Part of USS Arcturus: Under Pressure and Bravo Fleet: The Stormbreaker Campaign

Chapter 6

Zaaldi III
February, 2400
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Zaaldi III was a primordial ocean world teeming with life. Without intelligent or even sapient life of its own, it would have been an ideal candidate for colonization had its salty seas not been teeming with aggressively colonial organisms. They were eager to attach to anything solid in the water, dragging it under by their gradual accumulation and then slowly consuming it. The Achilles had begun collecting these organisms as soon as it splashed down, her natural buoyancy decreasing by the second with every added gram of mass. Finely-tuned and hand-built for speed and high performance, the shuttle was a magnificent piece of engineering, but she was never intended to travel along the surface of an alien ocean under the best of conditions, let alone with her subspace driver coils disabled and the added mass of alien life gradually pulling her under the surface.

Though Captain Lancaster and Commander Alesser were both technical experts and scientists, it took them several hours to modify the ship to move under her own power on course to one of the only landmasses on the planet, a tiny outcropping of rock and sand almost 200 kilometers away from their landing zone. Bypassing the subspace driver coils to allow the impulse engines to work purely on Newtonian principles had been the first problem; reinforcing the emergency flotation bladders so that they wouldn’t be ripped off the ship once it got up to speed was the other. They were barely afloat by the time they managed to get their craft to the beach. One last jolt of power got them up onto the sand, and the flotation bladders finally collapsed, leaving the Achilles not just looking like a beached whale, but one that had been rotting in the sun for days.

The illusion was only enhanced by the sulfur and ammonia byproducts of the microorganisms’ metabolism, which saturated the air with an acrid stench as the two officers moved their survival equipment to higher ground. They needed a base camp while they worked on repairing their craft, in case a wave were to come in and drag the Achilles back into the water, and thankfully there was a clearing with a nice enough view of the ocean and shade provided by several large ferns that their tricorders told them weren’t poisonous. A survival sleeping bag, emergency tent, and field replicator weren’t a substitute for the beach vacation Alesser had planned to sneak in on their visit to Starbase 4, though.

The first task had been to detach the emergency flotation bladders, now that they were useless. After a bit of experimentation, they found a phaser frequency that successfully cleaned the organisms off of the hull, which had the added benefit of removing the source of the odor as well. Two hours later, Lancaster and Alesser had cleaned the Achilles thoroughly, which left all of its systems available for them to inspect and repair. They’d landed at twilight, but the planet rotated slowly, and the sun was at its zenith, making it a scorching forty degrees. 

Alesser had quickly determined that the subspace driver coils and the warp coils had both been rendered useless by the subspace interference they’d struck, as they both operated on the principle of manipulating subspace to alter the mass of the vehicle they were propelling. In the absence of a shipyard or the specialized equipment found in the Arcturus’s hanger, the solution was to run a low-level subspace field through both systems, but it would take sixteen to twenty-four hours to return them to service. 

“We’re dead in the water for at least a day. How are communications?” Alesser asked as he closed his tricorder.

“That’s unfortunate. We’ll need to deionize each component of the subspace transceiver manually and then calibrate it to cut the ambient subspace interference from the storm,” Lancaster said from on top of the shuttle. “I’m going to detach it, and we can carry it up to the camp.”

“That’ll be seven or eight hours of fun,” Alesser quipped. “I’m getting water and changing out of this uniform,” he said, not bothering with the formality of waiting for permission, before ducking into the shuttle for a hydration break, pulling off his sweat-soaked uniform undershirt in the process. Even without the jacket and the turtleneck, he was burning up, and he had no idea how Lancaster was managing in the full duty uniform without passing out. He opened up the wardrobe wedged into the aft compartment next to the tiny head and smirked when he saw that the computer had already provided weather-appropriate clothing: swimsuits.

They were still technically a uniform: tight swim trunks with a built-in belt in division coloring and panels of the same on the side of both legs, each adorned with a Starfleet delta in silver, as well as an armband matching the belt to attach his badge to. The computer displayed the uniform specifications on the screen above the shelf, itself a tiny replicator, showing that they had been approved along with the rest of the new uniform designs and were marked for ‘diplomatic duties in tropical climates.’

“Not bad,” Alesser noted as he started to change. “I should go into the diplomatic corps,” he noted, checking himself out in the mirror on the wardrobe’s door as he strapped the armband around his bicep. 

“Is there a second degausser in the supply cupboard?” Lancaster asked as Alesser put on the matching rubberized sandals. The captain missed a full-on view of Alesser’s stern by nanoseconds as he walked into the shuttle. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Larus. Comfortable?” 

“Very. If you want to waste resources by sweating through your clothes in 40-degree weather, be my guest. There’s a red one for you,” Alesser said as he closed the tiny delta-shaped clasp on his belt and then bent over to grab the spare degausser. “I’ll be outside,” he added, brandishing the degausser and taking the sunscreen too.

Lancaster glowered at him but didn’t object as he passed. Alesser had never seen him sweat before, let alone end up with his hair mussed; it was a nice reminder that the captain wasn’t as perfect as he made himself out to be. Lancaster was a man and not an android, a fact which Alesser found himself lingering on long enough to make himself uncomfortable. His thoughts were taken back to memories of his previous commanding officer, a man taller, more muscular, and bolder than Lancaster was, but a man designed following similar conceptual and physical specifications. Michael Lancaster was not Noah Armstrong, though, and that was solidly a good thing, as far as Alesser was concerned.

While contemplating how he always seemed to end up in antagonistic relationships with his superiors, he applied the sunscreen he’d replicated, a little surprised that the default scent wasn’t coconut or something tropical; it was unscented. His bronze-toned skin was unlikely to burn, but it would be embarrassing to end up scorched because he’d been foolish enough to discard his UV protection on an uncharted world. The ritual of applying the suntan lotion also made it feel a little more like a vacation, even in the absence of margaritas and cabana boys. He was positively shocked when Lancaster exited the shuttle a few minutes later, wearing the second pair of trunks from the wardrobe.

“Don’t,” Lancaster said, preempting Alesser when he opened his mouth to let out a little snark. “It’s functional for our current situation.”

Alesser grinned and offered him the tube of sunscreen. “Well, if you’re indulging me, mind getting my back?” he said, feeling quite pleased with his self-restraint for at least resisting checking the other man out too blatantly. There was a beat. “I’m not trying to be skeevy. I promise. Either of us acquiring third-degree burns would be detrimental to our survival.”

The captain pursed his lips. “Turn around,” he ordered, snatching the sunscreen. “I hope this means you’ll recover at least a modicum of your deference.” 

An affirmative reaction was enough to stun Alesser into just complying with the instruction and turning around rather than offering any sort of flirty quip. It admittedly felt good, though, when the captain worked the lotion into his skin, moving quickly enough to make the bizarre interaction end faster but doing a thorough enough job not to have to repeat it for several hours at least. 

Alesser was quite proud of himself for not saying anything suggestive, witty, or sexual for the whole sixty seconds Lancaster was touching him. They traded places, and Alesser mimicked the senior officer’s performance, doing a good job but going out of his way to keep it chaste. He even averted his eyes and tried not to notice how well-defined Lancaster’s back muscles were, though he was more aware than he’d ever been before of how tall and built the captain was. Given that he was married to Luca Sheppard, a paragon of classical, traditional Human masculinity, Alesser sometimes forgot that Lancaster was also quite the specimen of male beauty himself. 

“We have our sunscreen, and we’ve hydrated, so can we get back to work?” Lancaster asked as he applied the rest of the sunscreen on his front. 

Alesser nodded. “Let’s get the… You got the transceiver down without help?” he said, blinking in disbelief when he saw the relatively large piece of equipment sitting undamaged on a tarp next to the shuttle. The oblong device had a semi-open structure and weighed at least fifty kilos; it wasn’t exactly easy to handle. Especially when it had started out three meters off the ground on the roof of their shuttle.

Lancaster shrugged. “It’s not that heavy. We’ll move it up to the camp so that we can work on it in the shade,” he said, going over to wrap the tarp around the device before he and Alesser started carrying it up the hill to their camp. 

Between the two of them, moving the transceiver to high ground wasn’t that difficult. The tedious part came when they had to remove and degauss each component, down to every isolinear chip and EPS circuit. At least the change in apparel had made the task relatively comfortable under the shade of an emergency survival canopy, but it was hard to focus on such a mind-numbing task in the scenery. They hardly spoke, other than to pass tools to one another or to take turns refilling their water containers from the shuttle, but Alesser thought that it had been the strongest their working relationship had ever been.

“Good work,” Lancaster said once all of the final systems checks had been finished. They’d essentially rebuilt the transceiver and calibrated it to work through the subspace interference—assuming that the broad strokes of the anomaly hadn’t changed since the data collected during the crash. “Really.”

“Thank you,” Alesser replied, beaming at what amounted to a five-star review from the notoriously difficult captain. He hooked it up to the portable fusion battery and watched with satisfaction as the device powered up. A holographic interface appeared over it.

“Attention any vessels in range. This is Captain Michael Lancaster of the Arcturus. My shuttle’s engines have been disabled, and I require assistance,” Lancaster recorded before sending that message off as a priority one distress call.

“We’re probably four to five hours away from a response and a half-day for rescue,” Alesser noted.

Lancaster nodded. “I suppose that’s all we can do until either the engines come back online, or someone comes to find us.”

“That deserves a celebration, don’t you think, Michael?” Alesser asked. 

Lancaster arched an eyebrow.

“You used my forename earlier. Get over it,” the commander said, shrugging. “We have more than enough power to have a decent meal, at least.”

“Fine. Sunset’s close anyway,” Lancaster conceded.

The downside of insisting on rest, however, was that they didn’t have anything to distract themselves from the fact that it was just the two of them stranded together on that planet. Alesser busied himself with the survival replicator, while Lancaster took more scans from the edge of their camp. The commander attempted to remember the chemical formula for a lime margarita when Lancaster walked over to check his progress.

“What are you doing?”

“Enhancing our morale.”

Lancaster shook his head. “Computer, interlink the survival replicator with the replication database aboard the shuttle and remove all restrictions. Authorization Lancaster Seven-Seven-Alpha-Two,” he said.

“Working. Confirmed,” the tiny replicator confirmed.

“Not even a slap on the wrist?”

“Why waste energy on that?” Lancaster quipped.

“See, we can be friends, after all, Captain,” Alesser teased. “Computer, two lime margaritas, double tequila, extra salt,” he ordered. The two beverages appeared on the top of the pedestal-like contraption. “Surely no one can begrudge us enjoying this to even the tiniest degree?”

“I suppose not,” Lancaster replied, taking one of the glasses.

“Cheers,” Alesser said, holding his glass up before downing it quickly enough to earn another raised eyebrow.

With the transmitter repaired, though, and no sapient lifeforms around to threaten their safety, they remained deep in Federation space and nearly as safe as they would have been on their own ship. Alesser briefly wondered if it was an issue of elevation or some atmospheric factor, but the drink hit him strongly and quickly. After a round of street tacos, he and Lancaster both had more to drink as they watched the sunset before Alesser got the idea to slice through some of the ferns nearby to start a fire. 

It was still pretty warm when he’d gathered enough material, but making the fire was another good distraction. The more they focused on doing something, the less awkward it was when neither of them had much to say. 

“Now that we’re stranded, I don’t suppose you can tell me why I’m with you in the first place, can you?” Alesser asked as he used his phaser to start the fire. 

“Admiral Seagraves said she had a job offer for you,” Lancaster replied, looking at him over whatever he was reading on the HoloPADD display projected from his WRIST. “Presumably, that means congratulations are in order.”

Alesser blinked; he was genuinely at a loss for words at that prospect. At his rank, the most likely things she could be offering him would be a senior staff position or a command of his own. His ultimate goal was to sit in the center seat, but he hadn’t been expecting something like that, not when others from the Arcturus had already been sent to ships of their own so soon before.

“Really?” Alesser mused. “I bet she’s found some broken-down old frigate for me.”

“A ship’s a ship,” Lancaster noted.

The commander laughed. “That’s easy to say when you’re in command of one of the newest and largest in the fleet, though. Didn’t you turn down the Apollo to take second stick on the Arcturus yourself?”

“Yes, but size really had nothing to do with it. Not in the way you’re implying anyway. Sheppard had just finished his M.D., and we didn’t think it was a good idea for him to find his footing as a CMO and deal with his husband being in command at the same time. There’s not enough professional distance on a scout ship,” Lancaster said, shaking his head. 

“I had no idea. That’s helluva sacrifice,” Alesser replied. “How’d you meet, anyway?”

Lancaster looked like he was about fifty-fifty on answering that question or not at first. “In the infirmary on Starbase 72. He was my nurse for the first stage of a physical. I thought he was the most beautiful man I’d ever met, so when I was done with the doctor, I asked him to get dinner with me. It’ll be ten years ago this year,” he explained.

“Wow. You’re lucky. And not just because he is the most beautiful man, but because you have someone,” Alesser said. He focused on his WRIST band, picking at a non-existent defect in its exoprene construction. “I’ve never managed to have a connection like that.”

“You don’t strike me as the sentimental type.”

Alesser rolled his eyes. “Neither do you,” he countered before lying flat on his back to look up at the stars. “Do you think I should take it? The command, I mean.”

“I guess it depends on what sort of job she’s offering you,” Lancaster replied.

“Would you be sad to see me go? Do you really want to break in another new officer?” Alesser challenged.

“I’d want you to make the decision that’s best for you and your career,” Lancaster replied.

“I guess it’s too much to hope for that you could just say ‘I’d like you to stay, Larus,'” Alesser said with a sigh. “Just once, it would be nice to be wanted, you know,” he blurted before he could take it back. He sat up in alarm.

Lancaster looked uncomfortable.

“Sorry. I just… I don’t get why I always seem to have so much trouble with my direct superior. The XO on the Arcturus—the old Arcturus—hated me. You seem to hate me, too. I am very good at my job, though,” Alesser said.

Lancaster wasn’t able to get a word in edgewise.

“In fact, you and I have very similar service records. Identical degrees from Starfleet Academy. We’ve held Operations and Science roles on small and large ships. Commendations for efficiency. Really handsome,” Alesser said, ticking things off on his fingers. “We should be best friends, really.”

Alesser was starting to realize that something was impacting his impulsiveness, and it wasn’t just the replicated alcohol. Maybe it was the heat or something about the planet itself, but he definitely felt bolder.

“I mean, I guess you think you can do my job better than I can because you used to do it yourself. And then I see you one step ahead of me and think the same thing?” Alesser posited. 

Stop,” Lancaster insisted, though not in too harsh of a tone. “I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s subconscious. Hayden and I work well together because we have opposite skill sets. That’s why Rakan was picked for the XO seat, as her skillset is the opposite of mine. We complemented one another.”

“Sure, that worked for you and the admiral, but it didn’t work for you and Rakan. You never seemed to trust her, not because she’s Cardassian, but because she’s a diplomat. Probably,” Alesser replied. “You need someone you can to like an equal. A partner. Someone like me.”

Lancaster was dumbstruck; Alesser had to give him some time to adjust, though, because he knew the captain was never spoken to like that, not since he’d earned that fourth pip, anyway. “I’ll think about it,” Lancaster said after a moment. “Is that enough to get you to stop ranting at me?”

The commander nodded, feeling slightly embarrassed. “Yeah, though I don’t think I got any extra points for rhetorical acumen.”

“Probably not,” Lancaster agreed. “The XO on the old Arcturus. Simmons?”

“No, we got along okay. Armstrong, the one before him.”

“As in our science officer’s older brother? The new captain of the Columbia?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, that was a long time ago. I’m sure any professional rivalry will have been forgotten. The Columbia is coming with us when we go back through the wormhole,” Lancaster noted.

Alesser chuckled. “That certainly does make even a Centaur all the more appealing… He won’t have forgotten. If he has, I’d be more hurt than anything. It wasn’t a purely professional rivalry,” he explained, hoping that would be enough details.

“Oh. Oh,” Lancaster said. “I had one of those, too. Briefly. Not ideal.”

“Really?” 

“I guess you’re right about us being similar,” Lancaster replied with a shrug. 

“I’ve never told anyone before. And don’t get me wrong. Parts of it were great. But we kept it a secret. It wasn’t a particularly healthy relationship,” Alesser said.

“Things like that rarely are. We learn, and we move on, though. And maybe you should talk about it with someone,” Lancaster offered.

“Maybe. Doubt it.”

The two of them watched the fire for a little longer before Lancaster stood up.

“I’m going to sleep. The perimeter defenses are on, so nothing should sneak up on us,” he said. 

Alesser followed him into their tent a moment later, curling up on his sleeping bag, as it was too hot to get inside of it, still. The heat (and tequila) combined with the exhaustion of the day were enough to let him drop off to sleep almost immediately.

When he awoke, he was surprised not to find any black holes in his memory or a hang-over, but he still felt somehow loose. Uninhibited. And also quite warm. As things resolved, he realized that he’d rolled over in his sleep and not only had his face on Lancaster’s neck but was draped over the other man. Lancaster’s arms were wrapped around him, too. The rational, normal part of his brain was sounding red alert at that, but there was an overwhelming urge not to move, as well as the observation that he smelled nice. Alesser’s rational mind did manage to win out, and he extricated himself without waking him up—something of a specialty he’d developed over the years.

He walked out of the tent into early morning sunshine and grabbed a medical tricorder from their pile of supplies, and scanned himself. Something was not right; speaking his mind was one thing, but neither of them had nearly enough to drink to have gotten physical. Unless they had so much to drink that he forgot both getting drunk and then getting physical, which seemed improbable at best. 

“What’s up?” Lancaster asked, emerging from the tent a little while later. 

“I think something’s… wrong,” Alesser said as he examined the results of his self-scan. Neurotransmitter levels were all over the place. He wasn’t a doctor, but he could tell that something was influencing his higher reasoning skills. “There’s something about this place that we’ve overlooked. It’s lowering my inhibitions, and probably yours.”

“A convenient excuse for what you said last night,” Lancaster offered.

Alesser scoffed. “Oh, fuck off. You let me override the replicator safeties and put on that bathing suit. Not exactly typical for you, right?” he retorted. He flicked the scan data off his tricorder over to Lancaster’s wrist device. “My brain chemistry’s not… correct.”

“Dehydration plus exhaustion plus alcohol? Occam’s razor on this one,” Lancaster suggested as he looked at it. “The computer’s not picking up any known hallucinogens or intoxicants in the atmosphere.”

The two of them were out of time to argue, though, as they heard the low pulsing of an impulse engine at low altitude. Looking out through the ferns over the sea, they saw an enormous crab-like vessel decloaking, its hull glinting in an eerie golden green. It got nearly overhead, ignoring their attempts to hail it with their combadges until they saw it engage a green-hued tractor beam, which scooped up their shuttle. Moments later, the two vanished in a swirl of green energy and reappeared in a dimly lit chamber. 

While thankfully none of them were holding weapons, Alesser realized immediately that they were surrounded by Orions. All men. All fit and very scantily clad. The apparent leader was wearing a shimmering green robe that complimented his emerald skin.

“Welcome aboard the Verdant Ambassador. I thought based on the markings on your shuttle that I was rescuing a pair of important Starfleet officers, but it appears as though I’ve picked up a pair of pool boys—unless your uniform code really is this… flexible?” the man quipped, a smirk passing over his lips.

Alesser and Lancaster looked at one another; rescue and/or capture by Orions was an outcome that they had not predicted. 

 

Comments

  • Alesser and Lancaster DO have a really good dynamic; if this is a test-drive for them as a CO/XO pair, then it's going well. Pheromone-induced lowering of inhibitions aside, Alesser is right in his assessment of what Lancaster needs *from a subordinate*. It's one thing for him to have a different skillset to his boss, because he's such a suck-up that he'll obey, but it seems he thinks he knows best so well that I think his XO needs to be a little more on the same page as him for him to respect them. And if Alesser can at least keep up his challenging of Lancaster, it'll stop Lancaster just assuming he knows best *all* the time. So, a good chapter! Starfleet really do prepare for the best survival scenarios, and it's also very Starfleet to have everything, down to the belt on swim-trunks, branded accordingly. I bet the little martini glasses had chevrons on them. It's a good low-risk scenario which still shoves the characters around, forcing them to work together and to talk, and now, well... let's see what the Orions do. Good stuff!

    March 18, 2022
  • I'm too dumb to understand how fully-automated-luxury-gay-space-communism engines work, but the solution you wrote to rescuing the Achilles was artistically done. I genuinely aspire to writing this level of technobabble. You walked that fine line between writing a technical solution with expert authority, while keeping it understandable enough I could visualize what was happening -- and it all had the ring of truth to me. Although, obviously, the main event was the two-hander play you gave us of these characters stranded on a dessert island. It wasn't just the usual tropes; you gave us such a frank look at the characters. I love how you didn't leave anything on the table; we got such a deep exploration of their fraught relationship. I found myself just as curious as Alesser about why Lancaster is the way he is. I'm desperate to read what happens next for them.

    March 30, 2022