New Year’s Eve on Arcturus had come to be associated with the ship’s birthday. Commissioned just after the start of 2399, the ship and her crew had spent just about two years in service as the sun began to set on 2400 and usher in 2401. This particular event was set to be exceptionally bittersweet as the last of the crew rotations were scheduled for the next day, which meant saying goodbye to old friends and welcoming new ones. In addition to it being a chance to show off for the crews of the other two ships in the squadron, even Michael Lancaster could admit to feeling slightly sentimental, and so he’d had all the stops pulled out.
Even those crewmembers who had been on shore leave had returned to the ship, as they knew it was going to be more exciting than what the lounges and bars of Deep Space 17 would be able to offer, and the only ones not at the party were those who absolutely had to be at their posts in engineering or on the bridge and the security guards who were confirming the credentials of the line of Apollo and Antares crew entering through the bow airlock between The Plowman’s Tap and the forward observation lounge on deck 12. The smaller lounges and greenspace on the promenade that ringed the deck had been configured to give all personality types and biologies a combination of music, food, and atmosphere that they could enjoy. While only the center door was ordinarily open for fire and damage control purposes, all three sections of the wide hatch connecting the grand foyer to the atrium had been opened for the occasion to allow for maximum mobility (and, frankly, to show off).
By 2000 hours, the party was already in full swing, with the notable absence of Captain Lancaster, a few of the other senior officers, and a cadre of more junior ones. A separate pre-party had been Dr. Sheppard’s idea, not just to warm the taciturn captain up to the duties of hosting nearly three thousand people but to allow him a moment in private to express some emotions that he’d prefer not to express in front of everyone. The private dining room in Arcturus Prime, the simulated steakhouse within the atrium, had been chosen for the occasion.
Joining Lancaster and Sheppard were First Officer Alesser, Commander Van Dorland, and the recently-promoted Commander Bowens. Counselor Carver and Lieutenant Belvedere were there as well, being close to both Sheppard and the real honorees of the evening: Lieutenants Windsor, Hidalgo, Stanton, Sarcaryn, Robinson, and Taigan, all of whom had earned promotions in position to department deputies aboard the Antares. Lancaster had begrudgingly allowed Sheppard to extend an invitation to the demoted Ensign Galan, who was also leaving for the Antares in a deputy’s role. For all of the acrimony his actions had caused during their evacuation mission from Romulan space, the captain couldn’t help but feel some level of affection towards him. Plus, he rounded their numbers to fourteen, and there was no sense in tempting fate on a night like that.
This group was only some of the officers who were moving up and out, but they had developed into a cohesive cadre, all of them men interested to some degree in other men, with a web of professional, romantic, and platonic relationships that made Lancaster understand why most of them had wanted to stick together. Of the junior officers, just Belvedere was going to remain on the Arcturus, and Lancaster could see regrets in his eyes from down the table, though he knew the young man was staying for Carver. Thanks to Sheppard’s ability to be friends with everyone, most of them had at least had a drink with him and his husband, but Carver and Sheppard were the links between the captain and this cadre of lower deckers.
“I think you all know that I’m not one for speeches, but I just wanted to express to all of you how pleased I have been with your work here over the past two years,” Lancaster said once everyone was seated.
Lancaster and his husband had taken opposite ends of the table, and the more senior officers had gravitated towards Lancaster’s end while the more junior ones had ended up closer to Sheppard—probably because he was more fun, he intuited. Though he wouldn’t admit it, Lancaster enjoyed keeping tabs on the scuttlebutt, as it made him feel more connected to his crew. It also made him nostalgic for the lifestyle he and his husband only got to have for a few years when they lived on Earth; a consequence of Lancaster’s rapid rise through the ranks was losing the ability to fit in on an equal footing with those around them. He’d always either be a captain while station-side or the captain aboard Arcturus, after all.
“I have high expectations, and this group has met them,” Lancaster continued, the compliment blunted from ‘everyone here’ to ‘this group’ because of the presence of Ensign Galan. “Captain Armstrong and the Antares will be lucky to have those of you who are moving on.”
Lancaster glanced at Lieutenant Hidalgo, who smiled and stood up from the table, holding a small wooden box, the familiar sign of an imminent promotion. While it wasn’t a surprise to the recipient, the rest of the assembled officers looked curious for a moment.
“There’s one last item of business,” Lancaster said. When he stood, protocol compelled the rest of the room to rise as well. “Lieutenant Nathaniel Windsor, I have been authorized by Starfleet Command to promote you to the rank of lieutenant commander, effective immediately. Congratulations,” he said, prompting Hidalgo to go around the table to pin a hollow pip onto Windsor’s uniform while his peers applauded.
Windsor’s tenure on Arcturus had seen him grow from a green, naïve junior lieutenant to a seasoned, dependable bridge officer and hazard team leader. He’d even been awarded the Starfleet Medal of Honor for actions during the Tkon Campaign to save the lives of two fellow officers, including Lieutenant Stanton, who was standing next to him. While still a little naïve and often grinning from the sheer exuberance he possessed, Lancaster could see a first officer’s or captain’s chair in his near future. For now, he’d be serving as the second officer on the Antares.
“Thank you, Captain,” Windsor said, beaming. Lancaster extended his hand, but Windsor went for a hug instead, squeezing the surprised captain for a moment until he briefly returned the gesture, and the two parted. Counselor Carver let out a wolf whistle. “It’s been an honor serving under you. And with all of you,” he said, turning back to his colleagues.
Lancaster cleared his throat. “Likewise. All of you,” he said. There was a beat. “Now, let’s eat,” he said, sitting down to allow the rest of the room to do so as well.
“Nice speech, skipper,” Alesser said, offering Lancaster an inscrutable grin from Lancaster’s right-hand side before they sat down. As much as their relationship had warmed, Alesser still had a tendency towards cattiness with him. “You’re really tugging at my heartstrings this evening.”
“Brought a tear to my eye,” Commander Van Dorland added from the left.
“Don’t help, Jack,” Lancaster replied, turning to the blond engineer for a moment. The two of them had been academy roommates, and though Van Dorland was hardly the life of the party, he had a cool confidence that Lancaster had never been able to master. He was there without fellow engineer Noah Slater since their erstwhile relationship had cooled significantly. That was a topic he intended to interrogate his friend about later. Lancaster’s eyes flickered back to Alesser. “It’s my prerogative to awkwardly stumble around displays of emotion just enough to make my officers feel appreciated but not enough to make them want to skip the real party.”
“We love you, too, sir!” Lieutenant Robinson exclaimed from his seat between Carver and Taigan. For a young officer who started as the admiral’s pretty boy helper and dogsbody, Robinson had managed to earn a spot as a bridge officer in relatively short order, even without any nepotism. He’d never lost the sass that came with the confidence of being, in his eyes, Admiral Hayden’s right-hand man. “Do the rest of us get hugs? Maybe a peck on the cheek?”
“Can someone put something in his mouth, please?” Lancaster quipped as he pressed a button near his place at the table to call into existence holographic menus for each of the guests. He tapped the items he wanted, prompting the restaurant’s kitchen, replicators, wine stores, and holographic waiters to spring into action to simulate waiting for one’s food and drink. “Other than his foot, I mean.”
Sheppard, Van Dorland, and Carver were the only ones around the table who weren’t stunned that Lancaster had returned the sass so adroitly. Alesser looked amused and perhaps even proud, while the others present were initially not sure how to respond. Lancaster found that his demanding demeanor and insistence on professionalism on the bridge made people believe that he did not actually have a sense of humor, but he’d just become adept at keeping his sharp tongue quiet. While he had never been never as brazen as Robinson still was, Lancaster started his career using sarcasm every second or third sentence.
“Hands up if you haven’t already,” Carver replied, to laughs.
“Bullied with scandalous innuendo by my esteemed—and very handsome—commanding officer and a muscle-bound mental healthcare professional? I’m aghast,” Robinson said, clutching the neck of his dress uniform. “Aghast, stunned, and a little turned on.”
“Poor baby,” Lieutenant Belvedere said. It’s likely that the young communications officer could have secured equivalent roles to his friends on the Antares, but his relationship with Carver seemed to be there for the long haul. “I think we’d have a little more sympathy if you didn’t love the attention so much.”
As they continued to banter, a pair of holographic waiters began bringing out cocktails and other beverages for the group. Lancaster found himself smiling absently before an amused glance from Sheppard brought him out of his reverie to focus on the Manhattan which had been placed in front of him. The far end of the table remained a lot livelier as Belvedere and Robinson kept teasing each other, and he noticed that the quieter Taigan and Sarcaryn were both getting their licks in as well.
“Have you always been such a softie, or is there something in that drink that’s put you into such a good mood?” Alesser asked, warm amber eyes flitting between Lancaster and his cocktail.
“It’s not a margarita, so I doubt it will be mood-altering,” Lancaster said, leaning slightly to the side so that only the first officer could hear them.
During their survival adventure, Lancaster had lifted the restrictions on the survival replicator from their crashed shuttle, and they’d had margaritas on an alien beach. Whether that was before or after they were under the influence of inhibition-lifting spores was unclear. With no other sentient beings for light years, surviving together had certainly been an opportunity for the two of them to get to know each other better—and it did lead Lancaster to select Alesser as first officer—but there were still parts of it that were awkward to remember.
Alesser blushed slightly, his bronze skin turning copper along his cheekbones. “Touché. I guess that means it’s the other option: you’re only an ice queen on the outside.”
“You already know that,” Lancaster pointed out. “But if this cohort knew how entertaining I found them—and how much my spies have told me about their relationships and drama—I’d never get any sense of decorum back.”
The first officer nodded. “Probably true,” he agreed.
Lancaster glanced over to his left where Commanders Van Dorland and Bowens were chatting. To his knowledge, the two of them didn’t know each other very well. Van Dorland generally kept to engineering, and Bowens had been in the command division until a few days prior. After comparing their efficiency scores and service records, Lancaster had actually offered his friend, Van Dorland, the chief operations officer slot that had gone to Bowens instead, but he’d declined, citing a desire to remain off of the bridge as much as possible. Like the officers moving to the Antares, Bowens had made a name for himself on Arcturus, and Lancaster was glad to keep at least one of his success stories.
“How are you finding promotion treating you, Mr. Bowens?” Lancaster asked. “I hope the first officer isn’t being too hard on you.”
Bowens offered a polite smile. “I have no complaints, captain. I was a little sad to hang up the hazard team jumpsuit, though,” the commander replied. As a senior officer, Bowens would have to pass the mantle of training the ship’s hazard teams to someone else. Strictly speaking, he’d left the actual leadership of his former team at his last promotion but had always found ways of accompanying his teams into the field. “I appreciate the vote of confidence from you and Captain Alesser.”
Alesser chuckled. “The commander is being polite. I believe I was a little short with him on the bridge, earlier,” he interjected. “Nerves over having fueling lines draped over the hull and losing such a fine cadre of officers. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you, Mr. Bowens.”
“I didn’t perceive any shortness, sir. The bridge is no place for cross-talk, anyway,” Bowens said, always the model of deferential professionalism. While Lancaster ran a tight ship, he almost found Bowens to be a little too deferential sometimes, and he had to wonder what Alesser may have said to spark this exchange. “I’m looking forward to proving myself, serving under two captains who were themselves operations officers.”
“You’re awfully well informed,” Lancaster replied, though he didn’t put any particular tone into that statement. “Good. I prefer it when my officers know what they’re talking about.”
“The captain prefers it when everyone knows what they’re talking about,” Commander Van Dorland amended, making Bowens smile for a moment. “At the Academy, he had the Starfleet General Operating Manual for Starshipsmemorized by chapter and verse within six months of arriving.”
“It’s hard to imagine you as a lieutenant, let alone a cadet,” Alesser said.
“He didn’t just start at captain?” Arturo Hidalgo teased from Alesser’s other side.
“Nope. He was once right where you are, Ship,” Van Dorland replied. “I wonder if that nickname’s gonna stick when you get over to the Antares.”
“I’ll make sure of it,” Windsor, Hidalgo’s fiancé, interjected from across the table.
As they kept chatting, salads and other starters began to emerge from the kitchen. The energy in the room ebbed and flowed between gleeful nostalgia about their adventures to moments of bittersweetness as individuals realized that this was likely not a gathering that they would be able to repeat. Before they knew it, dessert was being served—there was still the rest of the New Year’s party to go to, but this was it for their gathering.
Sheppard tapped on his glass with a knife. “Before we have dessert, Nate has something he’d like to say,” he said.
“Captain, those of us who are moving on got together to get you something to show you how much we appreciated the opportunity to serve under you,” now-Lieutenant Commander Windsor said, rising from his seat with a glass of champagne. He nodded to Hidalgo, who passed a box tied with a bow to Alesser, who put it in front of Lancaster. “We know that sentimentality really isn’t your thing, so we tried to come up with something practical.”
Lancaster pulled the ribbon open and removed the lid of the box. Nestled among some tissue paper was a titanium records case, a slim folio for holding isolinear storage chips with data too sensitive to be stored directly in the main computer. The front cover had the ship’s name and seal embossed. He flipped it over to read, “From the Junior Officers of the Arcturus to our Captain, Stardate 2401.1.” The captain was momentarily at a loss for words.
“On the inside, the names of everyone who’s served aboard this ship under your command are engraved,” Windsor noted. Sure enough, on opening it, Lancaster could just barely make out a list of names inside each of the slots for data chips, engraved small enough to get every single name of the ship’s enormous crew there.
“I really appreciate this. Thank you all,” Lancaster managed.
“To the Arcturus and to the Captain!” Windsor offered as a toast.
Those gathered returned the toast, leaving Captain Lancaster feeling both pleasantly surprised and uncomfortable at having all of the attention in the room on him. His husband caught his eye again, and the two of them shared a moment from either end of the table. On the one hand, he hated surprises, but he still found room within that to appreciate whatever help Sheppard had been in orchestrating it. As it approached 2200, members of the cadre began to excuse themselves from the table.
Lieutenant Sarcaryn was one of the last to leave. The young Risian had been severely injured six months prior during an explosion on a Romulan starship. He nearly lost the use of his legs entirely, but Dr. Anjar had persuaded Starfleet Medical to allow him to try a combination of treatments, including cybernetics, nanites, and genetronic replication. He was still wearing leg braces, but all indications were that the young man would eventually make a full recovery.
“Thank you for including me, Captain,” Sarcaryn said.
Lancaster noticed that Ensign Galan was right behind him, looking at his friend with concern. The Romulan had a stated fondness for Sarcaryn. Indeed, it was that fondness that had led Galan to force a Romulan refugee to disclose vital intelligence about rogue Romulan elements that were pursuing them—at phaser point, he’d demanded a blood sample, as the information had been encoded molecularly. Galan had been charged with assault and insubordination. He should have been sent to a rehabilitation colony by all rights, but the refugee had declined to testify. Admiral Dahlgren dismissed the charge of assault and demoted Galan to ensign with a two-month brig sentence. It felt unjust, but Lancaster was secretly happy that a resource like Galan’s linguistic talents wouldn’t go to waste.
“Of course, Lieutenant,” Lancaster said, nodding to Sarcaryn. “Good luck on the Antares, Ensign Galan,” he said, catching the Romulan visibly by surprise.
Galan nodded. “Thank you, Captain. I will endeavor to make my service worthy of the second chance I have been given,” he said simply before departing with Sarcaryn.
Eventually, Lancaster and Sheppard were left alone in the dining room as everyone else went off to the next phase of their evening. In a good mood from the champagne and from how well the party had gone, he left his seat and moved to the other end of the table to perch himself on his husband’s lap, placing his arm behind the broader man’s shoulders for balance. He kissed Sheppard on the temple.
“That went well,” Lancaster noted, showing Sheppard the case the junior officers had given him.
“Was there any doubt?” Sheppard replied, smiling up at him. “I know you don’t like hearing this, but you’ve really mellowed since taking command. It’s nice to see you enjoying yourself with the crew,” he added.
Sheppard reached up to briefly run his fingers through Lancaster’s hair before returning his locks to the way he found them. While Lancaster thought about what he had said, he allowed himself to just enjoy the affection.
“The first officer is nervous about having Captain Armstrong at the reception,” Lancaster noted.
“You can just call him by his name, you know,” Sheppard replied. “I can’t imagine it’s easy to now be working with someone you have unrequited feelings for.”
“Maybe don’t tell him that. I get the sense that he’d like to believe he’s over it. The problem is that Armstrong seems to actually be over it,” Lancaster replied. “I told Ari I could ask you to flirt with him to make him feel better.”
That made Sheppard chuckle. “You’re going to loan me out just like that?”
“It’s not like you wouldn’t enjoy it,” Lancaster replied, hopping off of Sheppard’s lap and extending a hand to him. “Want to guess the odds of them ending up in bed together regardless?”
“Never bet on a sure thing,” Sheppard replied. The Italian man took his husband’s hand and stood up. “We should probably get to the reception you’re supposed to be hosting before you find a reason to sneak out of it.”
“Probably. That sounds like something I would do,” Lancaster agreed. “As well as this dinner went, I think the crew does have more fun when I’m out of the room, so we can take that as an excuse not to linger, at least.”
Sheppard laughed. “Spoken like a true party animal,” he said.
The two of them left the dining room in Arcturus Prime, where other groups were having their own gatherings in the main part of the restaurant. Things began to get more raucous as they passed through the atrium and the promenade toward the Plowman’s Tap. The last night of 2400 was already one Lancaster would remember, and he could already tell from the pulsing music coming from inside the bar that it was just getting started.