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Part of USS Challenger: The Old Order Changeth

4. Petty Rivals

U.S.S. Challenger NCC-71099
January 4, 2401
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The sound of the door chime cut through the tranquillity of the ready room. Forrester dismissed the holographic screen in front of him with a downward swipe. He took a deep breath, held it briefly, and released it slowly out of his mouth. “Come.”

Forrester stood as his guest entered the room. Everett Ashford hadn’t changed much since Tom last saw him. His raven hair showed no signs of the grey flecks that had begun to creep into Forrester’s chestnut mane, and his brown eyes still held Tom with the same frosty look they always had. The man hadn’t changed at all.

“Captain Everett Ashford, reporting as ordered,” Ashford snapped to attention as he announced himself.

Forrester successfully fought the urge to roll his eyes at Ashford’s pettiness. “I think we can drop the formalities, don’t you?” 

“As you wish, sir.” Ashford continued to glare at Forrester, who was unfazed, as he stood crisply at parade rest.

Forrester leaned forward with his palms on his desk, “Look, we’ve never liked each other. But Starfleet has assigned me command of the squadron and you as my deputy.” He sighed heavily and slowly pushed himself off the desk, standing to his full height, “We don’t have to like each other, but we do have to work together. Drop the BS.”

“Fine,” Ashford finally begrudgingly agreed after scowling at Forrester for a few tense seconds. “What will the Inverness’ role be in this new squadron?

Forrester could empathise with Ashford. If their roles were reversed, he would be resentful too, and while he hoped that he would be more gracious in that situation than Ashford had been so far, he seriously doubted it.

“Logistical support,” Rifling through the multitude of PADDs on his desk, Forrester found the one he was looking for and handed it over. 

Ashford’s scowl deepened, “So we’ll just be bouncing between the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants?”

“No,” Forrester replied with a head shake. “While you’ll have to travel back to the Alpha Quadrant occasionally, you’ll spend most of your time in the Gamma Quadrant. Logistical support is another way of saying you’ll chart star systems and provide engineering support for the rest of the squadron, take on second-contact missions, and investigate stellar phenomena. Basically, whatever’s required.”

Without looking up from the PADD, Ashford said, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” He grumbled. “Providing engineering support explains why engineers from Starbase Bravo have started converting one of my cargo bays into an industrial replication facility.”

“And why a detachment from the Corps of Engineers is being assigned to you,” Forrester added. “They’re due to arrive today.” Ashford’s head snapped up, and he fixed Forrester with a look of barely contained anger. “Commodore Stafford’s orders,” Forrester explained quickly.

The anger in Ashford’s eyes dimmed, though it wasn’t completely extinguished. The fight he’d planned to pick with Forrester was forgotten, and he returned to the PADD. “Have you selected an officer to be your new CMO?”

“Lieutenant Commander Powell, your ACMO,” Ashford replied.

Powell was a good choice, and he’d been on the Challenger for over a year and had impressed Forrester. “Doctor Powell’s long overdue for this promotion. He was my first choice to replace our previous CMO, but Starfleet assigned Doctor Young instead.”

“Glad to hear I’m not the only one Starfleet’s springing new personnel on,” They shared a sympathetic look, though it was all too brief, and Ashford’s eyes darkened again quickly.

The sound of the door chime filled the room again. “Come.”

Anastasia Matheson was buzzing with excitement. Her meeting with Fleet Captain Forrester provided her first chance to set foot aboard a Galaxy-class starship, and she was making the most of it. Ana beamed over early so she could speak to two Challenger crew members; she even managed to find time to look around the science facilities.

She stepped into the ready room at the captain’s command to find Captain Ashford already there. Ana stepped up to the desk on Ashford’s left with a beaming smile brightening her features. “Anastasia Matheson, reporting as ordered.”

As Fleet Captain Forrester came around his desk, Matheson had a few seconds to study him. Forrester was a good seven or eight inches taller; Ana was only slightly taller than his shoulders. Ordinarily, she would’ve found him an intimidating figure, but his lips were turned upwards in a friendly smile, and a twinkle in his hazel eyes put Ana at ease. Flecks of grey were sprinkled throughout his brown hair and beard. “Captain Matheson, it’s a pleasure. Welcome aboard the Challenger.”

“Thank you, sir.” Matheson’s smile widened as she shook his hand. “It’s quite a ship you have here.”

“She certainly is.” His pride was evident in his voice. “I’ve been very fortunate.” 

Ashford scoffed, getting both their attention. “This is Captain Everett Ashford,” Forrester said, apparently unfazed by Ashford’s outburst. “Squadron deputy commander.” 

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, captain.” Ana’s cheerful smile faltered when she came face to face with Ashford’s dour features. He gave her hand the briefest, most perfunctory shake, and if he made any noise, Ana didn’t hear it. 

Turning uncertainly back to Forrester, she found him once more on the opposite side of his desk. “What’s your status?”

“Repairs to the Higgs are almost complete, and we should be good to go in another day or two,” Ana told him. “I’m still missing an XO, a chief flight control officer and a chief engineer.”

Forrester nodded. “Are there any members of my crew that you believe could do any of those jobs?” He asked. “I have a few suggestions of my own.”

“I’d like Lieutenant Armstrong as my chief engineer,” Ana replied. She’d chosen two candidates to fill those three roles and had already sounded them out. “And I’d like to request Lieutenant Commander Mitchell as my Exec and CFCO.”

Ashford scoffed again, but this time Ana ignored him. Forrester seemed surprised by her choice of Mitchell, but his surprise only registered briefly on his face before he carefully schooled his features. “Both of them will serve you well. Submit the requests, and I’ll approve them.”

“When do we get underway, sir?” Ana asked, unable to mask her eagerness. Then again, she wasn’t really trying.

Forrester reached for a PADD and handed it to Ana. “We’ll depart Starbase Bravo on Monday and proceed to the Bajor System. Once on the other side of the wormhole, we’ll travel to Opaka Outpost for a local strategic and diplomatic briefing. On the way, we’ll develop our plans for exploring the Riada Sector, make any final adjustments after those briefings, and we can get started.” He paused and looked from one to the other. “Questions?”

Ana glanced at Ashford, shaking his head stiffly while fixing Forrester with a frosty look. She wasn’t sure if the chill she felt on her skin was from the Challenger’s life support system or that look; probably the latter, she decided.

No questions sprung immediately to the fore of Ana’s mind, but she was sure that one would occur to her the minute the meeting was over.

“There are two more matters pertaining to you and the Higgs, Captain Matheson,” Forrester said. “The first is that you’re being promoted to the rank of captain,” a wide grin broke out on his face, “congratulations.”

Ana was stunned. She was young for such a promotion, and the voice of doubt in the back of her mind questioned whether she was worthy or ready for this. As always, she wrestled that voice into submission and accepted the small box from Forrester with a proud smile. Slowly opening it, there was a single sliver pip inside, her fourth. She looked up at Forrester with tears welling in her eyes. “Thank you, sir.”

“Now for the bad news,” Forrester’s smile fell slightly. “I’m reassigning Lieutenant Commander Egan to the Challenger.” 

The news came as a shock to Ana. Her brain started quickly running through the reasons that Forrester was doing this and, as it always did, jumped to a conclusion; he’d found out about her relationship with Callum and didn’t think a captain could have a romantic relationship with a subordinate. The pride and happiness she’d felt moments earlier were extinguished, replaced by anger and shame. “Understood.” 

Forrester eyes her for a moment before turning to Ashford, “I think we’re done here. I’d like a private word with Captain Matheson.” 

Ashford shot Ana a frosty look before turning and leaving her alone with Forrester.

“I’m sorry for reassigning Egan,” Forrester told her gently. “I know the two of you are,” he paused for a second as if he was searching for the right word, “close.”

Ana nodded slowly. She didn’t know how but Forrester was already aware of her relationship with Callum. “I know it’s frowned upon, but I wasn’t in command when we started dating.”

“Captain, as long as it doesn’t affect the good order and discipline aboard your ship, they don’t care if you’re dating your counselor,” Forrester said with a lopsided smile. “And neither do I.”

So that wasn’t the reason Callum was being transferred? “So, you’re not transferring him because of his relationship with me?”

“If that were the reason, it would make me a terrible hypocrite.” Ana’s confusion must have been written on her face because Forrester explained, “My CDO is also my boyfriend.”

“Then why?”

“Because you have three counselors for a crew of eighty, and I have three for a crew of over one thousand.” One of Ana’s junior counselors was probably ready to make the jump to senior counselor of a small ship like the Higgs, while Callum was the perfect candidate to head up the counseling section on board a vessel of the Challenger’s size. “My need is greater than yours.”

Ana nodded slowly and flashed Forrester an appreciative smile. “Understood, sir.”

“If there’s anything I can do to make this easier on you, just let me know,” Forrester added.

Judging by his voice, he understood the thoughts running through Ana’s mind at that moment. He’d probably had similar thoughts about his own relationship. Thankfully Ana and Callum had discussed this possibility and were prepared for it, but Forrester’s offer was gratefully received. “Thank you, sir.”

“Alright, I won’t keep you any longer.”

Ana took that as her dismissal. With one final smile at Forrester, she left the ready room. As she’d suspected, a question occurred to her as she crossed the bridge, but it wasn’t pressing enough to turn back and bother Forrester with it now. 

Ana glanced down at the black velvet-covered box in her hand as she entered the turbolift. It felt heavier than it really was, weighed down by the meaning of that fourth pip she would soon wear on her collar.