Cadet Michael Lancaster stopped mid-run to roll his eyes. That was not an unusual gesture for him; he frequently found himself exasperated by his fellow cadets, especially ones that weren’t as dedicated to the regulations or their studies as he was. It was unusual for him to feel that same emotion with his boyfriend of about eight months.
“I invite you to meet my parents that makes me immature? Isn’t that a normal thing that adults do when they’re dating?” Lancaster asked, checking his pulse on his wrist device and frowning at his running partner.
“Yes, actually. You have this need to categorize and put labels on everything that I think is immature, Michael. You want me to meet your parents because that’s a step on the way to something more serious. You’re rushing things,” Lieutenant Taylor Hill replied, shaking his head.
The patronizing look on the older man’s face made Lancaster’s blood boil. “You didn’t seem to mind rushing other things when we first met, Lieutenant,” he bit back. Hill worked on one of the orbital stations that Lancaster spent time on as part of his studies; they’d developed a mutual attraction. Well, more than that. They were having an affair. It wasn’t against regulations as Hill wasn’t one of his teachers, but they were being circumspect about it. Lancaster was ready to change that and had invited him to go home with him for the weekend in Seattle for his family’s annual First Contact Day celebration.
Hill smirked. “Well, we’re both enjoying ourselves, so let’s just leave it at that, and I’ll see you when you’re back from Seattle?”
“So that’s it? Just no?” Lancaster asked, nostrils flaring as he seethed.
“God, you’re pretty when you’re mad,” Hill replied, his smirk growing as he reached over to cup Lancaster’s cheek with his hand.
By this point, Lancaster was starting to see red. Part of what he found attractive about Hill was there difference in age and experience, but being condescended to was one of the surest fire ways to set him off.
“Fuck you, Taylor,” Lancaster spat., slapping Hill’s hand away.
“I think that’s ‘fuck you, sir, Lieutenant, sir.’”
Lancaster barred his teeth and started to retort, but his commbadge chirped with a tone that he had not heard before.
“Red Alert. Red Alert. All cadets report to designated muster stations. This is not a drill,” came the announcement the cadet’s commbadge and the speakers all around Starfleet Academy. Lancaster found his emotions torn from pure rage at Hill to concern, as he’d never experienced a real red alert of any kind.
“All McKinely Station personnel are recalled. Red Alert,” came a similar announcement from Hill’s badge. The lieutenant’s eyes went wide.
“I’m sorry. I took it too far. We’ll talk about this later,” Hill said, before double tapping his badge and disappearing in a column of energy.
Lancaster gritted his teeth and set off at a run towards his dormitory, where he grabbed a standard uniform and was in the process of zipping up all of the fastenings as he rushed to the muster point for Gold Squadron which was in front of the Engineering building. All the while, he was cursing Taylor Hill’s name both the insincere apology and for making him late.
Because of his detour to change, he was the last one to report in. “You’re late, Cadet Lancaster. I have literally never said those words together at the same time,” Captain LaSalle noted. The rebuke hit Lancaster at his core, because he prided himself in always being perfect, especially in front of the commander of the Academy’s elite training squadron for operations and engineering cadets.
Lancaster stiffened. “My apologies, Sir!”
“Now that we’re all here… Gold Squadron, move out to Hanger 6.”
The cadets started off at a jog towards the hanger that held the runabout they used for training missions. Alert sirens continued to sound and other shuttles and runabouts could be seen in the sky above the academy as the planetary defense shields crackled to life.
“What’s going on?” Lancaster asked.
“Mars is under attack,” one of his classmates replied.
“Cut the chatter,” LaSalle ordered. She was normally pretty laid back, so Lancaster’s pulse quickened when she barked at them to pipe down. Mars was one of the most well-defended planets in the Federation, so whatever was happening must be dire indeed to have cadets being pressed into service. Or were they being evacuated?
The forty-eight cadets of Gold Squadron boarded the runabout in near-silence, each taking their assigned seat in the aft compartment. There were four rows of seats, which had acceleration harnesses that could lock in over them and which could also charge EVA suits. Lancaster pulled the metal harness down over him, because that’s what the regulations demanded in an emergency situation.
Captain LaSalle stood at the forward end of the room as the runabout kicked up off of the hanger deck. Blue skies and white clouds quickly zipped past the windows as the pilot started to climb; it looked like a perfect mid-Spring day and whatever was happening at Mars evidently hadn’t reached them yet.
“Listen up, cadets: We are headed to the Athabasca, a New Orleans-class frigate docked at McKinley station. She’s just coming off of a refit and only has a skeleton crew aboard. We will be providing logistical support for an evacuation mission to Mars. Utopia Planitia is under attack by rogue synths and the planet is burning,” Captain LaSalle said, starting murmurs all around the compartment.
Synth labor was widely regarded as the only salvation for the Federation’s over-ambitious shipbuilding program to evacuate the Romulans for their doomed world. Utopia was full of them, so if they’d decided to rebel… the shipyard was in enormous danger. And if Starfleet was sending them in to help, they were scraping the bottom of the barrel. Lancaster felt a strange iciness in the pit of his stomach, both desperate to know more and overwhelmed with the thought of combat.
“Quiet. Most of you will be assigned to the cargo bays to get them ready for arrivals. Some of you will be assigned to the transporter rooms. Remember your training and follow the instructions of the commissioned crew. If everything goes as planned, we’ll be behind the combat ships and focus on evacuation duties.”
Lancaster couldn’t help but purse his lips at that comment; no plan survived first contact with the enemy.
LaSalle tapped a few commands into her holographic PADD, which sent a chorus of pings through the room. “I’ve just sent you your assignments, and as of this moment, you have all received field promotions to the rank of Acting Ensign,” she said, before leaving the compartment to go up to the cockpit.
Lancaster opened his PADD to see that he’d been assigned to Transporter Room 2, which made him feel a little better about both the fight he’d just had and being late. It was a job that at least would make use of his technical proficiency, rather than just finding bedding for evacuees.
“Rogue synths? They can’t just make decisions like that on their own,” one of the cadets said.
“Maybe they evolved? Enslaved creatures overthrowing their creators is a classic science fiction trope,” another said.
“They’re not enslaved. Is an EMH enslaved?” Lancaster replied, rolling his eyes again.
“An EMH doesn’t have bodily integrity. A synth does.”
“If one developed sentience, the Federation wouldn’t force them to keep building ships,” Lancaster said, shaking his head. “We can figure out the why later.”
“Assuming we survive.”
Gold Squadron’s runabout was a tight fit in the shuttle bay of the Athabasca, the New Orelans-class frigate itself looking like a shrunken Galaxy-class explorer. Once the cadets—now acting ensigns—had disembarked, the runabout picked itself back up and left the bay clear for refugees, presumably going on to participate in the evacuation itself.
When Lancaster passed with his classmates into the corridors, there was chaos. There were lots of Ensigns in blue—presumably students from Starfleet Medical Academy—and a handful of enlisted members in gold who had likely been finishing up the refit. He navigated through the crowd to find Transporter Room 2. He quickly familiarized himself with the panel—old school, compared to what he had trained on, but that technology had not changed significantly in the past century or so.
“Transporter Room 2 manned and ready,” Lancaster reported. He felt the ship power up and move out of its moorings as a crewman—an honest to goodness, fresh-from-training crewman—in gold entered the compartment. He looked like he was barely eighteen.
“Crewman Jayadeva Mukhtar, sir. They said to help you with whatever you needed,” the young man said, looking very uncomfortable. He radiated fear in a way that had Lancaster torn between snapping at him to pull himself together and his own trepidation at the mission they were both faced in.
“Michael Lancaster. I’ll handle the transporter. I’ll need you to help people down from the platform. If they’re hurt, we’ll have to get them to sickbay or one of the triage areas. If they’re not, we need to get them to the shuttle bay,” he explained, slowly.
Mukhtar nodded. “Yes, sir. This is my first time on a starship, so I don’t know…,” he started, wringing his hands.
Lancaster anticipated the question. He tapped a few controls on the transporter console, and changed the display behind the operator’s station to an internal schematic of the ship, with the appropriate places lit up.
“Familiarize yourself with this deck’s layout. The computer will guide you with lights in the corridors, Crewman,” he said, feeling his own nerves calming by focusing on getting this trembling colt of a crewman to calm down.
“T-Thank you, sir,” Mukhtar replied, as he went over to study the diagram. A few minutes later, Lancaster had two more crewmen and a yeoman on his hands. He deputized the yeoman to coordinate his helpers, so he could focus on making sure the transporter system was ready. Thankfully, it had just been serviced so everything was in working order. Operating one was one thing, but an emergency situation was not the time to have to rip the system apart and fix something.
“Bridge to all Transporter rooms. Prepare to bring evacuees aboard. We’re sending coordinates to your consoles,” came an order from Captain LaSalle over the comm. Targeting information popped up in front of Lancaster, and he was shocked that they were so close to the planet already, but the idea of going to full impulse or low warp within the Sol system never occurred to him.
“Clear the platform,” Lancaster ordered, as he locked in the first group. There were seven people in a dead end on one of Utopia’s construction platforms within their range. “Energizing.”
Lancaster ran his fingers up the three initiation controllers, which cycled the transporter system. Moments later, all seven people were aboard. They all wore the industrial uniforms of Utopia Planitia personnel.
“Are you wounded?” the yeoman asked them.
“Marissa has phaser burns. The rest of us are ok,” one of the workers said.
Phaser burns? Lancaster had assumed that the Synths had just been conducting industrial sabotage. But hand-to-hand combat? That was brutal, not the least because a synthetic body was significantly stronger than an organic one.
“Get ‘Marissa’ to sickbay and take the others to the shuttle bay,” Lancaster ordered. “Move. We’ve got to get the next group!” he snapped, when people weren’t moving quickly enough. There was a chorus of ‘yes sir’ and the platform was quickly cleared.
Lancaster brought in the next group and there were more injuries. His enlisted helpers got them to safe places, and Lancaster continued the cycle. He operated the transporter for dozens of cycles as the Athabasca was filled to the brim with evacuees. A ship of that class was never meant to do what they were doing with her, so after only half an hour they got new orders from the bridge.
“All stations, we are at capacity, so we’re returning to Earth with this group,” LaSalle ordered. After a short trip, they beamed the evacuees to Earth Spacedock, and then turned around to go back to Mars. From what Lancaster could tell from his limited access to external sensors, the battle was already over. It hadn’t lasted long when Starfleet’s larger ships like the Yamato got involved, tearing through the defense fliers commandeered by the Synths with a brutality that would never have been employed against organic targets. But the planet was still burning and the orbital components of the shipyard had been reduced to flaming husks, so there were many more people to rescue.
All in all, on April 5, 2385, the Athabasca made ten trips to and from Utopia Planitia, evacuating 9,751 people in the process, about a quarter of which Lancaster handled himself during their first sixteen hours on the ship. By the time they got the order to stand down and get some rest, he was ready to fall asleep on his feet.
“Ensign Lancaster, report to the Navigation Lab,” Lancaster’s badge chirped, before Lancaster could even look up his temporary quarters. He cursed silently and then found the navigation lab, which was only a few doors down from his transporter room. “Oh, what the fuck do you want,” he exclaimed when he saw Lieutenant Taylor Hill waiting for him.
“Tone it down. I’m acting XO while we’re on temporary duty,” Hill said, holding up a hand in an almost dismissive way. The irony of the situation was almost too much to bear. How could it be anyone else?
“Of course you are, sir,” Lancaster replied, gritting his teeth.
“I wanted to make sure you were alright. I know this was your first real mission,” Hill said, stepping closer to him. Lancaster was immediately torn with feeling mollified by concern and having his rage re-igniting at Hill once again being patronizing. He’d been operating a transporter, not fighting in a trench on AR-558.
“I’m fine—like you care.”
“Can you just grow up for one minute, Michael? Not wanting to go home to see your parents does not equate to me not caring about you,” Hill said, shaking his head. “We had a fight at a really inconvenient time.” The lieutenant was now close enough to reach out to hold Lancaster’s face in his hands. The contact felt nice, and he sort of believed his sincerity.
“Yeah. I’m still mad at you, too.”
Lancaster looked away. “I can’t deal with this right now. I just want to eat and sleep.”
“Well, I do have a nice set of quarters.”
The cadet scoffed; the older man’s transparency was so evident that it almost made Lancaster want to throw up. Was a sincere emotional connection in a time of crisis so much to ask from him? Had he invented all of the feelings he was sure Hill had for him?
“Did you ask me here to check on me or to try to sleep with me?”
“What’s wrong with it being both?” Hill asked in a tone that was somewhere between serious and teasing.
“I’ll see you later, First Officer Hill. That is… if I’m dismissed?” Lancaster said, gritting his teeth.
Hill just nodded and Lancaster didn’t wait for any elaboration before dashing out of the room. There weren’t very many important officers on board, so Lancaster found himself in a small private cabin at least. Once he was alone, the enormity of the day hit him. Nearly ten-thousand evacuees. The destruction of Starfleet’s most important shipbuilding facility. It made the fight with Hill seem tiny, but that was eating him up in equal measure. After scarfing down the computer’s suggested plat du jour, Lancaster scoured himself with a high frequency sonic shower and then was out for a solid eight hours.
That was just the first day of his service on the Athabasca, though. None of the cadets in Gold Squadron (or the majority of the other elite squadrons) returned to classes in person that semester. After two weeks, they started to balance shipboard duties and coursework on the holodeck as the ship continued to participate in search-and-rescue operations, and then eventually just recovery and salvage operations when there was no hope that anyone still alive was on Mars or in the wreckage of the shipyard.
Thankfully, Hill had been replaced with a command division lieutenant after only a few days, as he was needed even more on McKinley Station, and then Lancaster found himself with nothing else to focus on but his work. After their encounter in the navigation lab, they had a short face-to-face chat over subspace where Lancaster broke it off. He didn’t like the lack of control he’d felt when they fought, and he didn’t like at all that he was thinking about him during a crisis. Hill had taken it with a shrug, which just made Lancaster even angrier at himself for misjudging how mutual the attraction had been.
On an old ship like the Athabasca, he found himself having to do things in the transporter room that weren’t exactly according to the regulations, which for the first few days nearly gave him panic attacks, but by the end of the summer, he’d become used to it. In fact, he wrote a detailed memo to the Starfleet Corps of Engineers on how the regulations could be improved for long-duration transporter use scenarios that was eventually adopted into regulations, and that was emblematic of his career: Michael Lancaster never did anything counter to regulation, because everything he did was regulation, even if the order was a little murky.
It was August before Lancaster returned to Starfleet Academy’s campus. By that point, the SCE had managed to bring in enough of its own assets to allow the hastily-prepared salvage ships like the Athabasca to return to their normal duties. After that, though, Lancaster’s final year at the academy felt like it was taking forever. There were important courses to finish and traditions to maintain as senior cadets, but it all felt a little hollow and a little artificial when he’d already experienced real service on First Contact Day.