The widest deck of the ship’s saucer section provided the best space for running on the Arcturus that was not a treadmill, holographic or otherwise. Down the center of the wide recreational gallery on the edge of the deck was a space made to mimic the open spaces of most of the crew’s home planets, lined on the exterior side by cozy lounges of varying size on one side that opened up to amazing views of the space beyond the ship and a mixture of art installations, planters, and replimat areas on the inner side. This horse-shoe shaped space ran from impulse engine to impulse engine, which made a round trip from one side to the other almost 2.5 kilometers long. That morning, they had just finished their second lap back to their starting point in the center and were sitting out of the way on the side to do their post-run stretches, while Sheppard attempted to pry details about the final phase of their shakedown cruise out of his husband.
“You don’t know, or you can’t tell me?”
“I don’t know and I can’t tell you, Shep.”
The Arcturus had been out of port for just under two weeks, and they’d gone through a huge battery of systems checks, all while testing the engines at various paces en route to Barzan II. Now cruising along at Warp 9, they were due in the next day, and the captain had thrown in a surprise announcement in the morning’s bulletin: they were going to take part in a war game as part of Admiral Knox’s final inspection. And that’s all the bulletin had said; Lancaster sure it was generating idle speculation all over the ship, if the morning he’d spent so far with his husband was anything close to representative. Being a Starfleet officer generally meant always being on the hunt for more information; no one on the crew wanted to be caught unawares by a war game.
“So, if you knew, you couldn’t tell me? I don’t share pillow talk,” Sheppard practically purred, his gaze fixed on his partner in an attempt to elicit more information. Lancaster knew that Sheppard knew the rules, but that didn’t stop him from needling when he thought he could get a crumb of something from him. It also didn’t stop him from fluttering his eyelashes and inching closer to him as they stretched.
Lancaster sighed. “I don’t think I need to reiterate my position on sharing classified or operationally confidential material, but just to be clear: If I did know, which I don’t, I couldn’t tell you. Besides, no one but the admiral knows. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise, otherwise,” he said, liking the warm pliability he felt in his legs from their run.
Throughout his life, especially since adolescence, he had worked against a complex relationship with both food and exercise (not enough of one, too much of the other), but ever since he’d met Sheppard and they’d started sharing their workouts, he always felt like he finished whatever activity they’d embarked on with enough energy to take on the galaxy. As a lieutenant, he probably would have pushed himself to do five or six more laps, but a quick twenty-minute five-kilometer run was just enough to start the day on the right foot without overdoing it.
“Is there anything you can tell me?” Sheppard asked, practically pouting. In moments like this, he seemed to do his absolute best to get Lancaster to forget that he was a Starfleet lieutenant commander and not some ingenu.
“Well, there’s a formal dinner for the captains and first officers in our task group tomorrow night after the briefing. You’re invited, of course,” Lancaster replied, smiling at Sheppard and picturing him in the white mess uniform he always looked so good in.
“Oh, goody. You know how much I love just being your arm candy,” Sheppard replied, rolling his eyes before he pecked Lancaster on the lips and then stood up.
Lancaster blushed, eyes darting around momentarily to try and see if anyone had been observing them; public displays of affection were not high on his list of favorites. As executive officer, he had a reputation to preserve, after all; Sheppard was good for a lot of things, but not for helping him maintain his image as a stoic perfectionist. Seeing no obvious stares, he hopped up after his husband before the two of them started down the gallery towards a turbolift stop.
“It’s a good excuse to see you all dressed up, though,” Sheppard noted, reaching over to unnecessarily tweak Lancaster’s already perfectly-aligned commbadge, which sat just above the red stripe across the chest of his workout shirt, which also had the ship’s abbreviation (ARCTU) on the back.
“We have eerily similar thinking, mister,” Lancaster replied, with a genuine laugh that seemed to scare a passing yeoman. Once they stepped into the turbolift, he chanced another kiss, which was as brief as the short ride back to their shared quarters. The two of them continued the conversation between the sonic shower, the wardrobe, and then down to the breakfast table, debating about whether their opponents in the wargame would be outside allies, Federation members, or another Starfleet task group—if not something entirely more exotic like photonic simulations of enemy ships or maybe even tame interstellar life forms.
“I wonder if it will be something to do with the Borg,” Sheppard wondered, after a bite of scrambled eggs. “It’s not impossible we’ll run into them, out there.”
“Not impossible, no, but so far our unmanned probes have shown absolutely no sign of Collective activity on the far side of the Nekrit Expanse, just as it was thirty years ago when Voyager was last there. The Kazon are really what we need to look out for. They have inferior technology, but lots of ships. Aggressive, unsophisticated, and desperate to get their hands on Federation equipment like transporters and replicators,” Lancaster replied, thinking through that possibility. The idea of being close to the Borg nearly made him shudder; as someone who wouldn’t even consider getting a tattoo let alone having his arm lopped off to make way for a cybernetic prosthesis, the idea of being assimilated was right down there with other primal fears, like being buried alive or giant spiders.
“The briefing book makes them sound like especially grumpy and spectacularly inept Klingons,” Sheppard agreed. “Maybe that’s our answer?”
Lancaster chuckled. “Maybe. Admiral Knox is not known for being a strategic mastermind, he’s an explorer, but I have to believe he’s going to throw us a curveball a little further off from the beaten path than the Klingons,” he said, before returning to his eggs.
“That metaphor is so tortured it would reveal state secrets,” Sheppard said, earning himself daggers from Lancaster’s blue eyes. “You’re probably right, though. If I could figure it out within twenty minutes, it’s probably not worth keeping secret,” he added.
“I’m always down for a little action. What’s the bet?”
“If it’s Klingons, tomorrow, you win. If it’s anyone but Klingons tomorrow, I win,” Lancaster suggested.
“No deal. You have to pick something specific.”
Lancaster toyed with his last bit of egg for a moment as he thought about that. Kazon vessels were predominantly designed with spinal weapons, rather than the all-around coverage favored by Starfleet. Even without sophisticated weapons, they were fast and highly maneuverable, and would be a real threat in a swarm. Klingons and Cardassians could both fit that bill, but Cardassian ships were generally more powerful and relatively uniform, while the Klingons had fleet diversity that the Kazon could only dream of. Plus, the idea of an armed Cardassian squadron this far from home would never get past the Federation Council. Well-armed, forward-biased ships. That left one ideal candidate. “Andorians.”
“Want to share your reasoning?”
“Nope. They’re my choice. And If I win, I want you to take the bridge officer’s exam. You’re eligible and it’ll keep you from making that ‘if lowly old me can figure this out’ crack again, which is far beneath your intelligence and talent, Shep,”the young captain said, with a grin. Sheppard lit up; it was something he’d mentioned several times before, but he’d never seemed to have the self-confidence to actually pull the trigger on the last thing keeping him from being promoted to full commander.
“Deal. If I win, I want you to invite your new pals Anjar and Okusanya over for a gracious, informal dinner, so you can start this tour out by actually trying to make friends instead of being a grouch,” Sheppard countered, holding out his hand.
“You drive a hard bargain,” Lancaster replied, before accepting the handshake. Small talk was not one of his skills, and it had got even worse once he’d settled down with Sheppard, as he generally had no need to chat idly with other sentients anymore. “I’ve got to run. See you at dinner?” he said, as he pushed his finished breakfast into the center of the table, where the computer automatically recycled it in a whir of energy.
“Of course. I was thinking we could try one of those ‘restaurants’ on the promenade, so we can practice our table manners before your fancy banquet tomorrow night,” Sheppard replied, eyeing him as he stood up.
It was Lancaster’s turn to roll his eyes, as he pecked him on the temple. “Fine. You pick. Behave yourself, today,” he said, before heading up the stairs past their sleeping loft and out through the deck three doors. There was another stairway up that connected a small reception area there to the lobby between his office on the starboard side and the offices for a number of bridge officers on the port side of the deck. In front of each office suite were staircases that led up to the turbolift lobbies flanking the bridge, port to the one connected to the main conference room and starboard to the captain’s ready room.
Lancaster ducked into his own office to grab a PADD, muttering a ‘good morning’ the yeoman in his waiting area, before taking the stairs at exactly the right pace to enter the ready room exactly at 07:40 and in time for the senior staff meeting—or what he’d come to call in his head the senior senior staff meeting, as it was just the captain, Dr. Anjar, and Captain Okusanya, besides himself.
As always, there was a tray of baked goods in the center of the sideboard near the briefing table, but he allowed himself only a cup of coffee poured into the bone china mugs waiting there with the ship’s name emblazoned on them before joining the other three captains at the table.
“Let’s hear it then. What’s your theory about this war game, Michael?” Okusanya started, fixing Lancaster with a knowing stare before he could even take a sip of his coffee. They didn’t have an antagonistic relationship per se but in their two weeks aboard together, she’d demonstrated a confidence and directness that Lancaster found a little disarming. “Alenis thinks we’re going to be defending the starbase from something, but I think that we are going to be the target ourselves, since we are the starbase, effectively.”
“I know as much as you two do,” he said, seeing Hayden smile at that statement out of the corner of his eye. He hadn’t even thought about what the goal of the war game might be. “If we decide in advance one one objective, we’ll be less prepared for alternatives.”
Anjar chuckled. “A surprisingly diplomatic answer, oh sage one,” he teased.
“‘The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable,’” Hayden offered. “Sun Tzu. We prepare for everything we can think of, offensively and defensively. I don’t intend to have our last act in the Alpha Quadrant for the next several months be to lose at anything. And before you ask: no, I have no idea what we’ll be facing.”
“This ship is ready for anything, ma’am,” Okusanya said, proudly. If it were up to the engineer, Lancaster was quite sure that they’d be skipping their trials entirely and heading right to the heart of the Delta Quadrant.
“I believe the crew at least could do with a few drills before the actual occasion, though,” Lancaster cautioned. “We need them to get used to working together as one unit.”
“When we arrive, I want you to throw in at least one starship separation rehearsal as well. I don’t want to be without any tactical options on the table,” Hayden replied, nodding. “As mentioned in the bulletin, we will be hosting Admiral Knox and party starting at 1500 hours tomorrow, so I want the ship and crew to both be in top condition when he arrives.”
“The crew are eager to get to work and their physical health has been absolutely as good as we could hope for, Captain. I’ll be monitoring stress hormone levels carefully during the drills, to see if we need to recommend any dietary or lifestyle alterations,” Anjar replied.
“It would be worth giving your department some casualty simulations, as well. Not just because that could be a part of the war game, but because of where we’re going after that,” Lancaster said.
Anjar nodded. “Those poor holograms,” he quipped. “I’ll send you a proposed schedule after we’re done here.”
The three of them were so senior and so used to running their own meetings, that they’d gotten into the habit of steering these morning conversations without Hayden needing to interject often with orders or even an agenda. She tended to sit back and throw in her two cents occasionally, but otherwise she allowed them to set the business of the day.
“After the exercise, I want to allow the maximum possible leave time for the crew on the starbase. As impressive as this ship is, it’ll be a long time before they’ll have another chance at shore leave,” Hayden noted.
Lancaster nodded; he would have preferred to keep them all working until the last minute, but it didn’t sound like a directive that opened itself up to negotiation. “I’ll make the arrangements, Captain. They say that this new starbase is a sight to behold.”
“After defending the Bajoran system with a ramshackle Cardassian mining outpost, I wouldn’t blame Starfleet for wanting to put an actual starbase next to their new wormhole,” Anjar noted; Lancaster found his eyes drawn to the conspicuous lack of an earring on his Bajoran colleague. He’d never asked about his choice to so openly reject his own culture, as he wagered that the story behind that was more than polite small-talk would be able to uncover.
“I wouldn’t want anything less on our side when we know what’s on the other side,” Hayden noted, standing up from the table, which prompted the others to also stand. “Let’s get to it. Michael, a word, please,” she said. Lancaster obediently paused, ignoring a look of ‘what have you done’ from the engineer as the other two left.
“Yes, Captain?” he asked.
“We both know Admiral Knox. I consider him a personal friend. I think he’s going to throw the kitchen sink at us,” Hayden said, moving over to lean against her desk. “If I were a betting woman, I’d wager that we’re going to be up against an entire Klingon squadron.”
Lancaster couldn’t surpress a chuckle.
“Do you know something that I don’t?” Hayden asked, fixing him with a very serious expression, a glint of steel in her eyes.
“No, Captain. But Dr. Sheppard said same thing this morning.”
“You can call him Luca, you know. I was the one who married you two, after all,” Hayden replied, with a laugh. “He said Klingons, too, huh? I’m guessing that means that you did not?”
“I did not.”
“Out with it, Michael.”
“Andorians. Fast, manuverable ships with forward-oriented weapons. Klingons use independent tactics, but from what we know of the Kazon, they are more of a pack mentality, while the Andorians focus as a cohesive squadron at all times. They’re incredibly disciplined. It’s a better fit for the kind of enemies we’re likely to encounter, as well as being a threat that we’re not used to practicing for,” Lancaster explained, putting his hands behind his back.
“You sound very confident,” Hayden said, looking thoughtful. “My instinct is to practice against those two options, but that could leave us flat-footed during the real event.”
“I could have the computer extrapolate an enemy that would incorporate both sets of tactics and ship capabilities; a completely fictional composite,” Lancaster suggested.
“Stella, can we leave this with you?” Hayden asked.
Before she finished the question, a hologram shimmered into existence, a simulacrum of a Human wearing an all-red uniform, without a commbadge. She was the ship’s Long Term Command Hologram, an all-around leadership, diplomacy, and tactical advisory program, who wore her hair slicked back and shaved on the sides.
“Leave what with me, Captain? You know I don’t listen in.”
Hayden chuckled. “Creating an enemy for battle situations that synthesizes the strengths and weaknesses of both the Klingons and Andorians, assuming that one of these two options may be our opponent in the upcoming war game.”
“I’m not sure those are the only options, given the—“ Stella started.
“We’re both aware of that, but those are the options we’ve settled on,” Lancaster interrupted; he wasn’t a huge fan of holograms, not for any fear that they may one day revolt but because he knew they were merely virtual intelligences; glorified database access programs. “Throw in any secondary considerations you deem appropriate.”
“If I didn’t know better, Captain Lancaster, you just treated me like I was sentient.”
“Computer, delete—,” Lancaster started.
“Alright, alright. Enough said. One amazing battle drill coming up,” Stella said, winking at Captain Lancaster before disappearing.
“Well, are you ready?” Captain Hayden asked.
Lancaster double-tapped his badge. “All hands, this is the XO. Red Alert. Stand to battle stations.”