Zeta Archanis was an obscure system just on the Federation side of the border with the Klingons. Along with a handful of gas giants, it had one terrestrial planet that careened between getting so close to the sun that its surfaced boiled and then out past the habitable zone so that the entire world froze. It had briefly been a scientific curiosity, but otherwise its unusual orbit made it completely useless. Bowens and his team had been in the system for several hours scouring the asteroid field and the moons nestled in amongst the radiation belts being kicked off of the gas giants, but so far they had found no sign of Klingon activity.
“Anything interesting to report?” Bowens asked, as he stepped off of the ladder down to the main mission compartment, where Ensign Taom was coordinating with the technicians the starbase had lent them to go over their sensor readings. He had his palms flat on one of the “pool table” consoles and was deeply engrossed in whatever he was reading, looking a little startled when Bowens called on him.
“The asteroid field is made up of materials of incredibly varied densities, which suggests that it was formed as the result of the collision of multiple planetary bodies. The system could have had three or four other planets, twenty-million years ago or so. With computer modeling, we’ll be able to figure that out for sure,” the Trill scientist reported, turning to smile at Bowens. He was fresh out of the academy and Bowens couldn’t help but admire his enthusiasm—he found it endearing, even—but that’s not what their mission was about.
“Okay, I should have asked if you’ve got anything mission-relevant to report,” Bowens asked, crossing his arms.
“Oh, well, no. No discernable Klingon activity and no obvious reason for them to be here at all. There aren’t any useful materials in the field,” Taom replied, looking slightly deflated.
Bowens sidled up to the younger man to look at the data. Much of the readings were incomprehensible to him at first glance, but he did notice that the sensors had cataloged quite a bit of duranium, which was used to built nearly every starship and space station.
“What about duranium? Why rule that out as a useful material?”
“Oh, well, because it’s part of the old research base,” Taom said, using the controls on the table to zoom in on an X-shaped structure in the asteroid field. “It was originally orbiting the terrestrial planet, but it looks like it was pulled into the asteroid field over time. There aren’t any power signature aboard, so I didn’t mark it as a high priority target.”
Bowens sighed. That was exactly the sort of thing that they were looking for. “Taom, that’s the only place in this whole star system that could have a breathable atmosphere, so you should have called me when you saw it. What are the odds in a system as chaotic as this one is that a station like that could drift into the asteroid field and not be obliterated?”
“Um… Sorry, Lieutenant. Poor, I guess. I’m really better at biology more than astrography,” Taom muttered, looking down at his feet.
“Well, we’re a ground team, not a space team, but we’ve gotta all step it up. Don’t apologize and don’t give me excuses, but you’ve got to keep in mind what we’re looking for, Corvol,” Bowens said, putting his hand on the Trill’s shoulder. “Understood?”
“Yes, Lieutenant,” Taom said, offering the tiniest of smiles and blushing slightly.
“Good. Send those coordinates up to the helm, so we can take a closer look,” the lieutenant replied, before heading back up the ladder to the runabout’s main deck.
In the cockpit, Serala and Thonan were sitting at the forward controls, with the other three members of the team at the other stations. For the two security specialists, there hadn’t been a lot for them to do, but the pilot was at least keeping busy navigating through the complicated gravitational fields of the star system.
“Alright, team, we may have a lead. The old science station they’d been using to research the inner planet is in the asteroid field. Taom’s not detecting any power signatures, but it’s our only lead. Let’s check it out and then head to the next system,” Harper ordered, stepping up to the free-standing tactical console in the middle of the cockpit. A lot of good it did them, considering the runabout only had the base model phasers installed, and none of the tactical pods with anything like torpedoes or pulse weapons.
“I’ve got the coordinates. Ready to head in, Lieutenant,” Thonan replied.
“Do it. Keep it nice and steady, though. That field is a mess,” Bowens replied.
“If it is a ‘mess,’ sir, then that suggests the station remaining intact is unusual,” Serala noted, not turning around to look at him.
“Just what I was thinking,” Bowens said. “Which either means that it was moved into that position for safe-keeping or it’s occupied,” he added, looking over at his security folks.
“We’ll be ready, sir,” Taigan said, clenching his jaw. The Orion couldn’t seem not to be scary, and Bowens hoped that the Klingons felt the same way if they did accidentally make contact.
“Well, our orders are not to engage, but it never hurts to be ready,” Bowens said, chuckling, even though he personally was in no rush to encounter the Klingons without it being absolutely necessary, not the least because he didn’t want to be on the receiving end of Admiral Seagraves’s displeasure.
Asteroids started to zoom by the cockpit windows as the runabout entered the field. “Shields up,” Bowens ordered. The computer complied automatically and there was a brief whir and the shields materialized around the ship for an even briefer moment. He wasn’t about to let their mission get sidetracked by something like the destruction of the runabout and the death of his crew due to an asteroid impact.
Bowens could tell from the color of the passing rocks that Taom was on to something about them being vastly different in terms of composition, which made him wonder what sorts of planets once made up this unusual system. Even if nothing that they were made up of was valuable enough to worth spending much time there, it was at the very least a scientific curiosity worth investigating when there weren’t Klingon raiders at their doorstep—though for all he knew, the science base had figured it out and that’s all there was to learn about the system, so it was abandoned.
When they got closer, Bowens could see the hull of the station silhouetted against the dark asteroids. It was clearly from the early-to-mid-23rd century, judging from the white paint with a red “UFP” banner on the central tower, which rose up just a few decks from the otherwise-flat main body of the station. None of the marker lights were on and the few windows they could see from their position were dark. What was unusual though was something large and green attached to the side of one of the station’s four identical arms.
“What the hell is that?” Bowens asked.
“It’s a freighter, sir. Orion in origin. I’m detecting very faint power signatures, but no identifier being transmitted,” Serala said. The Orions had worlds in both Federation and Klingon space, but when looking for Klingons and instead finding Orions, Bowens was nervous that this might not be a friendly encounter.
“Have they detected us?”
“Unknown, but they aren’t using any active sensors,” Serala replied.
“I’m not detecting any weapons,” Chief Zhou noted. “Which is unusual for Orion ships of any type.”
“Take us in closer,” Bowens ordered.
The runabout nosed down and got closer, rotating above the station to get a good view of the Orion ship. When they got around to the port side, they could see a massive hole in the cargo bay.
“The damage is consistent with damage from a Klingon disruptor cannon,” Ensign Oxel, their engineer, said. “It looks like their power system has been integrated directly into the station and its thrusters are being used to keep it in a stable relative position in the belt.”
“Well… that’s not good,” Bowens said, before tapping his badge. “Taom, are you getting any life-signs down there?” he asked.
“I am having trouble scanning the interior of the station, Lieutenant. There’s a low-level dampening field in place, which is why I didn’t detect any energy readings from our previous position. I can compensate, but I need a full-power active scan, which will give away our position,” the scientist reported.
Bowens looked over at Oxel. “Give him all the power he needs. Do it, Taom.”
There were a few moments of silence, and then Taom spoke up. “Sir, I’m reading two-hundred and seventy-three life-signs. All Orion.”
None of the rest of the crew probably meant to, but Bowens felt all of their eyes turn to look at Ensign Taigan as they wondered what this discovery of theirs meant.