this repair work to what Stark created will be useless.”

I will talk to Commander Hitchcock, Sir, and tell her what Lucas has suggested. I doubt though that we have the manpower within her team to put together such a rigorous screening program,” Ford said to the Captain. “Thank you for your input, Lucas.”

The teenager nodded his head in acknowledgement, but shrugged off the notion that he had done anything. What he was promoting as safe practices for the computer systems aboard the SeaQuest were mostly common sense.

The boy had polished off half a sandwich and the juice, but didn’t feel hungry enough to finish what remained, and pushed it slightly to one side. His own thoughts started to drift towards what work he intended to start after leaving here.

Before he made that decision, the next topic that was introduced was Ortiz’s work station and how it was being plagued with problems during the last few hours.

A few more questions came from Ford to Miguel about what measures he had taken to work out the problem, Lucas found himself weighing in again, “Sorry I don’t mean to interrupt, but what you are both describing sounds like a coding problem.”

How difficult would it be able to tell, Lucas?” Ford directed a question at him.

That depends on the system itself, and would require looking at the source code,” the teenager answered. “It might be something simple, or it could mean that you have something more to worry about. But you would need to have someone dig around inside it to find out for sure.”

That is just great,” Ford announced with frustration creeping in about the continual delays. “Katie is already working on Tim’s communication station because it is having its own unique set of problems. I doubt she will even consider it a priority at the moment unless something more dramatic happens, and by then, it means more valuable time lost.”

Did you want me to come and take a look, Commander?” Lucas offered, not really expecting the man to accept.

Ford baulked at the offer for a moment, and it clearly showed on his face, because Lucas was about to leave the table and head off to do something else.

They were still unfamiliar with his work with computer systems, and it was only natural for them to be apprehensive about allowing him access to systems that were usually strictly off limits and classified. The teenager accepted that this would probably be the case for the time being, and wasn’t offended at Ford’s reluctance to completely trust his abilities.

There was no denying that he had been disappointed when over-hearing them discussing it behind his back near the bridge that day. Lucas had learned that people often reacted differently to his skills and there wasn’t a whole lot that you could do but show them over time. Sometimes it felt like all he ever did was prove himself to one person or another, but he didn’t voice that opinion out loud.

Ben Krieg was about to speak up in Lucas’ defence and give a colourful comment on what he labelled as the Commander’s usual stuffed shirt approach to problem solving. Katie had the same narrow viewpoint at times. But his objection quickly turned into a grin on behalf of his friend when the heard the Commander answer.

The more Jonathan pondered the reasons against letting him try, the more he came up into granting him access. It wasn’t as if they were going to be making any real progress until they found a workable solution. “Anything that you are able to do, Lucas, I would greatly appreciate,” Ford replied sincerely.

Lucas got up from the table, still talking to Miguel about what he had been seeing happen to his station as he walked. Ben got up from the table to leave as well, but it was the the Captain looking back at the boy’s plate, noting how much had not been consumed. Hopefully he would be ready to eat more at dinner time.

Five people now entered the Bridge, and then split into smaller groups, with Ford joining Miguel and Lucas at the sensor station. Lucas sat down and patiently listened, as Miguel pointed out visually what had been occurring. The glitches so far had been fairly minor, but enough to notice, and the vessel could not afford for it to be inoperable or under-performing for any length of time.

Commander Hitchcock and Tim O’Neill were currently absent, working on the problems that the communication station was experiencing, which were becoming more urgent. Katie had already deducted that the errors were more hardware related than software induced, so she was currently employing different methods of investigating the causes. She would be using schematic drawings of the electronic cabling pathways, and following them to various points that gave critical readouts and data back to the Bridge.

Bridger monitored what was going on from his Captain’s chair, trying to stay out of the way, and encouraging Ben to do the same.

Miguel was just about to show Lucas how to bring up the source code for his station, but before he could do so, the teenager displayed it on the screen for himself, without any assistance. He missed the exchange of glances between Ortiz and Ford, who were both pleased that someone with knowledge was looking at the problem.

For the next ten minutes, Lucas quietly read through the lines and lines of code that he was presented with. His face the picture of concentration. Unfortunately he was so caught up by what was in front of him, that he wasn’t providing a running commentary of what the problem might be. Ford watched his eyes scroll slowly downwards, and his hand extend to the control panel.

Lucas turned his head and spoke to Miguel because he was the operator experiencing the problems first hand. He began explaining about what he could see happening and determining what the possible problem was.

Coding is basically another language, one that needs translating. This one is fairly simple enough, and one that you and Katie Hitchcock and any number of people on her technical team could no doubt follow without too much difficulty,” he continued. Ortiz would not have reached the position of Chief Sensor operator without the proper credentials he surmised.

Somewhat,” Miguel agreed, having had some experience himself. Hitchcock’s level of understanding would far exceed his own knowledge and capabilities. “But what has been occurring is too random for me to be able to pick up a reason why.”

How many computer languages could there possibly be anyway,” Krieg interrupted.

You really want me to break it down for you?” Lucas answered with a question of his own. “That is like asking how much helium is needed to fill a party balloon.”

Or in Krieg’s case, how much hot air,” Miguel joked, earning himself a playful punch from Ben and a laugh from those gathered around at his expense.

For general purpose programming that is used everyday, my best guess would be conservatively somewhere between five hundred to over two thousand,” Lucas gave in estimation.

Two thousand!” Ben exclaimed, not believing the number he was hearing.

Lucas decided to give the man some more statistics that would truly challenge what he understood about computers and boggle his mind. “For all active computer languages that have been used in the past, including those considered dead or abandoned, the number is much higher. Probably in the vicinity of five thousand to twenty-five thousand.” The teenager gave a smirk at the shocked expression that he extracted from more than one person listening in.

Lucas went back to looking at the coding, keeping any further opinions to himself.

Looks like gobbledygook to me,” Ben commented, only to earn himself a disapproving stare from Ford.

Krieg was slowly edging his way a little closer to Miguel’s station, and was now standing directly behind the teenager’s chair. He was not able to offer any worthwhile strategy or be of any real assistance.

Don’t you have somewhere else you need to be, Lieutenant?” Jonathan questioned, intending for it to be a polite way of telling him to vamoose off the Bridge before he made it a direct order.

Nope, nothing pressing for the moment,” Krieg replied to the man, knowing that he did have other duties to be doing, but curious to see the kid in action.

Can you pick up on what might be happening, Lucas?” Ford asked.

The teenager made a couple of non-committal noises to acknowledge the Commander’s question, but kept reading rather than answer.

Ford decided to try once again to get Lucas to respond, not fully perceiving the reaction he was about to invoke, and choosing a poor method for doing so. “Do you think it might be part of Stark’s virus attacking the station’s core like before?” As the question was raised, Ford made the mistake of putting a hand on the teenager’s right shoulder to gain his attention.

Lucas had been so caught up in his reading and concentration, that the touch to the bruising and stitches of his injured right shoulder took him completely by surprise. The teenager jumped at the fresh stab of pain and grabbed at the area with his left hand.

The unexpected physical contact interrupting his focus and train of thought on the task. The sudden movement pulling at the stitches located further down his back in protest as well. A sharp rebuke came from Lucas, as he pushed the chair backwards and tried to get to his feet in a rush, almost ending up on the floor. “What did you go and do that for?”

Commander!” Krieg shouted in challenge, wanting the man to be more careful and mindful that the teenager wouldn’t appreciate physical contact yet by other people, whether it caused discomfort or not.

Bridger had stepped forward, wanting to check on the teenager, but could see for himself that the boy was about to object loudly to everyone crowding around him in addition to the unwanted pain.

Lucas, I am truly sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you,” Ford quickly said with genuine remorse in his voice and guilt written across his face.

Uncharacteristic impatience was not something that he usually prided himself on. The Commander wanted to assure the boy that his action had been an accident and not intentional. After addressing the teenager, he looked over at Bridger in an attempt to convey his sincerest apologies.

Forget about it, I am fine,” Lucas stated with a grimace as he sat back down on the chair, trying not to display how much it had hurt. He knew that it had been an accident on Ford’s part, and he that the man had not meant to cause him pain. But people were standing too close and it felt like they were breathing down his neck, and he didn’t like it.

Ford wanted to say something else, but chose to be quiet and listen to what the prognosis for the station was. Lucas had pulled his hand away from rubbing at his shoulder

To answer your earlier question, no I don’t think that what Miguel is seeing has anything to do with Stark’s virus. I took care of getting rid of that from all the systems on-board when it was found,” Lucas stated. “Take a look at this,” he instructed, putting his finger on a line of coding on the screen.

Part of the code is fragmented in places. This is probably why the errors up until now have been minor ones and everything has been running relatively smoothly without too much drama. It is not missing entirely like one could suspect with a virus or something much more nastier, but it would only be a matter of time before it does start to create real problems. ”

What can be done about that in the short-term to prevent anything more serious from happening?” the Commander asked.

The simplest solution would be to have the affected sections of coding identified and rewritten, and then uploaded again once they have been amended. That would mean that Miguel could keep working and using the station and the update could be done as a patch once it is ready,” Lucas answered.

Is this something you could do for us, Lucas? And what would you need to complete such an undertaking?”

Lucas looked over at Bridger, before offering his reply to Ford. “With a few conditions,” he stated in affirmation, wanting to negotiate is own terms.

Name them,” Ford said in complete seriousness, but wondering just how much leeway he was going to be expected to give.

Lucas’ first term was meant as an off-handed comment towards the Commander to ease any concerns he might harbour about causing him pain a short time ago.

Firstly, Krieg has to go,” Lucas remarked with a cheeky smirk, hoping that Ford would be able to read between the lines and catch onto what he was doing.

Done!” Ford readily agreed. “Chief Crocker, be prepared to remove the Lieutenant from the Bridge immediately,” he ordered the security man. Jonathan had wanted to include the words ‘by force if necessary’ but held back anything further.

Ben’s response was the desired result, as the man spluttered with indignation and was about to launch into a strongly worded rebuttal in his own defence.

Bridger was astute enough to see the exchange for what it was worth and declined to intervene on behalf of his morale officer who was about to seek an over-ruling of such a decision. Crocker had taken a few steps towards Krieg in jest, but saw a brief shake of the Captain’s hand to signal that his efforts would not be necessary.

Any objection that Krieg was about to declare was quickly forgotten about as he heard the kid’s explanation.

Sorry, Ben, but when it comes to computers and coding, I don’t play or work well as part of a team. I need to maintain my independence away from other people, especially from those who are constantly looking over my shoulder. So annoying,” Lucas said, giving an honest description of how he preferred to work. But he grinned as Krieg moved beside Ortiz to avoid Crocker’s easy reach.

Ben understood that the kid was poking at him in fun and knew that he wanted any involvement to be understated. He could see what the teenager was trying to do for Ford as well. “That’s alright kid,” he sighed dramatically. “I know when I am not wanted around here,” he added with a huff of exaggeration.

Lucas was pleased to see that his friend wasn’t offended and played along as a willing participant and prankster.

Which brings me to my second condition. I will work on the said coding and determine what is missing, rewrite it and then prepare it for uploading. But not here on the Bridge. With your permission, I request to send a copy to my own computer so that I can work on it in my cabin.”

Anything else?” Ford queried.

Nope. As a programmer, my needs are simple and usually only consist of somewhere quiet to work and to be able think,” Lucas replied. “And copious amounts of caffeine, because it might take some time to finish.”

Bridger was about to say something about the caffeine intake on Kristin’s behalf, considering his own had definitely increased in recent days at odd times of the day. In relation to the need for a quiet place, he was about to point out the volume of the teenager’s music that he had heard at times, but chose not to say anything out loud.

Granted. I think those reasonable requests can be accommodated, in addition to allowing you all the time you need, Lucas,” Ford confirmed, relieved that there were no arduous demands.

As he was currently on the Bridge and had Ford’s virtually undivided attention, he decided that he had nothing to lose in bringing up another subject about the vessel.

Whilst we are talking about glitches occurring, who was the bright spark that rubber stamped the location of the comm link buttons around the SeaQuest?” Lucas asked Ford.

You have a problem with them?” Ford asked, trying not to be specific about the conversations that had been over-heard between the med-bay and Ward Room, and the teenager’s own cabin.

I don’t mean to criticize whoever the certified whacko was to design such an intricate and invaluable link system, but they didn’t really think past the aesthetics of where they were placing vital operations like that,” Lucas pointed out. “In some places they are too close together, and problems are bound to emerge in the future if crew members are not watching carefully enough.”

I will bring the matter up with Commander Hitchcock, and let her know your thoughts, Lucas. But I wouldn’t hold your breath about any changes being carried out,” Ford replied. “The U.E.O. can have tunnel vision at times when it comes to where they believe controls should be places for maximum efficiency.”

Ben Krieg and the Captain were listening to the conversation happening in front of them, but felt less than qualified to add to it. They were pleased to see Lucas not afraid to speak up about what he saw as inconsistencies and errors in relation to the computer and electronic equipment of the vessel. Even if the wheels of change were slow.

Just as Ford finished speaking, Katie Hitchcock and Tim O’Neill came back onto the bridge. Both of them saluted the Captain as they approached the group. The Commander had caught the tail end of what her counter-part was saying.

You wouldn’t be objecting to the engineering department would you, Commander Ford?” Katie asked with sarcasm. “Tim and myself just spent the best part of the afternoon, sifting through a labyrinth of cabling and conduits, in what they would label a perfectly optimised system.

Not me, young Mister Wolenczak here,” Ford said with a smile. “It seems that he is shedding doubt on their abilities too about their placement of certain systems on-board.”

Good to see, keep up the good work, Lucas,” Katie praised the teenager. “Maybe a few of us that know better, and understand more, could demonstrate that what looks good on paper and in detailed schematics, doesn’t always transfer well in practicality.”

Lucas nodded his head in acknowledgement, pleased to see that his own viewpoint was shared by others with hands-on experience.

Lucas has volunteered to look at the coding for Miguel’s station and rewrite anything that needs fixing. That should ease your own workload quite a bit,” Ford informed her.

Thank you, anything that helps cut down on my growing list at the moment, and can only be viewed as a positive thing,” Katie responded. “Let me know if you have any questions, Lucas. I will be here on the Bridge for quite a few more hours.”

You are welcome, I will keep you both informed about what I find out and when it is all done,” the youth said with a smile. “I have downloaded what I need and will take a look at it back in my cabin.”

Seems there was quite a bit happening here while we were both crawling around underneath the floors,” Tim O’Neill commented. “What else did we miss?”

Oh nothing much, just Ben getting kicked off the Bridge,” Lucas said with a smirk, looking in the direction of his dark-haired friend.

For no reason whatsoever,” Krieg quickly piped in.

I am sure there was a reason, Lieutenant,” Katie stated, knowing it bugged her ex-husband to call him by his rank, rather than his first name.”

There you go again, making wholesale assumptions without knowing the facts,” Krieg fired back at her.

Getting underfoot,” Lucas reported casually.

Oh, trust me I know how true that statement is,” Katie agreed, as the group once again shared a laugh at Ben’s expense.

The two of them often exchanged in playful banter, still holding onto a genuine friendship and healthy respect for each other. It is how they lived and worked together in such close proximity, avoiding animosity and preventing bitterness between them.

But it was the teenager who soon had them all in laughing in stitches again.

Come on, Ben,” Lucas called out as he stood up from the chair, preparing to leave. “I will do Chief Crocker, Commander Hitchcock and everybody else here a favour and escort you to the door myself, before you get yourself into any more trouble.”

Yes master, yes master,” Krieg returned, hunching over at the waist and lumbering after the boy with a comical gait.

Crocker was using his cap to hide his own laughter as the two of them walked past him.

Jonathan, my shift is over here for the day as well. We can pick up where we left off in the morning,” Bridger instructed, feeling a little tired. “I am heading for some quiet relaxation time for the remainder of the afternoon, some dinner a little later and a spot of reading before the end of the night,” still grinning himself at the antics Ben and Lucas.

Good Afternoon, Sir,” Ford responded, saluting dutifully as the man walked from the Bridge.

After leaving Bridge, Ben planned on returning to his own work, wanting to make a dent in the amount of stock he had to put away.

Want to meet up for dinner afterwards?” he asked the teenager as they started to part ways.

Sure, see you then,” Lucas agreed, but his mind already turning to tackling the coding that was currently waiting for him on his computer. He grabbed a drink from the mess hall, and headed back to his own cabin, not planning on coming out again for several hours.

Bridger’s plans for relaxation for the afternoon involved taking a swim with Darwin in the Moon Pool. On his island, they used to swim everyday, but since coming on-board, he hadn’t had the opportunity very often.

After donning on a wetsuit and climbing into the tank, Bridger rubbed the animal’s head gently, “Ready to go for a swim?”

The vocorder control was still in its bracket on the panel nearby, but close enough to translate the mammal’s clicks from this distance.

‘Darwin swim with Lucas’ the dolphin chirped excitedly. ‘Darwin and Lucas friends’

Oh thanks a lot,” Bridger mused. “Yes, I know who your loyalties are with now. Lucas cannot come and swim with you today, he is still hurt. You will have to settle for being stuck with me as a play buddy.”

The dolphin’s answer to that suggestion was to spray Bridger directly in the face with a squirt of water and swim away. The man was left to brush away the dripping liquid whilst wearing a mildly surprised expression at the animal’s brashness.

For the next hour, the two of them enjoyed each other’s company just like old times, until Darwin decided it was time to head out into the ocean and feed. The water was cool and refreshing, so Bridger decided to spend some more time keeping up his physical fitness by swimming a few long leisurely laps.

Several hours after dinner had finished serving in the mess hall, Lucas emerged from his small cabin, but headed in the opposite direction towards the Captain’s quarters.

After Bridger had returned to his cabin after swimming with Darwin, he had taken a fresh shower, changing into some casual attire, intending to head to dinner. He decided to fill in the remaining time by taking some time to read a novel.

Lucas knocked politely on the door twice, and was about to walk away, thinking that nobody was inside. Upon opening the door, he proceeded to walk inside, closing the door quietly behind him.

Captain, are you in here?” he called out, feeling like he was intruding. He wanted to gain Bridger’s permission for working on the holographic program tomorrow morning. Just has he had asked previously.

Then he saw for himself why the knocks at the door had gone unanswered. Bridger was currently sitting in a chair, with an open book in his lap. The man was leaning against the back of the chair, with a lamp shining from a desk right next to him.

The man’s features were calm, relaxed and he was asleep. It looked as though he had been that way for more than a few minutes. His reading glasses were sitting precariously on top of the open book, and were in danger of falling onto the floor.

Lucas tiptoed closer, not wanting to make the slightest noise, and feeling strange about being in there when the unsuspecting man was sleeping. The Captain looked tired, and the teenager didn’t want to interrupt any peaceful repose he was gaining.

He looked over at the desk, trying to work out what to use as a temporary bookmark to keep the man’s reading place, not wanting to damage or crease the page unnecessarily. Looking at the hard-cover book, he noticed it had dust jacket. Not many books now had them nowadays. Using the front flap of the jacket as a makeshift bookmark, then picked it up and placed it carefully and soundlessly on the desk. The reading glasses were folded neatly and placed on top, so that he would find them easily upon waking.

The title of the book caught his attention, ‘Jaws’ by someone called Peter Benchley. The picture on the front cover was showing a shark’s head coming up out of the waves. Lucas didn’t ever recall reading it, and wondered if it was any good. He made a mental note to ask the Captain about during casual conversation at another time.

Lucas reached over and switched off the lamp, before starting to head out of the room. He had one or two more stops to make before heading back to his cabin again. He could come back here early in the morning to talk about the holographic program.

Looking back at the Captain, the man hadn’t heard his presence at all, which was probably a good thing. He didn’t want to be responsible for the man missing out on sleep. The teenager couldn’t help but be concerned that the man was working long hours with all of the glitches happening on-board. Perhaps he was spreading himself too thinly lately, which included spending time with him during the early morning hours over coffee.

After leaving the Captain’s quarters, Lucas headed back down to the science lab area to find Doctor Westphalen.

Knock knock,” the teenager greeted her, standing in the doorway to med-bay.

Kristin was currently gathering up a number of medical files and putting them in the order she wanted them. She was looking at little tired as well after such a long day.

Good evening,” she smiled warmly at him. “You have come back to honour your word about providing that second blood sample have you?”

Unfortunately,” Lucas replied. “But if you are busy, I can postpone it until another time.”

Oh no, that has already happened enough,” she said, beckoning for him to come in. “Take a seat there on the examination table. The quicker this is done, the sooner it is all completed and you don’t have to be concerned about it any more.”

Lucas complied with her request, sitting quietly, watching her get the equipment ready that she would need. He saw the collection tube and the needle, swallowing nervously a little.

Kristin looked over and saw him watching what she was doing, and saw that he was trying to keep calm. “It will be just fine, I promise,” she said, rubbing her hand on his upper arm in reassurance.

Sorry, just out of habit I guess,” he offered in explanation.

Did you eat dinner tonight?” she enquired, trying to keep his mind off giving the sample. “I didn’t make it to the mess hall myself this evening yet. I only finished the last interviews twenty minutes ago, and was making some final notations on those files when you arrived.”

No, I got caught up in my own work and only came out of my cabin a short time ago.” Lucas replied. “I was supposed to meet Ben, but didn’t.”

That is good then, so let’s get this done and out of the way, so you can get something after leaving here,” Kristin stated. “Which side do you prefer?” wanting him to be involved with any choices that had to be made as much as possible.

Right arm please, so I can keep all the bruising and damage to my body to the one side,” he said, adding a brief grin, intending for the comment to be comic relief. Kristin gave him a half-grin in return, and he could see that neither of them felt like laughing about any injuries he was currently sporting.

You can look away if you like,” she said calmly, as she made the final preparations before inserting the needle.

As soon as the needle point touched the soft skin on the inside of his elbow, she witnessed first-hand a noticeable involuntary flinch. Looking up at his face, she didn’t see him reacting because it had hurt. Thankfully she had been holding onto his arm when it happened, to prevent the needle going off-track and potentially causing a problem.

Sorry, that was what I was trying to describe to you.”

You have nothing to apologize for,” she assured him. “I can see what you mean, but I cannot offer you a reason for why your muscle reacts that way. I will have to keep an eye on any other times it happens.”

Oh no you don’t, this is it. After tonight, I am not offering you too many opportunities to become a human pin cushion,” he stated firmly.

After that initial adverse reaction, taking the sample then proceeded without further incident. When she was finished drawing the blood, she immediately went about placing a cotton ball over the needle mark. “Hold this on there for a few moments, please.”

Whilst Lucas was doing that, the doctor went about labelling the sample correctly, disposing of the needle and everything else that was used in a safe and hygienic manner.

Keep that on there for a little while, but then you can remove it and discard it,” Kristin instructed.

Lucas had picked up that she hadn’t made any comment to his statement, and this caused his suspicions to start to rise. “What are you not telling me?” he questioned plainly as he watched her place a piece of adhesive tape over the cotton ball to secure it in place.

There is nothing to be concerned about, I promise,” Kristin answered truthfully. “I have the result of your earlier type test if you wish to hear about it?”

Is it rare?” he asked, thinking this was the reason she was being over cautious about telling him.

Yes it is. Your blood type is rare, but not something to be alarmed about,” she quickly confirmed. “Now that we do know what it is, the proper precautions can be taken and best practices put into place.”

Precautions?” he asked dubiously, not liking what she was saying at all.

“Your blood type is AB-, one of the rarest across the United States,” she informed him. “Only a small number of people in the general population have the same blood type as you. The statistics would predict less than one percent of people have it. My best estimate would be approximately 0.6 percent. Less than one in one thousand people. And for a number of years, that number has been steadily declining.”

Lucas stared back at her for a few moments, trying to figure out what to say. He had told them about it being rare because he had over-heard it years before. But now that it was being laid out before him in black and white, he didn’t really know what it meant for him or his health.

Kristin could see the look on his face and the unspoken questions of what problems he may encounter, “You have nothing to worry about,” she reiterated. “This sample will be tested, and it will help me determine your immunisation status.”

I don’t know whether I have had any of the shots that kids are supposed to have when they are little,” Lucas commented. “I don’t remember.”

You won’t have to,” she informed him. “That is all part of the screening this sample. It will check for the levels of various antibodies in your blood. That way, we can avoid the need of giving you any vaccines that you don’t necessarily need. It will avoid you having to go through the process of being immunised against everything all over again.”

Are you sure?” Lucas asked in a small voice, not happy at all about all this talk in relation to vaccines. ‘Would his mother and father have taken any precautions when he was little and before their marriage ended so badly?’ He didn’t know.

‘If they had started the immunisation process from when he was a baby, would they have made sure that he received those recommended protections required at the appropriate milestones?’

Don’t allow yourself too stressed about it. Trust me as your doctor and let the science tell us what we need to know,” she conveyed. We can approach all of this with a two-pronged attack.”

What other precautions are you talking about?” he asked with some apprehension. ‘Two-pronged?’ That sounded less than ideal to him.

You may want to hold off on your earlier comment about being a pin cushion,” she told him, seeing his eyes suddenly widen and understanding what that meant. “I would suggest that over the next several months, you donate some of your blood. Once or twice should be sufficient. It will be carefully screened, frozen and stored correctly here on-board SeaQuest.”

Now you are sounding like some blood-sucking vampire,” Lucas accused her, knowing that she would have his best interests in mind.

That is only one of the options we have on hand,” she said, seeing him struggle with the idea of wanting to donate blood, even on an infrequent basis. “Blood that matches your type that has already been donated from other people, can also be sought from hospitals or blood banks and kept for later use.

That is just downright gross,” he declared flatly, making a face at such a transfusion idea and not liking it any more than the other choice.

Kristin reached over to his file, and a piece of paper that was loosely sitting inside. “This is the consent form that I spoke to you about for your medical records. I am not sure how long it will take for anything to be found. But any that are, might also provide information that I need to know as your doctor. I will share anything with you if any are located.”

With some reluctance, Lucas accepted the form and pen she offered and gave his signature. He had agreed to provide it.

The medical records and the blood test should give us all the information we need about your health,” Kristin said with confidence. “I have had to do it this way in the past with other patients.”

I don’t know if I do want be told about anything you find,” he remarked honestly.

Why don’t you go and get something to eat now, and relax for the rest of the evening before trying to get some sleep,” the doctor suggested. “We can worry any results that may be found at that time.”

Yeah, okay,” Lucas said getting down off the bed with quite a few thoughts running through his head.

I am here at any time if you want to talk,” Kristin offered. “About any of this, or something else in general,” she prompted.

Thanks,” he said, knowing she did mean well and cared. He paused and turned back towards her as he began to take another step.

While we are talking, do you know about anything going on with the Captain?” he asked, changing the subject of discussion from himself to Bridger.

Going on?” she returned, with a question of her own, seeing that he was concerned about something involving Nathan. “Did you talk to him today?”

Yeah, in the mess hall for lunch earlier today,” Lucas answered. “But before I came in here tonight, I went to his cabin to ask him a question.”

Wasn’t he there?” she surmised.

I knocked a couple of times, but when he didn’t answer, I went inside. You know, just to check on him,” Lucas explained as he fidgeted awkwardly, not wanting to admit out loud that he had been worried when the man didn’t answer straight away. He thought it odd at the time.

The Captain was asleep, sitting up in a chair. Catching some extra z’s I guess,” the teenager recounted with a shrug of his shoulders. “He looked relaxed, but kinda tired. Being aboard a place like this twenty four, seven and responsible for everything that goes on and everybody, cannot be an easy job.”

I am sure, Nathan, I mean the Captain is just fine, Lucas,” Kristin replied. “Being Captain would be tiring. It is nice to hear that he was getting some rest, even if it wasn’t in a bed.”

Well what I wanted to ask wasn’t that important. I will talk to him tomorrow,” the boy gave with a casual hand gesture of goodnight to her.

Kristin smiled to herself at how alike the two of them could be sometimes without them realising it. Nathan was the one wanting to check on Lucas. The youth’s concern for another person despite his own current fears and problems was very touching.

After leaving Doctor Westphalen and med-bay, Lucas did head for the mess hall, but instead of getting something more substantial, he settled on one of the new tubs of ice-cream that Krieg had procured. The flavour of choice tonight was boysenberry. He took the container and a scoop back to his cabin to consume it in peace.

He finished tub, but made a mental note to let Ben know that it wasn’t one of his most favourite flavour choices. Next time he would choose something else.

For the remainder of hours of the night, Lucas went about examining the coding from Miguel’s work station. Identifying where it was missing and carefully rewriting it. At about one a.m. the Bridge itself was virtually deserted. Katie Hitchcock was the Commander on duty, but she must have been carrying out her duties elsewhere for a short time, and he was able to successfully upload the newly written code before she returned.

It was well after two a.m. before he had finished and retired to his bed, attempting to sleep, but forgetting about turning on his music. For the first few hours, he had managed to gain some undisturbed rest, but all of that changed as the clock was turning over and displayed 4.47a.m.

Lucas suddenly sat up in his bed, with his heart racing, rubbing vigorously at his lower arms and trying to calm down his nerves. He had removed the cotton ball from the blood sample site hours ago, and the bruise to the back of his hand was no longer painful to touch. Thankfully he had not made enough noise or yelled loud enough for anybody to hear outside of his cabin.

Tonight the reason for the nightmare he had experienced seemed simple enough; probably triggered by the needle from Kristin and the reaction that had surfaced. The images plaguing his mind were vivid, and instead of her gentle hand on his arm, he could feel himself being forcibly held down by someone that he didn’t know. A stranger. By a face that he didn’t recognize and lurking in the shadows without revealing themselves.

His arms had been restrained, and no matter how desperately he had pulled, twisted and tried to free himself, his bonds just dug more painfully into his skin. He hadn’t been able to move, but this time it hadn’t been his father who was responsible. In this nightmare, he had been able to sense his father, and then standing nearby and watching the whole procedure, nodding his head. Lawrence Wolenczak had been giving consent for what was happening to him, and allowing it to continue unabated. Nobody had been able to hear his relentless pleas for help or his hoarse screams of pain.

Thirty minutes later, he was sitting by the moon pool, having escaped his cabin, but not the nightmare. Choosing instead to spend some quiet time with Darwin, trying to push away what he had dreamed and felt.

Nathan Bridger was currently awake just before the commencement of his shift on the Bridge, pleased with the restful night’s sleep he had gained. He was dressed and about to leave his quarters when he heard a knock at the door.

Opening it, he was surprised at who was standing on the other side. “Good Morning,” he greeted with a smile. “You are the last person I expected to be around this time of day.”

Morning,” Lucas said in return, pleased to see that the Captain looked refreshed and ready to start the day. “I just came by to ask for your permission about something.”

Oh, you did?” Bridger said, gesturing for the teenager to enter. “Come on in. Is everything alright?”

Fine,” came the one word answer without any further embellishment.

Taking a closer look at the boy, he couldn’t help but notice that there was a look on his face that showed just how ‘not fine’ he was feeling.

Talk to me, I am here to listen to anything you have to say,” Nathan said, as he tried to coax out the underlying reasons behind his downcast mood and the cause for his tired expression.

The teenager was rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, giving away his inability to stand still for more than a few seconds. All the classic signs of having so much to say, but not being able to find the right words when he opened his mouth.

Lucas thought for a moment about telling him about his nightmare, but chickened out at the last minute. “I wanted to work on the holographic program this morning in your quarters if you didn’t have any objections.”

No objections at all about that, you don’t even need to ask,” Bridger answered.

It would be weird if I didn’t ask,” Lucas admitted, dropping his gaze away from the man. He could see that the Captain had guessed at something bothering him.

I just wanted a few hours to myself. To work quietly, away from prying eyes.”

I guess I can understand you wanting to do that,” Nathan said in sympathy, understanding that a lot of matters were still on his mind with no real resolution in the near future. The two of them had discussed this very recently.

Thanks, it won’t be all day,” Lucas promised. “A few hours before I start on those door locks for Commander Ford.”

How about I come back here when I can take a break, and you can show me what you have been working on?” the Captain offered in compromise. Hopefully by participating in a demonstration, the boy may be willing to open up more by that time.

That would be great,” Lucas said with the first sign of a smile this morning. “I have some really cool ideas in mind that are going to blow your socks off,” he added with enthusiasm.

Bridger smiled at the teenager’s spontaneous and vibrant vocabulary. He found himself still getting used to hearing some phrases, and what the meaning behind each of them was.

The topic of conversation had switched very quickly from being about him, to his work and Nathan could see the immediate change to his demeanour, but saw it as one of the coping mechanisms the teenager was used to employing.

Lucas shuffled over to the middle of the room, sat down at the desk for the holographic, avoiding putting too much pressure on his right hip, and preparing to get started. He had brought with him some writing material, including some notes he had made, a pen and his headphones.

Bridger headed for the door, turning around and watching the teenager settle into his work. He would definitely come back and make time for Lucas today no matter how many glitches they were still trying to solve on-board.

He closed the door to his cabin, but shook his head with a grin. With the headphones clearly in place and now in use, he doubted Lucas would even notice that he had left.

Nathan had missed dinner the previous evening, so before he headed to the Bridge, he intended on having breakfast first.

On the Bridge of the SeaQuest, Miguel Ortiz had started his day shift approximately half an hour earlier. He was slowly tracking and following three W.S.K.R.’s that were currently travelling outside SeaQuest.

Commander Ford,” Miguel called out, signalling for the man to approach his station.

What is it Ortiz?” Jonathan enquired. He was expecting Captain Bridger to join him within the next hour or two to continue their management and fixing of the glitches.

I just wanted to report to you that my station is working much better this morning. The little problems that I was noticing yesterday when working are no longer happening,” Ortiz stated.

Are you sure?” Ford said in complete surprise, wanting to double check. Lucas had mentioned about informing himself and Katie Hitchcock about what he had found and that the upload had been successful. But he hadn’t spoken to the teenager since he had left the Bridge with Krieg.

Running smooth and none of the problems that I was able to identify yesterday before lunch,” Ortiz confirmed as the Commander looked intensely over the control panel.

I never saw Lucas come back here on the Bridge yesterday, or even report that he had managed to rewrite the code. But he must have done so, and uploaded it again with a fair amount of secrecy,” Ford commented.

I haven’t seen Lucas anywhere near the Bridge this morning since I started my shift either,” Miguel recounted.

Katie never mentioned to me about seeing him during her shift last night,” Ford replied. “Whatever he was able to do is certainly impressive in such a short space of time. I will inform Captain Bridger, I am sure he will be pleased. And when I see Lucas, I will definitely be thanking him in person.”

When Nathan entered the mess hall for breakfast, he was greeted with Kristin and Ben Krieg sitting together at the same table enjoying their own cup of coffee.

Good Morning, Nathan,” Kristin greeted him warmly.

Good Morning, Captain, Sir,” Ben said as he put down his fork, having finished his own breakfast.

Good Morning, to the both of you. Lieutenant, you and I were both supposed to be reporting to med-bay to complete our blood tests,” Bridger stated. “Seeing as you have just eaten, that will have to be delayed until later in the day now.”

Did you have to outright remind the Doc in front of me here, Sir?” Ben asked. “I don’t know about you, but I was hoping to fly under the radar for as long as possible.”

We cannot avoid it forever, Ben,” Bridger said with a laugh at the man’s strong inclination towards avoidance.

Don’t worry, Lieutenant, I have a list of names that I will be hunting down today, yours and Nathan’s are right at the top,” Kristin informed both of them.

Hey, what about the kid, he is supposed to be donating too,” Ben pointed out.

Lucas has already kept his word to me and provided a second sample last night,” Kristin told them.

He did? Krieg asked, pulling on the collar of his jump suit, thinking he was quickly running out of excuses. “Willingly?” he added, only to have Kristin laugh at his stalling antics as much as the Captain.

I didn’t know Lucas came to see you last night,” Nathan said to Kristin. “He came to my quarters a short time ago, before I came in here. Something was definitely on his mind this morning and he still looks like he needs more sleep.”

He is up this early already today?” Krieg interjected, hearing Bridger picking up that the teenager must have appeared tired to him.

Did you ask him what the problem was?” the doctor prompted. “He told me last night that he had a question to ask you, but that it wasn’t important or urgent.”

A question?” Bridger returned. “I didn’t seem him after we parted company yesterday afternoon from the Bridge.”

Well Captain, I have it on good authority that you probably woke up with a stiff neck from sleeping in a chair,” Kristin teased. “According to my sources you were reading a novel in your quarters and dozed off.”

Bridger gave her a puzzled look about how she came to know about his odd sleeping position. Kristin must have come to his quarters at some point he surmised.

I was feeling a little tired after swimming with Darwin. To waste some time before dinner, I was reading a novel and don’t even remember falling asleep. This morning, I woke up with the book sitting on the desk beside me this morning all folded up neatly with my glasses on-top. So thank you for your kindness.”

Not me, Captain,” she said with a knowing smile. “I didn’t come by your quarters at all last night.”

You didn’t…….” he began to say but didn’t finish the sentence, wondering who had reported to her about his unscheduled early night. “Who?”

Lucas,” Kristin told him. “Before turning up down in med-bay, he told me that he had gone to see you, and found you asleep in your chair. He rescued your book and your glasses. He was worried about how tired you looked and was remarking to me how difficult it must be with your job as Captain.”

Krieg gave a small laugh, and a smile at hearing that the teenager had shared his concerns about the Captain. The friendship that was forming was definitely a benefit to the both of them, even if neither of them saw that for themselves yet. The relationship between the two of them was growing stronger each day, even though he didn’t voice his opinion out loud.

Bridger was a little abashed at such comments, and touched by a kind gesture coming from the teenager. He had never felt Lucas’ presence in the room the whole time.

He didn’t say a word about it to me this morning when we were talking. I am not sure if the question he did ask, was the same one or about something else entirely.”

This morning, he turned up and appeared cautious, apprehensive even. I invited him inside, and thought he was going to say something, but his facial expression told me that he changed his mind right at the last minute,” Nathan described. “ I asked him if he was alright of course, and he just brushed the question aside with his usual ‘fine” routine. He asked for permission to work in my quarters on the holographic program so he could spend some time away from ‘prying eyes’ as he put it. Wanting to spend some time on his own, which is becoming much too common place for my liking.”

He seemed in fairly good spirits last night when we were talking,” Kristin shared, thinking back to what she had observed. “Being a teenager, he was probably too shy to say anything to you this morning that might embarrass you or him.”

What did the two of you find to talk about?” Bridger asked, pleased to hear that Lucas and Kristin had shared a conversation, even if it was during giving blood.

I was just finishing up the last of the people I had to interview for their medical files when he came to see me,” Kristin went on to explain. “Whilst I was taking the sample, I gave him the results of his earlier test about his blood type.”

Were you able to confirm that his type is rare like he wrote down?” Bridger asked.

I can confirm that his blood type is quite rare: AB-, one of the rarest across the United States,” she repeated to the two of them. Lucas had already given her permission to share certain parts of his medical history, and she deemed this important enough.

How rare is it?” Ben asked, with concern of his own creeping in what she had found out. He could see the same question reflected on Bridger’s face as they both waited for her to continue.

Only a small number of people in the general population have the same blood type as our young friend. The statistics from any respectable medical doctor, report that less than one percent of people have that blood type. As I told Lucas, my best estimate would be approximately 0.6 percent. Less than one in one thousand people. And for a number of years, that number has been steadily decreasing.

So what does that mean for his long-term health?” Bridger wanted to know. “Or even right now that he is living here amongst this crew. We have to prepared for any emergency situation or unforeseen circumstance that may occur with an outcome that is totally out of our control.”

As I explained to Lucas, there are a number of precautions that I would suggest as the best course of action that we can take right now. Firstly, getting him to donate some of his own blood so that it can be made available at any time.” Kristin answered. “It can be stored here safely, and accessed if the need ever arises.”

Other people who have this type lead completely normal lives and don’t need to see the inside of a hospital or a doctor any more frequently than any other person,” Kristin went on to explain further. “Don’t be alarmed now just because we do have this new information, because it doesn’t mean we need to be worried unnecessarily.”

I also told him about the blood sample that he provided, being able to help tell me his immunisation status, thus preventing him requiring shots that he doesn’t require. With the lack of records about him, we really need to narrow that down. There is no other way of telling how much effort his parents put into those protections when he was younger.”

I can take a guess at what his reaction to these suggestions were,” Krieg accurately predicted.

I believe his choice words were along the lines of ‘blood-sucking vampire’ and refusing to become a human pin cushion,” she recalled. “His answer to the idea of gaining donations from a hospital or blood bank in case he ever needs it, was not much better. Other than that, his injuries are healing as expected without any complications.”

Ben and Bridger both laughed at Lucas’ vocal objections, but quietly thankful that they had such an experienced doctor on hand like Kristin. Luckily she had insisted on doing these extended background checks as part of her own record keeping, or they may never have found out about his blood type being rare until a problem cropped up.

Lucas has signed the consent form to complete a search pertaining to any medical records that may exist about him,” Doctor Westphalen told them. “I assured him that I would keep him informed if any information was found. He admitted to not being sure about wanting hear about any results.”

I did notice the reaction he has to needles or injections that he previously warned me about,” Kristin revealed. “I suspect such a noticeable flinch may be the result of a bad memory. Someone who was less experienced in the medical profession may have frightened him or hurt him when he was younger. That is only an educated guess on my part at this point.”

I sincerely hope you are wrong about that,” Bridger replied to her reasoning, not liking the idea at all that even more bad memories lurked within the boy’s subconscious. He already had enough of those to last a lifetime.

As the conversation slowed between them, the head chef, Don, approached the table, carrying a coffee pot and clearing dishes from the table in front of them.

Good Morning, Captain,” he said to Bridger. “Ma’am, and Krieg. I hope you all had a pleasant breakfast?”

It was fine thank you,” Nathan answered for himself. “No more coffee for me please, I need to make a start to the day before Jonathan comes looking for me.”

What happened to our young friend this morning?” Don questioned. “I didn’t see him at all this morning. Actually I didn’t see him here in the mess hall yesterday evening either.”

You mean he didn’t eat last night or this morning?” Krieg piped in, feeling a little guilty that he hadn’t kept up his end of the agreement. “I did arrange to meet him in here for dinner last night, but I got caught up with Tim and Miguel and a few other crew members in the recreation room. I didn’t get back here myself.”

Lucas told me that he was headed here after he left med-bay last night for something to eat,” Kristin stated. “He mentioned about getting caught up in his own work. Perhaps he grabbed one of those faster options you have stored in the kitchen?” she offered as an alternative explanation, hoping that he had kept his word and had eaten something.

I spoke to him already this morning, but the subject of breakfast or what he had for dinner wasn’t brought up,” Nathan reported. “I didn’t make it in here myself for dinner either. I will check with him as soon as I can, and chase him in here if he hasn’t eaten today,” he with assurance.

No problem, Captain. He might be a little shy until he finds his feet around here, but he shows great manners in the way he conducts himself,” Don replied. “Compared to some of the people I have come across in here this week who claim to be adults, he is much more friendly.”

Thank you for that, Don, though I think he would deny anything if confronted outright,” Bridger said with a smile. It was pleasing to hear these general positive observations from other crew members about the teenager.

I am headed towards the Bridge now, but I will check up on him the first chance I get,” Nathan said directly to Kristin. “I told him I was going to spend some time with him today after seeing how downcast his mood was this morning. I caved into giving him the solitude he was craving, but will see if he will talk to me some more then.”

I have a launch arriving in the docking bay at any time with my name on it,” Krieg informed them. “I will find you both later.”

Ben and Kristin got up from the table along with the Captain, intending to attend to their own duties for the day.

On the Bridge, Commander Ford had just finished reporting to the Captain about the glitches with Miguel’s work station being solved over-night. The two of them were interrupted from talking further with the sound of fast approaching footsteps from Ben Krieg.

The lieutenant came bursting through the two large dome doors in a rush, but quickly came to a halt with a disapproving look from Ford about his rash and impetuous arrival.

Lieutenant Krieg, next time you enter here in such a manner, I will put a ‘do not run’ sign up at the entrance, just for your benefit,” Ford chastised. “This is a U.E.O. sanctioned vessel, and as such, I expect you to behave in an appropriate manner. I expect you to adhere to the notion that there will be no running, skipping or jumping when coming onto the Bridge. Do I make myself clear?”

O’Neill and Ortiz couldn’t help but hide snickers of laughter at the Commander’s words to Krieg. Bridger had a hard time hiding his own smirk in front of Jonathan, but knew that the man expected a lot from his senior crew members.

Yes, Commander Ford,” Ben answered. “I only came in here to tell the Captain something important. Honest. Give me a minute and I will be out of your hair again, I promise.”

Ford was about to say something to Krieg again, but then closed his mouth, thinking that being eager was just part of the man’s nature. He allowed the manner to drop for now as Ben spoke directly to the Captain about why he had been running in the first place.

Sir, I came to inform you that the furniture pieces you ordered have arrived on the launch. I have two members from the maintenance crew currently taking them to your quarters, ready for assembly,” Krieg reported.

Thank you, Lieutenant,” Bridger replied. “Let us both go and see if we cannot give them a hand to put them together. Commander, you have the Bridge for a few minutes. I will return.”

Aye, Sir,” Ford responded with gratitude, silently thanking the Captain for stepping in and taking Krieg with him and keeping him occupied.

Bridger and Ben made their way towards the Captain’s quarters, talking idly about a number of casual topics, which included what other stock and supplies that were arriving on the launch together with the furniture pieces.

The two maintenance personnel that Krieg had instructed to move the large boxes, were carrying out those instructions. One of them was currently knocking on the Captain’s door and waiting respectfully for an answer. Neither of them had the opportunity to meet the new Commander of the SeaQuest.

Lucas was still wearing his noise cancelling headphones, and listening to his loud music through them. With his concentration squarely on the small screen in front of him, he didn’t hear the rapping on the door.

Do you think we should go inside?” Gary Stewart asked the crew member assigned with him. He still wasn’t entirely happy with Ben for giving them both the order in the first place. Usually they had to unload cargo from the launches, but it was supposed to be Krieg’s job to do anything else with it after that.

Adjusting his grip on the large box at his feet, and looking down at his watch, the second maintenance guy, Andy Graham wasn’t inclined to be as cautious. Yes they were standing outside the Captain’s quarters, but he wasn’t about to change how he worked just because it was the guy who commanded the vessel.

Without waiting further for an response, Graham turned the handle on the door and pushed it open widely, so the large boxes could be hauled inside. Both he and Gary had dragged the first large rectangular cardboard box inside. Both of them looked at each other curiously when they only thing they saw was some kid sitting at the small desk

half way across the room. He hadn’t even heard them them come in.

Hey kid,” Andy called out, trying to gain Lucas’ attention. Neither of them had seen this young person on-board before, or knew what he was doing in here now.

Bridger and Ben reached the Captain’s quarters, but were both surprised to see the door fully open. One large box was sitting where it had been left.

I told those guys to wait outside,” Krieg started to say. Just as he began repeating what his instructions had been, the two of them heard a startled exclamation of pain coming from Lucas.

Who are you kid? Does the Captain know you are in here, playing in his quarters?” Graham questioned dubiously, finding himself talking to the back of the boy’s head.

After a few moments passed without receiving a response, “I don’t appreciate being brushed aside by smart alecks,” he added, taking a step towards the teenager and deciding to take a more direct approach as he spoke. He convinced himself that the brat was deliberately choosing to ignore him.

Hey! Get your hands away from me! What is your problem?” the teenager yelled out testily, jumping to his feet too quickly and shoving the offending hand away that had struck him. He was grimacing at the brief fiery ache from his hip that resulted and rubbing at his right shoulder as he took a few evasive steps backwards away from the chair. He didn’t know who either of them were, and he was displaying the classic signs that came with not reacting well to strangers being too close.

Neither Andy or Gary heard the Captain or Krieg enter the room and stand directly behind them. They did see a very unhappy Lucas standing away from the desk he had been working and sitting at. His headphones were down around his neck with no sound coming from them.

What is going on in here?” Bridger asked, standing with his hands on his hips in a demanding stance, able to see for himself that Lucas was trying to get out of their reach. His whole body language was objecting loudly to someone being inside his personnel space.

These two idiots came in here without me being able to hear anything behind me, and scared the life out of me. One of them decided to punch my sore shoulder for no reason and without any warning whatsoever.” Lucas accused hotly. “I don’t even have a clue who they are, the door was closed,” the volume of his voice increasing.

There are better ways to go about gaining my attention,” he turned and pointed out to the two strangers.

Are you alright, Lucas?” Nathan asked, as he moved to stand protectively beside the teenager, and giving the two men a scathing look. The fact that they took it upon themselves to use physical contact to anyone on-board, without provocation did not sit well with the Captain.

I am fine, Captain,” he said tersely, keeping his answer short and his eyes sharply on the two men. He had no intentions of letting it show that he had allowed their condescending attitude to get under his skin.

Captain?” Stewart squeaked out, not wanting to believe that they had just ticked off the main man in charge.

Captain Nathan Bridger,” he formally introduced himself, causing the two men to snap to attention, and give dutiful salutes. He could see from the expressions on their faces, about the huge error in judgement they deemed themselves to have made. But it was also clear that at least one of them was more interested in laying blame than accepting responsibility.

Gary Stewart may have been ready to show remorse towards the teenager and the Captain. However, Andy Graham’s all too casual attitude in admitting he had done wrong was also noticeable to Bridger and Ben.

And you two gentleman are?” he questioned, waiting for them to provide their names.

Seamen Andy Graham and Gary Stewart, Sir,” Krieg informed Bridger immediately.

I told you guys to wait outside until I got here, and that I would help you bring everything in here and put it together,” Ben directed at the two men.

We already knocked on the door and waited, nobody heard us,” Gary proclaimed in their defence, he couldn’t explain why Andy had taken the extra step of startling the kid. Patience probably wasn’t one of his strongest traits in the time they had known each other.

I didn’t know that the U.E.O. was now hiring kids who have dropped out of high school, Krieg,” Graham openly taunted with sarcasm dripping from his voice as he looked over at the teenager.

This is Lucas, he fixes our computers around here,” Ben told them, getting really frustrated along with the Captain on behalf of their youngest crew member. “He has more right to be in here than you ever will. He is welcome any time and doesn’t need to spell out his movements to people like you,” he added with an edge to his words.

I was working in here with the Captain’s permission,” Lucas shot back, unimpressed with the guy trying to talk down to him like some juvenile delinquent. He felt like he was having to explain himself yet again about what his purpose was of being on-board to people he had never met before. Except in this case, Ben had stepped in first.

Seems like Mr Cooper has been giving lessons before his departure up-world, Sir,” Krieg said, hating that Lucas had to keep justifying where he was and what he was doing.

Yes, it unfortunately it certainly does,” Bridger agreed with disapproval. He was very dissatisfied that once again he was going to have to rely on his Second-In-Command to hand out sanctions to members of his crew that didn’t get the message about how to treat other crew members. Keeping his distance due to a perceived conflict of interest.

I don’t want to be in here any longer,” Lucas declared, starting to close his notebook and preparing to leave. “I have lost all my concentration now.” Whilst he appreciated their efforts, he felt embarrassed that the Captain and Ben had to say anything at all.

No, no, these two are leaving, not you,” Bridger quickly responded, shaking his head.

Turning towards Lucas, with his facial expression and voice changing entirely to one of kindness. “Please stay, I want us to talk,” he pleaded.

Lucas glanced back at the Captain and saw the genuineness to the man’s request, nodding his head in agreement. His hip was aching, so he sat down on the chair, still slowly packing up his work. He did have something important to ask the Captain, and decided now was the time to do it, once it was just the two of them.

Please bring the rest of the boxes in here, and when you are done you can both accompany the Lieutenant, and report to Commander Ford,” the Captain ordered, not wanting to hear any objection.

Mr Krieg, once you are finished accompanying these two clowns, come back here, and you and I will put these furniture pieces together, without their interference.”

Yes, Sir,” Ben answered, sensing that the man wanted to talk to the teenager without the audience.

Bridger pulled out his PAL communicator, “Commander Ford,” he hailed.

Yes, Captain,” Ford replied through his own corresponding device.

I have two crew members who will be reporting to you in about half an hour, escorted by Lieutenant Krieg, once they have completed their current assignment,” Bridger conveyed. “They will be providing you with a written statement in relation to their infractions in my quarters. I want them to be part of the first ‘volunteers’ as part of the new mandatory program that we are putting into place for all personnel.”

Stewart and Graham were about to voice the unfairness they felt at being reported for not doing very much, but the hardened and stern expression on the Captain’s face made them think twice. Perhaps Ford would be more willing to hear their side and see what they did as minor. Neither of knew who this Cooper fellow was that they were being compared to.

Understood, Sir,” Jonathan answered, and he could hear the Captain’s voice signalling his displeasure and that these men would have no choice but to comply, whoever they were.

Ben knew that the Captain would be counting on him to give a full report to Ford, and how the incident involved Lucas being on the receiving end of some petty comments and unwanted physical contact. They wouldn’t get the same sanctions or punishments as Cooper, but Bridger would be wanting the Commander to emphasis to them that Lucas was a part of the crew. Common courtesy and respect were expected towards him whilst he was on-board just as much as anyone else, regardless of position or rank.

Let’s go you two,” Krieg instructed, pointing the men towards the door. “I will be back as soon as I can, Sir.”

Lucas, I will catch up with you later too,” he added in a brighter tone of voice.

The teenager gestured goodbye to Ben and watched the trio leave the room. He let out a disgruntled sigh of his own that he had been holding back until the door was fully closed.

It is going to be like that for a while around here,” he said in assumption. Yes he understood how it looked to most of the adults with him being on-board. He had told himself that on that first day when he ran into Cooper.

I am sorry you still have to put up with behaviour like that,” Bridger said to him with sincerity. “That is not how I like any of my crew to behave. Things are going to change around here, trust me that the right procedures are being put into practice. Crew members are going to have to become familiar with them adapt to what I expect from them.”

I didn’t hear them come in them, honest,” Lucas offered a second time in explanation. “It was surprise more than anything when that guy touched my shoulder. I can ignore anything they have to say about me. I was making a decent amount of progress until they showed up.”

The teenager believed that the Captain was experienced enough to deal with incidents that cropped up and was looking out for his best interests because he felt responsible whilst he was living on SeaQuest. But if he wanted to be totally honest, he didn’t want to be on the receiving end of people’s constant opinions and unwelcome scrutiny until that happened.

You know you can come into my quarters, any time. Even when I am not in here,” Bridger said to him. “Think of it as a better alternative to hiding inside the air-conditioning vent in Ben’s room. In case you are looking for a quiet place to work or just to get away from everybody in general.”

A small smile of appreciation showed on Lucas’ face, looking away from the Captain momentarily, but pleased that someone partially understood his need to be on his own at times. Or at least respected it, even if they didn’t fully get the reasons why.

Thanks, I will remember that,” he said in a quiet voice, as he looked up at Bridger and was pleased that it was just the two of them talking. He silently really liked these opportunities.

Do you want me to stick around long enough to help you and Ben put your new furniture together?” Lucas asked. “Although I cannot say I have much experience with this flat pack stuff,” he admitted.

No you don’t need to do that, the two of us will be sufficient. Make sure you call by later to see what it looks like once it has been assembled correctly and positioned where I want it,” Bridger offered.

Yeah, I might just do that,” Lucas replied casually, not giving any real commitment. “I wish there was a way of getting the U.E.O. to find some better fitting furniture for my oversized foot locker.”

Bridger laughed at the comparison to how small his cabin was, and thought it was a fitting description. Neither he or Jonathan had found a reasonable solution to his accommodation problem yet. “What would you be hoping to get?” he inquired out of curiosity.

Getting rid of that bunk bed would be a huge start, and getting a softer mattress. Nothing too drastic,” Lucas answered.

I will have a chat to Ben and see what he can find,” the Captain gave in promise. “I did speak to Commander Ford about finding you a bigger room on-board, but the options for moving you anywhere else are fairly slim for the time being.”

Lucas got up from the chair to strength his hip, and wandered over to the bookshelf at the back of the room, perusing the titles without comment. He walked around a little more, taking in a few other nooks where Bridger had placed a few personal items on display.

See anything that interests you in particular?” Nathan, watching the boy’s face to see if any one piece drew his attention.

The teenager stopped walking for a minute, and looked back at him, “No, sorry. You probably think I am just being too nosy,” he said with a grin.

Not at all. I have a few more items hidden away in boxes that I haven’t had the chance to unpack yet,” Bridger stated. “They help stop the place from looking too impersonal.”

Why put them out on display like this? To remind you of home or what you are missing by being trapped down here, under the waves?” Lucas asked.

No, not really. Do I miss home? Difficult to answer that. The ocean has always been a part of me, long before I had a family and lost them again,” the Captain explained. Each of these pieces has its own story to tell. Not just about its own cultural origins, but about where I was at that particular time in my life when I discovered or obtained it.”

That is really neat,” Lucas commented, seeing the nostalgia written across his face. The man really did know where each piece came from and the history behind them.

Well, I have enjoyed our little chat, but since I have packed up in here, I better move onto the next project,” the youth said. “I have been promising Commander Ford since yesterday to work on the door locks, but have been doing other stuff instead. That should take me through until lunch time.”

Did you have breakfast this morning?” Bridger asked. “Kristin, Ben and I all missed seeing you in there, and none of us made it to the mess hall for dinner last night.”

Last night, I settled for one of those new tubs of ice-cream that Krieg got, but I cannot say that the flavour I chose was one I would choose again,” Lucas informed him.

Bridger was a little relieved that he had eaten something, even if it was only ice-cream. His thought the unspoken suspicion about him missing breakfast would remain just that, until the teenager spoke again.

I will grab lunch a little later,” Lucas promised. “I didn’t feel very hungry this morning, so I didn’t bother. Not even with coffee,” he added. He didn’t want to admit to the Captain how early he had been up this morning, or the reasons behind turning up at his door early this morning.

Make sure you do,” Bridger said briefly, but choose not to say any further about missing meals. The atmosphere between them had relaxed substantially in a short space of time, and he didn’t want to spoil that.

Lucas gathered his notebook and was about to leave when he remembered the question from the night before.

He stopped walking, and turned back to the Captain, trying to find the right way of wording his question.

Something the matter?” Bridger asked, recognizing that he was deciding whether to ask about something specific or not.

No, I wanted to ask you a question. For a few days now, and haven’t really found an easy way of doing it,” the teenager replied candidly.

Ask away, that is what I have been telling you to do,” Nathan encouraged.

Yeah I know, but this is a little different for me this time around,” Lucas said, his voice giving away how much he was hesitating. He almost changed his mind, wanting to choose another day to do it. Finally he plucked up enough courage.

Bridger was prepared to give him as long as he needed, and could see the inner struggle playing out on his features. The boy still looked tired too, so that didn’t help but cause his concern to grow a little about what he was finding so difficult to ask.

When my father…….,” he started, but then stopped abruptly. “Everything about being placed here under the ocean at the last minute happened so fast,” he said, looking down at the carpeted floor. “And then with others finding out about……….,” but he didn’t finish that sentence either.

Bridger understood that bringing up any subject pertaining to his father or admitting to the abuse they had discovered was a very painful one for the teenager.

Forcing himself to take a deep breath and let it out again, and just to get it over with, he tried again. “I have a couple of friends. Two in fact, that had been there for me when not a lot of other people couldn’t or haven’t been,” he said, now looking up at the Captain.

They are my very best friends, and I trust them with my life,” Lucas revealed, playing his hands as he continued speaking. “I used to keep in contact with them as much as I could, even though that wasn’t always possible. I wanted to ask with your permission, if I could contact them at some point. Mainly to let them know where I am currently living.”

Of course you can,” Bridger declared, but not fully understanding why he was so nervous about contacting anyone. This was the first time he had even mentioned having friends who cared about him. That was a very positive thing in his eyes. The boy had told Kristin that he didn’t have regular contact with any other family members.

Really?” Lucas said, giving a smile of relief that the Captain hadn’t completely turned down the idea.

Yes, really,” Bridger repeated, but still seeing the apprehension and saddened to think that Lucas had felt it necessary to ask in the first place. Whoever they were, if they had gained Lucas’ trust, then they must be quite special ‘friends’ indeed. His own curiosity was growing.

My father doesn’t know that much about them, or the help that they have given me in the past. And I want to keep it like that for as long as possible, for their safety,” Lucas stated, and didn’t divulge any further details about names or who these secret friends were.

I will talk to Tim O’Neill when I leave here and tell him that you have my permission to contact them through a secure channel at any time, when you are ready,” Bridger said, maintaining eye contact to convey his full co-operation.

Thanks, that really means a lot to me,” Lucas said with genuine gratitude. “I will tell you more about them another time,” he offered as a token gesture, preparing to head to the door and leave.

Watching the teenager walk away, Bridger was convinced that none of them would hear about these ‘best friends’ until Lucas felt it was safe enough to do so. And it was plain to note that he was more worried about maintaining their anonymity from Lawrence Wolenczak than his own safety.

After leaving the Captain’s quarters, Lucas headed to his own cabin to collect the tablet that Commander Ford had provided to him, and his own electronic tool that was stashed away. He continued onto the mess hall, entering and taking a bottle of juice out of the new fridge.

Moving into the corridor not far from Ben’s cabin, he had to decide which door lock to work on next. What he had not thought enough about beforehand, was his current inability to bend his leg into a comfortable position to able to sit on the floor. One of the rooms nearby had a stool which he tried using for a short time, but the bottom of the legs were too uneven on the grated floor.

He had to settle for standing up against the opposite wall in the corridor, which wasn’t a really productive position for any length of time. Lucas persevered as long as possible, trying to keep focused on the task at hand. The first lock of the day took approximately the same amount of time as Krieg’s door before the algorithm extracted the code, and he was able to record it on the tablet. It was when he moved onto the second lock that he started to notice the same people moving back and forth down the corridor.

Lucas couldn’t shake the distinct feeling that he was being watched. He wasn’t ware that the small network of crew members had been present on the Bridge when Ben Krieg arrived with the two men reporting from maintenance. They had all listened to Krieg’s version of events and were just as dismayed as the Captain to learn that a small percentage of the crew were causing trouble for the teenager.

After hearing the report, Ford now understood the edge he had heard to Bridger’s voice through the PAL communicator. Once the men had received details of their impending sanctions, Ben had returned to assist the Captain to help assemble his furniture.

Collectively, those senior crew members within Bridger’s small network, decided to keep an eye out for Lucas as their own duties allowed. Using their breaks for lunch and their respective assigned tasks as an attempt to mask their intentions. Unfortunately, the teenager was able to see right through what they were doing.

Katie Hitchcock had walked past Lucas’ position at least twice in the past hour, while he was waiting for his device to decipher the next electronic code. She had nodded her head in friendly appreciation for what he was doing. But when she did it a second time, Lucas couldn’t help but feel that she was trying to get a closer look at what he was doing.

Katie wasn’t the only culprit either, as the teenager had spotted Commander Ford not long after her. He had asked in passing if Lucas needed anything and casually checking on how things were progressing. Jonathan was told that things were progressing rather slowly unfortunately, but that nothing was needed at the moment thank you.

Lucas had almost burst out in laughter at the attempts that Tim O’Neill and Miguel Ortiz were making to check up on him. Maintaining a straight face at their horrible spying skills had definitely been a challenge. He knew they meant well too and were probably under orders from Ford or the Captain, but everybody constantly hovering around him, was becoming annoying.

A second passing by his position by Miguel and Tim, and Lucas couldn’t shake that awkward feeling, even though he knew they had the best of intentions. Their efforts were too obvious and disjointed. So the total number of door locks that he managed to work on before lunch, remained a disappointing two.

Lucas decided to pack everything away until later that night, when he would be able to work uninterrupted. He headed to the mess hall and grabbed a can of soda and a box of noodles, intending to head back to his cabin for some major down town. He needed to find something to occupy his brain for a few hours.

He was passing through a section of the boat where there were a number of computer terminals in use. He couldn’t help but hear one of the crew members having trouble and complaining loudly to others standing nearby.

Since it was computer related, he stopped and attempted to offer help to the guy. “Can you tell me what the problem is that you are having?” he asked politely.

Kirk Murphy stopped his tirade long enough to look back with confusion at some skinny kid talking to him. He didn’t know who the teenager was either. There was no way he was admitting needing assistance from anyone.

Commander Ford was on his way through the same area to talk to the Captain, when he came across the group of people gathered round, and noticed Lucas there in amongst the small crowd. He heard the boy ask what the trouble was with one of the computer’s.

Thanks, but no thanks sonny,” Murphy laughed, standing up to his full height in an attempt at intimidation. “Us big people will figure it out without needing help from a pipsqueak of a kid like you.”

After being on the receiving end of enough childish comments today, Lucas’ own temper began to grow, “You ‘big people’,” he parroted back, his irritation to the whole situation unmistakable, “Would be dangerous if you had a brain cell to share between you.”

Why you little……,” the man retorted gruffly, trying to grab the front of the kid’s shirt. The other crew members had managed to restrain him sufficiently in time to prevent an unprovoked altercation from breaking out that he would come to regret.

Lucas saw Commander Ford approaching, with a very displeased look on his face. The other people standing nearby, saw the Executive Officer and gave an immediate salute, knowing that he had witnessed the man’s threatening behaviour and heard what was said to the young man. They were trying to distance themselves for taking any part in it.

Lucas was only offering you assistance with your computer problem, Seaman Murphy,” Ford addressed him formally. He glanced over at the teenager and could see that he was no longer going to cop random abuse from anybody today. Jonathan couldn’t really blame him for feeling that he had reached his limit.

I was going to try and help him,” Lucas said to Ford, his face flushed red. “But I am not hanging around and waste my time here, listening to jerks like him with that attitude. Way too many people here on-board are treating me like some annoying brat who doesn’t know what he is talking about,” he added petulantly.

When someone is ready to listen to my opinion, Commander, the problem he was describing as I came along, sounds like what I was explaining to you earlier. He was probably trying to link a personal device to the computer system on SeaQuest without it being checked for compatibility or viruses first,” he stated, but then turned and walked away in disgust before Ford could say anything in reply that would make him want to stay.

Half way back to his own cabin, Captain Bridger and Ben were coming in the other direction for lunch. They were about to stop and invite him to come along, but he didn’t give them the chance.

Bridger and Ben exchanged concerned looks, and could see Lucas’ was more than frustrated about something.

I am totally ‘done’ with people for the day!” he declared angrily, storming right passed the two of them, not giving them any opportunity to talk.

Bridger strode purposefully back in the direction that Lucas has just come from, knowing that he had to find out the full version of what had happened. Ben came back with him, and it didn’t take either them long to come across the group of crew members standing in front of Commander Ford.

Jonathan was speaking to one of the men in particular with an authoritative manner, but the other surrounding crew members had enough common sense to pay attention and take heed of what he had to say.

What has been going on here, Commander,” the Captain asked in a no nonsense tone of voice. Salutes were given by the crew to their commanding officer, and they could see that he wanted a full and honest answer as to what had occurred.

Good Afternoon, Sir, I can assume that you both just saw Lucas leave here fuming,” Ford turned and answered. “I was coming to see you about another matter entirely, when I got as far as here and stumbled right into this mess he found himself caught in, through no fault of his own.”

He walked right passed the both of us with no intentions of stopping, if that is what you are asking,” Krieg replied. “The kid made it pretty clear that he doesn’t want anything to do with the rest of the human race.”

And I cannot say that I blame him,” Ford said in all seriousness. “He was offering to help this guy here with a computer problem, but all he got in return was Mr Murphy trying to pull some juvenile stand-over stunt.”

You did what?” Bridger demanded, taking a step towards the man in question, daring the man to argue with him and waiting for him to own up to his indiscretions.

Murphy quickly back pedalled from any further outburst, looking suitably chastised at the Captain’s displeased expression. The man remain tight-lipped and was refusing to offer any apology or suitable reason for his behaviour.

Jonathan Ford went onto explain exactly how he had witnessed the man’s intimidation tactics and petty name calling. Bridger’s frown deepened when hearing that Murphy had tried to grab a hold of Lucas forcibly when the teenager decided to deliver his own choice words in return to the man’s taunts.

Krieg’s own frustration was beginning to grow as well as he listened to Ford’s version of events, but he wouldn’t be able to step in on the teenager’s behalf on this occasion.

Ford went on to tell Bridger what Lucas had said to him about crew member’s considering him only as an annoying brat. The three of them understood that for the second time today, Lucas was having to defend his presence on-board.

What would you like me to do, in relation to sanctions,” Jonathan asked, thinking that the Captain may need some time to make a decision.

Ben Krieg looked at Murphy and thought he recognized the department he was assigned to, and suddenly had an alternative suggestion of his own to put forth. “If I may, please, Captain,” he said with a slyness to his tone of voice.

Ford was about to interrupt, and take control of the man’s punishment, but Bridger turned to Ben, and nodded for him to continue for a moment.

You are part of the engineering crew assigned to Commander Katie Hitchcock, are you not?” Ben enquired, wanting to double-check first.

Murphy looked towards Ford, and then the Captain, and around at the others gathered around, knowing that he wasn’t about to get the slightest amount of leniency. He had acted rashly, he could admit that now. ‘All over some stupid kid they were all prepared to defend rather than accept his side of the story’, he thought to himself.

Yes,” he said curtly to Ben.

What was that, seaman?” Jonathan ordered, still not happy with the man’s indifferent attitude, bordering on insubordination.

Yes, Sir,” Murphy ground out to Ben, being of a lower rank, but hating that he had to address Krieg in a respectful manner.

Ben ignored the piercing stare he was receiving, and suddenly had a large grin on his face that puzzled both Ford and Bridger. “His punishment is very straight forward,” he began. “I think it is safe to assume that Lucas won’t be offering his services or expertise any time soon, and rightfully so. Katie will have to come along and fix whatever was broken, adding to her already heavy workload. And he is already part of her department, so she won’t be pleased to hear that a member of her staff was disrespecting anybody. She only needs to hear that it was Lucas.”

Murphy could be seen swallowing nervously at Krieg’s mention of Commander Hitchcock being his superior officer.

One thing we can all count on where Katie is concerned, is her dissatisfaction when the performance of one of her team is not up to her exacting standards,” Krieg said with a knowing chuckle. “Murphy here will be wishing either one of you were handing out his punishment rather than her. She has a long memory.”

Been on the receiving end of Katie’s wrath before, Krieg?” Ford asked with a grin of his own. He knew from working with Hitchcock how tough she was on herself and those under her leadership.

Way too many times than I should really own up to,” Ben admitted with some level of regret of her desire for him to change and conform during their short marriage. On the surface she appeared every bit the beautiful, charming, career driven, and invaluable sub-mariner. But crossed her path, and you would never forget the experience.

Approaching footsteps from behind them made them all turn and see the very person they were discussing.

Good Afternoon everybody,” Katie said pleasantly, as she joined the group, not having heard any of the conversation. Looking across at each person’s face in turn, she immediately picked up that something was amiss. She could see one of her staff members in front of the Captain, and giving the impression of being guilty.

Lieutenant, what is going on?” she immediately directed at her ex-husband over everybody else.

See what I mean,” Krieg said with a knowing smirk. “Somehow, she naturally assumes that I am to blame first instead of the correct party involved.”

Ben turned to Murphy, “I do not envy your fate at all my friend, you have my sympathies.”

Commander Hitchcock, I believe Mr Murphy here has some matters you and he are going to want to discuss,” Bridger informed her. “I expect your full report of recommendation for my review as soon as possible.”

Yes, Sir,” Katie answered dutifully, but none the wiser about why she would need to be preparing a report for his approval.

I will leave it up to you, Jonathan to tell her what happened here,” Bridger ordered.

Aye, Captain,” Ford replied. “Let’s go to your office to discuss it,” he suggested to Hitchcock. “The rest of you people heard what I had to say, and have your own work carry on doing. Dismissed.”

Yes, Sir,” came the chorus of voices, as the small group scattered back to their own tasks.

I will attend the Bridge as soon as I can, Commander,” Bridger said to Ford, wanting to speak to Ben first.

Ben knew what the Captain was going to ask. Both of them wanted to talk to Lucas if he would let them, but guessed that the battle had only just begun again. The teenager may not be so accommodating right now.

I think the time has come to introduce some serious down time, Sir,” Ben suggested. “For him to be able to relax and enjoy some social time after everything that has happened today.”

Anything is worth trying I suppose,” Bridger answered, thinking that perhaps Ben was the best person to try and approach Lucas first. Nathan could step in afterwards if he was unsuccessful or if Lucas was intending to be unco-operative.

A movie night in the recreation room after dinner. Nothing too complicated or onerous, and only a few select people as part of the audience this first time,” Ben continued, describing his plan of action. “Lucas, myself, Tim, Miguel and you of course are invited too. I can provide the popcorn and drinks, and a title from my personal collection.”

That sounds like a good place to start,” the Captain agreed in approval, hoping that the teenager would be at least willing to listen to Ben’s idea. “Tell me if you need any assistance in setting up. Let’s hope he agrees to attend.”

After returning to his small cabin, Lucas sat down at his small computer desk, the frustration and humiliation he felt oozing out of every pore. He was too wound up and could barely stand still in the one spot. He wanted to throw something violently across the other side of the room or punch something with his fist.

He ate half of the noodles before dumping the rest of container into the bin, his appetite evaporating. He drank from the soda and left the opened container on the table as he climbed up onto the top bunk. Doing it a little too fast, and paying the price with his stitches pulling at the sudden movement.

Darwin swam into view as his thoughts threatened to boil over, and his depressing mood deepening further. He gave the dolphin a smile that he didn’t truly feel, and stared off into the blue water.

A moment later, a knock came on his hatch door. He didn’t answer at first and was very tempted to tell the person on the other side that he wasn’t accepting visitors for the rest of the day. A week, a month or even a whole year was more in line with the time frame he would prefer.

When Ben opened the door and poked his head inside, he was surprised, expecting it might have been Bridger instead. Ford would have reported the incident to him, and would want to talk no doubt.

Please don’t take this the wrong way, Ben, but I would rather be left alone right now,” he pleaded, barely managing to keep any residual anger out of his voice.

I know,” Ben replied with complete understanding, entering the room and standing closer to the bed. When he had first knocked on the door, he thought about using humour and a few jokes to cheer the kid up, but looking at his friend now, he knew that it would have been in terrible taste.

Krieg had been expecting the boy to clam up and not want to reveal what on his mind, but he was quickly proven wrong when the teenager decided that he wasn’t going to keep silent this time around. Whether it was Ben was standing there, willing to listen, or something else entirely he didn’t know, but Lucas allowed his emotions to come to the surface.

Ben wanted to remove any notion of being backed into a corner or perceived threat that Lucas saw as forcing him to talk. Hearing him speak may give him a better idea on how the kid was coping, when recently he had been deliberately making it difficult for anybody to tell.

You know, I am going completely out of my comfort zone, bending and trying to fit in around here as best I can. Especially when I didn’t ask to be put here in the first place,” he began, refraining from raising his voice. “To help out people where I feel like I can so I don’t go completely stir-crazy with boredom, only to keep getting doors slammed in my face. There is nowhere private to go or way of escaping out of this huge floating tin can!”

Gary Stewart and Andy Graham will face sanctions from Commander Ford, and Bridger has already ordered Katie to recommend punishment for Kirk Murphy,” Ben told him, hoping it would bring him some solace to know that these men would be dealt with appropriately.

Oh, well I am glad that someone even knows who these people are,” Lucas remarked with disdain. “Because here I am getting grief from perfect strangers without a clue of who they are. They think that I am some high school drop-out with nothing better to do with my time. People keep asking me what I am doing here on SeaQuest.”

And to tell you the truth, I honestly don’t have any idea about why than they do,” he finished irately, adding a touch of surrender that he still had no control over his life.

The Captain and I, and others are doing our best to sort out people like that, before it becomes a problem,” Ben replied, knowing that any efforts to-date must be feeling pretty grossly inadequate to Lucas at this point.

And that is another thing,” Lucas interjected with a new heated response, “How much I hate that you, the Captain, Ford or anybody else feels obligated in having to step in and fight on my behalf in the first place. That is not who I am or how I have done things before. And I don’t like it one bit!”

Krieg realised that he was talking about having to rely on himself against his father. Ben wanted him to get rid of his pent up anger by venting, hoping it would provide the teenager with an outlet. Keeping negative emotions bottled up all of the time wasn’t healthy.

He wanted to explain that it wasn’t through obligation that any of them were prepared to prevent disrespect or unkind words being hurled at him. It had a little bit to do with them feeling guilty about finding out what he was experiencing at home. They were so desperate to stop it from happening on-board and stamp it out that they probably forgot that he had been fighting much bigger battles by himself his whole life. By stepping in and thinking they were doing good, they were eroding and taking away that strong independent streak that he had created and relied upon.

For the most part it was that they cared about him as a person, a member of this crew, and as a friend. That he wasn’t a nobody, and that his hopes and dreams were just as important as the next person. That his life mattered. Those were difficult concepts for the teenager to believe or comprehend yet.

Sorry if I am sounding selfish and like the spoiled brat that I keep getting told I am,” Lucas said, turning back towards the aqua tube, embarrassed that he had let go just now with his impassioned tirade. Ben didn’t deserve to hear his rant about how unfair things were in his small corner of the world. He should have kept his mouth shut and curbed his tongue.

I don’t think that at all, Lucas. You have no need to offer any excuse to me, and you have every right to feel unappreciated,” Ben said truthfully, wanting to be able to say the right words. Accepting them being said about him was another matter entirely. “And for the record, I think you are far from being spoiled or a brat.”

Lucas turned to look at his friend, not wanting to offer any more conversation and trying to gain some shred of dignity, and giving a silent apology to Ben.

Lucas was finished talking and the anger he felt was beginning to leech out of him, leaving only an emptiness and the lack of positive vibes to offer his friend. He let out a slow tired sigh, leaning against the pillows situated behind him. He grimaced in discomfort as his stitches pulled in the wrong direction, slumping in defeat that this day had been one to forget.

How about a chance of pace tonight?” he asked, changing the subject entirely and brightening his whole persona. He was determined to draw the kid out of his current funk.

The teenager could see that Ben wasn’t about to allow him to wallow in self-pity too long. He sat up a little more and wondered what the man was cooking up “What do you mean?”

I was planning on having the first of many social gatherings aboard SeaQuest,” Ben started to explain. “I haven’t had the chance to organize one yet, and should have way before now. Tonight seemed just as good a time as any to have it.”

Ben, I appreciate what you are trying to do………….,” Lucas replied, thankful for the man’s efforts, but knowing that any kind of communal activity was far down on his wish list of priorities.

The moral officer was not going to be deterred though by his down-trodden mood, and stopped him from giving an outright refusal before he heard it in full. “I am having a movie night in the recreation room. Only a few people will be invited.”

Who?” still not wanting to go, but the hopeful expression on Ben’s face was chipping away at his rapidly crumbling exterior. The guy was trying to be a good friend.

You, me, Miguel and Tim. And the Captain if he wants to join us,” Ben answered. “Some popcorn to nibble on, and some drinks supplied to wash it down with.”

I suppose that would be okay,” Lucas said non-committally, “So long as it is not too many people.”

By invitation only,” Ben assured him, knowing that the boy would change his mind about attending if there was going to be a larger crowd present.

What movie will we be watching?”

I will supply the movie from my personal collection,” Ben declared with all the airs of an experienced movie critic. “Something good I promise,” he added. He was pleased to see that the kid was at least opening up a little more to the prospect of spending time in a social atmosphere.

I have a friend up-world,” Lucas began out of the blue, sharing a story with Krieg. “He has a grand-father who is considered by many to be quite eccentric. Talks to himself and inanimate objects quite often,” he revealed with a small laugh at such a memory.

Who of us here doesn’t from time to time,” Ben replied casually, recognizing another rare moment where the teenager was giving away information about himself. He continued to listen with great interest. This was the first time he had heard Lucas mention anything definitive about having a friend up-world.

I have only met him once or twice. Known as Grandpa Ralph to everybody, even if they are not related,” he continued. He lives in some derelict old factory that has been converted, but there is this wall of shelving. Contained within them is one of the most breathtaking and enormous collections of old vinyl records from the 50’s and 60’s. Compact Discs full of bands and music artists from every era. People have probably not heard any of them played in a decade or two because they stopped making them. A wall of DVD’s from every genre and Blu-ray disc’s. The range and variety is an impressive sight to behold. I was only there one time long enough to browse.”

Sounds like a fantastic collection,” Krieg commented. “I have quite a good one myself at my house, though probably not as extensive because I lack the space. More than half of it belongs to my father. Here on SeaQuest, anything that I have is stored in boring plastic boxes, that end up out of order. I have to continually sort through them to find anything worthwhile.”

What are you planning to do now?” Ben asked, planning to give his friend some space before the event tonight. Secretly he was hoping that the kid would get some sleep, because he was looking rather tired. But he erred on the side of caution, not wanting to upset the apple cart or his improved mood by mentioning that out loud.

For the next few hours, I don’t want to do anything at all,” Lucas answered. “Nothing that requires me to think too long anyway.”

I still have a few things to do for the rest of the afternoon,” Krieg stated. “I will meet up with you after dinner in the recreation room. No exact time, just when you decide to turn up,” he added, wanting to keep everything completely stress free. Even down to when to arrive.

For the remainder of the afternoon, Lucas had kept to his cabin. Not venturing out or doing any kind of work.

Ben had briefly told Bridger that he had a few other things to tell him concerning Lucas’s mood and feelings about being on SeaQuest. But there were also things that he decided the Captain could learn for himself at another time. Not everything shared between friends had to be repeated or picked apart.

As the made the final preparations for the night with the bowls of popcorn, Tim and Miguel arrived as arranged. Ben had quietly spoken to them about Lucas not being completely convinced of attending. Some large cushions were settled along two large and wide sofa couches in the room, that faced the large viewing screen mounted on the wall.

Bridger had promised to be there, but had yet to arrive himself. Ben kept looking down at his watch, thinking that the kid had changed his mind. Five minutes later, Lucas ambled into the large room, pleased to see that there were only a few familiar faces like Krieg had said.

Hey,” he greeted the other two men. “Where is everybody sitting?”

Take your pick of a spot, Lucas,” Krieg replied, allowing him to choose his own seat.

Tim and Miguel said hello and kept the chatter to a few general statements. Ben had reminded them all that there were only one ground rule to enforce on nights such as this, and it was easy enough to follow. There were a few others for viewing baseball when it started, and games were being watched, but those would be explained when the season started.

For movie nights, there was to be no talking about anything work related when they gathered socially. The consequences for doing so would be of his choosing and at the very least, horribly embarrassing to the responsible party.

Miguel sat on the very end of one sofa, with Ben beside him, and then Tim on his right-hand side. The teenager chose the end chaise section of one sofa, placing two of the cushions against the back of the seat, hoping to provide some additional padding for his shoulder. The longer section of the couch would allow him to stretch out and alter the position of his sore hip without sitting directly on the bruising.

There was plenty of room between Tim and Lucas for the Captain to come and join them, and he hoped that his presence would go even further towards helping the teenager relax and enjoy the upcoming show.

On a smaller table in front of the sofas were a number of sodas and water bottles being kept ice cold. Three bowls of popcorn within easy reach, and plenty to go around. A number of different movie cases were also scattered on-top for browsing.

Lucas picked up a random case, and was quietly perusing the front cover, before turning it over and reading the summary on the back for what that particular movie was about. He selected a second movie case and did the same. He was silently telling himself that he hadn’t seen any of them, but didn’t want to spoil any of Ben’s careful planning.

Miguel was the first to speak up, “So what did you choose for us to watch, Krieg?”

You will have to watch to find out, Miguel, but it is a classic,” Ben gave cryptically. “Bobby and I used to watch this one years ago, so I am hoping that the Captain will be pleased with my choice as well,” hoping that the movie would appeal to more than one generation.

Lucas looked over the back of the couch towards the door, “I thought he would already be here when I came in. Where is the Captain?”

He was talking to Kristin at dinner, I saw the two of them sitting together,” Ben answered. “He probably went to change into casual clothes now that his shift has ended.”

Lucas nodded his head and accepting Ben’s explanation without any further comment.

Sorry I am late, Ben,” Bridger apologised as he came in. “Great to see everybody here, including you Lucas. I got caught up with some last minute problems on the Bridge.”

Ahem, there is no talking about work in here, Captain,” Ben warned as he adjusted the lighting with a remote control and darkened the room.

Unless you want to be on receiving end of something embarrassing from Krieg,” Tim piped in, before picking up one of the sodas and drinking from it using a straw.

Saved a seat for you there next to O’Neill and Lucas, Sir,” Ben stated. “You can make sure both of them stay out of trouble,” he added with a laugh. Tim and Miguel quickly joined in.

Lucas, however did not, but did exchange a small grin the Captain as he took up his seat. There was plenty of space for everybody, and nobody needed to be cramped too close together. The large sofas would easily accommodate another five or six people comfortably.

Bridger was about to ask Ben what the movie was going to be, but decided that it didn’t really matter. For the next twenty minutes, the small group sat back and watched the casting credits roll onto the screen and the opening scenes.

For Lucas it very quickly became a completely different experience. What had started out as a casual, no pressure movie night, turned into one of shame as he quickly turned his face away from the screen. He was using one of the cushions to hide the fact that he had closed his eyes and didn’t want to see any more. He didn’t want the Captain, or anybody else knowing what it was doing to him internally. And it was taking a lot to maintain his exterior mask.

The sound of a fist hitting human flesh echoed in his mind, over and over again. It kept striking and striking, growing louder and louder in his ears.

Miguel and Ben were making a few idle comments to each other, and sharing a conversation. Tim O’Neill and Bridger were also talking about something, rather than paying full attention to the screen. With each of them temporarily distracted, none of them saw the distress on the teenager’s features and how he was attempting to block out the images and sounds.

It was Tim O’Neill who briefly noted the teenager fidgeting and deliberately avoiding what was happening on the screen. He thought that the Captain was close enough to notice something was wrong. He knew Lucas would not appreciate him asking if he was alright out loud, even though it was clear he was upset.

Being seated on the end of the sofa and the room darkened, Lucas was able to quietly slip out from the room, without a word. He didn’t want to ruin Ben’s night.

Lucas needed to stand in the corridor for a moment and take a deeper breath to calm down his heart rate. Bad memories were surging up from his sub-conscious and assailing him from a number of directions. Sensory overload was making it difficult to distinguish between between the fictional world of a movie, and the very real one that he was trapped in under his father.

He walked down the corridor, away from the recreation room, looking over his shoulder to make sure that his absence hadn’t been detected yet. He didn’t want to go straight back to his cabin, because that would be the first place the Captain would come. He would have to come up with a plausible excuse to Bridger to explain why he left, and another apology to Ben.

Krieg had just finished sharing something funny with Miguel, before looking over at the end of the couch. The grin he had on his face vanished and turned into confusion when he saw the spot was now vacant.

Where did Lucas go?” he asked, totally surprised to find him missing. He looked over his shoulder around the room, to check that he hadn’t merely gotten up to help stretch his healing hip.

He was here just a minute ago,” Bridger confirmed, silently berating himself for not watching closely enough. “I didn’t even see or hear him leave.”

Tim O’Neill felt compelled to tell them what he had witnessed, “I don’t think he was enjoying the movie very much, Krieg, even this early in.”

What do you mean, Tim?” Ben questioned. “This is a great movie. A classic. I have seen it dozens of times. We could have switched to one of the other movies there on the table. Why didn’t he say something about not liking it?”

Yes, I know you told us, but think about what it was about,” O’Neill pointed out astutely. “A boxing movie. About people smashing their fists into other people’s faces and bodies. Lucas had his head turned away, and was using the cushion to shield himself away from the noise.”

After everything that we have found out about him and what his father has been doing recently, I don’t think he was ready to see that one yet,” Tim added.

Ben felt like he had been sucker punched in the stomach. When did Tim O’Neill become a better judge of his friend being bothered about something than he was? What kind of friend did that make him? He should have played closer attention and picked up that those scenes in a movie would be a trigger.

Ben looked over at Bridger, feeling utterly ashamed and guilty that he hadn’t given enough thought to the genre of the movie he chose, and what the subject matter was. “I am very sorry, Captain, I didn’t even think…..,” he started to say in true apology. “I knew you were a boxer in your younger years because Bobby told me. He introduced that film to me in our second year at the academy together. I thought Lucas may enjoy that connection to you as well, and learn something about your past with your son.”

The truth was, perhaps Ben had been feeling a little too nostalgic. He wanted to share a good memory with the Captain about some of the normal everyday things that he and Bobby had done together. Lucas had faced enough unpleasantness first-hand today. And now without meaning to, he had gone and done the same thing. This whole night was supposed to be help him relax and come out of his shell. Not do the exact opposite.

Bridger was troubled to hear how the teenager had reacted to the movie. He suspected that Tim’s observations were quite accurate about the anxiety caused. Lucas himself probably didn’t know until it was too late. Not one of them could not have been predicted the outcome or the lasting impact, by simply watching a film.

Ben’s heart had been in the right place, and he would not have played that particular title if he knew beforehand. Nathan was truly touched by Ben’s attempt to bring up more happier times about Robert. He had used boxing as exercise and to maintain his fitness levels. Bridger had no idea that his son had told Ben about him being a boxer during his earlier naval career days.

I will go and find him and make sure that he is alright,” Bridger assured them, contemplating whether he may need to go and find Kristin first.

Lucas was grateful for the distance of the recreation room to the science laboratories and he used it to his advantage, making his way along the grated floor. He was trying to decrease his speed with the length of each stride. His hip was aching from the forced pace, but he didn’t stop until he reached the science areas and wandered in without raising anybody’s suspicions.

Thankfully, this time of night, Kristin’s staff were fewer in number, having finished their shifts for the day. There were a few people present, carrying out some minor experiments, and that is what he focused on. A few of the scientific staff noticed him nearby, but Doctor Westphalen had told them about giving him permission to observe.

The truth was that Lucas’ mind was far from being on anything they were doing. He was trying to stop his nerves being on edge and wait for his heart rate to settle down. Inwardly, he was repeating the same mantra more than a few times; that his father couldn’t reach him here on SeaQuest and wasn’t anywhere close by like Bridger promised.

The teenager took one of the backless stools and sat on it on the opposite side of a large work bench. From this position, he could see what they were doing in silence.

He just about jumped out of his skin though, when a gentle hand from Kristin touched his good left shoulder.

What are you doing in here this time of night?” she asked with a smile on her face, but could immediately see that something was amiss or not quite right.

Lucas turned to face her briefly, and made a half-hearted attempt to smile back, but quickly turned his attention back to her workers, swallowing the lump in his throat. He knew that she would pick up on his mood and nervousness. He wasn’t capable of hiding it well enough at the moment.

Kristin had caught the thin line of a smile and noticed the darkening shadows that screamed of fatigue in his poor posture. His body language was speaking volumes too. The colour in his cheeks was slightly paler than normal. She was about to ask what was wrong, when he decided to speak first and prevent her from probing more.

I came down here to find you and tell you about the database program you asked me about,” he informed her.

What about it?” she answered with a question of her own, but doubted this was the real reason for his presence. She was grateful for anything he was doing for her, but wasn’t going to allow him to sacrifice his health to impress her over some computer software.

Yeah, it is almost finished. I should be able to give you a demonstration very soon of how it all works and show you and any staff you want shown how to use it and keep it updated,” he explained. There was a fair amount of truth to what he was telling her, it was almost finished. He planned to work on getting closer to its completion tonight.

I am heading back to my cabin for the night in a few minutes,” he said in a quiet voice, hoping that would relay any concerns she had about him sleeping. He wasn’t going to admit to her that sleep would not find him tonight. And his cabin provided the perfect sanctuary from people seeing him working during the early morning hours.

Good night, I will talk to you tomorrow,” he said, getting off the stool and heading towards the door.

Kristin was about to head out and find Nathan and talk to him about what her concerns, when the man himself walked into her department.

I assume you came in here looking for Lucas?” she asked plainly.

Bridger then proceeded to tell her a shortened version of everything that had happened during the day. From the two maintenance workers in his own quarters, to the staff member on Hitchcock’s team who had been insulting as well. Westphalen couldn’t understand why they found themselves having to take action against people who were adults yet again. That they had no business asking the teenager about why he was on-board and treating him differently when he was trying to offer assistance.

Kristin completely understood why he had been angry and said that he was ‘done’ with the world. She could think of a few choice words to say to those responsible, just like she had done to Robert Cooper.

She was delighted to hear about Ben’s efforts to try and undo all that negativity by having a movie night. Bridger told her why Ben had chosen the title and its connection to is his son. Learning about the man being a boxer in his younger years was new to her too.

Kristin made a mental note to talk to Ben when she saw him next, and thank him personally for his thoughtfulness towards Nathan. He was trying to strengthen the connection between Nathan and Lucas because he cared, not because it was part of his job description as morale officer.

Her own heart sank when she listened to how he had reacted to the boxing and now guessing at the real reason why he was wandering about and eventually found himself in her laboratories. No doubt he was trying to escape some bad memories from his past, and her department offered a certain amount of quietness and distancing from other people, which was what he was craving.

Whilst she was more than willing to offer a place of safety for him, she wished it didn’t have to come about like this. The doctor then gave Nathan her own observations about his physical appearance trying to quell their own growing concerns for him psychologically.

I am heading to his cabin now,” he stated to her. “We need to come together as a team and see him through this for as long as it takes, even if he doesn’t want that at the moment,” he added with conviction. He wasn’t about to let the boy give up on himself or fall through the cracks.

Upon returning to his own small cabin, Lucas was about to start heading to the mess hall and bring back some coffee to keep himself awake. He thought he had closed the hatch door, but the electronic lock had failed again. It wasn’t completely shut, but with his mind was on too many other things, he didn’t notice.

He had told Kristin that he was still working on her database, and that is what he had been planning to do. But he was feeling lethargic and distracted, opting instead to play a video game. Hopefully that would stimulate his brain enough for him to focus better before tackling his work again.

Lucas had hooked up to the gaming system through the generous computer equipment provided on the SeaQuest. Suddenly it gave him a brilliant idea entirely.

Outside his cabin, Captain Bridger had arrived, and was just about to knock on the door when he stopped and paused when he heard the teenager’s voice. At first thought someone else must have been inside the cabin too. Perhaps Ben. But he soon realised that Lucas was talking out loud to himself.

The Captain felt a little uneasy about listening to what the boy was saying without alerting Lucas to his presence. He wasn’t trying to be deceitful, and trusted the risk would be worth it. Maybe he could remain undetected for a short time, and pick some valuable information in the process.

Lucas had sought permission from Bridger today about contacting his best friend, Shep. The Captain had granted his request, but this method of contact may provide the perfect alternative. Using the gaming system, he could contact his friend and could do it from the privacy of his own cabin. He wouldn’t need to talk to Tim about providing a secure link up-world.

Why didn’t you think of it before, Wolenczak?” Lucas chastised himself harshly. “Nobody should be able to follow my tracks if done right. You could have done this days ago if only you had used your brain.”

Sitting at his computer desk, Lucas connected his computer through the secret link he had created. He was granted access to the whole network, but the custom security measures allowed him to move about freely and remain virtually anonymous.

The computer was talking loudly enough to Lucas for Bridger to be able to hear what was happening, but he was unable to see the screen.

‘Thank you for choosing Internex’ came the electronic voice.

‘Please enter your usercode and password’

Nathan could hear Lucas’ fingers punching in the requested information.

It’s been too long since I logged in and done this,” Lucas whispered to himself, knowing that the chance to indulge in gaming pursuits had not come up very often recently.

‘Welcome back, Frankenstein’ the electronic voice greeted him. ‘Your identification has been accepted and verified for security purposes. Full access is now granted.’

‘Frankenstein’ Nathan thought to himself with amusement. He never would have guessed that as the boy’s online alias.

Bridger could only guess at the secrets and the vast amount of knowledge, that the teenager held about this world. He had never playing games on a computer during his own teenage years. Cyber-space was a strange and alien environment to him, even though his own vessel was built based around technology and relied heavily upon it.

The boy’s own voice was translated into digital format, and then applied to his character on screen. Nathan marvelled at the progress of computer intelligence as he listened. It wasn’t a perfect match, but it was certainly a good impersonation of Lucas’ speech pattern.

‘Choose the opponent you wish to face in battle’

I choose, Phantom,” Lucas announced, as he gave the same command via with key strokes.

Did all of these teenage players have these cool sounding names to hide behind? Bridger wondered with a silent chuckle.

‘Phantom, are you lurking about in here today?’ his character asked.

A few moments later, there was distinct moaning from a ghostly ghoul in answer from a second character.

‘Frankenstein, is that really you?’ came the question from an electronic voice.

Yes, it’s really,” the teenager confirmed.

Oh my…… Lucas, I can’t….. please tell me that you are okay,” came the plea from the other player. The two of them felt comfortable enough to use each other’s real names.

The sentence was broken due to the emotion that Nathan could hear. The other person sounded older than Lucas, but he couldn’t be sure on their age.

Switch over to private voice-chat, Phantom,” Lucas instructed. “Make sure your system is secure.”

Done, talking through secure chat now, and not in the game.”

Same here, we can talk for a short time without worrying about anybody listening in.”

‘Except the person standing right outside your cabin door’ Bridger said to himself.

Shep, I cannot tell you how good it is to hear your voice,” Lucas said, his own relief and emotion shining through very clearly at this impromptu reunion.

Good to hear from me?” Shep countered back. “Do you have any idea what Wolfy and I have been going through for the past few months, wondering what had happened to you.”

Sorry, but this is the first chance I have really had to contact you. I would have done so sooner if I had a way to do so.”

I know, I know, but you have no idea how crazy it was making the two of us feel, not knowing or being able to do anything. The last time we saw you was at Stanford, when that bastard of a father ripped you out of there with no warning. We saw him shove you into the car and saw the two of you drive away. Wolfy was starting to search the daily obituary pages, expecting to find your name listed.”

Bridger’s jaw about dropped to the floor with complete shock. Whoever these friends Shep and Wolfy were, they knew about Lucas’ home situation and were privy to a lot more detail than his crew had discovered to date. Hearing about Lucas being taken away from college by his father, was very disturbing.

Yeah well, nothing has changed there, he has already proven that,” Lucas said, his voice dropping away. “The first week was rough, but I will tell the rest of it another time.”

Sure,” Shep said, suspecting that his friend was sporting from injuries courtesy of that low-life. He knew that Lucas would never reveal any details and he didn’t want to push.

Where are you anyway?”

It is probably safer for you not to know at this point, Shep,” Lucas said in complete seriousness, refusing to put his friends in a precarious position.

But then the tone of his voice changed dramatically, “Shep….” he said, leaving it unfinished. The fear unmistakable.

Shep could hear the hesitation and the apprehension coming through from his friend. He didn’t need to be in person to picture the shattered look on Lucas’ face that would match the tone.

Other people found out…..” he said ashamedly, leaning back against on the chair, but wincing as his stitches reminded him not to do that.

How did………,” Shep gasped, unable to hide his own disbelief at such news. “But how…..?” knowing that Lucas was rightfully worried about the consequences he was facing.

Because for one stupid minute, I lost control and blurted it out without even thinking,” Lucas answered with so much self-loathing. The teenager was still kicking himself and finding it difficult to keep the emotions from swelling up about that gargantuan mistake.

Shep knew that anybody finding out would be a devastating and catastrophic blow for his friend. The circumstances of how it happened were irrelevant. He was one of the few people who knew just how long that deep dark secret had been kept, and the price it had extracted.

Who found out?” Shep asked, but then said something else that drew Bridger’s attention.

They better not be hurting you too,” he warned ominously. “Do you need me and Wolfy to jump in the car and come get you? You can bunk here until this all blows over for as long as you like. We can be on the road in ten minutes.”

Lucas gave a shallow laugh at his friend’s well intended, but empty threat, “Thanks, I appreciate it but will keep that idea in reserve for now. There are some good people here, trying to help me.”

None of them will be able to stop your father,” Shep pointed out bluntly. “Are you safe?”

Nathan was very pleased to hear somebody else asking that question, and showing genuine concern for Lucas outside of his crew. This person knew about Lawrence Wolenczak and wasn’t afraid to offer rescue and sanctuary to Lucas if he wanted it. The teenager hadn’t exactly given a definitive ‘no’ in return.

For now, I am, and I have been assured that he cannot reach me for the immediate future. I wish I could tell you more, but it is complicated,” Lucas explained.

With you, it always is,” Shep taunted, knowing that his friend wouldn’t be offended with such an off-hand remark.

As much as I would like to play a game with you now, or spend more time talking, it is better that we don’t. When we log off here, I want to put into place, our custom communications system.”

The emergency ‘DEFCON’ one we designed for you?” Shep questioned with surprise, knowing that there was a serious problem if Lucas was considering using such a method.


There are five levels, which one are you currently at?” Shep asked, knowing what the different tiers were.

Defcon level four,” Lucas relayed. “I will contact you when and if I need to, not the other way around. Everything communicated between us after this has to be in code until further notice,” Lucas instructed.”

Understood. But you let me know if you need anything or either of us at any time. Day or Night, twenty four seven,” Shep responded.

Bridger was only beginning to understand the level of sophistication that had gone into these highly organized systems set up by Lucas. No doubt they were only beginning to be aware of the ingenuity and complexity behind them. Hiding away and using secret codes were only the tip of the iceberg. These friends must be very special indeed to be encapsulated as part of his safety net.

Shep said one final thing as the two friends prepared to sever the connection between them. “The three muskateers, Lucas. Always, no matter what comes.”

No matter what,” Lucas repeated back, unable to disguise how he felt or demonstrate enough, what these two friends meant to him. “Frankenstein out.”

The Captain decided now was a good time to stop listening in and was about to knock on the hatch door, hoping that the expression on his face would pass for normal.

Knock, knock,” Bridger said in a pleasant voice.

Lucas looked up from the screen he had been staring at for a few minutes, lost in his own thoughts. He heard the Captain’s voice.

Hello,” he said, getting up from his chair and turning the handle to answer the man. It was only now that he noticed that the electronic lock had not engaged.

That lock didn’t work again,” he said, reaching down and playing with the key pad.

Bridger was standing beside him watching with interest, “Will you be able to do the same for your own door like you did for Ben?”

Nathan was trying to detect any signs of fear and being upset after leaving the recreation room. He was actively watching out for the anxiety and fatigue that Kristin had noted. But without giving away that he had over-heard the private conversation through the computer.

Maybe..,” Lucas he started to say but then stopped, deciding to tackle that particular problem later. “What brings you down here?” he questioned.

A small amount of suspicion began to creep into the back of his mind at the man’s timing and arrival at his door. For a moment he searched for any kind of clue to that effect, but then silently chastised himself for being too paranoid. The Captain was checking up on him like normal he surmised.

You didn’t finish watching the movie with everybody, and I wandered down here to make sure you were okay,” Nathan answered, proving the teenager’s assumption.

It wasn’t really something I was interested in, but I didn’t want to ruin anybody’s viewing pleasure,” Lucas gave in explanation, wanting to remove the slightest hint of there being another reason.

The Captain decided not to tell him the reasons for Ben’s choice of movie, knowing that it would only add pressure and guilt. Tim O’Neill’s and Kristin’s observations were not shared. Neither was their growing concern that he was suffering through past traumatic experiences alone.

The conversation that Lucas had with his friend had gone some way towards counteracting the negative feelings and fears he had been holding onto because of the movie.

I think Ben was a little surprised that you left so soon,” Bridger commented, knowing that the morale officer was feeling a whole lot more than ‘a little’ disappointment.

That statement had Lucas feeling regretful that he had left without saying anything. Ben had tried to set up the night for him.

I will talk to him tomorrow,” Lucas promised. “He didn’t do anything wrong.”

You may not let you get away from turning down his next invitation to any social event,” Bridger forewarned.

I told Kristin that I was staying in for the rest of the evening,” Lucas told the Captain.

I am headed back to my own cabin too for some quiet reading time,” Bridger confirmed. “Good night, sleep well, I will see you in the morning.”

Lucas had waited a good hour after the Captain had departed, before leaving his cabin in search of coffee from the mess hall. Only this time, he brought it back, intending to settle in as originally planned and work. For the next few more hours, he wanted to starve off sleep for as long as possible.

He wanted to do what he could to prevent being subjected to more nightmares, and that meant working until he was so tired that nightmares couldn’t invade and he wouldn’t dream. To start with, he decided to work towards completing Kristin’s database program. And he was able to make significant milestones with its creation until after midnight.

After that time, most of the corridors were devoid of foot traffic, with most crew members retiring to own cabins. He brought out his electronic pad, and the tablet for recording his progress on the door locks. Lucas chose a selection of doors where staff were unlikely to come across him in the middle of the night.

At about three a.m., he decided that he needed to move around again and chose another task to work on. He moved to the science department, which was also eerily vacant during these hours. He began in that area with something very simple, which was labelling the geology samples in laboratory one, and the living specimens in number two for Kristin.

By five thirty a.m. in the morning, the teenager knew he was fighting a losing battle to stay awake by the constant deep yawning. The caffeine injections were no longer working. Packing his gear away, he chose to head to the mess hall for something to eat. Maybe having food in his stomach would help him stay asleep without interruption for more than a couple of hours. Right now he was hoping that it was still too early yet for any kind of crowd.

Morning, Don,” Lucas greeted the head chef casually, as he approached the serving counter in the mess hall. There weren’t any selections in the warmer yet, and the cutlery and condiments had yet to be laid out.

Lucas!” the man said with total surprise, putting aside the knife he was using, and wiping his hands on the apron he was wearing. “What are you doing in here this time of the morning?” As he said that, he couldn’t help but notice how tired the boy appeared.

Hoping to beat the rush,” the teenager answered truthfully. “I am not looking for anything substantial. Simple and easy, and something to wash it down with that isn’t coffee.”

The chef listened to his reason, and took note of what he was interested in eating. He was also silently thinking that he should be talking to the Captain and the doctor and not overlooking the boy’s physical appearance. Had the kid slept at all last night?

Lucas looked over at the bench were the chef had been doing his morning prep work. He noticed the half-filled crate of avocados and the stones that had been removed and discarded from the other half.

Don saw him looking at them, “Going to be slicing, seasoning with pepper and putting them on toast for people this morning if you are interested?”

Oh no, I was supposed to come and tell you the day before yesterday that I am allergic to avocados,” Lucas informed him. “Doctor Westphalen knows, and the Captain said it was something that I should come and tell you. I totally forgot until I saw you cutting them up them just now.”

Thanks for letting me know,” Don answered. “I will make sure not to include them in any of your meals. There are a few recipes on the menu that include them. Most of the time they can be left out if you wanted to try a particular dish.”

I have scrambled eggs with some bacon pieces mixed with them that is nearly ready to come off the stove. You go and take a seat, and I will bring you out a plate,” Don offered as an alternative choice.

That sounds fine,” Lucas replied, satisfied enough with what was on offer. Any decision making by someone else this morning suited him.

Lucas chose the same secluded table preventing him being noticed straight away. He sat down wearily, covering up another yawn. He was almost startled when Don appeared beside him no more than a few minutes later.

Here you go, enjoy,” the chef said, placing the plate of food down and letting the enticing aroma do its job.

My mother’s recipe again. She always knew the best ways of making good comfort food.”

Smells great, thank you,” Lucas commented as he picked up a fork and tried it. “Tastes good too,” he said between mouthfuls, appreciating that the meal was still hot.

I will bring your drink out in a minute, I am just finishing heating it up.”

Lucas nodded his head, wondering what it would be, after he had given a fairly vague description of what he was wanting to drink.

Let me know if you want any more, there is plenty if you manage to get through that,” Don told him, and then went back to the kitchen.

The chef returned with the steaming mug, and was pleased to see that half of the scrambled egg meal had been consumed so far. The youth was eating a little better today.

Hot Chocolate,” he identified as the boy looked curiously over the rim at the contents.

I am normally not a big milk fan, but hot chocolate is okay sometimes,” he voiced, taking a mouthful of the chocolaty beverage. “Not too sweet and not bitter,” he gave in critique.

I will head back to preparing breakfast for the rest of the crew,” Don informed him, leaving him to finish in peace.

Lucas acknowledged by raising his fork in salute as he took another mouthful from his mug, and giving a small nod of his head in thanks.

Another ten minutes, and Lucas had finished his breakfast, and emptied two thirds of the mug of hot chocolate. He placed his cultery in the centre of the plate, and pushed it to one side of the table, signalling that he was finished. He would return them to Don for washing when he left the room.

With his left arm stretched straight out across the table, Lucas yawned, followed quickly by a second and a third one. He was telling himself to get up and move, but he was growing drowsy. Before he knew that it was happening, he lowered his blond head to rest partly on his arm. His eyes slowly drifted closed, and he fell asleep.

Twenty minutes later, Don had been carrying a crate of juice bottles to restock one of the drink refrigerators. Once the task was completed, he was heading back to the kitchen, but made it a point to pass the table where Lucas had been eating.

He put the crate down quietly, and sat down at one of the other tables across from the teenager, trying to figure out how best to proceed. He wasn’t a father, and didn’t have any children of his own, but he was definitely feeling the tugs on his heart strings. He didn’t want to appear heartless and wake the boy.

Glancing down at his watch, and noted that the first crowds wouldn’t arrive for breakfast for a few more minutes. The next question he found himself asking was ‘Should he go now and look for the Captain?’

Bridger had a fairly routine schedule for the past week when it came to arriving for meal times. But did he want to wait that long today?

Don kept looking towards the mess hall door, hoping that Lucas wouldn’t be disturbed by noise coming from someone coming in for their own breakfast.

Luck was on his side, as the Bridger, Doctor Westphalen and Ben Krieg all entered together through the door on the other side of the room. They all had varying reasons for being up this early, but their chatter between each other stopped instantly when they spotted the head chef sitting at a table.

Don started to tell them what little he knew, “He came in here about forty minutes ago looking for breakfast,” he informed them, pointing towards the shadowed table.

Nathan was about to ask if something was the matter, but he followed Don’s hand and saw who the Chef was talking about. His heart sank as he recognized Lucas’ sleeping form. There was no reason for the boy to be up this early in the morning. And to find him here, only caused more unanswered questions in addition to concern about his health.

I gave him some breakfast, and he looks to have finished that, and most of the hot chocolate in the mug,” Don explained, cranking his neck and looking at the remaining liquid at the bottom. “We even had a conversation about his allergy to avocados. I was going to come and find you, but I didn’t want to leave him in here alone.”

Ben started to take a step towards the table, but then changed his mind. Kristin had wanted to do the same thing and move closer to check on him too, but not one of them wanted to wake him unnecessarily.

What are we going to do, Nathan?” Kristin asked quietly. The signs of apprehension and fear that she had witnessed last night, coupled with what they could see now, had all the hall-marks of him battling unseen demons. He was falling back into old habits of refusing to tell anybody or ask for help. They all had been trying their best to offer support and prevent that.

Bridger had informed her and Ben on the way here that he had some fresh and exciting new information to share over breakfast. None of them expected Lucas to be in here.

He hasn’t even heard us come in. He looks exhausted,” Ben pointed out plainly, taking in his friend’s slumped posture.

Instead of answering Kristin, he found himself whispering to the slumbering teenager, wanting to do something. The Captain did edge a little closer, but pulled his hand back at the last moment from making contact. Whilst he didn’t want to wake the boy, his insides were tying themselves into knots. That growing concern that was being mirrored on all their faces.

Nathan whispered very softly, “Please don’t shut out the people who care and want to help, Lucas.”

To be continued…………………………


Author Notes:

Sorry folks, it was supposed to end in a completely different spot, twice, and I tried to get to both of them. I am not happy with where I had to leave it, and it lacks the impact I was hoping for.

I wanted to get to one scene in particular, but that will have to wait. I want to do the upcoming scenes justice and not shorten them or leave out details to do that. So moving the bits I didn’t get to into chapter four. This is one of my longest chapter to date.

I hope that the multiple changes of emotion are not too jarring for readers. I want the uncertainty, and mix of emotions throughout and then the bits where a little co-operation is reached intertwining. Lucas is still both finding his feet on-board and dealing with the aftermath of the abuse being discovered, and coping as best he can.

All information about Lucas’ blood type is introduced for a reason, for a number of upcoming plots, but you will have to wait to see how. My sister has the same rare type. The statistics about the rarity is fairly accurate at the time of writing this chapter.

This chapter doesn’t have a lot of action happening in it, but I hope you enjoy what I am setting up for later.

Bridger really needs to stop listening in to conversations, but seeing how this one is closer to the beginning, I guess this is where it all started where I have used it in other stories. If he didn’t listen in, he would miss out on a lot that was happening on his own boat.

There were a few new crew members introduced in this chapter, but it is uncertain how long they will be around for after this story. Hasn’t been decided yet. There are even more new introductions in the next few upcoming chapters, and some of those new characters will be around for longer than one story.

I know that some readers are hoping I will soon get back to completing stories like A Perfect World, Stanford Reunion and Seed Of Doubt and others, please believe me, I will be finishing them. My Mother’s Son and On My Own are coming up much earlier than the others. I need to do them in a specific order for all the previous clues and plotting to work correctly. So please bear with me. New parts to Stowaways are already written, but I cannot show them just yet.