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Second Impressions

After a successful First Contact, the Arcturus must risk everything to contain an existential threat.

Prologue: Interlude Interrupted

USS Arcturus, Holosuite 10
September 2399

Captain’s Log, Stardate 76686.3

First contact with the Thalruatanians was a success, and we have resumed course at warp eight. As we are several weeks away from the next star system, I have allowed the senior staff to take a lighter schedule for the next several days to recuperate from the rigors of our very first first contact mission on the advice of First Officer Rakan. This is also giving our junior bridge crews a chance to gain valuable first-hand experience. Long-range spectrography confirms the presence of at least four M-class planets in the next system, so I want the entire crew to be ready for whatever we may discover there.

***

A starship captain was never truly off-duty, as they could be called to the bridge at any moment to deal with a crisis. Still, a day alone with Dr. Sheppard in one of the ship’s dozens of holosuites was the closest Captain Lancaster had come to shore leave since assuming command of the Arcturus three months ago. After holding the line against the Breen and the Hunters of D’Ghor for most of that time, the ship had finally resumed its exploratory mission in the Delta Quadrant, and Lancaster had conducted his debut first contact mission with the cosmopolitan Thalruatanians. They were a fascinating race of quadrupedal humanoids that were the evolutionary result of plant DNA finding its way back into their genetic makeup hundreds of thousands of years ago, rendering them photosynthetic and nearly self-sustaining other than a need for water and nutrients. 

Admiral Hayden had left the majority of the diplomacy to Lancaster where protocol would allow her to do so, in a clear attempt to send a signal to the crew that he was the captain, not just the first officer, but when it came to the science, the former botanist had practically taken over one of the biology labs pouring over their physiological data and that of lesser animal species from their world. What they’d learned about the Thalruatanians would give xenobiologists fodder for decades. For their part, the Thalruatanians were impressed that Starfleet would send such a “small” ship such a long way. Their society was highly centralized, and over tens of thousands of years, they’d spread from one sub-continent to occupying every square centimeter of land on the planet, building up layers over layers until they’d created a true ecumenopolis, so the idea of “just” 2,500 beings all on their own was very confusing to them.

A peaceful race with ideals quite similar to the Federation, the Thalruatanians had mastered space travel almost a hundred years prior, and they had exceptionally large ships with crews of over 10,000. However, they were technologically inferior to Starfleet vessels in every respect other than structural engineering. Captain Okusanya had theorized that the demands of building arcologies and skyscrapers to house their population of nearly twenty billion had given them a leg up in that department.

Sheppard had selected a villa on some unnamed Greek isle for their getaway. They’d swum together in the sea before lying out on the beach of impossibly fine and smooth pebbles to soak up the sunlight. Both of them had grown up on the coast—Lancaster was more accustomed to the cool mists of the Pacific Northwest, while Sheppard had grown up in Italy under constant Mediterranean sunshine—so being near the water was one of the things they both missed most about life on a starship. 

Lunch was out on the patio, with the combination of an ocean breeze and the sun high in the air providing a perfect complement to the assortment of Greek dishes before them. 

“I do feel a little bad tying up a holosuite for an entire day,” Lancaster noted as he contemplated his glass of white wine. With replicator functions integrated into the holosuite, you could have any meal in any setting imaginable, which made him slightly pensive about why he and Sheppard always picked Earth when they could have Risa or Betazed.

Sheppard chuckled. “It’s a big ship. There are plenty to go around. Plus, you’re the captain, and that has its perks,” he replied, setting his fork and knife down. “There are too many computer terminals in our quarters. You’d be too tempted to work there.”

“You do know me very well. But not this time, I don’t think. That last mission took a lot of energy. It’s nice to relax,” Lancaster noted. “Not being in a war zone also helps.”

Before Sheppard could respond, the computer interrupted. Lancaster could also feel the ship slowing to a stop once the holosuite’s additional inertial dampening was disabled, along with the lowering in pitch of the ship’s power generation systems.

“Program paused. Contingency Protocol Omega has been declared. Captain to the Bridge,” the computer ordered. That was the last thing Lancaster ever thought he would hear since being briefed by Hayden herself upon assuming command.

Lancaster stood up immediately and went into the villa to grab his uniform, pulling it on over his swimsuit as Sheppard raced after him.

“What happened to no work? Let someone else handle this, Michael,” Sheppard protested, looking hurt when it seemed like Lancaster was willing to drop their excursion on the very first opportunity.

“That’s not possible,” Lancaster replied, sitting down to put his boots on. “I’m sorry, but trust me when I say that this is something so far above either of us that I really have no choice.”

“What is Contingency Protocol Omega?” Sheppard asked, sitting down next to him, his look of hurt changing to confusion and concern.

“I can’t tell you that. I also need you not to discuss it with anyone,” Lancaster replied, standing back up when he was fully dressed. He kissed him on the forehead. “This is going to take a while. I’ll make it up to you,” he added. “Exit!”

Moments later, the arch appeared, and Lancaster left the holodeck. When he got to the bridge, all of the holographic displays had been turned off entirely, with the physical consoles displaying the symbol omega and nothing else. Lieutenant Windsor was trying in vain to use his command codes at the operations station while the Ensign manning it looked on.

“As you were,” Lancaster ordered, stepping up to the console and tapping in a special override sequence that restored command of the ship to the bridge. The omega disappeared, and the holographic consoles came back to life. 

“Captain! I was just about to call the first officer. I’m sorry whatever this was disturbed you,” Windsor exclaimed, but Lancaster ignored it.

“Lieutenant, hold this position until further notice. No one on the bridge is to discuss this with the rest of the crew. I will be in my ready room, and I am not to be disturbed by anyone, understood?” Lancaster asked.

“Aye, Captain,” Windsor replied, though he was clearly bursting with questions before Lancaster left him dumbfounded in the middle of the bridge. 

Lancaster exited to the starboard, Yeoman Kaplan scrambling to his feet when he entered the turbolift vestibule between the bridge and the ready room. From the looks of it, he was also in the middle of his lunch when the captain swept by.

“No visitors until I say otherwise,” Lancaster ordered, not waiting for an acknowledgment before he entered the ready room. “Computer, seal the doors to this room. No entry without my authorization.”

“Doors are sealed,” the computer replied.

Lancaster sat at his desk, putting his head in his hand for a moment before he steeled himself and sat back in his seat. The one display still showing an omega on the ship was his own desk terminal, where it stood staring at him.

 “Display secure data file Omega One.”

“Voiceprint confirmed. State clearance code.”

“Clearance Code Lancaster Blue Seven One Zero, clearance level 10.”

“The Omega Phenomenon has been detected within 2.8 light-years from this vessel. Implement the Omega Directive immediately. All other priorities have been rescinded,” the computer reported.

Lancaster sighed. “Display sensor data,” he ordered. The display switched to a view centered on the ship. A faint particle-wave had been detected, and the computer had been able to use classified analysis methods to determine its point of origin: Thalruatania.

Act I: Decisions

USS Arcturus
September 2399

In a universe with infinitely complex variations, surely there was a competing explanation to the computer’s decision that omega had indeed been detected within sensor range. The Omega Directive had only been invoked one time before, twenty-five years prior in the very same quadrant Captain Lancaster now found himself. On a relatively straight-line path from Ocampa to Sol, the probability of Voyager encountering omega was less than negligible. For Arcturus to also encounter, it was next to impossible. Though he had spent his pre-command career as an operations officer, Lancaster was also a fully-trained astrophysicist, so he wasn’t willing to let the computer’s reckoning stand on its own, enhanced detection algorithms derived from Borg knowledge or not.

After twenty minutes of going over the data, Lancaster could find no obvious evidence that the computer had made a mistake. He sat back in his chair and stared at the ceiling for a few moments as he thought about what he would do. Nothing about their encounter with the Thalruatanians would suggest that they had either the capability or the inclination to synthesize omega. That indicated that they were concealing it, which would make his duty to destroy the phenomenon all the more difficult, as it was unlikely he would be able to wait for a specialist team to travel all the way from the Alpha Quadrant. Lucky for Lancaster, though, he didn’t have to go far to get in touch with Starfleet. He tapped his badge.

“Lancaster to Hayden.”

I’m already on my way, Captain,” she replied almost immediately.

“Acknowledged,” Lancaster said, pressing a control on his desk to unlock the door. A few moments later, the Admiral walked into the ready room, doors closing again behind her to drown out the protests of Yeoman Kaplan.

Hayden walked straight over to the replicator. “Bourbon on the rocks,” she ordered, grabbing the beverage as soon as it appeared. She took a deep drink and then turned to face Lancaster. “I just received automated notifications from the Taygete, Kalyke, and Sophia Danenberg all saying they’ve detected omega.”

“That confirms the readings from Thalruatania, then,” Lancaster replied.

Hayden shook her head. 

“No. These are distinct occurrences—some from inhabited systems and some from deep space. Omega is generating spontaneously all over this sector,” the admiral said.

Lancaster’s heart sunk. Even a single omega molecule was a threat to spacefaring civilization, and they were sitting in the middle of a sector that could have four separate occurrences of omega formation? It defied all logic and all probability, turning a dangerous situation into a catastrophic one.

“That’s… not possible.”

“Normally, I would agree, but the alerts were triggered within five nanoseconds of one another on four starships twenty light-years from each other,” Hayden said with a sigh. “That’s far too precise to be a computer error.”

“Fuck,” Lancaster replied. “Begging the admiral’s pardon.”

Hayden laughed and then tossed back her drink. “‘Fuck’ is exactly the correct analysis of the situation, Michael. I went fourteen years in the center seat without having to deal with this. Four in the same day makes me wish I’d told Jonathan Knox to fuck off when he offered me the Arcturus.”

“Yeah, I sympathize very strongly with that sentiment, ma’am,” Lancaster replied pointedly, as it was Hayden that had, in turn, put him in the place he was now. As a first officer, he would have been left blissfully unaware of the unfolding crisis.  Of course, if she’d ordered him to do the extreme things that would be necessary to solve the problem without explaining, he’d probably fight tooth-and-nail to learn the truth.

Vice Admiral Knox’s self-sacrifice of ramming his otherwise-empty ship into a Breen dreadnought to save Starbase 38 had left a command void that Hayden had been given no choice to fill, promoted to Rear Admiral and ordered to shore up the border. That had meant that the Arcturus’s mission back to the Delta Quadrant was delayed, and Lancaster had been forced to take command while they shifted gears from exploring to serving as the tip-of-the-spear against the Breen. Once that fire had been put out, Hayden was left to re-plan a new expedition to the far reaches of the Delta Quadrant, while the Arcturus had raced across the quadrant to help put down the Raiders of D’Ghor. 

Now, they were finally doing what they had intended to do in the first place. Lancaster was settling into command, and they were doing good work in deep space, so, of course, there had to be yet another crisis, all of which could have been someone else’s problem had the Breen not attacked.

“On the brighter side: it can only go up from here,” Hayden replied. “With four possible sources of Omega detected, we can’t wait for a specialist team. I’ll need to oversee the implementation of the Omega Directive.”

At least four. We don’t have comprehensive sensor coverage of this sector,” Lancaster replied. 

Hayden let out a slow breath. “You’re right. We’ll need every scout and runabout ready for immediate launch to look for any other sources. In the meantime, get the ship ready to return to Thalruatania.”

The wheels in Lancaster’s mind started turning as he thought about what it would take to get the Arcturus ready to deal with Omega. The warp core would need to be shielded. They would need special photon torpedoes or a quantum resonance chamber, depending on how much Omega was present. None of the crew could be informed about the nature of their mission, though, and the closer they got to the source, the more risk there was of losing communications with the other ships in the area and their runabouts.

“The particle wave suggests that there has already been at least some damage to subspace, which will impact navigation and communications. I think it would be prudent to separate the ship,” Lancaster suggested.

“Meaning you want me to stay here on the saucer, out of danger,” Hayden replied, with an arched eyebrow.

“Yes, Admiral. You and all but a skeleton crew for the drive section,” Lancaster said.

“I would love to tell you ‘no,’ but that is our best option at the moment. I’ll coordinate from here, and we can reconnect after you’ve completed your mission,” the Admiral agreed. “Leave your first officer with me. It’ll save you having to keep her in the dark.”

Lancaster nodded. “Has Doctor Anjar been notified yet?”

Hayden shook her head. “No, the computer wouldn’t have alerted him since he’s not in command. I don’t envy you having to ruin his day,” she replied with a slight smirk.

***

Lancaster gathered the senior staff in one of the briefing rooms on deck two rather than the observation lounge forward of the bridge. The round room was in the center of the deck, completely secure from eavesdropping and out of sight of the rest of the crew. Each of them had a PADD in front of them with customized orders, which he’d carefully put together from the Omega briefing materials. 

“Until further notice, all official log entries must be encrypted. This information is on a need-to-know basis, and as you carry out your instructions, you may use whatever resources and personnel you need to do so. All other priorities have been rescinded,” Lancaster started.

The mood in the room was presciently somber, with a few of his officers looking through their orders and the rest just waiting for Lancaster to speak. First Officer Rakan looked the most troubled Of all of them, as he hadn’t had time to brief her prior. They hadn’t been working together long, but thus far had been good complements to one another, like he had been to Hayden. Rakan was diplomatic and gregarious, happy to get to know the crew and be their cheerleader, while Lancaster was focused on protocol and accomplishing their missions with maximum efficiency.

Lancaster started with perhaps the most challenging person in the room. 

“Captain Okusanya, you will be responsible for adding the multi-phasic shielding described in your instructions to both of the ship’s warp cores and that of the Hokule’a.”

Little could be done to prevent the ship from being destroyed if they got within close range of unshielded omega particles. Still, multiphasic shielding would prevent the particles from being drawn towards the core itself. Installing it once would be time-consuming, but the Arcturus had a warp core in both the primary and secondary hulls, as well as on its support ship, so engineering would be pressed to get it done in time.

I’ll need run simulations before I do that. I’ve never seen anything like these schematics before, and we have no way of knowing whether they’ll interfere with our other systems,” Okusanya protested.

“There is no time. This comes from Starfleet, and it needs to be done as soon as possible,” Lancaster replied, locking eyes with her. 

It looked like she was going to continue to protest, but she just nodded. Lancaster turned to his operations officer next.

“Commander Alesser, after you prepare all of our runabouts and scout craft for launch, you will assist Commander Walker in building a harmonic resonance chamber aboard the support ship.”

“All of them, sir?”

“All of them. Lieutenant Tellora, make sure they’re all crewed and ready for the admiral’s orders,” Lancaster said. 

The Klingon woman nodded gravely.

“Commander Odea, I will need four photon torpedoes modified with gravimetric charges. Set the yields for fifty-four isotons.”

Odea nodded. She was never one to question orders.

“Commander Evandrion, have all four hazard teams prepare for immediate deployment. Run them through their protocols for theta radiation exposure. Dr. Anjar, you will brief each team’s medic on the proper administration of arithrazine and provide them with sufficient doses,” Lancaster ordered.

Anjar arched an eyebrow but didn’t protest. That was likely enough of a clue to him about what was really going on, but he didn’t reveal anything if it had. As the former commanding officer of a hospital ship, he was the only other person on the Arcturus who had been briefed on the Omega Directive. Like it or not, he would have to become Lancaster’s right-hand man for the duration of the crisis. 

“It will be done, Captain,” Evandrion replied with a curt nod.

That just left Counselor Kaer and Captain Rakan.

“Counselor, you will coordinate evacuating all non-essential personnel from the stardrive section to the saucer. Only those personnel necessary for ship’s functions and for completing the tasks I’ve given out will remain aboard. In sixteen hours, I will take the stardrive section back to Thalruatania. Captain Rakan, you will command the saucer section and hold position here. Commander Song will serve as first officer.”

“Got it,” Kaer replied, with her typical level of casualness. Everyone in the room sat up a little straighter at the mention of separating the ship, though. 

Rakan remained silent and just nodded.

The captain thought back to his own time aboard the Lancelot. While he was still a lieutenant, there had been a time when he’d been ordered to participate in a patently illegal mission to take down a rogue officer. After refusing, he’d been tossed in the brig. Captain Smith had ended up being successful in not only proving his case but the necessity and legality of their mission to Starfleet, but at the time, Lancaster was willing to be confined rather than break regulations, let alone break the law. He had no doubt that some of his own staff would feel the same way.

“Look, if I were in your shoes, I’m sure I would have a lot of questions. Being kept in the dark is not something I handle very well, but in this case, it’s necessary. The more efficiently you carry out these orders, the more quickly we can return to standard operations. 

“This will be the most difficult mission any of us will ever accomplish, but we will accomplish it. I may have to give you orders that seem strange or which, under normal circumstances, would be against regulations or even against the law. I think you know by now that I am not one to explain myself more than once, but I can that this is the only time that I will ask you as a captain to trust my orders as a matter of faith. Dismissed.

Lancaster feeling unusually queasy while attempting to assuage what he presumed were their own roiling thoughts and emotions. He wasn’t one for speech-making.

“Doctor, meet me astrometrics,” he said to Anjar.

“I’ll have the computer show me the way,” Anjar quipped before leaving with the rest of them. 

Predictably, Captain Rakan stayed in her chair. 

“Sir, I would have preferred if you had briefed me before informing the staff,” Rakan said.

“And I would have preferred not to have had to give any of these orders,” Lancaster replied, his eyes narrowing.

“I know we have not served together long, but I hope I have demonstrated my trustworthiness and loyalty to both you and Starfleet. I realize that within our lifetimes, the Federation and Cardassians have been enemies, but—“

Lancaster shook his head. The thought that she thought her species had anything to do with why she was being made to sit this one out instantly put his stomach into knots. He was sure her rise through the ranks hadn’t been easy with her background, but that would never have been part of his calculation if it had been up to him. He’d initially favored promoting Commander Song into the slot, but Admiral Hayden had insisted that a more experienced diplomat would serve him better. When she first arrived, he was skeptical that a Cardassian could integrate so well into the crew, but he’d quickly been proven wrong on that front.

“This has nothing to do with you being a Cardassian, Captain Rakan,” he replied with a sigh. “I can’t tell you anything other than these two facts: First, the Omega Directive is only known to starship captains and Federation flag officers. Second, I can at no time or under any circumstances reveal anything about its contents to my crew other than its suspension of all other Starfleet orders and protocols.”

“I wasn’t aware that Starfleet had any directives of that power. That seems more fitting for the Romulans… or the Cardassians,” Rakan said, thinking through that as she said it and then chuckling. “Why would they pit captain against first officer?”

Lancaster wanted to say that the more people who knew, the greater the risk of an existential crisis for all spacefaring civilizations. The more curiosity about this, the more chance someone would try to recreate it. That challenge in containing operational security was now magnified because there were now four captains, each dealing with their own Omega crises just in the small area of space around the Arcturus.

“If I were writing this directive, it’s how I would write it, too. Once we separate, I will either accomplish the mission within a few hours, or the Arcturus will detect a massive explosion in subspace. I will be programming the ship’s computer to automatically jump to warp on a course for the wormhole. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck at impulse for the foreseeable future.”

“You’re implying that if you fail, you won’t be coming back,” Rakan replied.

“I have no intention of failing, but, yes.”

“It is my duty as your first officer to step into situations where you are purposefully putting yourself in harm’s way, Captain,” Rakan protested. “I can’t let you go on a suicide mission.”

Lancaster clenched his jaw. “This is hardly ideal for me, either. It’s also why you’re going to be commanding the saucer section. I need you focused on keeping the crew and the Admiral safe. Understood?”

Rakan shifted in her seat but nodded. “Of course, Captain,” she replied.

“Good. Take command of the bridge and have the ship rotated to align the main deflector with Thalruatania.”

Rakan nodded before leaving Lancaster alone in the briefing room.

“Good. 

The captain let out a long sigh, giving himself a few second’s rest as he contemplated the task before him. Dealing with her emotions was challenging, but he knew it would be nothing compared to actually executing the directive, let alone explaining to his husband that he would be left behind on the saucer section.

***

The Arcturus actually had six astrometrics labs, along with a stellar cartography viewing bay and several sensor analysis suites arrayed around the center of Deck 29 with hard links to the long-range sensors ringing the main deflector dish. They were all controlled from a bridge-like control room that let the Head of Space Sciences observe the feeds from all of the sensors at once from wall-mounted consoles ringing the room, with a map of local space projected holographically above the central pool table display.

When Lancaster entered Astrometrics Control, Dr. Anjar had already wisely cleared the room. The Bajoran doctor was leaning against the console with his arms crossed. Though he was a physician, Anjar had spent most of the last decade on the bridge of a hospital ship.

“It’s really our luck to trigger the Omega Directive, isn’t it?” Anjar asked, shaking his head.

“I bet you wish you could just argue with me about the radiation meds and be in the dark on this,” Lancaster noted. He tapped his authorization code into the central console and locked the doors. “Computer, display sensor data.”

“If it makes you feel any better, three other captains also had their afternoons ruined. Omega has been detected by three of our companion ships,” Lancaster noted, the other signals being highlighted on the map as bright blue blips.

“That’s… a problem,” Anjar replied. “I guess the Admiral has her hands full, then.”

“Yes, so it will be up to the two of us to handle this,” Lancaster said, looking over at him. “Once we separate, consider yourself Acting First Officer.”

“Great. I’m sure Akintoye will love that,” Anjar grumbled. 

“She’ll be happy enough to stay in her engine room,” Lancaster replied, but he knew that Anjar was right.

Akintoye Okusanya would hate not being in the know because she thrived on feeling like the most intelligent person in the room. The two of them were similar in ways that neither of them would admit, not only in terms of their personality but also in their backgrounds. She was twenty years older than Lancaster, though, and had a much longer career as an engineer than Lancaster did as an operations officer. Still, Lancaster had significantly more education and experience in command, so they’d settled in just on the friendly side of being rivals, with mutual respect for one another that had thus far served them well.

“Hopefully. Leaving Sheppard in sickbay should help him keep his mind off of the mission, at least,” Anjar noted offhandedly as he studied the star chart. 

Lancaster’s blood ran cold for a moment. He was having an emotional reaction, but he’d already decided that he wasn’t going to bring Sheppard with them as part of the skeleton crew. If anything did go wrong, he wanted to give him the best chance of surviving.

“Luca is going to be staying aboard the saucer section. Dr. Tenesh will be acting Chief Medical Officer,” Lancaster replied.

“You and I both know that it’s the protocol for the third most senior medical officer to accompany the stardrive section, not the second,” Anjar replied patiently. He was, of course, correct, again: engineering and medical both had two deputies to handle situations exactly like this. If the ship were to separate, department heads would be expected to go with the captain in the stardrive section, while the first deputy would remain aboard the saucer. That way, neither section was left with all of the ship’s most senior officers.

“The Omega Directive means that I can override any protocol I want,” Lancaster countered, focusing again on the sensor controls. He activated the long-range sensors on a full active scan to try to get a better picture of what was happening on Thalruatania. “It won’t impact the operation.”

“When you say I’m ‘Acting First Officer,’ do you want my real advice, or do you just want me to look pretty and sit next to you?” Anjar asked.

“As first officer, you should always speak your mind, Captain,” Lancaster replied, feeling his face slip from merely resting malcontent to a full-on pout. 

“Well, then, I think you’re making a mistake. I won’t claim to know Luca as well as you do, but he’s served under me twice now, and leaving him off of this mission will hit a perfect bull’s eye of all of the things he hates most in life.”

Lancaster stopped what he was doing. The sensors needed time to do their work, anyway.  One of the things he hated most in life was being lectured, and that’s what he sensed was coming. 

“Putting aside for a moment that I’m not actually considering his desires, but his safety, enlighten me,” Lancaster said.

“That’s exactly the point. He wants to be treated like just another member of the crew, so all things being equal, he’d be going with us, right?” 

Lancaster nodded. 

“So, are you going to be the one to explain to him why he’s being sidelined after you pushed him to take the bridge officer’s exam and earn that third pip?” Anjar asked. “I can’t think of a worse hell than staying behind while your spouse goes off on some classified mission.”

“I’d rather him resent me than go down with us.”

“He’s not going to see it that way, and you’ll never be able to explain why when we come back, Michael. Look, this is a dire situation, but you don’t need to compound it by adding a marital crisis to it. That’s like tossing a photon grenade and then jumping onto it yourself,” the doctor replied. 

Lancaster frowned; Anjar wasn’t shy about using his first name because he was one of two people on the ship that could actually give him orders. He got the sense that he wasn’t finished, either.

“I don’t talk about this much, but I was married. I’ll spare you the details, but he was a few years older than me. It started as a rebellion against Bajoran culture and my father. He graduated ahead of me during the Dominion War,” Anjar started. “He was aboard the Valley Forge at Chin’toka. Killed instantly when the saucer was breached while I was stuck back in medical school on Earth. I would have given anything to get to go with him.”

Lancaster felt a well of sympathy for the other man. He had no idea about that part of his life. He knew that Anjar was gay, but he’d just assumed that marriage had taken a back seat to his career rather than something so tragic occurring.

“But you would be dead,” Lancaster pointed out.

“For quite a while, I wished I was,” Anjar replied bluntly. “That wasn’t his fault, though. I don’t know what I would feel if he’d been the one that had ordered me behind.”

Lancaster nodded. “I’d probably have to have him confined if I tried to leave him behind, anyway. Fine, you’ve made your point,” he conceded, returning to the sensor data, which was starting to come in. He cleared his throat. “I’m… sorry to hear about your husband. I don’t know what I’d do if Luca… if that happened to him,” he managed, not quite being able to finish that last thought.

“Thank you. It’s one of the few times in my life that I’ve wished I actually were religious,” Anjar replied. 

That they had talked about before, in passing. Anjar didn’t wear a traditional religious earring, nor did he even use Bajoran naming conventions. The son of a vedek, he’d rejected religion entirely in favor of science, which Lancaster admired. Not because of the rejection of religion per se (though he couldn’t fully fathom people retaining faith in the supernatural in the 24th century) but because of defying his parents. Lancaster himself had also done that when he joined Starfleet rather than becoming an academic, though he imagined Anjar’s defiance came with much more of a price.

“The number of omega molecules on Thalruatania is… growing. By the time we get there, there could be as many as a hundred million molecules,” Lancaster noted. 

“And I bet you have a plan for that.”

The captain nodded. “That’s why Walker and Alesser will be building the containment vessel on the support ship, not on the Arcturus. We’ll need the mothership’s engines to successfully navigate through the subspace chop, but we can take the Hokule’a down into the atmosphere to get within safe transport range once in orbit. We’ll then be able to neutralize the omega molecules.”

“And the gravimetric torpedoes?”

“If something goes wrong, you’ll need to use them to destroy the Hokule’a as a safeguard,” Lancaster explained, matter-of-factly. “If there’s too much omega, we may be forced to fire on the planet’s surface directly, but we have a duty to avoid casualties if we can.”

“The less genocide, the better, I say,” Anjar quipped. “Did Hayden ever hand you a phaser and tell you to shoot her as a safeguard?”

“Burdens of command, Doctor.”

***

After reviewing their plans more deeply, Lancaster sent Anjar back to sickbay to get the hazard teams ready. They were yet another contingency, an escort for Lancaster should it be necessary to beam to the surface to secure the substance. Though all of their members were junior officers or enlisted, they were used to getting complex assignments and not always getting the full details of any mission. 

It had been nearly six hours since the Omega Directive had been activated, and he would have preferred to return to his quarters, but he headed for the stern instead, where the Hokule’a was nestled in its docking cradle. He passed the forward docking airlocks and walked down the side of the docking bay instead, where the twin cargo bay doors were both open, allowing personnel and equipment to pass between the Arcturus and the smaller ship.

There, Commander Walker was overseeing a mixed team of science officers and engineers putting together the spherical harmonic resonance chamber from the provided plans. Based on Voyager’s experience, the process had been streamlined significantly from Starfleet’s original, abbreviated research on the subject, but it was a complex device. So far, it looked like they’d assembled most of the framework while the rest of the components were being gathered.

“Report, Commander,” Lancaster replied, not entirely snapping but his fatigue lending a sharpness to his voice that he hadn’t quite intended.

For his part, the Chief Science Officer didn’t seem to notice and offered him a smile. The two were about the same age, height, and even build, but it was night and day between their two personalities: Walker was shy, reserved, and generally nice. Soft, even, by Lancaster’s estimation.

“Ah, Captain. Most of the structural framework was easily replicable, but we’re still sourcing some of the more exotic components from the ship’s stores. This is a fascinating device,” Walker replied, looking up from the free-standing console he was operating from. “It would be easier if we could build this in one of the fabrication bays instead.”

“Perhaps, but due to the way it’s designed, transporting it would be difficult,” Lancaster replied. “How much more time do you need?”

“At this rate, I’d estimate at least a day, assuming that the latter stages of assembly and testing are more complex,” Walker replied.

Lancaster frowned. “You have at most sixteen hours, combining the remaining time between departure and our arrival at the planet. It has to be ready by then. No excuses.”

“I… Well, we’ll do our best, Captain. It might help if I knew what you were planning on doing with it,” Walker replied.

“It probably would, but I can’t tell you,” Lancaster said.

As he was speaking, Commander Alesser entered the cargo bay from the Arcturus and made a bee-line over to them. Now this one, this one Lancaster couldn’t quite decide if he liked it or not. Efficient and capable, yes, but also vain, flirtatious, and unyieldingly ambitious. He also made it a point of eyeing up his husband anytime the three of them were in the same room, quite possibly to provoke him. The Ardanan had olive-copper skin and was significantly shorter than Lancaster or Walker, despite his personality making him seem larger-than-life.

“All runabouts and scouts ready, Captain. Admiral Hayden is dispatching them as we speak,” Alesser reported. “I also have my people tracking down the last of the components for this device.”

“Good. I also want you to enhance the structural integrity systems of this ship and reinforce the power conduits leading to this compartment,” Lancaster ordered.

“I’ll get right on it,” Alesser replied, with a smile, no questions, and no complaints. It was a little infuriating for reasons that Lancaster couldn’t quite express. 

Walker, though, looked at him with immediate questions.

“I have been thinking, sir, that we could install command equipment for this chamber on the bridge, so it could be operated remotely. It’s clearly designed to contain a massive amount of power and radiation, so even the tiniest leak would be fatal for anyone in this room.”

“If there’s time. Focus on making sure there are no ‘tiny leaks,’ first, though. The slightest containment failure of the resonance chamber would make a little theta radiation poisoning seem almost pleasant compared to the other side-effects,” Lancaster replied. 

Controlling the chamber from the bridge would be preferable, yes, but not for the reasons Walker thought. It would be ideal if no one other than him or Anjar actually witnessed omega’s presence.

“Keep working on the containment generator. I am going to start configuring the control software,” Lancaster ordered, grabbing a tricorder and heading over to the resonance chamber. This he knew needed to be handled personally.

***

It was well past 0000 hours when Lancaster finally returned to his quarters after spending most of the night in the cargo bay working on the resonance chamber. He almost went back to the ready room to sleep in the small cabin there, but he knew Sheppard would have been even grumpier about that than having been abandoned mid-date. Given how late it was, he was surprised to find all of the lights on. Sheppard was reading under on the couch.

“Why are you still awake? Lancaster asked. 

“Hello to you, too,” his husband quipped. 

Sheppard set his PADD on the coffee table and sat up, the faux fur blanket he’d draped over his torso falling down to his waist and revealing a lot of skin. It wasn’t the right moment for libidinous thoughts, but the site reinforced Lancaster’s disappointment at having to walk out on him.

 “I wasn’t going to go to bed without you,” he explained in a softer tone.

“Did you manage to have any fun on the holodeck?” 

Lancaster pulled off his uniform jacket and shirt in one motion, tossing it over on one of the living room chairs unceremoniously, which Sheppard noted with a raised eyebrow. He sat down next to him on the couch, and Sheppard pecked him on the cheek as he pulled his boots off.

“I left a little after you did. No reason to waste off-duty time I can’t spend with you,” Sheppard responded, which made Lancaster’s heart twist. He hadn’t meant to ruin Sheppard’s vacation as well as his own.

Luca.”

“Don’t pretend you would have just kept relaxing if I got called away,” Sheppard countered.

Lancaster sighed. “No, I guess not. Don’t pretend you wouldn’t guilt-trip me over it, though.”

“No guilt trips. It was disappointing, but I get it,” Sheppard replied, running his hand through Lancaster’s hair. “You have to be exhausted.”

Lancaster responded by burying his face in Sheppard’s chest and collapsing on top of him. It was only in resting that he genuinely felt how tired he was. He’d worked later many, many times but never with so much emotional and intellectual weight driving him. The lives of his crew and possibly of the whole Thalruatanian civilization hung around his neck like an albatross.

“Asking why we’re separating the ship in the morning is probably futile, right?”

Lancaster nodded against Sheppard’s skin. He sat up a few moments later. 

“I really wish I could explain,” Lancaster noted.

Sheppard reached over to wipe tears off his cheek with his thumb, tears that Lancaster was too tired and too overwhelmed to realize he’d shed. Being with Sheppard offered him moments of emotional catharsis that he struggled to fully process. He was the one person who he felt okay to be vulnerable around, which made his conversation with Anjar in astrometrics hit even harder. 

“I’m here for you,” Sheppard replied. “I… I’ve never seen you worked up like this because of work things.”

“It’s just… a lot. All at once. It’s more difficult because I can’t talk about it with you.”

“Can’t you ask the admiral to read me in?”

Lancaster shook his head. 

“I can’t even read my first officer in. This is going to be a long few days.”

“We’re in danger, aren’t we?”

Lancaster nodded.

“We’ve been in danger before. We’ll get through it together,” Sheppard said, chewing on his bottom lip.

“Just think, if we’d stayed on Earth, we’d have already been in bed for four hours after an early dinner on the Wharf.”

“Earth was nice. Neither of us joined Starfleet to sit on a planet, though. Maybe in fifty or sixty years,” Sheppard replied. “I’ll take the danger and the intrigue any day.”

Sheppard stood up and offered a hand to Lancaster.

“Come on. You need to be on the battle bridge in a little over five hours. Let’s try to get what sleep we can.”

***

At 0600 hours, Lancaster was seated on the battle bridge. Unlike the main bridge, the battle bridge had a much more traditional design. Lacking the open space and the expansive vistas, it was intended to be more survivable, either controlling the whole ship from deep within the ship’s superstructure or commanding the stardrive section on more dangerous missions like the one they were about to embark on. The color palette was also more muted, the navy blue that ran through the rest of the ship missing the accompanying bright gold accents, replaced instead by dark steel. Unlike the main bridge, there was a single command seat, leaving him alone in the center of the bridge.

“All stations ready for separation, Captain,” Anjar reported from the mission operations station on the starboard wall. Walker was sitting next to him at science.

“Initiate saucer separation sequence,” Lancaster ordered, gripping the armrests not to brace himself but to focus his stress at the thought of breaking his ship into two pieces.

“Docking latches disengaging,” Alesser noted. “Activating magnetic repulsers.”

The main viewer switched to show the saucer separation moving away from the secondary hull, open space quickly replacing it in view as the ship’s computer used repulsers and thrusters to provide enough distance between the two halves of the vessel for both to maneuver safely. Lancaster watched with a sense of dread as he prepared to leave 2,000 members of his crew behind.

“Separation complete,” Alesser confirmed. “Captain Rakan and Admiral Hayden both send their compliments and best wishes, sir.”

“Helm, plot a return course to Thalruatania, maximum warp,” Lancaster ordered.

“Course plotted, sir,” Tellora confirmed, seeming almost gleeful as she set the ship’s speed. It wasn’t often that they got to rush off at dangerous velocities, after all.

“Execute,” Lancaster ordered.

Moments later, the ship’s engines engaged and took them to warp. Without the bulk of the primary hull, they were a few percent faster than they would be under normal circumstances, having them back at the planet in just under four hours. Lancaster just hoped that would be enough time for the harmonic resonance chamber to be completed.

“Incoming transmission, sir.”

“From the saucer?”

“No, sir. It’s a general distress call from Thalruatania.”

“That complicates things,” Lancaster muttered. “On screen.”

Act II: Preparations

USS Arcturus
September 2399

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. 

“But, surely—”

“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.

“Which is?”

“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.

“Status?”

“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.”

 

Act III: Complications

USS Arcturus
September 2399

The Arcturus had to crawl along at impulse speeds for several hours until it could find a sufficiently stable pocket of subspace to re-engage warp drive. They had enough data to successfully plot a return course, assuming the damage to subspace had already reached its maximum extent. Still, they were in real danger of never being able to go back to warp again. Lancaster didn’t relish the thought of spending a year at sublight speeds to rendezvous with the saucer section, but they were through the looking glass now.

“ETA, Lieutenant Tellora?” Lancaster asked as he assumed the command seat in the center of the battle bridge.

“Approximately twenty minutes, Captain, barring any other unforeseen navigational challenges,” the Klingon replied, her speech descending to a near growl by the end of that statement. 

Tellora always seemed agitated about something, but the delay of their arrival was weighing on the entire bridge crew. Lancaster was half-desperate for some order to give or some system to tweak, but he, too, had to just wait for the ship to arrive. 

“We have entered the system, Captain,” Tellora announced. 

“Drop us to impulse,” Lancaster ordered.

There was a flash as the ship slowed. The computer automatically centered the viewer on the planet, and the damage was evident even from orbit, with smoke staining the amber-colored atmosphere. Thalruatanian ships were oddly asymmetrical and displeasing to Human eyes for their strange lines and their massive size. Built to transport thousands of their people at once on exploratory voyages, they still weren’t enough to effect any significant evacuations.

Lancaster left his seat and went over to the vacant science station to run an initial scan of the planet. The computer was censoring the results, but he knew enough without going somewhere more secure to pinpoint the location of the particles: deep beneath the rubble of a building that once housed millions of people. From the amount of radiation produced, a quick estimate put the total of molecules in the dozens or maybe the low hundreds. Enough to wreck subspace for a dozen lightyears in every direction, but not enough to need a harmonic resonance chamber–other than the fact that there was no way they would be able to target them from orbit with a gravimetric torpedo. They were also too deep to risk a standard transporter beam.

“Put us in synchronous orbit above these coordinates,” Lancaster ordered.

Whatever the answer was, they would need the full power of the ship’s planetary sensor array to get a better picture. The captain returned to his chair, drumming his fingers along the top of the control console for a moment as he considered what to do.

“Incoming transmission from the planet, Captain. It’s Supreme Governor Lesa for you,” Commander Alesser reported from operations.

Lancaster had nearly forgotten about her, in his focus to handle omega itself.

“On screen,” he ordered.

The Thalruatanian head of state was once again transmitting from her secure bunker. Luckily, there were no immediate signs that her position was in danger. Then again, with omega, there weren’t degrees of trouble: if it was generating spontaneously on her word, Supreme Governor Lesa was at risk of instant death at any moment.

Arcturus, we have begun what evacuations we can, but I’m sure you’re aware that our navy is not large. How soon can you contain the phenomenon?” Lesa asked, cutting straight to the chase.

“My initial readings suggest that the source is deep enough underground that we’ll need to conduct more detailed surveys first. Any geological data from that area would be helpful, Supreme Governor,” Lancaster replied.

The Thalruatanian woman scoffed. “You ask for our research data but are unwilling to provide your own?”

Lancaster pinched the bridge of his nose. “As a show of good faith, I am transmitting the specifications and research on a drug we call arithrazine, which is a powerful anti-radiation treatment for the most severe cases of theta radiation poisoning. It will be useful in treating anyone impacted by the initial blast,” he said, gesturing to a surprised-looking Anjar to send the information.

That left Lesa visibly at a loss on the viewscreen. “You’re… sharing your technology? Does your Prime Directive not forbid that?”

“Luckily for both of us, that particular regulation has been suspended to give me more latitude to deal with this crisis. I am here to help you, Supreme Governor, but the one thing I cannot do is share the details of my mission,” Lancaster replied. “We will also be willing to take aboard your wounded and help you treat them, but I need every scrap of information you have on this ‘accident.’”

The Supreme Governor hesitated, and the sound cut out for a moment as she turned off-screen to consult with advisors. Though their ships were no threat to the Arcturus, this mission would be substantially more straightforward with their cooperation and trust, so Lancaster was willing to start with the carrot rather than the stick.

“We have chosen to trust you, Captain Lancaster.”

“Captain, we have full access to their scientific archives,” Alesser reported.

“Thank you, Supreme Governor. I will update you as best I can. Send us a list of your most critical patients, and we’ll see what can be done for them here. Hopefully, this will conclude quickly,” Lancaster replied. “Arcturus out.”

That was likely the best possible outcome he could hope for. He didn’t like having to stretch their attention to both the humanitarian aspects of the situation and the complex scientific task that was now before him, but if he didn’t have to torpedo diplomatic relations with a new society, all the better. 

“Captain! I’m detecting two Kazon carriers on an intercept course. They’re three minutes out. Radiation obscured them on our long-range sensors,” Odea shouted. 

Of course. Things were going too well for Kazon not to show up. He’d anticipated some trouble, but if he were a semi-sentient, poorly groomed raider, he would likely have continued to target the outlying stations and facilities at the edge of the system rather than charging right towards the planet. Kazon motivations and strategy were rarely clear to him, though.

“Red alert,” Lancaster said, moving back to his seat. “Keep us between them and the planet.”

Space whirled in the viewscreen as Telorra brought them around. Two large Kazon ships quickly appeared, both of which we bearing straight for them. Lancaster didn’t wait for them to account for their presence before opening a general hailing frequency from his seat. Predator-class ships were not a threat to them unless they’d been upgraded substantially from their basic specifications, but they were an unwanted interference. 

“Attention Kazon vessels, this is the Federation starship Arcturus. You are interfering in our relief efforts, and you have one chance to reverse your course before we open fire,” Lancaster said.

“This is Maje Teirdan of the Kazon-Reloramar. You have no right to threaten us, Federation, when our sensors have detected the covert weapons research in progress on this planet!” came the reply from an angry-looking Kazon once Alesser had brought up the visual. 

Based on their intelligence from early scouting missions in the quadrant, the Reloramar were a sub-sect of the much more powerful Relora. The two carriers before them were likely a substantial part of their navy, so Lancaster hoped that the threat of losing them would make Maje Teirdan think twice before continuing down this path. 

“I say again, turn back. Now,” Lancaster replied.

“We will strip the energy source from this world and harness it to restore the glory—”

Lancaster cut the channel, the second time in a day that he’d hung up on an alien leader.

“I don’t have time for this idiot. Attack Pattern Zulu-One,” Lancaster ordered with a wave of his hand. 

“Yes!” Tellora enthused.

The helmswoman brought the ship into a roll at full impulse, letting the Arcturus dive between the two ships and allowing all of their phaser arrays chances to score hits on both targets. Under typical peacetime situations, a starship would be expected to only respond with sufficient power to defend itself, and then only if provoked. While the Kazon didn’t have much experience with Starfleet, the aggressive move still seemed to catch them off guard. They didn’t even have a chance to launch fighters before the Arcturus began to come around for another pass.

The Arcturus rocked from several blasts of energy weapons fire from the Kazon, though their aft quarters were sparsely armed. As with many species, the Kazon relied on heavy forward firepower rather than Starfleet’s comprehensive, medium-powered weapons and shields strategy. The fighters now pouring out of both ships were meant to be the Kazon’s solution to that problem: any ship not pummeled by the carriers’ large weapons would be harassed by a swarm of smaller vessels.

“Shields holding, sir. Those fighters might be a problem if they get too close,” Odea reported.

“Tellora, keep us far enough away from their fighters to give Odea a chance to shoot them down. Course and speed at your discretion, Lieutenant,” Lancaster ordered before swiveling around to Odea. “Ready a spread of quantum torpedoes. Maximum yield, we might be able to catch them as they’re launching.”

Odea arched an eyebrow. ‘Maximum yield’ was the sort of order she might have expected for the Borg or Voth, but not for such a petty target like the Kazon. “As you wish,” she replied. “Torpedoes targetted on the launch apertures.”

“Fire,” Lancaster ordered, turning back to look at the results of his order.

Brilliant blue flashes streaked across the screen, with two groups of torpedoes arcing out from the Arcturus to intercept the fighters. They impacted with enormous force, vaporizing a handful of fighters outright before they could get clear enough to maneuver while also starting a visible plasma fire on one of the carriers where a major EPS line had been ruptured. 

“Direct hits on multiple targets. The starboard carrier is beginning to list.”

“Continue to focus fire on the fighters,” Lancaster replied as he stared at the burning carrier. 

A ship like that would have a crew of at least two thousand, possibly higher. Their damage control systems were likely much more primitive than the Federation’s, so he’d probably condemned hundreds of beings to their deaths. The battle bridge rocked as a plasma torpedo managed to make contact, forcing Lancaster to grip his chair for support.

“Shields down to 96%,” Alesser reported.

While they were bullies in their own backyard, Kazon technology lagged significantly behind not only the Federation’s but also that of other races closer to the galactic core. They had stolen it from the Trabe long ago and seemed to have limited ability to improve it; numbers let them dominate more than actual, raw power, so it was unsurprising that they couldn’t make much of a dent in the Arcturus’s shields, especially when not given a chance for a first strike.

Lancaster watched as the ship’s phasers picked off fighter after fighter, thanks to Telorra keeping them much too far away to retaliate with their own short-range weapons. He had hoped the display of overwhelming firepower would have been enough to force the Kazon into a retreat, but if anything, it was making them more determined.

Beyond the delay itself, any errant shots or crashing starships could increase the danger from omega: damaged warp cores were unpredictable; it was unclear under what conditions omega might be attracted or destabilized. The only apparent solution was to end the battle as quickly as possible.

“Re-target the damaged carrier, and prepare another torpedo salvo. All phaser arrays to maximum range and automatic targetting,” Lancaster ordered. “We can’t drag this out.”

“Captain, we may be able to disable the carrier with a surgical strike to their computers,” Odea suggested.

“Noted. Carry out your orders, Commander,” Lancaster replied.

The tactical console chirped several times as it began an auto-fire sequence, throwing a shroud of golden energy around the Arcturus as it banked back towards the already-burning carrier. It usually took a lot of prompting before a Starfleet captain would order a full-force order like that. Minor skirmishes drug on for longer than they needed to because the regulations stipulated careful escalations of firepower to do the least amount of harm possible. Within that framework, he would have had to try to find a peaceful solution first, but unburdened from those restrictions by the Omega Directive, he felt slightly queasy at being able to dive straight in guns blazing for the sake of the mission.

“Torpedoes loaded, sir.”

Lancaster tapped the ship-to-ship control again. “Attention, Kazon ships. I advise you to retreat immediately,” he said, giving them one last chance.

“No response, sir,” Alesser replied before the ship rocked again from more weapons fire.

“Do it, Odea.”

Once again, blue torpedoes belted out from the Arcturus’s forward launchers, this time all targeted on the damaged carrier. They impacted with tremendous force, ripping a hole through the side of the hull and exposing its innards for a brief moment before it exploded entirely. For their size, the ships were poorly armed and shielded, their main utility being to transport vast numbers of troops and fighters, but even still, it would be a shock to any Kazon commander to see one of them taken down.

“Target destroyed, Captain,” Odea reported, a certain amount of unease clear on her voice despite typically being quite reserved. “The other ship is retreating.”

“Should I pursue?” Tellora asked.

“No. Take us back to our previous position,” Lancaster replied. 

The Kazon would likely be back, but given the speeds of their ships, the instability of subspace in the region, and the position of the system relative to their space, Lancaster was betting he could deal with Omega before they arrived. Destroying the second ship would have been safer, but he doubted the directive stretched far enough for him to justify firing on a ship that was complying with his demands—even if it had taken them that long.

***

With Anjar needing to oversee any of their token humanitarian efforts, Lancaster left Alesser in command of the battle bridge and ensconced himself in one of the planetary science labs. From here, he could get minute readings down to the nanometer of the planet’s surface. Combined with access to the Thalruatanian’s databases, a plan quickly began to take shape. Between the actual soil and the lowest levels of the planet’s megastructures was about a hundred meters worth of catacombs, warrens, and ancient, collapsed structures. It was the stratum accumulated over thousands of years that the current planet-spanning city had been constructed.

From Lancaster’s readings, the omega was concentrated in a large underground void, which appeared to be a natural formation. If they used the ship’s phasers, they would be able to cut a tunnel into an adjoining network of passages to access it.

“Computer, search the Thalruatanian records for anything on this cavern,” Lancaster noted, as he operated one of the consoles to calculate the exact density of the stone and brick they’d need to cut through.

“Records indicate this chamber was once the city center of a Thal settlement noted for being the locus of an important religious cult, approximately 3,000 years prior to the current date,” the computer reported.

“Is there anything to suggest that the Thal were technologically advanced?” 

“Negative. Along with the Rua, the Thal were still an agrarian society during this time period,” the computer replied. “Scans suggest the only technology in the vicinity was added approximately 200 years ago: a series of braces to protect the cavern from collapse.”

“Clarify. Why was it protected?” Lancaster asked.

The Thalruatanians were aggressively forward-thinking. New buildings constantly replaced old ones, even those of historical significance. Their memories were recorded in massive databanks, but physical remains of prior generations were considered just the building blocks for the next, greatest thing.

“An expedition was authorized to this chamber to collect evidence of prior alien contact with this world in its antiquity.”

Now that was interesting. “What were the results of the expedition?”

“Inconclusive. A statue contained within this chamber was found to have been constructed out of materials not found on Thalruatania, but the researchers speculated that it was merely the result of an asteroid impact, not alien contact.”

“Send those files to my ready room for later,” Lancaster replied.

Some sort of alien influence could explain how omega had come to be on this world. Still, the chamber itself wasn’t damaged in the earlier destabilization, which had occurred much further above in the reactor complex of the arcology. It was possible that they were being drawn to whatever was contained in the chamber but interacted with the fusion reactor instead. With the reactor out of the way, so to speak, they were now congregating there. 

The why of it all would have to wait, though.

“Lancaster to Bridge. I am sending coordinates and specifications for phaser drilling,” Lancaster said once his analysis of the exact frequency and power levels needed was complete. “Inform the Thalruatanians that we will be cutting down into the catacombs to complete our mission and then activate the drilling pattern.”

“Aye, Captain,” Alesser replied.

“Have the standby crew for the Hokule’a as well as Hazard Teams Alpha and Beta board and prepare for departure. Lancaster out.”

***

At the lowest possible power setting to cut through the debris of the arcology and the catacombs, it would take at least two hours before Lancaster would be able to lead a team down to place pattern enhancers. Any more power, and they risked either causing further collapses or interacting with the omega particles directly. The Hokule’a’s temporary crew was preparing the ship for departure while the captain gathered two of the ship’s hazard teams in the mess hall for a briefing.

Minus their pilots, who’d gone out with the ship’s small craft to search for other instances of omega, the twelve members of the two teams were all waiting for him in the support ship’s cramped lounge in full gear.

“In approximately two hours, we will be beaming down to the planet’s surface to retrieve a dangerous energy phenomenon for disposal,” Lancaster explained. 

Lieutenant Bowens was the senior of the two team leaders, and he couldn’t help but speak up.

“‘We,’ sir?”

Lancaster frowned. “Yes. To be more specific: you will be escorting me while I complete my mission,” he clarified, crossing his arms. “The brief is simple: we need to navigate through a series of underground caverns, catacombs, and ruins to place pattern enhancers in this chamber,” he said, turning around to point on a wall-mounted screen to the map.

“Sir, if this is dangerous enough to need two hazard teams…,” Bowens said, trailing off when the captain whipped back around.

“Luckily, the Arcturus has a few spare captains,” Lancaster quipped. “If we all do our jobs, the risk is minimal. It will just be a matter of not getting lost or hurt while traveling between the beam-in site and the target.”

Bowens nodded. “We’ll get you where you need to go, sir.”

“The Thalruatanians are cooperating with this mission. I have no reason to suspect there will be interference, but I also can’t be assured that their head of state speaks for the entire populace. The pattern buffers will be placed in that chamber, no matter the cost,” Lancaster said, looking around the room.

While well-trained, the hazard teams were made up of junior officers specifically to keep senior officers and department heads out of harm’s way. With a crew the size of the Arcturus’s, there was usually no reason for a dangerous mission to risk them, but Lancaster didn’t have a choice. He didn’t question their skills, but the faces in front of him were apprehensive. Everything about their mission was unusual, but each new group of his crew he brought in at some level needed time to grasp separately with the absurdity of it all.

“I think we all know that I’m not big on affection or human emotion because I trust that your training will allow you to accomplish any task I set to you. This is no different. You’re used to difficult missions, but you’re going to have to trust that any unusual orders I give you today are necessary,” the captain said, earning a few smiles.

“May I make a suggestion, Captain?” Lieutenant Serala, the leader of the second hazard team, asked. She’d been promoted from deputy of the alpha team to leader of the beta team following a very successful mission during the Archanis campaign.

Lancaster nodded.

“Given the risk of collapse or cave-in, it would be prudent to bring two sets of pattern enhancers, should one of them become unavailable,” the Vulcan suggested.

“Officer thinking, Lieutenant,” Lancaster replied before glancing back around. “All of you are under strict orders not to get caught in a cave-in, though. Understood?”

“Aye, Captain!” all twelve of them said together, which was enough to make even a cynic like Lancaster briefly proud.

“We will be observing full radiation protocols for this mission. Report to Dr. Sheppard in sickbay for arithrazine inoculations. Ensigns Taom and Gardner, you will also receive a briefing on how to administer it yourselves,” Lancaster ordered. “Dismissed.”

***

The standard uniform for the hazard teams aboard the Arcturus was a form-fitting bodysuit that offered limited protection against light weapons fire, and bladed weapons, as well as small amounts of radiation, and other atmospheric hazards. The theta radiation possible with omega wouldn’t even blink at a suit like that, but it still made Lancaster feel better not to walk into what was basically a warp core breach in just his duty uniform.

It wasn’t a garment one could just pull on and off, though. While the combination of a duranium mesh core and synthetic rubber outer layers was thin and highly flexible when it had been donned fully, Lancaster found it a little awkward to pull the bottom half of the suit on in the cramped captain’s cabin of the Hokule’a, nearly stumbling as he did so. He just managed to pull his boots on and lock them onto the suit when the chime sounded.

“What?!” he snapped.

“It’s me,” came Sheppard’s voice through the intercom. 

“Come.”

As his husband entered the room, Lancaster had just pulled the top of the uniform over his shoulders. Sheppard had a medkit in one hand and a basket in the other. He put both on the tiny desk next to the bed. There were two equally tiny viewports above the bed and desk which would have shown open space, were the docking cradle of the Arcturus not blocking the view.

“I figured you’d want your inoculation in private,” Sheppard noted, as he loaded a hypo. “A nurse and a medic aren’t an appropriate substitute for on-site monitoring by a physician,” he chided, before going over to place the hypo on Lancaster’s neck and inject the drug.

“No, but we won’t be gone long enough for it to be a problem,” Lancaster replied.

“Is that a promise?” 

“I didn’t come halfway across the galaxy just to die on some strange world inhabited by centaurs,” Lancaster replied. “I’m coming back, because I know how angry you’d be with me if I didn’t.”

Sheppard offered him a small smile. “I suppose that’s enough. I’ve already talked myself out of wanting you to send Anjar in your place, so we can skip that argument, too.”

“Oh, that’s very efficient, Shep,” Lancaster laughed.

Sheppard grinned at him and then returned the hypo to its place in the medkit. As he turned around, though, Lancaster noticed how intently he was staring at him, which made him blush slightly.

“What?”

“Why haven’t I ever seen you in that uniform before?” Sheppard asked, before stepping back over to pull the hidden zipper up, concealing Lancaster’s bare chest behind the stretchy, semi-armored material. Once the suit was fully sealed up, Lancaster felt the effects of its compression—not so tight that he couldn’t breathe or move, but it definitely made him stand up even straighter than his already ramrod posture. 

“You like it?”

“It’s… accentuating parts of you that I already like,” Sheppard replied, grabbing the utility belt from the bed and helping Lancaster put it around his waist. The belt clicked into place, connecting some internal sensors in the suit for basic life signs and location information to a built-in computer and transceiver that would keep him in contact with the ship.

“Who knew the secret to your heart was a little exoprene,” Lancaster quipped.

“Heart?” Sheppard asked, winking before he planted a kiss on him. “I also brought dinner, because this really shouldn’t be taken on an empty stomach,” he said, once they pulled apart.

Sheppard pulled out a picnic blanket from the basket, which he spread over the bed, then produced two grilled cheese sandwiches and a thermos of tomato soup. It was Lancaster’s go-to meal when he was in a hurry, needed cheering up, or both. The site of it made the captain realize how hungry he was, after a day of focusing on the mission.

“Thank you,” he said before the two of them sat on the bed and ate.

The whole time, Lancaster was anxious about some task that he hadn’t completed yet, like one final check of the harmonic resonance chamber, or a calibration on the transporters that could still be done, but he allowed himself to push that aside for a few minutes at least.

“You know I can’t say much, but things are going well so far,” Lancaster noted.

“Of course they are because you’re in charge,” Sheppard said, reaching over to squeeze his hand, which gave Lancaster a jolt of confidence. “I’m almost glad to be left in the dark if you think needing pre-treatment for theta radiation poisoning is this ‘going well.’”

“Believe me… I’d much rather not know either.”

***

Once the borehole had been completed, Lancaster ordered the Arcturus to move into a higher orbit to keep watch for any additional unexpected guests. The closer the Hokule’a was to the planet’s surface, the easier and safer it would be to transport the molecules into the harmonic resonance chamber sitting in its cargo bay. Beyond the hazard teams, the Hokule’a only had a skeleton crew of a dozen, which should be more than enough for their short voyage.

The bridge of the Hokule’a was tiny, identical to the simple design found on the Defiant-class escort that was her ancestor. Dr. Anjar was at the science station, and Lieutenant Windsor was handling both helm and operations from the forward station, but the rest of the stations remained unmanned.

“All systems online, Captain. Ready for launch on your orders,” Windsor reported.

“Initiate launch sequence, Lieutenant,” Lancaster ordered. 

As soon as Windsor disengaged their moorings, the automated launch sequence quickly deployed them from the docking cradle on the Arcturus’s stern. Meant to be used during combat, the whole sequence was complete in less than five seconds. The ship’s articulated nacelles remained in their closed and locked position, as they would be headed straight for the planet’s atmosphere.

Arcturus, this is the Hokule’a. Maintain your position. If the Kazon come back, don’t give them a chance to attack first,” Lancaster ordered. “All things being equal, we’ll be back in a few hours.”

“Understood, Hokule’a. Good luck,” Captain Okusanya replied. 

Act IV: Revelations

Surface of Thalruatania
September 2399

Hokule’a is the Hawaiian name for the star Arcturus, meaning “star of joy.” In ancient Earth history, the Polynesian people considered it to be one of the most important stars for navigating ocean-going canoes on voyaging expeditions, as it was the zenith star for the Hawaiian island chain, providing a natural beacon for sailors returning home. Like the canoes of those who named the star many centuries before her construction, the Hokule’a was built for exploration. Well-armed, yes, but meant to perform planetary surveys and other light-duty research tasks. Under the deft control of Lieutenant Windsor, the Hokule’a hit Thalruatania’s atmosphere, casting off super-heated vapor with its shields and sending a sonic boom echoing for miles once it got low enough.  

The majority of Arcology 616-J had been vaporized when between one and three omega molecules destabilized in its reactor room deep underground. That had been enough to wreck subspace in tendrils snaking out from the planet that it would likely take the Thalruatanians years to fully map. For the Hokule’a, though, it had provided several flat and stable landing zones near to the borehole that had been cut by the mothership. The vessel circled lower and lower, extending a set of four landing legs at the last moment before setting down gently on the surface. 

From that position, the bottom of the borehole was well within safety margins for transport, even with residual radiation in the area. The two hazard teams went down first before signaling the captain to join them once they were sure it was safe. Lancaster had wanted to be the first one in, but even he couldn’t argue with the notion that if he were lost, they’d have no way of finishing the mission on their own.

There was no sunlight when Lancaster materialized. They were a hundred meters underground and many kilometers in the shade of neighboring buildings. From the lights on the shoulders of each hazard suit, he could see that the entrance they’d carved into the catacombs was stable. 

“I’m on point. Ensign Taigan, stay with the captain,” Bowens ordered.

“Don’t you think I should decide that, Lieutenant?” Lancaster asked.

“All due respect, sir, but if there are any cave-ins or sinkholes, I’d rather it be me that finds out than you,” the lieutenant replied.

“Carry on,” Lancaster begrudgingly replied.

Ensign Taigan, a tall, lean Orion man, nodded to the captain before moving to his side. It was unlikely Lancaster would have any need for a bodyguard on this particular mission. Still, he wasn’t going to complain if he served as a totem to allay Lieutenant Bowens’s anxieties. Losing a captain would be bad on his record, after all, assuming that the details of this mission would even be enterable in such a record.

Even a hundred meters down through the rubble of the arcology and layer upon layer of older structures, they were still well above the actual surface of Thalruatania. Some of this material was simply the ruins of demolished buildings packed in to provide a level surface for those built on top of them, but there were hollows created both by erosion and in earlier foundations left intact there.

The upper levels were largely industrial-era, made of concrete and steel, abandoned long ago when the Thalruatanian’s aspirations grew beyond living on the surface of their world. Thanks to the detailed scans Lancaster had made in advance, they were able to plot a route through the maze, but they soon came to an area that was such a massive tangle of steel that Lancaster knew they wouldn’t be able to get through, not without ending up cut to pieces anyway.

“Analysis, Ensign Shadi?” Lancaster asked, even as he whipped out his own tricorder to take readings. The debris didn’t appear to be part of the tunnel they were in per se, just garbage from whatever construction project had covered the area over. Evidently, recycling was not a practice of the Thalruatanians of approximately 1750 CE.

“None of this material is directly connected to the structures around us. It’s almost like it was discarded here as filler,” the Bajoran engineer responded. “We should be able to cut through it with minimal risk.”

“Agreed. Bowens and Taigan: Phasers on setting 12,” Lancaster said as he unholstered his own weapon. At that setting, three phasers would be more than sufficient to clear the area ahead of them. “Five seconds on my mark. Mark.”

The three officers opened fire simultaneously, each counting down as they did so. The steel in front of them glowed red for a split second before being vaporized from the combined force of their phasers. Once the path was clear, Lancaster holstered his weapon.

“Shadi, confirm that we haven’t just triggered a cave-in,” Bowens said, putting a hand out to prevent Lancaster from walking forward.

“We’re fine to proceed, sir,” Shadi confirmed.

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you, Lieutenant?” Lancaster asked as they continued forward. 

Bowens smirked. “I’m trying to keep any gentle suggestions I give to be only those that are absolutely necessary for your safety, sir,” he replied. “Before we left the saucer behind, Captain Rakan intimated that she’d hold me and Commander Evandrion personally responsible if something happened to you, and Doctor Sheppard just told me to either come back with you or not at all.”

“I’ll do my very best not to put you in an awkward situation, then, by dying,” Lancaster replied.

“I appreciate that, sir.”

Subtle threats of reprisal were out of character for both Rakan and Sheppard. Still, the captain could understand why the two of them would try to exert what little control over the situation they had by taking it out on the security staff. Of the two of them, he was more surprised that Rakan would say anything, but he couldn’t imagine not telling Bowens the exact same thing had been Admiral Hayden who was going and he who was left behind instead. 

“Should I apologize on either of their behalfs for cornering you?”

“Not at all, sir. She’s just doing her job, and… well, I guess so is he,” Bowens replied. 

Lancaster contemplated that as they moved out of a relatively level passage into a chamber that was less clearly part of a building and more like a cave, with the way artificial walls had settled around it. There was an escarpment of debris they had to scramble down to make it to the next level, but luckily no one ended up face-first in the jagged concrete.

“This planet’s an archaeologist’s dream,” Ensign Taom noted from the middle of the pack.

“Keep your focus, Ensign,” Lancaster scolded.

After almost an hour of careful travel, they came to a sheer drop of nearly fifty meters, which surrounded a clearly modern support pillar that had been driven down several kilometers through the ruins and into bedrock. Lancaster scanned the area with his tricorder and compared it to the scans from the ship. Without this void, it likely would have been another hour of scrambling through the labyrinth.

“This is the drop we’re looking for. We should be able to enter the next network of tunnels at the base of this column,” Lancaster said before tossing a flare off the edge, casting the chamber in a dull red glow. “We’ll have to repel from here.”

Bowens went down first with two of the security officers, with the rest following in groups of three to avoid putting too much stress on the edge of the rock face. The last thing any of them needed was an anchor being ripped out. They had to cut another hole in the wall when they located tunnels that would take them closer to the omega particles’ location. Rather than tunnels, though, they found themselves in natural caves, which proved to be even slower going than the ruins. At several points, the caves were narrow enough to force them through single-file.

The caves gradually got wider again, and Lancaster started to see signs of sentient inhabitation: paintings and other things on the cave walls and then the entrance to a circular staircase. According to his tricorder scans, it had to be least as old as the chamber they were looking for, which was directly above them. Theta radiation was also increasing.

“Taom and Gardner, you’re up. If there’s any point for a booster of our radiation meds, it’s now,” Lancaster said.

The two ensigns in blue took their packs off and set them on the floor of the cave. While Taom was a biologist moonlighting as a medic, Gardner was the reverse: a nurse who served as the second team’s science specialist. They each retrieved a hypo, and Gardner made a bee-line to Lancaster. The two young men were quite similar in height and appearance, other than the freckle-like spots dotting Taom’s fair skin on the sides of his neck and hairline, but they couldn’t be more opposite in personality. Gardner radiated overconfidence and a preening sort of self-assuredness equal to the way that Taom seemed uncomfortable in the spotlight. 

“Sir, Doctor Sheppard did stress that too much arithrazine can have some pretty uncomfortable side-effects,” Gardner said, bouncing the head of the hypo in his hand.

“None of which are as uncomfortable of dying from theta radiation poisoning, Ensign. Do it,” Lancaster ordered.

Gardner blanched. “Of course, sir,” he replied before complying with the order.

Once everyone in the party had been inoculated again, Lancaster made one more scan of the staircase ahead of them before motioning to Bowens to retake the lead. They took the stairs slowly, with Lancaster just behind Bowens. As they climbed, there was an ominous blue glow coming from above.

Lancaster’s tricorders began to sound a chime. “We’re close,” he muttered. 

The stairway ended in an octagonal room, which looked like it used to be part of a small building on the plaza. Once through the doorway, Lancaster could see four arched metal supports and a branching lattice of braces keeping the ceiling intact. He could tell that the chamber used to be a marketplace or square of some ceremonial importance, which confirmed the computer’s information, as there was a giant metallic statue in the center of the area. Very unusually, though, it was glowing blue.

“Taom and Gardner, document everything you can. Everyone else, get those pattern enhancers ready. We’ll use all six of them,” Lancaster ordered. “Center on that statue.”

As the team worked, Lancaster scanned the object. While he initially thought it was a statue, he couldn’t actually discern what it was supposed to be of, even with the Thalruatanians’ unusual aesthetic style. In fact, the internal structure was much closer to something technological than artistic. It didn’t match anything he was familiar with, but he could detect a deformation in subspace at the center of the object, and that’s where the particles were concentrated—it was unclear if they were causing subspace to act strangely or if that’s where they were emerging from.

The more Lancaster looked at it, the more convinced he was that the object was not from the planet. Given how little the Federation knew about omega, there were lots of reasons that the phenomenon might be attracted to this particular object, but any device capable of manipulating subspace had to predate the construction of the chamber they were standing in. 

“Lancaster to Anjar. We’ve located what we came for. Stand-by to receive transport,” he said.

“I’m ready on my end,” Anjar confirmed.

The hazard teams set up the enhancers in a hexagon around the statue-like object. With six of them, the effect would be even more potent than with just three, and hopefully, that would be enough for safe transport. Once in the harmonic resonance chamber, they would be able to safely eliminate omega, but a mistake or malfunction in transportation would be lethal. 

“Energize, Doctor,” Lancaster ordered. 

The transporter hummed, and after a split second, the statue stopped glowing.

“Transport complete. I have it,” Anjar replied. 

Lancaster let out an uncharacteristic sigh of relief. “Good. Stand-by to bring us up as well.”

The thirteen members of the two hazard teams plus Lancaster got between the statue and the pattern enhancers before beaming back to the Hokule’a in one large group. After scrambling through warrens and tunnels, Lancaster would have preferred to clean up a little, but he made a bee-line to the cargo hold.

“Lancaster to Windsor. Take us back into orbit,” he ordered while en route

The blue alert klaxons sounded shortly after as the escort picked up off of the surface of the planet, jolting Lancaster slightly as he walked into the cargo hold.

“Computer, seal the doors,” Lancaster ordered. 

Anjar looked up from the control console, off to the side of the resonance chamber, which was now glowing blue. The fact that they’d managed to transport omega without blowing themselves up was a near-miracle. Now they were faced with neutralizing the particles before anything could happen that would impede their containment efforts. A simple graviton torpedo would have been a much more manageable, cleaner solution had that option been available to them.

“The computer estimates that it should only take about ten minutes to neutralize the molecules. Hard to believe we have a full-on secret directive over just a few hundred molecules of anything,” Anjar noted.

“Let’s get this over with, then,” Lancaster said. “Begin the process.”

The chamber began to whine slightly once Anjar tapped in the appropriate commands on the console. Lancaster stared at it, the weight of being in the presence of enough omega to devastate an almost incomprehensible span of space hitting him. In a few short minutes, it would all finally be over.

“Windsor to Lancaster. The Arcturus has engaged the Kazon!”

Act V: Resolutions

USS Hokule'a
September 2399

“The Arcturus has engaged the Kazon!”

Lieutenant Windsor’s voice echoed over the comm through the Hokule’a’s compact cargo bay, making Lancaster’s blood ran cold. He was hoping he’d have at least a day before the Kazon returned, but they were of course there at exactly the moment that they would be the most problematic, as even within the relative safety of the harmonic resonance chamber, there was no saying how it might react to the presence of energy weapons fire. He tapped in the sequence to initiate neutralization of the omega molecules they’d picked up and then glanced over at Dr. Anjar while the chamber started to hum with energy.

“Go.”

Lancaster looked at Anjar and hesitated. Leaving at the final and most important step of their mission did not sit well with him. Some might call him a micromanager, but he would say that he’s ‘hand’s on’ as a leader.

 “I can handle this. If you leave Windsor up there alone during a battle, you’re going to have to have the captain’s chair deep cleaned,” Anjar insisted.

Lancaster let out a rare chuckle that wasn’t for Sheppard. 

“How… biological. Fine. I’ll monitor from the bridge,” he conceded before leaving Anjar in the cargo bay. “Try not to end interstellar civilization in this sector.”

The bridge was just a short walk down the corridor from the cargo hold. Windsor had already moved out of the captain’s chair to take the forward station when he entered the compartment. With the skeleton crew, he was the only one on the bridge. 

“What’s the situation?” Lancaster asked as he took the center seat. “Bowens, get up to the bridge,” he said after tapping his badge.

“There are twelve Kazon ships, sir, and a few dozen fighters. That same carrier came back with a small armada of raiders.”

“Status on the Arcturus?”

“She’s holding her own. Captain Okusanya has put most of their power into the shields to wait them out,” Windsor explained.

Lancaster frowned. The Arcturus was a large ship, and it would be most vulnerable if surrounded and attacked at close range. From the readout on the panel next to the captain’s chair, he could tell that’s exactly what Okusanya had allowed to happen. Bowens entered the bridge as Lancaster was pulling up a visual of the situation.

“Take tactical, Bowens,” Lancaster ordered. 

Though he looked confused, Bowens nodded and sat at the tactical station on the port side of the bridge. While he was a pilot, he was the only other real candidate on the ship to fill in on the bridge, as Lancaster hadn’t anticipated needing the support ship’s combat capabilities and hadn’t brought along Odea to minimize the number of witnesses to the mission.

On the viewer, the Arcturus’s shields were glowing blue as they soaked up fire from numerous hostiles, her phaser arrays lashing out to create nearly a full sphere of fire around the ship. That’s what the ship was meant to do if it was surrounded, as it couldn’t match the firepower of a combat ship like the Sovereign-class explorers, but it could power almost all of its arrays at once to make up for its somewhat cumbersome size. Still, it was also meant to rely on its support ship or an entire supporting task group of lesser vessels, not to stand alone. It looked like an elephant being encircled by lions, or in the Kazon’s case, maybe hyenas. 

“They’re swarmed,” Bowens noted.

Watching his ship under attack made Lancaster hesitate. He wanted to charge after them, but any stray weapons fire could jeopardize his mission—not only that, but it could result in the death of 500 of his crew. 

“Thalruatanian starships are moving to join the battle, sir. Should we join them?” Windsor reported

“No.”

“Sir?” Windsor asked, looking wide-eyed when he turned around.

“What we have retrieved from the planet’s surface is highly volatile. We can’t risk it.”

Lancaster spun all the way around in the chair and went to one of the aft stations in the situation area where Commander Walker had wired in a remote link to the resonance chamber. At the rate they were going, it would take at least nine more minutes to eliminate all of the Omega. Even for a large, brand-new ship like the Arcturus, it would be tough to weather fire for that long from so many ships. Captain Okusanya was not an experienced enough commander to be able to fight them off, either. 

“Open a channel to the Kazon fleet,” Lancaster ordered, returning to his seat. He needed to create distance between the Kazon and the Arcturus so that the Arcturus could make more effective targeting solutions.

“Done.”

“Attention Kazon vessels, this is Captain Lancaster aboard the Hokule’a. I am the one who destroyed your other warship,” he said, coming up with his plan as he did so. 

A few moments later, the screen switched to show Maje Teirdan, the very same Kazon bandit leader that had attacked them before. 

“You made me watch my men die, and now you will watch as I kill your crew,” the Kazon said, positively apoplectic through the viewscreen. “And then I will take the weapon from the planet!”

Lancaster rolled his eyes at how woefully ignorant the maje was. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about containing any Kazon science on the phenomenon. They still thought it was a weapon, and that might be just enough to defuse the situation.

“Evidently, your equipment is even more primitive than I imagined. If you scan this vessel, you will see that I already have what you came for,” he said. “I had intended to neutralize it, but you may leave me no choice but to use it.”

That was a bluff that Lancaster never thought he would make: threatening to use omega against enemy targets. Whether he could even make such a threat, which implicitly acknowledged the existence of the phenomenon, but since the Kazon already thought it was a weapon, that wasn’t anything new.

The Kazon flinched visibly. “You wouldn’t dare. The sheer arrogance—.”

“You know what has happened to subspace. And you can see what has happened to the planet’s surface. You are delusional if you think I couldn’t just as easily do the same to you and your ships, Maje,” Lancaster goaded. 

“Captain, the Kazon ships are turning to intercept us,” Windsor announced.

“Well, now that is an interesting choice, Maje,” Lancaster drawled, standing up from his chair and walking forward to stand directly behind Lieutenant Windsor’s station. “I hope you aren’t banking on my officer hesitating to follow my orders to the letter, even if it is something as insane as unleashing all hell on you. Test me at your peril.”

To reinforce the ruse, Lancaster put his hand on Windsor’s shoulder, which immediately made the other man tense up. The captain would never demonstrate that kind of familiarity with subordinates, especially one as relatively lowly as Windsor, so he hoped it got the message across if the melodramatic line about ‘peril’ didn’t.

“We will take your technology and your ship. You will watch as I execute your crew,” the Kazon replied, faltering.

“Target them with ‘the weapon,’ Lieutenant. This idiot clearly has no idea who he is messing with,” Lancaster ordered.

“Aye… Aye, sir,” Windsor replied.

“Last chance, Maje. Turn back now.”

The Kazon growled before cutting the channel.

“They’re retreating, sir!” Windsor reported.

Lancaster exhaled slowly. That was likely not the last they would see of the Kazon, but at least the present situation was a little less dire. Wondering whether the Kazon-Reloramar might enlist aid from their parent sect or others within the Kazon Order would be tomorrow’s problem.

“We could have taken them, sir,” Lieutenant Bowens remarked from tactical. 

“It was an unacceptable risk, Lieutenant. We’ve already destroyed one of their carriers, and that didn’t seem to deter them, so, hopefully, this will make them think twice,” Lancaster replied. “Get back to your team. I want all of their tricorders put in my cabin before we dock with the Arcturus.”

“Their tricorders, sir? They’ve already been downloaded.”

“I’m not going to repeat myself, Lieutenant,” Lancaster replied. 

Downloaded, yes, but any data still on their physical storage media would need to be scrubbed. Lancaster would make double sure there was no trace of omega in any records by vaporizing them, too. Bowens looked like he was going to speak up again, but he just nodded and left the bridge.

“I’ll be in the cargo hold. You have the bridge, Windsor. Hold station until further notice,” the captain ordered. 

When Lancaster returned to the cargo bay, the blue glow within the sphere of the harmonic resonance chamber had diminished significantly. There were five minutes remaining on the clock, though, and that was far too long for his tastes.

“Well, I didn’t blow us up. The computer says everything is fine, or at least as fine as things can be when we have this stuff onboard. I guess you didn’t end up having to blow up more Kazon?” Anjar asked, looking up from the control console. The question was mostly rhetorical and mostly playful, but he could sense a tinge of judgment behind it.

“They think this is a weapon. I made them think I’d use it on them,” Lancaster noted, nodding to the containment system.

“I didn’t realize you knew how to bluff.”

“I didn’t enjoy destroying that carrier last time if that’s what you’re implying,” the captain replied icily.

Anjar shrugged. “I don’t think you did. I’m just glad you found a different solution this time. The Omega Directive is as dangerous ethically as the molecules themselves are physically.”

“Is this really the time for a philosophical discussion?”

The Bajoran laughed. “I looked through some of Voyager’s logs. Some races call this the ‘god particle,’ so, yeah, I think it’s a perfect time to talk about metaphysics.”

“Better to let the Kazon have it, for the sake of my soul?” Lancaster asked, crossing his arms.

“No, but maybe we don’t have to be so quick to apply maximum firepower to every situation just because we can,” Anjar replied diplomatically. “Though, I don’t think there are any great options for any captain once this directive has been activated.”

“In the long run, I’m not sure if letting the Kazon go was a great option. They’ll only be back and in greater strength,” Lancaster replied. “There’s no way they would ever be able to harness omega, but do you think they’d give up once they saw what it could do? We just have to hope they’ll believe that whatever weapon they thought was being developed was a one-off that’s been destroyed now.”

“I don’t think ‘kill them all’ is really an option either, though.”

“Let’s hope it’s not necessary, then.”

***

Once Lancaster was sure every single molecule had fully been neutralized, he still had the Hokule’a sit in orbit for another two hours with intense scans focused on the planet’s surface. What had been spontaneously created could be spontaneously recreated, and he didn’t want to take any chances. Half a day after they’d left the Arcturus, the Hokule’a and her crew finally returned to the stardrive section. With the ship in orbit to honor their arrangement to provide medical support, Lancaster finally found his way to the alternate set of quarters set aside for the captain in the stardrive section. While smaller than the set in the saucer section, they were just as large as those on any other large starship.

“Bourbon manhattan. Real alcohol,” Lancaster ordered, as soon as he entered the quarters and started to unfasten the hazard suit he’d been in for far too many hours.

“Make it two, computer,” Sheppard said, poking his head into the living room and dining area from the bedroom.

Lancaster’s mood lightened when he saw his husband, but he was glad that he’d stayed behind on the mothership during the excursion to the planet. After the two drinks materialized in the replicator, Lancaster grabbed them both and walked over to Sheppard.

“Hi,” he said, handing him one of the glasses.

Sheppard leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. “Hi.”

Thankfully after almost a decade, Sheppard was empathic enough with Lancaster’s moods to know that quiet was what he needed at first as they settled down on the couch together. Well, really, what he wanted was to tell him everything and to get the support he had always had from him.

“Does the lack of synthehol mean we’re done with the cloak-and-dagger secret mission yet?” 

Lancaster chuckled. “No, it means I’m out of fucks. I hope I’m wrong, but I have a feeling this is just getting started.”