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.
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?”
“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.
“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?”
“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.”