For the fifth time, Sydney tried to attach the fourth pip to her collar. She needed to put it on before boarding the shuttle and definitely have it on before reaching Starbase 168.
Behind her on the bed in her stateroom, her bags were packed and waiting. The Armaden Station dockmaster notified her of the shuttle Esty's arrival nearly fifteen minutes ago. Since then, she struggled to complete this one simple task. She held the insignia to her collar to join it with the other three pips that resided there. Her eyes momentarily flicked up to her image in the vanity mirror. Sighing softly, she lowered her hand and rolled the emblem between thumb and forefinger.
She continued looking into the mirror, studying the face before her. Her features hadn't changed between then and fifteen minutes ago, or that morning, or two days ago.
I'm still Sydney Shelby Satterwhite. Momma's "Shelly Belle" and Daddy's "Baby Girl".
No...I'm someone else now.
I am Captain Sydney Shelby Satterwhite, commanding officer of the Federation Starship USS Adirondack.
So I had better start acting like it.
The communique from Command announcing her promotion came just before Sydney got into bed for the night two days ago. This was shortly followed by congratulations and new orders from Admiral Hepburn, her new superior. After not being able to sleep for three hours, she received several large packets of data from Captain Stewart, the Adirondack's current CO, whom she would relieve of command once she arrived at 168. The packets contained every performance review of every system of the Intrepid-class ship for the seven-month duration of her shakedown, crew manifests and evals, stores inventories, department status reports, requests for personnel, equipment, and working space from said departments, and dozens of other documents. She didn't get to bed again until 1213 hours the next day.
When she woke up, Sydney called home and told her parents the news. On the viewscreen, they cried through "we're so proud of you" and "we love you", while Big Momma, who had been visiting, screamed and danced for joy in the background.
Sydney laughed and joked, "tell that Hetterford woman to sit down and control herself."
Big Momma bent over Daddy's shoulder and said to the screen in mock-offense, "now that's not how a newly-minted starship captain is supposed to act! Ordering her grandmother around--ha!"
Sydney was still laughing long after the call had ended, and she returned to reading reports. When she took a break, she sent a quick message to her sister Savannah, promising to call once she was settled in and had a little more time.
After a fitful night of sleep, it was time to go. A small box containing a single gold pip arrived just after she had finished packing. She opened it and stared at the tiny emblem. Part of her wasn't yet comfortable about possessing it, about what it would mean to wear it. But she felt the changes beginning. The data cramming of the past 48 hours didn't seem so alien to her now, and a growing pride had begun to spread through her as she read of the Adirondack meeting or exceeding her benchmarks. The personnel evals spoke of a bright, professional, hard-working, close-knit crew crazy to get to a new mission and ready to set upon it with relish and zeal.
The excitement overcame her reticence as she went to the mirror to pin on the insignia.
But it didn't last long. The doubts whispered, and she hesitated. And continued to hesitate once she was told the Esty had docked.
Sydney gritted her teeth, put the emblem back in its box, and shoved it into a trouser pocket. One last look at her image, then she picked up her luggage and left.
She made her way through the station's teeming concourse to the outer lower docking sections. Entering the Docking Port 75 corridor, she passed a small group of people looking out a viewport. It stretched from a meter above the floor to rise in a curve overhead, showing several levels of docking facilities rising high above. She stopped behind the observers and looked up. Connected to the highest docking level was the huge looming form of a Galaxy-class starship. She read the registry number on the underside of the vessel's oblong saucer, and her jaw dropped open in shock.
NCC-79867...the Ithaca...it can't be...
When Sydney recovered, the group had moved away to her left, back toward the main concourse. She was still giving questioning glances up to the Ithaca, when she became aware of a familiar presence nearby. Eleven years still had not completely prepared her for its arrival, as the powerful aura seemed to enter a room long before its possessor could ever be seen. Yet, it had become comfortable, even welcome.
She gathered a bit of courage and turned to her right. At the end of the corridor, an airlock stood open, showing the interior of a type-8 shuttle beyond. In front of the portal, a young woman in a Starfleet uniform waited, along with someone else. The man, also in a Starfleet uniform, turned his tall frame toward Sydney's direction. His calm demeanor and Vulcan imperturbability could not totally hide his pleasure at seeing her.
The young woman noticed Sydney and quickly came over.
The side of Sydney's neck twitched. "That's me."
"Ensign Nu�ez, sir. I'll be taking you to Starbase 168."
"Ensign." She drew a careful breath. "Starfleet protocol aside, I prefer to be addressed as 'Captain' or 'ma'am'."
Sydney glanced over the Ensign's shoulder at Sutek.
"How long has he been standing there?"
"About as long as I have," Nu�ez said. "A friend of yours, ma'am?"
"I'll take your luggage aboard."
Still looking at the Vulcan, Sydney relinquished her bags to Nu�ez. Sutek stepped aside and bowed his head slightly to the Ensign as she entered the airlock. He then turned his gaze back upon Sydney. She couldn't find the means to move, or speak, or wave hello. Even at that distance, it was Sutek's eyes that took all of her attention. He blinked, then moved toward her. Any other time, Sydney couldn't look him in the face for too long. This time was different. She never thought it was possible, but as he drew closer, she saw so many things those gray eyes. Warmth, comradeship, admiration, understanding, fondness. And pride. Overwhelming, unabashed pride. She could not dishonor that by looking away.
Sutek stopped in front of Sydney and studied her in silence. There was nothing for either of them to say.
After what felt like the passing of centuries, Sutek spoke.
"It is agreeable to see you again...Number One."
Sydney couldn't help but break out into a smile. Her former CO didn't appear to mind such a blatant emotional display.
"It's...good to see you, too, sir," she said. "It's been a long time."
"Four years, three months, fifteen days, seven hours, thirty-three minutes, and forty point seven-six seconds."
Sutek raised an eyebrow. "Of course."
She restrained an urge to reach for her collar. "When did you find out?"
"Five point three-six days ago."
"That was nearly the time I was dropped off here. Making sure they dotted the 'I's and crossed the 'T's before telling me, I bet."
"The ways of Command are mysterious to behold."
Captain Sutek had several connections in Command itself, so it didn't surprise Sydney that he knew of her promotion and assignment before she did. She actually thought it was better that he did know beforehand, to save her the task of telling him while still in shock from the speed of events taking place.
"So," she continued, "Why are you here, if I might ask?"
"Taking on four new crew members, disembarking five, and receiving seven civilians and their equipment to be taken to the Jolark IV polar laboratories."
"No shore leave?"
"The next opportunity for shore leave will be at our next destination."
"Hmm. The most direct way to Jolark IV is by way of...Starbase 168. How coincidental. But by the time you arrive there, I'll be gone." She glanced up through the viewport at Sutek's ship docked above. "So, the Ithaca is your lady now?"
He followed her gaze. "For the past two point seven-nine years. She is quite different from the Pennsylvania. More 'easy-going' and not as intent to have her way."
Grinning, Sydney nodded at his comment. Her first job on the Pennsylvania--an elegant Excelsior--was as helmsman, and the ship let her know very early in her tenure who was the boss. Sydney accepted that and treated her with respect; the Penn put her trust in the young Ensign and proudly lived out the name of her class.
The two Captains faced one another.
"Who did they give the Penn to?" Sydney said.
"Commander Lutan Hon'shyll. An inside promotion."
"My replacement. She's in good hands, then."
Both Vulcan eyebrows rose this time. "No one could replace my most excellent First Officer, only succeed her."
Sudden tingling in her cheeks forced Sydney to cover them and the new smile that was forming.
"And my former Number One," Sutek continued, "needs to learn to accept compliments from her former commanding officer."
Then, Sydney became very conscious of her incorrect insignia. She went into her pocket and withdrew the box holding the last pip.
"Um...would you...could you...please?"
She opened the box to show its contents. Faint confusion flickered across Sutek's face, then he understood. He picked up the tiny emblem and attached it to Sydney's collar, performing the simple act with all the solemnity reserved for a ceremony in front of Starfleet top brass and Federation officials.
"I have never done this for any of my prot�g�s when they reached Captain," he said, stepping back. "Until now. Thank you."
Any remaining discomfort she had about wearing that fourth pip slipped away. For certain, there would be times that pip would feel like the weight of the world, but this was not that time. Now, it felt real. It felt right.
Sydney recalled what she said to Sutek years ago, when he pinned the third pip on her collar for her promotion to lieutenant commander.
"I come to serve."
Sutek bowed. "Your service honors me."
"And you honor me, sir."
"We are equals in rank," he said. "It is not required for you to address me in that manner."
"I choose to."
"Then, so be it...ma'am."
And somehow, that, too, felt right.
Sutek moved to one side and favored Sydney with the barest hint of a closed-lipped smile. "May I escort you to your shuttle, Captain?"
The power of speech left Sydney once more. She acknowledged his offer with a nod and walked with him to the airlock.