The Hisui Maru zoomed through space on the final few minutes of its weeks-long journey. Outside the viewport, Lieutenant Michael Lancaster could see Starbase 72 hanging like a glittering sapphire in the distance over Minos Korva. For generations, the mushroom-shaped silhouette of these colossal stations had meant “welcome home” to Starfleet officers, no matter where they found themselves in Federation space. They also represented the prosperity and ingenuity of the Federation, dwarfing installations of comparable purpose belonging to any of the neighboring powers. Even for a cynic like Lancaster, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe seeing one, even though he was no more excited about spending a week on Starbase 72 than he had been about spending two weeks on a passenger liner to get there.
Sydney-class ships weren’t exactly luxurious, but they did have holodecks and other ways of keeping their passengers entertained. The young lieutenant had spent most of the trip in his quarters, though, where he’d finished two papers on quantum electrodynamics for submission to scholarly journals and read up on the technical specifications of the Lancelot, his new assignment. He was essentially allergic to idle time. The fates had conspired against him this time, though. His last ship, the Sagan, was far enough away from the Lancelot that he had no choice but to take civilian transportation across the Federation. So now, he had to wait another whole week for the heavy cruiser to arrive to pick him up.
The cavernous radiation shield doors to the interior of the spacedock opened to allow the Hisui Maru inside, the small passenger liner entering a delicately calculated ballet of starships, work pods, and shuttles, all managing to maneuver within the space station without hitting one another. Things like that always captivated Lancaster’s attention; the precision of it all was what he liked about being in Starfleet. Considering that Humanity struggled to get two space capsules to rendezvous in low Earth orbit only a few centuries earlier, it was nothing short of miraculous that they were now part of a civilization capable of feats like building this massive station and dozens like her across tens of thousands of square light-years.
Lieutenant Lancaster traveled light; there were a few furniture patterns and his medals stored on a quantum archive shard, but otherwise, he just had a few items of civilian clothing with him in his duffle as he left the transport. Despite having been to dozens of worlds, he was never one to put much value in souvenirs or other sentimental attachments like that. He handed his orders on a PADD to the deck officer, a Bolian man in an operations gold uniform that matched his own.
“Welcome to Starbase 72.” His fellow lieutenant took a look at the orders and then arduously slowly tapped through his own panel to look up Lancaster’s information. As the interaction took more than zero seconds, Lancaster’s face tightened, his jaw clenching with impatience. The Bolian arched an eyebrow and then started typing again.
“Problem?” Lancaster asked tersely. As an operations officer, he was quite sensitive to bureaucratic waste and even tiny lapses of efficiency. Why was this check-in terminal not crewed by a hologram? At this rate, it would take hours to process all of the passengers disembarking from the transport.
“Minor spelling error. I’ve found it now,” the Bolian replied with an absent smile. Lancaster wanted to ask why he was inputting data manually instead of using the wireless handshake between the two devices, but he managed to bite his tongue. “I have your quarters assignment. Since you will be with us for more than 72 hours, you will need to report to the infirmary for medical clearance.”
“Of course. Thank you,” Lancaster replied, taking the PADD back and heading for the transit column at the center of the station. He nearly questioned his instructions to go to the infirmary, but he was unwilling to stretch that interaction out any further than it already had been.
Lancaster wasn’t familiar with that rule, even though he was normally a savant with regulations, but he’d never actually been aboard a starbase for more than a day. Who would want to? Despite their amazing amenities, a station never went anywhere or did anything. That’s not the life he wanted for himself. In fact, Captain Knox of the Sagan had just been promoted to Commodore and invited Lancaster to join him at his new posting in the Barzan system, but Lancaster just wasn’t willing to cut his starship career short, not even for a respected and admired mentor.
Passing through the arrival/departure lounges, he could see dozens of ships in dock, some moored at the tower and some floating on their own in the cavernous hanger. The transit station was set up, so there was always a tram car ready, and he was able to find a seat in what was essentially a massive turbolift, which took him down the nearly four kilometers to the section of the station where his temporary quarters were.
Cabin J-22 on Level 713 was larger than even the captain’s quarters on his last ship. Well-appointed with a dining area and living area leading to a separate bedroom, it had commanding views of the space beyond the station. Away from the crowds of the docking level, he realized how quiet the starbase was. On a ship, the thrum of the engines was always somewhere in the background, but here he could only hear the quiet, barely-there hum of the air recirculation system. It was simultaneously peaceful and unnerving.
Lancaster dropped off his meager possessions and headed back out on a direct route to the station’s infirmary. He wasn’t one to put things off, and so within fifteen minutes of being aboard, he was being ushered back to an exam room by a yeoman.
Despite being waved in quickly, he was left waiting for what seemed like forever. The room at least had a viewport, so he stood cross-armed, leaning back against the free-standing console watching ships come and go while he waited, but every second that ticked by his frown got deeper and deeper. It’s not like there was anything better he could be doing; he’d just be sitting in his quarters otherwise, but it was the principle of the thing.
Lancaster didn’t particularly like doctors in the first place because they always told him what he did too much of (working and exercising) and not enough of (eating, sleeping, and relaxing) when he felt like his life was perfectly balanced. However, he was a full lieutenant at age 26, so he must be doing something right, right? The door hissed opened, and he cocked his head over his shoulder to see who had entered. At that moment, his opinion about medical personnel shifted dramatically. He felt his face make a rapid transformation from a frown to a slack-jawed stare as the most beautiful man he had ever seen walked in. It was like Michelangelo’s David had walked off of his plinth and come to the border of Cardassian space to give him a physical.
The other man was close to two meters tall, with olive skin and a physique that made his blue-trimmed uniform seem painted on. His facial features were chiseled, and he wore a bright, white smile as he came over to where Lancaster was standing.
Lancaster whipped around, standing up straight to greet him. His mind was still slowly rebooting, and his linguistic faculties seemed to be the last thing to come back online. When they did, all he could offer was “Hi.”
“Ciao,” the man replied with a slight chuckle. “I am Luca Sheppard. You are Lieutenant Lancaster, yes?” he asked, glancing down at a PADD.
“Absolutely,” Lancaster replied, though he couldn’t explain to himself why he assented to that question with such enthusiasm. He also remained rooted to the spot in a way that he found very unfamiliar. Was he a Starfleet officer or a schoolboy? He made eye contact with a pair of warm, hazel eyes, and he immediately wished he hadn’t because he couldn’t look away.
“Well, would you like to get on the bed, then?”
Lancaster swallowed hard, extremely confused by that question’s subtext, until he had his brain parse it again and realized that it was not a proposition, and he was, in fact, about to have a physical. “Oh! Of course. Sorry. I guess my head is elsewhere,” he said, feeling sheepish for probably the first time in his life as he walked past Sheppard to get on the bed. For a brief second, they were within inches of one another, as the room was not large, so he got a real sense for Sheppard being a head taller than he was. He also learned that Sheppard also smelled good—a scent that reminded him abstractly of a late Spring hike in a pine forest— something he wished his brain could stop fixating on.
“You don’t have to be nervous. It’s just a few scans,” Sheppard said cautiously. The lieutenant had kind eyes, and Lancaster was sure he looked like an idiot. But, at least it was marginally preferable for the other man to think that he was just nervous about being in the presence of a doctor and not because he was just that floored by him. “You don’t like visiting sickbay, do you?”
“On a station, isn’t it an infirmary?” Lancaster instinctively corrected, which earned him a grin. “I mean… I’m not nervous. I guess it’s just been a long trip. Lots of sitting around, and that gets me on edge,” he admitted. But, as soon as those words were out of his mouth, he wondered who authorized them. This man—beautiful though he was—was a stranger, and he never spoke about things like, oh, his mental state around strangers.
Sheppard smiled kindly at him. “That’s understandable. You’re a bridge officer, right? Men like you are used to constantly working, so it’s not surprising you wouldn’t like being cooped up on a transport,” he said.
“I doubt men like you like being cooped up either,” Lancaster replied, gesturing towards him. As he said that, though, he kicked himself for not providing further specifications that would make it sound less like he was just talking about his appearance. “Doctors, I mean.”
The other man chuckled. “I’m a nurse. After I take some initial readings, I’ll pass you along to Dr. Anjar, who will finalize your physical,” he replied, seeming highly amused by the whole exchange.
Lancaster sighed. “Is there any way you can… I don’t know… blank out our memories for the last 45 seconds or so? You know, to delete all evidence of how many times I’ve managed to put my foot in my mouth in such a short time period?” he asked.
“I could replicate a bottle of tequila. That always works for me,” Sheppard replied with a chuckle. “I think you’re very endearing. If maybe a little awkward. It’s cute,” the nurse continued, grinning all the way until the last sentence when his eyes got wide as if he’d not mean to say that part aloud.
Surely he meant cute as in pitiable or adorable, not cute as in… cute, right? Lancaster blushed and looked down at his feet for a moment, and when he looked up, Sheppard was blushing, too. They made eye contact again, and then both looked away. Was Sheppard uncomfortable because he was having similar feelings, or were Lancaster’s obvious feelings making him uncomfortable? Surely, it had to be the latter, and the poor nurse was struggling to be kind about it.
The nurse cleared his throat and fiddled with a control on his console before offering him a small smile. “So, do you mind if I get started?”
“Be my guest,” Lancaster replied. Sheppard nodded and turned on the overhead sensor cluster mounted above the biobed.
“These are just some baseline scans, so we can compare to your last physical. Any deviations—radiation damage, pathogens, metabolic alterations—will show up,” Sheppard explained.
“I’d be very disappointed if my trip here is the thing that landed me with radiation poisoning. I’d hope to lose my genetic integrity doing something a little more meaningful,” Lancaster drawled.
“I’m sure you save burning orphanages and rescue stolen puppies all the time. You guys in gold get to go on all of the adventures,” Sheppard replied with a smile.
“I’m an operations officer, so I can really manage resources quite adventurously, but I’m not usually the one charging in to fend off Orion pirates,” Lancaster said with a chuckle. He’d led a few away missions, but they’d all been technical or scientific in nature. Exploration was one thing, but when the action heated up, he preferred being on the bridge to doing any actual rushing into burning buildings or combat zones.
“Well, without operations officers, where would we be at all?” Sheppard asked. “The scans are complete. Results are coming in now.”
“So? Anything of note?”
“Well, the computer hasn’t picked up anything immediately evident, so that’s probably a good sign,” Sheppard replied. “It’s not telling me to rush you down to the emergency department, anyway.”
“You’re just filling me up with confidence with that ‘probably,’ of yours.”
Sheppard laughed. “Well, at a glance, I’d say you look like you’re in perfect health, but Dr. Anjar will be able to get further into the data than I can,” he replied, seeming to make a show of giving Lancaster a once over.
Lancaster offered him a shy smile and then found himself distracted by Sheppard’s arms flexing when he reached over to the console to pick up a PADD. The nurse stood in front of him and glanced down at the information for a second before looking him in the eyes again.
“The next thing we need to go through is a basic cognitive evaluation. I’ll start with confirming some facts about you: You’re Lieutenant Michael Lancelot, and you’re awaiting assignment to the USS Lancaster as Chief Operations Officer,” Sheppard said.
“No, that’s not right. I’m Lieutenant Michael Lancaster, awaiting assignment to the USS Lancelot,” Lancaster corrected.
“My mistake. I’m sure you get that all the time, though,” Sheppard replied, with what he swore was a wink. But, of course, he also knew that it would be part of the test to provide faulty data to ask him to correct it, to prove that his brain hadn’t turned to mush on his latest interstellar journey.
“You were born in Seattle on Earth, and you graduated from Starfleet Academy in 2385. Your last assignment was on the USS Sagan.”
“I knew you looked younger than that,” Sheppard said with a smile. “Well, according to the computer, you aren’t showing any signs of cognitive distress. Your heartbeat is slightly elevated, but nothing out of possibility.”
“Can’t imagine why,” Lancaster quipped.
The nurse grinned. There was a beat. Sheppard chewed hesitantly on the corner of his lip as if debating something. It was hypnotizing. Lancaster nearly commented on it, but the moment passed.
“Well, are you ready to see Dr. Anjar?”
“Oh. That’s it? You’re not going to make me run on a treadmill or something like that?” Lancaster asked.
“I wish, but this isn’t really a full physical. Just confirming your baselines are where they should be. Your next ship’s doctor will get that pleasure,” Sheppard replied.
Okay, that was pretty clearly flirting, even to Lancaster’s socially stunted mind. Still, he was just unsure enough about it that he couldn’t bring himself to just ask this very intriguing man on a date. Nurses couldn’t even go out with patients anyway, right?
“I guess you’ve got to make sure I’m not diseased or radioactive if I’m going to be here for a week,” Lancaster said before hopping down from the biobed. “Lead the way.”
Sheppard nodded, and Lancaster had to stop himself from swooning again. A thought ran through his mind that he needed to ask the doctor if there were some sort of injection he could take to clear his mind of the swirling feelings he was having just by being in Sheppard’s presence. Forget what the computer said; obviously, there was something broken inside of him.
Lancaster followed Sheppard out of the exam room and down the corridor to a door marked ‘Patient Consultation Room #17.’ Sheppard reached to the door chime but paused.
“It was nice meeting you, Lieutenant Lancelot. I hope I’ll see you around,” he said, smiling widely, before pressing the button.
“I… Me, too, Lieutenant Sheppard,” Lancaster replied, beaming at that thought. A few seconds later, he was sitting in front of Dr. Anjar’s desk. A Bajoran commander, he was about ten years older than Lancaster was and spent the first few minutes of the visit reviewing the scans that Sheppard took.
The lieutenant was kicking himself at not either acting a little more circumspect or directly asking the nurse out, but he couldn’t decide which of those two things would have been better. Of course, no one wants to be hit on at work, right? But it seemed like a mutual flirtation. Or was it just good bedside manner? How could he possibly pass up a chance with a man like that?
“Lieutenant?” Anjar asked for what must have been the second or even third time while Lancaster had been daydreaming.
“Yes, Doctor?” Lancaster asked, shaking his head.
“Are you ok over there?”
“Isn’t that what you’re about to tell me?” he quipped before blushing at his own abruptness with a superior officer. “I’m sorry. I think I’m more tired from the trip than I realized.”
Anjar nodded, though he kept a wary pair of eyes on Lancaster as he started talking. “Yes, that would explain the elevated pulse. Neurotransmitter levels aren’t where I’d like them. And just checking back on previous physician notes… maybe don’t skip meals?”
Lancaster nodded. “But no radiation damage or pathogens or things like that?”
“Nope, but I can tell that you’re the sort of officer who’s going to end up in worse health after a short stay on a starbase than he would being worked to the bone on a ship. So, while you’re here, take advantage of the recreational amenities. Otherwise, your ship’s doctor is probably going to put you on a higher calorie diet and reduced workout regimen,” Anjar said, giving the lieutenant a pointed look.
The threat was well understood; it’s also not one that he hadn’t heard before, as he constantly hovered right at the minimum weight he needed to maintain his fitness for duty, thanks to his tendency to skip meals when he got busy and run on the holodeck when he was stressed out. In his four years past the academy, he’d used approximately a day and a half of leave time.
“When you put it like that, maybe a walk in the park or a trip to the holodeck isn’t such a bad idea,” Lancaster replied.
“Glad we can see eye to eye on that,” Anjar said, though it wasn’t clear if he really believed Lancaster’s sincerity. “Do you have any questions or concerns for me? Recent mental or physical health abnormalities?”
Lancaster chuckled but then cleared his throat. “Not that I can think of.”
Anjar’s eyes narrowed, and for a split second, Lancaster was worried he’d have to explain his errant thoughts about Lieutenant Sheppard and how they’d made him question his sanity.
“I’ll assume that’s a laugh going stir crazy on your transport. But, really, try to relax while you’re here, Lieutenant. You might even like it.”
Lancaster nodded. “I’ll try my best, Doctor.” But, of course, his best would likely be sequestering himself in his quarters and reading technical journals, but Anjar didn’t need to know that.
“That’ll be all, Lieutenant,” Anjar said, turning back to his terminal.
Lancaster hopped up from his seat, eager to put the infirmary behind him. But when the doors to the corridor opened, he was surprised to see Lieutenant Sheppard leaning against the bulkhead, one knee drawn up while he balanced on his other leg. They both smiled.
“Hi, again,” Lancaster said as the doors closed behind him.
“Ciao, again,” Sheppard replied. “My shift is over, so I thought I could walk you out?”
Lancaster glanced at the floor. There was a green line with chevrons pointing the way out every meter or so in the hallway, so it’s not like he would get lost. This had to be flirting, right?
“T-That would be great,” Lancaster replied. Great, now he had a stutter? “Dr. Anjar thinks I need to relax more.”
“Sounds like good advice. Do you have any plans while you’re here?”
“I’d honestly not given it much thought., other than catching up on technical manuals for the Lancelot,” Lancaster replied, though he immediately realized that was the wrong answer. The Rube Goldberg machine that his brain had turned into within the previous half-hour sprung into action. “Maybe you could help me find a way of occupying my time. Are you free now for dinner?”
“As in a date?”
Lancaster’s anxiety spiked. “Yes, unless that’s wildly inappropriate, and I’ve significantly misread things.”
Sheppard grinned. “No, I think you’ve read things perfectly. Five minutes ago? A little inappropriate. But you’re not my patient anymore, so I’d love to go to dinner with you,” he said, which made Lancaster’s heart do somersaults.
“That seems like a loophole, and I am not at all mad about it.”
“Come on. I know the perfect place,” Sheppard replied with a grin.