Once their course had been set, Captain Lancaster retreated to the aft compartment of the Achilles to read. Alesser presumed that he was going over a list of potential new first officers that did not include him, but he’d never been able to get inside the captain’s head. He’d never been invited, for that matter. The silence was deafening at first, but once he saw that Lancaster had put in a pair of earbuds, he did the same, so he could listen to a broadcast from the Federation News Service, a luxury that they didn’t get in the Delta Quadrant, other than the bulletins from their embarked reporter who often reported much less than he already knew with his security clearance.
Over an hour of the coverage he listened to concerned some ongoing protests around the Federation regarding the end of the synthetics ban. Despite what Starfleet now knew about the attack on Mars, there were still some who didn’t want to see androids return to public life. The host had brought in speakers from several sides of the issue, and it made Alesser realize that he really didn’t know what to think about the situation. He knew, however, that Lancaster’s stance was quite firm, as he barely tolerated the holograms aboard the Arcturus.
The day Lancaster took command was the last time Alesser had ever seen the Long-Term Command Hologram on the bridge. While he’d never had the opportunity to check his dossier, Alesser guessed that Lancaster was just about old enough to have been at the academy during the attack, so he’d often wondered if there was a connection there. While you could easily deactivate a hologram, they were still synthetic beings, and they could still be a threat to organic life in the right circumstances. Given that Alesser’s own people, the Ardanans, had long had a caste system and before that had actual slavery, though, he didn’t feel a need to cast any judgment on the moral or ethical implications of once again creating a race of indentured servants.
As he felt his thoughts drifting into far too deep waters, Alesser removed his earbuds and stood up to stretch. He was suddenly aware that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and it was now dinner time. The replicator was built into the bulkhead next to the table where the captain was seated, so there was no getting around getting in his personal space.
“Can I join you, sir? I thought I’d order something for dinner,” Alesser asked, pointing to the replicator. While he wasn’t sure how much of that Lancaster heard through his headphones, the captain looked up and nodded, removing them as the commander sat down across from him. While the shuttle wasn’t so small that their knees touched, it was still quite intimate. “Thank you, Captain.”
Lancaster scanned him for a moment. “The computer pre-loaded this shuttle with my replicator profile, so I suppose I should apologize in advance if there’s nothing to your liking,” he offered.
“I’m sure if I can find something without meat, I’ll be happy,” he replied.
“I didn’t know you were also a vegetarian,” the captain said.
“It’s almost universal on Ardana,” Alesser explained, trying to maintain respectful eye contact while also scrolling through the menu options on the replicator terminal. “Computer, fagiolata.”
Alesser hadn’t known what the word meant, but it sounded interesting. He was pleasantly surprised when the computer produced a bowl of rich bean stew with several pieces of toasted bread. His knowledge of Human languages wasn’t as comprehensive as he might have hoped, but he was vaguely aware that the word sounded Italian.
“Did Sheppard introduce this to you?” he asked.
Lancaster’s eyes narrowed. “Doctor Sheppard did, yes,” he said, quite effectively steering their conversation back to the realm of the professional. His mouth quirked. “He would say that it’s criminal to have a dish like this for dinner without a glass of wine,” he admitted. He tapped the control panel to make another bowl of soup, and then two glasses of rich red wine appeared as well. Everything came with the Arcturus’s seal on it.
“He’s a wise man, sir,” Alesser said, taking one of the glasses. “Cheers,” he offered.
“Salud,” Lancaster replied, glancing at him for a moment and then focusing on his meal. Despite his general standoffishness, Alesser had never got the sense that Lancaster was actually anti-social or enjoyed awkward situations, but his veneer of propriety was so thick that it made him shut down around his subordinates. Either that, or he was just an ass. “I can’t imagine I’m the person you wanted to accompany you on this trip.”
“Why do you say that?” the captain asked.
Alesser laughed. “With every bit of respect I can muster, sir, you are married to Doctor Luca Sheppard, and instead of getting to spend a day trapped in a shuttle with him, you have to spend it with me instead,” he said, hoping that the calculated compliment towards his husband would make it past Lancaster’s very powerful bullshit detector. All of that, at least, was a very valid assessment from Alesser’s perspective.
A brief flicker of a smile passed across Lancaster’s lips. “That’s a fair point, Commander, but he was not summoned to Starbase Four, and you were,” he replied with a shrug.
“I don’t suppose you can tell me any more about that?” Alesser asked.
“Vice Admiral Seagraves has never before explained her decisions to me, and she wasn’t in a mood to start today,” the captain replied. “Given that you would be the logical choice for acting first officer on the Arcturus with Captain Okusanya in command, I’m sure whatever her reason, it’s important.”
The operations officer grinned. “Is it worth mentioning that I’d hope to be considered for the permanent post as well, sir?” he asked.
Lancaster frowned. “Well, if you mentioned that, you’d be implying that I haven’t done my due diligence with my shortlist,” he noted, the sarcasm dripping from his voice.
“Right,” Alesser replied, returning his attention to the soup. It was really quite good, despite the awkwardness of their conversation. Part of him wanted to simply ask the captain why they didn’t seem to get along, but even he wouldn’t let himself be so bold. “The fidelity on the replicator is very high. The Achilles puts every other yacht in the fleet to shame.”
“I’ve never liked the term ‘captain’s yacht,’ but the correct nautical analog would be ‘captain’s gig,’ and that sounds even stranger. This is merely an executive shuttlecraft,” Lancaster corrected, but his tone wasn’t aggressive, just matter-of-fact. “Our diplomatic launch is so much larger, but this is more practical. I don’t need a pleasure barge; I need a fast personal transport.”
“The Da Jiao is certainly neither the most efficient nor the leanest craft in the fleet,” Alesser agreed. “I definitely agree that it’s preferable to spend a quarter of the time in a tiny shuttle versus four days with your very own bar and whirlpool tub.”
Lancaster made a noise that was somewhere between a chuckle and a scoff. “Commander, you don’t have to try so hard to agree with everything I say. It comes across as insincere,” he said, which was absolutely the most honest and direct thing the captain had ever said to him.
Alesser nodded, feeling himself blush slightly. The two of them finished their meals in silence, and Lancaster moved to one of the forward stations once everything had been cleared away. Before Alesser could even pick a book to read on his PADD, the shuttle shuddered. Any shimmy or vibration in flight was a concern, but this was hard enough to nearly make him hit his head on the bulkhead. The red alert lights illuminated as he moved up to the co-pilot’s station.
“We’ve hit a pocket of subspace instability,” Lancaster said, running through the emergency checklist from his side of the ship. “We have to drop out of warp, or we’ll fly apart. The warp drive is already starting to overload.”
“We’re getting sheer to starboard. I can compensate with the inertial dampeners, but it won’t hold long,” Alesser reported.
“Do it,” the captain ordered before activating the communications console. “Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is shuttlecraft Achilles declaring an emergency. We are falling out of warp and require immediate assistance.”
“With the subspace instability, there’s no guarantee anyone will get that call, Captain,” Alesser reminded him.
Lancaster was too busy pulling them out of warp to respond. There was an almighty rumble as the stars in front of them resolved to their stationary appearances. They were at sublight, but they were out of control, the impulse engines being impacted by the same subspace anomaly as the warp engines had been.
“Where are we?” Lancaster asked.
“Navigational sensors are not responding. I can’t get a fix on our position, but we’re in a star system. At least four planets. Two with oxygen-nitrogen atmospheres,” Alesser reported.
“And we’re caught in the gravity well of one of them. I don’t think I can get us into orbit,” Lancaster replied. “Launch the log buoy.”
“It’s not responding,” Alesser replied. “We’ll hit the atmosphere in 30 seconds. The planet is Class O. 5% land, and the rest is ocean. It’ll support us, but there’s no way we’re setting down anywhere solid with the controls like this.”
“The shuttle will float,” Lancaster replied, gritting his teeth. “Probably.”
Screaming through space at high speeds towards a planet was never a great idea, but the sight of an uncontrolled approach into the atmosphere of a water world was enough to make Alesser lose his breath for a moment. As it loomed closer and closer, the shields began to shimmer against the friction of the atmosphere. He had to give Lancaster credit, though, as he managed to pull them out of a nosedive and into a gentle descent towards the surface of the amethyst sea before them.
“Brace,” Lancaster ordered, moments before the nacelles touched down in the water.
The inertial dampeners weren’t enough to soften the blow to the shuttle’s two passengers, though, and Alesser was knocked out of his seat. Lancaster was flung all the way back against the divider between the cockpit and the aft compartment, hitting his head on the corner with an audible crack. Dazed from his fall, Alesser crawled back to the controls to confirm that they were, in fact, afloat before moving around to check on his captain, who was now bleeding from a severe gash to the temple as they drifted in an alien ocean.