The battle bridge’s main viewer flickered with static, barely resolving even a fraction of the visual coming in from Thalruatania. Commander Alesser had been working on clearing it up for several minutes, but communications interference was a sure sign that omega had either disrupted subspace in the region between the Arcturus and the planet or it had generated enough theta radiation locally to block the signal at its source. Neither of those options boded well for Lancaster to complete his mission quickly and discretely. The Thalruatanians broadcasting an open distress call was not ideal, either, as they were in range of multiple powers who might want to take advantage of their weakened state, including the Kazon, the Vidiians, and the Haakonians. Lancaster wanted to receive the message as much as he wanted to be able to tell them to be quiet, as the last thing he needed was to have to deal with hostile starships in addition to a planet in flames.
“We can’t clear up the signal, but we should be able to punch through it on our end,” Lancaster noted as he thought through their options.
As a command ship, the Arcturus’s communications systems were highly advanced, intended to defeat enemy jamming and natural phenomena. Omega was likely not in the designers’ minds when they designed the class, but at a certain level, all disruptions to subspace were merely disruptions to subspace.
“Configure the main deflector to deliver a pulsed tight-beam transmission with as much power as can be spared. Send them the specifications of our communications transceiver and appropriate return frequencies,” the captain ordered.
Alesser turned in his seat. “Sir, our communications systems’ exact capabilities are classified. We can’t release–,” he started.
“I’m overriding those regulations, Commander,” Captain Lancaster responded.
Alesser hesitated for a moment. “As the captain wishes,” he replied, finally, turning around to implement the order just a split second before Lancaster was ready to toss him out of his seat and handle it himself. “Deflector pulse ready.”
“Execute,” Lancaster ordered. “We should know within a few minutes whether they’ve received and understood our message. In the meantime, I want full, active sensor sweeps for threat vessels who may have picked up their transmission.”
“That will give away our position, sir,” Odea reminded him.
Lancaster rotated his chair around to look at the Betazoid woman operating the tactical rail behind the command area. He had a brief thought about what she was managing to pick up about their mission from his mind but brushed it off.
“I’m aware of that, Commander. I think that we’re a much less appealing target for any threats than a planet in distress,” Lancaster replied, trying to keep his voice even. The captain was one ‘but sir’ away from losing his temper, which he was pretty sure Odea would be able to detect bubbling through his psyche.
“Understood, sir,” Odea replied, arching an eyebrow. “From the tactical materials the Thalruatanians shared with us, I believe the Kazon would be their most pressing threat. Raiders are known to probe their deuterium refining facilities in their Oort cloud.”
“For the Kazon’s sake, we’ll hope they won’t interfere with my mission,” Lancaster replied coldly. He tapped his finger on the armrest of his chair. “Yellow Alert. I’m not taking any chances.”
The battle bridge’s dim lighting was supplemented by gold indicator lights, and a low tone sounded all over the ship. Defense systems energized, and the vessel was brought just to the point of battle readiness.
“Captain, if I may?” Anjar asked, prompting Lancaster to turn to him.
“Go ahead, Number One,” Lancaster replied, smirking slightly at the eye roll he got in return.
“I think it would be prudent for me to get things ready down below for any potential rescue operations,” Anjar suggested cautiously. “Planetary distress calls aren’t usually casualty-free.”
Lancaster exhaled. “I agree, but I think you can delegate that task to Dr. Sheppard. Our ability to effect any humanitarian relief will depend on the success or failure of our primary mission, as cruel as that is,” he said.
The doctor frowned, but at least Lancaster knew that he wouldn’t fight him publicly. They both understood the stakes, and if it came down to it, they would have to resort to an orbital bombardment. Stopping to help the wounded could split their attention with disastrous consequences.
“I’ll have him increase our radiation treatment stocks, and that shouldn’t impact our other preparations, sir,” Anjar offered.
“We should be able to spare a few cargo bays as well,” Lancaster conceded.
The primary hull had a starbase-scale hospital, but the secondary hull was as well-equipped as any other large starship could be. Indeed, even separated either section of the Arcturus was as capable as a heavy cruiser. Still, Lancaster did not want to stretch the crew too far for the sake of a feel-good move when the genuine possibility of the planet’s imminent destruction weighing on him.
“Captain, the distress call from the planet has been halted,” Alesser reported.
“Good. Hopefully, they’ve avoided calling in every vulture in the sector,” Lancaster replied.
Commander Walker cleared his throat from the science station. “Sir, that could also mean that the transmitter has been destroyed,” he offered.
Walker’s curiosity made him a good science officer, but he also had the propensity (in Lancaster’s view) to be a jug-headed bleeding heart. Of the senior staff, Lancaster considered him the most likely to cause problems if things got dicey. He needed to keep his attention focused on something else.
“Commander, go make sure the resonance chamber will be ready for immediate use upon our arrival,” the captain ordered, without turning to look at him.
The bridge was deadly quiet as the Chief Science Officer exited the bridge to return to the support ship, as no one else wanted to be tossed out into the cold. Even not knowing the nature of their mission, no one wanted to be even more in the dark than they already were.
“The Thalruatanians are signaling us on the same frequency and signal configuration we sent them,” Alesser reported.
“Put it on screen.”
The screen flickered for a moment before they were taken inside what looked like a secure bunker. Supreme Governor Lesa was standing on some sort of platform above many banks of computer terminals, likely deep under one of the planet’s soaring arcologies. There wasn’t a single piece of open ground on the planet, as the Thalruatanians had spent the last several millennia turning their world into an ecumenopolis.
“Arcturus, can you read us?” she asked.
The Thalrutanian head of state had pale violet skin and wore elaborate vestments that put her aesthetically somewhere between a bishop, a Betazoid dignitary, and a Vulcan high priestess. Lancaster had interacted with her several times during the first contact mission, and he’d found her to be as reserved and cautious as he would expect for someone meeting another spacefaring civilization for the first time, especially given that the Thalruatanians were surrounded by hostile, imperialistic powers.
“We can hear you. Go ahead, Supreme Governor.”
“Thank the ancestors you can hear us. There has been an industrial accident in the sub-structure of one of our largest arcologies. Twenty million citizens were killed instantly, and the area has been saturated with theta radiation. We’re also experiencing substantial subspace distortions,” Lesa replied.
Twenty million casualties was a staggering report. On a planet of twenty billion, though, any omega-related explosion was bound to create casualties on that scale. The phrase ‘industrial accident’ had Lancaster’s attention. Multiple signatures across the sector having been detected did not eliminate the possibility that the Thalruatanians had conducted an omega-related experiment purposefully, as those other signals could be coming from subsidiary research facilities.
“Was this an anti-matter explosion?” Lancaster asked.
Lesa shook her head. “We do not use that technology to power our structures. Our ecologies each have a set of fusion reactors and otherwise rely on solar power. We have no explanation for this event, and our scientists have detected an exotic particle signature that is unlike anything in our records.”
Lancaster shifted in his seat. “The Federation is aware of this phenomenon. I’m under orders from our highest authorities to contain it,” he said, trying not to give too much away either to her or to his crew. “We should be in orbit within four hours. I suggest you evacuate as many people as you can.”
“We have already started clearing a substantial radius around the explosion site.”
“No, Supreme Governor, I meant to evacuate the planet,” Lancaster corrected.
There was a pause.
“Is this phenomenon truly that dangerous, Captain? If you send us your information, we might be able to develop our own countermeasures.”
“If all goes well, I’ll be able to contain it before more damage is done. I can’t share our information on this subject because of the clear danger is obviously presents,” Lancaster replied.
“In the meantime, I suggest you avoid sending additional distress calls, as that would attract unwanted attention from your neighbors. Arcturus out,” Lancaster said before terminating the call with the control on his chair.
Hanging up on a head of state was not strictly compliant with Starfleet’s diplomatic playbook, but considering that he might need to launch gravimetric torpedoes at the planet’s surface, that was was hopefully something that could be forgiven in his report to Starfleet. Lancaster leaned back in his chair for a moment. With preparations as complete as they could be, he was anxious for them to complete their journey, as the waiting was really wearing on his sanity.
“Captain Anjar, you have the bridge. I’ll be in the ready room,” Lancaster ordered before vacating the command chair.
The battle bridge ready room was less ostentatious than the one on deck one, but it was still designed to be a comfortable oasis that kept the captain close to the bridge. As Lancaster stepped inside, he realized two things: he’d never actually been in that room before, and he’d forgotten that Yeoman Kaplan had been included in the skeleton crew he’d brought with him.
Kaplan was facing away from the door, fussing with something on the coffee table on the upper tier of the room. The room resembled the ready room on Lancaster’s first assignment, the Intrepid-class USS Pioneer, though in the same dark colors as the battle bridge.
Lancaster cleared his throat, causing the young man to jump.
“Oh, Captain! I thought I’d have a little more time,” Kaplan replied, spinning around.
“To do precisely what, Kaplan?”
The yeoman stepped aside to reveal a vase of red roses, which confused Lancaster. Floral arrangement was not generally one of Kaplan’s tasks.
“I’m flattered,” the captain quipped.
“Oh. No, sir. Luca asked me to deliver this. Well, he also asked me to get them from hydroponics before we separated,” Kaplan explained.
“I think you mean Doctor Sheppard,” Lancaster corrected.
At this point, he was just amused with the situation Kaplan found himself in to toy with him rather than to actually tell him off. He was touched that Sheppard somehow found the time between their very abbreviated time together and the early morning mission to arrange that, though.
“Of course, sir. He asked me to call him… Never mind,” the yeoman stammered, blushing a little.
“I”m sure he did,” Lancaster replied.
Sheppard couldn’t help but be friendly and personable. He liked putting people at ease, which meant ‘Just call me Luca’ came out of his mouth almost as frequently as Lancaster found himself enforcing more formality while on duty.
Kaplan cleared his throat and walked over to hand Lancaster a paper note.
“M: Ho chiesto al tuo bel ragazzo di portarti delle belle rose. Sarai brillante oggi. -L,” it read.
Kaplan’s attractiveness had been a source of recurring teasing from Sheppard, the implication always being that’s why he was chosen for the job, not his efficiency or loyalty, so the pun made Lancaster smirk. Sheppard always had a definite advantage over Lancaster in terms of his ability to be spontaneously romantic. Even amidst a crisis, it did manage to put a smile on his face.
“Thank you, Kaplan,” Lancaster replied before moving over to sit at his desk.
“He also asked me to remind you to eat something today,” Kaplan noted.
“That sounds like something he would say,” Lancaster noted.
Nagging via yeoman was a new one for his relationship with Sheppard, and Lancaster admired his husband’s ingenuity. Still, it wouldn’t do to have a bored yeoman hanging around waiting for something to do.
“Can I get you anything, or help you with anything, Captain?” Kaplan asked eagerly. “I… do have a very high security clearance.”
“Of course you do, as you’d be a pretty poor captain’s yeoman if you couldn’t read anything, but this mission’s captain’s eyes only,” Lancaster replied. The captain idly ran his hand across the desk before turning to grab a PADD from the curved shelf behind it, where he tapped out a message.
“Thanks for the flowers. Since you like ordering him around so much, put him to work in sickbay. Please return him in the condition I’m lending him to you in.”
“Take this to Dr. Sheppard. He’ll need your help more today than I will,” Lancaster said, handing the small device over the desk to a deflated-looking Kaplan. “I promise I will eat something. You two can commiserate about how you’re both being kept in the dark.”
“Yes, captain,” Kaplan replied, perking up slightly before he took the secondary exit behind the bridge.
Lancaster did at least attempt to eat something, but he wasn’t hungry, even with there not having been sufficient time before the saucer separation maneuver to eat more than a piece of toast. He took the same side passage that Kaplan had left through after poking around at a salad for a few minutes en route to main engineering. As much as the Arcturus was definitely his ship, Captain Okusanya reigned supreme in the queendom that was the engine room. He rarely visited, because she was competent enough that he rarely had needed to and because it always felt like they always ended up locking horns. Even for a man who was comfortable being confrontational, Lancaster knew well enough that Okusanya worked best when left to her own devices.
The matter/anti-matter mix within the warp core’s dilithium swirl chamber was spinning at a speed that left the individual undulations invisible, a symptom of the system being set to generate the enormous amounts of power it took to keep the ship at maximum warp. The core was throwing dazzling blue light around the room, muted slightly by a photonic filter projected around the multi-spatial shielding Lancaster had ordered installed.
Rather than being in her office, Lancaster found Okusanya in the heart of the engine room, alternating between keeping a steady gaze on the master situation monitor table and offering quick, clipped orders to her subordinates. The pool of junior officers awaiting their assignments receded as Lancaster approached.
“What can I do for you, Captain? My engines have already been pushed to their limits, so I’m afraid I’m rather limited on manpower for special requests,” Okusanya said, glancing up at him.
The last few lieutenants in the vicinity fled immediately upon seeing Lancaster frown. It was never good to be at ground zero for either of these captain’s displeasure.
“I think we both know that you built these engines well enough that we could cruise along at this speed for as long as I wanted to,” Lancaster noted pointedly.
“Perhaps, but it’s still good that I’m here to monitor them. I appreciate you not leaving me behind with Rakan,” she replied.
Lancaster took a deep breath. “I am on my way to inspect the progress on the construction project aboard the support ship. Depending on what we find upon our arrival, I will be leaving you in command of the ship.”
“I see. I thought you wanted Anjar for that?”
“I selected him over you because he has already been briefed on the full nature of our mission. You will be in command of the ship while we’re gone because I know you can carry out what will need to be done in my absence,” Lancaster replied.
“Assuming things go well, nothing. If the phenomenon producing the radiation I had you shield the warp core against can’t be stopped, you will need to get the hell out of here and regroup with the saucer.”
“Are… You’re saying I’ll have to abandon you?” Okusanya replied, with a look of skepticism that Lancaster chose to interpret as genuine concern.
“Yes. And that’s not the only contingency: the resonance chamber might not be sufficient to finish my task, and if something goes wrong, you’ll have to use the graviton torpedoes I’ve ordered to destroy the Hokule’a. Preferably without us aboard, but that might not be possible.”
The captain of engineering nodded. “I’m sure you wouldn’t order that unless it were absolutely necessary. Why tell me in advance, though?”
“Because I need to know that if I give that order, you’ll be able to follow it.”
“I can’t say I like being left out of the loop, but Starfleet doesn’t create secret directives on a whim. I’ll follow that order if you give it,” she replied.
Lancaster nodded. “Good,” he said as he started to walk away.
“But Captain? Please don’t let it come to that,” she said.
The captain stopped in his tracks and smiled slightly.
“I’ll do my best.”
The cargo bay aboard the Hokule’a had been transformed into a science lab overnight, a task made easier by removable covers that concealed hard links to the ship’s computer and power systems. In a pinch, the tiny ship was mean to be able to set down on a planet and serve as a research hub, so its hold could handle almost any small-scale scientific equipment. The resonance chamber in the center of the room was physically complete, and as Lancaster entered the team was working on calibrating the various sensor modules and containment generators to the exacting specifications given by the secure data files.
Commander Walker was overseeing things, checking each officer’s work through careful diagnostics from the main control console. He looked up when the captain entered, standing straighter but still giving him a sheepish expression.
“We’ll be ready when we arrive, sir,” Walker confirmed. “Though, without knowing for sure what this device is supposed to do, it is difficult to determine if we’ve built it properly.”
“I’m sure you’ve followed the schematics,” Lancaster replied, crossing his arms. “Once we’re ready to use it, I’ll operate the controls myself.”
“I am fully capable of continuing to follow your instructions, sir.”
“It’s not a matter of your capabilities, Commander. I can’t let your scientific curiosity get the better of you,” the captain replied. “And, yes, I do understand how strange that is for a Starfleet officer to say.”
“Strange seems to be the defining factor of this mission,” Walker observed.
Lancaster just nodded; agreeing too much with him might lead him too far into spilling the beans. Though he wasn’t a novice officer by any means, very few of his missions had involved classified information. While taciturn and reserved, he’d never been shy about sharing details with his officers to get something done.
“Send all of your testing and diagnostic data to my ready room,” the captain said. As he turned to leave, the deck rocked under him and he had to grab the console to steady himself. “Bridge, report!” he said, tapping his badge.
“Unexpected subspace turbulence, Captain.” It was Anjar’s voice on the comm, and Lancaster felt the ship come to a stop. “We’ve been pulled out of warp.”