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Kora System: Republic of Cardassia

Stardate: 53382.1

"Ok," Tigranian said leafing through his notes for the morning sync. "We've covered the intelligence dump from Starfleet Command, mandatory ship wide Ventaxian Influenza inoculations, and our course correction towards the Krebalb Nebula," Tigranian said checking off his list of talking points. "Border is pretty quiet right now as far as we can tell…"

"Probably because the spooners blew their load with that last round of troop exercises," Katie said fighting back a yawn. "They'll be spending the next two months running their second-hand ships through overhaul."

Alex took note of her fatigue. It usually meant that Katie was recovering from one of her problem nights. However, the Doctor kept her concerns to herself.

"Still, there's at least eighteen warbirds we know of that could still be in Cardassian State Territory ready to go," Annabeth added.

"And those are the ship's we've identified," Laria said. "Even with our long range sensors, they keep cloaking and recloaking so often there could be twice as many out there."

"I'm not going to jump to any conclusions, People," Tigranian said shaking his head. "Guessing at the number of ghost ships is exactly what they want us to be doing. We're better than that.

I'm confident we've set the conditions for transition of our sector. We'll debrief the situation and conduct relief in place when the Nelson arrives here next week."

"So, it's confirmed?" Scharr said from the other end of the table.

"It is, Tren," Tigranian said leaning back into his chair. "The other sisters are up and operational and Admiral Paris says we're ready to begin the fleet rotations. In two weeks, we'll be back in Earth spacedock for a month. Nevsky is heading to the Romulan Neutral Zone, Shran will be patrolling the core systems."

"Thank, God," Phil said with relief. "I was afraid those other crews would never remove their heads from their fourth point of contact and get their arses out here to the frontiers of freedom..."

"You know, Mr. Lexington, some of those crews are friends of mine and have been doing this job a little bit longer than you," Tigranian said steepling his fingers.

"Sir, I didn't mean to imply that they were incompetent, I meant…"

"Sounds like that's exactly what you were trying to do, Lieutenant," Annabeth said joining in the fun.

"Ma'am…I…" he began to stammer.

"Back in my day," Scharr said stretching out his antennae, "When a lieutenant copped an attitude like that, we took him to the cargo bay after midnight and beat his ass."

"Exactly what day are you talking about, Sir?" Katie said skeptically. "I don't believe hazing and grabass was ever part of Starfleet life. Life on your little ice cube maybe, but not in the fleet."

A smile crept across Tren's face and he began to laugh. Soon, Annabeth and Tigranian joined in.

"Relax, Phil," Tigranian said through his chuckle. "We're just screwing with you, but in all seriousness, watch what you say around more senior officers. Not everyone wearing this uniform is as tolerant of free opinions as we are."

"Yeah," Annabeth said shaking her head. "And her name is Captain Shu Yin Quan…"

"By Kahless, Number One," Tigranian said rubbing his eyes. "Don't bring her up."

"You implied, I merely stated," Annabeth muttered in reply.

"Well, if that's all, I think we can all go about our day…" he said getting ready to push back from the table. The others readied themselves to rise as well.

"Um, Sir?" Alex said pushing a PADD towards him. "Doctor Kirby?"

"Baktag, you right, Alex," Tigranian said plopping back down into his chair. A collective groan emanated from the other officers directed at their CMO. "For those of you that haven't meant our guest yet, Doctor Kayla Kirby from Starfleet Psychology is aboard conducting a study about the effects of the war on veterans…"

"Laria," Scharr interjected, "Feel free to stay in your room."

A few laughs were stifled around the table.

"Anytime, anywhere, Old Man," Laria said confidently sitting up in her seat.

"DAMMMMNNNN" Phil and Katie said in unison.

"Looks like our little girl is all grown up," Scharr quipped. "I'm soooo proud," he replied condescendingly.

"Alright, At Ease…" Tigranian said curtly.

"That means shut the hell up when C-O is talking!" Annabeth said angrily. "This is still a Federation starship, not a party barge!" The table immediately fell silent once more.

"As I was saying, you group of motherless veQ," Tigranian continued, "Doctor Kirby has completed group interviews with the crew and the marine detachment, but she wants to sit down with each of the senior staff one on one."

He held up the PADD Alex passed him.

"Each of us has a block with her, and we all do our part." Tigranian checked the roster and found his own name. "2100 tomorrow night?" he said as his eyes grew wide. "Qu'vath guy'cha baQa!"

"You did promise her your full support, Sir," Alex said crossing her arms across her chest.

"And she did say she wasn't going to get in the way of the ship's duty hours…" Annabeth added.

"Yeah, instead she's getting in the way of my Klingon exercise program…" Tigranian muttered. "In any case, he said trying to compose himself. "You don't have to say anything or speak with her if you don't want to. However, I say again, you will show up on time, and at least sign the form that says you do not consent to an interview."

"That's all we gotta do?" Katie said hopefully.

"It's a completely voluntary study, Katie," Alex said, "but it has the potential to really help a lot of brothers and sisters in uniform still struggling with their experiences."

Katie looked down into her lap and pretended like she didn't hear the doctor's statement.

"Who's the shrink's first victim?" she finally asked.

Tigranian put the PADD on the table and slid it towards her.

"You are," he said shrugging his shoulders. "Tonight at 1800 in Doctor Yuvich's office. Don't be late."

Katie grumbled.

"Alex will have the schedule. Be sure you check it before you head out to your duty stations this morning." He rose to his feet and the room followed in kind. "Dismissed."

****

Katie pressed the chime on the outside of Doctor Yuvich's office. After a few seconds, a confident, yet unfamiliar voice answered her call.

"Come in, Katie."

The tactical officer bristled at this shrink's sudden and unexpected friendliness. However, she had a mission. With a final deep breath, she opened the door and stepped inside.

Katie was very familiar with Yuvich's office. She had spent many hours here and wasn't really relishing the opportunity to spend any more time inside the sterile, artificially calming walls. She immediately noticed Kirby had rearranged the furniture. The couches were pushed against the walls and two large chairs faced each other next to the window. Gone were the candles, motivational posters, and ridiculous "calming" artworks that had marked this place as a counselor's office.

Kirby sat with her legs crossed and stared directly at her from across the room. Katie immediately noticed she didn't have a PADD, but an actual pencil and leather bound notebook.

"Welcome, Katie," Kirby said finally breaking the awkward silence. "Please, have a seat," the doctor said gesturing to the chair across from her.

"Hey, Ma'am," Katie said walking over. "I don't want to sound like an asshole, but I was told that if I didn't want to talk you, I just had to show up and sign a release form."

"Is that what you want to do?" Kirby said cocking her head to one side.

"Well…yes," Katie replied as if it was obvious.

"That's your right, Katie," Kirby said reaching behind her and pulling out a traditional Starfleet electronic personal access device. She put it on the coffee table and slid it towards the lieutenant.

"That's it?" Katie said skeptically. "You're not going to lecture me on how it's my duty to help Starfleet improve the lives of others? How's it's my job to be courageous for them?"

Kirby started laughing.

"Wow, you have been through a lot haven't you?" the doctor said shifting her weight in her chair. "To answer your question, Ms. Stone, absolutely not. And if any counselor has told you that in the past, they didn't have your best interests at heart. We only help people who want to be helped. Otherwise, we're just psychological voyeurs."

That last comment actual elicited a smile from Katie. The doctor then produced a small, white cardboard box from her pocket and a lighter.

"Since it seems like I'm going to have two hour break once you leave, I'm going to relax a bit."

She opened the lid of the box and pulled out a small, paper tube with a paper filter on the end.

"Cigarettes?" Katie actually said in total shock.

"If you prefer," Kirby said bemused, "I'll wait to light up until after you leave."

"No, no it's fine, Doc," Katie replied. "It's just you don't see those very often anymore. Just how the hell did you hack a replicator to make you those?"

"Replicator?" Kirby said putting one of the smokes between her lips. "Hell no, if I'm going to poison myself, it's going to be with the real deal. One my colleagues retired to Axtell IV and started a tobacco farm. He has a small but dedicated clientele." The doctor clicked her lighter and ignited the end of the cigarette. She then blew a very satisfied puff of smoke in Katie's direction.

Katie's eyes grew wide and Kirby grinned.

"You want one, don't you?"

"Yes, Ma'am, I do." Katie laughed. Kirby extended the box and Katie plucked a stick from it. Kirby then held up her lighter long enough for Katie to ignite the end of her smoke.

"Oh, God," Katie said taking a deep drag. "Those are some good carcinogens."

"You know, I always found it funny," Kirby mused with another puff. "They'll order you to charge into a black hole, expose yourself to toxic theta radiation, stare up the business end of a hostile alien's disruptor cannon, but because some wuss on Earth in his sterile office building wants to live to 150 instead of 140, they say we can't have these…."

"If Captain Tigranian ever heard you bad mouth Federation civilians like that, he might throw you off this ship," Katie said blinking her eyes.

"I don't work for Captain Tigranian. He doesn't have a choice that I'm here," Kirby chuckled.

"Ok," Katie finally couldn't take it anymore. "Just who the hell are you? Cause you certainly can't be a Starfleet Counselor. If you're just trying to play buddy buddy with me so I'll spill my guts like a Calbrosian Vomit Flower, you're barking up the wrong tree…"

"Starfleet Counselor is one of my titles, Katie, but it's not the only one. I'm also a researcher, a Commander in Starfleet, and an advocate for veterans like you."

"Veterans like me," Katie laughed cynically. "You mean veterans who are so screwed up they need a fistful of medication or a Klingon acupuncture needle in the spine just to fall asleep. Veterans that people are afraid will go ballistic and carry a phaser rifle into a fast food joint or mail a pipe bomb to the Federation News Service…"

"You done?" Kirby said blowing smoke out through her nose. "Because I don't waste my time with lost causes. You're not screwed up, you're not broken, and if I thought you were dangerous, I would've stunned you with a phaser the second you walked through the door."

"Ok," Katie said taking another drag and blowing the smoke towards the doctor. "Since you seem to know who I am, who am I?"

"You're Katherine Stone," Kirby said calmly. "A woman from Earth who volunteered to serve her country, and experienced a terrible loss in the process. But you didn't let the bastards kill you because you're a warrior, and you still wear that uniform with pride. That's who I think you are."

Katie didn't know how to respond to that.

"Since you don't want to tell me your story, how about you hear mine?" Kirby said. Before Katie could protest, she started speaking.

"I joined Starfleet to be one of those counselors you loathe so much. EXACTLY like one of them. I towed the line, spewed all the touchy-feely psychobabble, you can get over anything with love, power of positive thinking, bullshit that was in my textbooks. I spent ten years training a legion of counselors that sang the same party line with amazing fluency, including your own Olga Yuvich.

Then, against my wishes, I was assigned to the fleet when the war started. They needed the mental health professionals with the troops. My new captain wanted me to take the Bridge Officer's Test because we only had three other officers on our senior staff. Kalandra was a long way from the replacement depots. You remember those days? People were being lost faster than they could be trained.

Well, I passed after ordering a holographic security officer to his death to repel a simulated boarding party. I thought I was the greatest officer ever to wear medical green because I aced a holo-simulation.

Then, one night when I was on watch, three Jem'Hadar fighters appeared out of nowhere. I followed procedure, I completed the checklist, I did everything right. Then, one of them broke formation and rammed us in a suicide charge."

Katie slowly pulled the cigarette from her mouth as she listened to Kirby's labored words.

"Through some miracle, our helmsman was able to turn so they just clipped our secondary hull, but crew members were in the jefferies tubes that were vented to space. I kept the ship going long enough for the captain to come and fight them off. I was recognized for my actions with a medal and a commendation, but four people died under my watch.

I started having nightmares. I would get furious at my friends for no reason. I never could relax, not even when I was alone in my quarters. Every time I closed my eyes, all I could see was that Jem'Hadar ship coming straight at us and how powerless I felt to stop it."

Kirby leaned forward and looked her right in the eyes.

"I was supposed to help people, Katie, but the only things keeping me going were two separate anti-depressants and a sleeping medication that could knock out a Ligorian Mastadon.

Eventually, I made it back to Earth. I met a lot of good people. I got a lot of kind looks, a lot of handshakes, a lot of "thank you for your service," but not a single person who wasn't wearing this uniform had any clue what I was fighting through. It took almost two years of work, but I finally started to realize that maybe it wasn't my fault. Maybe I didn't make a mistake. Maybe I was just a normal person in a horrific situation that needed help."

Katie still remained silent.

"So you see, my desire to help Starfleet personnel with post-traumatic stress is not completely altruistic. I'm still fighting it myself. So, now do you want to tell me what you're going through?"

Katie briefly shut her eyes. Calmly, she took a final drag on her cigarette, flicked the last bit of burning ash into a ceramic bowl on the coffee table, and then dropped the butt next to it.

"Thanks for the cigarette, Doctor," Katie said walking towards the doors. "Really appreciate it."

"Katie," Kirby said from behind her. Katie glanced over her shoulder. "I noticed you haven't signed this," she said holding up the release form. "I'll be onboard for another three days. If you decide that really trusting somebody is better than suffering alone, I'll be right here."

The young officer paused, unsure if she wanted to say anything.

"Enjoy the rest of your break, Doctor."

Katie quickly disappeared out the doors and into the corridor. Kirby dropped back into her chair, concerned she had pushed her too hard. After a few silent moments, she realized that maybe Katie Stone's problem was that people were too afraid of hurting her to push hard enough. She didn't have a lot of time left on the Pershing, but she promised herself that if that young lieutenant did decide to walk back through those doors, she wouldn't make the same mistake. With the tiniest of smirks, Kirby lit another cigarette.


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