Henderson hates regulations as much as the next commander. Maybe even a little more, because the next commander might not fail the mandatory physical evaluation every year and have to do a month's Re-educational Jogging.

The regulation he hates most, at least during the other months, is the one requiring a weekly conference with the first officer to discuss what the handbook calls "the state of the ship."

On other ships, he imagines, it goes like this:

Captain: How's the ship?

First Officer: Excellent, sir. May I expression my admiration of your incomparable leadership? And by the way, the cadets are throwing a party in your honour.

This is not how it goes on HMS Camden Lock.

"No," Henderson repeats. "I won't jettison all the food preparation units out the airlock."

"But - "

"Hostile aliens have not sabotaged them in an attempt to undermine our morale and soften us up for conquest."

"All right," York says sulkily. Henderson knows, by now, to wait for the rest. And here it comes. "It could've been the Americans."

"No. Enn oh. NO. There's nothing wrong with the processors."

"But what about the asparagus?"

"Yeah, all right. That was a . . . a distressing incident."

Triumphant, York goes stiffly military and seems to get three inches taller.

"But," Henderson adds, "We traced that back to Cromartie's cloning experiment. Not aliens."

York deflates to his usual height. The trouble is, it's not even fun to watch. Henderson always feels a bit guilty. "You wouldn't let me flog him."

"I made him file all the paperwork he should've done in the first place. He's got to write reports for eleven different regulatory committees. Even a cat o'nine tails can't deliver that kind of pain."

"I never get to flog anyone." With a martyred sigh, York reaches for the last Tim Tam on the plate, which also happens to be the last of the stock Henderson imports at unbelievable cost and only serves at these bloody ridiculous meetings because he's nice, except York's incapable of recognising nice and probably doesn't like people being nice to him anyway because he's a miserable mad bastard.

Henderson takes the plate away and eats the Tim Tam himself. "I'll bet," he says around a mouthful of chocolate and that lovely malty biscuit, "I'll bet anything that Captain Helix never has to put up with this."

"That," York says, reaching for the teapot with the air of someone who didn't want another biscuit anyway, "is because Captain Helix is a fictional character. Who flies around the universe in a sentient time machine disguised as a garden shed. With no crew but that useless robot."

"Oi. I like Robot."

"Of course you do."

Somewhere in the regulations there's probably a bit about how sarcasm to the commander counts as mutiny. But Henderson still hasn't got that far, because he can never read more than a page of them without falling asleep. "What's your favourite episode?"

"I never thought about it."

"Well, think now, then."

York sloshes the lemon slice around in his teacup. "'Transmission," I suppose."

That's the one where Captain Helix has to blow up an entire planet to stop an intergalactic epidemic. Henderson's not much surprised, although on the other hand there is a lot of crying in it, not just pustules and antimatter mines. At least York didn't pick the episode where Robot dies. "Watched it lately?"

"No."

"Want to?"

"Commander, if neither of us is on the bridge, Teal is in command."

Which, even though Henderson's spine is comfortably propped against his chair cushion, does send a little shiver up it. But he doesn't give in to such base instincts. Commander Michael Henderson is not a coward. "Look, York, we're delivering a load of Christmas crackers and Stilton to New London 609. Not even the Sparrovian Space Pirates are going to bother with us. Absolutely nothing is going to happen."

York flinches, and Henderson starts counting down from sixty. Against all the laws of the universe as he knows them, he reaches zero without klaxons going off.

"Well." York's face does what it does when he's trying to smile. He can actually smile--Henderson's seen it--but not on purpose. "Why not?"

They move to the sofa and Henderson fires up the player. While trying not to watch the announcement about the various forms of death penalty imposed for the unauthorised reproduction of copyrighted material, Henderson finds himself looking at York's feet. York's feet are out of uniform. "Hey. You're wearing the shoes I gave you."

"Er - " York draws his feet back until they're almost under the edge of the sofa. "Yes."

"I thought you hated them."

"They're very comfortable."

"Brilliant. That's good, Eduardo, I'm - "

"Shhh." The screen has gone blank, the warning screams silent. The first quiet notes of the emCaptain Helix/em theme tremble in the air. "It's starting."