It was the middle of the night, but Captain Lancaster was still hard at work at a fold out desk in the crew cabin of the brand-new Waverider shuttle Ella Fitzgerald. He’d donned a pair of glasses his husband had replicated for him that made staring into his holographic display a little more comfortable thanks to an extremely precisely calculated set of lenses and prisms within the frames to disperse light in just the right way to avoid eye strain; even knowing the science it felt like an affectation, but the alternative was drops every half-hour to keep his vision from going blurry. Reviewing rosters and technical specifications for upwards of sixteen hours a day had been his life for the past four years, and joining the Arcturus meant more of the same.
He glanced over at Sheppard, who was sleeping on one of the lower bunks and smiled to himself. After several years of shore duty, both of them were eager to be back on duty aboard a front-line starship, but Lancaster would have stayed on Earth permanently if it meant staying with him. Sheppard’s strong back muscles were dappled with blue-green light from Lancaster’s preferred holographic UI; the young doctor was long-accustomed to sleeping through his partner’s need to work into the wee hours, though he often chastised him for it the morning after.
The upsides of being married to someone as caring and affectionate as Sheppard outweighed the minor downsides of being married to a doctor, which meant far too much attention paid to his eating habits (not enough), weight (also not enough), and general disposition (grumpy and overworked), but beyond that Sheppard was someone that he always felt safe, protected, and listened to around, though that was something he was only willing to admit to Sheppard himself. Sheppard was his counterweight, keeping him grounded when he was liable to forget to eat, exercise, or even blink, and spend the entire day on paperwork.
Years of work had gone into planning the Arcturus’s mission, based on logs from Voyager’s early years in the Delta Quadrant and extreme long-range scans provided by the Federation’s deep space telescopes. Other than a few key appointments that Captain Hayden had made herself, he’d meticulously selected each of the 2,500 officers and crew that would be making the initial three month cruise into the Delta Quadrant, and then, pending a positive evaluation, a ten-year survey of the Nacene Reach with a handful of other starships in tow.
Even still, with 95% of the ship’s crew already onboard and waiting for them to arrive, he was making sure he hadn’t missed a single detail on the roster. Once they were through the wormhole, getting replacement personnel would turn into at least a two-month ordeal with the long period of the Barzan Wormhole, so everything needed to be set and done, now.
“The time is 0330 hours.”
Lancaster sighed, taking his glasses off and setting them on the table, as he brushed aside the hologram to turn it off. He glanced at ‘his’ bunk opposite of Sheppard’s, but instead took off his commbadge and set it next to his glasses, before crawling in behind him and wrapping his arms around him. Sheppard murmured and then rolled around in his sleep, holding him close like he always did when Lancaster crept into bed in the wee hours in what was their ritual when they were both on space duty together, one that they’d fallen out of the practice of living on Earth, where both of them could easily be in bed before 2200 hours on most nights.
The first night they’d spent on the shuttle, he’d felt a little silly cramming both of their tall frames into one tiny bunk, so he’d slept on the other side of the compartment instead, but it didn’t last more than twenty minutes before his insomnia demanded co-sleeping. Such a physiological need for comfort was uncomfortable for Lancaster, as he’d built a career on being a hard-ass, but he really struggled when the two of them were physically separated. It wasn’t especially becoming of a Starfleet captain to need a cuddle buddy just to go to sleep, when he should theoretically be able to sleep in an E.V. suit or in a muddy foxhole. That was an area where Sheppard seemed to have a little less co-dependence, though, because he’d gotten used to being the first one in bed.
Still, when he was alone with his thoughts, he wasn’t ashamed to admit that he liked the way that Sheppard’s warm skin and firm muscles felt against him as he started to slip out of consciousness. His scent reminded him of home. With his uniform still on, he was warm enough that they didn’t need a blanket, especially with the crew cabin tucked up under one of the craft’s integrated warp nacelles, where the superheated plasma fought with the small vessel’s environmental controls, even with thirty-five centimeters of solid duranium plating and radiation baffle between the warp coils and the bunk. Lancaster was just about to finally fall asleep to his partner’s rhythmic breathing when the comm chimed.
“Incoming distress call: USS Janice Rand, Priority One,” the computer chirped, which shook Lancaster right back to consciousness, feeling suddenly so much tired for his attempt to sleep than if he hadn’t lain down. He could practically hear his own heart pounding as that jolt of adrenaline hit his sleep-deprived nervous system.
“Of course,” Lancaster muttered, rolling back out of the bunk to sit on the edge as he started to collect himself, shaking off the cobwebs and moving fully into emergency mode. “Are we the closest vessel, computer?”
“Alter course and engage at maximum warp. Send a communiqué ahead to the Arcturus to inform them we may be delayed,” Lancaster said, as Sheppard stirred, putting an arm around his shoulder as he sat up next to him. The contact didn’t help him want to actually get out of the bunk.
“Confirmed. Twelve minutes to intercept.”
“Wassup?” Sheppard mumbled, blearily nuzzling against Lancaster’s neck. A days worth of unshaven stubble tickled and made the young captain again want to just let someone else handle this problem.
“Distress call,” Lancaster said, rubbing his face into Sheppard’s hair, briefly. He smelled like almonds and grass, which Lancaster had to shake off and sit up straight. “Computer, summarize mission and complement of the Janice Rand, as well as the nature of their distress call,” he ordered.
“Raven-class courier on circuit between Earth Spacedock and Epsilon Indi Station. Crew complement of Four. Ten passengers and assorted cargo. Distress call indicates general systems failure and multiple medical emergencies,” the computer reported, as Lancaster grabbed his commbadge and put it back on. Little starships like the Raven-class were common plying the lanes between Federation planets, carrying things and people not important enough to need space on a larger or faster starship. They had a reputation for extreme reliability, so Lancaster was surprised to hear that one of them might need their help.
Sheppard perked up at the mention of a medical emergency. “A ship like that should have at least an EMH. The damage must be bad if that system was knocked offline,” he said, pulling his shirt on and then grabbing his jacket.
Lancaster tapped his badge. “This is Captain Lancaster. I need everyone up front, now,” he said, leading the way out of the cabin and through the central lounge area of the Waverider, which had a large, round table flanked by two couches as the craft narrowed towards a point where the cockpit was located.
The young captain slid into the helm to review their remaining travel time, while Sheppard took one of the science stations. Shortly after that, Lieutenant Evandrion sat down at the co-pilot’s station. A Deltan, he had an exceptionally-high aptitude for personal combat and small-unit tactics that flied in the face of stereotypes of his race’s purported pacifism which made him a perfect choice to lead the Arcturus’s security department, though Lancaster thought that this was probably something cultivated on purpose in response to that stereotype. He was the sort of officer that could be trusted to analyze security situations methodically and pragmatically.
“What’s going on, Captain Lancaster?” a somewhat-nasal voice asked, as the doors to the cockpit opened again. Lieutenant Ohala was the ship’s new Chief Communications Officer, and Lancaster had immediately regretted selecting him when the Bolian had first opened his mouth. Trained in both linguistics and the technical aspects, the only reason that Lancaster hadn’t left him behind on Earth is because he was probably the most qualified communications officer in Starfleet for a mission of their type. “Anything I can help with.”
“I was just about to explain that, Lieutenant,” Lancaster said, tersely. “We have picked up a distress—,” he started.
“Ah, I see it now. Priority one–,” Ohala interrupted.
“Lieutenant,” Lancaster warned, even more sharply, turning to glare at the chatty junior officer. “A priority one distress call from the starship Janice Rand. She’s a packet liner with seventeen passengers and five crew reporting general systems failures and medical emergencies. We’re the closest vessel,” he explained.
“Any signs of combat, sir?” Evandrion asked.
“Nothing on long-range sensors. We’re less than a day from Epsilon Indi, so I can’t imagine any threats being this deep within Federation space,” Lancaster replied. “When we arrive, Evandrion, Sheppard, and myself will transport over to render aid. Mr. Ohala will remain behind.”
“With all due respect, Captain Lancaster, I think that I’d be useful over there. I’m an engineer, you know,” Ohala said. “And, really, who knows what kind of–”
“Mr. Ohala, if I want your opinion, I will ask for it. And if we do by some happenstance require your unique set of experiences, I will send for you. Otherwise, I’m not leaving this shuttle unmanned in the midst of an emergency when we may need its systems. Is that understood?” Lancaster said, briefly feeling a moment of tunnel vision as the Bolian seemed to have no idea how irritating he was being.
“Understood, of course–,” he said, sounding like he was going to add a ‘but,’ but Sheppard turned around and warned him off by shaking his head.
“I’ve pulled the manifest, Captain Lancaster. There are several Tarl onboard, whose unique metabolisms require special pharmacological solutions. I’m going to head aft and replicate them, just in case,” Sheppard said.
“Proceed, Doctor,” Lancaster replied, feeling a moment of cognitive dissonance as he flashed back to having his face smashed against Sheppard’s pecs just half a minute prior. “Evandrion, is there anything of note on the ship’s specs?”
“No, sir. No weapons, minimal shields, and a top speed of warp five-point-nothing. The armory only consists of five hand phasers and they’re locked permanently on the stun setting,” the security officer reported.
“Nevertheless, we’re going over armed,” Lancaster said, looking at him. Evandrion nodded without Lancaster needing to explain that decision based on protocol, which made Evandrion seem leaps and bounds more tolerable to be around than the Bolian, though Lancaster always wondered how much Deltans’ natural empathy (and possibly the lack of one-hundred percent efficacy of their pheromone blockers) made them seem more tolerable than they were.
Evandrion nodded and went aft to prepare their utility kits. Ohala moved forward cautiously to the co-pilot’s station, seeming to finally realize that 0330 in the morning was not the time to be so ebullient in front of Lancaster.
“We’re in communications range, sir,” Ohala reported.
“Open a channel.”
“Done.” The open channel tone sounded.
“This is Captain Michael Lancaster of the Federation Starship Arcturus to the Janice Rand. We are answering your distress call. Please respond,” Lancaster said.
After a few seconds, Ohala chimed in. “No response, sir. They might not be able to answer. The distress call could be automated.”
“That would be the logical conclusion. Set my hail to repeat as we get closer. Their signal range could also be attenuated somehow. Computer, yellow alert. Shields up,” Lancaster said, prompting the lights to darken and the alert lights to shift to yellow.
“Is that really necessary?”
“Is that really necessary, sir,” Lancaster insisted, with a sigh. “‘General Order Twelve: “On the approach of any vessel, when communications have not been established, a defensive posture must be taken,’” he quoted.
“Aren’t we the ones approaching them, sir?”
“Lieutenant, this is going to be an extremely short working relationship when you find yourself transferred to a dilithium mining facility because you can’t stop questioning my orders,” Lancaster threatened.
“I–, understood, sir,” Ohala said, meekly. “It’s just–.”
“Unless you get a response from the Rand, no more talking,” Lancaster said, closing his eyes for a moment and wondering if he could reasonably apply any of the regulations to justify shoving the Bolian in an escape pod. Or better yet, an EV suit.
The hatch to the rear section opened after a few moments, and Lancaster glanced back to see Evandrion with his utility belt strapped to his waist and another in his hands for him, while Sheppard had two medical kits, presumably one for the Tarl and the other for more standard carbon-based humanoids.
“Coming out of warp, now,” Lancaster said, looking back at his controls. They dropped out of warp several thousand kilometers from the Janice Rand, but at that range it was clear that the small starship was leaking drive plasma. Only four decks tall, the ship had an angular design with enough crew and cargo space to handle missions that were far too large for runabouts, while sharing their overall form factor. You were likely to see one at any given starbase any day of the week. He ran a quick sensor sweep as they got closer. “I can’t scan inside the hull, but there are no obvious breaches. The hull is ionized, so we’ll have to dock. Evandrion, look for a suitable port.”
“One hatch along the starboard side. We’ll have to use a cofferdam to cross over, though, as it’s not a standard circular port,” the Deltan replied, highlighting the approach vector on Lancaster’s screen.
Careful to avoid the streaming trails of plasma behind the Janice Rand that continued to be drawn away from the ship thanks to its forward momentum, Lancaster pulled alongside and locked the ship into relative position so that the computer could assemble and extend the air-tight gangway that would allow them to walk directly over to the other ship.
“Sir, may I?” Ohala said, looking as though it was giving him an aneurysm not to just speak his mind.
“Go ahead, Lieutenant.”
“The ionization of the ship’s hull may interfere with communications as well. I’d recommend taking a set of pattern enhancers with you, which could help cut through it as well as provide a way of beaming back, should that become necessary,” he suggested. Not a bad suggestion.
“Very well. Lieutenant Evandrion, please go get a set from the hold,” Lancaster said, standing up. “Mr. Ohala, stand by to relay transmissions back to Starfleet, should we need further help here.”
Lancaster waited with Sheppard at the hatch, attaching his belt and briefly checking his phaser to make sure it was set on high stun. He caught a disapproving glance from his husband at the weapon, but he wasn’t going to take any chances with an emergency of unknown origin, especially one that he was taking his husband into.
“I don’t think I have to tell you that if there’s trouble, you’re under my direct orders to return to the shuttle, Shep,” Lancaster said, quietly. “No arguing. And not just because you’re my husband. You’re a doctor and you’re unarmed.”
Sheppard frowned, brow furrowing as he appeared to contemplate insubordination. “Understood, sir,” he said, managing to emit both displeasure and amusement with his half-smile. Lancaster was lucky in the sense that he could give that order, but he knew that either of them would take on a thousand courts-martial if it meant saving the other. It was one reason he was glad that Sheppard wouldn’t be his direct subordinate on the Arcturus.
Once Evandrion returned. Lancaster ensured that the passage was free from the ionization that was arcing across the rest of the hull and checked the seal on the cofferdam and then opened the hatch. The tunnel was about ten meters long, connecting the two vessels, and Lancaster always felt a sense of unease when he walked through such constructions; they folded out from lightweight components installed next to the hatchways and weren’t intended to be used for more than short, temporary dockings. It would be extremely unfortunate if either ship were to move in relative position during their crossing, as the tunnel would be ripped apart almost instantly.
The hatch on the Janice Rand opened automatically for them, the handshake protocols between the two ships apparently still operational. The corridor’s white lighting was still fully operational, though there was an occasional flash of red through the alert indicators. It didn’t exactly look like a starship that was leaking drive plasma. Lancaster was just getting his bearings when a blast of golden energy lanced past his head.
He found himself pulled back towards the entrance by Evandrion.
“Hold your fire! We’re Starfleet! Captain Michael Lancaster of the Arcturus,” Lancaster shouted.
“Sorry! We couldn’t identify your ship,” someone replied.
Lancaster poked his head around the corner to see a Lieutenant in a red uniform standing next to an ensign in a gold one, who looked terrified. They both set their phasers down on the deck in front of them, looking at their would-be rescuers with trepidation. Behind them was the tiny command bridge of the vessel.
“Are you in command, Lieutenant?”
“Yessir. Lieutenant Corey Pressman, Captain of the Janice Rand. This is Ensign Martell, my security officer,” he replied.
“We’re here to help, Captain,” Lancaster replied; even on a ship as small as this one, the commanding officer of a starship was entitled to be addressed as Captain regardless of rank. “My Chief of Security, Lieutenant Evandrion, and medical officer, Doctor Sheppard. What happened?”
Pressman shook his head. “We honestly have no idea, sir. We were cruising along at warp and then we suffered a critical plasma containment failure. The two people in the engine room were killed and the hull ionized as we were pulled out of warp.”
“How many wounded?” Sheppard asked.
“Ten. We have seven passengers unaccounted for, though, because internal sensors are offline. The ones we could locate have been moved to the port lounge, just around the corner,” Pressman replied, pointing past the away team and down the corridor. “I’d be… grateful for suggestions, Captain.”
Lancaster nodded. “Doctor, take Lieutenant Evandrion and Ensign Martell to see what you can do for the wounded. Captain. Kent, you and I are going to get the ship’s systems back online,” he added, before leading the way further aft. The three officers followed his orders wordlessly, their sense of seriousness heightened by the emergency. Lancaster found a panel adjacent to the doors to Main Engineering, which indicated that there was still a plasma fire raging inside. He quickly activated an emergency shunt to direct all of the ship’s plasma supply out through the warp nacelles. The procedure went exactly according to protocol, which was a minor miracle.
“This was my first cruise. The return leg of it, anyway,” Pressman volunteered. Lancaster glanced at him and nodded, but then turned his attention back to the task at hand. The young man couldn’t have been more than a few years beyond the academy; an assignment like this one wasn’t uncommon for junior command track officers destined for executive officer positions on smaller starships after a few tours of duty shuttling back and forth between sedate core worlds on placid star lanes.
“Remember your training,” Lancaster said. “Emergency shunt complete. Venting the compartment,” he said, following protocol to render the compartment safe enough to enter.
Pressman nodded. “The primary power control computer circuits are in main engineering. We’ll have to bypass them to enable auxiliary power to take over for essential systems. It’s meant to make maintenance easy, because no one ever anticipated this level of damage on a ship like this,” he added.
“Redundancy on any meaningful scale is difficult on such a small vessel,” Lancaster replied. The computer showed that the compartment had been fully depressurized and was now cycling atmosphere again. As soon as the lights turned green, Lancaster opened the hatch and stepped through, pulling out his tricorder as he did so. There was no obvious sign of damage at all, though. No scorch marks. The computer consoles were all fully operational. There had definitely not been a plasma fire in engineering.
By the time he put his hand on his weapon, he didn’t hear the whine of a phaser this time making its mark, before he collapsed into blackness.