Cadet Montgomery Scott wiped the sheen of sweat off his brow as the exam continued. The equations glowed on the screen as he struggled to make sense of the tensor space-time equations. They seemed to mock him, as he tried again and again to make the data fit. Then he saw it! There was a tiny wiggle in the quantum feedback stream. By adjusting for that time lag, the data fell into place, the equation smoothly fit to the data. He put the pen down in satisfaction, just as the timer sounded.

"Gentlemen and ladies, pens down if you please! Time's up!" The gruff test monitor cast his eyes over the group of men and women arrayed before him. He chuckled inside seeing the looks of dismay as the struggling engineering students gave in to his entreaty. All look beaten and worn out. All but one, that is. A dark haired cadet was sitting there with a delighted look on his face. Oh, yeah. Him. "Scott! What are you looking so smug about?"

Scotty turned his grinning face to the man. "Why, that was easy! Give me a hard one, sir!" There was nothing quite like needling the instructors. The rest of the class groaned aloud.

The instructor tried not to react to the provocation, but was not entirely successful. "We shall see, Mr. Scott. We'll see how you do! Perhaps red marks will cover your test!"

The still smiling student rose to his feet. "Do your worst, sir. Do your worst." Then he followed his classmates out of the exam room.

"Why do you always have to do that, Scotty?" The questioner was a trim blonde woman, barely rising to his armpits. Her name was Amanda Hawker, and she liked Scotty; a lot. But he could be so irritating at times.

"Amanda, you canna' let them think that they can best us. It's like dealing with wild animals. Never show 'em fear."

"Scotty, one of these days that will get you tossed out on your ear."

"Me? Tossed out? Nay. It will be me doing the tossing, someday. Now how about some coffee?"

Amanda looked at her schedule. "Sure, just have to check on something. I'll meet you down in the Café in a few minutes."

Scott headed down the hallway, past other students commiserating with one another after that killer exam. He waved to a few, although most refused to meet his face. He knew why. Part was envy and part was jealousy. He'd been given a big boost by the commendation that Captain Larsen of the

USS Grizzly had heaped on his shoulders after his field assignment. That boost had translated itself into renewed vigor in his studies, and he was busting the curve in every class this term. Whistling a jaunty tune he passed his classmates on his way to the turbolift.

He entered the Star Café across Harriman Square from the main Academy buildings. The Star Café dated before the very beginnings of Starfleet Academy it was said. Its worn booths and tables had a homey atmosphere, one that years of students had used well over the years. He blinked as he entered the dim-lit room. He surveyed the packed room, now filling with students blowing off steam.

"Scotty! Get over here! I just heard you stuck it to old Walters again!" A red-haired cadet waved to him from a booth.

He put on his best smile and joined the group. Here were his best friends. Ja'Tokk, a Thokka from Omnos, smart and witty Tom Rathburn, scowling Rick Wickwire, the elegant and cool Juana Mantilla, and the red-haired Edward Jenkins. He slid into the booth. "Aye that I did. Laddies and lassies you have to let those codgers know that they work for us. It's their job to educate us. So why not let them know how good a job they've done?"

Rathburn interjected. "But man, if you keep zinging them like that, some day it might backfire." His dark skinned face took on an ominous look. "Maybe you need to lighten up. You weren't like this last year. When did you get so cocky?"

"Scott, haven't you figured out that they get back at all of us? Not just you. I'll bet that Walters is grinding his grading axe at this very moment." Rick Wickwire was just getting worked up. He cleared his throat. "I studied until the very last minute, and I still couldn't get it all in. I'll bet you got done in time too!"

"Yes, I did Ricky. I was prepared." He smiled at Wickwire, knowing that this conversation was heading downhill. "Did you not see that on that last problem it was a setup? All you had to do was…" He was interrupted by Amanda Hawker breezing in and dropping down on the seat next to him.

"Scotty, pulleeze don't tell us how you figured it out. I know that I didn't get to the last problem, and I'm pretty certain that you're the only one that did. So don't rub it in." She was right of course, so Scotty promptly clamped his mouth shut. He signaled to the barista who gave him a nod and started on his usual order.

Jenkins took a pull of his mug then slammed his hand on the table. "I barely squeaked through my Basic Warp Theory last term, but I think I really aced the exam in Advanced Concepts this time! And if I don't do well, I suppose Starfleet can always use some good Maintenance Engineers on Pluto Station." He shrugged as if to say "Oh well."

They all nodded in agreement, casting regretful looks at each other.

Ja'Tokk shook his large shaggy head and pressed his scaly hands to his face. "Friends, I fear that this will be my last term here. You know that my grades have not too high, and my first-mother has requested a copy of my grades. So, knowing what they are likely to be, I will be working at Pot-thad in a few weeks, I fear."

Juana Mantilla leaned over the table and took his elbow in her hand. "Ja'Tokk, come on. It can't be that bad, can it?"

"Oh yes, it will be Juana, my human friend. Pot-thad is not that bad as most syndicates go. My eldest half-brother will have a special job for me there, I am certain. Our family has owned the Pot-thad business for nearly eighty cycles, so I would gladly work there with some pride, but it is not Starfleet. But the asteroid mines in our system are very bad places to be. Too much radiation and heat being so near our sun. My first-mother made it very clear that there I would be working, if I do not graduate this term. This is my second chance in a fourth year here. So this is likely to be my end at Starfleet."

"Technically, we're not yet in Starfleet yet." Amanda looked at Scotty sitting next to her and gave him a non-verbal cue for help. "Give the grades a chance to be posted. Ok?"

Scott got the message and waded into cheer up their friend. "Ja'Tokk, if it comes to that it will work out. Why the things you have learned here will help you out, all of us, no matter what comes."

"Oh, like scraping corrosion off plasma tubes. Right," he said, sarcasm dripping from his lips. "Most fun I've ever had." He coughed a few times. "Man, I cannot get rid of this cough."

"You didn't enjoy your time aboard the Intrepid?" Hawkins rolled her eyes. They had all heard it too many times.

"No, I did not. I'd thought I'd get useful experience on a real starship. But no! I was stuck with the lowest, scummiest, details they could find. And that Chief! There wasn't a moment in eight weeks I could call my own."

Juana Mantilla cleared her throat. "Rick, not every posting is so great. You did get out to Epsilon Indii, didn't you? Must have been neat to see some Andorians. At least you got out of Sol system. I was stuck on a rundown old Ranger, the Puma. We ran around for six weeks, while System Defense Command used us for target practice. It was not so much fun. She was a rust bucket and the crew was old and worn down. But I did get the chance to oversee power systems a few times, even sat watch with the Chief Engineer twice. It wasn't that bad. But I sure wish we'd gone somewhere."

"Yeah we did pick up some Andorians on a scouting trip, but they didn't seem too friendly. But, Juana weren't you part of a war game? That must have been something." Rick was all ears now.

"Yeah, on the Puma we spent nearly all the time jumping from Yellow to Red Alert and back again. Didn't get a decent meal for days. All at a measly warp five too. Meanwhile we got buzzed by every attack craft in the sector. Tough being a low and slow target, you know?"

Scotty broke in and spoke softly. "I heard a wee bit of scuttlebutt that every Ranger might be getting a warp upgrade soon. I don't think they'll be poking around at warp five much longer."

Juana's ears went to full sensor sweep. "Wherever did you hear that?"

"Oh, I don't know." He looked at the clock on the wall. "Look at the time. Have to go!" Scotty jumped up and left, keying his ident at the door to deduct the coffee from his allocation.

Jenkins yelled. "Hey, Scotty!" but he was out the door. "Why did he take off so quickly?"

Hawkins sat bolt upright. "Don't know. He hasn't talked too much about his deployment. Wasn't he on the Grizzly? Isn't she a Ranger?" She sensed that something had happened out there, but what?