Ben leaned against the bar stool and breathed a sigh of relief as the bartender filled his order. The presentation was over, thank God. He nodded his thanks at the barkeep and took his drink to a table, making sure to choose one in sight of the door.
“Dr. Imada ...”
He turned, startled to find a statuesque blonde at his side. Her hair was shoulder-length and wavy, partially covering a bit of metal on her forehead.
She extended her hand. “I am Annika Hansen. Theoretical physics is not my field, but I wanted to tell you that I found your presentation intriguing.”
So this was Annika Hansen, which explained the slightly clinical look she was giving him.
“Thank you … Dr. Hansen. I’ve heard your name,” he said, deciding not to elaborate. “Astrophysics, isn’t it?”
“It is,” she said. “I recently was on Deep Space 7 doing a study on the Barvalian Star Cluster.” She gave him a cool smile. “Dr. Karlsen attended your presentation. He invited me to join him.”
“Ah, that was very kind of Piers. I hope he’ll give you his copy of the paper. We’re very pleased with how it turned out.”
“I see … you wrote this with a colleague?”
“Actually, it was a family affair. I wrote this with my wife and my mother-in-law.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Your wife and mother-in-law share your profession?”
He shrugged. “Not exactly. My mother-in-law is a mathematician. My wife’s doctorate is in a branch of theoretical physics, so we enjoy hashing out ideas.” He smiled slightly at a memory of just how much they enjoyed hashing out one particular idea.
Annika considered this. “My husband does not have an interest in my profession.”
“That’s unfortunate,” he said. “My wife is one of the few people I can discuss my work with.” He paused, searching for something to say. “Of course, you and your husband must have some shared interests.”
“He is much older than I am, so I have always depended on his experience in other matters.”
“Nothing wrong with an older spouse,” he said with a shrug. Fortunately, he was saved by the arrival of two of his favorite women.
Annika glanced back to follow his gaze, then made the full turn to face the newcomers.
“Admiral Janeway,” she said, matter-of-factly, as if she’d just seen Kathryn a few hours ago.
Kathryn, for her part, had a few seconds’ warning. She looked surprised, then happy to see her former protege, but Gretchen noted that her eyes quickly swept the room.
“My goodness, Annika,” Kathryn said, laying a hand on the woman’s arm. “It’s nice to see you. It’s been what … three years?”
“Actually two years, eight months, two weeks and three days,” she replied as Ben and Gretchen shared a look.
“Well, we’ve been worried; no one’s heard from you. I hope you are well.”
“Yes … very. I am surprised to see you here in Toronto, as this is a civilian conference.”
“Well, they let me out of uniform every once in a while,” Kathryn joked. “Actually, Mom and I were lending moral support while Ben presented our paper.”
Annika’s surprise was obvious. “You are the wife Dr. Imada was referring to?”
“I certainly hope so,” Gretchen cracked, “considering the effort he put into courting her.”
“He certainly did,” Kathryn said affectionately as she moved next to her husband and laid a hand on his shoulder. “I take it you didn’t get the announcement?”
“I did not. I apologize.”
Kathryn shook her head slightly and smiled. “So, are you taking a break?”
“I have returned to the University of Melbourne to resume my astrophysics work.”
“You and Chakotay are back in the same city, then?”
Annkia shrugged slightly. “He is currently at an archaeological dig on Keta 3. I’m sure he has much to occupy his time there.”
Apparently Annika has learned the art of sarcasm, Kathryn realized. Her first instinct was to pursue this … but it wasn’t the best time … nor was it her business.
Fortunately, she didn’t have to. A tall, Nordic-blonde man stepped behind Annkia, extending his hand toward Ben.
“Congratulations,” he said, nodding toward Kathryn and Gretchen. “The three of you make quite a team!”
“Well, thank you Piers,” Ben said jovially as they shook hands. “We like to think so.”
“Piers and I are going to have dinner at a restaurant on the lake. Perhaps you could join us,” Annika offered.
The look on Piers’ face made it clear that he didn’t want company, and Gretchen noted that he had one hand strategically placed in the small of Annika’s back.
Kathryn cleared her throat. “Thank you, but no. We have some people to talk to, and we’re anxious to get back to our favorite collaboration.”
Annika looked puzzled, and Kathryn realized her faux pas. “Sorry … you probably didn’t get that announcement, either.” She looked over at Ben, who produced his pocket vid. “I’d say she’s our best collaboration,” he said as he brought up an image of a little girl with dark hair … and a very familiar hands-on-hips stance.
“This is Alexandria … Alex,” Kathryn said. “She just had her first birthday.”
“She … is lovely. Congratulations,” Annkia said.
Piers clucked something about reservations, and they said their goodbyes.
“Do you think Dr. Karlsen was sincere in his compliments?” Gretchen asked.
“Not a chance,” Ben quipped.
Another colleague stopped to chat with Ben, and Gretchen looked over at her daughter, who was watching Annika’s departure.
“Are you disappointed that he isn’t here?” she asked softly.
Kathryn shook her head. “Not at all … but from what we just saw … I am disappointed that they don’t seem to be treating each other very well.”
Gretchen sighed. She remembered B’Elanna’s speculation: that Chakotay had married Annika to spite Kathryn. “The joke was certainly on someone, she thought. But not on my Katie.”
“Well, we don’t know the whole story. But I do know that a marriage punctuated by long separations takes a very determined commitment. Without it, you get situations like the one that just went out the door.”
“Well, I hope they work it out,” Kathryn said quietly.
Gretchen just nodded, though privately she had her doubts.
Ben, newly released from his conversation, slid an arm around Kathryn’s waist. “Shall we go to dinner? We have a few hours before our shuttle leaves.”
As their hovercar stopped for traffic, Annika disengaged from Piers’ conversation to note that Admiral Janeway was leaving the conference center with her husband and mother. The three of them were arm-in-arm, laughing about something … a private joke, perhaps … a concept she still found irrelevant.
Admiral Janeway was happy, Annika noted. Chakotay was wrong about that. Then again, she’d discovered that Chakotay was wrong about a number of things.