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Part of Challenger: While The Iron Is Hot


Portsmouth, Hampshire, United Kingdom of Great Britain, Europe, Earth
Thursday, February 6th, 2155
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The sun was setting in the British skyline. It was an imposing image of red, oranges and yellows mixed with whispery clouds. Even with the staunch appearance of the sun, the weather below was slightly chilly; this wasn’t helped any more in Portsmouth by the small gust coming in from the English Channel. The night life was starting to pick up in the city of Portsmouth, with people either finally arriving at home or going out to socialise in the number of restaurants, clubs and pubs. For one family it would be a stay at home affair, one that hadn’t occurred for several months now. 

The Burton family was all together for the first time since the previous summer. Lloyd enjoyed these types of family events as it meant he got to catch up with his siblings and parents in a relaxed, light hearted environment, however tonight that atmosphere wasn’t completely there. His parents had wanted them all together before Lloyd would be off on his first mission commanding the Challenger. But the same was to be said by his siblings and their own ship’s assignments. The fact that all of them were in Starfleet was a sore subject for their parents to digest, in fact it was a matter they had never truly accepted or completely supported. However, it was more down to the fact they were very protective of their children, even with them being adults. 

The Burtons had all shared dinner at the family’s large home that sat on the shore. The house was built in the early twenty first century and sat within beautiful grounds. The Burtons had lived there since they had moved to the city after living in Canterbury in Kent. Neither of Lloyd’s parents had wanted to move after they took their respective jobs to Cambridge and Oxford, the entire Burton family loved living in Portsmouth. The mixture of naval culture and history made it an attractive and worthwhile place to live in. 

Lloyd was now relaxing with the rest of his family after the dinner their parents had prepared. They had all sat in the large conservatory finishing off their drinks however his father had gone off to take a call while his mother had gone into the kitchen to place their plates and cutlery into the dishwasher. The conservatory looked out across the back garden and from where the Burton siblings all sat they were able to see the Solent, the strait that sat between the British mainland and what was left of the Isle of Wight. When they were growing up, they had all enjoyed a number of summers sailing on the Solent and visiting the small island. Good memories. Lloyd was sat on one of the sofas with his brother Roman while their older sister, Madison, was sat with their youngest brother, Seth, on another sofa.

Lloyd looked at all three of them. When they had all turned up at the house, they were all in their uniforms, but after getting changed they had all attended dinner in their civilian attire. Lloyd, Seth and Roman all wore similar fashion of long-sleeved shirts with jeans while Madison wore black leggings and a dark purple blouse. They had all been talking about the latest domestic political affairs of Earth and the Commonwealth; a subject their father, Doctor Fraser Burton, enjoyed discussing even though he was one of Earth’s leading physicists at Cambridge University. When Doctor Burton had left the room with their mother, the four siblings had all started to discuss Lloyd’s new job.

“So, what’s the centre chair like?” Seth had piped up with the moment the room was free of their parents. Seth, the youngest Burton sibling, shared looks with his brothers and was the Chief Helm Officer on board the Republic, a job Lloyd had recommended him for. Seth was only twenty-seven, held the rank of lieutenant junior grade and was most enthusiastic out of the four of them, this was notably down to his age. 

Lloyd had chuckled as he sipped on his glass of white wine. “I don’t know Seth.” He answered.

“What do you mean you don’t know?” Madison quickly asked in between sips of strawberry flavoured water. Madison, like Lloyd, held the rank of captain on board the Intrepid-class Voyager and was only thirty-eight, a year older than Lloyd. She shared her brother’s blue eyes and similar colour of hair however they were two different people. She had been the true scientist out of them all and had degrees in a range of areas that had pleased their parents. She had captained Voyager now for two years after her own skipper had taken early retirement. Since being a captain, she had become a lot more focussed. Their parents had believed she had lost her spark to explore the stars and had replaced it with a more militaristic look on life. 

“I haven’t sat in it.” Lloyd said, again in between sips of his drink. “I want to wait until we actually launch.”

It was Roman who burst out into laughter. “My God and I thought Seth was the soppy one out of us.” He said in between laughs. Roman was a lieutenant commander and was the Second Engineer on board Columbia

Lloyd playfully punched his brother who was only a couple of years younger than him. “That’s no way to speak to a superior officer! We know there’s no way none of us can beat Seth’s soppy approach to his love life!”

Seth sat there with a mocked surprise look on his face. “I’m hurt Lloyd.” He jokingly replied. “Anyway, how do you know how my love life is going?” He rhetorically asked.

“How is Nancy?” Lynette Burton asked as she re-entered the room with a glass of rosé wine in one hand. 

The four siblings all looked towards their mother who walked in to sit down on the sofa she had previously sat in with her husband. The retired exo-archaeologist took a sip of drink as she sat down and looked towards Seth. “Well?” She asked again, insisting she have an answer. Like any good mother she was interested in ensuring her children found someone to make their lives happy like she had. 

Seth smiled at the reference to Nancy. “She’s good, thanks mum. We celebrated our three-month anniversary two weeks ago.”

Lynette pushed a stray silver hair from her face as she responded. “I hope you made it as romantic as you could Seth.” 

“I did mum!” He replied, rolling his eyes at how she was always nagging them. “We were in orbit of Alpha Centauri Three, so we spent an evening in the city of New Samarkand.” Seth said in between sips of finishing his glass of wine. “She sends her apologies for not attending tonight but seeing as the Republic is only here for twenty-four hours, she wanted to see her folks and sister in Sydney.”

“That’s understandable.” Lynette said, shrugging it off before laying her eyes on her daughter. “And how is my soon to be son-in-law?” 

 Madison smiled at the fact that during the upcoming summer her and her long-term partner, Stephen Braddock would marry. It was going to be spectacular, especially as Lynette was helping to organise it. “He’s still in New York, overseeing the last parts to the latest skyscraper he has designed. He couldn’t make it tonight either as he is having dinner with his manager tonight.”

Lynette understood, tonight’s get-together was a last-minute thing due to Seth’s ship arriving later than planned. She then looked at her other two sons who sat parallel to her. “So, are you two seeing anyone?”

Lloyd knew the answer to that one for himself and for Roman, however he wondered if Roman was going to say anything tonight. Lloyd looked at his brother who was looking down at his own glass of wine, so Lloyd looked back at his mother. “No, I’m not seeing anyone at the moment.” 

She nodded showing her understanding. Lloyd had been engaged to Ros Noble and he had loved her dearly. When Ros had died last year, she had never seen her eldest son look so devastated, torn and empty. She had tried to help him through it; she had offered him a position with her new charity as its CEO, the idea that something new might help him a bit. However, he had turned it down after speaking it through with Roman who had convinced him to return to Starfleet. A decision she wasn’t too best pleased with, but she still supported Lloyd with his decisions. When he had been announced as the new Captain for Challenger, she had shown a sense of pride in his accomplishment in being the third captain of the new NX-class ships to leave Earth for deep space exploration. She only feared what was out there waiting for him. 

Lynette then turned to Roman. “What about you Roman?”

Roman shook his head quietly. “No.” He said. 

Almost two hours later Lloyd was sitting outside, wearing a very thick jumper and sitting on the steps to his parents’ patio. He was finishing a glass of amaretto when he felt someone come and sit down beside him. He was surprised to see Roman, holding a similar glass and a bottle of the liquor.

“More?” Roman offered.

“Please.” Lloyd answered as he watched his brother fill his glass up to just below the halfway line. “Thanks.” He said once it was done. He looked back out at the scenery before them. The sun had set and now a full moon was insight in the dark blue night sky. A few ships bobbed on top of the Solent as they sailed past. It was a peaceful scene with only the noise of a few nocturnal insects and creatures moving in the background against the gentle tides smacking the shore. “Why didn’t you tell mum about Nathan?” He asked his brother.

Roman sighed heavily into his glass. Nathan Wallis was one of Columbia’s armoury officers and someone Roman had been seeing quietly for a little while now. He had only told Lloyd a few days ago when they had bumped into each other in San Francisco. “It’s still early days,” He answered. “I didn’t want to jinx it by having him to have to deal with meeting our mother.” 

They both chuckled, knowing that when any of them brought someone home it was their mother who would interrogate their partners to know all of their business in hopes of determining if they were good enough for her children. 

“So, do I get to meet him at least?” Lloyd enquired before taking a sip. The contents warmed him inside as the sweet taste entered his mouth. 

“Maybe.” Roman said after blushing a bit. “I think he is more scared of meeting you and Madison to be honest.”

“Why?” Lloyd asked as he placed his glass down on the stone patio step and wrapped his arms around his chest to keep some warmth in.

“Nath is one of the most confident guys I know except when he is in the presence of anyone with the rank of captain and above,” Roman said with a smirk as he thought about his latest love interest. “The man literally turns to jelly. We’ll be having dinner in the mess hall; Captain Hernandez will walk pass and he goes silent! It takes ages for him to get back to his normal self!”

“Well perhaps Madison and I could scare them out of him completely?” Lloyd suggested before sharing a laugh with his brother. “So, when is Columbia due to depart?”

“Tomorrow morning before Challenger is launched.” Roman replied, looking at his brother. “Sorry I’m going to miss it all.” He apologised. 

Lloyd smiled at his brother’s sentiments. “I understand Roman, don’t worry.”

“I bet you know why Columbia is leaving and where we’re going.” Roman remarked. “Starfleet recalls Enterprise and Columbia prior to the launch of Challenger and then orders both NX-class ships to leave before its even left dry-dock. My money is on all three ships being involved in some big multi-mission.”

Lloyd shrugged his shoulders. “I can’t say Roman. You know that. Anyway, you’ll find out in the morning once Captain Hernandez briefs her senior staff.”

“We also find out who replaces Commander Levesque too.” Roman added. “You’re really lucky with her being your first officer.”

“Really?” Lloyd said. He knew deep down he shared his brother’s feelings too but to hear it being reassured felt good for the young captain. “How comes?”

“She was really well liked by everyone on Columbia. She got us out of a few tight spots in our early days.” Roman said as he finished the contents of his glass. “I only hope Captain Hernandez has found someone just as good as Levesque was.”

The two brothers were interrupted by the arrival of their other two siblings. Once again, the four Burton siblings were alone without their parents. Seth had squeezed in between his two brothers by pushing them apart while Madison had remained standing.

“So does mum know?” Lloyd asked, looking up towards his sister.

“Does mum know what?” Madison asked back, slightly confused at her brother’s words.

Lloyd looked at Roman and Seth, both who knew what he was talking about as they had spoken about it earlier between just them and returned with their boyish grins towards Madison.

“Oh, I hate it when you three do that!” Madison said as she sat down on the step below the one they were all sitting on. “How did you all know?” She whispered with a hint of concern and annoyance. 

Being the eldest out of the boys it was Lloyd’s duty to answer their sister. “The fact you didn’t share a bottle of wine with mum and the fact that you’ve tried really hard to hide what you’re concealing under that top.” His large grin was wide now. “So how long now until we’re all uncles?”

Madison rolled her eyes. “I’m eighteen weeks gone.” She said quietly. “And the doctors are pretty certain it’s going to be a boy!”

The three men all smiled at the joy of them having a nephew. The four siblings all hugged at the great news.

“And to answer your first question, mum does not know. I’m not going to tell her until the next time Voyager is back in the system.” Madison replied. “And none of you are going to tell her!”

“You really think you can keep this from her?” Seth asked rhetorically, as they all knew the answer to that question. 

After the slight laughter Lloyd raised his glass. “To the newest arrival of the Burton clan; may God have mercy on his soul once he meets his grandmother!” 

The four Burton siblings all tapped each other’s glasses with a clink while sharing a small laugh after the small toast, knowing that this would probably be the last time they’ll see each other for the foreseeable future.

Challenger NX-03

Commander Stanton had been awake and digging through the Challenger‘s systems for about four hours. He had finally fallen asleep a little after oh-two-hundred hours, after spending most of his off-duty time pouring over the ship’s technical manuals, before both his natural metabolism and the ship’s imminent launch forced him awake before Gamma Shift had even concluded. After running a visual inspection of both nacelles’ interiors, he had made a personal inspection of the ship’s fusion reactors and was heading to begin his new relationship with the ship’s computer systems, from their primary control centre on D Deck. He reached into the breast pocket of his uniform, which now bore Challenger‘s patch correctly, to retrieve an access card, which he waved over the appropriate spot on the door panel, before punching in his access code.

The doors, somewhat heavier than the rest of the ship’s hatchways, slid open to reveal the relatively small room at the heart of the ship’s eight main processing core blocks. He took a seat at the s-shaped desk in the middle of the room and found himself somewhat cold from the liquid nitrogen running through the coolant ducts within the computer itself. He pulled up the ship’s basic operating system, and began looking through the code, somewhat at random, as he began to get a feel for the system. From the commenting in the code, it was clear that it was still not quite finished, and he noticed that the access codes listed had MACO tags in them. He then remembered that the ship’s military detachment had been helping out with the construction process. After a moment of thought, he tapped a button on the nearest communications panel.

“Commander Stanton to Major Yu. If you have time, I think I should speak to you in the computer control room,” he said.

There was a bit of a wait on the conn, silence peppered only by grunting breaths and then the sound of a body slamming into a padded surface. “…someone put a wet cloth on Private Goldman and tell me when he wakes up.”The Major’s voice finally came in the background, before getting louder and clearer. “Sorry about that Commander. I’ll be there in a moment. Yu out.”

Stanton looked at the communications panel suspiciously for a moment, before going back to his work. After a few minutes, he had compiled a list of problems, which seemed to be still under repairs by the various teams on the ship. Despite its importance, the library computer had faced far less interest in its completion than had the rest of the ship’s primary systems. He looked back at the door, and then at his watch, waiting.

He didn’t have to wait long, for soon the door to the computer centre swished open and in walked Major Yu. She lacked a full uniform, wearing the MACO brown muscle shirt, leather gloves and boots, belt and the camo-pants, but lacking the uniform tunic. The lack of a tunic showed off her lean and muscular arms and athletic build, as well as the tattoos on her long shoulder and bicep. A maple leaf on the shoulder, and a series of varied-colour rings encircling the bicep. She held a small gym towel around her neck and shoulders and her hair had been pulled back into a simple ponytail. A small bruise marked her right cheek and another straighter and heavier bruise marked her right arm.

“So, Commander, what did you want to talk to me about?” She asked as she moved over to the Commander and the work desk.

“Ah, well, Major…,” Stanton started, studying her for a split second. “I was wondering if you had logs on what your men had been doing, as far as getting the computer core ready? I’ve only found Starfleet logs, so far, and I’d like to get a better picture of what still needs to be done,” he said.

“Ah yes, the computer banks…I actually assisted with that project myself, when the science officers and dry-dock techs would actually let me. Very finicky bunch.” The MACO chief replied, allowing herself a small prideful smirk. “There’s not much left to do actually…we had a few problems with garbage data code fragmentation, but the original Science chief fixed that up…right before the crash, actually. The database was installed fully, plus or minus a few notes on the mating habits of Centaurian cockroaches. If there’s anything we were not able to finish, it was the diagnostic and healing systems. Those got kinda…side-tracked…by the unfortunate demise of said Science Chief. I personally had a few ideas about those, as did one of my lieutenants, but nothing came out of it. No time, really. She’ll work fine and all, but those systems could use a fair bit of reworking to improve run times and decrease latency.”

“Yeah… Lots of things around here sort of hit a speed bump after the accident. I’m not even supposed to be here; I was teaching just a few days ago,” the commander replied, as he turned to look at the computer screen. “From what I could tell, our new CMO isn’t exactly a computer specialist, so it’d be nice to nail down any problems she might run into, before we need doctoring,” he added.

“Er…when I said diagnostic and healing systems…” Viktoria said with a slight grimace. “…I didn’t mean medical systems specifically…I meant the software for the computer that deals with finding and repairing anomalous, fragmented, damaged, or even hacked code….which unfortunately right now, are filled with anomalous code, fragmented, and some have been installed, but not setup yet correctly.”

“Right…,” the Chief Engineer said. “I’ll just hope that was sleep deprivation and not old age, on my part,” the relatively young Commander added, as he looked at the screen, now understanding what she had meant. “We could get some tips from Columbia‘s computer core, while it’s in transmission range,” he thought aloud.

“We actually have Columbia’s Chief Science Officer on board, she’s the new First Officer.” The MACO replied with a grin. “Unfortunately, that wouldn’t help as much. Some of the underlying code on the Challenger is fairly new, for instance, if you take a look at the equations in the sub-diagnostic software files, you’ll find traces of Andorian algorithms we managed to pick up before the Terra Prime incident. Very efficient work, when it’s actually working, which is why it got kinda stalled after the first Science Officer’s passing,no one else really got them, including me. My own grasp of Andorian isn’t that good, yet.

“I suppose we could just isolate the files and shelve those coding for now, in favour of the original standardized coding…at least until we want a good solid crack at figuring it out. Shouldn’t be too much of a problem unless we run across anyone who could also hack or infect the Columbia or Enterprise.”

“Yeah, no hablo Andorian… or even Spanish,” Stanton replied, looking at her. “I guess we’ll have to shelve that particular code, for now. I think in the long run, it’d probably be a good thing to fix, though. Hopefully before someone tries to hack us, too,” he added, before looking back at the console.

“Funny…I never actually learned Spanish either…weird, it’s a similar linguistic family as French, which I do know quite well…” The Major said as she sat down on the other side of the S-table and pulled her chair up to the opposite console from the Chief Engineer. “I’m off duty right now, so how about I help you clean up this digitally encrypted mess, eh?”

“I have a few hours before my next…appointment,” Stanton said, spacing for a moment, before looking back at his screen. “I have to say, I usually like crawling inside the engines more than into the computer’s operating system,” he added, as he began scrolling through the code.

“You said you were a professor, I imagine the physical work has its appeal after spending time with computers and lecture halls.” Yu commented as she activated her terminal and began accessing the diagnostic computers. “Where did you teach?”

“Starfleet Training Command, in San Francisco, handling Basic Engineering and Warp Field Dynamics,” Stanton replied. “I’ve probably had about half of the ship’s Ensigns in class. I know for sure I had the helmsman. I’ve always been awful with names, though…,” he added, as he looked closely at a piece of syntax. “I was supposed to join Discovery after the term, but it didn’t quite happen that way.”

 “Ah…STC-” Viktoria stopped all of a sudden and peered closer at her screen. “Found one. Chip one-one-three-eight, Alpha sector, fifth line. Isolating…can you start patching, Commander?”

“I see it. Working on it,” Stanton replied. “So, do I detect a slight hint of a Canadian accent?” he asked, as he tapped several commands into the control consoles in front of him.

“…thought that maple tattoo and use of ‘eh’ would’ve given it away.” The Major replied with a smirking grin as she went back to code hunting. “Yeah, I’m Canadian…born and raised in the GTA. Judging from your voice, I’d say…Boston or the surrounding area, though given how watered down it is, I’m guessing it’s been a while since you’ve been there.”

“Very good… Wicked, if you will,” Stanton said, with a laugh. “It looks like Chip zero-two-ninety, Gamma Sector; the nineteenth line has a similar problem.”

“Isolating.” Yu’s hands moved over the console. “Patch ready. So, I was correct then? Good to know I haven’t lost my deductive touch while dislocating the quad-jointed limbs of Anzarix Smugglers…so, you’re a former STC teacher, from Boston originally, probably spent the last few years in San Francisco then…how far out into the inky black have you gone before?”

“I spent six years on Intrepid-class ships, mostly patrolling the colonies and visiting our allies,” the engineer replied, after a moment of thought. “Though Miranda was more involved in charting missions and Luna was more of a patrol ship,” he added. “Have you served on starships before?”

“That’s an affirmative, Commander.” She replied as she regained focus once again on her screen. “After a posting on Mars, I got command of a MACO unit detached to an Intrepid-class ship, the Republic for three years…we got pretty far out there, for an NV-class at least. Found another. Chip zero-two-nine-one, Phi Sector, eighth line.”

“We should have a computer that fixes our computer,” Stanton mused. “I think the farthest I’ve been is Coridan, but I’m not really sure. I’ve never been the kind of guy that they send on most away missions,” he added, as he began repairing the defective code.

“Technically we do have such a computer, it’s the one that we are currently fixing.” Yu said with a small chuckle. “Advantage of being a MACO on a Starfleet Vessel…you may be getting shot at more often than not, but you do get to log a lot of hours on away missions…typically guarding or rescuing the actually landing party, if you’re not part of that team yourself. I once got dragged along as a linguist because the communications officer was suffering severe allergies to something in that planet of the week’s atmosphere. Pollen, I think. Just operated and adjusted the universal translator for the most part…was refreshingly boring and ordinary…contextually, that is.”

“An advantage of being an engineer is that you don’t get shot at as much,” the engineer stated. “More paperwork, though,” he added, flipping through a few screens of code.

“Hah.” Viktoria replied. “You do not know the meaning of the word ‘paperwork’, until you’re a cop who just discharged her sidearm while interrogating a Rigellian trader…and that’s all you’re ever going to get on that particular story.”

This close to departure any ship’s engineering was going to be a hubbub of noise and mess Callahan didn’t really have much understanding of. He tended to let his fellows in the red stripes be with their work and only interfere if it was absolutely necessary. And to his eyes, Challenger‘s engineering was an even greater hive of fuss than he’d expected, though this wasn’t so unusual considering they had a new boss. Every new boss wanted to do things their own way. It was something Callahan’s own Armoury Officers were discovering, to mixed reactions from all involved. Professionalism was all very well and good, but nobody liked being asked to do a good job all over again, and nobody liked having to do things someone else’s way.

Callahan got enough of that from his wife, after all.

He looked, as always, to the eye of the storm for answers, and he didn’t need to be a trained detective to find them. There were only going to be so many people in a full Commander’s pips on the ship at all, let alone in engineering, in a red stripe, and male. Not to mention younger than him. But that was the price he’d paid for choosing between career and family, and so Callahan, as always, gritted his teeth and bit back his pride and made his way over to the young man standing at the centre of what looked to his untrained eye to be nothing less than chaos. It was best to not interfere with an engineer’s lot if he could avoid it, but he had work to do.

“Commander Stanton?” It still didn’t hurt to check.

“Yes?” the commander replied, from his position on the deck near the warp reactor. A pair of greyish blue eyes surveyed the newcomer and attempted to place him as a member of his own staff but failed. “Is there something I can help you with?” he asked, politely and with the barest traces of an East Coast accent.

“Lieutenant Commander Callahan, I’m the Chief Armoury Officer,” Callahan said with a polite smile, extending a hand. “Hope I’m not interruptin’ too badly by comin’ down at this time, sir; you’re looking awful busy.” His gaze, returning from a sweep around the sights of engineering to settle upon Stanton, was sincere. But his implied apology was clearly a courtesy, rather than a genuine offer that he might just come back later. 

“Commander Stanton, Chief Engineering Officer,” Stanton said, as he accepted the handshake and motioned him over to the area near to the small desk under the catwalk, which was slightly more private. He looked at the other man, who was taller than he was in addition to being older, for half a second. “So, what can I do for you Commander Callahan?” he asked, leaning back against his desk and crossing his arms.

“The captain’s having us run some training sessions an’ war games once the Challenger leaves dock,” said Callahan, immediately brusque, business. “This’ll be including defence of key locations on board the ship, both for my boys and, eventually, the personnel who staff ’em. After the Bridge, Engineerin’s the most vital location on the ship to defend.”

“War games,” the engineer repeated, as if it was a foreign term to him. “What did you have in mind?” he asked, looking around at his staff for a moment. “Most of my officers are only six months out of STC; almost none of them have had any combat experience beyond that. War games on top of everything else we’ll be doing in the ship’s first few weeks out of dock will be pretty… painful.”

“All the more reason for them to be ready,” Callahan said briskly. “But the war games are goin’ to vary. My primary focus is on ensurin’ that my teams an’ the MACOs are able to work together to rapidly respond to a boardin’ threat an’ can secure an’ defend all key locations. That said, the best way for a station to be safe is for them who man the station to be able to defend themselves. That ain’t just double-checkin’ everyone’s phase pistol-competency is up to spec, it’s teachin’ ’em how to best protect against entry points, vital areas, hot spots for cover, so forth.”

As he spoke, he ducked his head out from under the catwalk and gestured with each point to an appropriate locale – the doors above, the warp core reactor controls, several alcoves which would, in his estimation, make for good cover. “That way you an’ your boys can hold out here ’til the cavalry come.”

“Well, yeah, of course it’s good to be prepared,” Stanton said in an agreeing sort of tone, as he listened and watched. “If any bad guys were to get inside the engine room, though… It’s game over, especially if we’re already damaged. One stray shot from an energy weapon would reduce us all to our constituent atoms pretty quickly,” he added, looking around. “We need ways of keeping them out in the first place.”

“Yes, sir,” said Callahan, a little cautiously. “Both in terms of securin’ the room against intruders an’ my boys an’ the MACOs bein’ ready to intercept any boarders, that’s bein’ taken care of. But just because someone’s got in don’t mean it’s game over. They might not be wantin’ to blow themselves up along with us, they might be smart enough to not shoot around anything too delicate, an’ chances are good that if they got this far, they want to take control of the ship, not just destroy it. It might be downright dangerous for them to come chargin’ in here, but if any attackers do, I ain’t gonna throw my hands up an’ say it’s over, an’ unfortunately not everyone we fight is gonna be so logical as to not even try to attack engineerin’.”

“Too bad we can’t just fight the Vulcans,” Stanton said, with a smile. “I’m not against the drills, we’re just going to have our hands full with fine tuning the engines under actual use. They’ve never been brought to full power for extended periods of time, and we’ll probably have… teething problems,” he added. “I can give you the engineering work schedule for the next few weeks, and you can build the drills around that, when we’re not elbow-deep in the plasma injectors or something,” he suggested.

“Sure. I know you folks don’t have an easy time down here even when all’s goin’ well. On a perfectly good day, one of my boys screws up, he gets told off ‘cos if he did that screwup on a bad day he could get everyone killed. One of your boys screws up on a perfectly good day, ain’t gonna be nobody ’round to tell him off. Don’t fancy gettin’ ourselves underfoot in an’ around that.” Callahan gave a companionable grin. “I’ll look over the schedule, fit us in when it’s gonna cause all involved the least headache.”

“That’s mighty kind of you,” Stanton said, with a grin. He looked up for a moment, thinking about that, and then looked back at Callahan, realizing that he’d inadvertently assimilated his speech patterns. “I mean, ‘thank you,’ I don’t know why I said that; I’m from Boston,” he added.

The Armoury Officer grinned. “You know, that ain’t the first time that’s happened,” he said, and if possible the Texan twang in his voice was even stronger that time. “I’ll let you get back to yer real work, Commander, an’ go make sure my boys ain’t gone an’ got themselves into no sort of trouble. You have a good day.”

“You, too, Commander Callahan,” Stanton said, smiling; his face was somewhat red from embarrassment, though, at the slip of the tongue, and quickly inserted himself back into the crowd, to resume preparing the ship for launch.

Two hours later and Commander Michael Stanton had practically worn a hole in the deck plating, pacing, as he toyed with his dark brown hair. He had arrived in the launch bay control booth fifteen minutes before the Challenger‘s new shuttlepod was scheduled to dock. That morning, he had found himself particularly concerned with every detail of his appearance, as if he were preparing for a long-overdue reunion, and not to see a man that he’d seen every day for most of the previous four years, the previous day excluded. The two crewmen manning the console in front of him kept looking back with worried expressions regarding his particular brand of insanity, but he wasn’t paying attention to them, just the chronometer banded in leather on his wrist.

Shuttlepod One to Challenger,” Came the electronically reproduced voice of Alex Rodham, sounding quite robotic over the communications system. Stanton made a dozen mental notes to himself to run a diagnostic on the communication repeater, speaker, and transceiver assembly, as a thousand butterflies escaped into his stomach.

Challenger here, go ahead Shuttlepod One,” responded the young petty officer on the left side of the control station.

I am beginning my approach manoeuvre. Requesting a vector and a berth,” the pilot said.

“Vector to zero-four-five mark one-zero, for docking position one,” the controller replied.

Vector and berth acknowledged. Coming to heading zero-four-five mark one-zero,” Commander Rodham replied. “Requesting final departure clearance.”

“Clearance granted. Welcome home, Shuttlepod One,” the young man in front of Stanton replied, as he punched the necessary buttons to open the ship’s exterior doors, opening the ship’s launch bay to space. The docking arm descended from the ceiling to await a connection with the appropriate umbilical port on the pod. After about fifteen seconds, there was a thud, and then the pod was pulled up into the belly of the ship. “The shuttlepod is arriving, Commander,” the technician reported, diligently.

“Yes. I can see that,” Stanton said, mostly ignoring him as he walked into the starboard vestibule of the control booth and waited for the pressurization indicator to light up. As soon as it turned green, he stepped into the launch bay, even ahead of the duty crewmen who were to flip the gangway down to the pod’s hatch. Stanton paced along the catwalk, as the two young men entered the compartment to fold down the ladder and to get ready to offload the pod’s cargo. He thought that he must have seemed rather silly to them, but he didn’t care. After about twenty agonizing seconds, the stairs were down and the hatch to the pod swung up and opened. A moment later, the tall, blond-haired form of Alex Rodham climbed out of the shuttlepod, and stepped up onto the grating ringing the launch bay.

“Permission to come aboard, sir?” Rodham asked, sporting a crooked grin as he came up to Stanton. He was wearing a duty jumpsuit with a Starfleet Command patch on his shoulder, which, along with his stylishly messy hair, perfect grin, and athletic appearance, completed his appearance as someone who belonged behind the helm of a starship. Stanton hadn’t seen him dressed like that in a while, but he liked it; for the past several years he and Stanton both had been assigned the service dress uniform of employees of Starfleet Command.

“Granted, Mister Rodham,” Stanton replied, smiling back. The crewmen climbed down into the shuttle and began pulling up crates filled with supplies, as Rodham stepped a foot closer to Stanton and handed him a data tablet.

“I need you to sign for this delivery, sir,” the taller man said, with a verbal tone of absolute professionalism towards his long-time boyfriend, though he was standing perhaps a bit closer to him than would normally be appropriate between two officers on duty, and the grin that accompanied his quiet, masculine voice was certainly not regulation. 

“Yes, I guess Starfleet wouldn’t want Captain Burton trying to cheat them out of another shuttle by saying we never got this one,” Stanton replied, grinning at him, as he accepted the pad and applied his thumbprint to it, before handing it back.

“Commander Stanton, these are marked for you. Where should I take them?” one of the crewmen asked, as he carried a pair of metal packing crates slightly larger than suitcases.

“Some of your belongings, Commander,” Rodham explained.

“Take them to my quarters, please,” Stanton replied, looking at the crewman-turn-porter for a split-second.

“Take my bag there, too,” Rodham interjected, before they could get far. “Please,” he added, with a charismatic grin. The two crewmen looked from the pilot to the engineer, before complying and leaving the room. Stanton gave Rodham a long look, wanting to rush in and hug him, but he noticed the eyes of the crewmen in the booth fixed on both of them. He led Rodham out of the bay, before pulling him by the hand down the access stairs to the lower area of the launch bay.

“I have something to show you,” Stanton said, excitedly, as he led them both through the launch bay and into a small room on the aft end of the ship. They passed around a vertical ladder and entered into a gravity rotation drum. “Hold on,” he said, before pressing a button, which caused them to be inverted. He then led the way up another ladder on the other side, which took them towards the keel of the ship. “You’re going to love the view,” he said, a smile on his voice.

“I already do,’ Rodham quipped, from beneath him, as they climbed, causing Stanton to blush. They quickly found themselves in the ship’s ventral observation cupola, a transparent dome that was designed to allow for a direct look of things under the ship, with provisions for the use of optical telescopes and other equipment. “This is a damn good view, though,” the taller of the two remarked, as Stanton closed the hatch under their feet.

“I haven’t had a chance to climb down here, yet,” Stanton said, as he looked out at Earth, from the aft end of the very small compartment. “I figured you’d enjoy it,” he added, brightly.

“I’m all alone with you, so of course I’m enjoying it,” Rodham replied, simply, before hugging him tightly from behind, as he looked over Stanton’s head and out the view port. “Gorgeous blue marble isn’t it?” he asked, quietly, as the planet passed before their eyes.

“Yeah…” Stanton agreed, as he leaned back into the hug. “I missed you,” he stated, contorting his neck to look him in the face, and receiving a kiss for his efforts.

“I missed you, too. I’m on a short-term leave starting now. I know you’re busy, but I figured I could stay aboard until  the launch,” Rodham said.

“I’m sure I can put you to work, somewhere,” Stanton replied. “I could use an attractive assistant,” he added, with a laugh.

“An assistant, huh?” Rodham replied, as he hugged him more tightly. “How about you play assistant, and I’ll play Chief Engineer?” he asked, as he quickly plucked one of Stanton’s newly earned rank pips off of his uniform.

“Hey! I was using that!” Stanton exclaimed, as he turned around in Alex’s arms to face him. There was a pout forming on his lips that was distinctly unworthy of a commander, or indeed a lieutenant, as his insignia now designated him.

“I think you’re missing a ‘sir’ in there,” Rodham replied, as he pocketed the tiny silver square, and then hugged him again so that he couldn’t get it back. Stanton struggled a little but found himself firmly restrained. “I like that face you make when you’re pretending to be mad at me,” the pilot said, grinning at him.

“I guess I could stand being under you,” Stanton replied, somewhat airily. “I mean working under you!” he corrected, immediately, as he looked around the compartment, for a reason that he soon decided was silly. “I’m so used to not being able to say things like that… being worried that a student would overhear,” he added, with a sheepish grin.

“No students here,” Rodham reminded him. “No crewmen or ensigns or captains, either. Just you… and me,” he added, with a grin. “All alone,” he stated, with a hand on the zipper of the engineer’s jumpsuit. 

“All alone?” Stanton replied, smiling as he allowed himself to be kissed. After only a moment, the communications pad behind him beeped.

Masuko to Stanton,” the voice of his Asian second-in-command said.

“Leave it,” Rodham said, dismissively, as he started to unzip the top of Stanton’s jumpsuit. “Leave it,” he repeated, as Stanton backed up a little to reach the console. 

“You have no idea how much I’d like to,” Stanton said, solemnly, before pressing the button. “Stanton here,” he said, sighing a little bit. Before the commander had a chance to finish his sigh or the lieutenant on the other end had a chance to speak, Rodham leaned in to kiss him again, with one hand on his cheek and the other still on his zipper.

I was just wondering, sir, which team you wanted to work on aligning the warp field governor,” Stanton heard the woman say, as he put his hand on Rodham’s to stop him from opening his uniform jumpsuit.

“I’ll… Well…” Stanton said, finding himself imminently distracted. “I’ll do it myself,” he said, after a moment.

Do you need a team, sir?” the lieutenant asked.

“No,” Stanton replied. “I’ve got a set of extra hands, today,” he added, while attempting to prevent that extra set of hands from opening any more closures on his uniform.

“He’ll be there in fifteen,” Rodham said, grinning at Stanton.

… Sir?” the engineer asked through the comm. Stanton glared, and clamped his hand down over Rodham’s mouth, before looking back down at the small communications terminal.

“I’ll be there as soon as possible. Sorry, don’t mind him. Stanton out,” Stanton said, quickly, before terminating the call, and releasing Rodham.

“Scared of your own assistant?” Rodham teased. “The real one, I mean,” he clarified.

“I missed you,” Stanton replied, grinning. “The warp field governor is also in a secluded part of the ship, so maybe if you’re good and you help me align it…” he added, trailing off as he bent down to open the hatch.

“You’ll what?” Rodham asked, curiously, following him back down the ladder, and back into the ship itself. 

“Be eternally grateful,” Stanton replied, grinning, as he led the way towards the aft end of E Deck. There, they climbed through an access tube into the small pod between the ship’s warp nacelles, which contained the device that made the essential adjustments to the ship’s warp field which would allow sustained high-warp cruises. It wasn’t especially difficult to align the system, though he did have to continue to work hard to fight off distraction. They set to aligning each of the governing arms and crystals manually and applying the new computer routines.

“I’ve not seen Commander Stanton since the new shuttlepod arrived; if I do see him though, I’ll let him know that you’re looking for him Mister Alcott.” The Petty Officer seated behind the launch bay control station replied politely. From his own acute observations, the manner in which the Commander and the pilot, the passenger manifest had referenced a Lieutenant Commander Rodham, of the shuttlepod had hastily departed the launch bay, he assumed both men would be rather preoccupied in the company of one another for the remainder of the afternoon. He certainly wasn’t a man to judge and it was evident through Commander Stanton’s erratic behaviour prior to the shuttlepods docking, that he was very much looking forward to Rodham’s arrival.

Ezrah nodded curiously, “thanks Chief… I appreciate it.”

The Petty Officer merely nodded; his attention having returned to the length of the control panel before him.

Ezrah quietly slipped from the control room via the port egress, managing back towards the central corridor. As he navigated its length, his mind flickered to the communiqué he’d received from Commander Audrey Carlisle earlier in the morning. He’d not anticipated hearing from the woman for the foreseeable future, so to receive a video message from her had certainly instilled a bit of shock. She explained that an all-to-brief stay on Earth had been scheduled in hopes of resolving a family dispute that had arisen. Her stay would extend four days and she had expressed a deep interest in seeing Ezrah prior to departing back to Columbia’s or the Challenger’s scheduled disembarking. In truth, Ezrah hadn’t yet convinced himself as to whether a visit with Audrey would be a good thing. Of course, he missed her deeply and wouldn’t waste a moment to drop absolutely everything merely to be near her. But that was his heart talking. His brain knew just how difficult a meeting such as this would play upon his heart and that alone had caused hesitation. In a way, he knew better and thought that passing on the meeting was in both their best interests. But it was well known that when it concerned matters of the heart, one typically made the decision that was completely opposite of what was best for them and the one they loved. He didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see Audrey, but he just couldn’t resolve himself to a decision.

Regardless, he did want to see Professor McSteamy, which elicited a different type of excitement altogether, but one that he was looking forward to experiencing. Hopefully with the Professor’s help, the upgrades and improvements implemented to the embarked shuttlepods would increase the crafts’ on-board system efficiency. And, well, the Professor wasn’t so hard on the eyes either, completely the opposite really. Ezrah hadn’t really been placed in a circumstance where he considered another man to be attractive; but if there were two words one could use to describe the Professor it was utterly dreamy. He thought there were few that would understand nor appreciate this, so instead he kept these feelings to himself.

Ezrah soon stepped over the threshold, entering the vast, multilevel cabin that comprised engineering. The activity level was still rather high, especially with the anticipation of Challenger’s launch, yet it seemed somewhat subdued compared to several nights prior. Unlike his first visit to main engineering, Ezrah didn’t hesitate to approach a crewman standing behind a nearby station.

“Excuse me, have you seen Professor Stanton?”

“Yes, Sir.” The Crewman replied, glancing up momentarily from his work to address the senior officer. “He’s working with an assistant on aligning the warp field governor.” The Crewman reached out a hand to point towards an open hatchway. “It can get a little tight, but you’re rather small, so you shouldn’t have much trouble. Simply descend and then head to your right down the causeway until it starts to open up, he shouldn’t be much further ahead.”

Ezrah grinned broadly, “thanks!” He replied jovially.

Approaching the hatchway, Ezrah slipped into the port, discovering ample room to manoeuvre. Descending the metal ladder, Ezrah soon felt both feet set firmly on the metal grate below.

From a very early age, much to the general discomfort of others, Ezrah had developed an inherent ability to sneak. It wasn’t that he did so intentionally; it was simply that he was so light on his feet due to many years of dance. Oftentimes, his unexpected appearance or disappearance could startle others, but for the Alcott family, they became more than accustomed.

As he scooted down the causeway, he could hear muffled sounds but nothing that made any coherent sense. As the causeway started to expand left and right, a single port ahead centre remained open with the designation number above the hatch indicating it to be the warp field governor calibration cabin.

Lightly pulling himself feet first from within the causeway, Ezrah was positioned in such a way that he didn’t immediately see the Professor and his assistant. Brushing dust from his uniform, he started to circle, taking in the larger than expected cabin. As he turned almost completely around, his breath caught sharply. “Oh balls.” His voice filtered through the cabin, gripping the startled attention of Professor McSteamy and his assistant in a very revealing state of undress and coupled intimacy. Eyes drawn wide in absolute surprise at the two men’s precarious state of affairs and facing a red beacon of embarrassment, Ezrah turned away quickly as he shielded both eyes.

“Should’ve just sent an engineering team,” Stanton mumbled, as he pulled on his clothes, quickly. The lieutenant commander next to him just grinned, as he made himself decent. “Should’ve locked the compartment,” the engineer corrected. He looked down to see that he had only two pips on and held his hand out towards Rodham.

“I guess you can have it back,” the other said, before retrieving the piece of silver from his pocket, and handing it over.

“So… what can I do for you, ensign?” Stanton asked, blushing deeply as he reattached his rank insignia.

“I um… um… well… I saw that the new shuttlepod had arrived and I was hoping you might have some time to help with those upgrades.” Ezrah’s back remained facing both men as he talked at the bulkhead, leaning forward to gently rest his forehead against its cool surface. “Awkward… so very awkward.” He mumbled to himself, yet just loud enough to possibly be heard. “But if you’re… um… busy we can talk later.” He finished, bouncing lightly on either heel.

“Oh, um, I have time…,” the commander said, standing up from the deck plating. “You can turn around,” he said, flipping some of his hair off of his forehead.

Ezrah turned slowly, forcing an uncomfortable smile, not necessarily for himself but more for the two men. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t look either man in the eye, choosing rather to look around the cabin, or at the assignment patches adorning their shoulders or absolutely anywhere else but at them. It wasn’t by any means that what he saw had disturbed him, quite the opposite. It was just that he could understand how very uncomfortable an exchange like this might have been for both of them.

“Okay, um, I-I’ll meet you in the maintenance bay then. Thank you, um, Sir.” He managed, placing either hand behind his back as he fidgeted with his fingers waiting to be dismissed.

“Sure,” Stanton said, quietly, as he adjusted the cuffs of his uniform jumpsuit. “I’m sure Commander Rodham would be happy to help, too,” he added, elbowing the other man gently, after he failed to make a comment.

“Yeah, sure,” the tall pilot next to Stanton replied, with the same sort of forced smile that Ezrah had used. 

The name Rodham perked Ezrah’s ears. “Commander Rodham?” He wondered aloud, the name sounding more than a little familiar. “From Starfleet Command?” He questioned, managing just enough bravery to look the unfamiliar assistant in the eyes. 

“In the flesh,” Rodham replied, with something of a grin. “Lieutenant Commander Alex Rodham, Director of Flight Operations,” he added, offering a handshake. “It’s Ensign Alcott, right?” he asked, looking at him for a moment, before gears of recognition seemed to click into place.

Ezrah nodded, hesitant to shake the man’s hand considering the circumstances. “Yes, Sir… that’s me.” He shook his head, a bit in awe that Lieutenant Commander McHotty was here on the Challenger. The last time that he’d seen the man, it was at a formal inquisition regarding his relationship with Audrey. The two had sat across from one another, McHotty speaking candidly while Ezrah pretty much quaked in his boots. At the time, he couldn’t speak openly of that very relationship, it served too much of a liability to Audrey’s career. McHotty was an intimidating man, at least when he wanted to be. But Ezrah remained steadfast and true, remaining silent and pleading complete deniability. Seeing him now though, made him feel small and intimidated. He couldn’t suppress a small shudder as a result of this uncomfortableness.

“Look… I know this is a little… awkward, but congratulations on winning the Challenger. I remember reading your file; you deserved it,” Rodham said, in a conciliatory tone, his green eyes darting over to his partner for a moment.

Ezrah smiled, he couldn’t help it. “Thank you, Sir. It’s an honour… A little surreal, but an honour none-the-less.” He paused, wondering if he should pose the question, especially in front of Professor McSteamy. “You don’t remember me, do you?” He finally prompted, after the silence lingering between them grew to the point of being awkward, perhaps not as much as bare bums, but rivalling it just the same.

“I remember a certain procedural meeting, but I didn’t see the need to bring it up,” Rodham said, simply, as he looked at him. “Considering it was supposed to be confidential,” he added, after Commander Stanton’s blue eyes darted over to him, quizzically.

Ezrah clapped both hands together; bouncing in his heels once again. “Righto!” He replied, voice cracking as he did. “We can go now.” Turning on a heel, Ezrah went to enter the causeway.

“Dismissed, Ensign,” Stanton said. “We’ll catch up with you,” he added, watching the junior officer leave. Quiet whispers could be heard between the two, as he left the area, before their foot falls began, a safe distance behind him. Commander Stanton’s voice seemed much more nervous about the whole situation, while Rodham was laughing occasionally, though the details of their conversation was indiscernible.

Ezrah glanced over his shoulder after hearing Rodham laugh again. It made him nervous. Were they talking about him? Were they having a laugh at his expense? It made him uneasy and a little sick to his stomach. “Just focus on yourself… be only concerned about you right now.” He mumbled to himself, signing the words at the same time. It was a peculiar habit of his that often drew curious glances, and a few filled with concern, but he tried to pay no attention to that.

A short while later, both commanders walked into the launch bay, looking a little more composed and professional than they had been a few minutes before. From that perspective, it was clearer that Rodham’s up-beat attitude had more to do with the fact that he was talking to Stanton, not because he was talking about anything particularly sordid or embarrassing. 

“So, uh, Ensign… How do you want to get started,” Stanton asked, clapping his hands together, seeming content to ignore the earlier incident, at least for the time being.

Ezrah shook his head once more, forcing himself to focus on his duties. “Well, how about with the gyroscopic stabilizers and then perhaps follow-up with the thrust controllers.” He replied flatly as he wheeled out a tool and equipment cart. Unzipping his jumper, Ezrah pulled either arm free from the sleeves and then tied them tightly around his waist as he took note of any additional tools that may be needed. “I think they also sent the newest software update, too, which we can upload once the processors have been upgraded.” He finished, gently scratching at his chin, his eyes conveying the excitement he felt in undertaking this project.

“Sounds good,” the senior of the two commanders replied, as he moved over to pry off one of the access panels on the side of the shuttle. “It never hurts to be more stable,” he joked, as he looked at the device.

“Has the commander told you yet that he hates flying in these pods?” Rodham asked, with a grin, as he moved over with him, earning himself a glare. “I think he hopes the transporter will put us out of a job,” he added.

Ezrah chuckled, “no he didn’t actually share that with me.” The Ensign retrieved the first tool that would be needed to start removing the older gyroscopic stabilizer and waited for one of the Commanders to gesture for it. “I sure hope the transporters won’t retire us. I just got started and besides, I’m much too pretty to do anything else.” He attempted the joke, grinning broadly as he handed the tool to Rodham.

“We pretty people have our uses, shuttlepods or no,” Rodham quipped, making an exaggerated glance towards the engineer, who was returning from getting a piece of equipment from a tool cart. He received another withering sort of glance, though it didn’t seem to have much force behind it.

“We had a slight transporter malfunction, yesterday; I doubt either of you will be out of a job anytime soon,” Stanton said, glossing over that comment, though it was somewhat apparent that he had a few thoughts on what pretty people were useful for.

Ezrah shuddered slightly at the news; all shipboard crewmen were intimately aware of how very new and unstable–to a certain degree–transporter technology was. Ezrah had only been transported on two separate occasions, both of which took place during mandatory training exercises at the STC. In quick succession, a series of tools were passed between the three men as they worked to free the device from within the confines of the compartment. “So, um… how long have you two… um…?” He didn’t necessarily want to pry, but the curiosity in-of-itself was far too overpowering. “I mean, he’s obviously not your ‘assistant’, right?”

“About seven and a half years, total,” the blond Lieutenant Commander volunteered, as he used a spanner to secure a new piece of equipment into the shuttle’s frame. 

“Yeah, since college, then we were… apart after graduation, and then when we got back together on Earth,” Stanton said, looking over at Rodham. “Not my assistant, no,” he added.

“We’ve never actually been different ranks, for more than a few weeks,” Rodham contributed.

“Wow!” Almost eight years, Ezrah was impressed. In his private observations of Professor McSteamy, he’d never considered the man to be in a relationship. He seemed so academic, so provincial. Yet the Professor was a rather private person, so it should have come as no surprise that he’d not have shared such an aspect of his personal life, especially with that of the student body. “It must be difficult.”

“Yeah… It can be a little challenging, sometimes, to get our work schedules lined up,” Commander Stanton replied, quietly. He glanced over at the other pilot for a moment. “Worth it, though, he said somewhat absently.

“Well, with Challenger preparing to leave port for who knows how long…. saying goodbye, that’s what I think would be the most difficult.” Ezrah said this in an almost reflective tone, as if on autopilot. His eyes remained distant as the memory of his and Audrey’s own emotional goodbye when she had left for the Columbiaflickered in his mind’s eye. The only word that could accurately describe how he felt at the time was devastated, absolutely and wholeheartedly; so much so that he had come very close to withdrawing from the STC… especially after the hell they’d both gone through during the formal inquisition. “Yeah… saying goodbye.” He reiterated under his breath.

“Yeah… Difficult,” Stanton said, his voice now somewhat hollow. “I need some air. You two can keep working,” he said, after a moment, before exiting the bay, at near warp speed. Commander Rodham made a noise of protest, but the doors closed, and Stanton did not return.

“Saying goodbye once was hard. Saying it twice is ten times as bad,” Rodham said, with a sigh, as he turned back to adjust one of the thrust controllers.

Ezrah’s eyes followed Stanton’s departure, “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to upset him. It’s just that… I suppose I can relate.” He remarked as he stepped a bit closer for a better angle so as to tighten the mounting brackets. “If I can ask, knowing that Professor McSteam-ahem-Commander Stanton was going to be reassigned to the Challenger, why isn’t it that you requested transfer on board too?”

“We didn’t know until yesterday,” Rodham replied, as he turned to the tool cart. “Did you plan on giving up your seat, Ensign?” he asked, dryly. “He was supposed to join Discovery in a few months. I’m one of the final candidates for the helm position on that ship,” he added, with a sigh. “I went to take him to coffee, and command had decided between breakfast and then that ‘McSteamy’ had to be on this ship, now,” the Lieutenant Commander said, in a relatively neutral tone, though the accidental nickname hadn’t escaped his notice.

Ezrah shook his head, “I’m sorry about the ‘McSteamy’ thing…” Ezrah apologized half-heartedly, in truth; he was being only somewhat sincere. “It was insensitive of me.” He finished before turning to discard the tool he had used. “That must have been really difficult for you and the Commander… finding out that way and how quickly the decision was made. Jeeze…” Ezrah was slowly becoming aware that he was saying a lot of the wrong things. “I’m not really good at interacting with other people… Sorry if I made it worse. Maybe you should go after him.” He urged.

“It wasn’t insensitive; it doesn’t bother me, but I couldn’t let you get away with it without at least a comment,” Rodham replied, with something of a smirk. “I told the commander that he has to make friends on this ship; you won’t be in subspace radio range forever. If you think about what he and I are going through and what you and… you know… are going through, you might find that you have more in common than you thought,” he continued, in a more serious tone.

Ezrah thought about McHotty’s statement for a long moment, cocking his head to the side as he carefully considered its implications. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right… in a way, perhaps we both could understand each other on the same level.” He paused, wiping the dirt from either palm of his hand on both thighs. He shook his head then, “meh, why’d he wants someone like me around anyway? He’s exceptionally smart… several years older, I doubt he’d want some ‘kid’ tagging along trying to cheer him up while he’s here and you’re off gallivanting around the cosmos on the Discovery. Although, I guess we’d be doing our own gallivanting…” He countered his own argument, another bad habit. “I don’t know what you say to someone who’s lonely… I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with myself.” He said, with an awkward openness.

“Woah, flyboy, pull it back,” Rodham said, holding up his hand for a moment. “I didn’t say that you should talk about how lonely you both are, until you’re so depressed that you collapse into yourselves as a singularity,” he said, shaking his head a bit. “Just… be nice to him. Don’t think like a cadet; think like an Ensign,” he said, poking the younger man in his rank insignia. “Do… whatever it is you do for fun,” he added, with a shrug. “And don’t tell him I talked to you… or I’ll tell him you think he’s steamy,” the commander said, only half-jokingly.

“Alright, alright….” Ezrah grinned broadly, gently swatting McHotty’s hand away. “I get it and I’ll try. And don’t you dare… there’s not a corner of this ship he doesn’t know, so there’d be no place for me to run and hide. Besides…” Ezrah’s grin broadened further, “we had a nickname for you too.”

“We?” Rodham asked, crossing his arms for a moment.

He nodded, “yup.” Was his only response. During the inquisition, even though its most difficult periods, the only aspect of the process that both he and Audrey could agree on was that Rodham was a hotty, which then produced the nickname ‘McHotty’. Through the use of the nickname, Audrey and Ezrah discovered their only form of true respite from the rigors of endless questioning and investigating. It was a common ground where both stood, even if it was only used to provide a quick laugh. Ezrah couldn’t contain a soft giggle that escaped in just remembering; it was the one good thing that came out of the entire ordeal.

“I’ll let you keep that secret for now, Ensign,” Rodham said, looking at him. He closed the panel he was working on. “Now, I am going to go bring the Commander lunch. You, little Ensign, are going to clean up, and make a list of what still needs to be done, so it can be finished later. Groovy?” he asked, as he ran a hand through his messy blond hair.

Ezrah simply nodded an affirmative, watching as McHotty left him to the clean-up and cataloguing, as well as some things to think over and consider.

The Commander looked at him for a moment, his green eyes scanning him, looking as if he was going to say something else, but he turned on his heel and left the launch bay.

Friday, February 7th, 2155

Palais District, Paris, France, Europe, Earth

“I cannot believe you’re doing this.”

Ned Hennessy continued perusing the books on the shelf in his apartment, occasionally pulling one off, examining its cover and then stooping to lay it in a small Starfleet-issue cargo crate near his feet. He was seemingly oblivious to the question posed to him by the younger man leaning up against a small breakfast bar.

“Did you see me pack my copy of Rigellian Cuneiform?” Hennessy asked.

“Uhmmm…” Charlie Wise, Ned’s assistant in the department of linguistic interpreters at United Earth Headquarters, looked around the apartment and finally spied a thick book lying discarded on the kitchen table. He grabbed it and proffered it to Ned. “Here you go.”

“Thanks,” Ned said, tucking it in the crate as well. Space in the box was getting less and less, and he still had to secure the lid. “I can’t really believe it either.”

Ned looked down his chest at the blue Starfleet jumpsuit he was wearing. Three months ago, he had been civil servant Ned Hennessy, an executive staff interpreter for United Earth. Then a chance meeting with a Starfleet recruiter looking for linguistics experts gave him an idea. At first, Ned looked at it as a marriage of convenience. In return for three months in training, learning the ins and outs of subspace radio and being tortured under the boot heel of a sadistic Starfleet physical training instructor, he would get access to the latest in translation equipment and be put on the front line of making contact with new species, parsing their languages and adding them to the growing universal translator database. Today he would report to NX-03, the Challenger, for duty as chief communications officer.

“Ensign Hennessy,” Charlie said, shaking his head in disbelief. “Do you know how much older you are than a cadet coming out of the Presidio?”

“No,” Ned answered. “Do me a favour and keep it to yourself.”

For as hard a time as Charlie had been giving Ned about his career move, the younger man was making out pretty good in the deal. He would be housesitting for Ned on an indefinite basis, which was a significant step up for him since he was currently sharing an apartment with three other UE junior level staffers. Ned’s apartment was not swank compared to other accommodations in Paris, but it was a step up from Charlie’s communal living situation. 

Ned’s overly round eyes continued scanning the shelves, his mouth in a grimace as though he thought he had forgotten something. He already had packed both volumes of Latin Grammar, Stolba’s third edition of Xenolinguistics: A Survey, A Comparative Study of Glyphs, a sheaf of his own handwritten notes made over the years and the piece de resistance, the artifact that started Ned Hennessy on the road to his career: a handwritten monograph with a decidedly Vulcan look to it. Not knowing what it was, he had bought it in a bazaar on Alpha Centauri, many years ago when he was still in university there. Ned loved a mystery, and the document fascinated him. He began the painstaking task of translating it, which was made more difficult by the fact that every Vulcan he showed it to tried to take it away from him. Eventually, as his skills in translation improved, he realized why. The title of the work was “Vulcanian Sexual Dysfunction.”

He was about to turn his gaze away from the shelf when he spied another book: Costello’s Standard Sign Language.

Charlie must have seen him grab it. “Why would you need that?” he asked.

“Because I’m sure some species have evolved beyond the need for speech,” Ned replied. “Think about it. If you could avoid having to communicate verbally, wouldn’t you?”

“Good point,” Charlie said. 

Ned dropped the book in the crate, picked the lid up off the floor and secured it in place, sealing the box. He stepped into his bedroom and emerged a moment later with a large duffel bag slung over his shoulder and a brown tabby cat tucked under an arm. The cat mewed impatiently as Ned put it into a separate crate marked “LIVE SPECIMEN.” It was the closest thing that Starfleet had to a pet carrier. Captain Burton had been nice enough to allow Ned to bring Zephyr along. The cat had been Ned’s sole companion these last few years. Zephyr had been among the only things his wife had not taken in the divorce.

Ned stacked the makeshift cat carrier and cargo crate onto a luggage cart and took the handle.

“I guess this is it,” he said, picking up the crate with its handles. “Wish me luck.”

“I don’t believe in luck,” Charlie said. He gave Ned a casual salute. “Safe travels, Ensign.”

Ned nodded and proceeded out of his apartment.

Charles de Gaulle Starport, Paris, France, Europe, Earth

The mass transit flitter settled to the ground in front of the terminal at de Gaulle. Ned Hennessy lumbered out with the rest of the passengers into the rainy afternoon. He hoisted the Starfleet duffel bag over his shoulder and made his way inside the massive terminal building.

Following the atomic war, in which Charles de Gaulle International Airport was nearly completely destroyed, there was a national effort by the French people to rise from the ashes, restoring such landmarks as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe. The airport was successfully replicated and when Paris was chosen as the seat of government for the United Earth organization, it was decided that De Gaulle would become one of the planet’s first major starports.

Ned moved through the starport quickly. At the sight of his uniform, a local security officer waved him to a security queue for Starfleet personnel. When he passed through the scanner he approached one of the agents at a nearby desk.

“De la façon de la Starfleet se kiosque?”

The agent pointed down a cavernous tunnel with a high arched ceiling. Ned began moving again.

Cargo stewards from the Warp 5 Complex had picked up his crate and Zephyr. The stewards assured him, repeatedly, both would be waiting for him in his quarters when he arrived on the Challenger. He reluctantly let them take the crates away, not completely comfortable with being parted with his books, cat and other belongings.

Once again Ned stood in queue, waiting to speak with the Starfleet flight detailer. When it was his turn he stepped up to the counter.

“Je suis censé être le passage à la Challenger,” he said.

“Oh, I speak Standard, sir” said the young enlisted woman wearing red piping.

“Well, what if I didn’t? What then?” Ned replied tersely.

She gave a nervous laugh and asked for his identification, which Ned provided.

“A shuttlepod should be en route from Challenger, sir,” she said. “You can wait over there.” She pointed to a cluster of seats where other uniformed men and women, mostly human, sat waiting to be ferried into orbit.

“Thank you,” he said.

After finding a seat, Ned dropped the duffel bag on the floor in front of him and waited.

Charlie had been partially right. What Ned was doing was absolutely out of character for him. To leave a comfortable government job where the dynamics were unchanging day to day was either a bold move or a cry for help. But there were few walls he was going to break down translating the same language over and over again at United Earth Headquarters. Even if the so-called Coalition of Planets ever formed, eventually the technology would render his skills obsolete. 

But in space, out there, there was “new life, new civilizations,” as they had been drilled in officer training. And someone had to figure out a way to talk to those people. 

“Charles de Gaulle Spaceport, this is Challenger Shuttlepod One inbound at coordinates bearing three-two-four mark seven and currently holding course at port speed. Requesting clearance for landing to retrieve times one passenger. I’m standing by to transmit official clearance codes.”

Ezrah adjusted the manual helm controls to ensure that all coordinates were matched and maintained until such time that clearance was granted. The shuttlepod shuddered slightly as it passed through a thick plumb of grey clouds, water droplets splattering against the forward viewport as the dinging of raindrops pinged against the crafts metal body filled the aft passenger compartment.

Shuttlepod One, this is Air Traffic Control, we have you on scanners. Please transmit clearance codes and prepare to land at these coordinates.”

As Ezrah started to transmit his clearance codes, the flight transmitter started to upload a small data package. Saving and then opening the data file, Ezrah acknowledged receipt of the package and inputted the landing coordinates. “Package received, de Gaulle ATC. I’m adjusting course to comply.”

Acknowledged Shuttlepod One; clearance codes have been verified and deemed genuine. You’re clear to land. On behalf of Paris France, Bonjour and accuiel.”

Within moments, Ezrah had landed the shuttlepod at the designated coordinates and awaited the terminal-docking arm to extend. Transferring all systems over to standby, Ezrah manoeuvred from the pilot’s seat and went to the port hatch. Releasing the seals, a soft hiss indicated that the internal atmosphere had equalized to that of Earth’s. Unlatching the door, the port opened and Ezrah soon met with a pair of starport security officers just beyond the opened hatch.

Verifying his credentials, the two waved him on as they remained outside either side of the open port, ensuring the craft’s security until such time as Ezrah’s return.

Stepping into the main terminal of the busy and crowded starport, Ezrah approached a nearby information booth to speak with the Crewman manning the station.

“Excuse me, I’m here to retrieve an Ensign Hennessy and ferry him to the Challengerdocked at the Warp Five Complex.” He remarked smoothly.

The Crewman acknowledged with a soft nod of the head before speaking into a device that he assumed was a microphone of some kind. “Your attention please. Shuttlepod to the Challengerpreparing to disembark at sixteen-fifty hours; passenger Hennessy to Terminal Alpha-One-A. Repeat, passenger Hennessy to Terminal Alpha-One-A. Thank you.”

Ezrah expressed his appreciation to the Crewman before moving back towards the open terminal door, hands clasped at his front as he surveyed the faces of those passing or seated nearby.

A gangly, middle-aged man with a severe face highlighted by a round pair of spectacles approached the desk. He had a duffel bag over one shoulder and was wearing the insignia of an ensign in the sciences division.

“Hennessy,” he said to the crewman behind the counter, who then pointed to Alcott. Ned walked over to the other ensign. “I suppose you’re my ride?”

Ezrah turned towards the older man, “Ensign Hennessy, I presume?” His tone was jovial and presence more than approachable. “It’s a pleasure to meet you! Ensign Ezrah Alcott at your service. Here… the shuttlepod is this way.” He gestured towards the open hatchway behind, holding out an arm, he offered to accept Hennessy’s duffel so that he could stow it on the Ensign’s behalf.

Hennessy fished out a small book from one of the duffel bags’ outer pockets before handing the bag to Alcott.

“Thank you,” he said and followed the pilot toward the open hatch. “I’m not used to leaving this place at my own convenience.”

Ezrah smiled politely towards Hennessy as they both walked the egress towards the shuttlepod, “well, enjoy it while you can… from this moment forward our movements are at the convenience of Starfleet and Captain Burton.” He chuckled at this as they arrived at the open port to the craft. “Will this be your first time flying in a shuttlepod?”

“Yes,” Hennessy replied, suddenly getting a concerned look on his face. “Please tell me this isn’t yours too.”

“Heh, no. Not at all!” Ezrah remarked, gently patting his counterpart’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, it’s not as scary as some make it out to be.” The two boarded the craft, Ezrah immediately stowing Hennessy’s luggage in the rear storage compartment located under the starboard passenger bench. “What’s that that you’re reading?” He inquired thoughtfully, noting the book that the Ensign had pulled from within the canvas bag just prior to their arrival on board the shuttlepod.

“Oh, this?” Ned looked down at the book before scrutinizing the interior of the shuttlepod as he found a seat. “It’s a book on signing. Nonverbal communication was invented so that deaf people could communicate with each other. I’ve devoted the better part of my life to studying ancient and alien spoken and written languages; I figured odds are at some point we’re going to encounter a species that doesn’t use either one. So…” He looked to either side of the cushion he was sitting on. “Does this thing have seatbelts?”

There was no hesitation in Ezrah’s response; almost immediately, he signed that the shuttlepod did, indeed, have seatbelts and where Hennessy could find them.

Hennessy looked quizzically at the younger man, as though he thought Alcott was having fits.

“I’m sorry. Seatbelts, Ensign?”

A perplexed expression drew across his face, brow furrowed. “So, you study and read about it, but you don’t sign?” He asked curiously, unsure of why it was that Hennessy didn’t understand what it was he signed; he called into question the deliberateness and clearness of his own hand gestures, wondering if perhaps the speed in which he signed had confused the linguist. “And yes, the seatbelts are tucked into the back of the cushion.” He finished before slipping into the pilot’s chair.

“Well, give me time, Ensign.” Ned signed in reply to Alcott’s spoken words. “I’ve only just started learning.”

He began strapping himself in, pulling the buckles tight against his frame. “I’m curious, though,” he said verbally, “how you came to sign. Are you a- What is the word? A CODA? Children of deaf adults?”

“Ah, so you’re just starting to learn the language then?” Ezrah asked excitedly. “I can help teach you, if you’d like. It’s far easier to learn first-hand rather than through study… at least, I think or perhaps in my own personal experience that is.” He pondered this for a moment before replying to Hennessy’s question. “No, not at all. My mother is a mute and I was too until about age four. My entire family, including the extended portion, are rather fluent because of this.” The Ensign started to coordinate the shuttlepods departure with the de Gaulle ATC while also sending a notification to the Warp Five Complex and the Challenger.

“I’ve been amazed at how intuitive some of it is,” Hennessy replied, and he went through the signs for morning, afternoon and evening. “I guarantee you we’re going to encounter a species for whom nonverbal communication is going to mean the difference between war and peace.”

Ezrah grinned, glancing over his shoulder. “I’m absolutely certain you’re most likely correct; with you and I on the case though, let’s hope we could combine our mutual expertise to avert all-out war… I’m far too young to die.” He quipped. In truth, he was completely uncertain if such a species even existed, but that was the entire purpose for the Starfleet… scientific exploration and discovery. He just hoped that the International Sign Language would come in at least a little handy should such a first contact occur. “Are you all strapped in?” He asked curiously as he brought thrusters online to warm.

After closing his eyes briefly and crossing himself, Ned indicated that he was.

Ezrah chuckled to himself, returning his attention to the flight controls. “de Gaulle ATC, this is ChallengerShuttlepod One requesting final clearance verification for departure.”

Acknowledged Shuttlepod One; you’re cleared for departure. Good luck and Godspeed.” Came the short, yet polite reply.

A departure vector had been cleared through the ATC, so as the terminal-docking arm retracted and full power was distributed to all shuttlepod systems, Ezrah activated the thrusters and began their ascent along the de Gaulle fairway.

“Due to the weather, we’ll probably experience a bit more turbulence than what’s customarily expected. Just try to relax, we’ll pass through it soon enough.” Ezrah offered, hoping that doing so would help his Ensign counterpart relax a bit when they did encounter the turbulent atmospheric conditions.

“Oh well,” Hennessy said, a tone of resignation in his voice. “It beats the hell out of having my molecules broken down and reassembled by that damnable contraption. As if that will ever catch on.”

As if on cue, the pod hit a band of turbulence. It bucked and Ned lurched forward in his seat as much as the straps would allow.

“Then again, it might be an up-and-coming transit method.”

Ezrah laughed at Hennessy’s statement as the shuttlepod passed through another thicket of cloud cover. “Don’t lose faith in me just yet, we’re almost there.” It took another five minutes before the craft pulled through Earth’s ionosphere as it continued towards the Warp 5 Complex in orbit of the planet; no longer surrounded by the dark skies of the poor weather conditions blanketing Paris, they were now enveloped in vast darkness. As the craft broke through the gravity barrier, the vibrations stopped altogether, giving way to a very smooth transition.

“There, see… not a thing at all really.” He commented before glancing over a shoulder, “how are you feeling? Hopefully not too shaken, maybe just a little stirred?” He asked with a friendly smile.

Hennessy sat with eyes closed, hands clamped on his knees, white knuckles. He opened his eyes slowly and glanced up toward the cockpit. He lifted his feet as though testing the gravity and then unlatched the belts holding him in. He stood up slowly and made his way up to stand behind the young pilot. 

“Well, that was worth the rough ride,” he said looking out the domed canopy at the orbital dry-dock of the Warp Five Complex. “Nice view.”

Ezrah followed Hennessy’s gaze, smiling as his eyes fixated on the Warp FiveComplex. “Just wait until you see what’s inside.” He replied softly.

As the shuttlepod inched closer, their view became even more spectacular as the complex increased in size, giving way to the minute details in its composition; more so, both men were now able to view the Challenger, held captive within the complex’s exposed interior cage. “There she is.”

He pointed towards the ship, “home.” He remarked just as simply as he piloted the shuttlepod, so it now approached the shipyard head-on, revealing the NX-class ship from its forward profile.

Challenger, this is Shuttlepod One carrying precious cargo requesting clearance to dock.”

Shuttlepod One, this is Challenger Flight Operations; please transmit clearance codes and standby for final authorization.”

Ezrah depressed several commands into the computer data bank, pulling the necessary data and then transmitting to the mothership.

“Transmitting as we speak, Flight Operations.” He replied.

Clearance codes received and authenticated. Shuttlepod One you’re cleared to dock in berth one; launch bay doors are open and the deployment arm extended. Welcome home.

Ezrah nodded, “Acknowledged Challenger. Our approach vector is to zero-four-seven mark one-zero to berth one.” Ezrah’s hands danced over the flight controls as he piloted the small craft to the underbelly of the Challenger, adjusted the crafts orientation and then used ventral thrusters to slowly propel the shuttlepod vertically until a soft vibration gently reverberated internally, signalling that the deployment arm had successfully engaged and locked with the shuttlepods latching collar.

Shuttlepod One, power down your engines, we’ll take you the rest of the way in.”

Ezrah grinned, already doing so. “Cutting engines and thrusters, powering down all propulsion systems.” As he started to shunt power from the propulsion systems, he then systematically started to power down each system on board as the craft was smoothly pulled into Challenger.

“Welcome to Challenger.” Ezrah said, turning in the chair to face Hennessy as he extended his hand once more.

The older Ensign returned the gesture, shaking the pilot’s hand. “Thank you for the lift, Ensign.”

“No problem, I’m here to serve.” He countered with a subtle tip of the head. “You’ll want to see the Quartermaster relatively soon to square away your quarters and luggage. But otherwise, I’m sure Captain Burton or Commander Levesque is floating around the ship… somewhere.” He recommended before turning around, continuing the post-flight systems checks.

“I’m actually anxious to see that my cat arrived safely, but thank you for the recommendations,” Hennessy answered.

Ezrah gestured to the passenger bench, “Don’t forget your bag.” He said with a smile. While the Ensign went about retrieving his personal property, Ezrah ensured that the cabin was pressurized to equal that of the Challenger‘s internal pressure and then unlatched the starboard hatch and opened it to the catwalk outside.

“I’m sure I’ll see you around, Ensign,” Alcott heard from Hennessy’s retreating form as the communications officer disembarked the small craft and climbed the catwalk.

Waving, Ezrah bid Hennessy farewell as he returned his attention to the shuttlepod.

The Exo-Biological Sciences lab had quite an impressive set up. The main lab was quite spacious and like the rest of Challenger’s systems contained some of the most advanced systems in Starfleet. Despite the grand nature of the main lab, the real stars of the department were the specimen testing lab’s two molecular imaging benches, which like the imaging chamber used in sickbay, allowed the lab to scan and upload an image of a specimen or a containment unit into the ships computers. 

Ensign Nigel Duffy felt very privileged to have gotten the assignment. It was rare for someone with so little experience, only a couple of years out of training, to be assigned to a specialty division. Although an honour, it also had some drawbacks; being the most junior member of the bio department meant that he got all the worst assignments. At that particular moment he had been tasked with checking their equipment and supplies. Commander Levesque had ordered all the departments to double check everything and Duffy had drawn the short straw. Luckily the Bio department had been largely on top of their section and he had been able to go through the inventory in just six hours. 

“Excuse me, Ensign Duffy?” He heard the familiar voice of Petty Officer Zahra Alinejad, the senior research assistant. Duffy may have been new, but he was smart enough to know that Zahra was not bringing him good news.

“Yeah what’s up…” He asked, going silent as soon as he saw the rather large Live Specimen container being placed on the bench. “Zahra, what’s in the box?”

“I really don’t know. It was brought up in the shuttle run and somebody said to bring it here.”

“Did Ensign Kalju say anything to you about it?”


“What about Commander Levesque?” Duffy asked, beginning to examine the box.

“Oh yeah, right before she invited me to the Captain’s mess for dinner.” Zahra replied using as deadpan a voice as she could.

“That’s weird. One of them would have told us if we were getting something aboard so soon…” Duffy said to himself, while still looking the container over for anything that would indicate what if anything was inside. 

“Ok, let’s open it.” he said.

“Yeah… wait what? Are you sure that’s such a good idea?” 

“It’ll be fine.” Duffy said as he released the latches on either side of the container and tugged on the lid. “It doesn’t say it contains anything hazardous.” As soon as the lid was off, a ball of brown fur launched itself out of the container and propelled itself off Duffy’s head and onto one of the storage racks. Picking himself up off the floor Duffy followed the wide-eyed look on Zahra’s face and along the path of destruction left by the furry beast he had just unleashed on Challenger

“-and maybe if I kept my brain in a pickle jar on a shelf, I might have a stellar career as a Starfleet cargo steward.” Ned Hennessy was muttering as he walked hurriedly from his quarters. He had told the people who had taken Zephyr in his crate that even though it was marked “LIVE SPECIMEN,” it was to be delivered to Ned’s own quarters and not the science lab or sickbay. He had said that twice, to the visible annoyance of the cargo stewards. His tenure as an active duty Starfleet officer was not beginning well.

Ned dodged crewmembers that were navigating the corridors themselves, some carrying heavy engineering equipment in preparation for the vessel’s launch, others, like him, who were just reporting in. He continued his muttering and walking, turning corners. After a while, he stopped, realizing that in all the rush he had walked around far too long not to have found a lift.

“I’ve gone and gotten myself lost,” he said to himself.

As if to punctuate Ned’s gaffe, a passing crewmember shoved into him on his way past.

“Sorry, sir.”

Ned ignored the apology and backtracked. A few moments later he was standing in front of a lift station, waiting for the car to arrive. When it did, he stepped in. He knew where he was going to start looking for his wayward feline.

“How could there be a creature loose in the Bio lab? We don’t even have any creatures aboard to be loose.” Levesque said as she and Ensign Joona Kalju jogged down B deck’s port side corridor toward the Bio Science Lab. 

“I don’t understand it either ma’am, but the call I got was that there was some creature loose in the science lab.”

“Do we have any more specific details about this creature?”

“Apparently it’s a fuzzy creature ma’am.”

“This is a joke. It’s got to be a joke…” Levesque muttered to herself as they continued down the corridor.

The door to the exo-biological sciences lab snapped open and an older ensign with spectacles and buggy eyes strode into the compartment.

 “Hello? Has anyone seen a cat?” he called out.

“A Cat?” Duffy said whipping around so fast he almost dropped the net he was holding. 

“Yes. A cat,” Hennessey replied woodenly. “Brown tabby, white bib, white mittens.” He looked at the open live specimen container. There was the remainder of adhesive where a label had been ripped off. He pointed to the specimen container. “He was traveling in that.”

 “Why would there be a cat in a Live Specimen Container?”

“That is an excellent question, Mister Duffy.” Levesque said, making her presence known to the room. Despite how annoyed she was, looking at the state of her officers and the Bio Sciences lab, Levesque couldn’t help but chuckle. Boxes were toppled, Petty Officer Alinejad and the research assistants all looked pretty frazzled and Duffy was sporting several nasty looking scratches. There was no way this was an ordinary cat.

“Duffy go to sickbay and get those cuts looked at. Mister Hennessy,” Leveseque said acknowledging the new Chief Communications Officer. “I assume that the cat who tore up this lab is our quadrupedal passenger, Zephyr?”

“Yes. Brown tabby, white bib, white mittens,” Hennessey repeated. “Ten-year-old male, neutered. He was supposed to be delivered to my quarters. Where is he?”

“He’s hiding in the stacks Ensign,” Alinejad said, pointing to one of the deep shelves situated against the wall. “After leading us on quite a chase he hid himself back there. When Ensign Duffy tried to get him out…well you both saw what happened.”

“Hennessey, think you can get him out of there?” Nicole asked once again, turning to the older officer. 

The communications officer unzipped a pocket of his jumpsuit and removed a plastic bag. He unsealed the bag and poured a few small, cubed morsels into his hand. Wordlessly, he walked into the stacks.

“Zephyr, it’s okay,” he called out. He appeared to be listening intently. Then, he did something unexpected, making high-pitched meowing sounds.

Almost as soon as Hennessy started, a muffled meow emitted from a shelf behind a crate of supplies. Hennessy reached his open palm up to the shelf. After a few moments, a pair of yellow eyes appeared in the shadows, followed by a furry face that bent to the treats in Hennessy’s palm.

The ensign emerged from the lab stacks, holding the cat so that they were face to face. 

“You are a wilful animal,” he said, to which the cat simply replied with a “mew.”

Hennessy tucked the cat securely under his arm. He surveyed the damage Zephyr had done in the lab. “Oh, my.”

“Oh my? Ensign I don’t think ‘oh my’ is an adequate description of what I’m seeing here.” Nicole said, tilting her head toward the back of the room hoping that Hennessy would understand her subtle gesture and follow her to the secluded spot away from the others. 

 “Ensign, I’m not entirely sure how your cat got loose in my lab and frankly, at this moment, I don’t really care. Normally, I’d have your head for this but because you are rather new to Starfleet and because this probably isn’t entirely your fault, I’m willing to overlook it.”

“Not entirely my fault? It wasn’t my fault at all! If those monkeys in cargo hadn’t-“

“Hey, I don’t want to hear it! I just cut you a lot of slack here mister, but you are coming dangerously close to losing any good will you might have left with me. If that’s how you want this all to go down that’s fine with me. But I’d rather stick with a simple unofficial admonishment of all parties, how does that sound to you Ensign?” Levesque asked her patience wearing thin.

“Adequate, ma’am,” Hennessy replied, although his tone suggested it was anything but. 

“Good, now why don’t you take Zephyr up to sickbay and make sure he is unharmed. Oh, and you may want to check in on Ensign Duffy. And once you are through in sickbay make sure Zephyr is secure in your quarters and that he won’t be able to escape again. 

“He won’t,” Hennessy said through clenched teeth.

“And can you guess what I expect you to do after all of that Mister Hennessy?” Nicole asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

“I don’t know. Swab the deck?”

“Nothing so absurd. No, once you are finished, I want you to come back down to the lab and see what you can do to help put things back together. Now that isn’t too much to ask, is it?” 

“Not at all,” the linguist replied, plastering a smile across his face. 

“I’m glad to hear it Ensign, now get going.”

Hennessy nodded, pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose and, with Zephyr still securely tucked under his arm, disappeared through the door and into the corridor beyond.