This story takes place three years after the events in "Magellan's Fate" (you might notice that some staff have gained promotions in the meantime). The USS Magellan is on her way back from a long patrol and finds that sometimes the greatest discoveries can be made in your own backyard.
Fleet Captain T’Kyle noticed it first.
She had been captain of the USS Magellan for long enough for her to be as closely attuned to her ship as she was to her own body. In a way the ship was an extension of her existence, so intimately did she know each and every detail. She punched the com button on the arm of her captain's chair.
The surprised voice of Marc McHenry, the head of Engineering, came back almost immediately.
"Captain ... I was just about to ..." Normally a confident and efficient officer, she had noticed he had been getting more and more flustered around her recently. She would have to speak to him about that.
"Uh ... The starboard plasma couplings have dropped out of synchronisation. We need to come to a full stop to do a diagnostic check to ensure it is not about to blow."
"Commander, we are less than one hour out of Earth's orbit, could it be delayed until then?"
"I'm sorry Captain, this is one of those things that could be critical or nothing at all."
"Helm come to a full stop ... Mr McHenry commence diagnostics, I expect a full report as soon as you have something."
"Yes dear." The voice at the other end of the com signal exploded into a coughing fit." I'm sorry, there seems to be something wrong with the com signal! Affirmative Captain. Engineering out."
Every head on the bridge turned to look at the captain.
As a Vulcan she was groomed from childhood to control her emotions - even surprise - but those who know them well can tell when they are shocked. They blink.
Fleet Captain T’Kyle blinked.
~~~~~~~~~~~ " ~~~~~~~~~~~
In the seclusion of his office adjacent to Main Engineering, Marc McHenry closed his eyes and dropped his head into his hands. What … an … idiot!!! He had just called the captain of a Nebula class starship, in command of over six hundred men and women, 'dear'!
He could build a warp engine with a pile of parts and a sonic screwdriver. He could command an away mission of just about any size and complexity. He could handle hostile Klingons, subspace anomalies or first contact negotiations.
But he couldn't control his own emotions! A modest, private man he had recently found himself daydreaming about her more and more. Her delicate elfin features that habitually radiated strength and serenity. Her grace, the way that she was always in control of any situation. She was his captain and the woman of his dreams.
The captain. Once again he groaned and sank lower. Please tell me I haven't just called my commanding officer, 'dear' he thought.
No one had ever died of embarrassment but Mark McHenry wished he could! His deepest desire at this moment was for a wormhole to open up next to him so that he could jump into it!
With a dull thud his head made contact with the desk.
~~~~~~~~~~~ " ~~~~~~~~~~~
The stunned silence on the bridge was broken by the pilot who called out from his console.
‘We have company! Onscreen.”
Filling the screen was a large ball of what looked like ghostly fire. Wispy blue grey tendrils of frozen flame radiated away from the sun towards the blackness of interstellar space.
They had seen this type of thing many times, a comet on its way back to the Sun so it was a surprise for them when Lt. Commander Livingstone called out "Captain, that's not a comet. Sensors show a rocky core beneath the ice ... in fact ... "
He paused, double checking his readings.
"Captain! Sensors are showing trace elements of a wide range of compounds ... man-made compounds!"
T'Kyle seized the moment.
"Astrometrics! I want the speed and trajectory of that object so that we can follow it! Lieutenant Kirok - full sensor sweep!"
"Captain, the object is an anomaly. Despite it's outward appearance, it is not a comet nor any other kind of Kuiper Belt object. The ice layer is superficial. Beneath it is a rocky surface typical of the kind found in the Sol system's asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter."
"And the trace element readings?"
"They come from an area roughly _ kilometres in diameter. It is invisible to passive sensors but the tachyon sonar shows that a grid of Carbon 12 steel underlies the whole surface of the asteroid at that point."
"A grid, Kirok?"
"Undoubtedly, captain. Carbon 12 is occasionally found naturally but not in this sector of space, not on rocky asteroids and never in a precise geometric grid. This is definitely an artefact of a sentient civilisation.
Commander Livingstone appeared at the Captain's shoulder.
"Sentient civilisation? Considering this is approaching the threshold of our home system we can make a few guesses as to it's origin. Carbon 12 is a product of nanotechnology and has never been manufactured in these quantities on Earth, so we can say it probably isn't human."
There was one race that was way ahead of everybody else in Nanotechnology. "Captain we have to consider the possibility that this is Borg."
"Agreed. Ship to Yellow Alert!"
~~~~~~~~~~~ " ~~~~~~~~~~~
Under a black, star-studded sky, the surface of the asteroid was remarkably even in that it was almost a perfect sphere, dusted at intervals by what looked like snow.
"It'll be liquid methane" said the taller of the two space-suited figures who stood on a low hill above a wedge-shaped gully.
"I'm not so sure. HUD!" The shorter of the two, Ensign J'Keln, peered into the transparent Heads Up Display that flipped down over one eye. The screen flickered into life, casting a ghastly green glow over her face.
"Mag five … mag ten … optical analysis." She was looking at a magnified view of one of the closer snow drifts, tiny multicoloured bar charts showing sensor readings.
"It really is water ice! The albedo is wrong for anything else." She pulled a Tricorder out of a pouch on her thigh and after a moment scanning the area, she looked back up at her companion "This shows a cave at the head of the gully. " She gestured with the Tricorder.
The taller of the two checked her readings than straightened up. "Commander Sloane to Magellan. We are moving down into the gully to investigate."
Without having to ask, he knew that a backup away team would be monitoring the telemetry from their suits - biosigns, 3600 video - so that if anything went wrong, help would be along in a matter of minutes.
The two slowly worked their way down the hill. J'Keln was secretly enjoying this opportunity to get in some suit hours - it was a challenge she seldom got.
The asteroid was large enough to have a very weak gravity so that they made most of their progress downhill in a series of controlled jumps. When they got to the bottom of the slope they turned to the left and moved into the gully they had studied from above.
"Sensor mapping shows this gully to be straight and the slopes to be very even - unnaturally so."
"Explain." He snapped.
"Could be an artificial construction … a door?"
"That would be nice. A bit too easy though. You know what to look for then?" He had turned slightly so they could see each other through their visors.
"A door knob?" They both laughed as they moved into the mouth of the gully.
J'Keln grew more nervous with every step they took. Her instincts told her this was a mistake and they were seldom wrong. She had grown up dodging Cardassian's during the war on Bajor, living from day to day, continually in fear of being caught and interned in one of the Cardassian camps.
"Commander, I really, really, have a bad feeling about this!"
"And I'm supposed to abort the mission because of your feelings?" That would be all we'd need, he thought.
J'Keln quite liked Commander Sloane, he was one of the old school of officers - totally capable but a real stuffed shirt at times. She disliked his unspoken quip that she was a hysterical adolescent, though. She was not one to let such things go unremarked.
"No sir, you're supposed to observe and take note of our experiences and observations. I have observed that this is the perfect set-up for a killing ground. We are wedged in, shoulder to shoulder. If our passage in or out is blocked we wil be sitting ducks to snipers from above ... And my experience tells me this is not a good thing." One of these days she was going to have to find out what a duck really was!
Commander Adam Sloane bit back the mild rebuke that was on the tip of his tongue. Now was not the time and besides, she was right. He'd been warned that the young Bajoran was an asset to an away team but had little regard for rank or protocols.
"You have a point, J'keln, but we have little choice." he stooped to examine the ground."What do you make of this?"
J'keln scrubbed some of the 'snow' away with her boot to expose a smooth rocky surface."The ground has been melted! No way could that be natural! Asteroids are too small for volcanic activity."
"But there must have been incredible heat here at some point in the recent past to cause this."
There was no mystery as to their destination, for the gully was dead straight. The "cave" that they had detected earlier wasn't, as you might expect, on the same level as the gully floor but was exactly halfway up the sheer cliff face that formed the dead end that they were heading towards.
The hole in the cliff face was too perfectly circular that it had to be artificial. It looked like someone had painted a black spot onto the rock face roughly three metres wide.
Looking up from where she was still crouched examining the ground she wondered why anyone would bother scraping a trench to a dead end and then placing the focus of it way too high for anyone to reach on foot.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Stone scuff the dirt again beside her and noticed a strange reading from one of the bar graphs on her HUD. That's odd, she thought. Elevated levels of processed Hydrogen 3.
J'Keln chewed her bottom lip, desperately searching the dim recesses of her memory for the piece of information that she knew was there, squirming and fidgeting, trying to get her attention. Wait! She suddenly flashed back to Mrs O'Briens class at Deep Space Nine ...
When she was thirteen she had hated history, but this was about early space exploration so instead of daydreaming she had been listening intently. The pioneers of space must have been insanely brave to be hurtled into space by sitting on top of a controlled explosion!
"There was a brief period between the golden age of the torch ships - the chemically fueled monsters like Saturn and Energia - and the commercial development of Cochrane's Discovery of Warp technology when various hybrid alternatives were tested. There were the elegant Solar Sails, several atomic robot explorers and the hydrogen 3 miners. In fact it was only the successful development of Ion engines ..."
Deep within the asteroid she felt, rather than heard, the Leviathon wake.
Grabbing Stone by one of his shoulder straps, she yanked him back towards the mouth of the gully, screaming the one word that represented their only hope of survival.
Far away beneath their feet, ancient machinery came to life. Electronic circuitry which had laid dormant for a hundred years opened valves that screamed in protest. Gigantic tanks released volatile gases that they had faithfully contained, just waiting for this command.
At a speed of close to a hundred kilometres per hour, the power of a solar flare was heading towards them. The vibrations were enough now to dislodge small boulders which rolled into their path, turning their sprint into an obstacle course. Chests heaving and hearts pounding, Stone and J'Keln were still metres away from the mouth of the gully when it happened.
The gaping maw behind them roared!
~~~~~~~~~~~ " ~~~~~~~~~~~
"Captain! Geothermal activity … No, wait! A plume of superheated hydrogen 3 exhaust gas has vented into the gully where the away team was exploring!"
T'Kyle instantly hit her ComBadge. "Transporters! Retrieve away team, NOW!"
She spun on the Science officer. "Analysis Mister Kirok"
"Captain, it appears to have been some sort of engine blast. Propulsion? Steering? Uncertain as yet."
"Transporters here. I'm sorry Ma'am. We … we didn't get them."
Her face carved in stone she called over her shoulder. "Coms?"
"No signal Captain. Telemetry d-dead"
The voice of the young ensign on the coms panel broke as she stuttered the last word.
What else could you expect when you were standing in the exhaust of a blast capable of moving an asteroid?
To be continued