Commander Kid

Chapter Three

Three Years Later:

"That's the last of it I think," Jack said as he placed a box of clothing on the floor and folded the 'still made up' bunk Merit normally slept in up into the wall. "You sure you won't change your mind? It's gonna be weird having this room to myself."

"You'll get used to it, I did." Merit smiled as he sat down on the floor next to the box Jack had packed and began looking through it. "Alan moved out of this room when I was about your age and I kinda felt abandoned for a little while too. At 13 you start needing your space and to be honest, I'd like to have some of my own again."

Jack watched as Merit pulled a red sweatshirt out of the box and tossed it on Jack's bed. "You keep stealing that one anyway so, it stays here. Saves time." He laughed. "Look, there are lots of times when one of us will work a bridge shift while the other is sleeping. Then if Mitchell takes over, one of us either needs to be quiet while the other sleeps or needs to find something else to do somewhere else on the ship. This'll be better."

Jack reached over and picked up the sweatshirt, carefully folding it, and then hugging it to his chest. "I know, but sharing the room has always been like we were really brothers."

"You're a mess." Merit laughed. "How many times do I need to tell you that we are, and always will be brothers? I swear you never listen to anything I say."

"Do too!" Jack smiled. "You said, blah, blah, blah, you stole my sweatshirt, blah, blah."

"Dork." Merit laughed and stood to leave the room. "Just think, now we don't need to listen to each other snore anymore."

"I don't snore!" Jack laughed.

"And you keep telling yourself that." Merit replied, picking up the box. "Remember, you're on shift in an hour. If you need me, just yell."

"Okay, thanks," Jack said and he watched as Merit stepped out of the room and closed the hatch.

Looking around the room, Jack started to tear up, so he buried his face in Merit's sweatshirt and laid back on his bunk.

Later on the bridge, Jack showed up early for his shift wearing a now very wrinkled red sweatshirt and looking like he just rolled out of bed.

"You didn't just wake up and think you were late again, did you?" Mitchell laughed.

"No," Jack said as he straightened his clothes out a bit, not making much of a difference. "Merit moved to his new quarters today."

"Ah." The man said as he got up from the command chair and stretched. "Are you okay with that? I mean, you've been sharing those quarters for what, 4 years now? It's gotta be weird."

"I guess." Jack replied "I mean he's right. We work opposite shifts sometimes and have woken each other up by accident. It just feels like...I dunno..."

"Like he's leaving you." Mitchell smiled. "Look, when Alan and Merit shared the quarters you are in now and Alan decided that he wanted his own space, Merit was mad at him because he felt abandoned." Mitchell thought for a moment before turning to look out the viewport. "Your shift doesn't start for about 15 minutes. How 'bout we make a friendly wager."

"What kind of wager?" Jack grinned.

"You go to Merit's new quarters, give him this environmental control readout so you have a reason to go," Mitchell said as he handed the boy a handheld.

"So, what's this got to do with a wager?" Jack tilted his head.

"I bet Merit knows that he's gonna miss you too. If he does, then you need to do my engineering walkthrough. If he doesn't, I'll do yours. Deal?" Mitchell held out his hand for Jack to shake.

"How am I supposed to tell what Merit is thinking or feeling?" Jack questioned, looking at Mitchell's hand and then at his face.

"I'll tell you how." Mitchell laughed. "There are two fold up bunks in all four crew quarters. I'll bet that Merit made up both, just in case you want to sleep in his room." With that he held his hand out again. "Do we have a wager?"

Squinting his eyes at the man and smirking, Jack took his hand. "Okay, I'll take that bet because I know he doesn't like making up his own bunk so he's not gonna make up two if he doesn't have to." Jack laughed. "I'll be right back."

Less than a minute later, Jack knocked on Merit's opened hatch to see him sitting on the one folded down bunk in the room. "Hey kid, you miss me already?"

"Yeah right." Jack nervously laughed while holding out the handheld, "Mitchel wanted you to see this."

As Merit was looking over the display, Jack slowly backed up to the closed-up bunk and quietly pulled it part way open trying not to be seen peeking at it. Finally, he was able to get it pulled open about an inch to see that the bunk had been completely made up, just as Mitchell said it would be. As if they had been pushed off of the edge of a cliff, tears ran down his cheeks, causing him to rush to wipe them away and losing his grip on the partially open bunk, allowing it to slam back into its closed position, gaining Merit's attention. "Awe, come here bro," He said and put the handheld down just in time for the smaller of the two to latch on to him.

"You made up both bunks." Jack sniffled into Merit's shoulder. "I didn't think you would, but Mitchell said you would and you did." He said, muffling his words into Merit's shirt.

"Well, he would know. I had to ask him for the extra bedding." Merit laughed. "Don't tell me he played off like he didn't know."

"Yeah." Jack laughed, releasing his grip on the older teen and wiping the tears out of his eyes. "I lost a bet too."

"You were played bro." Merit laughed. "Let me guess, you gotta do his engineering walk through now. He'll do anything to get out of that chore." When Jack smiled and nodded Merit laughed harder. "He did the exact same thing to me when Alan moved into this room."

"Worth it," Jack said as he picked up the handheld and shrugged. "You're the best brother anyone ever had. You know that, right?"

"Yup." Merit laughed. "And you are the most gullible little brother anyone would be lucky to have around. Now do me a favor and get out."

"One sec." Jack sniffled and smiled as he stepped over to the intercom. "Jack to bridge," Jack said and looked back at his brother.

"Go ahead Jack," Mitchell's voice echoed back.

"I'll be in engineering for about 20 minutes before I can take over the bridge." Jack laughed. "Oh, and you're a cheat."

"Not cheating, I just play the cards you two clowns deal me. Bridge out."

"Yeah right," Jack mumbled. "I'll see you tonight at the end of my shift Merit."

"You got it." Merit smiled back. "You want me to warm a dinner for you when I eat so it'll be ready when you get off shift? I'm planning on cracking open that lasagna we got last week."

"That sounds awesome! Please!" Jack beamed. "K, later!"

His walk through was quiet. Everything in its place and operating within specified guidelines. He never understood why Mitchell disliked this particular chore. Calling it tedious and mind-numbing. Jack considered it relaxing. The sounds coming from the running equipment. The steady hum from the FTL drive was something you didn't just hear but, felt in your chest and in every single piece of equipment, wall, or even through your shoes on the floor. He liked to imagine that the ship was humming to him and sometimes wished it translated through to the rest of the ship outside of acceleration or deceleration. Just as he was about to leave the room when all checked out, he felt a slight change and he froze for a second. Then he double-checked the main readout before scratching his head and hitting the intercom button. "Jack to bridge."

"Go ahead." The reply came.

"Mitchell, are you reading a harmonic imbalance up there? I felt a change but don't see one in the drive's output or change in venting." Jack scratched his head.

"You FELT a change?" Mitchell mused. "How so?"

"Hard to explain." Jack crossed his arms. "It went from a steady hum to a fast pulse that leveled off back to a steady hum. It never does that unless the drive gets cycled after an injector failure is auto hot-swapped. But that would show on the status control."

"If you weren't right so often, I'd laugh right now," Mitchell replied and remained silent for a moment. "I can't see any trouble up here but will drop to sublight if you feel it's necessary."

Jack put his hand on the console and just closed his eyes. "Nice and steady," he mumbled. "No, I think it's okay. I'll keep a close watch during my shift though."

"One of these days, you need to tell me how you learned to speak FTL." Mitchell laughed. "I'll see you on the bridge. Out."

Taking a few more seconds before leaving, Jack placed his hand on the console and smiled. "As long as you're singing and not getting sick." He laughed and looked at the exposed portion of the injector assembly, "You better tell me if you are getting sick though."

Seeing the boy enter the room and smile, Mitchell tilted his head in question. "We looking okay?"

"Yeah, I think so." Jack shook his head. "It was probably nothing."

"I think you were born to be an engineer kid." The man said as he watched Jack sit down in command and readjust its configuration to his liking. "You talk like one. That's for sure."

The next day, Jack looked on as Merit secured the ship and began powering down its systems after docking at yet another small run-down space station. "We're on station power." Merit said as he stood up and smiled. "Time for you to go to work. You've never been allowed into this station before; do you remember how this has to go down?"

"Yeah," Jack ran through the list out loud, counting down one finger at a time, "I need to find a shipper named Hersham and show him the shipping order. I need to check the shipment number on the container against the number on the order and then watch as they load THAT cargo. Only once that is done and I've secured the cargo hatch am I to authorize payment."

"Right." Merit looked the younger teen in the eyes. "And if the numbers don't match?"

"I don't open the cargo bay and Hersham doesn't get paid. I tell him to eat the cost of the cargo and our refueling costs for wasting our time. If he doesn't make it right immediately, I go to the on-duty controller and tell him that we will be leaving as soon as we are refueled, Hersham gets the bill, either way, right?"

"Right," Merit smiled, "that's in the agreement." He said as Jack began to open the hatch to leave the bridge, "And if anyone draws on you or threatens you in any way?"

"I install a pressure vent in their forehead." Jack sighed. "I got this Merit. I had the best teacher ever."

"The first one is always the hardest, good luck bro." Merit smiled as he watched the boy go off on his first solo job as the muscle. "Merit to Mitchell." He said into the intercom once the hatch had been secured.

"Is he on his way out now?" The knowing reply question came.

"Yup. Little badass. I hope they don't mess with him too bad." Merit stated with real concern.

"For their own sake, I hope not as well. Mitchell Out."

Exiting the airlock Jack looked around at the alien surroundings. The docks in these places were all unique as they were designed and built by many different races for many different purposes. This place was little more than an open warehouse with 15 loading/mooring docks and if you were under thirteen years old, you were banned outright. The place had the pungent smell of gas, methane if he had to guess. Which was normal for any station in the Aruna system Merit had told him. Gas was their main resource which meant, gas mining colonies supplied the station's upper-level merchants with the foot traffic that kept the place running.

"You lost son?" One of the dockworkers asked as he approached.

"No, I'm looking for a shipper by the name of Hersham," Jack replied with a smile.

"You old enough to be here?" The man questioned.

"Yeah, just turned thirteen this year," Jack smiled. "you need to see ID?"

"No, that's fine," The man replied. "Is Hersham expecting you?"

"He is." Jack nodded.

"Well then, if you go over to corridor 4, he is the only office on the left. You can't miss it." The man smiled. "Travel safe."

"Thanks, you too." Jack smiled back and started walking. Inside the office, there was a burly looking human who simply glared at the boy once he entered. Jack recognized the humanoid form of the inhabitants of the planet Kulug, which is where the workforce came from. There were two of the locals present, you could tell by the bluish tint to their skin and their hands which looked human as well, minus one finger on each. "I'm looking for a man named Hersham."

"Kid, whatever you're selling, we aren't buying. So, get out." The man behind the desk grumbled.

"I'm not selling anything; we're scheduled to pick up a shipment and you need to arrange to have us refueled," Jack said as he stopped approaching the desk, leaving about 4 feet of distance.

"Where's the order?" The man barked.

Jack took two steps forward, placed a handheld on the desk, and stepped back, crossing his arms and resting his right hand on the butt of his firearm, unclipping the safety strap in a very practiced move.

"Damnit boy, your boss thinks he owns the entire fucking universe. You know that, right?" He raised his voice. "The agreement was twice this amount and he's supposed to handle his own refueling. Who the fuck does he think he is?" The man continued to yell as Jack both listened to him but watched one of the man's alien friends try to slowly inch his hand toward his firearm.

"Do you guys get paid time off for injuries?" Jack asked the other alien who just seemed to be watching, and not overly involved.

"Yeah, why?" He replied and in one swift move, Jack pulled his gun and shot the other alien in the foot. As the man fell, and dropped the gun that had just cleared its holster, Jack shook his head and put his gun back in its holster while kicking the alien's gun out of his reach.

"Next person who tries to draw a weapon will be taking advantage of death and dismemberment insurance. Now, the order is valid and authorized and the shipping expense is yours, as agreed. Either I see a shipment container and a refueling team or you see the end of your agreements with my employer and I give your hired goon more than just a limp. Your call." Jack calmly stood in front of the man as the other lay on the floor holding his foot and crying. Turning to the other alien Jack shrugged, "You wanna help your buddy out there? An ice pack or something? An aspirin maybe?"

The man behind the desk sat back and sighed. "I don't know where he finds you little bastards, I swear." He replied as he placed his thumb to the handheld, authorizing the shipment. "There you go. The container will be dockside as soon as it's picked, and you will be refueled and on your way in around an hour. Anything else or do you plan to shoot someone else?"

Jack smiled and took back the handheld, "No, that should be it. You'll decide for me if I need to shoot anyone else now, won't ya?"

"Tell your boss I dislike being strong-armed." The man snarled.

"Will do," Jack said and turned for the door. "For the record, you honor your agreements, and these meetings go so much better." Pausing at the door Jack turned and looked back toward the desk, "If someone in this office ever tries to pull a weapon on me again, I fire twice. Once to end the man drawing and once to end the man who's responsible. In case you're wondering, I don't warn twice. Understood?"

"Yeah." The man sneered. "I hear you."

Stepping out of the office, Jack took a calming deep breath and walked back toward the ship. As he arrived, he saw Merit exiting the ship and waved. "Where are you off to?"

"We need some supplies, and I was hoping to find a shop that sells actual coffee. How'd it go with Hersham?" Merit asked as two alien men carried the one Jack shot out on a stretcher: wailing and crying the whole way. "Ah, about as well as I expected then. They always test the new guy. You know, to see what you're made of."

"You knew he was gonna try something?" Jack threw his hands up in question.

"Well, I was hoping he wasn't as dumb as most but yeah; they usually do." Merit said as he turned and started to walk away, "On the bright side, word travels fast and I knew my bad assed little brother would give them something to talk about."

Jack shook his head and watched the older teen walk off. "Hey! Get me some of that red licorice if you can find a place that sells it." He said with a laugh. "And ammo!" He added cupping his hands to his mouth.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Merit laughed as he turned the corner and disappeared from sight.

About 45 minutes later, a dock worker walked over and looked at Jack, down at a handheld, and then back at the boy. "Something I can help you with buddy?" Jack crossed his arms and tilted his head as he asked.

"You're not Mister Merit." The much older and tired looking alien said and started looking around. "I have a refuel order for his boss. Do you know where he is?"

"He's not working today." Jack stepped forward. "Actually, he got a promotion and I get to do his job now."

"Oh." The man said and his smile began to fade. "Promoted? Not like the last guy, right?"

Jack squinted his eyes and shook his head, "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing." The man replied and handed the refuel order to Jack for him to authorize. "I mean, he's not gone forever, right?"

"No, of course not." Jack laughed. "He's off in the station somewhere, he hasn't left."

"That's good." The man said and upon seeing the correct authorization code be accepted, waved his team over to refuel the ship. "I like Mister Merit. The guy before him, Mister Alan wasn't as nice."

"You knew him?" Jack asked as the man tapped at the display and then stowed the unit, obviously supervising the team.

"Oh yeah," The man replied, "and the two boys before him."

"No kidding." Jack smiled and held out his hand. "I'm Jack by the way."

The man smiled and took the boy's hand. "Name is Viktor. I been working in this station for longer than your boss has been working it."

"It's nice to meet you Viktor." Jack smiled. "So why wasn't Alan as nice?"

"Oh," the man smiled as he put a knapsack that he was wearing on the floor in front of himself and pulled out two bottles of water, offering one to Jack, "He talked down to my men, even when they were doing well. Like he didn't want to associate with them but had to. Mister Merit talks to everyone the same. A real respectable person." He said as Jack accepted the bottle and smiled. "Not that he was mean or anything, just busy I suppose."

"Might be it," Jack said and took a sip out of the bottle. "I had heard that Alan left suddenly, Merit really looked up to him."

"That I wouldn't know," The man said with a sigh, "The first time I ever met Mister Merit was pretty much the last time I ever saw Mister Alan."

"Oh," Jack said as he took another sip from the bottle, "well, as far as I know, Merit isn't going anywhere."

"That's good to hear." The man said with a smile.

"Hey Grunt!" A voice echoed through the dock, startling both. "That's right, you old man! What have you been told about talking to the customers?"

"Who is this?" Jack asked as the man stormed up, the blue tint of all the native workers looking even deeper on this man.

"He's my boss," Viktor replied and looked at the floor.

"Look buddy, I was talking to him, not the other way around," Jack stated and rested his hand on his sidearm. "Is there a problem with that?"

"Stay out of this kid." The man barked and grabbed the handheld out of Viktor's hands. "Who's the customer anyway. I'm probably going to lose another contract because you like to play fucking ambassador."

"Mitchell," Jack said flatly, watching as the man froze and looked him in the eye.

"You're new." The man said, handing the unit back to the older man, "I'm sorry, I didn't know that..." He got out before Jack cut him off.

"You know, I was having a really crappy visit here until Viktor came over and was the one and only person to actually introduce himself to me." He said taking a large gulp of his water and then setting the bottle on the floor. "He even offered me something to drink and he kept me company while his men refueled our ship."

"Well, some people complain that he's a nuisance." The man replied.

"I don't remember complaining," Jack said, locking eyes with the man and continuing, "and since I'll be the one you and your workers deal with moving forward, he is the only person I want to deal with of your team from now on, including you."

"But young man..." The man got out as he spotted Merit rounding the corner with his arms full. "Ah, you are the man I need to speak with."

"No, I'm not," Merit shook his head. "Hi Viktor." He smiled and shifted the parcels he was carrying so he could talk. "Jack is your new contact, I've taken on new responsibilities and will no longer be managing your staff. I hope you got off on the right foot with him, he kinda doesn't like to bullshit around." Merit laughed and entered the ship.

"I should probably explain..." The man began turning back toward Jack and Viktor.

"Save it." Jack shook his head. "Unless there is something you need from me, we have nothing to say to each other." Jack grinned. "Unless you intended to apologize to Viktor for the way you just spoke to him. That would be okay." He said as Merit came back out of the ship, stopping for a moment to see Viktor's boss apologize and then quickly walk away.

"Jack, what the hell did you do?" Merit laughed as Viktor smiled wide.

"He was being an ass to Viktor just because he was talking to me." Jack shook his head. "Just rude."

"Well, I'm sure one of these days he'll start being nicer. It's not the first time he's been called on it." Merit laughed and started off back into the station with more to do. "You're in good hands Viktor."

"Yes sir Mister Merit." Viktor shouted back and smiled. "Thank you." He said to Jack once Merit was out of sight.

"No worries," Jack said picking up his bottle and taking another sip. "You shared your water with me. I take kindness very seriously." He said as a lift truck turned the corner and stopped at the entrance to the enclosed loading dock that attached to the ship. "Time to go to work, it was cool meeting you Viktor." Jack said as he patted the older gentleman on the shoulder and started to jog toward the delivery.

"You as well Mister Jack." Viktor smiled and returned to his team.

"How ya doin?" Jack said as he rounded the truck to speak with the driver.

"Good." The man replied as he tapped at his onboard computer. "You're new."

"So, I keep hearing." Jack laughed. "This being shipped by Hersham?"

"Yes sir." The driver swiveled the display so Jack could see the shipping number and match it to his own order and the large, sealed environment container. "Ready to load for you when you're ready."

"Looks good to me. Give me a second." Jack said as he walked over to the ship and opened the cargo bay hatch.

After watching the man load the container on and securing the hatch, Jack double-checked that the fueling port had been secured and then entered the ship and stowed his weapon. Entering the bridge Mitchell motioned for him to be silent as a voice coming from communications broke the silence. "Are you even listening to me?"

"I am," Mitchell replied as Jack sat down at the weapons console to listen, "I was just taking a moment to consider how this is my problem?"

"That little bastard came in here and shot one of my men without provocation and threatened me in the process. You need to discipline him, or put him down."

"Are you through?" Mitchell calmly replied.

"That depends, what do you plan to do about it?" The man almost shouted.

"Well, if you don't stop shouting at me, I PLAN to reload the boy's gun myself and send him back to put a bullet in the right person this time." Mitchell grinned. "But, to satisfy your curiosity," He said and turned in his seat, "Jack, why did you shoot that man today?"

Jack smiled and shook his head. "I shot him because he was going for his gun when he thought I wasn't watching."

"And did you kill him?" Mitchell smiled.

"No," Jack replied, "I shot him in the foot."

"Self-defense, and I'm sure the threat was made to hold you accountable for the actions of your associate." Mitchell paused and listened to silence. "I am not reprimanding my assistant, and you know full well that you are responsible for the actions of yours."

"This is bullshit and you know it."

"If you like, I can send the boy back to escort you aboard to complain in person." Mitchell offered and Jack watched as the tell-tale signs that his boss was becoming irritated began to be noticeable in his clenched jaw and impatient finger tapping. "It's up to you."

"I withdraw my complaint." The reply came across just over a whisper.

"Good, then we're done here. End transmission." Mitchell said and slapped the transmitter off. "One of these days he's going to whine himself to death." Mitchell sighed. "I see everything went well your first time out."

Jack shrugged his shoulders and looked at the floor. "I guess not if you're getting complaints."

Mitchell started to laugh as he stood from his chair. "Please, they try to see which of the new help they can either exploit or get me to get rid of. You did exceptionally well for your first time in an unfamiliar station." Mitchell smiled and looked at his display one more time, "Pretty much told the dock manager to stay the fuck away as well I hear. Merit's going to love that one."

"He was a tool." Jack shook his head. "I really did okay?"

Mitchell patted the boy on the head as he walked toward the hatch, "You'll do." He laughed and left.

About an hour later, Merit came on to the bridge and threw a package of red licorice to the boy, "As ordered." Merit smiled. "Just checked in with Mitchell, sounds like you ended out having a full day."

"Yeah," Jack said as he ripped the package open. "We good to leave?"

"Yup, and according to Mitchell we are going to be making an additional stop on the way." He said as he sat down in his usual spot at navigation. "Independent contractor that Mitchell will be meeting in person."

"Oh wow," Jack replied as he pulled a couple of pieces of licorice out of the package, "I haven't seen Mitchell bring anyone on board since he met with my father."

As Jack hopped up into the command chair, Merit turned his chair to face the younger boy. "Jack, you do realize that when Mitchell allows someone other than us or the Doctor to see his face, they will probably never be seen again. The man we are going to see works out of the Rada Ban System. You know, the guy that just handled that large live shipment that never made it to destination." Merit shook his head. "It turns out, the shipment wasn't lost, the guy sold it and thought Mitchell would never know."

"Oh." Jack simply replied. "Never seen again, like my dad?"

Merit nodded his head, "Like mine as well."

Jack looked deep in thought for a moment before sighing and taking a bite of his candy. "My dad used to cheat people. He'd lie and steal and he was always mad at me. Mitchell ended him, didn't he?"

"Yeah." Merit carefully replied. "Which is what is going to happen to our next house guest. You won't have to deal with it or even see it. Mitchell has us handle the business but when someone threatens it, he's the trigger man."

"It works." Jack folded his arms. "I mean, it's been over 4 years since the last dumb ass crossed him, right?"

Merit tilted his head and tried to read Jack's expression without any luck. "You're okay with all this?"

Jack smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "Well, yeah," He laughed, "I got you as a brother and Mitchell actually takes care of me. If he hadn't put a bullet in my father, someone would have and I bet I'd either be a station rat somewhere, or dead if it had been someone else," He paused and sighed, "Besides, I figured that was what happened anyway."

Merit smiled and waited until Jack locked eyes with him before speaking up. "I had a feeling you would feel that way but, I was a little afraid to talk to you about it." Spinning in his chair to face the control panel, Merit entered the coordinates for their next stop and added, "Should have figured you had already put thought into it."

"I'm way better off the way it all went down." Jack said as he scanned an incoming message and added, "We are clear to depart and FTL is standing by." After watching Merit maneuver the ship out of the docking port, Jack busied himself until the ship had made the FTL jump and could run on autopilot. "Course laid in, and we will be in the Rada Ban System in about two hours."

"Good to hear." Mitchell said as he entered the bridge. "Merit, is Jack up to speed with what will be happening on Leauc?"

"Not entirely." Merit replied, "He is clear about what happened the last time we had a house guest though."

"Ah." Mitchell nodded and looked at Jack who listened on without a readable expression on his face. "You're old enough now kid, would you like to have a conversation about that visit?"

"I can take over if you guys need privacy." Merit offered.

"No," Jack replied shaking his head. "I get it and if I were you, I wouldn't have told me either but, you guys saved me from worse so, we're good."

"Glad to hear that." Mitchell sighed. "So, about this stop. We're going to be docking at the Leauc civilian station. Kid, this is your first escort. While Merit deals with our contact on this station, you will be locating a Mister Tiegan Beck to invite him aboard for a meeting with me." Mitchell sat down at the weapons console and crossed his arms. "I don't want you involved in the meeting, but you will need to entertain him until I am ready to speak with him. We all know the meeting is not going to end well for him but, you are to treat this as a simple escort to a simple meeting. Just use that charm that we have all fallen victim to." He finished with a laugh.

"Yeah, no problem." Jack smiled. "When you're talking to him, what would you like me to be doing?"

"Unless something comes up, once I'm present, just excuse yourself and return to your quarters. You may need to take possession of the man's ship and I don't have a contact that can handle a sale on this station so, you may be piloting yourself to its next stop." Mitchell smiled. "If you're up for it that is."

"Sounds cool." Jack smiled. "Would it be okay if I pack an overnight bag now? Cause my next stop would be three days off."

"Go right ahead, but pack for a couple of weeks, just in case." Mitchell smiled as Jack stood up, "And kid," He paused. "If ever you want to talk to me about the day you became a member of this crew, my door is always open on the subject. I mean he was your dad."

"You and Merit saved me from probably getting killed or left somewhere else to die. Seriously, I have no issues with what happened that day. My dad gambled with his own life and it could have cost us both of our lives." Jack said and opened the hatch to leave the bridge, "I'm actually happy how things worked out so, don't worry about it." He said as he stepped out of the room.

"Just the same, the offer stands," Mitchell said as the hatch loudly closed. "That went well," Mitchell said turning to look at Merit.

"His father was a dick." Merit said as he turned back to his workstation. "Before we leave the station, I want to check on him to make sure he's gonna be okay alone on a cargo transport for three days."

Mitchell laughed and got comfortable in his seat. "A thirteen-year-old, in sole command of a newer FTL capable ship on his own for three days. I'll give you both the ship and I'll pilot this one alone so you two can run shifts over there if he doesn't jump at the chance to command his own for a few days."

"Good point." Merit laughed. "Just the same, I wanna talk to him first."

"Okay big brother." Mitchell shook his head.

Back in his quarters, Jack packed clothes enough for a couple of weeks, his candy supply, and his picture of his mother. He then opened his tool sack and checked that everything he might need was in it. After adding a few items from the tools Merit had given him the previous year, he placed the sack near the hatch and then looked the room over one more time. Satisfied he had everything he'd need, he decided to get in some shooting practice until he was needed.

A little more than an hour later, Jack felt the ship drop to sublight speed, and knew they were on approach, so he went straight to the bridge. "Want me to take over?" Jack asked Mitchell as he walked on to the bridge.

"Not today," Mitchell said glancing at Jack, "You have a full plate today and I'd rather you come up with questions or concerns about what we can expect today."

Jack sat down at the weapons console and leaned back in the seat. He crossed his arms and closed his eyes as Mitchell and Merit monitored the approach to the station, waiting for docking permissions to be granted. "What do I do if this Tiegan Beck doesn't want to come with me?"

"Remind him that I insist." Mitchell simply replied.

"And if that doesn't change his mind?" Jack further questioned.

"It will Jack," Merrit turned in his seat and answered. "Because anyone who works with Mitchell knows that if he insists, it's not an option."

"Okay." Jack sighed.

"Look kid," Mitchell smiled, "It's understandable if you're nervous. Anyone would be in your place. Just go in and be your usual friendly self. If he crosses you, just do what you do best. Shock the shit out of him and make him cry." He laughed to himself. "I guarantee that will be enough to make this easy for you."

"Okay," Jack mumbled, "you said there is no one on this station that can sell his ship."

"No," Mitchell replied, "and we need to talk about that as well."

"Okay." Jack squinted his eyes.

"How do you feel about not having an escort to Station 32?" Mitchell grinned.

"What?" Jack tilted his head. "What if the ship is in bad shape?"

Mitchell sat back in his chair and laughed. "Mister Beck's ship is not only newer than this ship, but almost identical to it. I financed his purchase hoping the investment would pay itself off but, he has decided to not keep up with his payments and run a little side business at my expense. If that ship in bad shape already, it sure as hell wouldn't be because of overuse." He said as he began fishing through his pockets, pulling out a large amount of money and a shipping finance card. "If it does need repairs, the card will cover your expense, repairs, and lodging if needed."

"You trust me to do this alone?" Jack questioned as Mitchell put the cash and finance card into an armored briefcase. "I mean, what if something goes wrong?"

"The ownership paperwork and secondary launch key are in here as well. I want you to encode the key to yourself to take ownership. It'd be a bonus if we could release the one, he is carrying but, I'm sure that won't be possible. No matter, I can have another made." Mitchell took the key out and handed it to Jack.

"You didn't answer my question." Jack scowled.

"Look kid, you have more than proven yourself as an accomplished pilot, engineer, and businessman. I don't just trust you; I respect how you handle yourself, actually admire the man you are becoming. You have the tools you need and honestly, I thought you might enjoy a command of your own for about a week or two."

"A week or two?" Jack gasped. "It's a three-day trip to Station 32 from here."

"Sure, it is," Mitchell laughed. "But since you will be commanding one of my ships, might as well make the trip worth the effort."

"I don't get it," Jack shook his head.

"You have a mission of your own here and it will cover our losses from our little diversion." Mitchell began, "We are taking this ship and will be running the scheduled delivery. Need to keep our customers happy, don't we?"

"Yeah, I guess," Jack replied.

Mitchell smiled and tapped at his console while he continued, "While we make that run, you are to take possession of Mister Beck's ship, get any work done you deem necessary, then contact me to get the info for our next shipment and run it." He paused and looked at Jack to gauge his response. "This will allow us to make up for the loss of the missing shipment and thanks to your performance on our last shipment, I give it 36 hours from the last time you fired your weapon for the rest of our network to know who you are. So, you will enjoy a new level of respect from our contacts."

Jack looked at the launch key in his hand and then back at Mitchell, "I thought we were going to sell the ship."

"Maybe, maybe not," Mitchell smiled. "That ship was purchased by me, and Tiegan was supposed to work for me until he paid me back. Maybe we make use of it, store it when not needed and when we are stretched a little too thin, you command her again. Who knows? We can take it one day at a time. You up for it, Commander?"

Merit laughed and turned in his seat, "Provided you aren't worried that this ship will think you are cheating on it." He smiled and when Jack looked at the floor, his smile got wider, "No wait, let me guess; you named this one too."

"Yeah," Jack barely said over a whisper. "His name is Pacer." Jack giggled.

"I knew it!" Merit turned back toward his display. "Of course, you named it!"

"Him." Jack smiled. "And it's not a bad thing to name a ship. I think they try harder for you when you treat them like a friend."

"No argument there," Mitchell chuckled, "This damned thing purrs like a kitten for you."

Jack looked at the key in his hand and then brought it to the main computer console in the command console and inserted it. Once the system recognized the key, Mitchell typed in the current passcode and motioned to Jack to take over. "Take ownership kid." Mitchell smiled.

"This is so weird," Jack giggled as he put his thumb on the DNA reader built into the key and cleared his throat, "Page, Jack. ID 471-Alpha-12. Take ownership." He stated and then created a new passcode to protect the key from being used by anyone else. He then removed the key from the system and looked it over.

"Feel free to name it once you get to know it." Mitchell laughed. "If this works out okay, we may not be selling it."

"Pacer." Merit laughed, gaining Jack's attention once again, "Why Pacer?"

"It's stupid, you'll laugh." Jack grinned as he put the launch key in his pocket.

"Try me." Merit smiled.

"On the first run we made; we were keeping pace with a comet more than half of the trip." Jack smiled. "So, I started calling him Pacer."

"After all this time, why haven't I heard it before now?" Merit laughed.

"Cause I didn't want you to laugh at me." Jack meekly replied.

"Well, Pacer is going to miss you for a little while," Mitchell said as the station signaled docking instructions. "Now get ready to take possession of your new ship Commander."

An hour later Jack stepped into a dingy looking cafe that a dock worker said Tiegan Beck often visited. After looking around, Jack sat at the counter and a very tired looking waitress came over and smiled.

"Bout time a handsome young man finally stopped in to brighten the place up," She said, and Jack blushed bright red, "What can I get you, sweetie?"

"Is the apple pie really apple?" Jack questioned as he looked over the menu. "Some places use an apple substitute that just doesn't taste the same."

"Well, you are in luck then." The woman smiled, "We get shipments of Sol origin fruits from a nearby colony on occasion so, these apple pies are the real deal today. You would want to pair that with a vanilla milkshake. Made just like they did before we scattered all over the universe."

"That sounds great." Jack smiled wide as the woman went to work making the milkshake.

A few minutes later Jack was tasting the pie and milkshake and the waitress watched on, smiling at each satisfied hum that came from the boy. "I had a feeling you would enjoy that." She crossed her arms. "So, what's a cute little guy like you doing in a place like this?"

Jack finished his mouthful and wiped off his mouth, "I'm looking for a shipper, his name is Tiegan Beck. I was told he likes this place and now I can see why."

"Haven't seen him today." The waitress frowned, "You watch yourself around people like him." She smiled as she took the metal cup the milkshake was made in and emptied it into the boy's glass topping it off. "I'll be right back." She said as she grabbed a pot of coffee and left to check on her other customers.

As Jack was enjoying his pie, a man sat down at the counter, leaving an empty seat between himself and Jack. "Hey Crystal, can I get a coffee when you have a minute?"

"Sure thing hon." She said as she finished at one of the booths and went back behind the counter. "You just got lucky sweetie," She said looking over at Jack and then back at the man, "This young man was looking for you Tieg."

"Oh no," The man said and looked at Jack. "Let me guess, you work for Mitchell."

"Yes sir." Jack nodded, "You really gotta try this pie."

"I have," the man sighed, "You know, I told your boss that I need time and he'll get his money. He really needs to be a little more understanding."

"Not for me to decide, he'd like to invite you to come aboard and speak with him about it," Jack said as he scooped up more pie, "You sure you don't want some? I'm buyin'."

The man took a sip out of his cup and shook his head, "He just wants to talk?"

"That's what he told me," Jack shrugged his shoulders. "Is that a no on the pie?"

"Tell you what," The man turned in his seat, "You tell your boss that you couldn't find me, and I'll promise you that I will make the payments I owe as soon as I can find a large enough shipment to cover my losses."

Jack swallowed what was in his mouth and took a sip of his milkshake, "Not my call, but you can tell him your plans yourself when you see him." Jack shoveled the last piece of pie into his mouth and hummed again, "So good, Ma'am, can I buy a whole pie?"

"You sure can sweetie." She smiled and started folding up a box.

"What if I just get up and walk out?" Tiegan prodded.

"You might make it as far as the door." Jack scowled and sat back so the butt of his gun would poke out from inside his denim jacket. "That would ruin my visit and you wouldn't have the chance to work something out with my boss." He said as the waitress placed the neatly tied box in front of Jack, "Awesome, thank you." Jack smiled. "Could I get my check please, and could you put mister Beck's coffee on it too?"

"Thanks." Tiegan flatly said as he took a sip out of his cup.

The man was silent on the walk back to the ship, and Jack couldn't blame him. After securing their weapons, Jack led the man to the lounge and asked him to take a seat as he placed the boxed pie on the bar. He then went to the intercom and pressed the button, "Mitchell, Tiegan Beck is here to see you."

Jack turned and watched the man fidgeting in his seat as he waited for his response. "Excellent, Thank you Jack. Please see if he would like a drink and keep him company for a few minutes. I'll be there shortly."

"Understood." Jack replied and stepped away from the box, "Would you like a drink?"

"I'm good." The man replied as Jack sat in the other seat. "I've never met your boss; does he meet with many of his business associates?"

"Not really," Jack replied, "He met with my father once."

"Oh," Tiegan replied. "That's good, I guess. I'd heard rumors that no one meets Mitchell and lives to tell about it."

"I've heard that too," Jack replied as Mitchell entered the room. "Mitchell, unless you need anything, I want to put my pie in the galley."

"No, I'm all set. Thank-you Jack," Mitchell said as Jack stood up and grabbed his pie off the bar.

"Mister Beck, nice to finally meet you in person." Mitchel could be heard saying as Jack left the room.

Down in the galley, Jack cut the pie into three sections and stowed two of them in cold storage for Merit and Mitchell. He grabbed himself a soda and looked to see if there was anything he wanted to bring with himself off the ship, and packed a few treats in an insulated box along with his third of the pie. On his way back to his quarters, he checked to see if Merit was aboard and found his quarters empty. He decided to leave his brother a quick note to let him know that he left an apple pie in cold storage and that there was some for both him and Mitchell. He had just arrived at the airlock with the box when the intercom came to life. "Jack, what's your location?"

Jack put the box down and pressed the intercom button. "Primary airlock."

"Okay, I'm finished with Mister Beck. Unfortunately, we were not able to come to an agreement, so the plan remains unchanged. You are to take possession of our new ship, assess its condition and address any issues it may have. Keep me apprised of your situation. Merit and I will not disembark until we know you are all set. Any questions?"

Jack thought for a moment before pressing the button once again, "Do we know where it's docked?"

"Yes actually. He was docked at level three, bay eleven. I think you will be pleased with what you find there, bridge out."

After retrieving his duffel bag and tools from his quarters, he placed everything in the airlock and took a moment to load his gun and pack extra ammunition. As he was zipping up, Merit opened the outer hatch and smiled at Jack. "On your way to your new ship?"

"I guess so," Jack said as he holstered his weapon. "Have you ever done this?"

"Take control of a ship?" Merit questioned as he stepped inside, leaving the hatch open, "No. But I was present when Beck picked the new ship up. You're gonna like it. It's identical to this one only newer. It was built with the same FTL drive this one got upgraded to and its bridge is impressive. Similar layout, a little more automated. You're gonna feel right at home." He smiled as he pressed the intercom in the airlock, "Merit to Mitchell, is it okay if I help Jack bring his stuff to the new ship?"

"Absolutely. I wouldn't trust the workers on this station to deliver anything that I didn't want them rifling through. Check the ship with him when you get there so we have an idea of how long we can plan to be docked. Give me about an hour to get the forward lounge back in order. Bridge out."

"Ew," Merit cringed, "So gross to know someone needs to be cleaned up off of the furniture in the ship we live in." He said as he picked up the box and Jack threw his duffel over his shoulder and grabbed his tool bag.

Once the two found the bay, Jack went through the extra step of inserting the key at the airlock entry and identifying himself as the owner. Then the hatch opened for him and they both stepped inside. "Wow," Jack said as he opened the inner hatch and Merit closed the outer one, "You weren't kidding, looks just like home."

"Well, with a few differences." Merit said as he stepped inside and then showed Jack that he was still carrying his weapon. "On this ship, you don't need to stow your weapon." Merit smiled. "I'd suggest doing an armed sweep before relaxing to make sure the previous commander didn't have any company."

"Good idea," Jack said as he set his belongings down, "You go forward, I'll go aft, both decks and we'll meet on the lower deck midship." Jack said as he took out his weapon, the two nodded and then slowly searched the ship. About a half-hour later, both boys were satisfied that the ship was secure, and both went to the bridge.

Removing Tiegan's launch key from command, Jack sat down in the command chair and inserted his newly programmed key. [Good afternoon Commander, system self-check initiated, please stand by...] the main display flashed as all systems were checked and restarted. Jack watched each of the systems come up as Merit sat at navigation and began reviewing its displays.

"The computer on this ship is faster." Jack gasped.

"I did say it was newer." Merit laughed.

"So why doesn't Mitchell sell Pacer and keep this ship as his main?" Jack questioned as data began streaming across his display.

"Don't let Pacer hear you say that," Merit laughed. "He would need to make way too many modifications to this ship to have all system functions completely rerouted through the Captain's Quarters, and modifications to communications, and the stock computer would need to be reprogrammed for on-board weapons restrictions and stuff like that. He's not gonna put that much work into a ship that's only 5 years newer."

"Too bad," Jack nodded his head impressed with what he was seeing, "This ship is nice."

"Well Commander, it's a good thing you like it. Because until further orders are received, it is yours to command." Merit stood and turned to face Jack. "Commander, permission to disembark?"

"Cut it out," Jack laughed and stood from his seat. "Don't be a dork." Crossing his arms, Jack looked at his brother and tilted his head, "Why aren't you taking command? I mean, you are older."

Merit laughed and looked over at the nav station, "I'm a good pilot but, I was never great as a mechanic. I'm not as good as you with these ships. Outside of regular maintenance, you are better than me when it comes to engineering. To command a ship, you need to be able to pilot it, defend it, and fix it, no matter what happens. That's all you bro."

Jack smiled wide at his brother's praise, "Thanks Merit."

"Do you need anything from me before I head back?" Merit asked as Jack walked over to a viewport and looked outside.

"Actually yeah," Jack nodded his head. "What do I do with Beck's personal items?"

Merit thought a moment and then nodded his head, "Standard salvage protocol," He said as he turned to leave the bridge. "Keep anything of value that can be used or sold and discard the rest. I'd start with the Captain's quarters since those are yours now. I'll show Mitchell the list of what we've found that needs to be addressed before it's okay for us to leave. Let him know once you have an idea of what engineering needs if anything. Later bro, travel safe!"

"Wait!" Jack ran over to his brother and hugged him tight. "See you in a week or so."

"You bet." Merit smiled, "and if you decide to pilot the ship naked or something weird like that, take all your calls voice only." He laughed. "Just sayin'."

"Shut up!" Jack laughed and walked Merit to the airlock, securing it once he was on the station and no longer in sight. "Commander Jack!" He giggled to himself as he walked back to the bridge. "It's time to go to work then..."