Summary: No amount of training could have prepared Voyager's crew for life in the Delta Quadrant. A day in the life of one Starfleet officer. Season 3.

Disclaimer: Star Trek belongs to Paramount/CBS. No copyright infringement is intended.

A/N: This is my first attempt at writing something fictional in first person POV. (Well, at least since high school English class, and that was a while ago now.)

My very grateful thanks to Delwin for beta-reading and all the usual encouragement.


Birthdays are the worst.

My father's.

My mother's.

My own.

I've had three on Voyager now, the first a few months after our abrupt arrival in the Delta Quadrant. Voyager's mission to the Badlands was only expected to last a few weeks. I'd had some leave booked for when the ship was due to return to Earth. But, instead of spending my birthday at a family reunion, I 'enjoyed' a day of hand-to-hand combat drills led by Ayala, the sombre Maquis with no Starfleet experience whatsoever that Janeway made a lieutenant over all of us Academy graduate ensigns.

The second birthday that I 'celebrated' on Voyager was during the brief reign of Captain Tuvok. With Janeway and Chakotay left behind on that bug-infested-but-otherwise-uninhabited planet, the atmosphere on board ship was equally biting. I spent my 'special day' scrubbing plasma conduits as punishment for making what I thought was a harmless quip to Crewman Yosa, but which resulted in an out-and-out verbal brawl when the Maquis hard-ass took exception to my sense of humour.

And, now, here I am today. It'll be difficult to enjoy in any way the cake that Neelix will inevitably rustle up – combining his roles of morale officer and chef – while I wonder if, at home, my family is laying chrysanthemums on an empty grave.

I dwell on that a lot: on whether my name has already been etched on a slab of marble that marks a redundant patch of grass in the ancient cemetery that holds many of my ancestors.

Maybe it's too soon. Maybe Voyager is still considered missing rather than lost and we haven't yet been declared dead. Official Starfleet procedure in cases where all contact with a ship is lost varies. But there's a fair chance that, given the circumstances, the search for Voyager will, by now, have been scaled right down to nearly nothing. They won't want to give up hope, but, if Starfleet has stopped searching, my parents – long-serving Starfleet officers – will accept that I'm gone. They're practical people, both tactical officers on the Majestic.

That leads me to wonder – as I do almost daily – if my grandmother is still alive. When last I saw her, I didn't linger over the goodbye. Voyager's mission to the Badlands wasn't expected to last more than a few weeks. I was sure I'd be back on Earth before long. But, closing my eyes and thinking back, I can feel the cool paper-thin skin of her old-fashioned soap scented hand underneath my supple young fingers. I hear the rattle in her chest as she gently chuckles at my stories. I see a faraway look in tired eyes.

And I know.

So, as I roll out of my bed and get dressed, I recognise that I'll need to wear an extra thick layer of fake cheer today on top of the several that I've become adept – quite the expert – at hiding behind on a day-to-day basis.

Neelix (if he's not tied up with the senior officers somewhere on 'important business') will present the cake at breakfast time. There'll be candles – a random number, the exact level of extravagance depending on his mood – and whoever is in the mess hall at the time will be called upon to sing. And I'll smile sweetly as I use every shred of strength that I possess to hold back the tears, to stop my bottom lip from quivering, and to keep my legs from carrying me in a rush out of the room.

I'm tempted to just skip breakfast altogether. Though Pablo Baytart did that on his birthday last year and Neelix showed up on the bridge to present him with a flaming iced creation at his post. Baytart blew molten wax all over the helm console. Tom Paris saw the funny side. Janeway wasn't at all pleased.

###

I do decide to miss breakfast in the end. I make it as far as deck two, but, hearing a chorus of laughter ring out through the open mess hall doors, I swivel on my heel and re-enter the sanctuary of the turbolift. It's not the best idea – for the aforementioned reason as well as the fact that I'll not have a chance to eat again properly until thirteen hundred. Tuvok isn't one to turn a blind eye if his team members snack on mess hall take-out while on the job and this morning we have target practice in holodeck one. Despite his almost unerring obedience to regulations, I don't, like many people, find Tuvok to be a complete pain in the ass. I've always found his unflappable presence to be calming and reassuring, an anchor that holds fast amid the frequent storms of the Delta Quadrant. His captaincy wasn't a pleasant time, but he was placed in a difficult position.

And I suspect we'd be that bit closer to home if Tuvok was still in command. Morale would have recovered eventually. We'd have avoided some of the altercations that Janeway got us into. Hogan and Martin would still be alive.

Back in my quarters, I search out the lone and measly ration bar I have stashed for emergencies – my replicator rations for the month being long since spent – and chew my way through the high-energy, low flavour formulation in silence as I wait for the minutes to tick around to the start of my shift.

With sixty seconds to spare – having quarters directly beneath the holodecks has many advantages – I sprint for the turbolift and the short ride up to deck six and duty.

###

We start with type-2 phasers – first against stationery targets and then against moving drones. Baxter is a crack-shot – not as good as Tuvok, but close. I can usually beat both Jarvis and Larson for accuracy if not speed. Not today though. Today, I can hardly hit the target at all. My emotions shouldn't affect my ability to do my job. So, I'm not Vulcan. But I spent four years at the Academy, passed all the psych profiling, and had three years of experience on the Hood before I was transferred to Voyager where I've served two and a half years more.

Then again, Voyager hasn't been a standard Starfleet assignment. I've been stranded on a barren wasteland, sent back in time to the 1990s, made delusional by a telepathic alien, infected by a macrovirus…

I wing a couple of drones as they buzz about above my head, but my shots aren't good enough to destroy them. I can tell that Tuvok is surprised, maybe even a little concerned. After working with him for over two years, the little tell-tale signs are readable – the slight rise of an eyebrow, the subtle tilt to his head. He instructs us to move on to the type-3 phaser rifles. This time he has me go first, firing a dozen times before the others even raise their weapons.

Without the pressure of having to follow Baxter's example, I perform better. Much better. Better enough to receive a compliment from Tuvok, and he isn't one to give unwarranted praise. Having gotten my confidence back, I equal Baxter's strike-rate on the long-distance range. Jarvis whistles in appreciation. Lang offers a thumbs up.

Against holograms, we practise firing to disable not kill. We practise the defence of our position against a surging crowd of armed opponents. We rehearse for the possibility that one of our own might be used as a bodily shield by the enemy. Taking that shot – when to miss the captor and hit a colleague would be a disaster, but a failure to act at all may equally cost – requires the coolest head. Time after time, our small team succeeds in these simulations.

For a couple of hours, I forget I was even upset and why.

###

The mess hall is particularly busy this lunchtime. I've checked ahead, delighted and relieved to learn that Neelix is in his quarters – taking a bath, by all accounts, after a mishap with a vat of chili sauce. I'll grab a quick bite and hope that I can get back to work before the Talaxian returns. And if the cake appears? Well, I know I can't avoid the issue for the whole day.

Tom Paris and Harry Kim share a table by the window. Lieutenant Torres enters, and, after collecting her meal tray, she goes to sit with Ayala and Tabor at the opposite end of the room from the Starfleet pair. Everyone has heard the whispers about what happened on the Sakari planet. Ensign Lang was on the bridge when Paris's call to the Captain came through telling all within earshot of the now infamous bite to the face. Paris might as well have announced it over the ship-wide comm.

His eyes graze over Torres when she isn't looking. She, in the same fashion, steals a glance over at him. It's obvious to everyone that it isn't a matter of if, but when they will eventually give in to the obvious attraction that they have for one another. And, when Torres finally gives in to Paris's advances, there'll be a few broken hearts: Harper, Bristow, Chell. But, I guess most people will be happy for them.

I fill a plate from the assortment of food laid out on the counter and head for the one empty table that I can spy. A few moments later, Kes approaches with her meal tray. I look up and smile – instinctively – when she stops at my side.

"May I join you, Ensign?" she asks.

I gesture – consciously and surprisingly gladly – to the empty seat across from me, replying, "Of course. Feel free."

It's because of Kes that the mess hall is so packed today. A crop of lettuces, beans and spring onions has just been harvested from airponics, and Neelix has thrown them together into a salad that is proving to be very popular indeed. Kes tells me with child-like glee how pleased she is to see everyone enjoying Neelix's cooking. I don't point out that all he really had to do is wash and chop the lettuce and onions and boil up the beans. There surely wasn't much risk of him screwing that up. In any case, personally, I feel that the Talaxian's concoctions are unjustly maligned. I find his leola root stew to be quite tasty – at least when doused in black pepper and replicated soy sauce.

Like Neelix, Kes has a natural ability to tell when a shipmate needs a pep talk. It's bizarre that someone so young can have such depth of perception. Such empathy. We talk about her accomplishments in airponics, but she is keen to draw me out on the work that I've been doing as a part of the security division. She praises my efforts and those of my colleagues in keeping the ship safe. I try not to scoff at her well-intended but factually inaccurate comments: we've failed miserably on many occasions to keep Voyager and her crew from harm. But, perhaps sensing my uneasiness, Kes then moves the conversation on to social matters – the talent night, the Paxau resort holoprogram. I begin to relax (she doesn't seem aware that it's my birthday, thank God), and, by the time Harry Kim wanders towards us on his way to return his empty tray to the galley, I feel somewhat better again.

Behind Harry, I see that Paris has wandered over to Torres's table. Over the din of scraping cutlery, we hear the words "bat'leth" and "challenge". Harry stops and turns to observe his two friends interact. Torres crosses her arms across her chest, glaring mek'leths at Paris. Ayala and Tabor make to rise and leave, but something Torres snaps apparently encourages them to stay put until Paris gives up with a shake of his head and wanders away to chat with Culhane.

Turning back to face Kes and me, Harry's eyes twinkle from the observed repartee. "Are you coming to the holodeck this evening?" he asks casually. "Tom and I have pooled our personal allocations, and we're holding a pool tournament for anyone who wants to join in."

"If I've finished what I'm doing in airponics," Kes replies, missing the clumsy and inevitable pun.

"Can't you ask Commander Chakotay to assign you some extra help?" I ask.

"He already has," she is quick to explain. "Doug Bronowski's been with me all morning, but there's still plenty to do. Everything's ripening at once, I have to clean the nutrient reservoirs, set them up for the next batch and so on."

Harry now looks directly and expectantly at me.

I swallow hard, choosing the honest truth over a lie that wouldn't serve me well in the end. "I don't know, Harry," I say. "I'm not really feeling all that sociable today."

"Then it'll do you good," he insists. "We start at twenty hundred hours."

Unable to resist giving in to his earnest persuasion, I drop my shoulders and nod. "All right, but if the Doctor starts one of his recitals, I'll be straight out the door." The last time I was in Sandrine's, the EMH 'regaled' all present with a series of what he called 'show tunes' while we drank. The music improved in direct proportion to the volume of drink imbibed, even when it was mostly synthehol.

Harry smiles. "If he starts singing, I'm sure we can fake a medical emergency."

"If he starts singing, there will be a medical emergency. My ears will bleed," I quip, surprising myself.

Both Harry and Kes – despite her loyalty to her holographic friend – laugh lightly at that, and I feel a smile tug at my own lips. I have no problem with the Doctor in small doses, but opera or songs from twentieth-century musical theatre just aren't my thing, and, even if they were, Sandrine's doesn't seem like an appropriate venue for them. Not to me, at least.

I don't realise how much time has passed until I see Neelix's brightly attired form entering through the far doors of the mess hall. A spike of adrenaline cools my veins. My plate is empty, has been for a while. I grasp it, pressing my weight through my feet to stand as I tell my companions, "I must go." But it's too late. Neelix has spotted me. I manage not to voice the word that first comes to mind, but a heavy sigh escapes my lips in its place.

"Ensign," Neelix cries, waving both arms as if he's swatting flies that are blocking his path towards me.

Half the heads in the room turn to him, but it's me on whom his eyes are locked. And hence me who then draws the stares of those whose attention has been captured by the Talaxian's call.

I lower myself back down into my seat and, with a chuckle of resignation, I accept the inevitable.

###

So, I didn't run when Neelix brought out the Jimbalian fudge cake iced with fluorescent yellow marzipan, its top layer pierced with seven small candles. Instead of quivering, my bottom lip curled up into a smile. My eyes misted over, but with positive emotion as I felt the goodwill radiating out from my crewmates, both those I know well and those I'm less familiar with, their raucous singing causing my cheeks to flush.

Further amusement was sparked when, on my failing to blow out the candles after three attempts, Neelix grinned broadly and announced that they were trick candles, a novelty that Mr. Paris had introduced him to. Paris had, by this time, vacated the room, but, at my side, Harry explained the principle: magnesium flakes added to the wick are ignited by the burning ember and produce the heat necessary to re-light the paraffin vapour given off when the candle is blown out. A neat piece of chemistry.

After the still burning candles were pulled out and thrown into a bowl of water, I made the first, customary slice through the soft shell into the gluey centre of the cake and left it with Neelix to be divided into small pieces and later shared around.

Now, back on duty, I spend the afternoon in the armoury. One would think that, in this day and age, manual inventory would not be necessary: that the technology would exist to scan the weapons lockers and record exactly what was in each one. And that technology does exist. But, technology can fail and, even now, the human (or Bolian, Bajoran, and especially the Vulcan) eye is more reliable. Plus, it gives us something to do in between crises. We can't run battle drills all the time, and there's only one tactical station to be staffed on the bridge.

I don't get up to the top deck much, but, when I do, I feel like I'm doing something of more importance than hanging around waiting for the next alien attack. We mere ensigns don't get the chance to provide security for away missions all that often either. It's usually Tuvok, Ayala, or Andrews that get the most interesting assignments. Sometimes, the senior officers go planetside without any security detail at all.

The last time I got off ship was a few weeks ago on a food gathering detail led by Neelix. But, before that, I previously set foot on solid ground when we took shore leave at the Nechani homeworld. And that was months ago.

Andrews and I sit cross-legged on the cool deck plates of the armoury floor counting grenades, tallying the figures shown by the PADD in his hands with what we can see with our eyes – not what our tricorders might tell us. Strictly speaking, when we receive an unexpected visitor we're not counting anything. We're stealing a moment of companionable rest to break the monotony.

Scrambling slack-jawed from our knees to our feet, we greet the Captain, formally. Janeway waves us down from our stiff-backed poses bidding, "At ease, Lieutenant. Ensign." Glancing at the weapons cases by our feet and the fortress of crates stacked on three sides around us, she grins wryly. "What did you two do to draw the short straw?" she quips to Andrews, and then to me adds, "and on your birthday too, Ensign."

What do I say to that? I flash her my best Academy-learned dealing-with-a-friendly-commanding-officer smile and let Andrews speak first.

"It's all part of our duties, Ma'am," he states solemnly. Obviously.

Everyone knows that Janeway prefers 'Captain', but, it seems, we all slip up from time to time, even those of us that have made lieutenant.

"I won't get in your way," she says, negating to correct Andrews in this instance. "I thought I'd take this afternoon to drop by every department. But this isn't a formal inspection. How are you both?"

Andrews asserts that he's well.

I say, "Fine, thank you, Captain," starting, as the day rolls on, to actually believe that I am.

Janeway makes small-talk with Andrews for a few moments before turning to me. "Mr. Neelix did a splendid job with your cake, didn't he?"

It's a statement, not a question. I've yet to actually taste the cake myself, so I merely state honestly, "It certainly has brightened up my day."

Reaching out, the Captain lays a hand on my elbow, saying warmly, "Well, happy birthday, Ensign. Enjoy the rest of your day." Her hand tightens before she relinquishes her grip on me. It's a simple gesture, brief, and, coming from my captain, one that I'm not sure I can be one hundred percent comfortable with. But, that's the Janeway way. She's frequently tactile with her officers, something that I find strange in a Starfleet captain. I guess I'll always take my CO on the Hood, Captain DeSoto, as the example by which I judge all other captains.

Nevertheless, the touch does hearten me. Touch is a basic human need and one that I'm greatly deprived of on Voyager. It's my own doing, in a way. Unlike a lot of my colleagues, I'm not free in giving hugs of comfort, commiseration, or even celebration. And, so, I suppose, they're not often offered to me in turn. There's always the holodeck, but the contact of photons and force fields controlled by a computer program on my skin is just not the same as connecting physically – platonically or otherwise – with another human being.

Janeway leaves. Andrews and I continue with our task, exchanging anecdotes about the Academy and our previous postings. It's a real stroke of luck that I'm with Andrews this afternoon and not Baxter. Baxter was supposed to be here with me, but Tuvok switched around the assignments during the lunch break. Andrews and I take our work seriously but enjoy some good laughter while we're doing it. Baxter's a good man, but, with him, the afternoon would have dragged.

I see a different side to Andrews when the subject of home comes up: a sensitive side. One would think I might have seen it before. After all, we've been stuck on this ship together for two and a half years, working closely with each other. But, it seems, there's always something new and surprising to learn about the people making this long journey home with me. And there's plenty of time for learning. After seventy years, I guess there'll be few secrets between any of us. Our shipmates will be more like family to each of us than those we've left behind in the Alpha Quadrant.

And there's nothing I can do about it. I have no say in any major decisions; Voyager isn't a democracy. I'm no engineer or ops officer: I can't work on methods to improve our propulsion systems. And I'm no flight controller or stellar cartographer: I can't plot a shorter route home. Most of the time, I'm just another mouth to be fed – another drain on the ship's power reserves.

Shaking away those thoughts that threaten to tug me back into the gloom, I ask Andrews if he's going to the holodeck this evening.

"Are you?" he asks, his voice muffled by the bulky open locker door presently standing between us.

Poking my head around the thick duranium, I speak to his back, "I think so. It could be fun."

"All right," he says brightly without pause, turning to hand me a power cell that someone has misplaced in a space that should only hold handcuffs and flashlights. "I'll be glad to join you."

###

Inventory works up an appetite. I don't stop by my quarters to change out of uniform before I go to eat, heading, instead, to the mess hall directly once my shift ends.

Andrews stays on in the armoury. He wants to finish checking the explosive charges so that Ayala doesn't have to do it tomorrow. I offered to stay and help, but he wouldn't hear of it. "It's your birthday," he said. "You shouldn't have to work late on your birthday." I protested that I didn't mind. I was enjoying his company. But my stomach growled and betrayed my hunger and Andrews gestured insistently to the doorway. So, I left. It was his call to make, in any case.

Slices of birthday cake are arranged in a fan on a platter on the galley counter. Chakotay stands behind them deep in conversation with Neelix. Helping myself to cake and sandwiches, I'd like to linger and eavesdrop, but Crewman Gerron wishes to speak with me and I have to step away from the Commander and the chef.

Gerron has undertaken a project to document Voyager's journey from the point of view of the junior officers and crewmen. He wonders if I have a free half hour for an interview. He has a standard list of questions that he wants to run through with as many of us as will agree to speak to him. Which will be everyone except for maybe Harren. I can't see that guy lowering himself to spend time with any of us ordinary folk.

Suggesting that nineteen hundred or thereabouts tomorrow would suit me best, I press down a smile when I see the young Bajoran diligently jot the appointment down on his PADD. If someone had told me a couple of years ago that he'd become a budding journalist, I'd have said they were crazy.

Harry Kim and Lyndsay Ballard wave me over to sit with them. It's Lyndsay's birthday tomorrow. She's wondering whether Neelix makes cakes in large batches, puts them into stasis, and then gets one out to decorate when required. Which is several times a week thanks to Voyager's complement of one hundred and fifty. If the Talaxian is on an away mission, Ensign Parsons takes over the role of chief birthday celebrant. But we've never seen Parsons actually baking.

Lyndsay makes us laugh with some whispered witty remarks on the subject of our Captain and First Officer. There are rumours abound about the nature of their relationship after events last month. Following their shuttle crash and the Captain's near-death, the pair locked themselves in the holodeck and stayed well beyond their reserved timeslot. If it wasn't for the fact that Mariah Henley was waiting for her turn in the corridor outside, it might have gone uncommented upon. But Henley noticed. And Henley talked.

Harry's tittering becomes more nervous as Lyndsay's gossiping takes a louder and more irreverent turn. Chakotay still stands at the counter not a dozen paces away.

"Shhh," I say, tipping my head in the first officer's direction, over Lyndsay's shoulder. "Keep your voice down."

She swivels around and then spins back, waving off my concern. "Chakotay's only listening to Neelix. He can't hear us."

Nevertheless, Lyndsay selects another topic for discussion. Harry and I can breathe the exotically-odoured air more easily.

###

Back in my quarters, I freshen up and change out of my stale clothes. Before heading out to the holodeck, I have time for a lie down – just to rest my eyes for half an hour.

But I doze longer and more deeply than I'd planned to. In general, sleep doesn't come easily to me until I've been awake for a good sixteen hours, but I today has been something of an emotional drain.

So, the pool tournament is already underway when I stroll into Sandrine's and the place is buzzing. There's still a chance to enter, Paris tells me: the competition hasn't yet progressed beyond the first round. The pilot waits in ambush by the bar, facing the doors so as not to miss a single entrance. I decline his offer. Geometry has never been my strong suit. It's far more entertaining to watch the others and know that I'm not making a fool of myself.

I note that neither Janeway or Chakotay are in attendance. Nor is Tuvok – not that I'd have expected him to show. Andrews sits at a packed far corner table with his back to me. I'll make him aware I'm here shortly.

For now, Sam Wildman has an empty seat at her table. I order myself a rum-spiked coffee from the holographic bartender, and, finding that spied seat still vacant when the glass is pressed into my hand, I head over. Pablo Baytart is trying to make little Naomi smile by juggling coasters. Naomi's not impressed, preferring to stare wide-eyed and point a chubby finger towards the focal point of the bar where Vorik plays pool against Chell.

"Someone's having a late night out," I say to Sam, motioning at the toddler squirming on her knee as I sit down beside them. That sounded a little preachy, I realise too late. And, in any case, for all I know, Naomi's operating on gamma shift time.

Sam doesn't take offense, smiling down at her daughter and adjusting her grip to prevent the girl from succeeding in escaping. "She doesn't seem to need as much sleep as a human baby would," Sam explains. "The Doctor thinks it's due to her mixed heritage – the same reason that her development is more advanced than that of a human child of this age."

"Ah," I reply with a nod, noticing that Naomi's attention is now fixed firmly on me, her eyes narrowed. Maybe she doesn't recognise me. I haven't seen her – except very briefly in passing – for a couple of months. But then she turns to her mother and babbles something incoherently before looking back at my face, this time with certainty in her expression. When she repeats the word a second and then a third time, I pick up my name (after a fashion) and laugh.

"Wow, aren't you a clever one," I say, reaching out to her with my free hand. Startled at my gesture, Naomi buries her head against Sam's neck and raises her own hand to cover her little ear. Sam, Pablo and I chuckle in unison. Advanced or not, Naomi seems to be just as temperamental as the average thirteen-month old child, at least in my limited experience.

A loud and expressive curse heralds Chell's elimination from the pool tournament. As if the only possible outcome of that game wasn't blatantly obvious from the beginning…

"I should probably take Naomi home," Sam says, firing a disapproving look towards the Bolian. "Now that the competition's in full swing, I expect there'll be a few more colourful outbursts."

"And you'll have to excuse me. I'm up next," Baytart tells us, stacking the coasters on the table and hurrying away to meet his foe. It turns out to be Torres. She practically elbows Vorik out of her way, smoothly seizing his cue as he retreats. Lounging against the bar, Paris straightens now, giving the impending game his full attention.

"Tom will play the winner of this game," Sam tells me as she gathers the couple of toys laid out on the table and rises, hoisting Naomi onto her hip.

We exchange a smirk as that piece of information comes to light. Naomi wriggles herself horizontal and her mother gives in to let her walk alongside. Despite Sam's repeated requests, Naomi resolutely refuses to wish me a good night. Sam rolls her eyes and leads the toddler away. I chuckle as, just before the pair of them leave my sight, Naomi twists around throws me a nonchalant backhanded wave.

Sam's vacated seat is occupied in turn by Henley, Chell, and then, finally, Andrews. I wish I'd had a chance to sit with Andrews earlier because, by the time he arrives, my mind is weary – and, if I'm honest, marginally liquor fogged. I don't want him to think he's boring every time a yawn overcomes me. But, nevertheless, to a backdrop of the first tournament semi-final – Paris versus Vorik (Torres having succumbed to the pilot's proficiency in the preliminaries) – Andrews and I discover we've a mutual interest in the Vulcan martial art of Suus mahna as well as a shared fondness for Andorian music.

Just before 2300, I decide I have to turn in, heavy eyelids pushing me towards my bed. My timing is perfect because it is at exactly this time that the Doctor materialises at the bar nearly knocking Chell off his stool. I don't know whether the EMH plans to provide any 'entertainment', but, if he does, I'm glad I'm not there to suffer through it.

Before I can enter the turbolift for the short trip down to deck seven, however, my comm badge bleeps.

"Chakotay to Kaplan."

It's a jolt that blasts the fatigue from my eyes bringing me to instant combat readiness. I slap the badge, answering, "Kaplan here."

"Would you please report to the briefing room, Ensign?"

I acknowledge the order, take the turbolift up to deck one perplexed that I'm being summoned at this hour when I'm off duty – when the Commander should also be off duty by my estimation. It has to be something important, but the ship's not at red or even yellow alert status. As far as I know, we're not due to approach any inhabited systems for some time. And I've never before been summoned by either member of the command team personally.

Rollins has the bridge. We exchange perfunctory greetings as I stroll past him on route through this unfamiliar territory to the briefing room. Chakotay and Tuvok are both in uniform standing in front of the wall monitors studying astronomical charts. Chakotay apologises for the late hour, and lets me know that he's aware I've not been assigned an away mission for some months. How would I like to accompany him on a scouting mission to look for a quicker route through the Nekrit Expanse, he asks me.

"Yes, please, sir. Absolutely," I blurt out, scarcely believing my good fortune. A belated birthday present. At last, the chance to contribute to an effort to get Voyager home faster. It sure beats running security drills or manning Tactical during gamma shift.

Practically skipping back to my quarters, I ready myself for bed feeling ten times more optimistic than when I awoke to these grey walls.

Before turning off the lights, I make a point of eyeing the holoimages on the desk. My favourite is the one taken at my graduation ceremony. I'm in my Starfleet dress uniform flanked by my mother and my father wearing theirs.

And I think: just maybe I will see them again soon after all.