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USS Gibraltar, Transporter Room 2
In geo-synchronous orbit of Pierosh II

Ramirez hadn’t realized how much she’d missed the bustle and camaraderie of away team prep. This was her first away mission in six weeks, and as she and the rest of the team geared up, she felt a momentary twinge of nostalgia for those bright, naïve days before the Dominion War. Exploration, diplomacy, science; such things had been given short shrift during the bloody conflict.

She regretted that Lar’ragos was still confined to Sickbay. Despite whatever recent issues he might be having, his tactical abilities in the field made him a welcome addition to any landing party. In his stead, Master Chief Tark would be leading the team’s security contingent, comprised of three additional security personnel. Taiee and a medical technician would render aid to any injured discovered on the surface. Plazzi and Ashok rounded out the team.

Loaded for bear with phaser sidearms, tricorders, field jackets, and various specialized equipment, the team stood ready. Ramirez briefly inspected them to make sure everyone had a full compliment of gear. “I’ll beam down first with the security team to ensure the landing zone is safe. Once we signal things are clear, we’ll bring the rest of you down.” She turned to Taiee. “Lieutenant, you’re sure about the radiation danger?”

“Yes, sir,” the nurse practitioner replied. “The hyronaline boosters I’ve given the away team members should suffice to offset any moderate elevation in radiation levels encountered on the surface.” Ramirez had wanted to avoid encasing the away team in the bulky, cumbersome radiation-hardened EVA suits. If an ambush awaited them on the planet, she didn’t want the team facing the threat with the added disadvantages of poor visibility and decreased mobility.

Ramirez directed an appraising look at Plazzi. “And we’re not going to get fried by some unexpected radiation surge, right Commander?”

The older scientist shrugged awkwardly as he struggled into his field jacket. “Latest sensor readings show that the ambient radiation levels have gone back down to near normal.” He fastened the jacket, made an irritated face, and busied himself rearranging the placement of his gear for the third time. “Since we don’t know what caused the radiation spike and the shockwave in the first place, I can’t tell you if or when it might recur.” He gave the XO a blasé smile. “But that’s okay. I’m in Starfleet. We live for danger.”

Tark snorted, Taiee chuckled, and Ramirez rolled her eyes. “And on that note…” Ramirez stepped onto the transporter dais, followed by the master chief and his security team. They assumed a tactical beam-in formation, all five facing outwards with phasers rifles at the ready. She nodded to the transporter operator. “Energize.”

*****

Pierosh II
Meteorological Research Station Aristotle


Wonderful. It’s Planet Shale. That was Ramirez’s first thought as she looked out across the featureless landscape surrounding the survey station. It appeared as if the entire surface of the world had been littered with the chipped away refuse from some gigantic rock quarry. No vegetation, no water, no distractions of any kind to break up the monotonous vista. The flat, loose stones stretched out in all directions and gave the planet a chillingly desolate feel; a world of crushed rock under steel gray skies.

"Charming," Ramirez quipped. “Now that I’ve seen it, I’ll have to cancel my next trip to Risa.” She glanced at the sensor window displayed on her rifle’s scope. “Clear on my side. Master Chief?”

“Same here,” Tark affirmed. The other three offered identical reports. They broke out their tricorders, which had greater range and sensitivity than their tactical scanners. The security team probed for hidden traps or devices, but found nothing.

Ramirez tapped the compin affixed to her survival jacket. “Ramirez to Gibraltar. All clear planetside. Send down the rest of the team.”

A moment later, Plazzi, Ashok, Taiee and Medical Specialist Yoichi materialized. Taiee frowned and zipped her jacket to the top in deference to the biting wind that whipped across the plain. Plazzi’s eyes lit up upon seeing the surrounding panorama, the geologist in him thrilled by the forces that created this environment.

The exec ordered the security team into a perimeter around the specialists, and headed off towards the survey station, some two kilometers distant. The station was nearly as dreary as its surroundings. It was comprised of a series of boxy, two story structures interconnected by elevated walkways; a cubist’s dream. Plated with drab green weather resistant tritanium sheeting, the buildings had long, narrow windows and nests of antennae and sensor arrays extruding from their roofs.

As they approached, Plazzi noted, “No power signatures, Commander. When the facility was operational, it was supposed to be run on four mega-wattage fusion reactors, one in each structure.”

“Radiation levels?” the exec inquired.

“Nominal for the moment. I am, however, reading slightly elevated gamma emissions from the southeastern most building.”

In response, Ramirez turned to Taiee. The nurse looked up from her own tricorder to meet Ramirez’s eyes. “Still within safety parameters, sir.”

“Then that’s where we’ll head first.”

*****

With half the security team taking point and the other half bringing up the rear, they cautiously entered the structure. Not only was the building without power, it appeared every electronic device in the structure had been violently disrupted. They had been forced to cut through the doors at the entrance with their phasers. Lighting fixtures dangled from the ceiling by charred optical cabling, and computer terminals were blackened or partially melted.

Ashok paused to shine his palm beacon onto a scorched door control panel as he scanned it with his tricorder. In response to Ramirez’s questioning look, he muttered, “Electromagnetic pulse, Commander. A big one. Would have corrupted every electronic component within kilometers of here.”

“Is that the result of a weapon used on the facility, or something that originated here?”

The massive Bolian snapped his tricorder shut with a flick of his wrist as he leveled a carefully neutral expression at his superior. “Don’t know yet.”

From up ahead, PO2 Dunleavy from the security detachment called out, “I’ve… got something.” There was a strained quality to her voice that spurred the others ahead double-time.

The sight was so remarkable that even Taiee involuntarily gasped. A man, human by the look of him, slouched awkwardly from where the chair that he had presumably been seated in had somehow joined with his torso. It appeared that the man had become momentarily incorporeal, and had begun to fall through the chair towards the floor, only to regain his solidity just in time for his abdominal cavity to fuse with the seat.

“Please take your seats,” Plazzi said, his voice barely above a whisper. Nobody laughed.

Taiee crouched next to the man and ran the sensor wand from her medical tricorder over him. “I’m reading massive cellular disruption. Fortunately, whatever did this killed him instantly.”

Ramirez forced herself to look away from the ghastly sight. “Yes. Fortunately,” she echoed, unable to mask the irony in her tone. “So, now we know that there were people home in our supposedly abandoned research outpost.” She snuck a peek at Taiee’s tricorder over the nurse's shoulder and asked, “What would you estimate the time of death was?”

“Somewhere between fifteen and twenty hours ago.”

Ramirez nodded. “Right about the time of the shockwave that crippled Brahmaputra, then.” She gestured to the lead security detail and the exec instructed, “Let’s keep going.”

They proceeded further into the building, passing laboratories that looked as if they had been struck by miniature tornados, and living quarters and office cubicles that appeared untouched aside from their now defunct electronic systems.

Finally they reached the main operations center. The team members swept their lights across the various shattered computer banks as their boots crunched on shards of polymers blown free from workstations and monitors.

Taiee’s frozen breath billowed in her searchlight’s beam as she probed the darkness with it. Something caught her attention, a computer console that didn’t look quite right. She approached, her brain having difficulty deciphering what her eyes were telling her. “Found another one. I think.”

A Tellarite female had collapsed onto her workstation, but her arm and part of her head had taken on the properties of the workstation itself. An older style console, it was studded with push buttons, toggles and switches, some of which now extruded from the metallic mass of the woman’s skull and arm.

Ramirez called Ashok over to where the woman lay. She gestured towards the body. “Could an EM pulse do that, Lieutenant?”

Ashok inspected the macabre scene, then delivered his succinct analysis. “No.”

She gave the Bolian an incredulous look as she pried further. “What could, Mister Ashok?”

“Something else we’ve yet to encounter, sir.”

Ramirez bit back a snide reply about Ashok’s grasp of the obvious, keenly aware that her own discomfort with this eerie place was agitating her. She admonished herself silently, Don’t take it out on your people, Liana. Instead, she hailed Gibraltar to give the ship a brief update on what they’d discovered so far while the rest of the team continued their examination of the operations center.

A few moments later, she noticed Tark squatting on his haunches near a bank of wrecked computer processors affixed to one wall. He was studying his tricorder intently as she approached. “Something of note, Master Chief?”

Tark wiped the face of his tricorder across one sleeve to remove the crystallized water vapor from his exhalations that had clouded the display. “Yes, sir. There are three sublevels beneath the power plant in the basement.”

Ramirez frowned. “And…?”

The grizzled Tellarite looked up at her. “And they’re not in the design specs for the station that we requested from the Federation Science Directorate.”

Her frown grew more severe as Ramirez postulated, “An unintentional omission?”

Tark stood, stifling a groan as his old soldier’s knees crackled in protest. “I don’t think so, Commander.” He held his tricorder up for her inspection. “Those levels aren’t accessible from the power plant, only through what appears to be a hidden stairwell located behind one of those processor towers.”

She looked past the tricorder at the bank of processors then muttered some choice phrases in Cardassian under her breath. Then, more loudly, “A secret compartment and a hidden stairwell leading to underground chambers? You have got to be kidding.”

“I’m afraid not, sir.”

They approached the wall and Ramirez played her palm beacon’s beam into the seams between the processor towers. She handed the light to Tark, then squeezed her fingers into the gap between two towers and pulled. “Nothing. It won’t budge.”

“Scans show there’s a small motor mechanism in the wall. It was probably activated by a switch somewhere in this room.” Tark drew his phaser pistol; the weapon chirped as he increased the power setting. “Stand back, sir.”

She retreated quickly from the towers and looked on as Tark directed a brief yet surgical phaser beam that vaporized two of the processors and part of a third. Behind them, as promised, was a small doorway leading to a staircase.

She swept her light down the stairs, and looked back to the away team. “Plazzi, call the ship and let them know what that phaser fire was before we have a rescue team beaming into our midst.” She started down the stairs. “Oh, and tell the captain we found stairs.” Ramirez grinned nervously and paused for dramatic effect. “Tell him… they go down.”

*****



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