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//USS Diligent, Executive Officer’s Quarters
//Mission Day 10, 22:45 Hours
“Computer, privacy mode,” Bancroft ordered after the doors to his quarters closed behind him. He heard the magnetic locks engage with a satisfying clunk as he started to peel off his uniform.
Several days ago, after resetting and isolating the antimatter containment field sub-processor, he’d audited all twenty-six manual EPS breakers connected to the primary engineering computer system–one of which he’d earned a mild plasma burn from, due to it being sealed improperly during the refit. Luckily, that particular grid was nowhere near as highly-charged as the one connected to the weapons and propulsion systems, but it had still stung. More importantly, any uncertainty about the stability of the engine computers was entirely unacceptable. Bancroft, as XO, had considered ordering Watson or one of the engineers to do it after he briefed her on the alterations to the computer system, but for something so important he wanted to do it himself and see with his own eyes that it had been done correctly.
Over the subsequent five days, he’d spent most of gamma shift checking other systems in the bowels of the ship, especially ones that had been upgraded during the recent refit. This time, it was the backup targeting computer. After over two hours crawling through jefferies tubes, he was left completely exhausted, sweaty, grimy, and in an even worse mood than the day he’d been burned. Though, his mood hadn’t exactly been great since coming aboard in the first place.
Bancroft threw his clothes into the sanitizer bin and then indulged in an extra-long sonic shower, cranked up to a setting that left his skin tingling. He was frustrated; as much as he’d like to say that he wasn’t, or that the new posting didn’t bother him, but after five years on an explorer like the Lexington, he hadn’t envisioned ending up on a small ship again. He couldn’t quite put his finger on why he was cross, though when he stood in his tiny sonic shower he did wish that he still had a bathtub.
Bancroft pulled on a pair of shorts and sat down at the small desk in the corner of his quarters. There were dozens of things he that he needed to read still, but he wasn’t in the mood, so he turned to the small replicator built into the bookcase along the bulkhead.
“Computer, chef salad. Extra protein,” he ordered, then shook his head. “Cancel. Strip steak. Medium rare, with a baked potato. And a glass of scotch whiskey on the rocks,” he amended. The replicator whirred and created the requested items. He just stared at them for a moment before taking the cold glass and holding it against his neck.
“Incoming transmission marked personal from the starship Consolation,” the computer reported. The large screen over the desk changed from a visual arrangement of all of his files to the logo of the Starfleet Medical Corps. The Consolation was a hospital ship accompanying the small flotilla they were a part of, and Bancroft had no idea what anyone on that ship would want from him.
Bancroft sighed and put his glass down on the desk. “Fine. Open the channel.”
The unexpected face made him smile for the first time that day–his old friend Lucas Phillips. “Lucas.” They’d gone to Eton and Starfleet Academy together, and bounced back and forth between being best friends and lovers, but had only seen each other a handful of times since then. Phillips was still in uniform, and the background looked like a lab.
“Hello, Marcus. Dressing informally this evening, are we?” Phillips replied, with a laugh. Marcus looked down at his bare chest, and shrugged. “You’re looking well. What’s it been… three years?”
“Two. The Lexington and the Benevolence were both at Starbase 72, and–,” Bancroft started.
“–and you almost got me to cheat on my boyfriend with you, at that reception for the Betazoid ambassador with dress uniforms and canapés,” Phillips supplied.
Bancroft blanched; he wasn’t one for discussing that kind of things over subspace. “That was not… entirely… the sequence of events. You can’t hold your champagne, and it makes you handsy,” he corrected. Phillips just laughed in response. Bancroft took a drink of his scotch. “How is… what was his name, again?” he asked, trying to sound disinterested.
“Not important. Turns out he’d already been cheating on me at that point,” Phillips said, which made Bancroft smile again. This happened every time they talked after long breaks–just like nothing had changed. “How’d you end up on the Diligent?”
“How’d you know I was on the Diligent?”
“Fair play,” Phillips said. “A few weeks ago, I was aboard the Lexington on my way to this new assignment on the Consolation, and I asked where you’d gone. Still doesn’t explain why you’re on it. Someone mentioned you’d taken family leave? Is everything ok?”
Bancroft took a drink of his scotch. “Yeah. I was with my grandmother. She has Iverson’s disease.”
“Iverson’s. That’s tough. I’m so sorry to hear that. How is she?”
“How are you?”
“I’m tough, too,” Bancroft said, with a smile. “Starfleet reassigned me here when I ran out of leave time. The fleet is short on command-level officers, so now I’m Captain Rae’s XO.”
“How does it feel to be one heartbeat away from the center seat, Marcus?” Phillips asked.
“You shouldn’t talk like that,” Bancroft chided, before taking another drink. “It’s interesting. Not much different than being at ops, really. Where are you, anyway? Looks like sickbay.”
“It’s a hospital ship, so everywhere looks like sickbay. I’m the on-call physician for gamma shift for deck six, but it’s quiet right now.”
“Physician? You’re a doctor?! That’s great. Congratulations, Lucas,” Bancroft replied, with a smile. The last time they’d met, Phillips was taking medical courses over subspace as a nurse, but he hadn’t heard any updates since then. “I didn’t know.”
“I didn’t know you’d made Lieutenant Commander either,” Phillips reminded him.
“Two years ago. Right after we last saw each other,” Bancroft said. “Have we ever talked over subspace before?”
“No, I don’t think so. We’re not great at keeping in touch.”
“So, why’d you call tonight? Boredom?” Bancroft asked.
“It’s not the first time I’ve called you late at night,” Phillips suggested, biting his lip a little.
“Don’t do that.”
“Bite your lip. You know I like it, and it’s distracting,” Bancroft said, setting his glass on the desk. He sat up. “We can’t do this thing where we don’t speak for years, flirt, and then go radio silent again.”
“That’s not what this is, Marcus,” Phillips insisted, looking a little flustered. “That’s exactly what I don’t want. We’ve both been bad about keeping in touch, but I don’t want to do that anymore, not if we’re both in the Delta Quadrant. I called because I’m scared, and you’re the only person I can talk to.”
“Scared of what?” Bancroft asked, starting to feel a little concerned.
“This ward is empty now, but it’s not going to stay that way,” Phillips said, getting exasperated. Bancroft squirmed; it wasn’t exactly out of the realm of possibilities. Starfleet didn’t send hospital ships places it wasn’t expecting casualties. “I’ve been reviewing treatment protocols for Delta Quadrant weapons and diseases. They’re not pretty.”
Bancroft rubbed the back of his neck. “Lucas, there’s always going to be risk.”
“This is different and you know it.”
“The Delta Quadrant is a dangerous place, but that’s why Starfleet sent a whole fleet to reestablish the link. We’ve got each other’s back,” Bancroft said, not used to dealing with this level of emotion, from his friend. “We Etonians have to stick together, too. When’s the next time you’re on gamma shift?”
“Well, call me,” Bancroft insisted. “I’m sorry that we didn’t keep in touch before, but there’s no reason we can’t start now. You’re the only person I know for 70,000 light-years, and I… I’m so glad you called, Lucas,” he continued.
“I will,” Phillips said, some of his smile returning. He turned around briefly and then looked back at Bancroft. “I have to go. I’ll talk to you in a few days.”
The screen went blank and Bancroft slumped back into his chair. That was not a conversation that he had been expecting; Lucas Phillips was someone who had been important to him for a very long time, and still was, but he never would have imagined that they’d both end up on the Delta Quadrant expedition. He wasn’t sure how to feel–their relationship was amicable but quite complicated–but he knew he’d come uncomfortably close at several points to oversharing his thoughts about his new posting and their assignment.
Bancroft looked at his uneaten dinner and sighed. “Computer, warm that up and bring up the most urgent report in my inbox,” he said, before settling in for a few more hours of work.
// Yorkshire, United Kingdom of Great Britain, European Union, United Earth
// 2 weeks prior to the mission
Marcus Bancroft watched from across the room over his PADD as the holographic doctor applied a hypospray to his grandmother’s carotid artery. The EMH program had been distributed as an open-source piece of software with all classified Starfleet data removed from the matrix, but having one at home was still a vast extravagance, not to mention the holographic servants also installed in the manor house. After a fifty-year career in the Federation Diplomatic Corps, no one could begrudge her those kinds of comfort, though. Over the past several years, she had been suffering the effects of Iverson’s Disease, an incurable muscular disorder that gradually caused the sufferer to lose the ability to move, and eventually even the involuntary muscular responses like the heart beating would become impossible.
“Will there be anything else, Your Grace?” the Mark I variant asked, after finishing the injection. It’s Starfleet uniform had been replaced with a formal black suit, along with a special protocol subroutine that gave it an extra sense of deference towards her status as a hereditary duchess. Even in the twenty-fourth century, Humanity, like the Andorians and Betazoids, hadn’t completely discarded such things–they now served as important links to the past and as a call to duty for their bearers to serve the public interest.
“No. You can leave us,” she replied. The hologram placed the hypospray back on a silver tray, and then left the room. Bancroft momentarily wondered how much power was wasted every time it did that, rather than simply vanishing into thin air. His grandmother hovered over to him in her mobility chair. “Now, shall we have tea?”
“I’ll get it,” Bancroft said, standing up from his armchair. The library of Tonbridge Hall was magnificent, with a huge floor-to-ceiling collection of old books, along with comfortable furniture and ornate decor; his favorite room of the old house.
“You could let the house do that, you know. That’s the whole point of having the system,” she said, not quite chiding him as he walked over to the replicator, which was concealed behind a painting.
“Well, I need to acclimate to real life, now that I’m going back on duty,” Bancroft noted, as the painting vanished and a tea service materialized behind it. He carried it over to set it on a table in the center of the room. “Besides, it makes me feel like I’m being helpful to do it myself.”
“Having you hear the last three months has been enormously helpful,” his grandmother replied. “It’ll be good for you to go back into space, though. You’re a pilot; I can’t imagine what being grounded feels like for you,” she said, as she reached shakily for the teapot. Bancroft intercepted her and poured her cup.
“I think that you probably have a pretty good idea of what it feels like, granny,” he replied, nodding towards the support chair.
“Well, quite. Gradually losing the ability to walk and take care of oneself isn’t an experience I’d recommend,” she said, tartly. “Now, tell me about this new assignment. Is it suitable?”
“Suitable? I don’t exactly get to chose my postings based on their prestige,” he replied, as he contemplated the tea cup. “I am to be executive officer aboard the USS Diligent,” He’d been a lieutenant commander for two years already, for the end of his four-year stint as operations officer aboard the Lexington, a position that he’d taken personal leave from to spend time with his grandmother. Now out of leave time, he’d been re-assigned to another ship quite unexpectedly.
“And what type of ship is that?”
“It’s small. Complement of 120. Starfleet calls it either a frigate or a light explorer, depending on the time of day,” Bancroft replied. “You have higher security clearance than I do. I’m guessing you already knew the answer to that question,” he added. As a former ambassador, she retained access to Starfleet’s databases, along with a huge network of connections across the Federation. It was practically impossible for her not to have known about his assignment even before he did.
“Yes, but I’ve never had an eye for specifics like that. I was more interested in finding out where you were going. I’ve heard that you’re going to the Delta Quadrant, of all places,” she said.
“Have you? Well, that’s not a surprise either,” he said, stirring his tea. “I would rather stay closer to Earth.”
“Orders are orders. Besides, you can’t hang around here waiting for me to die. I’ve still got years left,” she said, with a smirk.
“Must you joke like that, granny?”
She laughed. “Are not the condemned entitled to a little gallows humor?”
“No,” he said, simply. “I suppose you’ll tell me that I need to have a stiff upper lip about it all?”
“There’s no use rending your clothes and hair over little me,” she said, with a soft smile. “I still disapprove of you using all of your vacation time, but I have appreciated having you here. And your sister is coming next week, and your father in the spring. I’m well taken care of here. You shouldn’t worry.”
As Bancroft was formulating a reply to that, his commbadge chirped. “Palatine to Bancroft. We’re ready to beam you aboard.”
Bancroft tapped the badge. “Standby, Palatine.”
“Well, it looks like you shan’t be able to finish your tea,” his grandmother said. “These things always happen at the worst times, don’t they?” she added, though Bancroft was relatively sure she was talking about her illness as much as she was talking about the spoiled tea time. The words hung there for a moment, before Bancroft stood up, and gave her a kiss on each cheek.
“I’ll see you soon, granny,” he said. “Bancroft to Palatine. One to beam up.”
He disappeared from the library in a shimmer of blue and white, before materializing on the transporter pad of a Vesta-class ship. From Earth to Starbase 349, the four-hundred light year journey was two weeks at maximum warp–three for any ship slower than the sleek vessel that he was hitching a ride with. That ship was much more his style–a grand explorer, rather than a frigate–but he wasn’t paying to much attention to his surroundings while he was being led to his quarters. He was thinking about the Delta Quadrant instead.
Of all of the places Starfleet operated, the Delta Quadrant was probably the least hospitable, most dangerous, and, to him, the biggest waste of time. Without regular transportation links, trade options were marginal, and Federation colonial interests were quite limited. Without a single large power like in the Gamma Quadrant, or many well-balanced powers like the ones in the Alpha and Beta Quadrants, the Delta Quadrant really was a frontier, in the grittiest sense of that word. Yes, it was Starfleet’s mission to explore, but why go so far from home when there was plenty to see in their own part of space?
From what limited information he had about their new mission, he knew that their primary goal was to find a reliable way from the Delta Quadrant back to Federation space. They were flying out 70,000 light-years just to find a way back; it all seemed a little recursive. It also brought him back to a moment in his youth.
// Berkshire, United Kingdom of Great Britain, European Union, United Earth
// March 4, 2376, 2000 Hours
It had just been days since communication had briefly been re-established between Earth and the starship Voyager. The cadet-candidates at Eton College’s Starfleet Academy Preparatory Program (SAPP) were in high spirits as they got ready for a field exercise–they were going to be beamed into a nearby forest with limited equipment, to be tasked with roughing it through the night and making their way back to the college in the morning. Everyone was in high spirits, that was except Cadet-Candidate Bancroft.
The locker room was abuzz with energy as they checked over their gear–old-style type-2 phaser pistols, expedition vests with lights on the shoulders, a few field rations, and a portable shelter, a heavily-limited tricorder, and a communicator they could use to call for help. The phasers were capped at about 1%, which would be enough to start a fire or make small cuts, but a.) 17 year-olds, even if they were at one of the most elite schools on the planet, didn’t need real weapons, and b.) there hadn’t been anything in Berkshire that would have been a threat to them for over 500 years. Bancroft still checked every part of it, adjusting the focusing lens before sliding the powerpack into place with a snap.
“Remember what end of that faces out, Lord Bancroft?” one of his classmates, Mitchell, teased. Dark-haired and from Wales, they’d never gotten along and Bancroft couldn’t exactly figure out why.
Bancroft gritted his teeth. “Don’t call me that, and, yes, I’m quite sure which end is which,” he replied, tartly. He stood up and put it onto the holster of his utility belt. He suspected that even having them was an affectation to make the exercise feel more real. Though, he felt that Starfleet would have to do a lot better than that–spending a night in the countryside of Southern England was about as comparable to a survival situation on an alien planet as getting a sunburn was to strolling shirtless through the corona of a G-type star.
“It’s your name isn’t it?” the other boy hissed.
“‘Starfleet Regulation 14, Section 7, Subsection 21: Members of Starfleet who possess hereditary titles of any kind are prohibited from using them while on active duty, during reserve training actions, and while representing Starfleet in any capacity,'” Bancroft quoted, calmly. As a younger son of a marquess, in the most formal of situations, he held the courtesy title of Lord, though he found that it generally caused him more grief than anything. “My name is Cadet-Candidate Bancroft.”
“I think your name is whatever I call you,” Mitchell countered. Predictably, when they did enter Starfleet Academy, Mitchell signed up for the security track, and ended up posted to a front-line unit sent to the Federation’s trouble spots. Also predictably, they never stayed close.
Bancroft felt himself moving towards him, but he was caught by the arm. Taller than both of them, Lucas Phillips was auburn and from near Edinburgh, giving him a slight accent. He’d always been nice to Bancroft, which left him with a slight crush in response. After the SAPP and the academy, Phillips went on to a successful career as a nurse on a hospital ship. “Leave him alone. Come on,” he said, steering Bancroft away from the situation.
“You shouldn’t’ve done that. He’ll just tease me more,” Bancroft said, blushing for a number of reasons. “And you.”
“So what if he teases us? Don’t rise to the bait. Besides, he’s just jealous that you’re a standard deviation above the rest of the class on flight simulator scores,” Phillips replied. Bancroft blushed again. “Are you excited for the exercise?”
Bancroft shook his head. “I don’t really relish the idea of being beamed into the middle of the woods and then being asked to find my way back. I thought the whole point of exploration was to find one’s way away from somewhere, not a way back to it,” he reasoned, as they walked through the hallway to the transporter room.
“I suppose that’s one way of thinking about it. But in other words you’re saying you don’t relish the idea of an overnight camping trip with me,” Phillips teased.
Bancroft stopped in his tracks. “With you?”
“You didn’t look at the roster? We’re partners,” Phillips replied.
“I… Well, no, then. I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t relish that idea,” Bancroft stammered. “You have exceptional scores on all of our technical and physical tests, and I am fairly good at navigation, so we should stand a good chance,” he reasoned. Phillips’ gaze remained on him for a split second longer than it had to, before they continued on their way. That had basically been the tone of their interactions over the previous six years; Phillips giving him an opening and Bancroft tripping all over himself.
A Starfleet lieutenant was running the exercise, and reiterated the mission: set up camp successfully and return home in the morning. Simple enough. It turned out to be anything but. Bancroft and Phillips were the last pair to leave. Within minutes of materializing in a clearing in a nearby forest, it started to rain heavily. Earth’s weather control system prevented anything that would cause severe damage, but storms were a necessary part of Earth’s ecological cycle, unfortunately for them. They wandered around in the rain and the dark for an hour before the lightning started to pick up.
“We have to get somewhere safer. These trees aren’t going to do us any favors!” Phillips exclaimed. He was right, they need to get as low as possible to minimize the risk of being electrocuted. It was standard procedure. The forest floor was relatively, level, though, and being near tall trees wasn’t very safe. Bancroft wracked his brain trying to find a solution, until he remembered that the majority of the underlying substructure of the area was limestone.
“I have an idea,” Bancroft said, as he fumbled with the basic tricorder they’d been given. Most of the geomapping features had been disabled, but he was still able to set it to scan for density. “There’s a negative mass one-hundred meters this way!”
“A cave,” Bancroft explained, before they set out. They had to scramble down an embankment, which Bancroft did successfully. Phillips misjudged the distance and fell hard, covering himself in leaves and mud. Bancroft helped him to his feet, and he remembered feeling a twinge of guilt for not looking out for him more closely. When they got to the cave entrance, Phillips started to head in, but Bancroft grabbed him by the back of his vest to stop him, as he switched his tricorder to lifesigns mode.
“What are you doing?”
“‘Starfleet Regulation 476.2, Section 10: During field operations in unknown environments, thorough scans of any caves or other confined spaces will be made before away team members enter,'” Bancroft quoted. There were no life signs and the cave’s structural integrity was acceptable.
“You really do have all of them memorized…,” Phillips said, sounding a little exhausted at the thought.
They passed through a small corridor towards a large, round chamber. The lights from their away vests lit up the room and there was nothing in the way of vegetation or fauna worth noting. With a slight smirk, Bancroft unclipped his phaser from his belt and set it to heat mode. He fired it at a large rock in the center of the chamber, which made it glow red and start putting off a fair amount of heat. It was something he’d always wanted to try for real.
“You enjoyed that,” Phillips noted, setting his pack down on the stone floor of the cave, and starting to pull off his muddy gear. “You’ve never struck me as someone who’d be overly pleased with himself over firing a phaser.”
Bancroft scoffed. “I enjoyed seeing physics in action. Along with a little bit of self-satisfaction over having found this cave,” he added. “This isn’t exactly what I imagined. I thought they just wanted to see if we could pitch a tent. I bet they sent us out into the rain on purpose.”
“This planet hasn’t had an incorrect forecast in two-hundred years,” Phillips said, with a grin. “You surely didn’t think it’d be easy. This is SAPP after all.”
“I… underestimated the task,” Bancroft said.
Phillips laughed. “So, you’re enjoying this now that you think it’s difficult?”
“I suppose so. I liked figuring something out. Not as much as flying, but it was a nice feeling. Any ideas on how we’re going to get back?”
“No idea. But if you thought getting caught in the rain was fun, I’m guessing figuring out how to find our way home is going to be a blast, too. Unless you still think we can’t explore backwards.”