“Lancaster to Belvedere. Report to main shuttle bay for away duty ASAP,” came Captain Lancaster’s disembodied voice slightly muffled from the ensign’s combadge.
Belvedere bolted up from bed, biting the inside of his cheek to avoid letting out a stream of curses. He hissed when he banged his shin on the bedframe and rifled through the pair of uniforms on the floor until he found the correct blue-shouldered jacket and plucked his badge off of it victoriously.
“Acknowledged, Captain!” Belvedere exclaimed, struggling against his nerves to breathe evenly.
“Am I interrupting something, Ensign?”
“Nothing mission-critical. Yoga, sir,” Belvedere lied.
“I’m going to be annoyed if we don’t depart on schedule in four minutes, Ensign. Lancaster out.”
Annoying the captain was the last thing he wanted, even though he was confused as to why anything Lancaster could possibly need from him couldn’t be done by someone more senior or with a little more notice. He was just a few days past his very first away mission, after all, when there was a crew full of seasoned explorers ahead of him in line.
“You just lied to the captain, Ensign,” Counselor Carver noted, stretching lazily in the center of the bed.
“It started as yoga. Sort of,” Belvedere quipped before gathering up the pieces of his uniform and rushing into the ensuite. “Sonic shower on.”
Carver hopped up to observe Belvedere from the doorway as the younger man quickly got himself presentable. It made Belvedere feel about twenty-five percent flattered and seventy-five percent self-conscious. Carver was a mesomorph’s mesomorph, while Belvedere had a mild version of Marfan syndrome that his mother had declined to have corrected before birth, making him practically incapable of gaining weight, let alone building muscle.
“I’m a little concerned by how fast you lied to him. And a little impressed, Matthew,” the counselor noted, smirking at him. “Are you ashamed of me?”
“Quite the opposite, I think you’ll find. I deserve the Medal of Honor for how far I’ve scored out of my league,” Belvedere replied, one eye on the chronometer.
Three minutes and thirty seconds until Lancaster would be ‘annoyed.’ That was probably clean enough. Belvedere shut the shower off and started awkwardly pulling his clothes on as Carver continued to watch him. Their very new, very undefined relationship had started quickly, like many others on the Arcturus in the time following the ship’s separation and Belvedere’s classified mission with Knox-Stanton and Robinson. Full stop to Warp 10 was an understatement, but Belvedere was very cautious about his feelings still. There’s no reason that a lieutenant commander would want something real or long-term with an Ensign.
“I wish you wouldn’t talk about yourself like that.”
“I wish you wouldn’t leer at me like a Ferengi at a Dabo girl, but here we are, Champ,” Belvedere noted.
“Racial stereotypes have no place in Starfleet, Ensign.”
Belvedere scoffed. “I’m an anthropologist. It’s my job to make generalizations about cultures based on my observations,” he replied.
The uniform jacket was still fastened, and Belvedere skipped a step by pulling it over his head and wriggling into it. He turned to the mirror to put his hair back into regulation order. There was an unmistakable feeling among the lower decks that not even a crisis would get you spared from the captain’s spot inspections, after all. Carver padded over from the doorway and wrapped his arms around Belvedere, which made the more petite man very disappointed in his own self-control when he melted slightly.
“It’s very rude of him to deprive me of you,” Carver noted, kissing him on the side of his neck, just above where the uniform collar ended.
“No marks, Austin!”
“Spoil-sport. He’s not as bad as people say, you know. As long as you don’t fuck up,” Carver reminded him.
“Very reassuring,” Belvedere noted.
Carver didn’t let go when Belvedere turned to leave the room, instead kissing him first on the lips and then on the forehead.
“You’ll do fine, whatever’s down there. Be safe,” the counselor said, seeming sincere.
Belvedere nodded but was still unsure. “Thanks. I’ll do my best. Don’t replace me while I’m gone?” he said, trying to pull that off as teasing but failing a little.
The ensign had not anticipated wanting more than just a one-time thing with the counselor, as he generally didn’t find himself to be compatible with guys like him beyond physically. On the surface, they had very little in common, and the things that Carver loved, i.e., the gym and sports, were the things that Belvedere hated, but it seemed to be working anyway. And at the very least, Carver was a sincere, genuine, affectionate person, even putting the muscles aside.
“Nah. No chance. Now get going before you get in trouble,” Carver replied, tapping his bare wrist to emphasize the lack of time. It made Belvedere give him an uncharacteristic ear-to-ear smile.
Ensign Belvedere’s heart was racing for many reasons as he left Counselor Carver’s quarters and found the nearest turbolift, which whisked him off to the main shuttle bay. With seconds left on his deadline with the doors opened to the cavernous bay, he scanned the room for the captain and saw one sleek, angular two-person shuttle prepped for lift-off in the center of the room. He set off at a run, hoping it was the correct choice, and charged up the loading ramp with about three seconds to spare.
“Ensign Belvedere reporting as–”
“Sit,” Lancaster ordered, tapping a short series of commands into his station.
The entry ramp retracted as Belvedere slid into the second seat. Lancaster didn’t seem to acknowledge as he did so, perhaps not even aware of his compliance, which made Belvedere feel slightly like a dog in the way he’d been ordered around without even so much as a ‘good boy.’ As the shuttle started to hum, the ensign was suddenly aware that this away duty seemed to be with just the captain.
“Shuttle #11 to Bridge. Requesting departure clearance,” Lancaster said.
Belvedere sat there, fidgeting and unsure of whether or not he should be doing anything. Not doing what he was supposed to or doing something he wasn’t supposed to both seemed like good ways to get slapped metaphorically. Or maybe literally.
“Clearance granted. Safe flying, Captain,” replied a voice on the bridge Belvedere didn’t recognize.
Within a nanosecond of being given clearance, Lancaster picked the small shuttle up off of the deck and hit the thruster, zooming so quickly out of the atmospheric containment field that Belvedere gripped the edge of the seat. He had to admit, though, that the view of the ship’s two massive warp nacelles silhouetted over the planet’s cyan-white atmosphere was impressive, even if it made him want to hurl.
“What do you know about the Tkon Empire, Ensign?”
A pop quiz in addition to coitus interruptus? Great.
“Well, they were the dominant power in the Alpha and Beta quadrants sometime before 600,000 years ago, by which point their empire collapsed. The fifth Enterprise made contact with a computerized guardian of one of their outposts in 2364. We have a basic understanding of their language and history, but their technology continues to be far beyond anything the Federation has,” Belvedere replied, ticking facts off on his fingers.
“Can you read the Tkon language?”
Belvedere cocked his head. “With a tricorder, I believe I’m competent… But, sir, we’re at least 60,000 light-years from the nearest known Tkon influence.”
“Until about a week ago, I would have agreed with you, Ensign,” Lancaster replied, turning for a moment to look at him before refocusing his attention on the controls. “There is a Tkon artifact on this planet, and our orders from the highest levels in Starfleet are to reactivate it.”
If he hadn’t just heard it from the captain himself, he wouldn’t have believed it. That’s not something Starfleet did. They didn’t just turn archaeotech back on, especially given what the Tkon Guardian had done to the Enterprise.
“Is that… wise, sir?”
“No. But it’s necessary, Ensign,” Lancaster replied. “It’s connected to a much larger network that is currently threatening the security of the galaxy, so we don’t have a lot of options.”
“I… Understand, sir. But I don’t think you’ll need reminding that I’m not the most senior archaeologist or–,” he started.
“No, I don’t need reminding of that, Ensign,” Lancaster replied coldly as the shuttle entered the atmosphere. “Commander Galbraith is currently in the brig for attempting to sabotage the Arcturus because he disagreed with our orders. I have a full science team on the surface, but I need someone by my side with an archaeological mindset.”
Belvedere’s blood ran cold when he heard that his department head was in the brig. That’s not something one could get used to quickly.
“I’m not expecting you to solve this mystery on your own, but I’m an engineer, not a social scientist. I need a translator, so to speak,” Lancaster replied.
“I… understood, sir,” Belvedere said, realizing quite quickly that resistance was futile and that if he was going to throw one anthropologist into the brig, Lancaster likely wouldn’t bat an eye at throwing a second one in as well.
A few moments later, they penetrated the upper cloud layer, and Belvedere saw the results of their orbital phaser fire, which had provided an interesting backdrop for his tryst with Carver. Nothing he could see, though, screamed Tkon Empire.
“A successor race?” Belvedere asked.
“Unclear. Possibly irrelevant. They appear to have been wiped out in the early spaceflight age,” Lancaster replied, not seeming displeased by the observation. “Based on our scans, though, there is a definitive Tkon signature coming from the largest structure here.”
“If this race was aware of the Tkon Empire’s power, it might make sense that they built their civilization around it,” Belvedere wondered.
“Maybe, but that’s not our mission. If we succeed, we’ll have all the time in the universe to study these ruins, but until then, stay focused.”
The shuttle circled around the divet cut through the ice by the Arcturus, settling down in a small clearing next to the saucer-shaped diplomatic launch, the Da Jiao, where small premade structures had already been assembled by a team on the surface. Lancaster stood up, and Belvedere followed him towards the rear compartment, where Lancaster grabbed a blue-trimmed cold weather jacket. He was about to hand it to Belvedere but paused and arched an eyebrow.
“Your combadge is upside down, Ensign.”
“Shit. I mean… Shit, sir. Sorry,” Belvedere stammered, looking down in horror at his badge and quickly fixing it.
“He must like you if he’s messing with you,” Lancaster noted before tossing him the jacket and turning to put one on of his own.
“Your ‘yoga instructor,’” Lancaster quipped.
“Right. So… should we…?” Belvedere said, pointing to the ramp.
“Breathmasks,” the captain said, shaking his head, handing one to Belvedere before affixing his own. Once they both had a phaser pistol clipped to their belts, Lancaster lowered the ramp. They were both hit with a blast of cold air. According to Belvedere’s tricorder, without the masks, they would have also been hit with the scent of ancient decomposed organic matter, which had been released by their drilling expedition, but the air was marginally breathable.
Belvedere followed the captain towards the diplomatic launch. Lieutenant Commander van Dorland was standing over a three-dimensional display projected from a table within one of the premade structures, the Romulan Lieutenant Galan observing nearby.
“Why did I have to shuttle down?” Lancaster asked.
“We’re working on it, Captain. The interference was stronger than we anticipated. I think I’ve solved beaming up, but I wouldn’t trust the sensors to handle beam-downs yet,” the blond engineer replied.
“Fine. Keep at it. What about you, Mr. Galan?”
“I have so far been unable to access the locking mechanism keeping the structure secure,” the lieutenant replied, looking down towards his feet.
“I think that’s something I can solve. Have you met Ensign Belvedere?” Lancaster asked, turning to the ensign, who’d been hoping that he’d been forgotten about completely.
The Romulan studied Belvedere in a strange, piercing way that made the Human stand up straighter. He was lithe and strong even in his bulky cold-weather gear, but Belvedere might have just been projecting that because of how much he admired Romulan culture.
“No, sir. Presumably Commander Galbraith’s replacement?”
“Something like that. Show me the entrance,” Lancaster replied.
Belvedere followed Lancaster following Galan up a set of broad steps leading up from their small clearing to some sort of plaza, which was littered with the ruins of fountains, structures, and gardens. Clearly a place of great significance, it was bordered by a massive structure of concrete, steel, and what looked like glass.
“I suppose no culture could escape Brutalism,” Belvedere noted.
“I don’t think there’s any indication that this culture was warlike or particularly brutal, Ensign,” Galan replied.
“No, sir. It’s an architectural style. Geometric shapes cast in concrete with smooth lines and little ornamentation,” Belvedere replied.
“Focus,” Lancaster snapped as they continued to walk.
Belvedere took the opportunity to wonder if Lancaster would look hotter without clenching his jaw due to the enormous duranium rod up his ass or if his uptight aggressiveness made him more of a hunk than he would be otherwise. He also wondered if his mind was sexualizing both the communications officer and the captain as some sort of defensive mechanism against having feelings for Carver. It was when he was wondering if he thought that because he’d absorbed psychoanalytic techniques from him through osmosis that he heard a phaser blast. The archaeologist was shaken out of his reverie by the captain punching a five-meter-wide hole into the side of the building.
“That is… an effective entry mechanism,” Galan noted.
“Lancaster to Arcturus. Have the Hazard Teams shuttle down. I’ve gained access to the structure.”
“Understatement of the century,” Belvedere muttered, looking at the still-smoldering hole that Lancaster had punched into the side of the ancient structure in front of them.