Commander Kid

Chapter One

"Well I'll be damned" The bartender said as a man sat down at the bar with a much too friendly smile on his face. "So, who's getting the fleecing today? Anyone I know?"

"I have no idea what you mean." The man said with the false charm of a used transport salesman as he turned and looked toward the door. "Jack; you little pain in my ass, get in here." Turning back to the bartender he simply shrugged his shoulders. "How's my credit today Tony?"

"You? You have no credit." He said as he watched the man's eight-year-old son struggle to get himself up onto a bar stool, "My young friend here has good credit though so if he's feeling generous he may buy you a drink."

The boy smiled at the bartender and nodded, "Please Tony, I'd like some juice and Dad can have that brown stuff he likes."

"Coming right up young man." The bartender said as he ruffled the boy's hair. "I suppose you two aren't here on vacation." He directed to the father as he slid a bowl of potato chips to the boy.

"No." He simply replied, turning to scan the room, "If I were on vacation, the last place I'd dock would be at this run down dump. I have a meeting."

"Here I was thinking you just liked the atmosphere." Tony chuckled as he placed two coasters on the bar and gave each their drinks. "This one's on Jack, the rest you pay for up front."

"Thanks Tony." The boy smiled as he grabbed his glass and a handfull of chips.

After tossing back his drink, the man looked around the room again and scowled. "Any sign of Mitchell's new boy? I haven't seen this one yet."

"Not for a couple of hours," The bartender shook his head. "He's been in and out of here today. Makes me nervous when I know his boss is around."

"He's just a man." The boy's father laughed. "One that is going to be very happy to see me."

"It amazes me that anyone would look to do business with that man, or you for that matter," The bartender said as he watched a teenager enter the bar. "Well, speak of the devil." He said lowering his voice considerably.

The teenager looked around the room and then approached the bar, his weapon hung loose in it's holster which was unclipped. An odd look for a shaggy fifteen year old yet everyone knew he was more dangerous than most men thanks to his "affiliation". The noise level in the bar suddenly dropped as everyone watched the teen's every move with interest. "Excuse me, Tony is it?"

"That's my name son. What can I do for you?" The bartender replied as the teen sat on the stool next to the young boy, who looked up at the older boy and smiled.

"I'm looking for a man who goes by the name of Ellis Page. My boss would like to speak with him." The teen said as he smiled back at the boy. "A little young to be drinking the hard stuff, don't you think?"

"It's just juice." The boy giggled.

"I'm Ellis." The boy's father spoke up. "Mitchell send you?"

"He did." The teen nodded. "He'd like to invite you to his ship actually."

"He would, huh?" The man scowled. "That's a first."

"I suppose." The teen rested his elbows on the bar, breaking eye contact with the boy's father. "I'm not sure he was expecting you to have your kid with you though."

"Couldn't be helped. I can leave him here if it's a problem." The man said earning a scowl from the bartender.

"That won't be necessary." The teen smiled before looking down at the boy, who was enjoying his drink. "I'll keep him company while you talk with the boss."

"Lead the way then my friend, time is money." The man said as he took the boy's half empty glass out of his hands and set it down on the bar. "You're done, let's go."

"But..." The boy cried, quickly being shushed by the bartender, who poured the remainder of the glass' contents into a paper cup with a straw and cover. "Thank you Tony." He sniffled.

"Any time my friend." The bartender said as he handed the cup to him. "Be safe."

The walk to the ship took a few minutes and reminded Jack of the last time he and his father had visited. Strange looking drifters mixed with dirty looking ore miners and plenty of drunken non-humans. He remembered his father yelling at one and getting shot at in return. They often left these places in a rush and mainly because his father was less than honest when it came to the deals he made. Jack never got to visit the shops that made toys or even got to play with any of the children they found every now and then. His father just dragged him from one dirty bar to the next to meet up with some really creepy looking people. The teen that met them today seemed okay though. The guy his dad called "Mitchell" usually sent an older teen who was always nice. He often heard his father say that someday the man would meet him face to face because he was so important. Today must be that day so the boy just shrugged his shoulders and followed, sipping his juice all the way.

Once inside the airlock, the teen closed the outer door and then removed his sidearm, placing it in a locked compartment in the wall and waving for the man to do the same. Once closing the door to the compartment, the room was scanned for weapons before the inner door would open. Waving for them to follow, the teen waited as they stepped into the main corridor before closing the door and securing it. Leading them foreward, they were invited to sit in what appeared to be the main living space. After making sure his guests were comfortable, the teen pressed the intercom button.

"Sir, Mr. Page and his son are here as requested." He stated and released the button.

"Fine, offer them a drink. I will be there shortly." The voice echoed through the ships internal speakers, making Jack jump a bit.

After his second drink, the man stood up and walked around the room impatiently. "Does he make all his guests wait this long?"

"No sir," The teen replied with a smirk. "Mister Mitchell has never invited someone aboard the entire time I have worked with him."

"He must really like you Dad." Jack said as he set his cup down on the table.

"Shut up." The man spat, shaking his head. "Just sit there and be quiet."

"Yes sir." Jack obediently said and sat back in his seat as the teen watched on and scowled at the boy's father.

A few minutes later, a man about the same age as Jack's father entered the room. He was clean shaven and well dressed which was not normal for the class of person the man normally dealt with.

"Mister Page." The man said before reaching over and shaking the man's hand. "I apologize for keeping you waiting, I was detained by another of your colleagues. I'm sure you remember a Fergus Kelly who deals out of the Odal system?"

"Actually, I do." The man smiled and tilted his head in question. "I wasn't aware you knew him though."

"Quite well actually." Mitchell smiled warmly as he took a seat. "He tells me he's not exactly a fan of yours."

Hearing Mitchell laugh, the man followed suit and nervously laughed as well before taking a large gulp from his glass. "I'm sure he isn't." He said as the room fell silent. "Exactly what does that have to do with this meeting? I thought I was arranging for supplies to be transferred to my ship as payment for the cargo I delivered for you."

"Ah yes, payment." Michell said as he stood back up without another word and went behind the bar to make another round of drinks.

"I completed the job." Ellis said as his smile melted. "I'm owed for that."

"Merit, would you take Mister Page's son back to your quarters so we can discuss business. Why not show him that game you picked up when we visited Luoiwir last month. I'm sure he would enjoy that." The man said as he smiled down at Jack.

"Yes sir." The teen replied as he waved to Jack to join him. "C'mon, this'll be much more fun than listening to them talk about shipments and stuff."

"Is it okay Dad? Can I?" Jack stood up and meekly asked.

"Christ, I can't wait till you grow a set and lose that little girl voice." The man growled. "Yes, it's okay."

Looking down at the floor, Jack slowly walked over to the teen and took his hand. The men simply watched as they left the room. After a moment of silence, the sounds of ice being dropped into a glass startled Ellis and the following silence made him sit on the edge of his seat.

Placing another drink on the table, Mitchell sat in the chair next to him and took a sip of his own. "Nothing like a good Bourbon to warm you up inside. Am I right Mister Page?"

"Ye-yeah." Ellis stuttered as he finally picked up his glass and took a sip. "Hosun system?"

"Sol actually." Mitchell replied with a smile. "I think it was perfected there to be honest but it's so damned far away. I get a shipment in now and then."

The man began to relax a bit and sat back in his chair to sip from his glass. "So, why did you finally want to meet me? I thought no one ever meets you in person. Hell, you even disguise your voice when you receive calls which are always audio only."

Mitchell smiled and swirled the liquid in his glass before taking another sip. "Mister Page, you are a business man. I am a business man. That son of yours, probably going to be a business man," he took another sip and smiled, "there is one thing that a business man needs to do to stay in business. Do you know what that one thing is?"

Ellis took a sip from his glass and appeared to be searching for the right answer.

"Associates, Mister Page. From suppliers to buyers, we all need to have associates." Mitchell stated warmly as he continued to enjoy his bourbon. "Makes sense to you, doesn't it?"

"Sure." Ellis replied as he tilted his head. "Are you looking to change our business arrangement?"

"In a way, yes." Mitchell replied. "Mister Page, Fergus Kelly is one of the many people who have had the misfortune of doing business with you. One of the many of my associates who have done business with you and suffered losses as a result." He said as the man froze mid-sip. "Would you like some more, Ellis? May I call you Ellis?"

"Um...yeah. Sure. Ellis is fine." He got out with a stutter. "Look, I have every intention of..." He got out before being cut off.

"You see Ellis, if the people I do business with are losing money elsewhere; then they won't be able to do business with me. So it would only stand to reason that I need to look out for my own best interests." Mitchell paused and refilled each of the mens glasses before sitting back in his seat and taking a nice long swallow. "If I don't look out for the people I do business with then I wouldn't be able to enjoy the finer things in life. Don't you agree Ellis?" With a smile Mitchell sat forward and placed his glass on the table in the middle of the room. "Please, drink up."

Taking another nervous sip, Ellis swallowed hard and then looked at his feet. "Look, I've had a bad run of luck myself..."

"Ah, luck." Mitchell laughed to himself. "My father once told me that a good business man doesn't rely on luck. A good business man makes his own luck." He nodded as he stood up and took his glass, motioning to Ellis to hand his over. "Don't you agree with my father Ellis?"

"I guess." Ellis nervously replied as Mitchell took the glasses behind the bar.

"Then you will agree that I have a hard choice to make here. You see, I consider myself to be a good business man. One who works with other good business men. If one bad business man begins making my associates less successful, then I can either deal with their losses and make them my own, or correct the problem myself."

"Sir, I will never cause anyone you do business with any trouble ever again, I swear to you..." He managed to get out as the sound of a gunshot abruptly silenced him and he slumped forward.

"I'm glad we agree on this." Mitchell said as he set the smoking firearm on the bar and emptied the bottle into his glass. "You will never cause anyone, any trouble. Ever again." Taking a sip from his glass he pressed a nearby intercom button and spoke. "Merit, why don't you and your new friend meet me on the bridge. Please avoid the lounge. I made a bit of a mess in there that we will need to have cleaned up."


The boy timidly followed the teen onto the bridge. He never understood why it was called that. A bridge is supposed to get you over an obstacle according to the dictionary his mother had left behind years ago. This was a cockpit or control center he imagined and smiled at how he had reasoned it out. It was much bigger than his fathers ship by far. Even at eight years old, Jack had been taught the basic functions of some of his fathers systems. Like playing a video game, he was already able to manuever his fathers ship when he had been drinking the "Brown Stuff" and couldn't do it himself. Not seeing his father with the man called Mitchell, he assumed he had been dumped off again. Jack was used to being left with strangers.

"What's your name kid?" Mitchell asked as the teen moved forward and sat at the nav station.

"Jack sir." Jack replied looking at what he recognized as a weapons console. "Your ship is so big."

"It is." Mitchell smiled. "What do you know about ships? You should be able to pilot by now. Am I right?"

Jack smiled wide "I can fly when Dad can't. He showed me how to enter cor-din-ites and I can fire laser cannons. Your weapons look way cooler though!"

"Well, I'm glad you approve." Mitchell smiled warmly. "What do you think Merit, could you use a helper?"

The teen turned in his seat and looked back and forth between the two. He took notice of the obviously disinterested smile on Mitchell's face and the absolute wonder in the boy's eyes. He knew the kid was going to be going on a one-way trip unless he could be helpful. "If you think he'll be good, then yeah. I'd like that." He smiled.

Mitchell crossed his arms and cleared his throat, "Jack, since you're gonna be sticking around for a while, how would you like to learn how to run a bigger ship?"

Jack smiled wide and looked up at Mitchell, "My Dad said it would be okay?"

"He did as a matter of fact." Mitchell laughed. "Merit, why not walk the kid back to his father's ship and pack up everything that he wants to keep. Evidently, Mister Page was gambling and lost a wager that cost him ownership of his small craft. The kid is welcomed to stay with us until he has corrected the problem. Take your time and pack anything worth keeping. I have something that I need to clean up before we leave."

"Yes sir." Merit nodded. "Come on Jack, show me where your father docked."

The small transport was on the other side of the station which gave the boys a chance to talk a little more. As it turned out, both were children of gambling men. Merit knew the fate of his own father and didn't have the heart to tell Jack the fate of his. Stepping aboard the small ship, Merit told the boy to pack his clothes and anything he didn't want to lose; even if it belonged to his father. With him out of the way, he looked around the bridge of the small craft before pulling a communicator out of his pocket.

"Mitchell, this thing is a tub. Small, run down, dirty. Luckily, it's launch key is on the bridge." He said as he sat at its nav station. "You gonna sell it?"

After a few moments, Mitchell's digitally altered voice responded, "Need to recover my losses."

"Okay then. Do you want me to turn the key in to Mr. Souza to auction it like the last one?" Merit asked as he pulled the launch key out of the console, powering down all of the ships systems.

"That's why I keep you around my young friend. Always thinking on your feet. Please handle the transaction and take care of a few of the kid's friends while I deal with his father's mess."

"Yes sir." Merit replied as Jack dropped two large duffel bags in the entryway. "We'll be back as soon as we have everything in the bag. Out." He said and he stuffed the communicator and launch key in his pocket.

"Why does his voice sound so funny over that thing?" Jack asked from the hall.

"Only we get to hear his real voice." Merit replied as he looked around one more time.

"I'm never seeing anything we leave here again, am I?" Jack questioned as he entered the bridge and saw the now lifeless controls.

"Afraid not buddy." The teen sighed. "You have everything you want?"

Jack nodded his head before taking a picture of his mother out of his pocket and showing it to his new friend. "This is the most important thing. It's the only thing I have from before it was just me and my dad. This ship is the third one he's lost." The boy sniffled as he put it back in his pocket. "At least this time I got to take my stuff."

"Yeah, let's go arrange to have it all sent to our ship and handle your father's business while we're at it." Merit said patting the boy on the head.

"Okay." Jack said patting the nearest console. "Bye Traveler." He said and he turned and left the bridge.

"The ship's call sign?" Merit asked as he followed the boy.

"Kinda." Jack replied as they stepped back onto the station. "Dad thought it was stupid giving a ship its own name. So, I just called him Traveler."

"That's pretty cool." Merit said as one of the stations newer workers walked past. "Hey buddy. Can you tell me where I can find Mr. Souza?"

"Who's lookin for him?" The man grunted.

"Mitchell." Merit simply replied, causing the man to freeze and suddenly be friendly.

"Oh, in that case he's in the office. Right through that door." The man tried to smile as he obviously was frightened of the teen's boss. "Anything else I can do to help?"

"Actually, yes there is. The ship that is docked at airlock 48 has baggage that needs to be delivered to Mr. Mitchell's ship at airlock 15. Could you make that happen?" Merit grinned as he produced paper money, something rarely seen on a space station, out of his pocket and peeled off a couple of bills and handed them to the man.

With a genuine smile the man accepted the offering and patted Jack on the head. "I sure can son. Thank you. Station 32 could use more people like you around here, it could." The man said as he stuffed the bills in his pocket before rushing to retrieve Jack's bags.

Watching the man suddenly turn from grouch to teddy bear, Jack giggled and then followed Merit to the office door to see a man he knew his father always avoided. Merit smiled as he opened the door for the boy and nodded as he realized that Jack was going to need to get used to a completely different lifestyle.

"Your father owes me money." The man barked as soon as Jack entered the room before noticing who he was with. "Oh, Merit. Are you two together?"

"Yeah." Merit replied as he fished the launch key out of his pocket and tossed it on the desk. "Mitchell is taking over Mr. Page's affairs. First, we need you to sell his transport. Class C, FTL capable. Fixer upper. I'm sure you will be taken care of if you get a good price for it."

Looking at the key on the desk he nodded his head knowing Mitchell would reward him handsomely which would more than make up for his losses with Ellis Page. "In that case, any chance I'd be able to get authorization to take possession of the transport or do I need to call in the specialist?"

"Oh! I know how to do that." Jack smiled as he picked up the key and walked over to the dock's control panel. Placing the key into the system, his thumb on the key's DNA reader he typed in the passcode needed. Merit and Souza grinned as the boy cleared his throat and said: "Page, Jack. ID 471-Alpha-12. Release ownership." And smiled as the computer confirmed his identity and reset the launch key.

"Well, that makes things easier." Souza smiled. "Save me the money needed to re-key the damned thing."

Taking the key out of the console and handing it to the man, Jack smiled. "Yeah, my dad said I needed to learn how to do that cause this has happened before and he said selling a ship is easier when you don't need to hot-wire it."

"Too bad he wasn't as sensible in other areas kid." The man said as he took the key from the boy and put it on his desk. "You boys need anything else today? Least I can do since you made this so easy for me."

Merit smiled and folded his arms. "Jack, is there anyone here that your dad owes money to?"

"Tony!" Jack smiled. "At the cantina. Can you help him?"

"He's good to you?" Merit asked remembering how nice the man was to him when his father wouldn't let him finish his juice.

"Tony's always nice to me." Jack beamed. "I don't know how much my dad owes him though."

"Take care of the debt." Merit smiled. "Tell him it's courtesy of Mr. Page's son."

"Thanks Merit!" Jack beamed looking back at the man. "You guys are the best."

"I'll see to it. Tell your boss I'll be in touch." The man said as he picked up the key and walked into a back office.

"Let's grab some food and then get out of here." Merit said as he led Jack back out into the receiving deck. "What's good here anyway?"

"There's an awesome stand on the upper deck. They serve real meat!" Jack sighed. "My dad says it's too expensive though."

"Not today it isn't." Merit smiled, "Lead the way partner."

With a smile, Jack enthusiastically led his new friend around the station that he had been forced to spend a lot of time on while his father lied and cheated anyone who he came in contact with. The vendors knew Jack and liked him even though they couldn't stand his father. Merit made sure to spend some money at the places Jack reported the owners had been nice to him. He was happy that his new friend was making sure that they were rewarded for their kindness. After the tour and a large meal that left them both stuffed, they made their way back to the ship to find Mitchell sitting in the lounge.

"Ah boys." Mitchell smiled, obviously a little drunk now. "I have received many reports from the local vendors that my boys were making friends. That pleases me." He said taking a sip from his glass. "Merit, put what's left of the cash in my quarters and then you and your new helper can prepare the ship for departure. Coordinates are already in the system."

"You mean I get to help?" Jack smiled as he wasn't expecting to be on the bridge while in flight.

"You a pilot?" The man grinned, a familiar drunken grin his father used to have.

"Yes sir, I'm a good pilot." Jack proudly stated.

"Then you are part of the flight crew." He chuckled as he stumbled to his feet. "I'm gonna go sleep this off." He laughed. "Don't sit in the other chair, it's wet." He continued as he stumbled out the door, causing Merit to wince, knowing why the chair was wet.

"Ready to pilot an actual ship kid?" Merit asked as he looked down at an obviously eager boy.

"Aye sir!" Jack snapped to, just like a flight officer in the military.

"Nice, let's do this then." Merit grinned as he led Jack onto the bridge.

"Okay, you tell me what you recognize and explain what it does." Merit smiled, "If you don't know, then just ask and I'll tell you."

"Okay." Jack beamed as he pointed to his left. "That station is guns and shields." He said and paused, smiling wide when Merit nodded that he was correct. "You got newer laser cannons and some kind of missiles or something."

"Close." Merit stated, impressed. "We have all military grade weapons. Actual phaser cannons and photonic misiles." He said as he switched on the status display showing weapon readiness. "Mitchell has friends in high places."

"I guess." Jack said in awe. "The controls look the same as Traveler's"

"It should. That's standard." Merit smiled. "If you switch the display, you can see the controls for our deflector shields. Two generators both fore and aft and a battery of generators down the port and starboard sides."

"Wow." Jack gasped, "I bet you could fly my dad's ship right into this one and not even make a scratch."

"Well," Merit laughed as he pointed Jack toward the front of the room, "If it was moving really slow it wouldn't make contact. Deflector array at the front of the ship would repulse with no problem though. Shielding is most effective against energy like phasers and pulse weapons, and will detonate most missiles before actually making impact. Okay, moving on," He laughed.

"This is the Nav station." Jack grinned as he approached the console. "Thruster control over there, computer navigation here and over there you got sublight controls and the jump drive computer."

"How old did you say you are?" Merit laughed.

"Eight. I'm gonna be nine soon though." The boy bragged.

"Well, you got this station down with one exception. Jump drives are for really short hops at light speed. This ship has an FTL drive that can drive the ship beyond light speed for sustained periods of time and distance." Merit stated as he sat down and brought up the display that showed that the FTL drive was in standby. "It's pretty much a jump drive that does more than give you small bursts."

"Cool." Jack said as he looked back at the Commander's station.

"Wanna sit in the commander's chair?" Merit smiled.

"Can I?" Jack squeaked.

"Sure, but you need to tell me what stations you can access from it's controls before you do." Merit laughed and folded his arms.

"All of them." He said with a matter-of-fact tone. "Command can switch between each station and even control the whole ship if it needs to."

"Right again. Hop up then." Merit shook his head. "See the overhead display gives you the status and condition of the entire ship. Internal sensors, damage detection, sublight and FTL drive status along with overrides for all to lock out the station while he's taking control. You can get a summary view or," He paused as he keyed an access code, changing the display, "you can separate each system and arrange them so you can focus on one or two in detail."

"This is bigger than ours." Jack said as he began to reorder the displays on the screen, so he was watching Navigation and Engineering primarily with the other stations in the background. "That's how I set Dad's up."

Merit walked around behind the seat and shook his head at what he saw. "How often did you man your father's bridge?"

"Any time he was feeling bad from the brown stuff so, a lot." Jack replied. "Once we were moving, I just needed to keep watch and tell the computer that it was okay to make changes if something got in our way. Or wake my dad up if something was wrong."

"You learned a lot." Merit sighed. "So, we have the science, communication and engineering stations left. Looks like you know way more than I expected already." He continued as he watched Jack hop out of the chair. "Our departure window is in one hour, so we need to get prepped. Our destination has already been laid in by Mitchell."

Jack tapped his chin for a moment before going to the engineering display and studying it. "We gotta switch to internal power and then disconnect from the station. I know how to do that if you want some help."

Once again impressed, Merit smiled and motioned his hand to the display. "Go for it kid. You don't look like you need help."

"Cool." Jack giggled with excitement as he started working down the checklist on the screen.

One hour later, both boys had the ship ready for departure and were preparing to get under way when a very groggy looking Mitchell came onto the bridge and squinted at the little boy who appeared to be in command while Merit was at the Nav station focusing on his work.

"Kid, you better have a good reason for sitting in that chair." He grumbled, startling both boys.

"He's watching to make sure our flight path stays clear. It's what he did when he was working on his father's bridge." Merit said, putting emphasis on the word "working" while maneuvering the big ship out of its mooring.

"Oh really?" Mitchell said, now amused. "Well then Commander Kid, I believe I will just watch."

Jack's mouth dropped open as Mitchell sat down at weapons and folded his hands. 'Um...okay." He replied as a worried look washed into his expression. "Merit, we just got clearance to depart. Clear to use thrusters and adjust heading"

"I have the coordinates Jack, just let me know when we are clear of the station so I can engage the sublight drive." Merit smiled as he looked back at Mitchell, who appeared to be enjoying the show.

Jack tapped away at the controls until a message came in through communications. "Merit, they say we're clear to engage sublight drive on our current course. It reads ready so, whenever you're ready I guess."

With a laugh, Merit got the ship under way and locked in the course heading. Turning in his seat he watched as Jack studied the display after powering down the maneuvering thrusters, obviously understanding most of what he was looking at. "We have about twenty minutes before we need to charge the FTL drive." He stated before looking at an obviously amused Mitchell. "So, what do you think Mitchell? Can we keep him?"

Jack looked away from the screen and blushed. Looking back and forth between Mitchell and Merit, he smiled and questioned, "I really did okay?"

Mitchell stood up and just shook his head. "Kid, I have seen grown men sit in that chair and have no clue what they are looking at." After receiving a bright smile from the boy, he shook his head and laughed. "I'll be in my quarters. If I'm needed, just come get me."

"We won't." Merit laughed as Mitchell responded with a one finger salute and closed the bridge hatch. "Looks like I've got my trainee then."

"Me?" Jack squeaked out, giving Merit a laugh.

"Yeah you." He replied shaking his head. "Now let me know when we need to charge the FTL drive.

"Okay." Jack replied as he tapped away at the control panel. "Navigation computer says we won't need to charge for another..." He trailed off, "...another 13 minutes."

"Great." Merit said as he stood up from his station and stretched. "You got this, right?"

"What? Me? Alone?" He began to panic. "No! Wait! Where are you going?"

"The head. I'll just be a minute." He replied as he walked for the door. "Anything gets in our way, just turn."

"But this ship is so big!" Jack cried, "Turns are hard."

"A minute. Seriously." Merit laughed as he stepped off the bridge. "If we get lost cause you knock us off course we'll stop somewhere and ask directions. No big deal."

"Ha, ha, ha." Jack yelled as Merit closed the big steel door. "You're not funny you know!"

Petrified, the boy cleared his head and looked up at the display. It showed a clear path and all indicators showed that the ships sensors were at 100% efficiency. He knew there was nothing to be frightened of and even if he did need to turn, the ship is supposed to auto correct. Unless this was Traveler. That ship's navigation computer wasn't right, and Jack knew it. He had taken beatings from his father for throwing them off course while he slept. No "Great job for not letting us get blown up by space junk Jack!" from Dad. No, it was more like "What the hell is wrong with you?" followed by a beating and a day locked in the cargo hold. Not today though, this ship was more amazing than anything he had ever seen, and today he was flying it.

"See. A minute." Merit said as he came back on the bridge. "Looks like we are still alive too."

"Shut up." Jack scowled. "This ship is way bigger than Traveler. It's not as easy to fly."

"That's where you're wrong." Merit said as he draped one arm over the back of Jack's chair and looked over his shoulder. "The size of the ship doesn't mean anything at this speed. Maneuvering thrusters, sure. That's a little more tricky. But when the sublight drive is engaged, altering course is the same no matter what the size of the ship. Correcting takes the same overcompensation to recover. Watch." He said as he altered the course heading .02 to port and the ship effortlessly veered out of its flight path. Then he entered the command to auto correct and resume previous heading and the ship responded like a puppy. "Cool, right?"

"Yeah." Jack smiled. "I didn't even feel it."

"You won't unless you bank too hard. Then Mitchell gets all pissy but, he gets over it quick if there's no danger." Merit laughed. "I hit a ship in space dock by accident once. Even lived to tell about it."

"Shut up! Really?" Jack replied in awe. "Mitchell musta been mad."

Merit laughed and looked the boy in the eyes, "He was at first until the owner of the other ship messaged and asked if he was blind or just stupid." He folded his arms and shook his head.

"What'd he do?" Jack asked in awe.

"He replied and told the guy he was blind and then rammed the ship into him again like three times until the guy apologized." With the pause, Merit walked back to the nav station and sat down. "You and I don't need to be afraid of Mitchell but, everyone else either needs to work with him or get out of the way. That's just the way it is."

Jack sat in silence letting the teen's words sink in. He remembered the things his father used to say about Mitchell and wondered why he was so scared anytime his name was mentioned. "Why don't we gotta be afraid of him?"

Merit spun his chair to face the boy and sighed. "We're the faces that people see instead of his." He replied, smiling when Jack looked confused. "Well, you never saw Mitchell before today, right?"

"No." Jack shrugged his shoulders. "Just some other older boy."

"Oh yeah, you mean Alan." Merit grinned. "I miss him."

"Why? Where is he?" Jack scowled when Merit shrugged his shoulders. "Did he leave?"

"Yup." Merit replied. "I woke up one day and he was just gone. No note, no goodbye. Just gone. He didn't even take all of his stuff."

"That's weird." Jack said as he watched Merit turn around and go back to work. "Did he do what you are doing now?"

"Yeah." Merit replied. "I guess Mitchell always has someone around. His helper and a training helper. It's how he works."

"I'm a training helper?" Jack questioned.

"Maybe." Merit carefully replied. "Depends on if you and Mitchell get along."

"I like him." Jack smiled as he noticed an indicator light up on his display. "We're good to charge the FTL now."

"On it." Merit replied. "Don't decide that you like Mitchell yet. Not until you know him better."

"He's good to you." Jack shot back. "I mean you kinda run everything, right?"

"Yeah, right." Merit sighed. "Just give it time, okay?"

"Sure." Jack shook his head as he watched the new display indicating the FTL charge level rapidly rise. "FTL is at fifty three percent. Do we need to tell Mitchell that we're gonna jump to light speed soon?"

Merit laughed. "He was hammered. More than likely sound asleep. You'll learn that the less you bother him, the nicer he will be to you. He rewards independence and well..." He trailed off, "...the less he has to do with anything, the happier he will be. Remember that kid and you'll be okay."

"Just like my dad." Jack mumbled to himself. "So, does that mean we are slaves?"

"God no." Merit laughed. "Kid, you and I are the freest guys in the universe now. If we want it, we can have it. If we need it, it will be given to us. Mitchell has a reputation with the people who work with him. He's really good to the people who are really good to him and really scary to the people who get in his way."

"Like pirates?" Jack said in awe.

"I guess." Merit smiled, "Except pirates take everything that they want from anyone who has it. Mitchell just has connections everywhere and can get anything anyone needs, for that, people pay and pay well."

"He's rich then." Jack scratched his head.

"We are rich." Merit corrected. "You and I are his hands and his voice and his face to everyone else so, he rewards us well for that. Seriously, as long as you are with him, you will never want for anything." At Jack's blank expression, Merit nodded his head, "It'll take some getting used to but, you'll see."

"Pirates." Jack giggled. "Yar, the ship be ready fer faster sailin, matey!"

"Oh god." Merit laughed, having fun for the first time since Alan had disappeared. "Better prepare yourself, not sure if you're ready for a more powerful jump to light speed than you're used to." He grinned, as he engaged the FTL drive and the ship leapt beyond the speed of light. Glancing back, he saw that Jack was surprised by the sudden distortion as the ship jumped, but looked more amused than shocked.  "On course Cap'n Hook. Destination in two days, forty-three minutes." He barked and they both giggled.

Three hours passed and Merit explained what his duties had been under Alan. He explained that he would always carry a firearm when off the ship but never be allowed aboard beyond the airlock with it and that the ship's sensors would help to enforce that rule. Whenever he left the ship, he was to check with Mitchell to see what business needed to be attended to and at that point he would be given spending money. Some shops and vendors were ones they always tried to spend money at to help the vendors and then there was a list of merchants who were off limits. They were people who owed Mitchell money or for some reason tried to make his life harder. Jack thought it all made sense.

"One last thing." Merit said as he unbuttoned his shirt and turned to show Jack a small scar at the base of his neck. "You're gonna need to get a tracker put in. It's for our safety. People won't ever mess with us because they know Mitchell can track us. The last person to ever lay a hand on one of his boys was never seen again."

"Will it hurt?" Jack asked as he reached up and ran his fingers over the small mark.

"Nah, it happens so fast that it feels kinda like getting bit by a big trader mite. In a day you even forget it's there."

"When do I get one of those?" Jack asked as Merit was buttoning his shirt back up.

"That's where we're going now. You are gonna see Mitchell's personal doctor for a health scan and whatever you need to stay healthy." Merit smiled, "Doc Dion is a good guy. You're gonna like him."

Jack looked thoughtful for a moment and then decided to just ask, "My dad isn't coming back for me, is he?"

"No." Merit replied as he watched Jack's expression closely. "Mine won't be either."

"I knew it would happen someday." Jack sighed, "He always said he was gonna dump me off somewhere if he had the chance."

"Well, he was right." Merit stood and patted Jack on the shoulder just as a better rested looking Mitchell entered the bridge.

"Men." He smiled as he approached the Commander's chair. "I relieve you sir." He stated, receiving a confused look from the boy in return.

Merit laughed and stretched. "He's letting us rest twirp. Give him his chair."

"Oh. Okay. I'm sorry." Jack said with a nervous giggle.

"Don't be. We're all friends here." Mitchell patted Jack on the head as he swapped places with him. "Anything to report Merit?"

"No actually." Merit smiled as he put his arm around the shoulders of his new friend. "The new FTL drive is sweet and our new navigator doesn't need half as much training as I thought he would."

"Good news. Does that mean we have a new trainee?" Mitchell raised his eyebrows.

"Yeah, we do." Merit said as he hugged Jack tighter. "I like him."

"Kid, you up for becoming one of the crew?" Mitchell asked with a smirk.

"Yes sir. My name is Jack sir." Jack corrected, beginning to shiver a bit with nervous tension.

"I'm sure it is." Mitchell laughed. "Merit, feed the kid and then give him the tour. One hour firearms training for you both and then get some sleep."

"Yes sir, come on Jack." Merit replied and they both left the bridge. "Let's hit the galley and then I'll show you the firing range we have on the lower deck."

"I thought guns weren't allowed inside the ship." Jack asked as the teen led the way.

"They aren't, the guns we will use are trainers. Laser practice guns. Only one gun is allowed inside the ship and that is on Mitchell at all times." Merit said as he opened the hatch to the small kitchen area. "What are you hungry for? We just stocked up on supplies so nothing's off the menu."

Jack shrugged his shoulders and looked around. "What are you havin'?"

"A hamburger and fries with a cola and a big chunk of chocolate cake with the best fudge icing you have ever tasted." Merit smiled. "You in?"

"Seriously?" Jack beamed. "That sounds awesome!" He bounced as Merit began to heat up the pre-made meals. The supplies were a combination of fresh foods, frozen meals, and dried food that needed to be reconstituted. Jack had only heard of some of the foods that they were about to eat and chocolate anything was for the rich or the extremely lucky. At the moment, he was feeling like a little of both.

After stuffing themselves, they went down to the lower deck and Merit explained that at the end of the corridor was engineering. Going forward from there were many of the service areas for the ships systems and weaponry. Everything below this deck was strictly off limits to them without Mitchell present. Being mainly cargo, Jack didn't even think twice about it. Behind one of the doors, Merit explained was the virtual firing range and he led him to it. Opening the door, Jack could see that it was nothing more than a small room with a weapon rack and an image projector.

"Strip." Merit said as he began to undress.

"What? Why?" Jack whined as the teen sat on a bench next to the door and pulled his shoes off.

"Because you need to put on a jumper that reads your movements and vitals. This whole thing is computer run. It provides targets and analyzes our movements. It will teach you how to shoot and the best way to defend yourself." Merit continued to undress to his underwear before showing Jack how to put the jumper on. "Look on the rack over there. I think a number four jumper should fit you."

"Don't look." Jack whined, giving Merit a laugh. "I mean it Merit!"

"Alright, I won't." He shook his head as he continued to put on his suit and then strap on the helmet. "When you put it on, make sure the crotch of the jumpsuit isn't too tight or too baggy. The arms and legs will get tied off anyway, so the body of the suit is all that you go by."

Now only in a threadbare pair of underwear that were too small for the boy, he was confused at how to tell the suits apart. "Merit, I don't know how to tell the sizes. Can you help me?"

"But I might see your shorts." Merit laughed.

"Fine!" Jack grumbled. "Can you just help me, please?"

"Yeah sure." Merit replied and paused when he saw what the boy was wearing. "Those can't be comfortable."

"Why not?" Jack asked looking himself over. "It's what I've always worn."

"They're too small and really worn out." He said shaking his head. "Didn't your dad ever buy you new clothes?"

"Shirts and pants and shoes and stuff, yeah. Whenever my old stuff didn't fit, and he could find something we could afford." Jack answered. "I can still get these on so, I never asked for new ones."

"Wow." Merit replied. "When we get back to the bunks, I'll dig out my old clothes until we get to the outpost. I was about your size when I came aboard so that stuff should fit you."

"Okay, thanks." Jack smiled as Merit pulled out the number four jumpsuit and handed it to him.

A few more minutes were spent simply explaining how to put the gear on and how to identify himself to the computer. Then they were both ready to take their positions in the middle of the room where they would practice drawing and firing at random targets projected on the walls. Merit was busy racking up his score when he realized that Jack was doing exceptionally well, and the computer had raised his difficulty rating to above novice. "Have you fired a gun before?"

Jack smiled as he placed his gun back in the holster as they were required to do between each shot. "No, why? Am I doing something wrong?"

"No." Merit smiled. "The computer is building your practice profile and it has you set above the beginner level. You already qualify to handle an actual firearm."

"A real gun?" Jack gasped as the computer powered down. "No way."

Merit pulled off his helmet and wiped the sweat out of his eyes. "Well, you qualify. You need to log a full 10 hours at the level you are on or higher before Mitchell will let you carry a real gun."

"I can do that." Jack said as he pulled off his own helmet. "But I don't have money to buy one."

Knowing how Mitchell worked Merit sighed and patted the boy on the head, "Your father left his gun in the airlock for you I believe. The little revolver he was carrying. It's still in the weapons locker."

 "Oh, okay," Jack smiled continuing, "I stink." with a sour look on his face as he unzipped his jumpsuit.

"We both do." Merit replied. "Let me show you our quarters and get you some better clothes. Then we can grab a shower and get some sleep."

The next two days kept Jack on his toes. He was constantly being tested and the training was tiring but not too hard. He was happiest when Merit reported how well his training was going to Mitchell. Even happier when he learned that his temporary assignment to Merit's quarters didn't have to be temporary. The boy was happy to share a room with the older teen who was becoming more like an older brother than anything else. As they both dressed for the day, the intercom sounded and made Jack Jump.

"Merit, you and the kid need to be ready to dock in a half hour. We are arriving at outpost 10 so you and your trainee have an appointment with Doc Dion."

"We both do?" Jack asked as Merit stood and pressed the intercom button.

"We'll be ready to dock," Merit smiled, "and to see the doc."

"Funny." Mitchell replied and the intercom just went quiet.

"We both have an appointment?" Jack asked again as Merit sat back on his bed and pulled on his sneakers.

"Actually, we all do." Merit smiled. "Any time we are in the Flok system Mitchell gets in touch with 'Doc' Dion, so we get a checkup and make sure we have all our shots and stuff. He takes really good care of us."

"Wow." Jack thought out loud as he pulled on a pair of the pants Merit had given him. "I haven't seen a doctor since I was like 4 years old. That doctor was mean and had cold hands and bad breath."

"That's horrible. Trust me, you'll like him. Doc is a really nice guy." Merit smiled as Jack showed off how well Merit’s old clothes fit. "Looks better on you than they did on me. Actually, I think they are better than just a temporary fix."

"Cool." Jack beamed before being led to the door. "So, what's the doctor's office like?"

"Don't know," Merit laughed, "he comes aboard and sees us one at a time."

"Good. I already know a couple places to hide if he comes at me with one of those surgery knives." Jack said, squinting his eyes and getting a laugh from the older boy.

After docking, Jack sat in the lounge and was becoming increasingly anxious. Merit sat in the chair next to his and watched the young boy get up and pace several times before finally speaking up.

"Oh my god Jack, sit down." Merit sighed when he finally saw Mitchell enter the room with the doctor in tow. A bigger, older looking man with a lot of gray in his hair but a little more muscular looking than Mitchell. "There, see. He's here." Merit got out as Jack's eyes got wide as saucers.

"This is the new guy I take it." Doc asked looking at Jack as he tried to hide behind Merit's chair. "Looks to be in good health. Would you like to go first young man?"

Jack swallowed hard and peeked out from behind his friend. "Do I have to?"

"I can go first if you like." Merit smiled as he stood up, placing his hand on Jack's shoulder and pulling him into a half hug to reassure him.

The doctor made his way to another chair and sat down. "Come here son." He said with a wave of his hand just as Mitchell handed the doctor a drink and sat down himself.

"Yes sir." Jack nervously replied as he slowly and cautiously approached.

"Son," the older man said, pausing to take a sip out of his glass, "I've been a doctor for a great many years. More years than you have been alive. Do you know what I have never done in that amount of time?"

"No sir." Jack barely got out above a whisper as he tried to look the big man in the eyes.

"I have never bitten anyone." He said in a 'matter of fact' tone that elicited a chuckle from Mitchell. "Not even once."

Jack could literally feel the heat radiate from his face as he finally looked into the man's eyes and saw nothing more than an old man with a warm and friendly smile. "I'm sorry sir." He said as a nervous tear made its way down his cheek.

"That's fine, Jack is it?" He asked, getting a nod in reply. "Jack, I hear you are going to be doing some pretty important work for a man who has helped out my family many times over the years. You never need to fear me. I hope you'll learn that soon."

Jack shifted his weight nervously from foot to foot before looking the doctor up and down. "Sir, can I ask you a question?"

"Absolutely." The doctor smiled. "As long as you drop the sir. It's just Doc, okay?"

"Yes I mean Doc." He smiled. "Were you ever a wrestler?" Jack grinned when Mitchell almost choked on his drink, which got the doctor laughing.

"No." The doctor said through a laugh. "I guess I am built a little like a wrestler though." He said as he put his glass down. "I did play a little football back in my youth.

"Really?" Jack said in awe, his eyes widening. "Earth football?"

"Like Earth football. Same basic rules. You ever play?" Doc asked, sitting back in his chair. Happy to have found a way to loosen the boy up a little.

"No, I've seen vids of it though. I was born on Earth you know." Jack proudly stated. "Did you know that there is more than one kind of football on Earth alone? I read all about it."

Knowing the sudden change of subject was just what he needed, he stood up and patted the boy on the head. "I'll tell you what, you tell me about it while we get your examination started." He smiled. "I only thought there was the one kind from that particular system." He said before pausing and looking over at Mitchell, "Is the med bay set up or do I need to use the boys' quarters?"

"Med bay is good to go Doc," Mitchell smiled. "After the last time you were aboard, I figured it would be helpful just in case someone decided to put on another show." He finished glancing at Merit.

Merit looked at Mitchell and then at the doctor who was obviously holding back a laugh, "It's not my fault you guys decided to use the room and walked in on me." He began to blush. "I didn't even know Doc was coming aboard."

"No worries, at least I know you are healthy." The doctor stated leading Jack out of the room and down the corridor, ignoring Merit's death glare.

"What happened? Why is Merit angry?" Jack questioned as they took the short walk.

"Alan, Mitchell's last assistant was having severe pain and they called me to come aboard early. Well we went back to his quarters and Merit was spending a little private time in the room. We walked right in on him." The doctor chuckled.

"Private time?" Jack tilted his head like a confused dog.

"Something boys do when they are all alone. You'll learn soon enough. It's not important, we just startled the heck out of him." The doctor got out as he closed the door to the small medical facility.

It was a small room that was a cross between a medical examination room, complete with the table in the center and storage for all kinds of supplies along the walls and a surgical studio. Jack looked around the room with his eyes wide. "You could do surgery in here. It's like a whole hospital."

The doctor smiled and powered up the lighting over the table. "You could in an emergency but, as long as you are at the station, I'd rather use the infirmary." He said before turning and crossing his arms. "I'm going to need you to undress, just to your underwear for now."

"Okay." Jack sighed as he kicked off his sneakers. "Was it serious?"

With a smirk, Doc looked back toward Jack as he fumbled, trying to get his pants off without toppling. "Was what serious?"

As he hopped on one foot trying to free his other one from the leg of his pants, he maintained his end of the conversation, "Alan. You said he was having bad pain. Was it serious?"

"Ah," Doc smiled. "It was actually. He had appendicitis and needed an emergency surgery. He recovered in no time though."

After pulling his shirt over his head, Jack neatly folded it and added it to the stack he had created on a stool near the door. "You did the surgery?"

"I did." Doc smiled proudly. "It's my job to keep you and your crew in top shape." Motioning to Jack to remove his socks he added "I take that responsibility very seriously."

Jack placed his socks on the stack and then hopped up on the table as the man picked up a stethoscope and began to rub the end between his hands. "What are you doing? That's not what that is for."

"It's cold." He chuckled. Before placing it on the boy's chest. "I wanted it to be warmer before I put it on your bare skin."

"Oh, cool. Thanks." Jack smiled as the doctor listened, and poked, and prodded, and tapped, and looked at everything. Jack curiously watched every move the man made, and was amazed how gentle he was being for such a big, tough looking guy.

"I'm going to need you to slip off your shorts now." Doc stated carefully. "I promise I'll make this quick."

"Okay." Jack replied with a sigh, hooking his thumbs in the waist band of the blue boxer briefs Merit had given him. Quickly slipping them off, he sat there as the doctor carefully inspected and then handled his most private area. Seeing concern in the doctor's face, Jack cleared his throat and nervously questioned him, "What?"

"Lie back for me for a moment, would you?" Doc asked as he began feeling around the boy's lower abdomen. "Well, that will need to be dealt with." He said before realizing Jacks eyes were as wide as saucers. "Son, did you know that when we are babies, our testes develop in this area?" He said as he motioned to the area he was inspecting.

"Testis?" Jack looked down. "My nuts?"

"If that's what you call them." Doc smiled. "At any rate, they move from this area to the loose skin below the penis."

Jack frowned and lay his head back on the table. "One of mine stayed too high." He said as his face began to blush. "I knew it was wrong cause it hurts sometimes. My dad said I didn't know what I was talking about. Then he said I was halfway to becoming a girl." As a tear began to escape the corner of his eye, his expression got serious, almost angry. "So, I'm not normal then."

"That's not true." Doc said as he continued the examination. "Even though it should have been dealt with earlier, I can help it get to where it's supposed to be. Don't you worry about it."

"You can fix it?" Jack almost squeaked. "It doesn't need to stay that way?"

"It really doesn't." Doc smiled before ruffling the boy's hair. "I'll discuss it with Mitchell. If you are going to be working with him and Merit, I'm sure he's going to want the best for you."

"Is that gonna cost a lot of money?" Jack asked as the doctor turned and started to wash his hands.

"That's nothing for you to worry about." He smiled and motioned toward the boy's clothes. "You can get dressed and we'll have a talk with your new employer. I'm sure your new insurance will cover it all."

"I have insurance? Like the rich people do?" Jack gasped, as he got his underwear back on.

"Some of the finest. You have nothing to worry about." He said and waited as the boy rushed to get his clothes back on.

"What about the tracker thing. Merit said I was gonna get one like his." Jack asked, watching the boy hop around as he pulled his socks on.

"We'll deal with that when we deal with this issue. Don't you worry." The older man replied.

As they returned to the lounge, Mitchell was alone and sipping on his drink. He looked up and smiled as they approached, "What's the diagnosis Doc? Should we keep him?"

Picking up his glass, he took a sip and sat down, directing a smile toward Jack. "My friend, Jack is in great physical health. He's a little underweight for his age but nothing a better diet can't fix." He took another sip as Jack sat down on the edge of the table the two men rested their drinks on. "There is one issue that I believe we should take care of as soon as possible though. Jack is one of those rare cases of Cryptorchidism that has gone untreated."

Mitchell paused mid sip and scowled. "Crypto...what?"

The doctor smiled and ruffled Jacks hair. "Jack's left testicle never descended like it should. It requires a procedure to correct that should have been performed long ago, and our young friend is worried about the cost."

Mitchell seemed to consider the doctor's statements before setting his glass down and looking at the small, nervous boy. "Kid, you and I need to get something clear here." He said, reaching over and placing his fingers under the boy's chin to get him to look at him. "You are a part of my crew now. If you need anything, I am more than happy to get it for you. I'm sure if this isn't taken care of it could cause other issues."

"Oh yes." Doc agreed, "The sooner it is done, the better."

"But I just got here." Jack began to tear up. "I don't want to be trouble."

Both men looked at each other, realizing that the boy really didn't come from the best of backgrounds. Mitchell released the boy's chin and crossed his arms. "Kid, do you know what an investment is?"

"No." He sniffled.

"An investment is something or someone who if given a little help could make my life better so, I choose to give that help. You benefit because you get what you need and because you have what you need, you can be in my life. So that makes you a good investment." Mitchell smiled. "So, will you let me take care of this for you?"

"Really?" Jack wiped his eyes on the back of his hand. "You want to help me?"

"I do." Mitchell smirked. "I can't let Merit's new trainee not get the help he needs." He picked up his glass. "Besides, where am I gonna find another eight-year-old pilot?"

With a sniffle, Jack began to smile and stiffen his back a bit. "You can't, I'm the only one I know."

Doc laughed and ruffled the boy's hair again, "Mitchell, you got a little spitfire here if you take good care of him."

"Well, then it looks like we need to schedule a surgery so I can get my little pilot back in the commander's chair, ASAP." Mitchell stated, receiving a bright smile as a reward.

Three days later, Jack wandered onto the bridge. A little sore but too bored to stay in bed. "Can I help?"

"Aren't you supposed to be resting?" Mitchell smiled as he stood up and stretched as Jack’s lower lip stuck out a bit further. "But, if you don't mind taking command over, I'd like to hit the galley." He continued, getting the boy to smile.

"Where's Merit?" Jack asked as he climbed up into the big chair, wincing as he moved the wrong way a couple of times.

"Easy there kid." Mitchell said as he watched on in concern. "Merit is below installing the upgrades we picked up at Station 32 for your firearms training." The man smiled. "New program, holographic projections, and it will add fitness programs and some limited sports programs. I think you guys will enjoy it."

Jack's jaw dropped as he digested what the man had said. "You bought all that stuff for us?"

"Nope." Mitchell chuckled as he turned for the door. "Gonna have Merit box it all back up and give it to someone else's crew." As he opened the hatch he looked back and saw that Jack was just smiling back at him. "You guys deserve to have some fun on these long trips. It's the least I can do."

"Thanks." Jack sighed. As the hatch closed and he rubbed the sore spot on the back of his neck from the new tracker that had been implanted by the doctor. Looking around the bridge, Jack smiled knowing that he really had found a home with people who actually liked and trusted him. He scanned the display as he hummed "Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life For Me" and giggled.