Memories Part 1: The Gathering

Chapter 36

Author's note: Chapters One thru Six of the companion story A New Day Dawns (Found on AC's Corner Cafe) are highly recommended for your reading to make the events in the following chapters more understandable.


Two Days Later, Starfleet Headquarters, San Francisco, CA.

Noah and Caleb stood nervously next to Cory, waiting to be called in. Just as they were finally settling in to their new home, Cory received the summons to come to see Admiral Morrow yesterday. For some unknown reason, Cory had insisted that the two boys be with him for the meeting.

"Ensign Short, the Admiral will see you and your party now."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Cory replied. He walked through the immense door into the Admiral's office, followed closely by Noah and Caleb. Cory walked to the front of Admiral Morrow's desk and came to attention. Cory saluted as he said "Ensign Cory Short, reporting as ordered, Sir."

"At ease, Ensign. Due to the nature of today's discussion, I would like to keep this meeting informal. Why don't you introduce your companions, then have a seat while we wait for the rest of the guests to arrive?"

Cory smiled. "Thank you, Sir. On my left is Noah Barnes, and on my right is Caleb Barnes. Guys, this is Admiral Harrison Morrow, the Commander-in-Chief of Starfleet."

After the three boys took a seat, Admiral Morrow asked "Cory, may I inquire why you thought it necessary to bring Noah and Caleb to today's meeting?"

"Well, Sir, they both assisted me in troubleshooting the software and designing the repairs to the code. Due to them being so much help, I figured they deserved to be here to receive credit for their work."

The Admiral smiled at the two blushing boys. "In that case, the two of you should be very proud of yourselves. I'm not sure if you know this, but Cory is considered one of the top ten Engineers in Starfleet already. There are cadets who would give up their commissions to work with him on a project. You have received quite an honor." He then focused on the now-blushing Cory. "Cory, there's no need to blush. The Starfleet IT Department is using your code modifications in all of our training software; after the magic you worked on the Enterprise, as soon as it arrived this morning it went into production - without testing. It seems that Space Sim was not the only software with the security holes in it. Your patches are being applied to all of the outsourced software and some of our own internally developed software. Once everyone else is here, we'll discuss it further. What is the latest on those two boys from California?"

Cory relaxed at the change of subject. "Well, Sir, we know for certain that they are en route to Des Moines to contact Federation Youth Services. I have Clan Security on a 24-7 watch on them, and we are prepared to extract them at a moments notice if deemed necessary. I've already told Mom that the Clan is taking them under Safe Haven; she's prepared to do the honors as soon as they arrive."

"Who will be listed as their parents?"

"Actually Sir, nobody. They will get the same guidance from the adults as the rest of the kids, but their guardianship will be listed as Clan Short. As such, no legal proceedings can be brought against them for the actions that were required for them to escape. Sean and Aaron handle our legal affairs, and both of them have already got it set up so nobody on Earth can touch them."

Admiral Morrow smiled and shook his head in wonder. "You know something Cory? Every time I talk to you, you sound more and more like a man I respect like no other - Ambassador Sarek. I feel sorry for any being that crosses either one of you; they don't have a chance."

Just then the intercom on the Admiral's desk chimed. "Admiral; Captain Kirk and Captain Spock to see you, Sir."

"Send them in."

Cory jumped up and came to attention facing the door, followed a split second later by Caleb and Noah. Once Kirk and Spock were done with their official greetings to the Admiral, Cory saluted. "Welcome back, Captain."

Kirk grinned as he returned the salute. "Thank you, Ensign. I appreciated your homecoming gift!"

"Thank you, Sir!" Cory replied before dropping the salute and turning to Mr. Spock. Cory raised his hand in Vulcan greeting, his actions being mirrored by Noah and Caleb. "Welcome back, Captain Spock. I hope that your latest travels were successful."

Mr. Spock raised an eyebrow at the two boys with Cory before returning their greeting. "It was as expected. May I inquire as to the identities of your companions and the logic behind their presence?"

Unsure of the boy's positions, Cory described them as he introduced them. "As you wish, Sir. The young man with blond hair behind me is Caleb Barnes, and the young man with brown hair is Noah Barnes. Both are Clan Short members who have been added since your departure. Noah and Caleb assisted in the debugging and repairs to the Space Sim software, and share equal credit with myself as to the finished product."

Mr. Spock nodded his head once. "Your decision to include them in this meeting is acceptable. I have reviewed the results of your work and found it to meet the expected standards. You may continue introductions, Mr. Short."

Cory nodded his head before motioning the two boys to join him at his side. "Noah, Caleb; I'd like you to meet my Commanding Officer, Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise."

Kirk stepped forward and shook both boys hands. "It's great to meet you guys; you've got to be pretty special to keep up with Cory on the computers! Just call me Uncle Jim, the rest of the kids do."

Both boys were awestruck as they shook Kirk's hand. Caleb was the only one able to speak. "WOW! Cory never told us we'd be meeting y'all! This is awesome!"

Kirk chuckled. "Just wait, Sean don't know it yet, but he's bringing all of you up to the ship tomorrow! I'm sure Scotty is going to want to meet you two."

Both boy's grins showed their acceptance of the news. Cory then turned to Mr. Spock, and as Noah and Caleb turned they both became serious. Cory again did the introduction. "Noah, Caleb; it is my honor to present to you Captain Spock, First Officer and Science Officer on the USS Enterprise and son of Ambassador Sarek."

Noah stepped forward. "Mr. Spock, I speak for my brother as well as myself in stating it is an honor to make your acquaintance. We are honored that you found our work acceptable. I believe you will find the details of the problems most interesting."

Spock raised both eyebrows. "I shall await your report then, Noah. May I inquire as to the length of time you have resided with Clan Short?"

Noah nodded. "We have been residing at our new home slightly in excess of seventy hours, Sir."

"Your grasp of proper communication skills is unusual for that time frame. My father will find my report to him on your progress very interesting."

Kirk interrupted the conversation. "Okay Spock, you can stop torturing the boys now! Admit it, they impressed you!" He turned to Cory. "Cory, one of these days you're going to do something that DOESN'T surprise me!"

Cory grinned at Kirk. "No way, Sir! I promised Scotty that I'd keep you on your toes!"

Kirk shook his head. "For some reason I believe you! Let's get this over with before you cause any more gray hairs."

Admiral Morrow chuckled. "Hold on, Jim. There's one more guest coming; Cory is planning on having some fun."

As if on cue, the intercom dinged. "Admiral, a Mr. William Gates to see you."

The Admiral motioned everyone over to the conference table before replying. "Send him in, then hold all my calls until further notice."

"Aye Sir."

As everyone took their places around the table, the Admiral met Mr. Gates at the door. He escorted him to the table, then once they were seated began the introductions. "Everyone, this is Bill Gates, head of Microsoft. Mr. Gates, let me introduce our companions. To my left is Captain James T. Kirk, Commanding Officer of the USS Enterprise. Next to him is Captain Spock, Science Officer on the USS Enterprise. To my right is Ensign Cory Short, Engineers Assistant on the USS Enterprise and Patriarch of Clan Short of Vulcan. To his right is Noah Barnes, Clan Short IT Security and Caleb Barnes, also Clan Short IT Security. I will be quite honest, the details of the report I received are Greek to me, so I'm going to turn this over to Mr. Short."

"Thank you, Sir." Cory said as he stood and walked over to the display on the wall. "Mr. Gates, we discovered a flaw in the retail versions of Space Sim that allowed them to uplink to a Starfleet ship's computer. Upon comparison of the retail code to the classified Starfleet specific code, we found you in contract violation. To be exact, we found that both contained the same code with a weak lock placed on the retail version."

Gates interrupted Cory. "Listen kid, you have no idea about contract law, so give it up. Besides, if you decompiled the retail version I'm filing charges; we only gave Starfleet rights to their code."

Cory held up his hand to stop the Admiral from responding, then went into Vulcan mode as he replied. "Mr. Gates, it is apparent that you have been given insufficient information. The code in question is considered a Starfleet security breach, as such it is open for inspection. The standard Starfleet software license requires access to all associated code whether retail or custom; it is a non-revocable clause in a contract your company signed. Additionally, if you continue on your present course of action, there is a high probability that you will leave here with no company to be head of."

Mr. Spock spoke as Cory paused. "Mr. Gates, I concur with Mr. Short's hypothesis. I place the chances of your company being bankrupt at 98% if you continue with this illogical emotional outburst."

Gates looked at the Admiral for help. "What's the deal here?"

Admiral Morrow shook his head. "I hate to tell you this, Bill, but Mr. Short is one-hundred percent right. Both he and Mr. Spock are referring to a ruling by the Federation Council. By contract, you should have already lost everything due to the amount of flaws found; the fines are on a per-incident basis. Mr. Short requested that you be given a fair hearing to discuss the problems found and assess where the fault lay. Before you leave today, the five gentlemen with us will decide on their recommendation to the Council as to your fate. Of those five, four will decide using logic only, so you better pay attention."

The anger on Bill Gates face disappeared, and was replaced with shock, then fear, then resignation. He turned back to Cory and spoke. "Mr. Short, it appears I was out of line. Please continue."

Cory nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Gates. We found one flaw that seems to be common across multiple software platforms; unfortunately Space Sim did not lock it out properly in the retail code. I am going to display the code snippets for the areas we found; Noah was in charge of error tracking and will describe the implications of each problem."

Cory brought up the first frame, and Noah took over the commentary. "This segment is where the software connects to Starfleet servers to access the DNS for Fleet ships. The retail version should have had this code stripped out, instead it was locked out by using false ship names. If the name of an actual ship was forced into the program, it was able to access the ship's training database. We found that by removing this code and all calls for it that program speed increased three percent. We developed a modified access code that is more secure; it only adds a one percent overhead."

An hour later, Noah finished with the last slide. "As you can see, by your programmers leaving in the Starfleet code there was serious unneeded overhead in the retail version. You will notice that we did not show you the repaired code; some of it is for Starfleet eyes only. Caleb will discuss with you what your options are at this point."

Caleb stepped up. "Computer; begin logging."

"Logging activated."

Caleb turned to Gates. "We had our Clan legal department review your contract. Forty-eight of the flaws we found were in direct violation of the contract terms; each copy you have made of Space Sim is subject to a fine for each of those flaws. As such, the total of your projected fines exceeds Microsoft's estimated value considerably. Due to the fact that a portion of those flaws have been found in other manufacturer's software in a lesser degree, we have developed a more logical solution to this issue. We will provide you with a clean copy of Space Sim; all the offending code has been removed, and we repaired a few bugs that have slipped through your programmers as well. You will make this copy available for download immediately at no charge, and will distribute it to anyone who calls in for it on appropriate medium for no fee. Don't require proof of ownership; this needs to get out to the hackers as well as legit customers. You will turn over all existing code to Starfleet and use this as your base code for the next version. In thirty days, we will make a modification to a certain address Noah did not show you that all of the existing copies try to access. Once they access that address, the software will be disabled and a notice will appear on their screen giving the address to download the replacement version and the phone number to call to get a hard copy. You will need to keep the download and hard copies available for one year, even if you release a newer version before then. If you agree to this route, all you have to do is figure out the excuse you are going to use for needing to do this; if you pick the right one you might actually pick up some customers on your next version."

Gates looked around the table. "Considering the alternative, I really don't have much choice. Does anyone have any ideas on how we can pull this off?"

Cory smiled. "You would have to get the Admiral's permission, but I think that you could play it off pretty easily. There are two copies on the disk we'll give you; one is just 2004 stripped of all the code, while the other is marked as 2005 with quite a few enhancements. We looked at all of the areas that annoyed us as players, and worked out the bugs in them. In addition, we were able to insert the code giving the retail version voice capability. Personally, I'd make an announcement that a hacker had managed to access the retail copies and install a spy worm into the program; then in the same announcement state that Starfleet programmers assisted you with completion of the 2005 version and verified the access point was closed. Make it sound like you are distributing 2005 for free because you are concerned about your customer's privacy; you might even consider free full version displays at major retailers to make sure it gets out. We've already taken care of the hacked software distribution sites; they all have the edited 2004 version now. Oh, one thing Caleb forgot; from now on you will only develop the retail version, the copies Starfleet gets from you will be internally modified to meet Simulator requirements. You will still be provided the information you need for new classes of Fleet ships to add them to the base program."

"I like that idea; I think it will work great! Admiral, give me about a week to find out exactly who approved the code being left in like that; even though Cory is offering my company a chance, I would prefer to turn the responsible party over to you for further action. Despite the rumors in the IT industry, I don't approve of sloppy software. It looks like it's time for me to do some overdue house cleaning, and then stop everything and review every line of code in all of our products. I busted my tail to build this company, I'm not about to lose it because someone got lazy."

Admiral Morrow nodded his head. "As long as you put it the way Cory suggested, I'm fine with you distributing the 2005 version that way. I think we're about done. Gentlemen, I need your recommendations to pass on to the Council. Caleb?"

Caleb looked up. "Mr. Gates suggested that it might be a breakdown in management that caused this. I'm okay with leaving it at this as long as he is able to provide a verifiable area where the problem occurred and can prove that it is fixed."

Noah went next. "I agree with Caleb, as long as something is in place so this doesn't repeat. If it does happen again, the fines should be automatic without appeal."

Cory took his turn. "I believe we should follow the outlined agreement. Admiral, I do think that a fixed time line needs to be set by you; and it needs to be non-negotiable."

Admiral Morrow turned to the other side of the table. "Mr. Spock, your opinion?"

"I find the statements made by Clan Short to be acceptable. The economic impact of dissolving the company makes that option illogical; the alternative developed by Clan Short lessens economic impact while still providing appropriate discipline for the transgressions of the employees."

Kirk looked around the table before answering. "Well, I think the Clan's got it all handled; the only thing I can think of is making it so that they review all future releases of any software which might contain Starfleet code before the software can hit the streets. As a third party, maybe they can keep this from happening again."

To everyone's surprise, Bill Gates spoke up. "Excellent idea, Captain. I'd be happy to agree to that; it protects both parties that way, and the code is secure with them."

Admiral Morrow stood up. "Gentlemen, since we are all in agreement, I will pass this on to the Council for approval. They are in session now and awaiting my call, I shall return shortly."

Fifteen minutes later, Admiral Morrow returned. "The council has approved the arrangements. Bill, hang around; we need to set up a schedule. The rest of you are free to go."

Cory walked up to Bill. "Mr. Gates, here's the master for you to distribute. This other one has the same thing as the master along with the modified 2004. I would suggest not letting your programmers even know that you have it until it's locked in to where they can't touch it; we closed off almost all of their back doors too. It appeared that each team installed their own back door, their were about 40 of them total. We left the QA doors and your personal door, all of the rest are gone."

Bill chuckled. "No problem; but I'll bet you installed one for yourself."

Cory giggled. "No need to, we've got yours! You did a good job of hiding it, so we'll just use it. Just let us know if you change it."

"Will do!" Bill replied. He then spun in shock as Caleb gave him a serious swat on the behind. "What was that for?!"

Caleb grinned as he replied "Windows ME - need I say more?"

Bill chuckled. "You're the first person with enough ba ... guts to literally spank me for that mess! You are definitely going to go far with that attitude, young man. Don't ever change it!"

Mr. Spock looked over from where he was getting his report from Noah. "Mr. Gates, am I correct in my observation that you consider corporal punishment a suitable recourse for production of inferior software?"

Bill smiled as he replied. "Considering the programmers seem to be getting younger every year, it might not be that far-fetched of an idea, Mr. Spock."

Both of Mr. Spock's eyebrows went up as he returned to his discussion with Noah. Once they were finished, Cory said their farewells. Fifteen minutes later, they beamed back into the front hall at home.

The three boys headed into the Rec Room to see what was going on. Cory was about three feet inside the doorway when Timmy noticed him and came flying across the room.

"DADDY! YOU'RE HOME!" Timmy yelled as he pounced Cory.

Noah and Caleb saw Timmy coming, and managed to brace Cory to keep him from falling as Timmy slammed into his chest.

Cory giggled at the squirming boy in his arms. "Hey rug-rat; did'ja miss me or something?"

Timmy purred as he molded himself to Cory. "Yeah Daddy; I was scared you wasn't comin' home."

Cory kissed Timmy on the cheek. "You can relax, little one. There's no way I'd let anything separate me from you and Pop; the two of you are what makes me smile whenever I wake up."

Timmy snuggled tight against Cory's chest. Cory walked over to where Sean was sitting at the terminal, leaned over, and gave Sean a quick kiss. "Hey Cutie; did you miss me too?"

Sean giggled. "Of course, silly! I was getting lonely without my favorite cuddle toy! How did the meeting go?"

"Pretty good; the patches were approved and Microsoft is going to distribute the reworked Space Sim. Noah and Caleb got to meet the Captain and Mr. Spock; you should have seen Noah discussing programming with Mr. Spock! Oh, dust off your pilot clothes, you're driving the tour bus to the Enterprise tomorrow."

Sean got suddenly serious. "Cor, please don't joke about that. I'm not ready to take responsibility for taking these guys into space. I care about all of them too much, if something happened I'd die."

Cory saw the fear in Sean's eyes. He quickly sat Timmy on the loveseat, then returned to Sean. Cory then pulled Sean to the loveseat also, guiding him onto his lap once he was seated. "Sean, babe, relax. Nobody is going to get hurt; Captain Kirk is the one who wants you to do it. You are qualified, and I trust you just as much as I trust Uncle Chip. This is the one thing that you can do that none of the rest of us can; you make me proud when I see you run through the practice courses on the simulator like they are nothing. You're the best thirteen-year-old pilot in the Federation; I think it's great that you get to show our new family why they call you that. You always tell everyone not to talk down about themselves; listen to your own advice bro."

Sean nuzzled Cory's cheek. "Yeah, I guess you're right. You gonna be my co-pilot?"

Cory smiled. "Naw, I think I'll let Matt do it. I'm not qualified yet, and I want to wait until you feel comfortable teaching me. Besides, this way I can handle all of the questions from the newbies so they don't bug you."

"You know, for a blond you're pretty smart!" Sean giggled.

"Yeah, and you don't do too bad yourself, considering you're a Helmsman!" Cory shot back with a chuckle.

Their cuddle was interrupted by Tommy shouting. "Holy Smoke! I ain't never heard no such thing! Bro's, git over here; y'all ain't gonna have no ideas guessin' what Justy's done found!"

Cory and Sean jumped up and ran to the computer terminal. Aaron arrived the same time they did; he took one look at the screen and grinned.

"Justy, could you print that? Make a few copies; I think Mom might be interested in this one." Aaron requested.

"Sure. Computer: print document, five copies. Execute."

A few seconds later, Justy handed two copies to Aaron. He gave Cory and Sean each a copy, and placed the last one on the growing pile of research that all of the boys had conducted. Cory glanced over the form, then looked back up at Justy. "Bro, we're gonna take Timmy and Ricky upstairs to explain this to them; could you and Tommy fill everyone else in while Aaron handles the adults?"

"No prob, Cor. This just explained a lot of things."

A few minutes later, Sean and Cory sat Timmy and Ricky down in the bedroom.

"Why's ev'ryone so 'cited, Daddy?" Timmy asked.

Cory smiled. "It's because we just found out something really special, lil' guy; something special about you and your friend DJ."

Both young boys perked up at the mention of DJ. "Did you figger out why he's talkin' to Timmy?" Ricky asked.

Sean giggled. "Not for sure, munchkin; but what your Uncle Tommy and Uncle Justy found helps us a lot to guess at how it's happening. You guys need to sit still and wait to ask questions until Cory finishes telling you about what we found, okay?"

Both boys nodded, then sat back holding hands while watching Cory expectantly.

Cory pulled a chair over and sat in front of them. "Timmy, before you were born, your birth Daddy used to work on experimental stuff for Starfleet. At the time, they were experimenting with what's called time travel; basically what they were trying to do was figure out how to go a short time into the past to prevent disasters like a ship blowing up or stuff like that. Your Daddy was supposed to be sent back thirteen minutes as a test; something messed up and he was sent back thirteen years. He had a tracking bug on him, but it took almost two years to find him by searching through the time lines. When they found him, a pre-arranged signal was triggered which told him that he would be transported back in five hours. When he came back to his normal time, he brought you back with him, Timmy. What it says here is that he had a job in California while he was waiting, and got a little too drunk at a New Year's party. It seems that he got one of his co-workers pregnant; nine months later you were born. Since your mommy was married to someone else, they made it look like you died in the hospital. They did that to protect you and your daddy; if anyone found out he was from the future there would be a lot of trouble. Also, if he had left you there it could have messed up what we know as reality today. You understand so far?"

Timmy nodded. "Yeah, kinda. That means I'm like Uncle 'Tonio, ain't I? I'm old but still a kid."

"You got it, kiddo. You grow normal, it's just that you will always be eleven years older than you look."

"Okay; but whaddabout DJ?"

"I'm getting to him, Gizmo. You see, your Mommy had another baby about a year after you were born. Your Daddy had already came back, so he didn't know about it. Starfleet prevented him from contacting her; they thought it would be best to keep separate just in case his return erased her memories of him being in the earlier time. To make it easy; DJ is your half-brother. I think that the two of you can "talk" because of that; kinda like the twins all do."

"KEWL! I gotta brother!" Timmy exclaimed excitedly.

Ricky gave Sean a confused look. "Pop, does that make DJ a big brother or a little brother?"

Sean giggled. "I don't know, Ricky. I guess you guys will just have to argue about it when y'all meet."

"Ya' think he's gonna like me, daddy?" Timmy asked in a suddenly subdued voice.

Cory reached forward and pulled Timmy onto his lap. "You know what, munchkin? I think he's gonna love you, just like all the rest of us do. You're an awesome little guy; anyone who don't like you has gotta be crazy."

Timmy gave a small smile and rested his head on Cory's chest. "I love you, Daddy."

Downstairs, Austin, Teri, Aaron, Tommy and Justy were sitting at the table discussing the latest turn of events.

Austin looked across the table. "Justy, how sure are you of this being accurate?"

Justy grinned. "Doc, if you knew where I found this at you wouldn't ask that! Let's just say the place where Starfleet has this stored requires a pretty high level of access just to know it's there. That printout is part of the official logs; lying on it would be grounds for Court Martial."

"Okay, if it's so secret, how did you find it?"

Justy looked up at the ceiling and shook his head. "Starfleet don't keep secrets from Vulcan, and Vulcans don't search for information unless it's necessary. As a Vulcan family member searching from a Clan headquarters, ANY information that matched my search was made available. I started this search last night; this was buried so deep that it took until today for it to be found."

Austin began to respond, but was cut off by Tommy. "Doc, I ain't meanin' to be rude, but y'all are a' whippin' a dead horse. It ain't makin' a lick of difference where Justy found it; I'm gett'n new kin, a nephew bigger 'en me. What's y'all's plan here? There ain't no way my bro can have a son that's grown same as him. It ain't right and ain't fair to DJ. Whaddabout Tanner; both 'dem boys need real kin to call their own, parents lettin' them know if they's slippin' the wrong way. Y'all's givin me new kinfolk, 'stead of floppin' like tadpoles let's git these boys their own kin too."

Aaron was in shock at Tommy's outburst. Teri just chuckled. "Oh, Aaron, I forgot to warn you; your little brother gets a mite bit excited at times. It seems to happen when he knows he's right from what I can tell."

Tommy turned bright red and stared at the table. "Sorry Mom; I didn't mean to be bad, please don't be mad at me." he sniffled. He jumped in his seat when Teri reached over for him, but relaxed somewhat when she pulled him onto her lap. "Please don't hit me, mommy." he whined.

Teri pulled him tight against her bosom and kissed his forehead. "Shhh, relax son; I will never hit any kid, especially one of my own sons. I have no reason to be mad at you; in your own way you told us what you thought needed to be done. We might need to work on your diplomacy a little bit, but I think everything you just said was absolutely correct." She sat and caressed his back for a few minutes until he was relaxed, then continued in a soft tone. "You know something? You sound a lot like one of your big brothers, Cory. I know that even when he was younger, whenever he spoke up like that he had an idea about how to fix the problem too. Do you have any ideas?"

Tommy replied just loud enough for Teri to hear him. "Yeah, but it's dumb, it ain't gonna happen."

Teri turned his head so she could kiss Tommy on the tip of his nose, then replied "The only way it can't happen for sure is if you don't tell us. It won't hurt to try."

Tommy looked around, he was shocked to see that Cory and Sean had joined them. "I guess so. Y'all promise not to laugh at me?"

"We promise, babe. Just look at me and let me know your idea."

"Well, I was kinda thinkin' that since Russ and Sara have been so good, maybe they'd like to have DJ and Tanner for kin; maybe they could help out somehow."

Teri gave Tommy a hug of encouragement. "There's nothing dumb about that idea, son. In fact, I think it's a great idea. Why don't we see if your brothers can make it work?" She looked up at the rest of the boys. "Well, guys, any comments?"

Sean looked at Cory. "I know that Sara's a nurse, but what about Russ?"

"I don't know either. What about you guys?"

Aaron shook his head, but then Justy's face lit up. "Oh yeah, Russ used to do some work as a sound mixer. Air-boy, you still planning to use that studio out back at the Ranch for your recordings?"

Aaron grinned. "You know, that's been one of the things holding me up from using it; finding someone to run the sound room that I approved of. It would be perfect if I had family to count on to run it."

Austin broke into the mix. "You know, since Sara's a nurse, maybe she could act as a liaison between me and Camp Little Eagle. It would make things easier for me and the Camp to have someone handle the day-to-day medical needs."

Teri looked back down at Tommy. "See what I meant? Not only did you have a good idea, but it's one that your brothers have already figured out how to make work. Doc Austin and I will do the next part, convincing them to do it. Thanks to you, Tommy, the boys could very well have another surprise coming. I'll start working on Russ and Sara as soon as I can talk in private to them. They called earlier and told me the boys were getting on a bus; they are supposed to call back tonight once they are safely off."

"I guess so." Tommy replied softly. "Whaddabout me bein' dis'spectful? I gotta be punished, ain't I? My old Mommy'd slapped me to next month if I'da done dat with her 'round."

Teri pulled Tommy back against her. "I need you to be honest, son. Did your old mom hit you a lot?"

Tears streamed down Tommy's face as he sobbed. "Yeah, all the time. Lotsa times she'd do it just cuz' she hadn't caught me doin' nothin'. She says I ain't gonna learn to be good without being punished."

Teri glanced around the table, and was surprised to see the looks of shock on Sean and Cory's faces. Guessing that she was in territory which they had no knowledge of, she continued carefully. "Tommy, you're a very strong young man, and very well mannered for your age. You've had a rough life from the sound of it; but instead of it bringing you down, you've developed into a fine young man. I know you loved your mom, but what she was doing was not punishment; it was abuse. You are my son now; like I said earlier, I do not hit my sons. I also don't believe in punishing them for expressing their opinions, as long as it's done in a constructive manner. I will admit you were a little rough about the way you went about it, but I understand where you were coming from. Adults are not perfect, Tommy; we make mistakes just like you do. If I hadn't listened to Sean and Cory, none of what you see around you would have happened. Today you followed in your new big brother's footsteps; you spoke up and are probably going to make a difference in two boy's lives who you've never met. Do you still think you need punished?"

Tommy turned his tear-stained face to Teri. "I guess ... if you put it that way ... you really ain't gonna treat me any different than Sean or Cory, are you?"

Teri smiled and kissed Tommy on the forehead. "No, son, I will never treat you any different. You can ask Adam and Tyler; they've been around longer than you."

A small smile crept onto Tommy's face. "I love you Mom!" he exclaimed as he threw his arms around Teri. "Y'all've made me feel special ever since I got here. I'd been wonderin' when it was gonna end; now I'm seein' it's for real. Thanks for puttin' up with me."

Teri giggled. "Silly boy; there's nothing about you to 'put up' with. You're twelve years old; you have a lot to learn and it's my job to help you learn it."

Cory walked over and put an arm over Tommy's shoulder. "You know, lil' bro, if you keep sittin' on mom's lap she's not gonna be able to get ready to talk to Russ and Sara. Why don't we hit the pool and let the old folks do their thing?"

Tommy got a mischievous look on his face. "Yeah, sounds great! We better hurry before they forget what they're 'posed to do! You know how old folks forget stuff."

Teri shifted her fingers under Tommy's armpits and tickled him. "Are you trying to say I'm forgetful, giggle boy? How's about I forget you're dressed and toss you in myself!"

Tommy wiggled free, then went around the back of Teri's chair, leaned over, and kissed her cheek. "Thanks Mom, you're the best!"

A few minutes later, Teri watched with pride as her boys led the troupe in tossing their clothes into the changing room and running out to the pool. Austin joined her as she walked over to the doorway and looked out at the playing boys.

"All of those boys are amazing!" Austin commented.

"That's the understatement of the century." Teri whispered. "I honestly love every single one of them. I thank God every night for bringing them into my life."

John and Dan had came up behind them. Dan placed an arm around Teri. "A little secret Teri; every night we hear them thanking God for you being here for them."

The adults watched the boys as they frolicked and cuddled in the pool area. After a few minutes, they turned with smiles on their faces and went inside to begin the process of augmenting their growing staff.