DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Jacqueline Bielowicz and is copyright (c) 1984 by Jacqueline Bielowicz. This story is Rated PG. It was originally published in Guardian #6


Jacqueline A. Bielowicz

Third watch on the bridge of the Paladin was almost always deadly boring. Lieutenant Montgomery Scott stifled a yawn as the trainees finished yet another of the drills that were supposed to turn raw "mobs" into finely honed troops. Sometimes Scott considered it an insult to be associated with this circus; after all, he did have deep space experience as a third engineer's mate in the Merchant Marine Fleet. But looking around the bridge at his classmates, he admitted to himself that there were vast differences between the discipline of Starfleet and the most casual attitude that had prevailed aboard the MM Tau Ceti. Not that the Ceti's crew couldn't get it together in times of crisis, thought Scott loyally. And honesty made him admit that the Ceti might not do so well if it ran into something outside the known Federation.

Scott's family had served as engineers in the Merchant Marine from the days when the first Scott had sailed on wooden merchantmen; in those days, the engineer was called a "bos'n" and was in charge of hull maintenance and related matters. The Scotts had been through it all, from sail to steam to internal combustion. And when human beings attempted to cross space, it was a Scott who had been Engineer on the first flight to Saturn. Ian Scott, Montgomery's grandfather, had died with his ship when the Merchant Marine fleet was converted for fighting during the Romulan wars; even now Scott's father, Alistair, was chief engineer on the Ishubake, queen of the line of the Morosuti Trading Company. Montgomery himself had started out as an engine "wiper", the lowest rank in engineering, when he was only fifteen years old and had counted himself an "old space hand" by the time he was twenty and fourth engineer's mate on the Tiger's Claw, a mediocre ship that had run out on the Rim.

By the time he was twenty-five, Scott was aboard the Tau Ceti under the command of Captain Jemil Rober. Rober had washed out of Starfleet Academy, which still made him three times the commander most of his peers were. He was a tall, broad-shouldered black man whose appearance fitted all the stereotyped images of captain. He was smart, well-versed in the contrariness of the universe, and in symbiosis with his ship. He had taken young Scott under his personal tutelage, sharing his knowledge and experience; and when he felt it was time, it was Rober who had convinced young Scott that his best option lay in Starfleet -- and not as a mere engineer, but in command. Montgomery Scott had loved engines all his life, but the idea of command brought visions of excitement, power, even glory. What young man had never dreamed of making the final decision, of having the satisfaction of everything moving under his leadership to a grand conclusion?

A tap on his shoulder brought Scott up short. He looked up from his board to find Lieutenant Commander Smithers staring down on him.

"Welcome back, Mr. Scott," snapped Smithers. "You are just in time to watch your ship be blown to bits because you were daydreaming and didn't hear your captain's orders for a course change. Was it worth it?"

Scott flushed; nervous tittering swept around the bridge of the Paladin. "No, sir," he returned through gritted teeth.

"Well, gentlemen, let's just run through this drill a few more times to make sure Mr. Scott has it down right. And for tonight, five extra chapters of Tougman's Tactical Maneuvers."

He ignored the groans as the crew set up the drill parameters again. Scott didn't know which was worse; Smithers' sarcastic tone or his policy of punishing all the trainees for the mistake of one. He caught a sympathetic glance from his Andorian roommate, Torv'n. At least the third watch was no longer boring; just interminable.

* * *

Even purgatory has a limit, and Scott and Torv'n hastened off the bridge at the end of the shift. Uncomplainingly, Scott took the good-natured teasing he got on the turbolift ride to the trainees quarters. He had done his share of ribbing in the six months they had been on the Paladin, the heavy cruiser thirty years out of date that served as a training ship. Its complement consisted of ten regular Starfleet officers and 135 training cadets of various ranks. Scott and Torv'n reached the small cubicle they shared. Actually, the room held six, but they almost never saw the other roommates because they were all carefully split among the watches. It was a convenient way to fit six people in a room containing only two beds and two desks.

Scott groaned as he entered the doorway. Torv'n threw himself down onto the bed to relax while Scott started to change into clean clothes. "I don't know why you insist on staying in command training when you could have it made in engineering," Torv'n teased him.

Scott grinned. "What? And miss the challenge of command training? Miss meeting and working with such a sweetheart as Commander Smithers? Och, mon, I coom here jos' fa tha joy of studying wit' you!" As usual, Scott's burr thickened when he was enjoying himself.

The Andorian's antennae twitched as he returned the other man's grin. "You humans always have to do things the hard way." Command training for Torv'n was as easy as engineering was to Montgomery Scott, and there was no doubt in his mind that Torv'n would someday captain his own ship. "Come. Let us eat before the lines get much longer. I, for once, would like to get more than five hours sleep. And we do still have those five extra chapters to read."

Scott screwed up his face with distaste and rapidly finished changing. The two young men hurried down two decks to the cadets' mess, one of the few places on the ship where they were permitted to be without an instructor/officer to babysit. Scott suspected that this was not done as a benefit for the cadets but rather as a benefit for the officers. Scott and Torv'n quickly made their food choices and seated themselves at the senior table. The mess was divided according to rank and, except for the senior cadets whose turn it was to preside over the junior tables, all the senior cadets for the third watch were seated together. Scott, as ranking cadet, sat at the head of the table.

Precious Amlorn III sat on Scott's right. In his opinion, she was a knockout -- soft, shiny black hair, deep amethyst eyes, wide luscious mouth -- and smart. On Formax II, a matriarchy, females got priority on education. Beauty and brains packed on a 195 centimeter frame that weighed 127 kilograms. "Today is a religious holiday for Cygiians," she announced smugly as Scott was lifting his fork to his mouth, "and just guess who is bridge command?" Scott knew Amlorn's major interest was security but he was pleased that her present assignment was engineering. He didn't know if she would actually learn much there, but Starfleet policy required everyone to have some familiarization with all departments of the ship. She dragged out the silence until she was sure she had everyone's attention. "While Captain K'wasImn is faithfully praying, Commander Lawson will be Officer of the Day." From his seat at the head of the table, Scott could see unholy glee to Amlorn's announcement displayed six different ways on the faces of the other senior cadets. Commander Lawson was a very capable engineer, but it was well known on the Paladin that he hated bridge duty. It was rumored that he dozed on the bridge while letting the cadets run things. Oh, he was there if things got tough, but he saw no reason to ride the troops if everything was going smoothly. And because Lawson was one hell of an engineer, Captain K'wasImn was willing to overlook his less-than-orthodox teaching methods. With Lawson on the bridge, there would be no surprise drills to scramble them from class or sleep. Yessiree, this was going to be one fine...

The deck beneath their feet lurched as a muffled roar vibrated through the bulkheads. The startled cadets sat frozen as the Red Alert klaxon wailed. Two more massive explosions below decks sent cadets and equipment flying through the mess. Scott and Amlorn found themselves pinned to a wall by one of the tables. The lights went out amidst the smoke pouring out of the life support vents. The klaxon suddenly ceased, replaced by a more terrifying alarm. "The hull's breached!" shouted someone above the creaking and groaning of the abused ship. Emergency lights flickered and finally stayed on, casting a red hue over the nightmare scene. Between them, Amlorn and Scott were able to free themselves from their confinement and start digging out the rest of the senior cadets buried in the jumble. The air was murky, choking. Those cadets who could tried to free the dead and the wounded. Medical cadets set up a cleared area for triage while the others attempted to open jammed doors. Finally, they were able to partially open one, and those not helping with the injured ran through the teeming corridors to their emergency assignments.

Scott found Torv'n lying on the floor in the cleared area and questioned the medic with his eyes. The man shook his head sadly, then continued on to the next patient. Scott had already known that Torv'n was dead; it was hard to miss the broken neck. He gripped the dead arm, blanking out the confusion around him until he felt someone shaking him.

"Mr. Scott! Please, Mr. Scott, Commander Lawson wants you on the bridge immediately!"

Scott looked at the young cadet, not registering the squeaky, tightly controlled voice. Tear marks streaked through the soot on his face. "Please, Mr. Scott, Commander Lawson said for you to come now!" The voice finally made it through.

"Aye, lad," Scott muttered. He dashed out of the mess, headed for the nearest 'tween decks ladder. He knew better than to try the turbolifts. As he passed through the three decks up to the bridge, he could see that the damage was widespread. Whole sections of the ship had their airtight bulkheads sealed, and Scott had to detour around them. On the bridge, there was controlled madness as the crew used extinguishers on electrical fires. Lawson was standing at the engineering panel, checking the damage reports while sending cadets off as couriers to other parts of the ship. Scott shouldered his way through the group.

"Scott, reporting as ordered, sir!"

"Scott, you take over here while I get down to engineering. Our engines have blown and the damage to the ship is godawful. If I don't get down there, none of us may get home." Lawson clipped the words over his shoulder as he strode to the ladder.

"But, sir, you are the senior officer. You can't leave me in charge like this. I'm only a cadet!"

Lawson halted half way down the ladder, gripped Scott's arm, and spoke rapidly in a low voice, audible only to him. "You have to do it, Scotty. The officers' mess has been breached and, as far as I know, the captain and I are the only officers left. You are the only cadet on board who has deep space experience beyond what you got in 'fleet. You know what is needed here. Just get an accounting of the damage and assign details as needed until the Old Man shows up. He'll take over then. But if I don't get down there and see what is happening to my engines, this ship could blow apart."

Scott swallowed the big lump in his throat. "Aye, sir. I'll manage."

Lawson smiled bleakly. "I've already spread the word that you're in temporary command. Carry on." The older man disappeared into the gloom below.

Scott moved back to the command chair and began taking the reports that were piling up. Time stopped for him as he slowly built up a picture of ship's status. Both main engines had imploded; cause unknown. The resultant explosions had breached the hull in two directions and ripped through four decks of the interior. Those decks were now sealed off and emergency life support engaged. The auxiliary engines were damaged but repairable, but almost the entire engineering shift had been caught in the explosion. For now the ship was drifting off in the direction that the reaction of the explosions had sent them. Temporary helm calculated that the new course, based on data from a hastily-repaired board, would place them in the gravity well of a gas giant that orbited Lydia. None of the Lydian planets were habitable, and the Paladin's chances of being spotted by a passing ship were slim. On-lining the auxiliary engines became priority one.

Life support was finally stabilized, though gravity control was still erratic. Intra-ship communications were out, couriers being the only means of sending messages. Communications with Starfleet were also out, but Scott put them on secondary priority.

Casualties were high: over sixty-nine dead, including seven of the senior officers. Scott's presence on the bridge took on new importance. The captain was in no shape to take over, having sustained severe injuries when a wall had collapsed on him. Dr. Marcy Cloud had been in sickbay during the explosion and was uninjured, but neither was she qualified to run the ship in an emergency - and all her skills were needed elsewhere. She had reported that the captain had head wounds and massive internal injuries, and it was highly doubtful that he would make it.

At the end of four hours, a bleary-eyed Scott had accounted for everyone. Two-thirds of the surviving cadets had been injured, but most of them were able to return to duty status. Scott left the bridge with a full report and made his way to Engineering. To his eyes, Lawson looked terrible. He was sitting on the deck outside the forward airlock, his environmental suit still on but his helmet beside him, poring over ship's blueprints laid out on the deck over his crossed legs. He had trouble focusing on Scott's face.

Scott silently handed him his report and waited while he read through it. Lawson finished reading it and rubbed his grimy hand across his tired face. "Shit," he said weakly. He rose to his feet, motioned Scott to follow him. He led the way to a quieter area, away from the bustle, where they could be relatively alone.

"Okay, Scotty, I'm going to lay it out to you straight. I can't be in two places at the same time. Either I'm up there in command or down here trying to get those damn engines going. You have less engineering experience than I; and with all the tricky by-passing it is going to take, there is a god chance we will all blow to hell. I want you to stay in command, make the necessary decisions, but I must tell you that the disadvantage to that is that while we have less of a chance that we will blow up, you and I will both be facing courts-martial. If you have half the brains your record says you do, you will tell me, 'Sorry, sir, but it is your problem,' and I won't blame you."

Scott felt his gut tighten. He had seen the reports from engineering and knew the repairs were beyond his skill. But then, so was command. Not much choice.

"Well, sir, I think I have enough connections that I can get us both jobs in the Marine Fleet as wipers on a garbage scow."

Lawson chuckled dryly at Scott's attempted joke. "Very well, 'Captain,' let's get to it."

Scott returned to the bridge and sent couriers to round up what senior cadets could be released from their duties for a short time. He laid out the situation and delegated departments to those who could best cover them. Everyone on the ship who was able to work was evaluated first for his or her engineering experience. The cadets pitched right in, never once questioning his decisions. For the next three days, Scott was caught up in the myriad details of command. Nothing was too small or unimportant for him to know about.

On the fourth night, Captain K'wasImn died without regaining consciousness. It was a hard blow for Scott, who had harbored a secret hope that the captain would recover enough to at least guide him from a sickbed. Nightly, he and Lawson reviewed the day's happenings. Lawson helped Scott find the answers he was missing and pointed out shortcuts. The chief engineer, using Scott as a sounding board for ideas, laid out his engine repair plans. Scott found Lawson's work intriguing, often shorting himself an sleep in order to further study his senior officer's blueprints to extrapolate possible repairs. Time was running short: the auxiliary engines had to be up in three days or the ship would fall into Lydia IV's gravity well. By navigation's best estimate, they had less than fifty-seven hours.

* * *

Scott rubbed his gritty eyes, unable to focus on the report before him. He heard a heavy body drop into the chair next to his and, looking over, saw Precious Amlorn, now his exec, soberly assessing him.

"Well?" he growled, daring her to comment.

She took the dare. "You look like hell. When did you last sleep?"

He chuckled humorlessly. "I got two hours... about sixteen hours ago. It's enough for now."

"With stimulants to take up the slack?"

He remained silent, doggedly picking up the abandoned report.

She continued, "I'll bet Lawson's doing the same, isn't he?" She shrugged as he continued to ignore her. "You two aren't the only ones, and it's beginning to show in the repairs." He flinched as the tape she tossed across the table skittered toward him. "The percentage of errors is rising sharply. I took it upon myself to reorganize the duty shifts: by working eight hours on and four hours off, I think we can reduce the errors and still speed up repair time."

Scott grinned his approval, then both stared with amazement as the long-silent intercom whistled. "Bridge to Scott! Bridge to Scott!" Communications Officer Midshipman Stubbing's adolescent voice cracked with excitement. Scott sat blankly for a second, then dashed for the wall intercom, Amlorn close on his heels. He slammed his fist on the switch, "Scott here."

"I've got the intercom working, sir ... at least, in the priority area. I should have the rest done in about four hours."

"And the subspace channels?" Scott asked anxiously.

"Not yet, sir." His subdued voice betrayed his sense of failure. "The board is badly fused, but we're still working on it."

"Let me know when it's ready. And, Stubbing ... good work. Scott out."

Unconsciously, Scott released a sigh of relief as he crossed one more thing off his list of 'things-to-be-done'. He turned to go back to his seat, but was halted by Amlorn's hand on his arm.

"Now, it's time for you to rest. I'll take over for awhile."

Scott looked her over. There were dark circles under her eyes and a tired slump to her shoulders. With her glorious hair tightly braided back, her face appeared haggard and gaunt.

"You look worse than I do!" he retorted.

"Yeah, but I got three hours sleep ten hours ago, which puts me in better shape than you. So get moving, or shall I carry you?" Her voice was low, but she stood with feet apart and arms akimbo.

Scott opened his mouth to argue, then decided he really wasn't in shape to fight with her. He quietly lay down on the cot set up in his temporary office in the briefing room. Amlorn waited long enough to see that he was really asleep, then left for the bridge.

Scott's sleep was restless, filled with all the fears he had kept pushed down during his waking hours. His nightmare of free fall matched reality when the emergency klaxon woke him and he found himself floating. He scrambled for a handhold, just managing to grab a lighting strut when the artificial gravity returned. The strut gave way under his weight but he managed to break his fall and twist his body around for a cat-like landing on the deck. The newly repaired intercom spewed forth Precious Amlorn's orders from the bridge: "Mr. Scott, report to engineering immediately! Medical team to the bridge. All damage control teams report!"

Scotty raced down to engineering, his heart pounding. Dr. Cloud was already on the scene, ministering to the unconscious Commander Lawson. He had been servicing some heavy machinery when the gravity cut back in and both his legs were pinned underneath the equipment

"How bad is he?" Scott demanded.

The small wiry woman with grey-streaked hair didn't look up from her work. "Bad enough. I'm in going to have to amputate both legs." As med techs moved Lawson out on a gurney, she looked Scott directly in the face. Her weary blue eyes were full with sympathy. "He won't die, Mr. Scott, but in his exhausted condition he will never be up in time to make the deadline." Then she hurried after her patient.

Scott sank down into a nearby chair and dropped his face into his hands. The engineering crew quietly picked up the mess around him. Ensign Jones, a gangly, red-haired nineteen-year-old was now chief engineer. He reached past Scott and punched up schematics on the read-out screen. "Here is how far we have gotten, Mr. Scott. Permission to continue with Commander Lawson's plans?"

Scott hesitated a moment then straightened up with a deep sigh. The blueprints even now looked tempting. What Lawson had theorized was so revolutionary that Montgomery Scott would give his right arm to be the one to do it. But he had other duties, other responsibilities. "Go ahead, Jonesy. Call me if you need any help."

The intercom whistled and Communications Officer Stubbing's excited voice cracked through the speaker. "Mr. Scott! We have an audio channel open to Starfleet!"

Scott stared at the wall speaker in dumb amazement. Punching his thumb the button, he replied, "I'm on my way! Scott out."

On the bridge, the crew was excitedly clustered around the comm station. The signal coming in was broken up with persistent static, but they could understand enough of it.

"This is ... tain Morriston of the Star... Valiant. Please specify the ...ture of your emerg...cy."

Wild cheers broke out over the bridge. Scott silenced them with a savage motion.

"This is the Training Ship Paladin, Lieutenant Montgomery Scott, Senior Cadet commanding. We have had multiple explosions in both our main engines resulting in massive damage to the ship and several casualties. Our only surviving officers are the CMO and the Chief Engineer, who has been critically injured and is unable to perform his duties. We are presently hull tight. Thanks to the emergency air seals, we have moderate life support but no engine power or navigation. We estimate approximately twenty-nine hours until we fall into Lydia IV's gravity well. Following are our co-ordinates. Please advise your ETA our location." Stubbing pushed the button that would automatically relay the computerized information.

There was a long silence and Scott feared that they'd lost contact. He glanced questioningly at Stubbing who quickly scanned his board and nodded back reassuringly. Finally, Captain Morriston's voice came back. "Paladin. Our ETA with you is 32.8 hours. You will abandon ship and let us pick you up in life-pods."

A gasp swept the bridge. Abandon the ship? Scott felt his heart contract. Suddenly the ship that had been such a pain in the ass a week ago had become very valuable. It's not like she really is yours, he argued with himself. You are only in temporary command. After all, they aren't going to fix her up and give her back to you. Then his heart spoke, But she is too bonny a ship to throw away. A captain always fights to save his ship. He looked up to see the rest of the bridge crew watching him, waiting to hear his decision. The engineer warred with the commander.

"Order acknowledged. Will advise you of new coordinates when we drop the life-pods. Scott out."

A babel of protests and questions roared over him as he broke the connection with the Valiant. "Quiet!" he ordered. "Prepare to abandon ship." He turned to his exec. "Precious, divide the wounded among all the life-pods. Leave the more critical to Dr. Cloud. She will place them and the necessary medics. The rest of you, start shutting down unneeded systems. Stubbing, stay here in case we need you. I'll be in engineering if there are any problems."

No one spoke a word as he strode to the turbolift. As he reached the engineering deck, he could see signs that the orderly evacuation had already started. The engineering crew was still working, supervised by Ensign Jones.

"We are abandoning ship," said Scott tersely.

Without stopping his work, Jones replied, "So we heard."

"Then why are you still here?"

Jones straightened up, stretching his aching back. Well ... Captain," he said with a laconic grin. "Some of us figure we'd make a last ditch effort to save the old girl. We're all volunteers. Just leave us one life-pod and we'll leave at the last minute. We just might yet be able to put the starboard auxiliary engine up long enough to get this tub into an elliptical orbit. That is," he frowned down at the board, "if I can figure out these blamed plans."

Scott slapped him on the back and returned to his duties. In four hours, they were ready. Some of the life-pods had been damaged in the initial explosion and were unusable. The remaining pods were stripped down to the bare minimum in order to increase the number of occupants. One life-pod remained, stripped down and placed for easy access by the volunteer engineering crew. Scott monitored the release of the life-pods, remaining at the comm station on the deserted bridge. He watched as the pods maneuvered under their limited power into a tight formation; this would make it easier for the Valiant to pick them up on their sensors. Then, re-routing communications, he hurried to join the remainder of his crew.

They worked feverishly while time ticked away. Scott dredged up every piece of engineering skill he could remember, even some that he had only heard about. Food was grabbed whenever they had a chance to eat, and sleep meant fifteen or twenty minute catnaps while waiting for the computer to work through the mathematical formulae. Three hours before deadline, the intercom signaled an incoming message.

"Paladin! This is Captain Morriston!"The Valiant's commander sounded angry.

Scott leaned wearily against the switch. "Scott here, Valiant."

"What the hell do you think you are doing? I ordered you to abandon ship! I've picked up your life-pods only to find that some of you are still on board. Would you care to explain that, Mister?" Scott could almost sense sparks flying through the link.

He grimed at Jones. "We are volunteering, sir, to attempt to save the Paladin."

"Mr. Scott, do you realize you are indirect violation of a command order? Get out of that show ... NOW!"

"No, sir," Scott replied stubbornly. "We have a good shot at saving her, and we don't intend on leaving until we have tried." There was a moment of silence, then he continued, pleading, "We have to try, sir."

After a pause, Morriston said more gently but just as steely, "Very well, Mr. Scott. But if you fail, your ass is grass."

"Understood, sir. Scott out."

Two more hours of work put them at the make or break point. Each man stood at his station, waiting for Scott to give the signal to start. On the bridge, the helmsman/navigator stood ready to implement the necessary course change. Scott took a deep breath and, nodding to his crew, threw the switches. An off-beat thrumming vibrated along the decks as the one starboard engine started.

"We did it! We did it, Scotty!" Jones shouted as the helmsman reported excitedly through the intercom, "She's moving! She's sluggish but she is definitely moving!"

A high-pitched whine squealed through engineering as the crew carefully monitored their dials.

"She's overloading!" came a shouted voice. "She's going to blow!" The dials spin crazily as the men tried frantically to stabilize the erratic engine.

"Shut her down!" yelled Scott over the ear piercing shrill. In the eerie silence, all faces turned toward the intercom, waiting for a report from the bridge.

"It's not enough," came the word; the helmsman was close to tears. "We need five more minutes of thrust."

Scott slammed his hand on the console and searched the read-out, looking for the answer. Jones grabbed him by the arm. "Leave it, Scotty. We've lost. There just isn't time to try again."

Scott looked at him blankly, refusing to hear him. Then his face relaxed for the first time in ten days. "Prepare to abandon ship," he whispered. "Helmsman, to the life-pod."

The last of the crew dashed out of engineering. Scott hesitated, sadly taking a last look. Engineering was a disaster, consoles a hodge-podge of jury-rigging and patch-work. They were burned and fused, battered like a victim of a hurricane. Scott drew in a shuddering breath, smelling the underlying scent of lubricants and metal. Then he turned and raced down the corridor to the life-pod.

He was the last one in. Sealing the airlock, he pressed the ejection release, and the small lifeboat shot out of the abused ship. Scott sat numb while the rest of the crew shifted around for comfortable positions. Jones hit the button that opened the iris shield on the porthole. The Paladin seemed to hang in space like a wounded bird.

"It looks like our timetable was off," Jones remarked casually. "She's going in."

Scott looked up and watched as the Paladin sped toward the gas giant at an ever steeper angle. Within minutes she was a tiny speck, and then even that was quickly lost around the curvature of the planet. Scott visualized her flight through the atmosphere, streaking flames as she burned up. He never felt the tears rolling down his face. Jones gripped Scott's cold hands in both his warm ones, silently supporting as they waited for their pickup by the Valiant.

* * *

Scott nervously smoothed down his shirt as he hesitated outside the Valiant's sickbay. This was the first day Commander Lawson was to he allowed visitors, and Dr. Cloud had warned Scott to keep it short and light. He understood her unspoken warning; Lawson wasn't ready to be worried about the demise of the Paladin. That meant no talk about her final hour, about the grueling debriefing he and the other senior cadets had made to the officers of the Valiant.

He took a deep breath, pasted a broad smile on his face, and strode through the door, faltering as he noticed the captain at Lawson's bedside, playing gin rummy. Straight-faced, he snapped to attention. "Excuse me, sir. I wasn't informed you were visiting at this time. I'll return later."

Lawson's jovial tones halted his turn toward the door. "Scotty, it took you long enough to get here. The captain is abusing a poor sick man."

Morriston laughed. "He means I'm winning. Feel free to stay, Mr. Scott. Besides, if you don't mind, I'd like to hear the unofficial version." At Scott's aborted silencing gesture, the captain chuckled. "Yeah, I know. I got the same lecture from Dr. Cloud, but if I know Lawson here, he'll wheedle it out of someone, so you might as well tell him now and save him all that trouble."

Scott still hesitated but, seeing Lawson's determined nod, he briefly and concisely caught him up on all that had happened. Real emotion choked his voice when he described the Paladin's disappearance.

"Well, that's a better ending than being dismantled for scrap," Lawson said after a respectful silence.

Scott considered that, and suddenly felt relieved that the Paladin had died in a blaze of glory, so to speak. Lawson eyed him shrewdly. "If everything is over, why do you look so glum?"

Scott stared down at his twisting hands.

"Well, youngster?"

"We still have to go through a court-martial, Mr. Lawson," stated Scott bluntly.

The senior officers stared blankly at each other, then broke out laughing. Morriston recovered first. "I love it. They teach these kids all about ships, ideals of peace and good will, how to be intelligent, loyal, flexible members of Starfleet. But they never give then any idea of bureaucratic politics." His eye caught the chronometer and he rose smoothly. "Lawson, I'm due back on the bridge. You fill him in on the facts of 'fleet life.'"

Scott nimbly stepped out of the way as Morriston strode out the door. Lawson motioned Scott to take the vacant chair, considering his next words carefully as the cadet seated himself.

"Scotty, you know that in any organization there is a difference between the ideal and what actually occurs?" At Scott's nod, he continued, "Starfleet is no different. Our money comes from member planets, and, to get the allocations, a lot of wheeling and dealing goes on. That means good public relations. Now imagine, if you will, what is being broadcast on the newsfax at this very minute. A shipload of young people suffer a terrible accident and, under the temporary command of another cadet, manage not only to get themselves rescued but make a daring attempt to save their ship. Who is going to court-martial the dashing hero of this story? Starfleet? Fat chance." As he spoke, his words took on a more sarcastic twang. "Why, this will probably be next year's award-winning holo movie."

Scott laughed at Lawson's expression, then sobered. "What about you? After all, you were in command, even if you let me make the decisions."

"Mmm, yes. If I'm lucky, I'll get a board of ex-ship officers, and my lawyer will use plain logic to get me off. Maybe I should look for a Vulcan lawyer," he added in humorous aside. "Anyway, I plan on having insurance." Answering Scott's questioning look, he grinned wickedly. "I don't plan on wearing my bionic legs to court." He gave Scott a conspiratorial glance. "Wouldn't the press have a field day! Crippled officer court-martialed after saving ship of children. Don't worry. Starfleet and I will come to a compromise. Since I can't go to space again anyway, they will give me a cushy groundside position and I will give them public relations time. That's how it will go; nine-day wonder of the galaxy, a few commendations handed out, and then on to the next piece of sensationalism."

Scott sat a moment and mused that Lawson probably had it right. That left him only one other thing in the craw. Once again, Lawson proved his experience as an instructor.

"And you, Scotty, what does this leave you feeling?"

Scott's eyes took on a far away look. "I'm putting in for a transfer. To engineering."

Lawson sucked in his breath. "The brass won't like that. After this, they are going to be eager for you to stay in command."

"I swear I will never lose another ship that way," Scott grated out between clenched teeth. "No ship of mine will ever go down again!"

"That's up to you ... Engineer." Lawson's eyes were twinkling as Scott looked up startled. "After all, Scotty, why should you settle for reigning on the bridge when you can rule the decks below?"

The two men stared at each other, caught up in a brotherhood, their faces gradually relaxing in smiles. And Scott was once more firmly within the Scott tradition.