The Captain and The Counselor (Author's Note: This is a character study in one act, a short-story told in the ready room of Captain Inga Strauss, C.O. of the USS Blanchard. Readers of the Tales of the USS Bluefin series will recognize Inga, and note this story takes place a decade after the events of that series. Counselor Phil Montainge was a key character in my Star Trek: Sargasso series once hosted on the now (sadly) defunct "Tales of the 11th Fleet" forum. The reference to a certain starbase comes from a series of the same name, buried somewhere on this forum. I beg your forgiveness for the rough flow of the story as I haven't written a word of fan fiction in three years. I suppose my muse coughed up some pandemic prose while I remain sequestered in my undisclosed location. Fair winds and following seas. - TLR) Stardate 65466.16 (19 June 2388) USS Franklin Blanchard NCC-90764 The Federation Starship, USS Franklin Blanchard, cruised at a leisurely warp 6 en route to Starbase 184. The relatively new ship was, in fact, an upgrade to a design dating back over a century. The Miranda-class (Block IV, Improved) frigate, differed from her older siblings in two major regards. First, her warp nacelles were faired into the main hull, much like the Defiant-class ships. Second, she wore ablative/stealth armor plating in a deep gray livery, a stark contrast to the alabaster hulls of older Mirandas. Other upgrades included Type X phasers, improved sensors, and the latest in shield technology. The result was a ship far better suited for combat than the older Mirandas that had served as cannon fodder during the Dominion War some dozen years earlier. Unfortunately, the results of the upgrades were less than hoped as the Blanchard and her two sister ships, Bainbridge and V'Rel were both marginally slower and less agile than earlier ships of the ubiquitous class. Many engineers derided the ships as “parts-bin pretenders” and dismissed them as a result of bean-counters having greater influence with the brass than the engineers and designers. While the crews of the three completed ships generally had few complaints about the overall performance of the vessels, the odd aesthetics resulted in less than flattering nicknames. The Franklin Blanchard was known both affectionately as the “Old Bastard” and, derisively, as the “Franklinstein.” And, although Starfleet Command continued to express their “highest confidence,” in the Miranda-class (Block IV Improved), it is interesting to note that construction of additional class vessels has been suspended indefinitely. Captain Inga Strauss stared out the viewport of her ready room, absently watching the passing starfield. A mug of decaffeinated tea sat ignored and cold on her otherwise vacant desktop. The 42 year-old commanding officer of USS Franklin Blanchard could easily pass for 30. She was still petite and fit, in as good a shape as when she was on the Academy's gymnastics team. Her ice blue eyes added a striking element to her pleasing features. As a junior officer, she was cute and perky, with more than a touch of awkwardness. As a senior officer, she still turned heads, but the endearing perkiness and awkwardness had faded with time. Those that knew her well from her days as Executive Officer of the USS Bluefin would note small but significant changes. Her blond hair was much shorter, for one. And telltale lines etched in the corners of her eyes from long hours and less sleep gave evidence to stress, loss, and the burdens of command. Time, tutelage, and hard-wrought experience tempered the once socially awkward woman into a confident ship's commander. But other than her promotion to captain and receiving command, first, of the Solstice and, more recently, the Blanchard, the past decade had not been kind. Those last hours of the Bluefin still haunted her dreams. Then, there was the other thing . . . She really didn't want to talk about it. Which was why she dreaded the appointment with their new ship's Counselor, Philip Montaigne. In his brief two-month tenure on the Blanchard, Commander Montaigne had proven to be eccentric, charming, annoying, persistent, and totally unflappable. Strauss had managed to keep their previous counselor at bay, allowing for only the bare minimum of sessions required by Starfleet, and even those were mercifully brief. Lt. Commander Armistead, their former Counselor, seemed nonplussed by Strauss' reticence to “open up,” and appeared intimidated by Strauss' apparent ability to stare right through her. That was but one of many lessons she had learned from Captain Joseph Akinola. But Commander Philip Montaigne, M.D. was made of sterner stuff. She hated to admit it, but she was as intrigued by the man as she was apprehensive. Of course, she had read his personnel file before he came aboard. Unexpectedly, she learned Montaigne had once held the rank of captain and commanded the USS Belvedere, an Excelsior-class starship. After a classified mission following the disaster at Wolf 359, Montaigne had resigned his commission, left Starfleet, and gone to medical school, earning his M.D., and specializing in psychiatry. With the onset of the Dominion War, his reserve status was reactivated and he returned to Starfleet, as a commander and counselor. He served on the USS Sargasso under Captain Nathan Porter as part of the relief efforts following the war. Oddly enough, the details of those years were omitted from his file jacket. She had been nonplussed to receive a subspace message from Admiral Nathan Porter, commending Montaigne to her and telling her, “He'll probably drive you nuts but, in time, you'll wonder how you commanded a ship without him.” But her doubts remained. And so did her apprehension. She had no desire to have her psyche peeled away by some pshrink, former starship captain or not. Her combadge chirped and she slapped with more force than necessary, annoyed at her own wool-gathering. “Strauss, go ahead.” “Head's up, incoming,” came the voice of her Executive Officer, Commander Raymond Graycloud. She allowed herself a slight smile. “Where away, Commander?” she replied. “He just got on turbo-lift three. He should be on deck five momentarily.” “Is the dog with him?” Montaigne had an English Bulldog that shared his quarters. Often, the dog accompanied him about the ship. She supposed it to be a therapy animal of some sort. “Negative. He's moving at flank speed today, so better have your shields up and weapons hot.” “Copy that,” she replied, and paused. “How did it go with you?” “Give me half-an-hour curled in the fetal position, and I'll be fine.” She smirked. “Make it fifteen minutes, then relieve Lt. Vashtee. She gets delusions of grandeur if she sits in the big chair too long.” A chuckle. “Acknowledged. What's the safe word if the Counselor's interrogation gets rough?” Strauss snorted. “Screw you, Ray. Strauss out.” Her door annunciator chirped and the smile faded as did her short-lived good mood. Standing, she absently tugged at her already flawless uniform and stood. A sense of dread descended on her like a curtain. “Come,” she announced with a note of authority she did not feel. The door to the ready room slid open and Counselor Philip Montaigne stepped through. He was not an imposing figure; his silver hair was somewhat askew and the non-regulation brown cardigan sweater hung on his frame. Now in his seventies, his face was weathered with wrinkles and his prominent nose was a bit too large for his face. His gray eyes were clear, though hooded with heavy lids, but those eyes were both intelligent and inquisitive. He looked more like a professor or someone's grandfather than a Starfleet officer. He held two steaming mugs in his hands. His face broke into a disarming smile. Shields up, thought Inga. “Hi,” he began without preamble. “The replicators on this ship make lousy coffee, so I brewed some from my private stash. It's been a while since I made Raktajino, but I think it's okay.” Strauss blinked, caught off-balance by the unexpected greeting. “Uh, thanks, but Dr. Yue said I should lay off caffeine.” “And Dr. Yue is an excellent physician and her advice is sound,” Montaigne said as he set the mug of Raktajino on Strauss' desk. The aroma was tantalizing. “But, an occasional indulgence can be good for your soul . . . in moderation, of course. I wrote a paper about the psycho-emotional benefits of chocolate. Ever read it?” “Uh, no. Can't say I have.” “Pity.” He took a sip from his own mug and shoved his opposite hand in a pocket of his sweater. He smiled contentedly and studied Strauss for a moment. “Are we going to sit down, or spend the time standing and staring at each other while we drink unhealthy beverages?” He asked. “I'm fine either way.” “Please, have a seat, Counselor,” Strauss replied, feeling somewhat foolish. “Thanks!” Montaigne eased into one of the nicely padded guest chairs and crossed his legs, bobbing a foot to some unheard melody. “And it's Phil, please,” he added. Captain Strauss sipped the Klingon beverage, savoring the rich, spicy heat on her tongue. It was divine. Cocking an appreciative eyebrow, she hoisted her mug. “This is really good, Counsel . . . um, Phil.” Montaigne waved away the complement. “I've picked up a few useful skills over the years.” He glanced around the ready room. “Glad to see they updated the ready rooms on these ships. I served on a Miranda once, many years ago. The Captain's ready room was more like a closet.” He took a sip of coffee and fixed his gaze on her. “Probably about the same size as the one on the Bluefin.” Her hand froze momentarily as she was moving her mug to her lips. Montaigne noticed. “You don't want to talk about it,” he said. It wasn't a question. “No offense, Commander, but I was in a hospital for three weeks, then sequestered on a star base for another two months, was interrogated by officers I didn't know, endured a board of inquiry, cross-examined by a score of counselors, and attended too many memorial services. I have already said everything I wish to say about the incident.” He nodded. “For what it's worth, Captain, I agree.” She blinked. “You do?” "I do.” He placed his mug on a side table and rubbed his chin. “Been there, done that. One of the most demeaning and frustrating experiences of my life. I sure as hell don't like to talk about it.” Glowering, she leaned across her desk, fixing him with The Stare. “I hope, Counselor, for your sake, that you aren't making up some story to make me open up because of some sense of shared . . .” For a moment, Montaigne's genteel demeanor slipped and his eyes flashed with a flintiness befitting a one time Starship commander. “Captain Strauss.” His words were not loud, but the familiar “command note” was present. For a brief moment, she remembered sitting across from a tall, dark-skinned Captain who would, on occasion, use that tone with an over-eager executive officer.” But Inga did not flinch. Now she was the Captain. This was her ship, her command. She nodded. “My apologies. But just so we understand one another, I do not like to be played.” “Fair enough, Captain. And I don't play around with the truth.” The intense gaze softened. “For your information, I'm not here to pour salt in old wounds.” Strauss swiveled her chair to stare out the viewport. She was wound tight and irritable. “Then why are you here, Phil? If you want to check off that you 'counseled the Captain' and file your report, then I'd say, “mission accomplished” and we're done.” Montaigne shook his head. “I have no agenda other than conversation, Captain. If you want to talk about yourself or the price of U'tella eggs on Rigel IV, it's all the same to me.” He took a sip of coffee and settled back in his chair, the picture of unhurried ease. Captain Strauss folded her arms and turned back to face the older man. She was torn between a desire to dismiss him and her inate curiosity. Curiosity won. “Okay, Phil. Let's talk. On the condition that we talk about you today.” He shrugged. “I'm game. What would you like to know?” She leaned forward. “You were a Starfleet captain, a commander of a significant ship of the line. Most younger officers would sacrifice a major organ for such an honor. Yet, you walked away from it. Why?” He smiled his maddening little smile and absently swirled the dregs of his coffee. “Gee, I thought you were going to ask something hard.” “Are you going to answer or are you going to dance around the question?” Montaigne sighed and met her gaze. She thought she saw tiredness in his eyes and maybe sorrow? Regret? “Tell you what, Inga . . . is it okay if I call you by your given name?” She gave a consenting nod. The man was old enough to be her father, plus having held the rank of captain once upon a time. “Thanks. How about you come around the desk and sit in this other, very nice and comfortable chair? It's more conducive to a friendly conversation, don't you think?” Strauss restrained a sigh, but complied, coming around the desk and sitting opposite Montaigne. The Counselor noted the crossed arms, an unconscious defensive pose, but chose not to comment. “Understand, Inga,” he began, “that there are some things that are classified above your security level. But those things are secondary to my reasons for resigning my commission and walking away from command of a ship and crew I loved.” She nodded. “Understood.” He appeared pensive, as if gathering his thoughts, then reached into a pocket of his cardigan and pulled out a small, round object of silver and glass. “Is that a pocket watch?” Strauss asked, both amused and surprised. “Time is an illusion. Lunch, doubly so,” he muttered absently as he quickly scanned the ancient timepiece and replaced it in his pocket. “Einstein?” “Douglas Adams,” he replied, automatically. “Sorry, I do have other appointments plus my blood sugar tends to wander, so the good Dr. Yue insists I eat three squares a day. Beats an artificial pancreas.” Strauss smiled in spite of herself. She wasn't sure if the eccentric bit was an act to disarm her or was genuine. Regardless, she had to admit, he was a charmer. Montaigne cleared his throat and he sank back further into the chair. He steepled his fingers and his eyes lost focus, as if he were looking someplace else. “I joined Starfleet because I wanted to be an explorer, y'know, like Archer, Kirk, and Z'Thel. The gods smiled upon me, as I was able to live out the dream for most of my career, serving on deep-space explorer ships. . . the Cassiopeia, the Asimov, and ultimately, in command of the Belvedere. My gifting was diplomacy and I commanded by consensus, trusting my senior officers to do their jobs. Not that I couldn't light a fire under someone's ass if the occasion called.” He hefted his mug, frowning at the empty vessel. “Mind if I use your replicator? Disparaging remarks aside, I think better with a constant flow of coffee.” She gestured. “Help yourself.” He rose and ordered a Cafe' Americana, which dutifully shimmered into existence. “Want anything?” he asked. “I'm good, thanks,” Strauss responded. Montaigne settled back into the chair and took a tentative sip of the replicated coffee. He grimaced. “Beggars can't be choosers,” he quipped. “Where was I?” “Setting asses on fire,” Strauss replied with an arched eyebrow. “Oh yeah,” he grinned. “Not my first inclination, mind you. And I worked with great people, so I seldom had to strike a match.” The reference was a bit archaic for Strauss, but she caught the gist. “Anyway,” he continued, “I was thoroughly enjoying life as a Starfleet Captain, exploring new worlds, boldly going, etc. etc. We made seven first-contacts on Belvedere. Nothing approaching Picard's record, of course, but we did alright. Three of those worlds are now Federation members. I have to say, I'm proud of what we accomplished.” He took another sip of coffee, and Strauss sensed a mood shift. The Counselor was silent for several moments before sighing. He fixed his gaze on Inga, his expression sorrowful. “Then came the Borg, and the Battle of Wolf 359.” Inga felt the familiar sting whenever Wolf 359 was mentioned. Her father, Captain Dieter Strauss, had died in the battle. Swallowing, she asked. “Were you there? Did you know my father?” He shook his head. “No on both counts. We were on the far side of the Alpha quadrant when the Borg arrived. As to your father, I knew of him by reputation . . . I was a year or two ahead of him at the Academy, but I don't believe we had any classes together.” A pause. “For what it's worth, Dieter Strauss had a sterling reputation as a Starship captain. I am truly sorry for your loss.” Strauss forced a smile. “It was a long time ago, but I appreciate it.” He nodded. “I apologize for bringing up painful memories, but it's germane to my story.” A pause. “I am about to dive into highly classified waters, but maybe if I give you the outline, you can figure out the rest. Hell, at my age, I doubt I'd get sent to New Zealand or Sundancer if I let a few things slip. Fair enough?” “Fair enough.” “When we received word of the Borg incursion, I ordered us back toward sector 001 at maximum warp, anticipating engaging the Borg. Thankfully, the crew of the Enterprise rescued Captain Picard and were able to use his connection with the Borg to disable them.” Montaigne rubbed his face, choosing his next words carefully. “Starfleet Command ordered us to Wolf 359 for the rescue operation. As you well know, there were few enough of those souls. Less than 100 were found alive in escape pods. All the starships were destroyed. You know all of that, of course.” She nodded. “At least Father's body was recovered. There was some comfort in that for me, my Mother, and brother." The Counselor nodded in understanding. “Inga, I must ask you to imagine something unpleasant. What do you suppose happened to the other survivors?” Strauss frowned. “What other survivors?” “After about two weeks, we had recovered all the life pods, completed our scans of the wrecked ships, and scanned the system for organic matter. But the results didn't add up.” “How could that . . .” her eyes widened in understanding. “The Borg . . . assimilated them.” “Yes. And we estimated that included at least 1,800 Starfleet personnel.” He took another sip of coffee, holding the mug tightly in both hands. “Did you ever wonder what happened to the disabled Borg cubes?” he asked, quietly. “I . . . no, not really. I supposed they were studied, the crew members rescued? . . .” Montaigne didn't answer. “Phil?” “You might suppose that,” he said, his voice distant. “But you would be wrong.” Montaigne stood, wincing slightly. “You're an intelligent woman, Captain Strauss. I think you can guess the rest. After that . . .ghastly incident, I went into a downward spiral . . . drinking heavily, depressed, I had to make a change. So, I traded in four gold pips for a year of rehab and walking on beaches. That led to a great appreciation for the work of counselors, so I went to school to become one. Fate has a twisted sense of humor and here I am, back in Starfleet . . . sober for 18 years and at peace with the universe . . . most days.” Strauss was aghast, unable to speak. She stood, instinctively approaching him and placing a hand on his arm. “I am so sorry,” she said at last. “Don't be,” he said, his smile returning. “In the end, I found my calling.” Strauss hesitated, “Did you . . . were you ordered to . . .” A sharp shake of his head. “Ordered? Yes. But I refused. My First Officer carried out the order, though under protest. He became captain of the Belvedere after I quit, then he also resigned about a year later. Last I heard, he was part-owner of a bulk freighter.” They stood there, not speaking for a moment. Something had been forged during this strange meeting between the Captain and this enigmatic Counselor. “Hey, I really do need to run along,” said Montaigne, breaking the reverie. “Gotta grab lunch before my next appointment and make sure Jake has kibble and water.” “Jake is your dog?” “Yep. English bulldog. We come as a pair.” “Is he a therapy dog? An emotional support animal?” “Well, he's a big part of my therapy,” he replied with a grin. “Phil . . . why did you share that with me? That had to be incredibly difficult.” He turned to face her. “One of the basic principles they teach in command school . . . never ask anyone to do something you won't do yourself.” She nodded. “Thanks for the reminder.” As he moved toward the door, a sudden question popped into her head, unbidden but unrelenting. She loathed asking, but it was at the heart of her despondency. Even more than the last hours of the Bluefin. “Phil . . . ever been to Starbase 66?” He stopped abruptly. For a moment, neither one moved or spoke. Finally, he replied without turning. “Can't say that I have.” With that, the door to the ready room swished open and Phil Montaigne departed. Captain Strauss went back to her desk, placing the empty mugs in the replicator slot where they disappeared, broken down at the sub-atomic level to be recycled for future use. She stood and stared out the viewport, unaware that she was hugging herself. She tried not to think about the thing she couldn't discuss with the Counselor. And it wasn't about the Bluefin, though she tried to convince herself othewise. No, the elephant that loomed large in her psyche came forward only recently when she reviewed her personal logs from the past six months. There was a discrepancy between the ship's log and her own log that covered three days. According to the ship's log, they had made a stop at Starbase 66 in the Coalsack Nebula, aka the Deep Black, for those three days. Inga had absolutely no memory of Starbase 66. And there were no entries in her personal log for those days, log entries that only she could have erased. It was as if she was hiding a terrible secret from herself. * * * Phil Montainge entered his cabin whereupon he collapsed onto his sofa. He took several shuddering breaths to quell the nausea that threatened to overtake him. It had been a long time, years even, since he last suffered from a panic attack. Jake hopped up from his bed by Montaigne's desk, and approached his master, stubby tail wagging furiously. The English Bulldog cocked his head in puzzlement as Montaigne failed to reach down and scratch his broad head. Slowly, Montaigne's heart rate subsided and the nausea passed. Still somewhat shaky, he rose and went to his desk and dropped into the antique chair. He stared at nothing for a moment, then his eyes tracked down to the lower left-hand drawer. He reached down and slid open the drawer. Sequestered inside, a bottle containing an electric blue liquid beckoned. His hand moved toward it, seemingly of its own accord, when he came to himself and. with a cry of revulsion, he slammed the drawer shut. “Starbase 66,” he whispered. Saying it caused the hairs at the nape of his neck rise, though he didn't know why. At least it didn't trigger a panic attack this time. Why did Captain Strauss ask that question? Why did he not answer truthfully. Yet in a sense, he had . . . “Can't say that I have,” had been his reply. Part of him knew he literally could not say it. That way lay madness. The End. For Now.