Commander Sydney Satterwhite, Personal Log, Stardate 48232.7
Pack your stuff, girlfriend. Say goodbye to your Captain and await further orders.
That's basically what the message said. Twelve days out from Earth the Toledo was ordered to drop me off at Armaden Station before heading home to be decommissioned. I wanted to be there when the end came, to say goodbye to what mess hall snickering called the Ghost Ship, since she had a habit of bumping off her first officers. I was the last to be bumped off, so to speak. I guess Command thought my presence there was no longer necessary, and it was sufficient for Captain Mishenko to carry on with a skeleton crew.
So I sit and I wait. It's been three days and nothing from Command.
I wish I could see Mishenko off to her next assignment, the Scion. I was her First Officer for four years and I'll really miss her. She was my rock and my friend. For her to look to me for advice on command decisions felt a bit strange at times, though that was basically my job. She's a thirty-year veteran, highly decorated and commended. And I felt wet behind the ears. I shouldn't feel that way. But it took something like the Vesper explosion to remind me I still had a long way to go before I felt comfortable in the Captain's chair, even if I was just minding the store when Mishenko was gone. I fell to pieces, she picked me up from the floor and dusted me off. And tried to convince me I had done good. The two hundred twelve I had rescued were testament to that, she said.
I want to tell a story, but not that one. Every time I make some kind of transition in my life, I go back to my time on the Pennsylvania. A lot of days were from Hell, but I sort of remember it like you'd remember a teacher who had been particularly hard and hard on you. You didn't care for the experience, but that person got more out of you than you thought was possible. Captain Sutek did just that, and I will forever be grateful to him.
Of course, at the time, I was in no mood to thank him for anything.
Nobody wanted to serve on the Pennsylvania. That's probably exaggerating, but not by much. You wouldn't wish that posting on your worst enemy, or your second worst. If that assignment happened to fall on you, you did everything you could to squirm out from under it, including leaving Starfleet altogether.
The Penn was a crucible. You were crushed into dust, poured out, and crushed some more for good measure. But if you were one of the lucky few (very few) to survive, you stood a good chance of becoming one of the finest officers and captains that Starfleet had ever issued a uniform to.
It's not like we were special or anything, the batch of folk I got herded in with. Not hand-picked, really, though some I wondered about. It felt like some pencil-pusher at HQ said, "I know what let's do! Let's chuck a whole mess of ensigns and lieutenants at the Transylvania and watch their heads explode!"
Yes, I said Transylvania. Because it was a horror show skidding down the rails to Hell with no stops in between. And the Devil was waiting at the end of the line. Or, rather, Captain Sutek was waiting.
Don't get me wrong, there wasn't anything wrong with the ship herself. I mean, the Penn wasn't a rusty bucket. Far from it. She was gorgeous. Excelsior-class. But whenever Sutek stepped on board, even she snapped to.
Captain Sutek. Hardcore Starfleet. Hardcore Vulcan.
He ran all his junior officers ragged, day in and day out. He was looking for us to do the wrong thing all the time, and he was spare with his praise. You never knew where you stood with him unless you did something particularly stupid. He'd stand there and take you in with one look. Then he raises one exquisitely upswept eyebrow and leaves. He did that whether we did good or messed up. And he made sure I got a good look at his profile before he went. That was his way of saying to me, "I won't ever let up on you, not even for a minute."
I found out his first name in Vulcan one day. Took me four years to learn how to say it correctly. I was so angry at him one time I threw it in his face, and it was perfect. I thought. He fixed me with those steel gray eyes of his. I thought I was gonna melt through the deck. He simply said "impressive" and dismissed me. And I still got a reprimand the next day.
After a brutal six-month stretch, he called me into his ready room. He gave me a problem to solve, an old Vulcan conundrum. They can't be solved with any existing mathematical system to anyone's satisfaction, but I didn't know that. Then he sent me on my way. After six more months of Hell he called me back in. He always kept his ready room fairly dark and spooky. And there was this one light that shown on the wall behind his desk. He sat in his chair, his fingers steepled in front of him.
"Do you remember the question I asked you six months ago, Lieutenant?" he asked.
I had used all of my spare time to work on it. I had given up on it a few minutes before he called me in.
"Do you have the answer?"
I looked him in the eye--which in hindsight may not have been the smartest thing to do to a Vulcan--and said, point-blank, "No, sir."
I could feel that eyebrow going up.
"I do not have the answer, sir." I got that "melting through the deck" feeling again.
"No explanations to offer?"
"Sir, you once told me you would brook no negligence, inattention to detail, laziness, nor excuses. I have no excuses to give."
"I said 'explanations', not 'excuses', Lieutenant."
"Then I have no explanations, either, sir."
He said that like he knew something I didn't. I made it my personal mission early on to be at least one step ahead of Sutek. The best I'd been able to do was get within five steps behind him.
He folded his hands in front of him and sat forward in his chair. He started in what I thought was going to be his you-know-what-your-problem-is-Human tone. But he surprised me.
"That is what I was expecting from you."
I was totally blown away, shocked.
He then said, "I have asked that same question to every one of my junior officers, and you are the only one who told me that they did not know the answer. The others told me what they thought I wanted to hear and gave me elaborate explanations for concepts they had not the slightest grasp of."
Now came the you-know-what-your-problem-is-Human tone.
"On a daily basis I am confronted by a typical phenomenon among Humans called ego. A highly exaggerated sense of self-importance. So exaggerated that one cannot only not fail, but not appear to fail. It even goes as far as believing one is too important, too indispensable to fail. Failure is always a real possibility. One can minimize the odds of it occurring, but it is there nonetheless. I often sense from my younger officers that they believe I create an atmosphere on this ship where one failure can be the death-knell of one's career. Preposterous. Not admitting failure or being boldly dishonest about it will always get my attention and bring reproach. It is a very deadly trap to fall into, yet you did not fall. You told me--and have told me--how things are and not how they should appear to me."
Shortly after that I was promoted, and not long after that I was appointed First Officer to fill that recently emptied position, where I served for three years.
The answer to the question wasn't really all that important. It was whether I could admit I don't know all the answers, and If I could put Sydney Satterwhite and her need to be right or else far enough into the background. I won't get it right all the time. I'll mess up pretty badly at times. But at least I'm woman enough to admit my mistakes and try to get it right.
Sutek had no ego to bruise. I do.
Honesty was extremely important to him. It went without saying that he expected it from us, especially in the little things. The little things didn't matter all that much to us, though. We just kept our heads down and prayed to whatever deity or deities we revered to get us out of this command. The first one of us that wasn't sloppy (wasn't dishonest) with the details would get his full attention. And boy, did I get it.
Which is also why he asked the question. To make sure I was what I presented myself to be. From that moment, I didn't dare disappoint him.
I wonder what Sutek would say at a moment like this, while I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. Have I disappointed him? Have I lived up to his expectations? I imagine he would have been standing with me at the viewport watching the Toledo leave her berth for her last journey home.
"One door has closed, and another has opened," he'd probably say.
And I'd probably sigh softly at his being cryptic again. "What door, sir?"
"The door to your destiny, Commander."
"I'm destined to stand and wait for another assignment and then be off to who knows where."
"I know where you will be."
"I know you do, sir, and your expectations for me have always been too high. Why do you always seem to see things I don't?"
Then he'd turn to look at me with those gray eyes. They had softened a bit in the years I was his Number One. But in the beginning, those same eyes put the fear of God into a very green young Ensign. The Lieutenant had gotten a bit braver.
"I do not see that which is not there," he'd continue. "Can you not understand that where you are, what you have become, is because of what lives inside you?"
"I am what I am because of you. Your mentoring, your training, and your teachings."
"My teachings would not have taken hold if the soil they were planted in were not fertile."
We'd go back and forth, on and on. But then Sutek would slice to the very heart of the thing and embarrass the living daylights out of me.
"You are destined to become one of the finest Captains in Starfleet. A precious jewel in the crown. And I look forward to witnessing what will unfold before you."
I'd have absolutely nothing to say to that. My face would get as red as my dark skin would allow and I'd turn away from him, unable to take the weight of his gaze or of his predictions for my future. A future a Vulcan had supreme confidence in, and that I, the Human, did not.
I can almost feel Sutek nearby now, as if he were standing behind my shoulder. Both of us waiting, with trepidation on my part and certainty on his. Waiting for that door to open.