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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 full and slightly hooded, fringed with a lush set of black lashes. Bedroom eyes: That was the term, and then-Lieutenant Garrett's first thought.
Lust at first sight, Garrett thought now. A long time ago, before things went south. They'd divorced in 2333, a year after she'd taken command of the Enterprise.
"How are you, Ven?" she asked. Garrett felt the unpleasant jolt in the pit of her stomach she always did when they spoke, as if she expected a reprimand by a superior officer. So different from those first few years, when they couldn't keep their hands off each other. Now she and Kaldarren couldn't stand to be on separate monitors in different rooms several dozen light-years apart.
Kaldarren's head moved in a curt nod. "Fine," he said, barely moving his lips. Kaldarren had all the animation of a piece of stone, and the dark eyes that had once burned for her were hard and flinty. "Jason is fine. My mother's fine. Now that's out of the way, what happened to you?"
"Well, yes," Garrett tried a smile, "I guess I missed you on Betazed. You're calling from a ship, right? Right. So you and Jase have already left..."
"Oh, were you really planning on coming?" Kaldarren's black eyes went wide with mock astonishment. "Forgive me, Rachel, I guess I misinterpreted. When Jason's birthday came and went and we didn't hear from you, I assumed that, after a week, we were free to leave the planet. Or were you planning on surprising us by dropping by in another month?"
Garrett was stung, and then angry. What the hell did Kaldarren know about what she was going through, anyway? They hadn't talked in months, really, and so he didn't have a clue about what it was like to lose a perfectly good officer, a friend, and all because she was stupid enough to...
Stop. That damn little voice again, but Garrett held back long enough to swallow the retort pushing against her lips. Listen to what he's saying. You let them down, again. He's right to be angry.
"You're right to be angry," she said. It seemed as good a line as any, and the little voice, for once, was dead on. "I said I would come to Betazed, and I didn't. I didn't even call. That was wrong of me, and you're right."
"Yes," said Kaldarren, clearly not mollified. "I was angry, and I'm still angry. Do you want to know why?"
No. "I have a pretty good idea, but, sure, tell me." Let her rip; I deserve it.
"It's not because of me, my feelings, though I doubt very much that they enter into your equations these days. There's nothing between us anymore, and we know that."
Garrett knew that this was where Kaldarren was wrong. Hatred and love: They were intense emotions, and a person didn't waste emotions on anything that was unimportant. So their hatred -- and was it hate, or just plain hurt? -- was important to him, and maybe to her. Garrett's mind drifted to the words of an ancient poet who'd once written that our worst monsters are the people we've loved the most intensely. Ovid, she thought.
"I'm angry because of what you're doing to our son." Kaldarren's face was taut with emotion, and Garrett saw then that his eyes were sadder than she remembered, more deeply set, the circles beneath them more pronounced, as if Kaldarren wasn't sleeping well. A tracery of fine wrinkles splayed like wings from the corners of his eyes, and the black hair, which he still wore loose, was shot through with silver at the temples. "I'm angry because every time you let him down is one more wound that won't heal, and believe me, I know how much that..."
Kaldarren broke off then turned his face from his viewscreen, but not before Garrett saw the pain. How many days and nights had Kaldarren waited for her? Too many, she knew.
"How much that hurts," she said. "How much it hurts to hope, and then have your hopes destroyed and not be able to do a damn thing about it."
"Yes." Kaldarren's voice was a hiss. "Yes. Every time you don't keep your word, I see how Jase suffers. I remember how much I suffered."
She saw that his fists bunched, and though they were too far apart -- and she was no telepath -- she felt his anger and hurt and frustration.
"You had your own work," said Garrett. There was more defensiveness in her tone than she wanted, and she felt her migraine knife its way into the space behind her eyeballs. "You made sure you weren't around."
"What was I supposed to do? Wait until my wife decided it was convenient for her to happen by my little corner of the galaxy? Sit around in an empty house, hoping that the next call would be from the woman who said she loved me but who could never seem to find the time to actually be with me?"
"Please." Garrett closed her eyes. Her brain felt bruised, and she was suddenly nauseated. She'd been standing, but now she sagged into her chair, licked her lips. "Please, Ven."
"Please what? Please pretend that I didn't hurt? Please make believe that we can be civilized about this?"
"No. I know we can't. But we've been over this. What purpose does it serve to keep...?"
"Don't tell me what we've been over!" Kaldarren paused, took some deep breaths then continued, his tone more controlled, "If I want to go over it a thousand times, you will listen. You owe me the courtesy, at least."
"Oh?" She sounded spiteful, even to herself. But she couldn't help it. "I do?"
"Yes. Oh. You do. Because you're doing it again, only this time you're doing it to a little boy who loves you. A little boy who worships his mother, thinks she's the greatest woman alive because she commands a starship." Kaldarren said this with a sort of flourish, a flash of bravura. "The Great Captain Rachel Garrett. Commander of the illustrious Enterprise, the flagship of Starfleet."
Garrett felt the heat rise in her neck and, my God, her head was killing her. The lights in her ready room were too damn bright. She narrowed her eyes to cut down on the glare. "I'm not after Jase's worship. I'm not out to be anyone's hero."
And that little voice: Liar, liar, liar. "Don't," Kaldarren said. "Don't lie to me, and don't lie to yourself. This is what you've always wanted, Rachel. More than you ever wanted love or family, you've wanted command. Well, now you have it. But you still have responsibilities."
Garrett flared, the blinding jabs of pain in her temples making her even angrier. "I know that. Damn you, Ven, you try sitting in this chair day after day, making the really hard decisions and knowing that the lives of your crew..."
"Stop." Kaldarren scrubbed away her words with the flat of his hand. "Rachel, to be very frank, I couldn't care less about your duties, or your really hard decisions. They're no more real or harder than the ones I face, every day, as Jason's father. So I don't care about your crew, or your starship. I don't even know if I care about you."
He let that hang in the air between them for a moment. "You'll never understand how that feels: not to know if I care about the woman I held in my arms, who gave birth to my son. But one thing I do know. I do care, very deeply, about our son, and I will not let you hurt him. Nothing is more important than how you treat your son -- not your work, not your ship, not your crew. You simply cannot keep doing this."
"Or?" Garrett stared into Kaldarren's unflinching eyes. She knew there was something he hadn't spoken, a final piece he hadn't divulged. "Or?"
Kaldarren looked away then, as if collecting his thoughts. Or maybe he simply hated what he felt forced to say. "Or I will make sure that you don't see him." He looked back, and those eyes of his locked onto hers and wouldn't let go. "I have full custody."
"Because we both knew that I couldn't take Jase on a starship," said Garrett, a little desperate now, her heart doing a little trip-hammer stutter-step against her ribs. "The only reason you got custody was we agreed..."
"And," said Kaldarren, talking over her, "and I will go back to court if I have to and make sure that you are not allowed visitation. At. All."
Stunned, Garrett could only stare. "I'm," she said, hating that the words came out in panicked little hesitations, like a subspace transmission awash with interference, "you...Ven, you...can't...wouldn't."
"I can. I would. I will. Rachel," said Kaldarren, and the way he said her name, Garrett could almost believe, for a fraction of a second, that he didn't hate her at all but was still, very desperately, in love. "Rachel, you can't keep doing this. Please try to understand. I know you're not a monster. I wouldn't have loved a monster. At least, I don't think I would, though we do seem to bring out the worst in each other. But what you do when you don't keep a promise, that's monstrous. That's wrong. It's not even humane. You have to make a choice. You chose against me once, against...us."
"I seem to recall that you chose against us, too," she said, relieved that her mouth cooperated. "You filed for divorce, not I."
"Fair enough. But I chose to stop bleeding, Rachel. I chose to bring an end to one type of pain, and I exchanged it for another. Now you have to choose: your ship or your family. You can't have both."
"What kind of choice is that? Your ship, or your family," she said, the blood pounding a samba beat in her temples now. She scrubbed her forehead with her right hand, restrained the urge to start cursing, loudly. "Christ, Ven, you sound like a character from a cheap holonovel. What exactly am I supposed to do? I can't just drop everything when things become inconvenient. There are some things, many things that happen aboard ship that require my presence."
"Such as now, right now. My first officer's away, and I've got no replacement, and I can't tag my new ops, this woman named Bat-Levi, because she's on psychiatric probation and that's because she went a little crazy a while back, but she's supposed to be really sharp even if she is a bit off, and..."
She paused for breath. Kaldarren didn't need the litany, after all. "Those are all good reasons why I, as captain, can't just leave. Ven, you act like I have a choice. I don't. I can't delegate these things away," she said, sidestepping the fact that, probably, she could, if she were wired just a little bit differently. "What kind of choice is no choice?"
"No, Rachel, you do have a choice." Kaldarren sighed. "Don't you understand? You have a choice. You have choices. Your problem is that you simply don't like the ones you have."
He was right, and she knew it. Damn him, but he'd cut right to the heart of things, like he always had, as if he really was reading her mind.
Don't be stupid; it's not the telepathy. The man was married to you for seventeen years. Who better to know how you think?
She said, "I want to talk to Jason. Can I speak with him, please? Try to explain? Please?"
"And how do you propose to explain things, Rachel?" Kaldarren's eyes were large and sad. "What can you possibly say that will make things any better?"
And, much as Garrett hated to admit it, the man had a point.
"Please, Ven," she said again. "Please?"
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