Light from Omicron Torrensis was glinting through the windows as Lieutenant Commander Marshall emerged from his stateroom’s en suite with a towel cinched around his waist. He’d already taken the liberty of disposing the evidence from the previous night: an apparently quite rare bottle of scotch whisky that was empty by the time he and Commander Armstrong had gotten done with it. Evidently, Armstrong was still passed out face down on the bed; it had been too late in the evening when Marshall had realized that his new friend had spent much less of his time out at the bars than he did himself and had exaggerated his ability to hold his liquor.
“You need to get up, Arco,” Marshall said, sitting down to run his fingers through the older man’s dark hair. The scientist stirred a little bit but didn’t immediately wake up. “It’s 0615. The others are going to be out of their rooms soon.”
“Did we do anything last night?” Armstrong asked the question muffled from his unchanged position on the bed.
“We drank a fifth of whisky, buddy,” Marshall teased.
“Not what I meant.”
“We kissed, but we didn’t have sex, Arco,” the pilot replied.
Though they’d had the same amount to drink the night before, Armstrong had been significantly more intoxicated, so Marshall had made sure that nothing untoward had happened. That hadn’t really been the vibe of the evening, anyway; Armstrong had been highly affectionate but not outwardly sexual. All in all, it had actually been a really enjoyable evening getting to know him, even if it had ended with Marshall needing to keep Armstrong on his side during the night, knowing what could happen to someone who threw up in their sleep.
“Good.” There were a lot of responses to that statement, but “good” was not the one that Marshall wanted or expected. He scoffed and began to stand up before Armstrong grabbed his hand, bolting up. “That came out wrong. I mean, I’m glad we didn’t, because I’m glad I didn’t forget. Not that I wouldn’t… want to. I remember kissing you. It was nice,” he explained with an endearing wide-eyed panic.
“Nerds say the sweetest things,” Marshall replied, pecking him on the lips, glad that he’d made the commander brush his teeth the night before. That explanation was sufficient to placate his nerves; he’d have never forgiven himself if Armstrong had regretted their night together. “How’s your head?”
“Better than I thought I’d be,” Armstrong replied. The lack of a hangover, or at least the lack of a painful one, was likely because Marshall had forced him to drink several liters of water and take a few electrolyte supplements before bed. “Thanks for taking care of me last night. I’m embarrassed I needed you to, though.”
“Don’t be. We’ve all been there,” Marshall said, pecking him on the lips again.
Armstrong laughed. “This is my first time. Blacking out, I mean. And ending up in a stranger’s bed,” he said, blushing as he rubbed the back of his neck.
Marshall frowned. “Stranger? I know what the inside of your mouth tastes like, so we’re not strangers.”
The scientist squirmed. “Er… Yeah. Fair enough. I guess I just mean that I don’t normally do things like this. But I don’t regret it either. But I also don’t want to imply any claim to your friendship or… I’m really bad at this, aren’t I?” he tried.
“Take a shower, Arco. You can be anxious later.”
Marshall gave Armstrong a wink and then went over to the duffle he’d brought from the Arcturus with his spare uniforms. He smirked to himself when he heard a sharp intake of breath from the other man when he dropped his towel but didn’t turn around until he was fully clothed and he heard the sonic shower turn on. He didn’t quite know if he was interested in Armstrong romantically or if he was interested in that sort of thing at all being so new to the ship, but the scientist was definitely nice to spend time with. He was endearing and sweet, seemingly without guile—but also without any game at all, until you got a little whisky into him, judging from how long it took him to react to a day of Marshall’s flirting.
Marshall left Armstrong behind in the cabin so that they wouldn’t be seen emerging from the same room; he didn’t care particularly for his own sake, but he doubted Armstrong’s introversion would be able to handle the gossip. There wasn’t much for a pilot to do on a grounded ship, but he still went up to the cockpit to check the diagnostics and make sure she was ready to fly after a night on the surface. When he returned to the banquet hall in the center of the upper deck for breakfast, Armstrong was already there reviewing telemetry from their ground scan at a standing console near the side of the room.
Armstrong perked up a little and offered him a smile, but when he returned to the data, he had a look of apparent confusion on his face. “Uh, Zhuan, could you join me over here?” he asked.
“Can’t I have my banana first, sir?” the other scientist replied, from her seat across from Marshall at the breakfast table.
“No. I need you to look at this,” Armstrong replied, more sharply than Marshall had heard from him before. Zhuan blushed and then rushed over to where Armstrong was standing. “This can’t be right, can it? Did we not calibrate the sensor correctly?”
“No, we triple-checked it. There’s nothing wrong with the sensor. This planet is hollow,” the lieutenant replied.
“Shit. I was hoping it was the hangover,” Armstrong grumbled.
Twenty minutes later, Armstrong had brought Captain Lancaster and Commander Vahlen up to speed, with a lot of technical data that Marshall didn’t understand, but the main point being clear: the crust of the planet was about 5 kilometers thick, like that of most other terrestrial worlds, but there was no mantel. Or core. Just a massive void, held together with technology that they couldn’t begin to understand.
“I think this puts to rest any ideas of a possible coincidence at work,” Vahlen scoffed. “This is a Nacene construction.”
“We know that it is artificial. The Nacene angle is still speculation until we have proof!” Armstrong insisted.
“Enough,” Lancaster said, pinching the bridge of his nose in exasperation. “Marshall, I want you to pull stakes. Get the Da Jiao back to the Arcturus,” he ordered.
“Captain, no! We have to continue our studies!” Vahlen insisted.
Lancaster glared, and Marshall was rooted in place, knowing the likely outcome of their discussion, but also caught between the two senior officers.
“We will, but as this is not a planet, there is no point leaving a planetary surface team on the surface, Commander. I am not going to risk their safety. Marshall, you have your orders,” Lancaster snapped.
“Aye, Captain!” Marshall replied.
While the transporters couldn’t penetrate from orbit to the surface of the planet, they still worked in the local area around the Da Jiao, which allowed them to pull all of their equipment back in before Marshall took the helm and brought the small vessel off of the planet’s surface.
“Well, that’s a fuck-ton of work gone to waste,” Armstrong complained from the co-pilot’s station.
Marshall grinned at him. “I think you can agree it wasn’t entirely to waste, sir,” he whispered.