Part of Challenger: While The Iron Is Hot


Challenger NX-03
Wednesday, February 5th, 2155
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The ride up had been bumpy, at best. Leaving the atmosphere was a rocky event at the best of times; unexpected weather patterns had made the shuttle’s route up from San Francisco one to buffet the officers inside around like leaves caught by angry winds. Callahan had kept his grip on the rail by his chair firm, normally inclined to trust the pilot and the ship around him, but it was difficult to be as blasé as usual about shuttle safety. Just as he’d made a hundred and one trips by shuttles over the years, so had likely Captain Karim. And now she was dead.

Not that he could affect his survivability by gripping onto his seat for dear life, but it had been a keen reminder of his own mortality.

That ain’t no way to die. Callahan had never been a lifer, one of those officers he met who inhaled duty and exhaled vacuum. He was prepared to give his life for the service and for his crew; accepted this as being one of the responsibilities and risks of his uniform and wouldn’t shirk from it. But he had met those who would want to die in uniform or accepted the likelihood the service would take them so absolutely that they’d probably find death before they found retirement. He’d pitied them for whatever had made them so devoid of hope; for his part, he wanted to die old and fat in his bed, surrounded by family.

But if he died in the service, he didn’t want it to be in a shuttle, trapped in a tin can shattering open into the vacuum of space, or impacting and crushing up on impact with something bigger than it was. Let it be with a phase pistol in his hand, doing his duty. Let it be to save lives. Let it be with a fighting chance.

These thoughts had kept him occupied all the way to the docking bay, and he could tell his pilot’s thoughts weren’t too far away from his own. The loss of a Starfleet Captain was no minor incident; another officer dying was bad enough, but captains were symbols in and of themselves, especially the captain of an NX-class. This would shake Starfleet to its core; the only way it would be worse would be if it had been Hernandez or Archer.

Callahan’s lips twitched. For a given value of ‘worse’ in Archer’s case. He only mildly berated himself at the treacherous thought. He had no personal problem with Jonathan Archer; he’d not even met the man. But his son had devoured everything about Archer and the Enterprise and their adventures that he could get his hands on, caught up in the excitement in the Xindi Crisis. Even afterwards he’d gone through whatever he could on missions before and after, and his hero-worship of the ‘Man Who Saved Earth’ was almost palpable.

Originally it had made Johnny supportive of his father’s choice to go back into service. But when harsh reality had kicked in and he’d felt his absence, that enthusiasm had faded. It was much easier for Johnny to hero worship Archer, the imaginary hero, and resent his father, the man actually in his life, for doing the exact same thing. Archer’s heroics in space didn’t make Johnny’s life worse. John Callahan’s service in space did take him away from his son.

It wasn’t personal. But it did make Callahan smart a bit when he suffered his son’s resentment one day only to see him consuming books on Jonathan Archer the next.

Don’t linger on it, John. After all, if Archer died, he’d be damn well martyred an’ it’d be a thousand times worse.

The bittersweet resentment at least kept him distracted through the landing procedure, so by the time Callahan had snapped back to reality he was alighting onto the deck of the Challenger. He thanked the slightly nervous pilot for his time, patting the young man on the shoulder, before scrambling out into the launch bay. 

It was a mass of bustling activity, at least for an NX-class; he could not be the only new arrival that morning. For that, he made sure he was off the shuttle with his kit bag quickly, so the pilot could get his ship out of the way and back to Earth. As a late arrival he had no desire to disrupt the comings and goings of the ship. He would need to settle and settle quickly. Callahan had only studied the NX-class in the past from an academic perspective – he appreciated them as ships and professionally needed to be conversant with their capabilities and technology, but he had never served on one before. His notice for this assignment had been so short that he’d had to cram in what reading he could along the way, and a bumpy shuttle ride hadn’t made for good reading.

He was going to have to work hard to catch up.

A young woman was waiting for him as he headed for the stairway out of the launch bay; with a red trim he’d assumed her to be maintenance staff, but she stopped before him and he halted, blinking.

“Commander Callahan?”

“That’s right.” Callahan shifted his duffel bag to another shoulder and extended a hand. “You’re my welcome wagon?”

“Ensign Cortez,” she said with a grin Callahan thought was perhaps a little excessively perky. “Welcome on board the Challenger.”

“Thanks. She’s a big girl, I’ll say that for her.” His gaze swept around the launch bay, and he dug into his bag to pull out a tablet. “I oughta report to the Captain or First Officer.”

“That’s a little tough right now, sir; their schedules are both pretty packed.” She went to lead him on, and he fell into step beside her. “There’s a lot which needs doing. I was directed to help you get settled in until there’s a gap in the Captain’s window.”

“You’re on my Armoury Team?”

“That’s right. I’ve been helping run things smoothly since the accident. Com- Captain Burton had a lot on his plate even before he was formally moved up. But more or less everything’s been ready for departure for a week, so it’s just been, you know, making sure everything keeps on ticking over.”

Callahan looked her up and down, eyebrow quirking. “Helpin’ run things? You can’t be, what, more ‘n five minutes out of Training Command?”

Cortez rolled a shoulder a little defensively. “Five weeks, sir.”

It wasn’t so unusual for bright sparks of up and coming officers to be assigned to high-profile postings that were supposed to have seasoned department heads. Burton, according to his records, knew the NX-class inside-out enough that he could compensate for any inexperience in the Armoury Department, though Callahan assumed he didn’t only have greenhorns under him. He was still going to have to fight hard to show people the ropes when he was learning them himself.

He was going to need a lot of coffee and a lot of time with the NX-class database and history records before he could begin to relax on this assignment. No ship needed an unprepared Armoury Officer, and Challengerneeded one even less with all she had been through without having so much as launched yet.

Not to mention his pride didn’t fancy him being the slowest kid in the class.

“Shall I show you to your quarters so you can settle in, Commander?”

“Show me to my quarters,” said Callahan, with a firm nod. “But then you an’ I are goin’ to go check out the Armoury.”

When Commander Stanton found Engineering, the large manual hatches were standing open to allow the relatively large volume of engineers present on the ship easy access to the compartment. He knew that he only had a short time before he would be required to meet the Captain for lunch, but he wanted to see what he was getting himself into in person, first. He managed to enter the compartment and explore for several minutes without his presence being noted, due to the large number of crewmembers working on various projects. He was in the midst of inspecting the starboard magnetic constrictor, when he heard a quiet gasp from his left-hand side. He turned and saw a young woman of Asian descent in the uniform of a junior Lieutenant in the services branch, who seemed to be just a hair taller than he was.

“Officer on deck!” she said, loudly enough that everyone within a few dozen light-years was likely to have heard it. “Can I help you Commander?” she asked, in a worried tone, as the rest of her colleagues came to attention.

“Uh… Hi… I’m Commander Michael Stanton. I was sent by the Corps of Engineers to take over engineering here,” Stanton said, blinking a little bit before answering, as he tried to figure out why she would be so nervous about his presence. He did sense that she wasn’t entirely happy to see him there. “And you can all go back to what you were doing,” he said, looking around at the men and women who were all looking at him. “Uh… now,” he added, grinning a little bit when no one moved. 

“Welcome aboard, Commander. I’m the Second Engineer, Sakura Masuko,” the lieutenant said, relaxing her posture a little bit. Stanton smiled slightly, as he thought that he could partially explain her apparent aura of disappointment by the fact that she didn’t want to have to turn over control to him. “Do you have any orders?” she asked, politely.

“Not exactly, no. I’m meeting Captain Birch-,” Stanton started, as he surveyed her. She seemed to be almost his age, so he wondered why she only had a pip and a half on her uniform.

“-Burton, sir,” Masuko interjected.

“Fine, whatever,” Stanton said, making a note not to make that mistake, later. “I’d like to get started after that, so I’m going to want to do a run-down of all the ship’s primary and secondary systems, then. You can start working on getting that started, and then we can go check them all,” he finished.

“All of the systems, sir? We’ve been done with the weapons and scientific systems for weeks already,” Masuko replied, looking a bit confused.

“All of them, Ms. Masuko; just because it worked a week ago doesn’t mean that it still works. When we launch, I want to know that everything works perfectly,” Stanton replied. “It’ll be fun,” he added, with a grin.

“Aye, aye, sir,” Masuko replied. “Is there anything else?” she asked.

“Yeah… don’t do that yelling thing again to make them all come to attention; I hate that,” Stanton answered, grinning again. “Other than that, just keep doing what you’ve been doing, and I’m sure we’ll get out on time,” he added, before turning back around to the magnetic constrictor.

“Understood, sir,” Lieutenant Masuko replied, still standing there. Stanton checked over the piece of equipment for a few seconds, though he could still feel her eyes upon him. He turned his head and looked at her quizzically, before he realised that she was still waiting for something.

“Oh… right… Dismissed, Lieutenant. Carry on, and all that,” he said, smiling, before returning to his task. He heard footfalls upon the deck plating that confirmed that she had gone away, shortly after. After checking a few other systems, he headed out of the engineering complex and towards the mess hall. He realised, as he walked, that he’d never been invited to the captain’s table of any ship before. He’d never been a second officer, either, he realised, as he watched the other officers walking, and noticing his rank with polite respect. It was sort of a strange feeling, but not altogether an unwelcome one.

Half an hour later Captain Burton was in his private dining hall, seated at the head of the table. He had only been here this morning having breakfast with Admiral Gardner. Now he would be holding his first casual senior staff meeting. He was sipping on a mug of hot blackcurrant juice, a suggestion from Challenger’s chef to help with his headache that he hadn’t been able to shift for an hour now. The hot beverage was soothing but he knew he would need to go and get some paracetamol from Doctor Ben-Ami later.

While sipping on his drink he was reading over the final list of candidates for chief communications officer. They all had glowing references and great service records. He just wasn’t too sure whom to pick. The door chime went off and he switched off the computer tablet as he spoke up. “Come in.”

The two blue doors that sealed off his dining hall from the rest of the mess hall parted open with a swoosh noise to reveal his two most senior officers. He rose from his chair to greet them. “Commander Levesque,” He said, extending his hand to greet the woman who would be his first officer and chief science officer.

“Captain Burton, it’s good to see you again,” Nicole replied, taking the offered hand firmly in her grasp. “I just wish it were under better circumstances.” She finished before stepping aside to allow Stanton to enter the room.

After letting go of her surprisingly firm handshake the captain shared the same gesture with the man who would be his second officer and chief engineer. “Commander Stanton.” Lloyd said, greeting him.

“Hi… I mean, hello, sir,” Stanton said, somewhat sheepishly, as he accepted the handshake, and then waited for further instructions. It was somewhat evident that he wasn’t used to being in that sort of situation.

Burton indicated for them both to take a seat either side of where he was sitting. “Please take a seat, I hope you’re both hungry.”

“Quite so, I think the last time I ate was about oh-seven-thirty.” Levesque said, taking her own seat.

“I am, sir. The commodore didn’t really give me much time before he sent me up here,” Stanton said, as he sat down.

Once the two officers had sat down Lloyd took his own seat at the head of the table. “Chef Lawson has prepared us a light lunch of potato skins to start off with followed by a chicken Caesar salad. I hope that suits you both? If not, she’s happy to make anything else that you desire.”

“I will survive somehow.” Levesque said, her voice full of mirth.

“I’m not very picky; I’ve been used to food in the STC commons for the past few years, so I can tolerate just about anything,” Stanton replied, smiling.

As soon as they all sat comfortably, two of the ship’s stewards walked in with drinks and went around pouring them all a glass of iced tea. Once they had finished Burton waited for them to leave before continuing to talk. “I appreciate you both reporting on Challenger so promptly. I know your reassignments may have been all done so quickly without you having much time to think about it all, but I need you both here to help with overseeing the last days of launch preparations.”

“Well the Science Department’s pretty much ready…” Levesque started as she squeezed a bit of lemon into her tea. “Commander Rossi did an excellent job getting the facilities and crew assignments in order. We just need to do a few last systems tests and calibrations and we’ll be ready to go in the next couple of days.”

“I’ve had a chance to look over the final construction and repair schedule; I definitely think we’ll be out on time.” Stanton said.

“Excellent, I’ll be meeting with Starfleet Command tonight to receive our first mission orders.” Burton said before finishing his hot drink. “I want to be able to tell them that we’re going to be ready to launch in two days’ time without any more hitches.”

“Aye, we’ll be ready even if Stanton has to get out and push!” Levesque said following her laugh with a sip of her iced tea.

“I’d better hit the gym after I finish the final diagnostics on the impulse drive, then,” the rather skinny engineer responded. “After Enterprise and Columbia, the yard engineers finally figured out how to put these ships together, so I don’t think we’ll have any problems.”

The doors parted again allowing the stewards to return with the first course of their meal. Burton was famished from working all morning so welcomed the arrival of the potato skins. Chef Lawson had prepared them with melted cheddar cheese on top with small slices of bacon and chopped green onion on top of the cheese. A small pot of garlic and herb dip also sat on the dish too.

Once all three officers had their starters before them Lloyd picked up his serviette and placed it on his lap. “Bon appetit!” He said while gesturing for them to tuck in. “So, Commander Levesque tell me how much trouble my brother has got in to over on the Columbia?”

“Oh, it would vary month to month. At times he could be a bit…taxing, but he always kept things light.” Levesque replied before taking a testing bite of the potato skins. Growing up in a restaurant she had been exposed to all kinds of food over her life, but this was something new. After trying her first bite Levesque quickly decided that the garlic dip would definitely go well with the skins and spooned some onto her plate.

Burton smirked at the commander’s words as he finished off what was in his mouth before responding. “Roman did send me a message asking why I didn’t ask him to join Challenger.” He said back. “I told him there was no way the universe is ready for both of us to be serving on the same ship together! Plus, Columbia is only his second assignment; he needs a little bit more experience.”

“Well he’ll get plenty of that aboard Columbia; Captain Hernandez likes to push her crew a bit. I could swear that she and Archer have a running competition of who can make more discoveries.” Levesque said with a smirk.

“Commander Stanton, I was told by Commodore Nwakanma you were to join Discovery’s crew at the end of the academic year?” Burton rhetorically asked the engineer. “I hope your students will forgive me for robbing them of their teacher!”

“My freshmen cadets have an exam tomorrow, so I think they’ll probably be sending me fan mail to keep me from grading it for a few weeks,” Stanton replied, with a smile, as he began to eat his potato skins with his knife and fork.

“Well I know the commodore said to you this might be temporary, but I have to be honest there aren’t that many qualified and experienced officers who could do the job of a chief engineer on board a NX-class ship.” Burton replied as he took another bite from his meal. “I was hoping you would remain on board Challenger in a permanent state. Besides I don’t know many other engineers except for my brother who would do the position justice like you.”

“Are you sure Starfleet sent you the file for the right Michael Stanton?” Stanton joked, in his typically self-deprecating sense of humour. “I’d love to accept the assignment on a permanent basis, and I guess it would be… uh… selfish of me to wish that things hadn’t happened so quickly,” he added, in a quieter tone as he looked back down at his food, realizing that all three of them had their positions because of the accident, though his was less directly related.

Burton nodded at the commander’s words and then decided to pick up his glass of iced tea. “A toast,” He offered them both. “To new challenges.” He said, thinking that the last word seemed justified and relevant to their predicament.

Commander Stanton hummed to himself as he left the captain’s private dining room, on his way to really begin his duties. With only the general destination of Main Engineering in his mind, he set off aft from the mess hall, along the starboard E-deck corridor. On something of a whim, he entered the starboard sensor maintenance station, and logged into the console there. From the small room, he was able to get a picture of all of the ship’s long and close-range sensing equipment. He accessed various diagnostic routines for several minutes, to get a picture of that system’s readiness. He was a sort of absent-minded, laid-back officer, but he was always the sort of engineer who double and triple-checked every system that he was responsible for.

It had been four years since he had been in space, and even then, it was on the NX-class’ smaller, slower, older sister – the NV-class. It was refreshing to be aboard a new ship, where everything just worked perfectly. That is to say, it was nice to have every piece of sensor equipment he could access from that panel working perfectly; he knew that there were still some systems aboard that needed to be checked, and even that needed to be completed, before the ship would be ready to leave port. This wasn’t like the launch of Enterpriseor even Columbia; Starfleet had had quite a long time to get their ship-building process down for the NX-class, and all of the construction had been carefully timed, with allowances for slow-downs, to bring them to their up-coming launch deadline. Stanton was more than a bit apprehensive about being the engineer who would get to finalize those years of planning and of work, but the trust placed in him was gratifying.

As he checked the resolution on the lateral sensors by focusing in on a specific part of the planet’s surface, he also considered the fact that neither he nor the two officers he had met a short time prior were supposed to be aboard Challenger, at least not in their respective positions. They were all very competent officers, but until a day or so before, the command structure of the ship had been quite different. Not only would the senior staff have to get used to that, but the prelaunch crew that had been with the ship now had new expectations and command styles to live up to. Stanton knew that he himself was not a model officer, in the way that he was a model engineer; he expected his crew to self-manage and to perform without his micromanagement, and wasn’t the sort who expected a vast amount of discipline in the workplace, as long as results came in, and as long as safety procedures were followed. He had some ideas of the reputation of his predecessor, but he didn’t know him well and he could have bet that their styles were not identical.

The door hissed open and he turned around to see a very young woman wearing the insignia of an Ensign. Recognition came quickly to him, but he couldn’t exactly place her face or remember the young Hispanic woman’s name, until she spoke, in a soft, mousy sort of voice.

“Professor Stanton?” she asked, seeming confused. Stanton arched an eyebrow to try to figure out which class he had taught that she would remember him from but couldn’t. From the look of her, it was barely believable that she was already at least six months out of the academy.

“Yes?” Stanton replied, before he extended his shoulder enough to see that he was still wearing the golden assignment patch of a Starfleet Training Command faculty member on his duty uniform. “Oh, the uniform,” he muttered, to himself. “I’ve just been appointed as Chief Engineer. Uh… Who are you, Ensign?” he asked, somewhat sheepishly. He appreciated the awkwardness of having forgotten her name, but also hoped that one of the fringe benefits of being a Commander would be some forgiveness for that.

“Ensign Gloria Ramos, sir. I’m the computer engineer here on the Challenger. I was just getting ready to check the linkups from the main computer to the starboard sensor array,” the young woman explained, as the door closed behind her. She seemed rather nervous to be doing that task in the same compartment as the commander, but she moved to access the other console in the room. He wondered how many of the other members of his staff were former students whose names he could or could not remember.

“I was just checking the overall status of our sensors,” Stanton explained, as he tapped away at his command console. He was about to compliment her work, when the communications panel beeped at him.

“Bridge to Commander Stanton. There’s a transmission coming in for you from Starfleet Command, a Lieutenant Commander Rodham,” came the voice of a communications officer who he did not know.

“Have it routed to my quarters,” Stanton said, tapping the communications panel, after glancing over again at the young woman. He logged out of the sensor console, and turned to exit the room, pausing to tell Ensign Ramos, “Keep up the good work, ensign.” As the door closed behind him, he set off down the corridor to cross the deck to his quarters near the forward end of the ship. After navigating the hallways for several minutes, he found himself entering his new quarters. He couldn’t help but have mixed feelings as he stepped inside; though the compartment was more spacious than those most Starfleet vessels had allocated to officer berths; it wasn’t exactly the same as his townhouse in San Francisco. 

He moved through the small foyer and sat down at the work desk that was set against the starboard bulkhead, close to the viewport built into the external wall. The incoming signal light was blinking on his console, so he logged in and had the Challenger emblem replaced first with that of Starfleet Command, and then the face of Alexander Rodham in front of a view of San Francisco Bay.

“It’s about time,” Rodham said, with a pointed glance towards him.

“Sorry. It’s a big ship; I had to walk back to my quarters,” Stanton replied, somewhat sheepishly.

“It’s okay. I’m not doing anything all that important right now. Are you settling in up there, sir?” Rodham asked, his expression turning more and more into a grin. Stanton couldn’t help but smile back, for a number of reasons, the first of which was the fact that he now outranked Rodham.

“Yeah, I just had lunch with the Captain and First Officer… I feel like some sort of big-shot,” Stanton replied, as he toyed with a stylus he found lying on his desk. “I wish you could see Challenger. The engine itself is drool-worthy, but I think we’ve finally figured out how to build these things. It’s nice not to have to guess where things are; it’s laid out exactly the way I would have done it.”

“So, the rest of us would still probably be scratching our heads,” Rodham replied, with a bit of a laugh. Commander Stanton was rather quick on figuring out anything mechanical, so any perfection in the NX-class design was likely to take longer to sink in for non-engineers. “I would have liked the job, but I’ve heard you’ll be treated to the piloting talents of some young gun straight out of training. Plus, they need me down here,” he added, wistfully.

“They probably couldn’t get a single shuttlepod off the ground, without you, Alex,” Stanton teased, as he turned to look out the viewport to watch a passing inspection pod, before turning back to the screen. “Of the two of us, I’ve always thought that you were the one who… you know, needed to be up here. I sort of wish I were the one flying a desk, and not you,” he added.

“‘Sort of,’” Rodham quoted, with a big grin.

“Well, it’s hard to turn down a chance to work on one of the first Warp 5 reactors ever built,” Stanton replied. “Though, it would have been nice to find a way for both of us to stay within at least a few million miles of each other,” he added, more quietly. “Captain Burton has made my assignment here permanent,” he added, after a moment of thought.

“Michael, I knew he would, and you should be happy,” Rodham said, with genuine enthusiasm in his voice.

“I’m happy, but… you know…” Stanton said, mumbling a little, and then faltering for a way to finish his thought.

“It’s not like Challenger will never be back to Earth,” Rodham replied, trying to sound upbeat. “Last time, I know we both had trouble getting used to being on separate ships, but at least now, we won’t both be wandering around the galaxy, so we’ll have more chances to be together, at least for now,” he added. “Last time… it took me like a year to try to move on, and that didn’t last. Dating other people just didn’t feel right.”

“I know the feeling. You’re the only one in the universe who can tolerate my quirks,” Stanton replied, dryly, though there was a definite smile on his lips. “Last time, I almost got thrown out of an airlock for depolarizing one of the magnetic constrictors during routine maintenance, because I was thinking about the way you… well… You,” he added, blushing. “I guess it was naïve to think otherwise.”

“Maybe it was,” Rodham replied. “I know it won’t make you feel any better, but I did have a pretty amazing date planned for you tonight. It involved your favourite little sushi place on Fisherman’s Wharf,” he added, in a more playful tone.

“I estimate at least a forty percent chance that you’re just saying that because you don’t have to take me there, anymore,” Stanton replied, laughing a little bit.

“This time I actually meant it; I was going to suffer through sushi for you,”Rodham said. “It’s actually kind of why I called. I had something to tell you,”he started to continue, before pausing for a moment. “I found out this morning that I’m… on the short list of candidates for the helm officer position aboard Discovery. When you told me about your new job today, I almost told you, but it didn’t seem like the right moment,” he admitted. Stanton’s heart stopped in its rhythm for a split second as he processed that information.

“That’s great, Alex! I can’t imagine anyone else getting that job,” he replied, smiling widely.

“I think it’s some sort of cruel irony, really. This morning, I thought we had a chance of being on the same ship, for once,” Rodham replied, frowning. “The main reason I applied for the position was to be with you.”

“Maybe,” Stanton replied, looking at him. “But you can’t say that getting the chance to sit at the helm of a Warp Five starship wasn’t part of the reason,” he added. 

Rodham shrugged at him.

“Well, Discovery isn’t going to be launched for quite a while. I could still end up there, if Captain Burton doesn’t like me or something…” Stanton replied.

“Yeah, I know… I know… That’s really what I wanted to say, though. I was reading my logs from when I graduated from STC and was settling into life aboard the Neptune… I really can’t see myself reacting any better this time, assuming we decided that we’ll just have to be… on hold, until we’re on the same planet again,” Rodham replied. “I know we’ve already talked about it, but I don’t want to be on hold. Other people can handle being apart, so can’t we?”

“Is that fair to you, though? You’ve got a planet full of opportunities to try to be happy–,” Stanton started.

“- I am happy, though,” Rodham interrupted. “After we had coffee, I was so mad at Starfleet for taking you away, again, but then I realized that it’s just going to keep happening, because we’re both officers. That doesn’t mean we have to just pause our personal lives, though. I hate being away from you, but I’d hate losing you even more,”he added. “And don’t you dare make a joke about me being able to do better,”he added, with a laugh, when he could see a quip forming on Stanton’s face. Stanton smiled back at him but was somewhat surprised by Rodham’s admission; they weren’t normally very open about their feelings, and Rodham was certainly the one who was more reserved, but he had expressed what they were both thinking.

“So, what does this mean?” Stanton asked, smiling at him.

“It means you’re still mine, even if you’re a hundred thousand light-years away,”Rodham replied, simply. “And vice-versa, of course,” he added, with a laugh. “We made a huge mistake last time… it wasn’t very smart to think that we’d be able to move on, just like that,”he said.

“Yeah, not one of our better ideas.”

“We’ll be on the same ship, one day. Or you’ll get tired of re-sequenced proteins and come back to Earth. I just think we need to promise each other that we’re not going to miss one another so much that we’re going to do our jobs badly or not try to make friends,” Rodham said. “Especially that last part… I expect you to have made five new friends by the end of the week, mister!” He added.

“Yes, sir,” Stanton laughed. “You know I was just going to miss you anyway, right?”

“Yeah, and you know I was going to do the same thing,” Rodham replied. “I’m glad I caught you. I’d wanted to tell you that since your shuttlepod left,” he added, in a softer tone of voice. “I should get back to work, though.”

“I should, too. Can I call you tomorrow night?”

“You’d better. I love you.”

“I love you, too. Challenger, out,” Stanton said, before ending the call. He sat in his desk chair for a few minutes, as he processed the conversation that had just occurred. In the grand scheme of things, he would have missed Rodham whether or not they had decided to put their relationship on hold or not, but he felt slightly happier knowing that he didn’t have to go through the uncertainty that came along with the last time they had parted ways. They weren’t married, but the last few years they had spent together on Earth had been very close to that, and even though they had agreed to try to keep their professional lives at the forefront, it had become more and more apparent that neither of them would be happy to sacrifice their relationship on the altar of Starfleet professional advancement. Though, now he had something new to think about — Challenger was his current and pressing concern, but what if Discovery did find herself with a certain handsome Lieutenant Commander at its helm; could Stanton find a way to get himself back aboard? He shook that thought out of his head, as he remembered the promise they had just made, before standing up from the desk, and leaving his quarters. After a few minutes, he found himself back in Main Engineering, at the warp reactor console. He began directing his officers to bring him reports of the primary systems and threw himself into the work of getting Challenger one-hundred percent ready for launch, though with a bit more of a spring in his step than he had had before lunch.

The Challenger‘s mess hall hummed with activity; the numerous tables and couches that lined the elongated length of cabin were mostly occupied with only a few seats left vacant. Under normal circumstances, Ezrah generally took a later lunch when there was much less activity and very few others occupying the mess hall. Today, however, was his first foray into the tangled mess of bodies that moved around animate and inanimate objects alike. Eyes wide and eyebrows rose quite high, Ezrah hesitated following Angie into such close quarters. Noticing this almost immediately, a boisterous laugh escaped the ear to ear grin that beset Angie’s face; she reached out and grabbed hold of Ezrah’s wrist, not-so-gently plunging them both into the chaotic ballet orchestrated before them. A stark contrast to his mortified expression, Angie leapt in as she dragged the two of them towards the food.

The two emerged moments later mostly unscathed with food trays in hand. “Well, that was easy… now, to find a… seat.” Angie stated plainly, yet absentmindedly as her head swivelled from left to right. Ezrah mirrored Angie; from this vantage point, it was difficult to see any of the empty chairs that still may exist. As a couple passed in front of them, Ezrah glanced at a table at the far back right of the mess hall. There appeared to be only one person seated at a table for four.

“There!” Ezrah gestured with his tray towards the table. The pair didn’t waste another second as they twisted this way or that as they descended on the table and its lone occupant.

Falling into one of the chairs, Angie’s tray clattered onto the surface of the table top. “Mind if we join you,” she paused for a second, her eyes locking onto the woman’s rank, “Lieutenant.” She finished. Ezrah remained standing, awaiting the woman’s reply.

Kefira looked up, “Be my guest” she said as she lowered the tablet she had been skimming, and set her fork down on her tray, “What have you been brave enough to try” she asked glancing at their trays, “The salmon is okay, if you have no taste buds.” she smiled, “I’m Ro-fa Ben-Ami”.

“Angela Hathaway, fly-girl extraordinaire. This gorgeous wallflower here…” She jabbed a thumb over her shoulder, gesturing towards Ezrah just before he sat opposite of Ro-fa, “is Ezrah Alcott… ship’s pilot.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Ezrah remarked politely, smiling as he placed the cloth napkin on his lap after tucking the chair close to the table.

“Beef stew?” Angie questioned tartly with a raised eyebrow. “I think.” She stuck the silver soup spoon into the middle of the bowl, nodding with impressed approval as the spoon stood on its own amongst the chucks of beef, carrots, celery and onions. “Thicker than molasses. I haven’t had a stew this gummy since Mamie’s gumbo… it’s sure to be swell.” She finished excitedly before spooning an anxious mouthful. She crossed either leg over the other as she politely chewed her posture to absolute perfection.

Ezrah sipped from the large glass of whole milk after liberally buttering the accompanying roll, “I never much liked salmon… seems sort of flavourless no matter what you do with it.” An avid outdoorsman, Ezrah had been fishing since he had been old enough to hold a fishing-pole, developing a skill for fly-fishing. “Trout though, well, that’s a different story altogether.” He finished, biting at the roll before sprinkling some salt and pepper onto the glossy surface of the beef stew.

“I am not a big fish eater, but nothing else on the menu was kashrut” she said as she lifted up her fork and ate another morsel of the salmon before setting her glass down. She took a sip from her glass of water, she assessed the two young Ensigns in front of her, obviously they were a dynamic duo, one of them forward and approachable, the other more reserved, “So have you two had sex yet?” she asked in a matter of fact way, raising her fork again and eating another morsel of the salmon, “There’s obviously a chemistry between the two of you” she said by way of explanation.

Ezrah sputtered, choking on the mouthful of stew he’d just inadvertently inhaled. His face turned beet-red as he started to cough loudly, drawing the attention of several onlookers as Angie started to gingerly pat his back in a half-hearted attempt to help. She started to laugh as tears started to run down his cheeks, amused and intrigued at such a response to a basic, yet very silly question.

“Now, now… that’s not too difficult a question to answer, Ezrah; come now… no need to be so shy. You don’t need to be going and dying merely at the mention of sexual relations.” Angie stated flatly, yet eloquently. “And to answer your question, no, we’ve not had intimate relations Ms. Ben-Ami. We only just met and besides, wouldn’t that be some breach of professional etiquette?” The latter half of her statement was wondered aloud.

Ezrah’s coughing finally calmed as he sipped from the large glass of milk; the tinge of red in either cheek finally subsided.

“There, now that wasn’t so bad.” Angie breathed before returning her attention to the Lieutenant; content that Ezrah wasn’t going to topple over from embarrassment. “Now, that’s not to say that I certainly wouldn’t give him a test run if he was up for a decent ride. But he seems a bit nervous, being all jittery and whatnot. A handsome devil he is, I’ve the feeling inexperience and boyish innocence are dominant in this one.” She finished speaking of her superior, almost losing it with suppressed laughter at the look of stunned mortification that was evident on Ezrah’s face, yet pleased he’d elected not to consume another spoonful of stew, lest he’d choke to death as a welcomed alternative to the embarrassment felt in their conversation.

In Ezrah’s defence, yes, he was beyond the realm of inexperienced. The only woman he’d become remotely intimate with was his field-training instructor at Starfleet Training Command, Lieutenant Commander Audrey Carlisle. The two had shared a very close relationship, both emotionally and physically. In truth, Audrey had been the only woman he’d ever had such close relations with; she’d been the first woman he’d ever kissed, and she’d been his first in other intimate situations, too. The memory of her caused an uneasy emotional stirring from within, one that nearly burbled over to the surface. Ezrah and Audrey’s parting, the circumstances surrounding this separation, had been a difficult burden to bear and one that he was still trying to cope with. He still genuinely loved and deeply cared for Audrey, but they’re coupling was no more. And so, as he’d been trying so hard to do, he attempted to move on.

“Could we, uhm, please change the subject?” He finally managed after Angie’s last statement.

“See,” Angie replied, “squeamish.”

Kefira smiled as she sipped her glass of water, “And he goes so red when he blushes…which could be indicative of vascular problems, such vasodilation is unusual,” she added wryly, “Although he could just be embarrassed sexy talk.” she winked at him and set her glass down, “So tell me Ensign: a’ta y’hudi?”

Ezrah glanced questioningly from Ben-Ami to Angie, who looked just as confused, both were rather uncertain of what “a’ta y’hudi” meant. “I’m not sure? I suppose not?” He replied cautiously, “Why? Is… ‘a’ta y’hudi’… bad? Is it gross?” He wasn’t sure what it meant and certainly didn’t want to be associated with anything being gross. His pronunciation of the words was far from as fluid as Ben-Ami’s. She spoke them effortlessly; his were muddled together to the point of becoming almost indiscernible.

Kefira looked at him, “I was asking if you were Jewish Ensign” she said, her voice less jovial, “It is just you have a very common Hebrew name, I was just curious…unless you find being part of such an ancient religious and ethnic group is bad or gross…” she lifted her napkin from her lap and patted her lips slightly before folding it and placing it on the side of her tray, “…if you will excuse me, I have duties to attend to.” she added with a slight curt nod of her head as she stood up, making her way from the mess hall.

Ezrah sat in mortified silence, jaw hanging loose. “Oh… my… goodness.” He finally managed, voice cracking halfway through the declaration. How was he supposed to know? He spoke two languages; good English and very bad English… nothing more. He certainly hadn’t made it a habit of keeping a universal translator at the ready in which he could simply whip out whenever he didn’t understand the spoken word; although, at this moment in time, it was sounding like a pretty decent idea. Why would Ben-Ami have assumed he’d know what she was talking about or referring to? In the timespan of no more than ten minutes, he’d almost been stampeded by the lunch rush, was ridiculed about his lack of sexual experience and then he inadvertently discriminated the whole of the Jewish state by using words such as ‘bad’ and ‘gross’; he surmised that he was leaving less than an admirable impression on his fellow peers.

Ezrah scoffed, pushing the tray of food away and slumping down in the chair as either arm was crossed over his chest.

Angie spooned another mouthful of stew into her mouth, seemingly un-phased by Ben-Ami’s abrupt departure. “Little Peach, I think it was something you said.”

It had been a few days since Captain Burton had walked the corridors of F deck, the location of the Challenger’s armouries and all other things security and tactical related. This was the part of the ship that he preferred and was quite envious he wouldn’t be able to spend as much time here as he had originally planned. He was meant to be Challenger’s Chief Armoury Officer not its Captain, but fate had different plans for him.

He entered into the forward port armoury to find Lieutenant Commander John Callahan and Major Viktoria Yu standing in front of the main stack of photonic torpedoes talking in low voice. When Lloyd had opened the door the two of them stopped talking to face him. The two of them appeared so differently from each other. Callahan was taller and broader than Yu; however, she appeared more deadly in the way she stood and held herself.

Lloyd had served with Viktoria previously on the Republic. Seeing her again brought bad memories of the last mission they had shared together, the one where he had lost Ros Noble while they were rescuing Denobulan orphans. Since joining the Challenger, he had yet to run into the M.A.C.O. soldier, which was unusual due to his previous post. He had a feeling she was trying to avoid him although that shouldn’t have been the case. Burton had been the one who had suggested to Captain Karim to get Yu to be transferred to Challenger. With Karim’s death he had yet to speak with the major. It was something he planned to rectify in the coming days. He wanted her to know he still wanted her here on Challenger.

Then there was John Callahan, his replacement and Challenger’s new third officer. Callahan was a year younger than Lloyd and would probably have been a full commander by now if he hadn’t taken his break from the service to be a civilian police officer. Nevertheless, Lloyd was aware of Callahan’s reasons for taking such a position away from Starfleet. His family was important to him and Lloyd had wondered why his new armoury officer agreed to join the crew of the Challenger if he knew his new assignment would take him away from his wife and children. It was a subject he had a feeling would come up as he got to know the man further.

“Commander, Major.” He said greeting them both and making his way over to greet them both with a handshake.

Callahan turned to shift almost immediately into a crisp position of attention. When the captain extended a hand, though, his shoulders relaxed slightly, and he reached out to grasp the other man’s hand. “Sir.”

“Captain.” Yu stated with a small bow before grasping the hand and shaking it with her own brown-leather-like gloved one.

“My apologies for not seeing you both sooner.” He stated. “I know it’s normally customary for senior staff to report to the new commanding officers on their arrivals; however I hope you both can appreciate recent events that have prevented such conduct from happening.”

“That is certainly understandable. Captain Karim and Commander Rossi’s accident were ill timed…at least something positive came out of the tragedy.” Yu replied, trying her best to keep her voice and facial expressions, almost coldly neutral. “Congratulations on your promotion, Captain.”

 “An’ just as you’ve had a lot on your plate with the accident, I reckoned it’d be best with a last-minute assignment like me to get to grips with the ship ASAP,” said Callahan with a wry grimace. “My regrets on the tragedy. I didn’t know neither of them, but Captain Rostami thought highly of the Captain.”

“Thank you.” The captain nodded to their kind words. “Major Yu, I know you met with Captain Karim when you originally joined us. I understand your MACO’s have been helping out other departments in getting the ship up and running since her death. I want to express my sincerest gratitude for your efforts. Please pass them on to the rest of your detachment.” Burton remarked with an assuring smile.

“They’ll be happy to hear that, sir.” The Major responded, letting the coldness break a bit. She still didn’t really know yet how to take the assurances the offered smile granted yet “They were under the impression that I was simply making them do extra training to increase their operational versatility and familiarity with the ship…and they were correct.”

Lloyd smirked at that last comment before he placed his focus on Callahan. “Mister Callahan as you know this was my department you’re taking over from and I want to assure you that before I got this fourth pip in my own judgement the armoury department was almost ready for our launch. I want you to be aware that I truly understand that this is now your area of responsibility and I will leave it down to you to run it in the manner you feel that is appropriate.”

“‘course, sir,” said Callahan, as if he hadn’t considered this even a possible problem. “I imagine it can’t be easy to step away from the department, but I’ll appreciate the benefits of havin’ already had a second pair of eyes sortin’ things out down here.” He gave a wry smile.

Lloyd returned the smile before carrying on with their discussion. “That said I would prefer an update from both of you on the readiness of your departments before I leave to visit Starfleet Command this evening at eighteen hundred hours.” Lloyd commanded as he placed his hands behind his back.

“All twenty members of the M.A.C.O. detachment are accounted for, armed, and ready to carry out your orders, Captain.” The Major responded with a quick salute. “The last of the military gear and equipment arrived this morning and is being stowed away. I’ll have a full training schedule and request for various internal ship operational scenario drills included in the full report.”

Callahan nodded. “Everythin’s five-by-five, Captain. You know the staff an’ equipment are all in place. I’ll be makin’ some adjustments to the duty roster an’ security team make-ups once I’ve had a closer look at the personnel accounts myself, so I’ll be sure to have that an’ the rest for you before you go.”

“Excellent.” Lloyd answered back with. He indicated for them to leave the armoury with left hand pointing towards the door. “Let’s go take a walk and we can discuss security and tactical arrangements for Challenger.”

The three officers departed the armoury and out onto the port side corridor of F deck. The first room they passed was a research lab, which was one of five science labs that existed on the deck. The rest of the science labs inhabited C, E or G decks.

“What are your thoughts on MACO and Starfleet armoury officers working together?” Burton asked, wondering what type of reaction he would get from both officers.

“In my experience, MACOs have specialized small arms and small unit on unit training experience that Starfleet Training Command doesn’t teach your average armoury officer.” Viktoria Yu stated matter of fact before nodding her head to the rather tall Texan. “Likewise, though we MACOs are trained in the basic functions of starship operations, most of us lack the specialized knowledge required for more advanced ship-to-ship engagements, skills your average armoury officer has in abundance.”

 “It’s simply a matter of specialization and the two groups working together to shore each other’s lesser strengths up and ensure the safety of the ship, crew, and the mission. I think we’ve had this discussion before however, back when you were the Armoury Chief, if I recall, sir.”

“The Gemini didn’t have a MACO complement,” said Callahan. “I’ve not worked with a team on board before. But I ain’t foreseein’ it bein’ a problem. Settin’ aside Armoury’s starship combat operations role, we’re here for the defence an’ protection of the ship an’ her crew. MACOs are soldiers. We can talk all we like about soldiers bein’ here for defence – but it’s a case of ‘the best defence is a strong offence’. Our skills an’ focus are different.” He glanced between them. “We are goin’ to have to ensure there’s one clear command voice in combat scenarios between us. Away missions – that’s simple, command authority is assigned in advance dependin’ on the nature of the mission. But, say, if we’re boarded it needs to be clear who’s callin’ the shots in the defence of the ship when we don’t have time to form a committee to assess the threat.”

Callahan gave a lopsided, wry smile. “Obviously, in my estimation, that oughta be Armoury.” He spoke confidently, but self-deprecatingly, too.

Burton stopped in his tracks and turned to look at them both. It was true that in the past both he and Yu had spoken about the involvement of their two departments on the Republic. But he was no longer the Chief Armoury Officer. “If I recall Major, we had quite a few productive discussions on the matter.” He looked at the commander. “I’m in agreement with you both about using each other’s gifts and talents in defence of the ship and crew but Commander Callahan is right, we need to agree on how this is going to work to ensure smooth running. I’m of the belief that all ship security matters come under the authority of the armoury department with the MACOs supporting in whatever way possible.” He gazed to Yu and back to Callahan as he finished. “Does that sit well with you both?”

“It rightly does, sir,” said Callahan. “I assure you both, I grew out of childish fits of findin’ my turf threatened or the like a good while ago. ‘course I’d agree with Armoury managin’ on-board operations – equally, when it comes to some hard hittin’, a well-oiled MACO unit are goin’ to get the job done faster an’ more efficient than anythin’ else out there. It’s the plain an’ simple truth an’ I got no interest in arguin’ with it.”

“Thank you, Commander.” The MACO Major replied with a slight smirking grin. “That’s good to hear…not all armoury chiefs are as welcoming to our presence on-ship.”

“Good.” Lloyd said as he indicated for them to continue with their walk. “I’ve read Captain Archer’s log entries on why he asked for MACOs to be assigned to Enterprisewhich subsequently brought about MACO units being assigned to certain Starfleet ships. He put it as having some extra muscle and firepower on board. He firmly believes that without the MACO involvement with his mission to stop the Xindi attack, he would have failed.” Lloyd paused as they went down the central corridor that would bring them to the briefing room used by both departments. “We can debate the issues from all sides for years to come but for now take it as gospel that I’m in agreement with Captain Archer’s decision in bringing MACOs on board. The one area where MACOs were used extremely successfully was with landing parties. I want it to become standard practice that any landing party departing the ship have at least two MACOs joining them unless I or another member of the senior staff says so.”

Callahan just gave a nod at this, his lips twisting wryly, and he glanced at the MACO.

“Sounds acceptable…though I would ask for a small measure of independence on part of the MACOs when it comes to certain things…” Yu responded with a nod. “For one, I’d like to integrate them as an option for possible damage control. Keeps us from sitting on our camo-covered butts during non-boarding emergencies. We’re all rated for rapid deployment into hazardous areas after all, and most of us have at least basic technical and first aid training, if not full combat engineer or medic certification. Not to mention our evac training for removing wounded or trapped from damaged areas…we could yet be more of an asset in these areas. Other than those thoughts, I think it’s a very thorough system and arrangement, similar to what my more senior personnel and I have become accustomed to during our other Starfleet detached assignments.”

“Call it the security officer within me being over protective.” Lloyd said. “Let’s look at how we can get your people working in emergency situations as well as then major. I would also encourage you both to share training programmes. I want you both to devise a training schedule for the rest of the crew to be involved with too. If there’s something I’ve learnt from reading mission reports from both Enterpriseand Columbiais that the universe is a lot harsher the further you get away from Earth. I want this crew ready to deal with such hostile situations. We have a lot of recent graduates joining us from Starfleet Training Command that are still quite green behind the ears, even with all their training.”

“Best an’ first thing to focus on, then, will be ship-board defence. That way we can get the MACO teams an’ my Armoury boys happy an’ keen to work together for rapid response of any threats which come our way. That can form a firm basis from which we can develop any trainin’ in other areas. As for the rest of the crew, best thing for them to learn is how to defend themselves on-duty. What the best defence points are at and around their station, how to work together within their departments to watch each other’s’ backs. How to keep safe, an’ keep their immediate area secure, until the cavalry come a-running,” said Callahan, frowning as he thought aloud, and he again looked to Yu for her opinion.

“While I question the merits of turning the entire crew into paranoid nervous wrecks, I agree with the Commander.” Yu commented as she met Callahan’s steely Texan gaze. “Even the MACOs working as roving search and destroy teams while the Armoury folks secure key locations against hostile intrusion, the Challenger is pretty big ground to cover and we’d be damn fools to try and cover it all with just the red-bands and brown gloves. Those in the science divisions most of all I think, since a lot of those labs and duty stations aren’t usually considered key positions and wouldn’t normally have regular guards on duty.”

“Besides, I think perhaps running a few scenarios or war games with the crew would be good for all involved.” The Major continued, allowing a thoughtful look to cross her face. “Maybe we can have the armoury team or the MACOs mimic an invading force…tests preparedness and gets some experience with something similar to the real thing, just in case they ever have to deal with the real thing. I do have some training-grade weapons stowed away.”

The captain couldn’t be any happier with both officers, something he showed with his smile. “Well then commander and major from the sounds of it we’ve got ourselves a plan of action. Both of you develop your war games ready for when we leave dry dock.” He ordered. “I’ll expect the outline for it on my desk before we leave.” As they reached the briefing room for the MACO and Armoury department the captain paused to look at them. “In fact, the moment we leave dry-dock, let’s run a few drills first. I want to know what the crew’s response time is when we declare Tactical Alert or if there is an emergency somewhere else on the ship.” He looked to Commander Callahan. “Commander, run it past the rest of the senior staff on what each department could provide as a mock emergency. Something like the warp core close to a breach, or one of the science labs exploding.” Lloyd then tapped the button to the open door to enter the small briefing room and entered after the door had swished open with Yu and Callahan.