If she scanned one more duty roster, Captain Rachel Garrett was certain she would either scream or take her thumbs and pop the eyeballs out of the head of the first unlucky person to set his big toe into her ready room, and probably both.
Oh, we are in a good mood, we are just full of good cheer, aren't we, sweetheart?
"Well, I hate this," Garrett said, talking back to that nagging little voice in her head. She scowled, hunched over yet another ream of scrolling names, and knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she had a migraine coming, a real whopper, and wasn't that just her dumb luck? "And I hate you."
But I'm not the one who wanted to be captain. Nooo, you wanted the glamour, you read about all the Archers and the Aprils and the Pikes and the Kirks and the Harrimans of the universe and how they zipped around in their starships and you decided, girl, you want you one of those. Only no one ever talked about duty rosters and being short an officer because you were stupid enough to let your XO go on R and R and the crew's still being on edge because you were too far away to help Nigel Holmes when he needed you most and everything that's happened since is your fault, it's your fault, it's your...
"Go away." Blinking against a lancet of pain skewering her brain, Garrett pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and index finger. "Buzz off."
But the voice had a point, and the very fact that she was arguing with that little piece of herself hunkered somewhere deep in the recesses of what passed as her brain meant that maybe she should call it a night, or maybe a day, or...what time was it anyway? Frowning, Garrett glanced at her chronometer and then groaned. She'd worked straight through into the beginning of gamma shift. That meant that her new ops, Lieutenant Commander Darya Bat-Levi, was gone, relieved by the next Officer of the Day. Well, working straight through beta shift would explain why she was hungry, tired, sore -- Garrett reached around and massaged a muscle, tight as a banjo string, in her neck. If she hadn't eaten or moved her aching butt one millimeter for hours, no wonder she was having an argument with a nasty little voice in her head. Except someone had to do this work, and without a first officer to pick up the slack, there really wasn't anyone else, was there? Not anyone qualified, that is. Oh, she could probably tag one of the bridge officers to step up to the plate. Bat-Levi, maybe, though Garrett didn't like the idea; the woman was on probation, after all. But Thule G'Dok Glemoor, for example: the Naxeran lieutenant was tactical, good head on his shoulders. In fact, he was OOD this very minute; maybe she should loosen the reins, tap Glemoor to...
"Don't kid a kidder," Garrett muttered, saying it before that needling little voice started up again. She was no more likely to order one of her bridge officers to step outside the scope of his duties than she was to suddenly sprout a set of Andorian antennae. The plain truth was she had trouble letting go. Not allocating duties: she couldn't captain the ship otherwise. But if there was extra work, she did it. Great, when she was a kid and her mom had chores that needed doing. Terrible, now that she was a captain and short an officer, and couldn't even tag ops to take over because Bat-Levi was still on psychiatric probation, and that new psychiatrist, Whatshisname, Tyvan, hadn't given his blessing yet and...
She put both hands in the small of her complaining back and arched. "Next time, Garrett, you don't let your first officer go on R and R when you don't have backup. Next time, you tell that Nigel Holmes that he..."
She stopped abruptly -- talking and stretching. Mercifully, her little voice decided this was one time she didn't require commentary, or a restatement of the obvious: that Nigel Holmes -- her former first officer and maybe a little more than just a friend, though she would never, ever admit that to anyone, much less herself -- was dead and had been very dead for over six months now. Except her subconscious didn't want to let him go, did it? Nosiree, she thought, forestalling that little voice. No, and we both know why, don't we? Samir al-Halak's your first officer now, and yes, he is away on R and R and it was rotten timing, only you're not sure you like Halak very much because he isn't Nigel and can never be Nigel, and so you let him go even when you shouldn't have, and that's because you can't let Nigel alone, can you? That's why you've tightened up around the ship, not trusting the crew to pitch in when you need the help, right? Right?
"Wrong," she said, out loud. "Wrong, wrong, you are so wrong."
Blinking, she tried focusing on the pulsing red letters that made up the duty roster -- stellar magnetometry, this time around, a chuckle a minute -- and failed, miserably, because the letters wavered and refused to coalesce into anything recognizable and that was because she was ready to burst into tears.
I don't have time for this. She pushed up from her desk. You idiot, you don't have time for this. Coffee, go get yourself some coffee.
Trying very hard not to think, she crossed to a small cabinet below her replicator, stooped and pulled out a grinder, her stash of beans. She popped the vacuum lid and inhaled, gratefully. Nothing like the aroma of fresh coffee beans, and nothing like a good cup of fresh-brewed coffee. Garrett didn't trust the mess chef (nothing against the man; she didn't trust anyone to brew a cup just the way she liked it -- that damned problem letting go again), and she couldn't stand replicator coffee. Replicator brew tasted...well, artificial. Like burnt plastic.
The grinder was whirring so loudly she almost didn't hear the hail shrilling from her companel. Just a cup of coffee -- she crossed back to her desk and killed the hail with a vicious jab at her comswitch -- just one lousy cup of coffee in peace and quiet, that's all she was asking, and why couldn't they leave her alone? "Yes?"
There was an instant's startled silence, and Garrett had time to reflect that she sounded as if she might just order a full spread of photon torpedoes if whoever was calling uttered one more word. Then a reedy voice sounded through the speaker. "Uhm...ah...call for you, Captain."
Great. Garrett blew out, exasperated. Super. Bite off the man's head, why don't you? Clear the decks, folks, the captain's on a rampage. Lieutenant Darco Bulast was a fine communications officer, and however angry she was at herself for the weird twists and turns her mind was taking this evening, or this morning, or whatever the hell time it was, beating up on the rotund little Atrean wasn't fair, or very captainlike, for that matter. "Thank you, Mr. Bulast. From whom?"
Bulast told her, and then there was another moment's silence, only this time it was because Garrett's emotions, now a mix of apprehension and sudden remorse, were doing roller-coaster somersaults and double loop-de-loops for good measure. And this time the only voice inside her head was pure Rachel Garrett: Oh my God, it's Ven, and I forgot again, oh, that's just great, that is juuusssst perfect....
There'd be hell to pay, no way she could duck it, and could things get any worse? Could they? Sure, probably, why not, this was her lucky day, right? Quickly, she glanced at her reflection in her blanked desk monitor, and squinted. She didn't like what she saw. Her complexion was pale, as were her lips. Purple shadows brushed the hollows beneath her walnut-brown eyes, and her auburn hair, usually so neat and smooth it looked held in place with electrostatic charge, was in disarray courtesy of her restless fingers pulling, prodding, twirling as she'd perused the duty rosters and other effluvia normally reserved for officers other than captains. Plainly put, she looked as if she'd been stranded on a planetoid for a month with a canteen, a week's worth of survival rations, no blanket, and nothing to read. And then, in the very next instant, she figured to hell with how she looked; she doubted her looks had much to do with how Ven Kaldarren felt about her these days anyway. She said, "I'll take it in here, Mr. Bulast, thank you."
"No problem, Captain," said Bulast, and Garrett heard the relief. "But I..."
"Yes, Mr. Bulast?"
"Well, it's the signal, Captain. It's not on a priority channel and it's not scrambled. But it's not registered either."
"You mean that you can't tell which ship it's coming from?"
"That's right. It's as if, well, I guess you could say that whoever's making the call wants a certain degree of anonymity."
"I see." Unregistered ships weren't unheard of, and certainly not registering a ship that wasn't under Federation jurisdiction wasn't a crime. She dredged up what Kaldarren had told her about the xenoarcheological expedition he'd signed up for. Precious little: they weren't talking much these days, even less now that the custody battle for Jason was behind them. Then she gave up the exercise as pointless. Kaldarren could do what he wanted, whenever he wanted. That was a reason they'd divorced, right?
"Thanks for the information, Mr. Bulast. I'll follow up on it. Now put the call through, please."
"Aye, Captain," and then her companel winked to life, revealing the unsmiling face of her ex-husband. And, damn it, the sight of him still took her breath away. She was used to thinking of Betazoid men as being almost androgynous: slender, dark-eyed, smooth-skinned. Ven was unapologetically different. Always had been, and probably that was the attraction. They'd met in 2316, a year after Garrett's graduation from the academy. By then, she was a lieutenant and posted aboard the Argos. Ven was part of a Betazoid delegation of xenoarchaeologists the Argos had transported to a Federation Archaeology Council symposium on Rigel III. Ven had hulked above the other Betazoids. Standing at a hair under two meters, Ven was broad in the shoulders and muscular; unlike his comrades, he wore his black wavy hair long, and his Betazoid eyes were...