The Enterprise was at the end of a six day stopover at Starbase 17, less than an hour away from leaving orbit. With the shore leave parties beaming up, the starbase support and technical staff beaming down, and the normal hustle and bustle of starship life, the man clad in the uniform of a starbase computer officer had no trouble slipping away from the group with which he'd come on board. The starbase personnel, there to make some last minute adjustments to the food dispensers, paid no attention to him; they'd never seen him before. The Enterprise crew assumed he was with a starbase team, and, cloaked in anonymity, the man wandered the corridors, searching for a deserted room with computer access.

He found what he was looking for in a small social room on E deck. Aside from a reading teenager and a young woman occupied with a toddler, the room was empty. With a grin, the man seated himself at the terminal and began to call up files.

About twenty minutes into his work, there was a tap on his shoulder. Startled, he looked up into the face of the teenager he'd noticed upon entering the room.

"Excuse me," the boy said politely. "What are you doing?"

"What does it look like I'm doing?" the man countered, a smile taking the sting out of his words.

"It looks like you're reviewing the ship's blueprints and flight plans, and that you've also called up personnel files," the boy said, with complete accuracy, "but I didn't think we were scheduled for a full review of the computer's functions until we hit Space Station Edo."

"And you just happen to know the schedule for computer maintenance? Look, kid, shouldn't you be in class or something?"

The teenager suppressed a sigh of exasperation. "Actually, I do know the maintenance schedule. My name is Wesley Crusher and I'm an acting ensign on the ship. My duties--"

"Oh, come on!" The man's face split into a grin. "Do I look that gullible? You can't be more than 16! How would a kid like you become an ensign, let alone assigned to a ship like the Enterprise?"

"I'm 17, and really, it's true," Wesley insisted. "My mother is the Chief Medical Officer, and I was made an acting ensign. I'm sort of advanced for my age," he added diffidently.

"I don't believe it."

Wesley sighed. "Computer, identify my voice print and display image and current assignment."

"Crusher, Wesley. Acting Ensign, USS Enterprise. Current duties: navigator. Current coursework: Multivariable--"

"Enough!" The man gazed at Wesley in astonishment. "You're the ship's navigator? My God, kid, do you have any idea how many full-fledged Starfleet officers would kill for that posting? You must be pretty hot stuff!"

Wesley squirmed. "About the computer -- "

"Oh, right. I'm Jake Bennet, and you're right, there's no computer maintenance scheduled. But I was just transferred to the ship and figured I might as well get acquainted."

"Wouldn't the Quartermaster's Office -- "

"They'll help, but I prefer finding things out on my own. Know what I mean?"

"Yes," Wesley said uncertainly, "but -- "

"Besides, I'll be working in the Quartermaster's Office, so there's no reason I can't process some of my own paperwork, is there?"

"You work in the Quartermaster's Office?" Wesley echoed in disbelief.

"Yeah. Why?"

"Uh.." Wesley looked the man over. A brawny six footer, with long hair tied in braids and two earrings in his left ear, Bennet looked less like a clerk than almost anyone Wesley could imagine. Even the starbase uniform seemed slightly out of kilter with the man, although it fit perfectly.

Bennet grinned, as though he knew what Wesley was thinking. "Appearances can be deceiving, huh, kid?"

"Wesley," Wesley said firmly. "Um, well, Lieutenant--"

"Jake."

"Jake. If I can help show you around or anything -- "

Bennet winked. "You can show me where the ship's ladies like to hang out."

Wesley blinked. "Ten Forward always seems pretty crowded," he offered hesitantly.

"Great! Let me just assign myself a cabin -- " with two strokes it was accomplished " -- and lead on!" Bennet clapped Wesley on the shoulder and began to sing an ancient Earth tune; fortunately, the song was in French, a language Wesley didn't understand, as the lyrics were more appropriate for a spaceport tavern than a Federation starship.

Wesley found himself liking the exuberant man. "What kind of song is that?"

Bennet broke off in mid-note. "One that's guaranteed to get you arrested in any Parisian bar," he answered with a wicked grin.

"You've been to Paris? On Earth?"

"The same," Bennet confirmed. "Have you?"

Wesley shook his head. "I've only visited Earth once, and that was a long time ago. What's it like?"

"Well, kid, to be honest, I visited Paris in the company of a young lady -- or was it two? -- and so I didn't see too many of the sights. But the room service is excellent."

Wesley returned Bennet's grin. "Captain Picard is from France, you know. Maybe he'll recognize the song."

Bennet roared with laughter. "Even if he does, he probably won't admit it! And don't you go asking him, Wesley! My philosophy is to avoid Bridge crew whenever possible."

"What about me?" Wesley asked reasonably.

"I'll make an exception in your case...and in the case of any attractive female Bridge crew!"

"Troi is very pretty, and she's also a really nice person," Wesley said.

"Oh? Tell me more."

"She's pretty busy as ship's counselor, but -- "

"Counselor? Never mind!"

"Why?" Wesley was puzzled. "She's very -- "

"No counselors or telepaths, Wesley. They give me the shivers." Bennet shrugged. "No good reason. I just avoid them."

"You can't be xenophobic, not if you're in Starfleet," Wesley said, trying to understand, "so what -- "

"I like to keep my secrets secret, kid."

Wesley wasn't sure whether that was Bennet's explanation of his dislike of telepaths or a strong hint to drop the subject, but as they were at Ten Forward, the matter was discarded anyway. Wesley introduced Bennet to a few people he knew, then excused himself and reported for duty, never dreaming he had just lent public legitimacy to the claims of a deadheading rogue.

Jake Bennet was no Quartermaster's clerk, nor was he a starbase programmer. His career had been long and checkered, but at present he was engaged in what was popularly termed "deadheading". Starfleet referred to it by an older term: "stowing away". Deadheading, or sneaking aboard a ship and letting it carry you to its next destination, had for centuries been a problem for merchants and cruise ships. For the most part, however, Starfleet ships were immune to the problem since few were crazy enough to try to hide aboard a ship that might sail into battle at any moment.

The traditional deadhead also tended to skulk around cargo bays, staying out of sight. Bennet was doing no such thing. He did avoid Bridge crew, who would know that no transfer had been authorized, and telepaths, who could discover his deception, but his social life was hardly impaired by these self-imposed limits.

Perhaps most indicative of the man's iconoclastic nature was his violation of the deadhead's most sacred tenet: never do anything helpful; it might be seen as an attempt to pay for your passage.

While Bennet was not so foolhardy as to report for duty, to the Quartermaster's or anywhere else, he did prowl around the computer, straightening glitches and streamlining programs. He also developed stunning new adventures for the holodeck, which he made available for general use, and even taught the bartenders of Ten Forward some potent new recipes.

Bennet also kept in touch with Wesley and, through him, met Geordi LaForge. Bennet felt comfortable with LaForge because the Chief Engineer wasn't primary Bridge crew, and, besides, he was dying for someone with whom he could talk shop.

Bennet was deadheading out of necessity, not desire. A slight miscalculation some time back had separated him from his ship and sent him fleeing for cover. After deadheading through six star systems, he had landed on Starbase 17, remaining there for nearly a month. Now he was confident that he had eluded his irate pursuers, and he was trying to return to where he had stashed his ship.

A polite term for Bennet might be "merchant", but "freebooter" would be more accurate. Whatever else he was, though, he was also an adept engineer. Although he had had no formal training, incessant tinkering had taught him much, and his ship's engines had been customized to the point where their original designer would never have recognized them. The modifications had saved Bennet's life more than once, but his constant puttering with them was more a labor of love than a calculated plot to improve his chances in a confrontation.

The opportunity to chat with a Galaxy-class starship's chief engineer was too good to pass up and, far from declining the introduction, Bennet pressed Wesley for it. For his part, LaForge was happily surprised at the extent of Bennet's engineering knowledge, albeit informally couched. His sunny spirit warmed to Bennet's boisterous bonhomie, and the two were frequently seen crouched over a table in Ten Forward, furiously debating designs... often joined by several female engineers.