Throughout his career as a Voyager, Bogg had witnessed bloody battles, agonizing sieges, and all manner of hair-raising natural disasters. But nothing set his nerves on edge like sitting in Mission Control, watching as Jeffrey prepared to make his first solo Voyage since his standard timeline had been stabilized and the first safeguards around it set in place.
Every eventuality had been prepared for, Bryce and Beckett had assured him. Jeffrey had, in fact, been decked out with every retrieving device Research and Development had managed to come up with in the last few years.
"I'm carrying around more metal than Marley's ghost," the boy had told him earlier, with a crooked little smile.
"Never mind." Sighing, Jeffrey had taken his place in the chalk circle as Bogg had done several days before. He stood there now, fidgeting only slightly as the techs made their final adjustments to the launching program.
Bogg swallowed a lump in his throat that felt roughly the size of a golfball. The worst part was that this time he would not be permitted to accompany Jeffrey.
"We need to be sure that it's his coordinates we're picking up, not yours," Susan had explained apologetically. "But try not to worry, Phineas. We've got everything under control and if there's any sign of temporal distortion once he Omnies in, we'll pull him back right away."
Bogg had stifled his protests then, recognizing them as the knee-jerk reactions they were. Still, panic lay coiled under his surface calm like a rattler waiting to strike.
Olivia, standing beside him, reached out and gave his forearm a reassuring squeeze. Bogg managed a tight smile of response for her, then made the effort to send a wider one to Jeffrey who had glanced anxiously in his direction.
"I'll be okay," the boy mouthed at him silently and Bogg nodded acknowledgement, not wanting to communicate his fears to his partner.
"Jeffrey." Susan approached the younger Voyager. "We're almost ready. Remember," she added with a sideways glance at Bogg, "don't turn on your HGT until you've Omnied in. And turn it off before we bring you back."
"Ready!" Beckett called from behind the central processing unit. "Lock?"
"Lock," Bryce confirmed from his console. Looking up, he gave Jeffrey a nod and a thumbs-up. "You're good to go, Jones. Anytime you're ready."
Jeffrey nodded. "Here I go. See ya soon, Bogg," he added, raising his hand with the bright silver Omni clutched within his palm.
"See ya soon," Bogg echoed, feeling his stomach tie itself in knots as Jeffrey hit the switch and disappeared.
The seconds passed with agonizing slowness, then Bryce called out triumphantly, "We've got him!"
The whole room seemed to exhale along with Bogg. "Where is he?"
"Northwest Territory, 1866," Bryce reported. "Where Seattle, Washington's going to be someday. Green zone."
"Thank goodness for that," Susan said with a sigh. "Phineas, you can turn on your HGT now."
Relief made his fingers clumsy, but Olivia helped him don the headset while he adjusted the settings to correspond with Jeffrey's location.
The familiar rectangle of light appeared in the middle of Mission Control, to be occupied by Jeffrey a few seconds later.
Bogg felt his mouth stretch in a wide, relieved grin. "Hey, kid."
Jeffrey gave him an answering smile. "Hey, Bogg."
"Have a good trip?"
The boy nodded. "Real smooth. This sure is a cool Omni. How long before all Voyagers get one like this?"
"As soon as we get a few more kinks worked out," Susan responded from her own HGT. "There's still a lot of variation in field performance. Can you describe your surroundings now, Jeffrey?"
"I think I'm in a forest," he replied, looking around at what only he could see. "Tall trees, lots of green. And I can hear running water, not too far away. Smells good too," he added with an accompanying deep breath. "All clean and pine-y. Reminds me of some of the places I used to go camping."
"How do you feel?" Bogg asked.
"Pretty good. I'm not dizzy or disoriented this time."
"His life readings are stable," Bryce announced. "And there's no interference with the signal." He glanced at his screen. "He's been there about three minutes. Is he ready to come back now?"
Bogg relayed the question to his partner, who shrugged.
"Yeah, I think so. It's nice here but the sky's clouded over, like it's gonna rain any second."
"That's probably why everything's so green," Bogg remarked. "Okay, kid, we're gonna bring you home. Switch off the HGT."
"Got it." Jeffrey nodded and the rectangle of light winked out.
Seconds later, there was a blinding white flash just over the chalk circle and Jeffrey stepped out, grinning broadly.
Bogg crossed the room in a few swift strides and, heedless of his dignity or Jeff's, pulled the boy into a bear hug. Fortunately, Jeffrey didn't seem to mind and returned the embrace without reserve.
"You've got drops in your hair," Bogg observed, pulling back.
Jeffrey shrugged. "I told you it was gonna rain." He glanced over at Bryce. "So I can Voyage now, with Bogg?"
"Theoretically," the tech replied. "Give us a few more days to put the secondary safeguards in place. And we'd like to do another field test with you tomorrow--maybe ten or fifteen minutes."
"In the meantime," Susan said, coming forward, "you should go down to the infirmary and have the medics look you over, as a precaution."
"But I feel fine!" Jeffrey protested.
Bogg squeezed his shoulder. "Go anyway, just to make sure of it. We'll do something fun afterwards," he added.
"A picnic by the lake?"
"Deal," the boy agreed, after a judicious pause.
Bogg smiled and mussed his partner's hair. "I'll pick up the food while they're checking you out."
Jeffrey sighed but capitulated. Once he had stripped off all the retrieving devices and left Mission Control, Susan came up to Bogg, holding out a piece of notepaper.
"Phineas, Professor Garth wants to see us in his office. You too, Olivia," she added, nodding towards the other woman.
Bogg exchanged a surprised glance with Olivia. "Any idea what this is about?"
Susan shook her head. "I'm as much in the dark as you two. But I'm sure we'll find out soon enough."
"Come in, come in!" Professor Garth, looking slightly greyer than when Bogg had last seen him, ushered all three Voyagers into his office. "And do make yourselves at home," he added, gesturing towards the armchairs grouped in a half-circle before his desk.
Bogg waited until Olivia and Susan were seated before taking the remaining chair. To his relief, it was well-upholstered and sturdy enough to support a man of his size. He had seldom seen the inside of Garth's office but the atmosphere of practicality and plushy comfort was the same as he remembered.
"No doubt you're all wondering why you're here," Garth continued, sitting down behind his desk. "Well, there are a number of things I'd like to discuss with the three of you--most of them pertaining to the events of the last few days."
"You know what's been going on?" Bogg asked, leaning forward in his chair. "About Drake and the kid?"
The professor nodded. "Susan has kept me informed of the major developments. I apologize for my absence, but Academy business has taken up all my time until today. But I have read both of your reports on this matter, and now I should like to commend you all on the fine work you have done."
Bogg felt his face heating. Much as he appreciated the praise, he did not know what else he could have done, as a Voyager or as Jeffrey's guardian. And the way he'd had to leave things with the boy's parents haunted him still, and he suspected it always would to some degree. "It was nothing--"
"On the contrary, your actions saved not only Jeffrey but preserved an objective that has become vital to our survival and evolution as Voyagers." Garth looked around at them all and smiled. "Have any of you heard of Operation Prodigy?"
Bogg shook his head as did Olivia, but Susan spoke up after a moment. "Operation Prodigy? Wasn't that one of Dr. Hartnell's pet projects?"
"Indeed it was," Garth confirmed with a nod. "Operation Prodigy was the brainchild of Dr. Patrick Hartnell, the late head of Mission Control."
Garth was sliding back into lecture mode, Bogg observed. Not that he minded. After days of flying by the seat of his pants, relying on his instincts and Jeffrey's memories, it was a nice change to have things fully explained to him. And, unlike in his trainee days, he was prepared to listen to every detail, despite the enticing presence of not only Susan but Olivia in the room.
"Several standard years ago," the professor continued, "Dr. Hartnell submitted an important proposal to the Council of Voyagers. After due consideration, he was granted sufficient funding to modify the Omni's main search engine to locate possible candidates among children and adolescents."
Susan's brow wrinkled. "You mean, he wanted us to actively recruit children as Voyagers?"
"He did not propose this lightly nor did we approve this without serious reflection," Garth told her. "A Voyager's life is difficult and demanding, even for an adult. But history is often cruelest to the youngest and most vulnerable. Wars, disasters, epidemics, even random accidents all leave orphans and foundlings. And so many of those young lives are blighted by tragedy, never reaching their full potential. Do not these children deserve a chance? A future of which their circumstances would otherwise deprive them? And if they can be trained and educated to serve the greater good . . ." He sighed, took off his eyeglasses to polish them. "The idea was to instill respect for the Voyager Code in this new generation at an early age, in hopes that they would be more inclined to uphold it as adults."
"A class of junior trainees," Olivia mused, her expression thoughtful. "Tricky but the idea's not without its merits. Look at what Jeffrey's accomplished."
"I assure you, we have. Indeed, his appointment as a Voyager started it all. Or rather," Garth amended, "it set the seal on what had already started, right under our noses!"
"What do you mean by that?" Bogg asked, leaning forward in his chair.
"Jeffrey Jones was among the first to be located by the modified search engine."
Bogg blinked. "You mean, the Voyagers have had their eye on the kid all along, since before he was born?"
"Not quite that early," Garth corrected him. "But it so happens that many prospective Voyagers are monitored from the moment they begin to show certain--talents that would fit them for this calling. There was always a high probability that Voyager Jones would join our ranks one day and become a valued operative, though it seemed most likely that he would do so as an adult.
"Once he was orphaned, however, the probability rate increased exponentially, to the point where he became the test subject for Operation Prodigy. He met all the necessary criteria, being physically healthy, highly intelligent, and, despite the trauma of his bereavement, emotionally stable. And, of course, well-versed in history, because of his father's profession. The Omni's Central Processor ran several compatibility tests between his profile and those of various field agents, so that an appropriate mentor might be selected for him. And you, Voyager Bogg, were chosen for the task."
"Me?" Bogg was astonished. "I know you said before that I didn't end up in his room by accident, but . . . I was actually handpicked for this, from the start?"
Garth smiled again. "Don't look so surprised, my boy! Surely the success of your partnership with Jeffrey attests to the appropriateness of the choice."
Success. Well, Bogg supposed he and Jeffrey could consider themselves successful--they had carried out all of their missions to date, without serious or permanent setbacks. Even if they'd pulled off their first few assignments largely by trial-and-error--and most of the errors had been his, though he wasn't about to tell that to Garth.
"Dr. Hartnell's findings were compiled months before your first meeting with Jeffrey Jones," Garth resumed. "Owing to his unexpected demise, further funding for Operation Prodigy was suspended, and his successor evinced no interest in continuing it. So Hartnell's files were never presented to the Council--and Voyager Drake," Garth's voice took on a note of cold displeasure, "found and appropriated them for his own selfish purposes. He was unable to prevent the formation of your partnership, though, as you doubtless recall, he tried to undermine it in other ways. This latest attempt represents his most desperate gamble. And his least forgivable."
Bogg felt his mouth compressing in a hard line. "Yeah, I'd say attempted murder was pretty unforgivable."
"If apprehended, he will be prosecuted fully according to our laws," Garth assured him. "In light of his previous treachery, his sentence is likely to be the harshest ever imposed. He has not only attacked a valued member of the Voyager Order but attempted to undermine the Order itself through deliberate sabotage."
Bogg frowned, doing his best to process what he had just heard. "You mean, Drake was trying to destroy Operation Prodigy by eliminating Jeff?"
Garth nodded. "That is my theory, which is shared by the rest of the Council. Without Jeffrey and his successful adaptation to a Voyager's life and responsibilities, Hartnell's project would have been permanently scrapped and no child ever recruited or considered for recruitment."
"All those lives." Susan shook her head. "All that wasted potential."
"Fewer people to question," Bogg realized. "Fewer people to resist, when Drake made his next play for power."
Susan shivered. "I knew he had to have some grandiose scheme in mind."
"Pretty ironic, though," Olivia remarked. "By going after Jeffrey and his parents the way he did, Drake actually ensured that Jeffrey would be recruited years earlier than expected. The exact opposite of what he probably intended."
"Yes, quite ironic," Garth agreed. "A pity that innocents had to perish in the cause of one man's blind ambition."
"Call it a tragedy," Bogg said tersely. "Because that's what it was."
"Drake's crimes against William and Katerina Jones will be weighed in the balance once he is taken into custody. Of that I can assure you, Voyager Bogg." Garth sighed, looking much older for a moment, then added more brightly, "But on a much pleasanter subject, I meant to ask--how is young Jeffrey coping, now that his timeline has been stabilized?"
"Oh, he's fine," Bogg replied, feeling his own mood lighten. "He had his first solo Voyage today and came through it like a champ. In fact--we're hoping we can be back in the field soon."
Garth nodded. "I am sure that once the last safeguards are in place, the two of you can be on your way. But if I don't have the opportunity to speak to you before you leave, I wanted to share some thoughts with you about Jeffrey's future."
"Like what, exactly?" Bogg tried not to sound apprehensive--no easy task given the strain of his previous mission.
Garth held up a placating hand. "Nothing to cause alarm, my boy. For the time being, it's been decided that matters are best left as they are, as far as you and Voyager Jones are concerned. Jeffrey is learning much from you in the field, and you have given him the emotional stability that he needs. But," he added, "there will come a time, perhaps in two or three years, when he will need more formalized instruction, which he would receive here, at the Academy. You are welcome to return yourself, perhaps as an instructor, while he finishes his training. And you'll want to discuss all this with him first, of course."
Bogg relaxed, the momentary surge of panic he had felt over the thought of parting from Jeffrey subsiding at Garth's words. Still . . . "Me, teaching a class?" He shook his head at the unlikely image.
"Don't knock it 'til you've tried it, Phineas," Olivia advised. "You've got a lot of practical experience that could really help our trainees."
Bogg blinked at this unexpected accolade from her.
"Not to mention your work with Jeffrey," Susan added. "That would certainly come in handy, if we really are recruiting child trainees now."
Professor Garth nodded. "Operation Prodigy has been deemed a success, so there will certainly be other youngsters joining us soon. Voyagers like Jeffrey Jones are our future--and we will do all we can to protect that future and give it every chance to thrive."
Another afternoon by the lake, its clear blue tinted with ruddy gold. Jeffrey sat in what Bogg was coming to think of as his particular spot, staring out across the water. Pausing a few feet away, the older Voyager studied his partner. To his relief, the boy appeared pensive rather than sad or angry. But Bogg knew how deeply this recent ordeal had affected them both--it would take time for things to settle down again, for the renewed grief to lose its edge.
In the meantime, they had each other, which was no small comfort.
"Hey, kid!" he called, holding up the picnic hamper. "Medics throw you out already?"
Jeffrey looked up with a smile, shading his eyes with his hand. "They said I was good to go. What've you got there?"
Bogg strode over and set the hamper down. "A feast, according to the cafeteria manager. Fresh-squeezed lemonade, seedless grapes, pasta salad, and some of those chicken and provolone paninis Olivia told me you liked--"
"Olivia. Are she and Susan gonna join us?"
Bogg paused in his unpacking. "Uh, no. I asked both of them, thinking you wouldn't mind. But apparently they'd planned to go for coffee and girl-talk--by themselves." He shrugged a little too nonchalantly, reliving the weirdness of that moment. Both women had declined the invitation in near-unison, smiled brightly at his subsequent discomfiture, and walked off together, practically arm in arm.
"Susan and Olivia went off to dish the dirt, huh?" Jeffrey started to laugh. "Oh, boy! Sounds like you've got one blonde too many, Bogg!"
Bogg gave him a sour look, then felt his own mouth twitch upward in a reluctant grin. It seemed a long time since he'd heard the kid laugh, even it was at him.
"Yeah, well, let 'em have their 'girl-talk,'" he conceded. "We've got food--and there's a lot to be said for guy-talk too, sometimes."
"Like?" Jeffrey glanced at him with raised brows.
His mother's look, Bogg remembered with a bittersweet pang. “I’ll tell you a little later,” he promised, settling down on the grass to unpack their rest of their picnic.
As they ate--the paninis were delicious--he gave the boy a full account of what Garth had told him. Jeffrey listened intently and seldom interrupted, a sure sign that his attention was engaged.
"So you see, kid--it's been in the cards since before we even met," Bogg concluded. "That you'd be the first of the junior Voyagers, and that more would follow once it was clear a kid could handle the job. What do you think of that?"
"Huh." Jeffrey looked as though he had bitten into something unfamiliar and was trying to decide if he liked the taste. "I dunno. I've never been a guinea pig before."
"Don't think of yourself as a guinea pig, think of yourself as a trail-blazer."
"Yeah, kinda. Only with an Omni instead of a covered wagon."
Jeffrey fretted his lower lip as he thought. "You said it was in the cards. Does that mean we were always gonna be partners?"
"According to Professor Garth. Apparently, Mission Control thought we were compatible. And it looks like Mission Control got it right," he added with a grin.
"So sometimes the system works. Bogg, if I have to come back here someday to attend the Academy, would you come too?" There was an unmistakable wistfulness in Jeffrey's voice.
Bogg reached out an arm and pulled him close. "I might. Olivia suggested I give teaching a whirl--maybe I'd do okay with a practical course. But even if I stay in the field while you're finishing up your education, you know I'll come the minute--no, make that the second--you need me." His voice softened. "But you'll be a few years older by then, you might not need me so much. And maybe you'll want to spend more time with friends your own age. Your classmates."
"Maybe," Jeffrey conceded. "But that doesn't mean I won't want to spend time with you too."
Bogg smiled. "Ditto, kid. Let's wait and take things as they come, okay? For now and the near future, it's gonna be us again, just like it's supposed to be. "
Jeffrey rested his head against Bogg's shoulder. "Works for me."
Neither of them said much after that, but then they didn't need to. Once they had packed up the remains of their picnic, Jeffrey stretched out on his back and gazed skyward, his expression abstracted but not unduly disturbed. He'd been given a lot to think about, Bogg knew, and it would take a while for him to process all of it.
Likewise, Bogg himself had gotten plenty to chew over. Again and again, his thoughts returned to what Garth had told him about his part in all this. Kind of unsettling to learn that so much of his present existence had been predetermined. That almost from the start, he'd been singled out to mentor the first in a new generation of Voyagers. He, Phineas Bogg, former pirate, rogue, and ne'er-do-well, entrusted with the care of the brightest and the best.
And the task involved far more than he had ever imagined. He wasn't merely training a talented subordinate or helping a fine boy grow into the man he was destined to become. He had been given a piece of the future to protect, to guide, and to shape. And to cherish, though that was by far the easiest part.
Once he would have fled from such responsibility or accepted it grudgingly, seeing it as a burden. Now, he knew he would yield it to no one else, not without a prolonged and bloody fight. And he would do his damndest to prove himself worthy of it.
Bring it on, Bogg thought, unconsciously squaring his shoulders as though in acceptance of the trust laid upon him. Bring it on.
Jeffrey was being unusually quiet. Glancing over at the boy, Bogg saw that he had fallen asleep, his curly head cradled in the crook of one arm, his lashes dark against his cheeks. For a moment, the older Voyager considered waking him, to share his new insights, then decided against it. After all the ups and downs of the last few days, the kid deserved some rest.
Smiling, Bogg stretched out on the grass beside his partner and lazily watched the sun's progress across the sky through half-closed eyes. Soon they'd be back in the field, solving problems, handling crises, facing the usual challenges of a Voyager's life. But whatever the future held, they still had this quiet interval, together.
Just for now, they had all the time in the world.