8 Following the plasma trail left behind by unknown vessels Tazla Star had discovered, without anybody taking notice, was not a simple proposition. First and foremost, much of the air and orbital space around and above the major population centers were carefully monitored by the authorities as would have been expected by any modern society. Taking off in a shuttle and taking it into orbit would have drawn immediate and unwanted attention, particularly since the Starfleet contingent on Piqus had been given strict restrictions regarding their allowed movements. But something else had occurred to Tazla. Piqus itself had been under a stringent quarantine protocol which not only predated their arrival on this world but judging from the decay rate of those plasma trails, also predated the telltale signs of orbital traffic they had uncovered in the Paradise District. This seemed to imply that whoever had piloted those vessels would have had to contend with the same problems they were facing now, trying to head into orbit undetected by any ground-based observatories. Save for a number of satellites, Piqus did not possess any orbital platforms. Any vessel leaving the surface may have been able to fool initial scans by running on low-energy mode, perhaps even using some basic stealth technology, but even that would only get a ship that far before it would be detected by sensors constantly searching the skies in order to enforce the quarantine. The answer to the riddle became obvious once Tazla managed to figure out where the plasma trails were leading initially. Not directly into orbit, as she had first expected, but towards the planet’s northern magnetic pole, located just a few hundred kilometers from the city. The overlapping trails spoke of significant traffic over the last few weeks, perhaps even months, the ship’s always staying low to the surface, following a course to avoid the few spread-out population centers and taking advantage, no doubt, of the dark Piqus nights. Since the plasma trails were already decaying rapidly, Tazla and Katanga had wasted little time to take to the Emerson, one of the half-dozen shuttles Eagle had left behind, and then using the cover of darkness to set out to follow the plasma trails towards the planet's North Pole. Once they had reached the arctic region, Tazla realized that her assumption had been absolutely correct, the trails lead straight up into orbit from here, the magnetic interference in the area likely hiding any ships entering or leaving the atmosphere. The plasma wakes led away from the planet and deeper into the Piqus system, towards the once mineral-rich asteroid belt which as far as Tazla was aware, from the admittedly limited intelligence they had been able to gather, had long since been mined to depletion. “This doesn’t make any sense,” Katanga said, sitting to Star’s right in the shuttle’s cockpit while the Trill piloted the vessel towards the asteroid formation. “Why would anyone introduce a virus to Piqus from somewhere as close as the asteroid belt?” “There must be more to this,” she said while she concentrated on flying the compact type-eight shuttle. “The multiple trails clearly hint at continuous traffic between the city and the asteroid belt.” Katanga nodded. “My witness seemed to indicate a frequency of travel as well.” "In which case, this isn't necessarily just about introducing a virus to Piqus," she said and looked at him. "Think about it, these vessels continued to operate even after the quarantine, meaning long after the virus was first introduced to the planet, and they've only stopped recently." “If at all,” said Katanga. “For all we know they may have just changed their base of operations on Piqus.” She offered him a short nod. “Whatever is going on here, I’m starting to think it might be bigger than just a disease.” He offered her a grin, a rare sight on his features over the last few weeks. “What’s got you so amused all of a sudden?” "Oh, nothing. Just Dez and Eli back in action, solving the mysteries of the universe. Just like the good old days." She shook her head as she focused back on her console. “You have a fundamentally distorted view of our past endeavors.” “I don’t know, it strikes me that we did some good work back then. After all one of the things that came out of our adventures was the creation of MAAP,” he said before his face darkened once more. “Then you got that new, curvy body of yours and now it’s all about orders and politics, instead of the common good like it used to be.” She swiveled her chair sideways to face him, trying hard to keep her rising irritation in check. "All right, let's get this over with for once and for all, shall we?" “This is hardly the place or the time,” he said without making eye contact. Star turned back to her controls but only to bring the shuttle to a full stop, after which she turned right back to him, determined not to go one inch further until they’ve had a long overdue talk. “We’re doing this now,” she said with finality. He sighed and moved his own chair to face her. “Very well.” “I am really getting sick and tired of your constant accusations that I somehow lost all compassion for other people since my days as Dezwin. First and foremost, let’s get one thing perfectly straight. Yes, you’re right that I’m not Dezwin anymore. I fondly carry all his thoughts and memories inside me, but I am my own person and have been ever since I was born and even after I joined with Star. I am the first to admit that I have made a number of bad decisions since my joining, some might even argue, disastrous ones, but I’ve worked hard over the last few years to regain the respect and trust of the people I work with. And the fact that I have lost yours—the man I possibly respect and trust the most—has hurt me a great deal. And I don’t think it’s entirely fair.” "Was it fair for you to take it upon yourself and make decisions on my behalf after you knew precisely that I would not agree with them?" he said, crossing his arms defiantly in front of his chest. “Fair? No, perhaps not. But Eli, you have to appreciate that you’re working within a command structure now. A command structure in which I outrank you and on occasions have to make decisions that you may not like. If you have difficulties acclimating to working in this manner, perhaps you should not have volunteered for starship duty again.” "This isn't about following orders, and you know that. You made a unilateral decision about something I should have had a say in and you chose to ignore that. I know the years after you became Tazla Star were tough for you and that you still suffer from it. Hell, I've been the one helping you get you off that Syndicate poison you were addicted to, but I just cannot stand it when people take it upon themselves to make so-called hard decisions consequences be damned and then justify them by quoting some sort of hypothetical greater good." She massaged her temples, trying to stave off a headache. “It was a gods-damned apology, Eli. A few meaningless words in a statement to a half-senile head of state holding a stupid grudge.” “It’s the principle, Taz. Maybe it’s just a few words today, but what about tomorrow? Tomorrow it might be more than words, once more justified in the name of some ethically questionable concept. What is it the Vulcans like to say? ‘The good of the many, outweighs the good of the few’? That is a dangerous precedent to set and I don’t want to be party to it. And certainly not as a tool for you to resurrect your career,” he said, staring her right in the eye as he spoke. “And that,” she said and pointed at him, “is complete nonsense. The notion that I did any of that for my own personal gain. Honestly, that hurts me the most, that you would have such a low opinion of me. Yes, I did it because there was a greater good to be achieved, but I would have done it regardless of how it would have affected my standing with the captain or even within Starfleet itself. Because it was the right thing to do at the time.” The two old friends glowered at each other for a moment. It was Katanga who began to nod first. “Okay.” She shot him a quizzical look. “Okay?” “Yes.” “What do you mean, okay?” “Just that.” Her look darkened noticeably. “We’re good?” He nodded. “Yes, we’re good.” This in itself did not appease her at all, if anything it only made her madder. “What the hells, Eli? All the anger and righteous indignation you’ve been throwing my way over the last few weeks, making it a nightmare to even try to talk to you, and now, suddenly, it’s all forgotten? What was all this about then?” He turned to face his controls again. “I just needed to hear you say it.” “Say what?” “That you were convinced that it was the right thing to do on its own merits. That you didn’t act this way because others expected you to. I needed to know that you had conviction of your beliefs.” “Godsdamned it, you could have just asked.” He shrugged. She just shook her head and turned to the flight controls, putting the shuttle back in motion towards the asteroid belt. “You know what, Eli? You’re an old, pigheaded son-of-a-bitch sometimes and a real pain in my backside.” He offered her a brief smile over his shoulder. “Just the type to keep you honest.” Before she could consider this sudden development in her interpersonal relationship with Elijah Katanga, she noticed him leaning closer to the forward facing viewport, his eyes noticeably squinting. “What in the blazes is that?” She followed his gaze until she found what had startled him so. They were heading deeper into the dense asteroid belt, filled with thousands of rocks of all sizes, most of which posed no danger to the shuttle and its shields. Katanga had fixed his attention on one of bigger ones, not quite the size of a small moon, but multiple times larger than a major starship. It didn’t take her long to realize why it had drawn his notice. Almost half of the large rock was outright missing. She glanced down at her instruments to run a scan. “There’s a lot of background radiation in this asteroid field and the shuttle’s sensors are not powerful enough to cut through it.” “Don’t need sensors to tell me that there’s something very wrong with that asteroid,” he said. “And that they’re usually not hollow.” "Hollow?" she said and looked back up and out of the viewport. Indeed upon closer inspection, she realized that he was right. A clearly artificial interior was visible where the outer mantle of the asteroid had presumably shed-off and was now exposed to the vacuum of space. "Good eyes." “Other parts of me might be slowing down, but my vision is still excellent, thank you very much,” he said and regarded her with a frown. She turned back to her console. “I think that asteroid is the main source of the radiation I’m registering. There are also signs of significant subspace disruptions in the area. Odd.” “What?” She shook her head. “The radiation. It looks familiar. I’m sure I’ve seen the pattern before but I cannot quite put my finger on it.” “Let’s go over there and have a look.” “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” But Katanga was not going to take no for an answer. “Dez, we’ve come this far, no point in turning back now. The answers we are looking for are over there,” he said and pointed out of the viewport. “Let’s go get them.” She hesitated for a moment but perhaps what finally won her over was not the strength of his argument, but the fact that he had reverted back to calling her by her former host’s name, which she had always considered a sign of endearment and one he had mostly abandoned over the last few weeks. She glanced back at her board. “It won’t be easy,” she said. “There is a lot of radiation and I don’t think we can trust transporters. We would need to go EVA.” “Suits me just fine,” he said and stood to get ready to leave the shuttle. It took Tazla a few minutes to get the shuttle close enough to the asteroid to attempt boarding the exposed internal areas. She also spotted something that looked like a large landing bay but she ruled out the possibility of trying to set down the shuttle within the asteroid itself due to a total lack of gravity and the large amount of debris littering the deck. Instead, she backed up the small vessel as close as possible to the asteroid base and then lowered the back ramp after ensuring the force field protecting the ship's interior pressure and atmosphere was at full strength. By the time she had locked down the controls and left her chair, Katanga had already retrieved two white and red environmental suits. Tazla and Katanga quickly stripped out of their uniforms, pulled on the formfitting undersuits and then helped each other into the hard-shell EV suits. Katanga struggled a little bit with getting the bulky helmet sealed in place at first. “Is this a good time to check when you were last certified for extra-vehicular activity?” she asked as she helped him with the helmet, referring to the standard training process every Starfleet officer had to complete at regular intervals. At least in theory. Like many things in Starfleet, seniority could get one out of a number of unpleasant tasks. “Let’s just say that I’ve likely done more of those in one lifetime than you had to do in all of yours,” he said impatiently. She wasn’t quite sure she agreed with that and it had also not answered her question. She made a mental note to check the records once they were back on Eagle. “I swear they make these blasted things tighter every few years on purpose,” he said grumbling once the suit was fully sealed. “God forbid anyone should ever be comfortable while taking a stroll through the vacuum of space.” “The more likely story is that you’ve gained some weight.” “Nonsense.” Star just smirked as she connected a tether to the shuttle and then attached it to both their suits. “Just stick close to me. I’d rather not lose you out there, especially now since we are such good buddies again,” she said over their helmet comms. She stepped out of the force field and onto the ramp extending into nothingness first and then waited for Katanga to follow her with ginger steps. “Stand by to deactivate your magnetic boots. I’ll use my thrusters to get us over there, you just hang on.” “By all means, lead the way.” And so she did. She turned off the boots, immediately feeling herself becoming weightless and then glanced over to Katanga who quickly followed suit. Then she activated her thrusters and gave them both a gently burst towards the asteroid which was just a few hundred meters in front of them. The trickiest bit was dodging the debris and asteroid fragments swirling all across their path. Clearly whatever had happened to the asteroid had not been on purpose and there was enough evidence to suggest that the interior areas had experienced an explosive decompression, which meant that if the base had been staffed at the time, it would have been very likely that the incident had led to multiple casualties. “This looks bad,” he said. She nodded inside her helmet. “I don’t think they saw this coming.” Star dodged and redirected a few, large storage containers in their path, not worrying too much about smaller items which were becoming more numerous as they got closer, such as various handheld tools, devices and even some articles of random clothing. She sat down gently on the outer edge of a large room which was fully exposed to the vacuum and reactivated her boots. A moment later she looked on as Katanga did the same. They both reached for their tricorders and began scanning. “Radiation is definitely more pronounced here.” “I see it, too,” he said. “I would have to take more readings but I’d bet my bottom dollar that this radiation would wreck havoc on biological organism if not properly shielded.” She turned to look at him. “Enough to cause a rapid degradation of the immune system?” “Perhaps. As I said, I’ll need more data.” She nodded and then sat out deeper into the room, taking short, small steps and making sure that Katanga stayed close at her side. The further they stepped into the facility the more obvious it became that whatever had happened to the station had happened recently. “Judging by the decay rate of the radiation, I’d guess this happened two, maybe three weeks ago,” said Star. “And yet the plasma trails we have been following here are much more recent.” She had considered that herself. For now, she had no explanation for that discrepancy. “What is this over here?” said Katanga and then headed towards a number of heavy doors arranged in a row. One of the doors had ripped away from the wall and was nowhere in sight. Tazla followed him to find a large but featureless and empty room behind the missing door. The walls of the room were scorched black as if something very powerful had burned itself out within it, perhaps even blown that heavy door off its hinges. “I’m reading trace materials of boronite and painite here. Those are some seriously rare minerals.” “And boron-based, if I’m not mistaken.” She turned to look at him. “Yes. Why is that important?” “Boron is mostly harmless to many humanoid species but it can be very dangerous to insectoids.” Star followed. "And Krellonians have genetic similarities to insectoids from their early evolutionary development. A significant exposure to high levels of boron could have caused the Krellonian metabolism to break down rapidly." “More than that, I wager. If our theory is correct, not only would significant exposure have led to a breakdown of biological functions, it may even have created the virus itself, incubated within those who were initially infected.” “And if whoever worked here came from Piqus, they would have taken it back with them and then infected other Krellonians who were never even close to the initial boron exposure,” she said. Katanga nodded. “I think this might be exactly what happened here. And now that I know that the virus was triggered by boron-based radiation, I might be able to devise an antidote.” “The question still remains why the boron was here in the first place. What were they doing with it?” said Tazla and then moved on to the next door which was still sealed in place and contained a small viewport. “Does it matter? We may have just figured out how to beat this plague.” She raised her tricorder to scan the contents of the sealed room but froze when she noticed the readout on its small display. "Omega? What does that mean?" Katanga asked as he noticed the blue symbol for the Greek letter appear on Star's tricorder. Her only response was an ancient Trill curse the likes of which startled even the world-weary Elijah Katanga. He didn't get much of a chance to inquire further on the matter since her tricorder was sounding yet another, urgent alarm. “When it rains,” she mumbled to herself and then looked up at the puzzled doctor. “I set up the shuttle’s sensors to alert me of any activity before we left. Looks like we’re about to have company.” “We need to get out of here. Take what we’ve found back to Piqus,” he said. She clipped her tricorder to the waist of her suit. “No argument here. In fact, the quicker the better. Hold on to me,” she said as she reached out for him. “Why do I have a feeling I’m not going to like this part?” he said but still grabbed hold of her outstretched arm. “No point complaining now, you were the one who wanted to come here.” “One thing you should know about aging humans,” he said, “is that complaining about things is our favorite thing to do.” “I had noticed. Turn off your boots,” she said and then did the same to her own, causing her to start drifting away from the deck plates once the magnetic lock had been broken. He did the same and with moments he was floating next to her. “Hold on, this might be a little uncomfortable.” “I’m a Doctor, I know that means you’re understating things.” With her free hand, she wrapped some of the slack tether around her gloved hand and then, once she had a firm grip, pulled on it sharply. The tether reacted almost instantly, reeling back at high speed and jerking them both forward and towards the shuttle. The mad dash through the outpost barely afforded them a chance to dodge any debris and loose items still floating between them and their destination, and for the most part, the best they could do was try and turn their heads to protect their face places from any impacts. Thankfully they had already cleared most of the larger items which had been in their path earlier but Katanga did have a close run-in with what looked like a heavy fuel drum tumbling right in front of them. Tazla was certain she’d be sore in the morning, particularly since they were both unceremoniously dumped into the interior of the shuttle, landing hard on the deck once they had passed the force field and the artificial gravity took hold of them once more. "All right, let's not do something this stupid ever again," Katanga groaned as he struggled to pull himself off the floor. Tazla was on her feet much quicker, practically ripping off her helmet and climbing behind the controls, not bothering with removing the rest of her suit for now. She looked over the console. “We’ve been scanned.” “By whom?” Katanga asked, still in the process of getting off the floor, having only managed one knee so far. She shook her head. “I’m not sure but—“ Glancing up towards the large forward viewport, she stopped herself when she caught sight of another asteroid, this one easily as large as the one they had just come out of. She hadn’t paid attention to it before since it was mostly unremarkable except that a large section of rock was now shimmering out of existence in front of her eyes to reveal yet another asteroid base, albeit this one with what appeared to be a fully operational interior. “I suppose this answers our questions where those other ships leaving Piqus have been going,” Katanga said as he slowly approached the forward cockpit section. Moments after the holographic cover had dropped, a large, bulky vessel emerged from within the asteroid. The chrome-colored ship glinted noticeably in the light of the Piqus sun. To Tazla it didn’t look much like a warship but like something much more utilitarian instead. The three small and sleek, equally chrome-covered shuttles which followed the freighter, on the other hand, looked dangerous, with visible weapons ports attached to their forward hulls. “We need to get out of here now,” she said and was working feverishly on getting the shuttle to move. “I think it may be too late for that.” Tazla allowed herself only the briefest glance back towards the asteroid but it was all she needed to realize that Katanga was absolutely correct. Those combat shuttles were opening fire.