After two full days of scanning from orbit and much debate, the diplomatic launch Da Jiao had been sent down to the planet’s surface to serve as a base of operations for the survey of Omicron Torrensis IV, which the crew was now calling New Ocampa, on account of its unmistakable resemblance to Ocampa V, or at least what Ocampa V would look like if the Nacene had not devastated its atmosphere by accidentally removing all nucleogenic particles, and thus removing its ability to form rain or any other precipitation. The why and the how of this resemblance were the subjects of intense speculation, though, as they had yet to find any evidence of either Nacene or Ocampa influence on the world, beyond the tetryon radiation barrier present in the upper atmosphere; tetryons were a hallmark of Nacene technology, and now served as the basis for Ocampa technology as well.
Commander Marcus Armstrong was firmly in the camp of letting the evidence speak for itself and building theories based on observations, but he felt firmly in the minority. He was not confrontational by nature, and his direct superior was the one who posited the Nacene theory in the first place, but he was worried they would miss something by focusing too firmly on what could just be a coincidence. Until just over a month ago, he had been the head of the planetary science department, and he was quite content there but had been bumped up to the deputy chief scientist role vacated by Commander Vahlen’s move to the top job. By virtue of needing a senior scientist on the ground to coordinate sample collection and because of his background, Armstrong found himself in command of their surface operations on New Ocampa.
That assignment sounded grander than it was in practice, though, as it essentially meant that he was organizing a series of tents and prefabricated structures placed in a circle around the Da Jiao to catalog specimens, allow them to quarantine, and then pack them for shipment up to the Arcturus via cargo shuttle, while the operations department was still working on figuring out their transporter issues. The landing zone selected by the captain was very close to where the Ocampa city would be if the planet were Ocampa V, which was thought to be a likely place for any evidence of alien influence. In a grassy clearing on the edge of a jungle, it was just before the foothills of a jagged mountain range, deep within the rain shadow. Incredible biodiversity was paired with humidity close to 100% and temperatures peaking at 35 degrees Celsius.
Starfleet officers weren’t accustomed to complaining, though, and even the muggy weather didn’t seem to dampen his team’s spirits as they toiled to get the camp set up. The excursion uniforms helped, too; silver form-fitting and moisture-wicking fabric with hiking boots were much more suited for exploring a brand-new planet than the business suits they usually had to wear.
“Pedology? You’re a foot doctor?” Armstrong heard as he walked into the soil science tent.
The ship’s new helmsman, Lieutenant Commander Marshall, had been assigned to take the team down to the surface and make sure the area was prepared for more shuttle arrivals. He was pitching in where he could to help with the science, but the level of cluelessness he displayed limited his ability to help without causing more work for others. Armstrong did appreciate the aesthetic contributions he made to their team, at least, as did the half of his team that found Human males attractive, judging by how popular he seemed to be with them. When he entered the soil sciences tent, he found Marshall smiling and laughing with Lieutenant Zhuan amid several tables ready to accept samples from their survey teams.
“No, no, no. They do come from similar roots in Greek, but pedology is the study of soil. You’re thinking of podiatry,” the young woman said, shaking her head with amusement; she was toying with her pitch-black hair in a way that made Armstrong roll his eyes slightly.
“So, you study… dirt? Were you last to pick when they were handing out jobs or something?” Marshall teased.
“Studying a planet’s soil can tell you so much about its history, ecology, and a whole lot of other things. It also bridges chemistry, mineralogy, hydrology, and biology into one exciting field of study!” she enthused.
Marshall grinned at her. “So, just to be perfectly clear: you had the choice between studying the stars or dirt, and you picked dirt?” he asked.
“Not all of us can have our heads in the clouds, Fly Boy,” Zhuan challenged. “Without pedology, there’s no agriculture, and without agriculture, you can’t truly colonize a planet.”
“I stand corrected. So, should I grab a shovel and go get you some ‘samples?’” he asked, with air quotes and a laugh.
“An hour ago, you tried to collect a tree bark sample for the botany department and almost cut your hand off, so no thank you,” the pedologist reminded him when she glanced over and saw Armstrong. “We’re set up here to catalog and quarantine samples, Commander,” she said, taking a more respectful posture.
“Thanks to Mr. Armstrong’s help, I’m sure,” Armstrong replied, watching as Marshall stood up straight from his position, leaning on the tent’s center support pole. “You don’t have to be out here with us, you know. It’s much more comfortable on the ship,” he added, pointing his thumb to the Da Jiao.
“Come on, sir. Put me to work. The landing beacon’s up and running, so there’s no point in me sitting with my feet up in the cockpit while you are out here doing real cool Starfleet exploration stuff,” Marshall replied, getting closer to him. There was a glint in his hazel eyes and a very earnest grin. “Please?”
“Well, I could use some help setting up the perimeter fence. It’s probably the worst job on our checklist, though,” Armstrong offered.
“Perfect for earning a little cachet around here, then. Let’s get to it,” the other man replied, looking positively ready to burst with enthusiasm.
The perimeter fence was a set of 30 two-meter-long metal rods that needed to be driven into the heavy clay soil all the way around their camp. They connected to form a barrier of hypersonic pulses that would repel most lifeforms from attempting to cross between them or stop intruders directly with a low-level forcefield. They were pretty heavy, and getting them driven deeply enough into the soil to remain stable while still in alignment with their neighbors was tedious.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather sit in your nice, air-conditioned cockpit?” Armstrong asked when they were halfway through the project, sitting on the hover dolly with the remaining fence posts and drinking from their canteens.
“Are you kidding? What more could a guy want beyond a full-body workout in the fresh air and sunshine?” Marshall asked.
The pilot set his canteen down on the dolly and then unfastened the upper half of his excursion uniform, peeling off the skin-tight fabric down to the waistband and then lying back with his hands behind his head to just soak in the sun with his eyes closed. He was in his late twenties and in peak physical shape, with the sculpted definition that Armstrong had always wanted for himself but which he’d never been able to achieve.
The sight made Armstrong choke on his water. Not subtly, either. Full-on coughing, which he couldn’t disguise as anything else. Marshall sat up and gave him a very concerned look before reaching over to pat him between the shoulder blades. The physical contact sent Armstrong’s heart rate into the rafters, but it did actually help him stop coughing.
Armstrong nodded. “Yeah. Just… distracted,” he managed, reaching for his canteen again but then deciding that it probably wouldn’t help. The two of them were very close, and Armstrong found himself fixating on how pink Marshall’s lips were. He also smelled nice, which was infuriating given that they’d been working in the hot sun.
“Personal Fragrance #719,” Marshall noted.
“My cologne. Your nostrils were doing that flaring thing,” the pilot explained.
“Oh. It’s nice,” Armstrong replied.
“You’re not going to tell me off for it? I’m not in danger of luring in some lurking predator?” the other man asked with a laugh.
“Other than me? No,” Armstrong thought, fixating on the seven- or eight-year age gap between them and their difference in rank, plus his temporary status as his commanding officer; nothing good could come from flirting with him.
He shook his head. “No, but we should get the rest of this set up to keep anything like that from getting into the camp,” he said, springing up to put as much distance between himself and Marshall as he could.
Marshall slipped his arms back into the upper part of his jumpsuit, which limited the distraction at least a little bit, even though he didn’t bother to fasten it all the way. With the first half done, they were able to finish setting up the poles in a lot less time for the second half. The last post included the control unit, which was activated by twisting a heavy metal ring near the top. It was challenging to get the leverage to turn it (which was the point, to keep animals from turning it off), so Armstrong struggled with the device for a moment. Without asking, Marshall reached up to help, and they managed to get the ring to click into the on position, which turned on amber lights on each of the posts. They touched again, briefly, and Armstrong pulled way to open the display on his WRIST device.
“Looks like everything’s aligned. Good job,” Armstrong said as he flipped through to the fence’s activation panel.
A moment before the fence could be activated, Marshall pulled Armstrong closer by the elbow. Armstrong was about to ask why until he saw that he was now on the right side of the fence and not about to lock himself out of their camp.
“My head must be in the clouds today,” Armstrong muttered before turning it on.
There was a brief hum of energy as all of the fence posts turned on, their lights switching from amber to green. They projected a visible set of glowing lines between the posts, which were just to show the team where the sonic barrier was. It would be enough to deter most small creatures at its lowest setting, while at the highest, it could keep things as big as elephants from passing through.
“Now what?” Marshall asked as they started to walk back towards the center of the camp where the Da Jiao was.
“You’re not ready for a break?” Armstrong asked.
Marshall grinned, stopping in his tracks to turn around and stare Armstrong down. He stepped closer and reached in to pull the fastener of Armstrong’s jumpsuit down just a few centimeters while maintaining eye contact.
“Why, are you trying to get rid of me, sir?” he asked, leaving Armstrong speechless.
Someone cleared their throat, and Armstrong leaned around Marshall to see Ensign Serrano standing there. Saved by the Ensign. The young man had the control unit to the ground-penetrating sensor system in his hands.
“Sir, we’ve set up everything for the ground scan, if you’re ready?” Serrano asked, his head cocked as he looked at the two senior officers. “Unless you’re busy?” he added with a smirk. “I can come back later.”
“Give it to me,” Armstrong ordered, glaring at Serrano, which just made him smirk more. The ensign walked over to them and handed the device to Armstrong. It was a tablet about 60 centimeters wide, not heavy, but a little unwieldy. “T-Thanks for your help with the fence,” he said to Marshall, once Serrano had retreated back to the botany tent.
“Don’t mention it,” Marshall replied.
The two of them started walking again, and Armstrong quickly realized that he wasn’t getting rid of Marshall anytime soon. On the one hand, he liked being near to him, but on the other hand, he was intensely distracting. It wasn’t just his good looks, either. As Armstrong was setting up the ground scan pattern back on the Da Jiao, Marshall was leaning over from the other side of the table, asking questions about how it all worked. Most of them were pretty basic, given that he wasn’t a scientist, but it was satisfying to see the look of actual curiosity in his eyes, even if some of these explanations needed two or three versions to get to that ‘ah-ha’ moment with him.
“This will take about 12 hours to complete,” Armstrong said, once he’d started the scan. If there was an Ocampa City or some Nacene creation under them, they’d know about it soon enough, but 12 hours was practically glacial by comparison to the speed at which most of the Arcturus’s systems operated. “It looks like they’re still working on the transporter issue.”
“Good. I like being close to the action, anyway. Plus… this is still a luxury vehicle, even with the protocol department having gone through and removed all of the art. It’s not like it’s painful to be here,” Marshall replied.
That much was true enough; the Da Jiao was meant to host four dignitaries and a crew of eight on diplomatic voyages. Twice as big as a mere captain’s yacht, the two-deck craft was a symbol of the Federation’s prosperity and the seriousness of which it took interacting with other cultures. Given that the Delta Quadrant was still so unknown, though, it had not been used to that role to date, and this was the second mission that it was being used as a ground base for survey operations. The center of both decks was relatively open, which made it perfect for fitting in scientific equipment while also being able to house a survey party indefinitely. But it also had a bar, a banquet table, and even a whirlpool tub on the lower level, which was ostensibly for aquatic beings but also had massage jets.
Armstrong was grateful when he was called away to give a report to the bridge and Commander Vahlen, retreating to the privacy of his stateroom (another perk of using the diplomatic launch). He stayed there for most of the afternoon, reading the initial survey reports after he’d changed back into a standard duty uniform. He heard laughter coming from the upper level when he emerged for dinner. Once he got up the spiral staircase, he saw most of the team eating together at the round banquet table, with Marshall clearly the star of the show.
There was a jolt of jealousy mixed with envy in the pit of Armstrong’s stomach, wanting both to be the object of Marshall’s attention but also wanting to have his magnetism with a group of people. Both of his brothers were also naturally popular, so he was used to observing social scenes from the periphery, but that didn’t make experiencing it any easier each time it happened.
Edging towards the side of the room, Armstrong took a seat at the bar, where he had the computer make him a salad to eat while he went over reports. He was almost done with it when Marshall walked over, ducking under the bar to get behind it and lean across the surface at him.
“Hey there, wallflower,” Marshall teased. “Lemme make you a drink?
“You’re a bartender, too?” Armstrong asked, as Marshall dove under the bar to look for supplies.
“I’m a man of many talents, Commander,” Marshall replied, emerging with a bottle of whisky and two rocks glasses with the ship’s seal on them.
“Arco,” Armstrong intended.
“I thought your first name was Marcus.”
“It is. It’s a long story. But I had a speech impediment when I was growing up, and the name stuck,” Armstrong replied. ‘Arco’ was the best he could do, when trying to learn to say his own name. It had even led his brother Alexander to go by ‘Lex’ in solidarity.
“Timothy,” Marshall said, as he poured two very generous glasses. “To fraternization,” he said, holding his up.
“Cheers,” Armstrong replied, matching the gesture and then taking a drink. It was smooth, but also very strong. “Woah. Not synthehol.”
“Triple-distilled Balmoral scotch… 2352,” Marshall read from the bottle.
“They definitely did not mean to leave this on the ship,” Armstrong realized, his eyes getting wide. “It was already open when you found it.”
“But it wasn’t?”
“No. It was. We definitely didn’t just open a bottle of whisky that’s older than either of us.”
“Oh. Yes. It was open when I found it,” Marshall replied, getting the picture. “To not getting into trouble,” he said, raising his glass again.