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The Blue Distance

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John Torres nervously swept his hands down the front of his uniform, as if erasing invisible wrinkles. Commander Whitney’s administrative assistant watched him, concern etched across her face.

“You could sit, Ensign,” she said with a demeanor and tone that indicated she’d dealt with this type of anxiety more than once. “No need to wear a path in Commander Whitney’s carpet.”

Even though he’d made the twenty-five-minute walk from his apartment to the Pratt Administrative Building at the edge of the Starfleet campus, John still felt restless. The rest of his Starfleet career depended on these next thirty minutes. Stop being so dramatic, he admonished himself. What was the worse that could happen? Another two years in San Francisco working in the Solar Imaging and Mapping Agency?

“The Commander will see you now,” the assistant said. She indicated the door to her left. “You can go on in.”

John inhaled sharply and went through the door. Commander Whitney’s office occupied the northwest corner on the tenth floor of the Pratt building and as such, offered glorious view of Starfleet campus and the green lawns of the Academy just beyond. The Commander rose as John entered.

“Ensign,” Commander Whitney said. He walked to his replicator. “I was just about to have a cup of coffee. Would you like something?”

Raktajino. Please.”

Whitney arched his eyebrow at the request. “Interesting choice.”

John shrugged. “I’ve had it a few times now and it’s starting to grow on me.”

“You’ll get no argument from me,” Whitney said. He handed a white mug to John. “I’ve got a fondness for Klingon cuisine myself. Interesting people, the Klingons, and their culture, their cuisine. All of it fascinates me.” He indicated the blue sofa in the corner of his office, neatly positioned to offer the seated a lovely view out of the floor to ceiling windows. “Did you enjoy your leave?”

“Yes, sir.” John sat stiffly on the sofa. Whitney took a seat in the armchair across from him.

“Do anything fun?”

John considered and then he said, “I traveled.”

“Anywhere interesting?”

“Risa.”

“Risa is always interesting,” Whitney said with a knowing smile. “Well I certainly hope you made the best of your time off. So, tell me, Ensign, where do you see yourself?”

The question took John off guard. “Sir?”

Whitney laughed gently. “Just making conversation, Ensign. You’ve been with SIMA for two years now. How do you like it?”

“I’ve learned a lot there,” John said cautiously. “I’ve made a lot of good contacts as well.” Even to his own ears, the response sounded stale. John mentally kicked himself. Stay alert, Torres, he thought. “It’s been a good experience.”

“Do you want to remain there?”

Was this a trick question? John knit his fingers together. This conversation was not at all going the way he’d anticipated. He’d expected Whitney to hand him a PADD with his orders, have a brief question and answer session, and then send him on his way.

“I’ve enjoyed my time at the agency,” John said finally. It seemed like a safe and mostly accurate answer.

A bemused expression crossed Whitney’s face. “Have you?”’ The Commander took a sip of his drink, his eyes focused on John. “I’m not sure I believe you.”

John swallowed hard. Might as well go for it, Torres. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”

Commander Whitney gestured with his hand. “Granted.”

“I’ve always wanted to explore the stars,” John said. “It’s one of the reasons why I joined Starfleet.” And not the main reason either, he thought. “I have two years left to serve and I would like to spend them on a starship or on a starbase.”

“Just two years?” Whitney asked mildly. “You don’t plan to stay on after your contract is up?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” John said. “As much as I’ve enjoyed being in San Francisco, I joined Starfleet to explore, to learn about new civilizations, map the unknown. In my current position, I take data gathered by others and turn them into maps and charts that they can use.” He took a deep breath. “I’d like to gather the data firsthand, not just process it. I’d like to be the one navigating the stars.”

“What you do has value. Don’t you believe that?”

“I do, but I just want to experience the other side now.”

“I see,” Whitney said, pressing his lips into a straight line. He got up from his chair and walked to the windows. He pointed toward the Academy. “I’ve reviewed your records,” he said. “You were a good student. In fact, your engineering professors had quite nice things to say about you. I’m surprised you didn’t choose engineering as your track.”

“I thought about it,” John said.

“Professor G’la’ro said you had a natural aptitude for warp mechanics.” Whitney turned to face John squarely. “And yet, you chose science even though your grades in that track were less than impressive.” He eyed John with curiosity as he returned to sit in his armchair. “It’s an interesting choice you made.”

“It was a question of skill versus passion,” John said, choosing his words carefully. It seemed like Whitney valued candor, but even honesty had its limits. “I might have excelled at engineering, but I’d always had a soft spot for natural phenomena, for understanding how and why things might behave the way they did.” He might have attended the Academy and joined Starfleet to make his father happy, but John Torres was resolute in following his passion when it came to career track selection. “Finding out how stars are born, how they live, how they die. I find it endlessly fascinating.”

“I see.” Commander Whitney took a step towards John. “And yet, Starfleet is the best place to study space phenomena and you’re already considering leaving.”

John cleared his throat. “Well, yes—”

“So, your conflict with Professor Randall had nothing to do with your decision to switch tracks?”

Clearly Whitney had done his homework on John Torres. John himself had nearly forgotten how he’d fought with Randall over grading on the midterm project and how it affected his overall coursework. It had come towards the end of his sophomore year and he’d already been seriously thinking about exploring other options. The issues he’d encountered with Randall was simply another straw on the camel’s back, but not the fatal one.

“No, no, of course not,” John said hastily. “Yes, we had a disagreement, but no, that wasn’t the reason.”

“Good. Starfleet officers look for solutions, and they certainly don’t back down from a challenge,” Whitney said. His tone remained mild, not at all accusatory, but John heard a warning in Whitney’s words. “Command officers do not look kindly upon officers who run from a problem rather than looking for ways to solve it.”

“I agree,” John said, not knowing what else to say.

“I also talked your commanding officer at SIMA,” Whitney said as if John had remained silent. “Commander Rohan rated your performance as average.” Whitney leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees and knitting his fingers together. “His feedback said you are competent at your daily duties but lack managerial courage and initiative. You are well liked by your colleagues, but do only what is necessary.” Whitney pressed his lips together. “That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement to give you a starship assignment.”

Anxiety churned in John’s stomach. He’d hoped this conversation would have headed in a different direction. “I’m making an effort to remedy those deficiencies,” he said softly.

“I’ve spent the last week trying to figure out what to do with you,” Whitney said. “To be honest, your record doesn’t inspire confidence, but I’m also not convinced you’ve been put in a position to adequately realize your potential.” He got up and returned to his desk. He pointed to two PADDs on his desk. “I have a couple of options here. One would give you the opportunity to serve on a soon to be commissioned starship, and the other would keep you in your current position. If you were me, and knowing everything I know about you, what would you do, Ensign?”

This was not what John had expected. He knew everything rested on this moment. He could play it safe or he could ask for the moon. After a moment of silent deliberation, he cleared his throat and said, “I would like the chance to prove myself, sir.”

“And who are you trying to prove yourself to, Ensign?” Whitney’s tone was sharp.

Everyone, John wanted to say, but more specifically his father and possibly even to Rosetta, even though she was now gone from his life. But it seemed trite to tell Commander Whitney the truth. “Myself,” he said quietly. “I’ve made decisions emotionally, not logically, and obviously, that’s a conflict that’s led me to where I am today. All I’m asking for is the chance to prove that I’ve been right all along, that my true strength is in gathering data, not charting it.”

“And if it’s not your true strength? What if you’re wrong?”

“Then I leave at the end of my two years.”

“I’m not interested in another average performance, Ensign.” Whitney rapped his fingers on the desk. “If I do give you the chance you’re asking for, you would be taking a spot from someone else who has earned it. Someone who has committed to a career in Starfleet. Someone who doesn’t have to be asked twice to do more than what’s expected.”

John flushed. “I understand that.” He willed himself to keep his emotions under control. After all, what was so bad about another two years in San Francisco? And after that, he could leave Starfleet and go anywhere in the galaxy he wanted to. Just get through this moment, he thought, and then you can deal with whatever comes next.

“Is there any possibility you would stay?” Whitney asked softly.

John blinked. “What?”

“If you had a starship assignment, would that change your mind about leaving?”

“I-I don’t know,” John said.

Whitney sighed. “I appreciate your honesty, Ensign. It still leaves me in a rough spot though.” He picked up one of the two PADDs from his desk. “I’m not in the business of making people stay past their expiration dates but I am taking a chance that given the right opportunity to fit your skill set and passion, you will excel and reconsider your decision to exit the organization in two years.”  He handed the PADD to John. “The starship USS Zephyr is in drydock now at Utopia Planetia. The shakedown cruise will commence in four months. They need science officers and your skill set and experience do match their needs.”

John took the PADD, willing his hands not to tremble. “Sir?”

“Your new orders are to report to Utopia Planetia and make yourself familiar with the labs aboard the Zephyr,” Whitney said. “If you pass the probation period, you will be on the ship when it departs. Your captain will be Elizabeth Braswell and you will serve on the staff of Lieutenant Commander Dawson.”

“Understood.”

“Any questions?”

“When do I leave for Utopia Planetia?”

“Next Friday. I understand from Commander Rohan that you’ve completed your final deliverables, so you can spend the next week preparing for your departure.” Whitney downed the last of his coffee. “You will alternate between San Francisco and Utopia Planetia for the next four months. The Captain has indicated she wants her crew to be completely acquainted with the ship and all of its systems prior to its initial mission.”

“Which is?”

“Mapping the Kolaris region.”

John’s eyes widened at the mention of the distant corner of Federation space. There were few inhabited planets that way, and no Federation space stations. It wasn’t a deep space mission, but he knew it would be exciting.

“It has the likelihood of being more than two years,” Whitney said gently.

“Yes, sir.”

Whitney regarded John gravely. “You’ve made it clear this is what you want, Ensign, and I’m taking a chance on you. Make the best of this opportunity.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” John said.

“Dismissed.”

John left Whitney’s office, his head spinning. A starship opportunity! He couldn’t wait to tell his friends. Of course, he’d leave out much of the conversation he’d had with Whitney. As much as he appreciated his friends, he didn’t need them to know exactly what Starfleet thought for them. He still wasn’t sure why Whitney had decided to give him the assignment on the Zephyr, but he did know he would make the most of it.

He was still contemplating the strange meeting and its outcome as he approached the edge of campus. Across the street, he saw a familiar figure standing in front of a store window, her attention on a PADD and seemingly unaware of the breeze whipping her voluminous skirt around her ankles.

“Hi, good morning,” John said as he approached Miral. She looked up, clearly startled by his arrival and greeting. “Sorry for scaring you.”

“No need to apologize,” Miral said. She laughed shyly. “I believe I am lost.”

“Where are you trying to go?”

She showed him a list of popular San Francisco attractions. “I decided to explore the city. I found my apartment… mobwI'.” She blushed. “Now it is my turn to apologize. I am not used to speaking Standard. I am still trying to find the right words.”

“No, it’s fine,” John said. He’d never been great at languages and relied on translators most of the time. Even the basics of Spanish eluded him, much to his father’s disappointment. “Your Standard is certainly better than my Klingon.” He gestured towards the PADD. “Looks like you’ve got all the touristy places down.”

“Is there a problem with that?”

“No, not at all. It will just be crowded.”

Miral looked disappointed. “I took the advice of the guide book.”

“As you should,” John said hastily, mentally kicking himself for the unintentional criticism he’d offered for Miral’s plans. “Touring Alcatraz, visiting Russian Hill, eating at Fisherman’s Wharf, all of these are great things to do.”

“But you would do something else?”

“I like the outdoors, so yes, the idea of standing shoulder to shoulder with crowds of people doesn’t really appeal to me,” John said. Gently he pulled Miral to the side to allow a pair of cadets to pass them. “And I guess it’s my fault for letting you fend for yourself when I offered to show you around in the first place.”

“But you are busy,” she said. “Did you not you return to duty today?”

“Yes and no. I got my assignment, but I don’t return to duty until next Friday.”

“And did you receive the assignment you desired?”

“If I prove myself, I’ll be on the USS Zephyr when it leaves for a two-year mission in four months.”

Miral smiled. “Congratulations. That is what you wanted.”

“Yes, it is.” At that moment, John’s stomach rumbled. “Have you eaten? I was so nervous, I skipped breakfast this morning. We can go back to that Klingon restaurant if you’d like. Celebrate my assignment with some gagh?”

Miral shook her head. “I would prefer to try some food that is traditional to Earth.”

“How about this,” John said, “if you don’t mind, I’d like to change out of my uniform. We can stop at my place, and then take a shuttle to Chinatown. I’ll take you to my favorite restaurant.” He grinned at her, hoping she would say yes. He was in a good mood and he wanted to share it with someone, even if that someone was a woman he’d only known for a few days. “What do you think?”

Miral’s smile, which was quickly starting to grow on him, spread across her face. “I would like that.”