Chapter 2

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Chapter 2  (Present time) 

Captain Almeida gave the order to send the ship into FTL drive. The Qatar had been ordered to the system's second planet of Bao, currently mid way through its trajectory on the far side of the sun Zhu.  

Colonists from Tian were attempting to establish an outpost on the smallest continent, after a series of setbacks on the two larger land masses. The wildlife had been too aggressive in one instance, and the climate variation too extreme in the second. Although they could have destroyed the desert dragons, experience had shown that it was best to let evolution work these dynamics out without human intervention. If a species was too aggressive, it often destroyed itself. The continent they had chosen to settle on was at the base of the planet, hot and dry with no surface water and only rudimentary life. 

Almeida could remember the attempt by some environmental groups to have the whole planet protected but humans had to live somewhere and this was the best compromise the Aurigan Exploratory Service could come up with. 

Captain Lang, Chief of Police in Huan, had received various unsubstantiated reports of a black market developing in desert dragon skins and now the Qatar was on its way to Bao to investigate. Almeida wondered cynically if the original team had given the reptiles a more prosaic name, like 'big lizards' instead of the romantic 'dragon', whether anyone would have bothered the creatures.  

He asked his First Lieutenant to join him on the bridge. 

"Stewart, I'm putting you in charge of this assignment. You can take Beta team with you and a couple of fliers. There's a small patrol outpost at the colony on Guo, that's the name they've given the third continent, so I'll send Wilson down to have a chat to them in a day or so, see if they know anything. Let them know we're here." 

Stewart nodded. "We'll go straight to the desert area?" 

"I thought so," Almeida agreed. "Don't want them getting warned off earlier than we have to." It was always difficult dealing with small settlements when there was criminal activity in the area. Chances were extremely high that at least one of the inhabitants was actively involved in the offence or at least being paid to turn a blind eye. 

"The new Medic, Banner, has asked to go along with you," the Captain continued. "He's interested in the desert dragons, in fact he's got an additional qualification in xenobiology, and would like to get a closer look at them if he can." 

Stewart raised an eyebrow.  

"He understands he'll be under your command during the mission," Almeida reassured him. "And he'll stay out of the way until you have the situation secured." 

"Alright then," the Lieutenant agreed, trying to remember if he had met Banner yet. The Qatar had taken on a couple of new crewmen when they'd docked at Mao the day before. 

He headed down to the infirmary to introduce himself. He made a point of always knowing as much as he could about the men in his team before he worked with them, before he found himself in a position where lives depended on that knowledge.  

Medical Officer Michael Banner looked up at the tall man bearing down on him, wearing a Lieutenant's uniform and braced himself. This must be Alan Stewart, the man he had been told was an om within his first hour of coming aboard the Qatar. The man who had given him the news, the Medic he was replacing, had been giving him an informal overview of all the officers and had mentioned it almost as an afterthought. Banner had stared at him in startled surprise. That sort of information was not normally made public. The other man hastened to reassure him. "It's alright, he doesn't hit on any one in the crew. He says he prefers older men so unless you're over forty you're safe!" He laughed. "He's a good man, the Lieutenant, you'll see. In fact it's a good ship, I'll be sorry to leave, even though I'm sure I'll enjoy the placement on Mao." 

Lieutenant Stewart saw the stranger turn towards him and just like that, his pulse leapt into overdrive. Thick black hair, wide forehead with grey eyes under arching black brows, perfect smooth skin with just a touch of shadow around the jaw, kissable lips ... much too young of course. It was a long time since he had felt such a strong physical attraction to a man, with a face like that he must have women falling all over him, men too for that matter! His nostrils flared as he tried to damp down his attraction. He held out his hand, "Michael Banner? I'm Lieutenant Stewart, I hear you'll be joining us in our operation down on Bao." 

Banner took his hand a little stiffly, "Sir." He let go as soon as he could. 

Stewart sighed inside, not another man who was uncomfortable around oms. It was a constant battle that he fought every day since the crew had found out a few years ago. Unless you were living like a monk he didn't see how someone who got to his age could hide that about himself, particularly if he hung out at om friendly bars on Capella where he was bound to be recognised eventually. Long practice allowed him to keep his expression one of polite friendliness. On the other hand, perhaps Banner's reaction was not surprising if he found himself constantly having to fend off unwanted advances.  

"You're interested in the desert dragons?" he asked, casually stepping back to give the man space. 

Banner's face relaxed into a smile, which immediately undid all the good work Stewart had just done to cool down his ardour. "Yes, I was lucky enough to be able to study a real skull when I was in Huan. There were some extremely unusual features which I'd like to examine in more detail. I'd really like to be able to see a live one, but a complete skeleton would also suit me if I could find one. It resembles an extinct species on Earth, Tuatara, but I need more data to make any valid comparisons-" he broke off self consciously. "Sorry! Don't get me started unless you've got a spare hour or so!"  

Stewart smiled in return, "It sounds interesting," he replied in all sincerity. Mind you, he would have found rock salt interesting if Banner were talking about it. "But for the moment I need to know if you've had any combat experience at all?" 

Banner shook his head. "No, sorry sir. The Captain already explained to me that I'll have to stay out of your way. I'll wait until you give me the go ahead before I start looking for specimens, I promise." 

"Fair enough. When you hear the call for Beta team, that will include you. Can I suggest you have a small pack ready to go? There probably won't be much notice." 

"Right. Thank you sir," Banner was grateful. 

Lieutenant Stewart took his leave and returned to the bridge. Just as well that young man was at least slightly homophobic, he thought, for both their sakes. He was just too cute. He'd have to be careful to keep a safe distance from him during the mission, he didn't want to embarrass them both.

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