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Chapter Four


Previously: Chapter Three

Lieutenant Sohini Ghoshal's Personal Log, stardate 49151.2.

Here's the thing about Starfleet Ensigns: they're walking contradictions.

On the one hand, they're their own biggest fans. They're proud graduates and they can't wait to show off their skills and babble on about their dreams. But on the other hand, they're intimidated by anyone above their rank.

As Calandra would say, they're cocky egomaniacs suffering from inferiority complexes.
..and we've all been there. 

Ensigns always think they're in the know. They think everyone else is clueless and getting an undeserved break. Because of this mindset, ensigns feel sorry for themselves, but also proud because they think they've conquered the mountain.

But they have no idea what they're doing. They have no clue about what's to come.


Pranay Bhatnagar raised a cynical eyebrow as Damian Silent River laid out his favorite dark blue dish set.

"You didn't mention the invitation was for dinner," he remarked coolly. The two men were tall, bronze-skinned, with dark eyes and wavy, brown-black hair.

Damian snickered, knowing exactly what Pranay was saying even though Pranay wasn't saying it.

What he really wanted to say was, "If I'd know we'd be dining with the Mouth and the Mind-Reader, I would've passed."

Pranay, like Damian, was neither born nor raised on Earth. Unlike Damian, however, Pranay had spent most of his life on Vulcan (of all planets).  He came from a family of scientists, so naturally, Pranay's parents considered raising their family on Vulcan to be perfectly logical.

Of course, raising a child on Vulcan had certain side effects. Pranay almost consistently kept his face and overall demeanor neutral, never smiling, laughing, or raising his voice.  And though his cool nature and level-headedness made him formidable in combat, sometimes...well, just sometimes...Damian felt sort of, kind of....

"Pranay, if we spend another evening playing Vulcan chess and drinking blue mint tea," Damian confessed with a smile, "one of us is going out the nearest airlock."

"Very well," Pranay sighed softly.  "What are you serving this time?"

Damian's face immediately brightened. "Heart of Klingon targ, rubbed down with finely ground Delavian chocolate and cooked in a sweet Cardassian kanar reduction, served with Vulcan green rice."

Pranay visibly twitched. "You've been running the Chopped program on the holodeck again."

Damian nodded without shame. "Finally got caught up on a few episodes."

"Need I remind you," Pranay said calmly, "you've attempted such recipes before."

"I promise it will taste good this time."

"You said that last time."

"I was being optimistic last time," Damian shrugged.  "I'm being realistic this time.  I gave myself a whole hour just to cook the targ alone."

Pranay flinched again.  "You...cooked this time?"

Damian nodded. "Better to handle the ingredients yourself. I even slow-cooked cooked the rice in a really rich butter, which I know you're going to like."

"Damian--"

Pranay was interrupted by Calandra Tria. Like her fellow officers, she was still in uniform.  As Ensigns, they'd learned long ago to stay in uniform.  Life in space was far too unpredictable to get cozy, even when off duty.

"You've tidied up," she cheerily remarked.  "Last time I was here, the socks and pajama pants were piled high."

Damian shrugged. "Pranay lodged an informal complaint."

"Furniture looks nice," she glanced around, noting the dark blue couches, black wooden dining set, and plum-colored rugs. They fit in with the station decor.

"Pranay picked it all out," Damian admitted easily.  "He told me my taste was hideous."

Pranay corrected him at once.  "I said your taste in furniture was 'questionable.'"

"And now you've got him cooking you dinner!" Calandra laughed. "You two are quite a pair."

Pranay raised an eyebrow.  "Your insinuation is humorous."

The doors opened again and in came Lieutenant Sohini Ghoshal, looking as though she'd seen better days. In Damian's humble opinion, Sohini and Calandra were among the two sexiest women on the station.

He'd wanted to ask Sohini out for years but she was so focused on her career he figured it was pointless. And though he found Calandra immensely attractive, he agreed with Pranay: no mind-readers.

"Of all the lieutenants on board, why did I get saddled with the toddlers?" she grumbled.  This was normal for Sohini; she often "greeted" with a complaint about assignments. "Why didn't they just give them to Calandra? She's the one who cares about their feelings."

"I have clinicals," the Betazoid shrugged. "I have conferences, I have a caseload, and I have to fill in for other counselors remotely."

"But why those kids?" Sohini scowled, taking a seat at the dinner table without waiting. She'd dined at Damian's so many times that she never waited for anything. He even knew to fill her wine glass first, and he always chose the same vintage of blue Andorian.

"I mean, look at them," she went on furiously. "Were they really in the top 15% of their class? We've got the Airhead from Risa, the Trill Know-It-All...and the Bajoran one." She said that last part like it was the most ridiculous thing she'd ever heard.
 
Damian sighed, filling her wine glass.  "They have names, Sohini."

"Their names are irrelevant," she bit out.

"So sayeth the Queen," he snickered, before giving her an exaggerated bow.

"That's not funny!"

"I think it's hilarious," Calandra giggled, taking a seat opposite her. Damian's table was a perfect square and only big enough for four.  "Sohini, you knew it was only a matter of time before the ensigns gave you a nickname."

"Speaking of the ensigns," Pranay said, taking a seat. "The Mekong is scheduled for a survey mission in the Amaras System tomorrow. The moons are reportedly rich in praelithian ore. I think your students would benefit from a real away mission."

"You can have Rix ," Sohini waived dismissively. "She has 'science nerd' written all over her."

"I've scheduled Gaya and Marlowe for a session tomorrow," Calandra announced.  "There's something important that Morana's not telling me.  She absolutely refuses to talk about her family."

"Why do you push?" Sohini sighed. "What's the point? Some Bajorans talk incessantly about their experiences in the camps or living as refugees on other worlds. And some don't talk about it all."

"Yes, of course, but Morana's problems don't have anything to do with the typical Bajoran experience," Calandra explained. "Whenever I talk to Bajorans about the Occupation, I sense the usual feelings of horror and pain and shame," Calandra nodded. "But not with Morana. She feels something else, something she's learned to hide very well from every counselor she's spoken with since the day she first joined Starfleet."

"Intriguing," Bhatnagar murmured.

"Shondrelle, on the other hand, is very expressive in therapy. I'm hoping a joint session will show Morana that it's all right to be equally expressive."

"This is all very wonderful," Sohini yawned. "I'm glad you're all so invested in these kids.  At least this is as bad as it gets; once they finish their evaluations, I'll be done."

***

"Computer; time."

"The time is now is 1249 hours."

Calandra nodded as she organized her tiny office. She'd decorated in it in soothing dark green shades and live mint plants from five different star systems. She had a long couch near the window, so clients could watch the stars. And she always burned Vulcan meditation incense during sessions, filling the room with a calm, musky scent. 

With a swift, subtle series of beeps, the computer alerted her someone was at the door.

"Enter," Calandra called, taking her comfortable seat across from the couch. In came Drelle and Morana. Drelle strode quickly, taking a seat at once, looking ready to explode. Morana walked slowly, practically shuffling her feet, as though she were a Klingon prisoner on a death march.

Calandra opened her mind to Morana alone, reaching out in slow, tentative probing, trying to sort through the emotions. The Bajoran felt a mix of her usual resentment and annoyance, and she was (very) loudly thinking, For the love of the Prophets, how many times do we have to do this???

***

Meanwhile, aboard the Mekong, Sillia was so excited she could barely sit still.

"Oh, this so great," she bubbled over the millionth time.  "My first real away mission!!!"

"Calm down," Alejandro Kanaway yawned. He was a lieutenant, and a Human, with caramel brown skin, dark brown eyes, and pitch black hair. He was disarmingly handsome. "We're just scouting caves for ore samples."

"We'll also be testing air and water samples," Bhatnagar coolly reminded them.  "If our tests prove forthcoming, the Federation may consider establishing a mining facility in this star system."

"How will the Amarans feel about that?" Gabriel Ohn raised an eyebrow. He was an nnsign, but of a senior grade. He had pale golden skin, with dark, narrow eyes and jet black hair. He was simply cute.

"The Amarans have warp capability, but their system has limited resources and opportunities for advancement," Pranay explained. "The Federation will award them exclusive contracts in the construction of our facility, and will pay annual fees to mine their moons."

"That'll give their economy quite a boost," Gabriel nodded.

"Not to much-needed mention traffic," Alejandro shrugged. "The praelithian ore trade is extremely competitive. If the sampling proves fruitful, then by this time next year, the Amaras system will crawling with freighter ships from all over the sector."

"And we'll get the credit!" Sillia squealed, actually clapping her hands in glee.

"Actually," Pranay corrected her calmly, "Starfleet is generally recognized for the work." At the Trill's crestfallen expression, Pranay gently added, "But you can put this expedition on your resumes nonetheless. In fact, the quickest way to get promoted and onto the ships you prefer is to carefully document all successful away missions, particularly the ones which may have lasting effects on the Federation."

Complete silence filled the shuttle and Pranay inwardly chuckled. Nothing woke junior officers up faster than than the P-word. And now that he had their attention, he figured he might as well put it to good use.

"Ensign Rix, what's our ETA?"

"One hour, twenty-three minutes, sir."

"Good; set up containment fields and do an inventory of our survey equipment."

"Aye, sir."

"Ensign Ohn, plot a course for a high orbit."

"Aye, sir."

"Lt. Kanaway, run a diagnostic on our transporter systems and note any discrepancies."

"Aye, sir."

Pranay resisted the strong urge to smirk as he smoothly rose and walked to replicator. "Computer," he ordered, "blue mint tea; hot."

After all, he'd earned it.

***

"I mean, seriously!" Drelle exclaimed for what seemed to the billionth time.  "Talk about cultural appropriation - we are not Risian!"

"No, but you are Federation citizens and therefore entitled to reside on whichever Federation planet you choose," Calandra told her calmly. "I think your mother just wanted you to see the galaxy and its many peoples, and Risa was an excellent place to do that."

"Well, I think she just wanted to be a whore," Drelle snapped, and it wasn't the first time she'd done so.

In Betazoid therapy, emotions were often compared to the strings of an instrument; some were taut, and some were relaxed. Some were high, and some were deep. Calandra noticed that whenever Drelle talked about her mother and referred to her as a "whore", some deep emotional string within Morana vibrated.

"'Cause that's what this really boils down to!" Drelle threw up her hands, exasperated.  "My mother just wanted to be a whore in a place where nobody would judge her."

There it was again, that deep plucking the emotional of the string within Morana. It resonated as though coming from a very dark, secret place. Calandra glimpsed the Bajoran out the corner of her eyes, noting her face remained as impassive as a Vulcan's.

She's trained herself well, Calandra raised an eyebrow. She's spent years burying and hiding whatever it is she feels about her mother. She knew she'd be exposed to empaths in Starfleet and she prepped herself accordingly.

"What about your father?" Calandra asked.  "You rarely talk about him."

"My parents split up when I was two," Drelle sighed loudly. "Big shocker there. Like most normal humans, he saw Risa as place to go sight-seeing, not settling down. I haven't talked to him since I was a kid."

At the mention of "father", Calandra noted Morana exuded a more natural, predictable emotion. There was slight twinge of pain as she fleetingly recalled the loss of him. There was also a feeling of shame.

"What about you?" Calandra smoothly segued to Morana.  "What about your father?"

The Bajoran shrugged. "Died when I was kid."

"Any thoughts you want to contribute about your mother? Gaya...Irian, I believe?"

Again, Morana shrugged, her face impressively neutral. "Alive. Living in the capital still."

At the word "capital", Calandra felt a strong tug of emotion within the girl, but marveled at her unflinching stony expression.

There are Vulcans who would be proud, the Betazoid mused. It made no difference, of course. Morana could deny things all she wanted; Calandra had finally found a place to start.

"Irian," Drelle echoed suddenly, staring into space. "Pretty name."

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