Amber warning beacons flashed softly along the edges of the kilometer-long hull of Arcturus, reminding local traffic of the massive disruption to local traffic patterns that she presented while docked to Deep Space 17. With her bow airlock mated to the docking ring, she stuck out quite literally to double the radius of the station. Typically, a ship of her size would orbit the Canopus-class station from a safe distance, as a port of that size wasn’t intended to handle large explorers, but an exception was made so that Arcturus could refuel after two years of uninterrupted operations. Work bees had carefully extended two fueling tubes from the station to ports in the ship’s “neck” section, transferring deuterium fuel from the station into the ship’s large tanks. This operation had been practiced many times, but it still made First Officer Alesser vaguely nervous as he watched the percentages on each partition in each tank fill from the bridge. They were vulnerable until the process was finished. In theory, anyway. DS17 was on the frontier but wasn’t in a particularly dangerous area.
Shore leave had been authorized, but Alesser had left himself off of the list so that he could oversee their last checks before departure the following day while the ship was quiet. That was one of the reasons he was there, anyway.
“Eight hours to go, Captain Alesser,” Commander Harper Bowens reported from the operations station. Recently promoted, the Human now held the station that had been Alesser’s for eighteen months. “Sir, there’s really no need for you to be here for this,” he offered.
Alesser shrugged. “I want to be here when Antares arrives,” he replied.
“You served with Noah Armstrong, didn’t you? On the old Arcturus?” Bowens asked.
Understatement. Alesser knew Noah Armstrong just as fully as any one person could know another. An antagonistic operations-officer-to-science-officer dynamic had transformed into a four-year love-hate first-officer-to-second-officer relationship after a night forced to survive together on an alien world. As far as he knew, though, the only other person who knew about that was Captain Lancaster—a truth revealed when they, too, had been marooned together earlier that year during the Century Storm. After four years apart, they had not been in contact.
“I did. You’re very well-informed, Mr. Bowens,” Alesser said, trying to sound perturbed enough to get the other man to drop the subject.
“Sir,” Bowens replied, taking the hint and turning back to his station.
The area within the Arcturus that had contained Admiral Hayden’s office suite and the flag bridge had been reconfigured in the last few weeks to suit Commodore Logan’s tastes. Rather than an office on the exterior hull connected by a secure corridor to the command complex, that arrangement had been replaced with a holographically augmented interior office right off of the simplified flag bridge. When Captain Lancaster had approved the modifications, he got the sense that the commodore would be harder to keep off of the main bridge than the admiral had been—every indication and scrap of information he’d been able to gather on Brett Logan was that he wasn’t one to remain out of the action for long. His presence leading Arcturus Squadron, even after a history of more prestigious units—or at least larger ones—and working directly for the Fourth Fleet’s deputy commander was because he wanted to get back into the field.
Captain Lancaster was touring the area with Captain of Engineering Okusanya. The commodore wouldn’t arrive until the Antares did later that afternoon. She and her engineers had done work that was quick, efficient, and top-notch, just as he’d come to expect. The flag bridge Hayden had used was half the size of the new one, and there were now just a dozen stations facing inwards in a circle towards a large holographic projection table. It was enough for the commodore’s staff to manage the activities of the four ships in their squadron, the runabout flight, and the scout flight. The extra space had been made into staff offices, which further saved volume in the ship to return to science labs elsewhere. The captain ran his hand along one of the leather seats.
“Perfect as always,” Lancaster noted, virtually signing the report on the holoPADD projected from his WRIST device. “Anything else I need to be aware of?”
The engineer chuckled. “Well, that compliment makes me wonder if you should have your head examined,” she noted. “The first officer has already signed off on everything else we’ve done. Once refueling is complete, we’ll be ready to depart for Overwatch Station.”
Lancaster nodded. “Very well,” he said. The two captains left the flag bridge together, and Lancaster felt an unusual tinge of sentimentality in his stomach. He didn’t like change. “You know, she mentioned that you declined the assignment to build the Daren Array at Overwatch.”
“After building this, I don’t think there’s an experience that could top that,” Okusanya replied, gesturing to the ship around them. “Nehal will do well there. A station’s a better place for a young family with a baby.”
“Aman Nathaniel Nayar-MacRory. The first and so far only baby to have been born aboard the Arcturus,” Lancaster noted idly. “Now that we’re not one wormhole away from being stranded in the Delta Quadrant, I expect there will be more aboard.”
“Are you and Sheppard–” she started to ask.
“Hard no,” Lancaster interrupted.
“Evri and I had thought about it, but thankfully Andorian-Human biology would be pretty… complicated to navigate,” Okusanya offered.
Okusanya shrugged. “I build ships, not babies,” she said. “Something’s up with you. You’re never this chatty.”
“There have been lots of crew changes. And a mission change. And I’m about to get a new boss. Change is not a feature of life that I enjoy,” Lancaster admitted.
The engineer studied him for a moment. “Well, you have been with Hayden for most of your career. Change could be a good thing,” she offered. “A blank slate, even.”
“I liked the slate I had,” the captain noted.
“Bridge to the Captain,” Alesser said over the comm.
“Go ahead, bridge,” Lancaster replied.
“The Antares has pulled alongside. Commodore Logan is ready to beam over with his staff. He’d like a meeting room, too,” Alesser reported.
“Understood. I’ll meet you in transporter room one,” Lancaster replied. “Have the captain’s mess readied.”
Once the channel was closed, Lancaster arched an eyebrow. “They’re early. Hours early,” he observed.
“Maybe the Antares has a trick or two up her sleeve,” Okusanya suggested.
“She did in the 2380s. My first posting out of the Academy, under Captain Hayden,” Lancaster noted. “I always thought I’d end up in the center seat there.”
“I’m sure Armstrong would trade,” the engineer teased.
“Not on his life.”
Alesser was not expecting Captain Noah Armstrong to be among the six figures who materialized on the platform in transporter room one. Armstrong was standing to the right of Commodore Logan, with his first officer behind him; irritatingly, he was tall and handsome as ever. Logan’s chief of staff and flag lieutenant were on the other side, with yet another commander in the back.
“Permission to come aboard?” Logan asked.
“Permission granted, Commodore. Welcome aboard,” the captain replied.
Logan stepped off of the platform and extended a hand, which Lancaster accepted. With them at the same level, the physical resemblance between Lancaster and Logan was striking; the two men were so similar in height, build, and bone structure that they could easily be father and son, and Alesser was pretty sure that the math on that checked out.
“This is my first officer, Captain Larus Alesser,” Lancaster said, turning to Alesser.
“I’ve heard good things, Captain,” Logan said. He shook Alesser’s hand as well before turning back to the platform. He gestured for the captain that Alesser didn’t know to step down. She was followed by a young lieutenant in gold wearing aiguillettes, carrying two duffle bags slung over either side of his body. “This is my chief of staff, Captain Felicity Stone, and flag lieutenant, Mason Davenport,” he said.
“And Commander Christopher Forrest. He’ll be commanding the support wing, but we’ll talk about that later,” Logan introduced. Perhaps in the interest of making Armstrong jealous, Alesser stared quite blatantly at the way the commander’s red uniform clung to his muscles. There was a brief chorus of “captain, commander, lieutenant” between the five of them before Logan gestured to Armstrong and his first officer. “Captain Noah Armstrong and Commander Margaret Pierce of the Antares.”
“Captain, Commander,” Lancaster acknowledged, shifting slightly in front of Alesser in a way that he likely thought was more subtle than it appeared.
“Captain Lancaster. Captain Alesser,” Armstrong said, his blue eyes landing on Alesser for only half a second. It was both what Alesser wanted—for the other man not to presume familiarity—and insulting—because he was acting like he didn’t already know him. “Quite the ship you have here.”
“The Antares is as well,” Lancaster replied with a thin-lipped smile.
“All three ships in this squadron are special. I’ve asked Captain Gaudain and Commander Rhodes to beam over as well. I’d like to have us all in the same room before we set out tomorrow,” Logan noted.
“With your permission, sir, I was going to offer to host the senior officers from all three starships aboard Arcturus to celebrate the New Year this evening,” the captain said. Alesser arched an eyebrow at the idea of the notoriously anti-social Lancaster volunteering to host a party. “In the meantime, I’ve had the captain’s mess prepared as instructed.”
“Excellent, Captain,” Logan agreed. He turned to Davenport. “Lieutenant, please put the cases in my office and then join us. Captain Lancaster, would you lead the way?”
“Of course,” Lancaster said.
The cavalcade of captains and commanders left the transporter room and followed Lancaster down the corridor to the central stairway, a graceful helix of steps that went almost the height of the primary hull. The captain’s mess was a deck above the transporter rooms. Alesser noticed Commodore Logan looking approvingly.
“I’ve never been aboard an Odyssey-class starship. It doesn’t disappoint,” Logan said.
“We’ll arrange a tour if you’d like,” Lancaster offered.
Logan chuckled. “I think you’ll find that it’s called an ‘inspection,’ Captain, but that can wait until tomorrow,” he chided gently. Alesser could see Lancaster’s posture stiffen briefly at that comment; less than five minutes under a new flag officer, and he’d already been corrected. “Could you have your Chief Engineer and Chief Medical Officer join us?”
“Aye, sir,” Lancaster said before glancing back at Alesser. The first officer tapped the summons into his holoPADD as they continued to walk. The corridors were mostly deserted, but a few junior officers scattered in their wake. The large wooden doors of the captain’s mess opened to reveal that a large briefing table had been created on one side, with a buffet on the other. Commander Voral, strategic operations officer, and Lieutenant Commander Holland, diplomatic and JAG officer, were already present–the two members of Hayden’s staff that had been retained. “The waitstaff are holographic, and the system is compliant with Starfleet Intelligence policies,” the captain explained when he saw Logan’s eyes on one of the waiters.
Logan nodded. “You’ve thought of everything,” he said in a tone that sounded like a genuine compliment. “I see how Admiral Hayden came to rely on you.”
“Thank you, sir,” Lancaster replied.
Captains Okusanya and Anjar entered the room a few moments later, with Sean Gaudain and his first officer following shortly thereafter. The group took their seats, the systems in the room being smart enough to generate place cards based on protocol. Lancaster and Logan were sitting across from each other in the center of the table, flanked on opposite sides by their first officer and chief of staff respectively. Armstrong was next to Logan, and Gaudain was next to Lancaster. The result of this staggering was that Alesser was right across from Armstrong, between Lancaster and Okusanya.
“I think you all know that I’m Commodore Brett Logan. I’ve met some of you before but not others,” he glanced up when the doors opened again to admit Lieutenant Davenport, who took his seat next to Pierce on Logan’s side of the table. “The fourteen of us are going to be working closely together for the foreseeable future. I wanted to make sure that the first thing I did in command here was to get us all around the same table, so I can make sure that my expectations are fully clear to you all. I’ll try to keep this brief.”
Alesser nodded as the commodore spoke, but his eyes kept betraying him and glancing over at Armstrong. He was irritated at how calm the other man seemed to be. That had always been their dynamic, though—Armstrong always had to act like he was above petty things like desire or interest.
“As this squadron has now increased in size, I’m implementing a few structural changes that weren’t necessary when it was just Arcturus and Apollo. First, I want to confirm Captain Lancaster as the squadron’s deputy commander,” Logan said, nodding to Lancaster, who seemed relieved. “Captain Felicity Stone will handle administrative issues as chief of staff and would take command should Captain Lancaster and I both be absent. She has over eight years of experience in the center seat and will be an invaluable asset. If we should all somehow be absent, Regulation 191 would apply, and the line of succession would be Captain Alesser, then Captain Gaudain, then Captain Armstrong, based on the tactical strength of their vessels.”
While Alesser had always assumed that had push come to shove, he would out-rank Gaudain and the Apollo, he hadn’t considered how a third ship might alter that balance. The Ardanan couldn’t help but smirk that he was two places ahead of Armstrong, but even that didn’t seem to phase the other man across the table.
The commodore paused and glanced around the table. “I’m also appointing Captains Okusanya and Anjar as squadron engineering officer and squadron medical officer respectively. They will have authority on engineering and medical matters that would otherwise fall to a sector starbase,” he added. “Finally, Commander Christopher Forrest will command a support wing consisting of a Valkyrie squadron, a runabout flight, and a scout flight. Based aboard the flagship, he will report jointly to me for strategic and tactical-level planning and to Captain Lancaster for day-to-day operational matters.”
That last announcement made Lancaster stiffen again. Effectively, the commodore had just taken the Arcturus‘s runabouts out from under the captain’s direct command. They’d already known that the six fighters coming aboard had meant offloading several shuttles and runabouts, but this was another level of micromanaging that Lancaster was likely to chafe under.
“All of Admiral Hayden’s standing orders remain in effect until I have a chance to review and re-issue them this evening,” Logan said before nodding to Captain Stone, who tapped a few controls at her seat to dim the lights and display a star map. Alesser recognized it as the extreme coreward edge of Federation space near Zakdorn. “You all know that we will be traveling together to the Talvath Cluster, with a stop at Overwatch Station along the way. Once in the theater, it will be rare for all three ships to operate together. Apollo and the scout flight will identify interesting worlds, while Arcturus and Antares follow up as appropriate. Overwatch will provide sensor data.”
“What do we know about the Talvath Cluster, sir?” Captain Gaudain piped up.
“There are a large number of G-type stars in the region, which suggest the possibility of habitable worlds, but gas and dust clouds shroud many of these systems. It bears some similarities to a stellar nursery but with stars that are far more mature. Starfleet’s still trying to figure out how it exists at all, which is where we come in,” the commodore explained. “Overwatch is designed to cut through the interference, but it’ll be four more years until the telescope is finished.”
“Sounds like fun,” Gaudain replied with a grin.
“It won’t be boring,” Logan agreed. “I’m sure I can’t say the same thing about this briefing for most of you, though. This is all pretty straightforward. So, let’s say you’re formally dismissed, but I encourage you to take advantage of Captain Lancaster’s hospitality and introduce yourselves to your new colleagues,” he said.
Not really one for mingling, Captain Lancaster remained close to the table as the senior officers of Arcturus Squadron spread out into the rest of the captain’s mess—his personal mess. Before he could blend into the woodwork, Commander Forrest approached him and offered his hand.
“Commander,” Lancaster acknowledged, accepting Forrest’s firm grip. The blonde man was about his height but more blonde and more muscular. He’d glanced at Forrest’s service record when he’d thought he’d be accompanying Logan as an adjutant and knew that he was also more than seven months shy of his thirtieth birthday—something it had taken Lancaster nine more months to earn himself. “Your record is very impressive.”
Forrest smirked. “Thank you for saying so, sir. Command of a ship like this one in your thirties is definitely aspirational,” he said, and Lancaster couldn’t fully discern who he was praising in that sentence. There was something off-putting and smug about him. “I’m excited to be working with you.”
“Working for me,” Lancaster reminded him. “I’d like your training plans and proposed squadron roster by the end of the day tomorrow. We haven’t had fighters on this ship before, and doubtless there will be a need for some refresher courses in close-in maneuvering.”
“It’s already submitted, Captain,” Forrest replied, not seeming phased by Lancaster’s comment. “We’ll be operationally ready before we reach Overwatch.”
“Good. You’ll fit right in, Commander,” Lancaster replied. His badge chirped with impeccable timing. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said before leaving Forrest standing there while he went over by the windows to tap his badge. “Lancaster here. Go ahead.”
“It’s Kaplan, sir. What’s the word on New Year’s?” Ensign Kaplan asked.
“The word is ‘go.’ Please make sure there’s bourbon there,” Lancaster responded.
The yeoman couldn’t stifle a laugh. “Understood, sir.”
Alesser didn’t mind mingling the way his captain did, but Armstrong’s presence had him feeling introverted. He chatted briefly with Lieutenant Commander Rhodes of the Apollo, though even he wouldn’t be so shameless as to flirt with the young man in such a setting. Maybe later. Thankfully, he saw Armstrong and his first officer seemingly making a round of ‘good byes,’ which he was eager for. His hopes were raised too soon, though, as Armstrong crossed the room on a direct course for him.
“Ari,” Armstrong said, in a low voice, getting close enough that Alesser could feel his breath on his ear. His posture emphasized their height difference, and Alesser hated that he still loved that. “I have to get back to the Antares, but we can talk tonight at the party. There’s no reason this has to be awkward because everyone here can see you’re doing your best to avoid me, and that’s not a good look for either of us.”
“Not even a ‘good to see you, Ari’?” Alesser scoffed. “Fine, Noah. We’ll talk.”
“It is good to see you, but the transporter room was hardly the place for that,” Armstrong said, a paternalistic tone creeping into his voice. “I would have expected you to understand that by now.”
Alesser exhaled slowly. “Save it for later,” he muttered to avoid screaming at him for being patronizing.
“You’re right. I’ll see you later,” Armstrong said, briefly touching Alesser on the shoulder and then leaving the room.
Alesser hated that he liked that as well but tried not to react either way. A few moments after Armstrong left the room, Captain Lancaster joined Alesser and gave him a quizzical look.
“Everything okay?” Lancaster asked. After their rocky start on the Arcturus, Alesser had never thought that he’d be on cordial, let alone friendly, terms with Lancaster, but things had changed after their impromptu camping trip together. They worked well together as captain and first officer, and the similarities that had once caused friction now served as a way of bonding them together. “I could beat him up if you like.”
Alesser chuckled. “No offense, but neither of us would stand a chance. It’s a nice thought, though. I’m fine. Moments like this make you realize that the universe is a lot smaller than you think it is,” he replied. “Of all of the captain’s messes in the fleet, he has to walk into yours.”
“You have the home-field advantage, though. I could ask Sheppard to flirt with you. Make him jealous,” Lancaster suggested, which was probably the most mischievous thing that had ever come out of his mouth in Alesser’s presence.
“Well, not ‘no,’ but let’s get you checked for an anaphasic alien before this party. You’re all empathetic and playful. It’s weird,” Alesser teased.
The captain rolled his eyes. “There’s the Larus Alesser I know,” he said.