Operation: Lobes & Liberties
Though it took forever and some change, back room dealings and boardroom power plays, Victrix had been able to clear Stillwater and Kingsley to proceed to the heart of the Balancar Squill production. The land was marshy wetlands full of bogs and hills that were slick with mud. Everyone was wearing a breathing apparatus. On Balancar these days, it was an absolute must.
Stillwater nearly slid down the side of muddy hill right on his ass, but was able to avoid the disaster. He turned once reaching the bottom and reached out to grab Lieutenant Kingsley's hand "Easy does it," he said looking up at her and then at Knight and Kay'la. It was muddy but the Ferengi undoubtedly would have preferred it a lot more muddy.
It was supposed to be monsoon season on Balancar, but they were not getting nearly as much rainfall as historical data showed. In fact average rainfall had been trending downward the past several seasons sharply and concerningly.
Stillwater yanked his head to indicate something behind him. "That bog ahead is supposedly one of the main sources of the squill plant. I did a bit of reading, seems like it grows similar to seaweed from Earth."
Kingsley gratefully accepted the helping hand, the unfamiliar terrain was far from easy going especially with the added breathers and a field jacket she had packed to the nines to make full use of every pocket. She fished her tricorder out of her pocket, a touch switching the device from passive to active scans of the local environment. “It does,” she confirmed, “but the area up ahead isn’t growing much of anything…. I need to get closer and take some samples.”
Last to catch up, Knight was brushing off some dirt from his less than stealthy descent. “I’m not sure if I’d want to eat anything grown on this planet, if we are being honest about it,” he commented, eyeing the unfriendly surroundings. Every way you looked was just apparently miles of barren terrain.
“The radioactivity gives it a certain spicy taste apparently, Kingsley teased him, “you’d probably love it. Course you may glow in the dark afterwards.”
"Yeah I'll take fresh jar of radioactive Squill syrup for back home. I'm sure it will be great on a stack of Talarn's pancakes in the morning" quipped Stillwater. "Collect whatever samples you need - air, water, soil" he said as he looked around.
He hated breathing apparatuses, but they were needed. "How the hell this place got so bad so fast" he murmured. "Alex, I had a contact who lived on Balancar about a decade ago. It was not nearly this bad."
Crouching down, Alex propped open her equipment case as she took a small soil sample, splitting it in two to allow her to test it. “Prolonged dry weather conditions could easily dry up the soil, which means your squill doesn’t have the water or nutrients it needs,” she pointed out.
“And we are what, about ten miles from the power plant from hell,” Knight added. “As well as probably accounting from a lot of the atmospheric radiation it probably draws on some natural water source to use as a coolant. Combine it all…?”
“Maybe…” Alex conceded in a tone that suggested she wasn’t really listening as she began moving on and taking more samples at regular intervals, her frown deepening as she went on. Until Knight reminded them that they had a time limit on being out too long. “Just, a few more minutes.”
Stillwater and Kay'la had found a nearby tree still growing though not looking healthy. "Alex," he called out. "How do you feel about dendrochronology?" asked Stillwater.
“Oddly enough I have no particular feelings either way,” she replied as she turned to face them. Catching the somewhat bemused look on Knight’s face she added, “tree rings. You can date the tree, in theory, but you can also sometimes identify climate shifts.”
She looked down as her tricorder chirped. Kneeling she checked the data and looked towards Stillwater, “The soil is contaminated… not just by radiation but there is a bacteria present. I can’t match it on out records but it could have mutated so many times from the origin source. I’d need to study it on the ship to be sure.”
“Doesn’t sound great. So does this mean we are chopping down the tree?” Knight asked.
Stillwater looked at Knight. "I didn't bring my ax" he said with smirk. "A phaser on a low setting and some surgical expertise may come in handy. In theory we just need to take some core."
“Right up your street,” Alex encouraged as she patted the engineer’s back before giving him a firm push forward and two thumbs up.
Stillwater gave a nod of approval. "Get that core sample and head back to the shuttle's position with Nurse Kay'la. Lieutenant Kingsley and I will poke around a bit and see what else we can turn up."
“Don’t have too much fun,” Alex offered as she sealed up her kit bag, slung it over her shoulder and set off after Stillwater as Knight began adjusting his phaser settings. “Squill really is going to cause so much trouble? Or rather lack of it?” She asked as she fell into step beside him.
Barret scoffed and smirked. "Yeah, seems like it, Alex. Though that tends to be the way of things especially with capitalistic societies. The relationship the Ferengi have with other civilizations like the Lurians are built on business transactions. If there's no squil syrup, there's no need for business which will be a crippling blow to the Ferengi. It's one of their most stable exports that isn't..." Stillwater looked at Alex.
No need to say it, but he did anyways. "At least Squill syrup is legal. That's a step or two above their arms dealing."
“I’m sure that is equally profitable especially if you can supply both sides of the conflict,” she sighed. “If it is so vital to this planet’s economy why aren’t they out here doing something about it? This is clearly more than just a bit of bad weather…” Alex pointed out as they walked on.
"Because they had us," he noted. "Ferengi have scientists like any advanced civilization, but it isn't exactly a common profession. I'm sure the Ferengi are doing something about it, but it's probably from board rooms."
“Met a Ferengi scientist once,” Alex confided. “He was odd and not sure I would have trusted him to tell me a proton from an electron … I think he was just there so he could visit Risa. Which now that I say it out loud kind of gives me the creeps…”
Stillwater nodded. "That does sound like a creep, but hey Risa" he stated albeit the paradise wasn't exactly his place to be.
“Less than ideal conditions aside,” Alex said as she touched his arm, momentarily pausing his determined stride, “it really is good to see you again. After everything. I’m glad you are here.”
Stillwater had sacrificed a lot over his long career with Starfleet and even now after leaving Starfleet, for good? He had done the retirement thing before and Victrix had been tasked with tracking him down and dragging him out of retirement. Everything had come around full circle though this time she had reached out by subspace transmission and Barret Stillwater did not resist. He came out and showed up without hesitation. "I needed to be here," he said simply. "I know the threats on Balancar. It can be ruthless world in the Ferengi Alliance" he explained. "When Victrix asked, I did not resist. Talarn wasn't all that pleased, but when Standing Bear was mentioned, he practically shoved me out the door."
A beam of yellow light raced towards Stillwater and snagged him in the shoulder, causing him to drop everything and groan in pain as he staggered towards Lieutenant Kinglsey and used his bullish weight to move her towards cover. "Take cover!" he grumbled loudly. There was a scorching to the clothing he wore near his right shoulder. "Disruptor fire" he added.
Listening to him talk, Alex had been completely caught off guard at the sudden weapons fire, her eyes widening in alarm at his sudden cry of pain. She barely registered the wound before he was calling out to take cover, already ushering her towards a small outcropping of rocks as more weapons fire struck out at them in quick succession. How many weapons? She guessed at least six based on the various angles. But how… how had they gotten so close without detection and why?
Both questions she immediately forgot about as two shots hit her, one on her leg, one a glancing blow in her side just as they dove for cover.
"Ferengi," muttered Stillwater. He looked over at Kingsley "You've been hit" he said looking at her leg. A barrage of disruptor fire kept bombarding the area near them, missing them but hitting rock and blasting bits of them. Options he thought. Fight or surrender, and what was the reasoning for this?
As another strike sent a small shower of tiny rocks raining down on them, Alex winced as she held her side while digging her tricorder out of her pocket. “So have you…” she managed through clenched teeth.
She fell silent as the weapons fire suddenly stopped. Whoever they exactly were they had realised the weapons wouldn’t do much to hit them through the rocks. She didn’t dare peer around the corner to look but she had a distinct impression they hadn’t just given up.
A thought struck her as she dug out her tricorder and was able to steal a brief glance at the readings. Or lack of them. To test it, she tapped her comm badge which was as useless as she had expected. Some kind of localised dampening field? Whatever they were using it had effectively cut them both off from the rest of the away team. She hoped this was just a them problem and that Knight and Kay’la were safe.
The immediate question was how they got themselves out of this.
“I’m not sure our weapons will work,” she whispered as she heard what sounded like footsteps a meter or so to their right.
Stillwater had to agree. Was this going to be a physical fight? Surely, the two of them could take a few Ferengi, but when the footsteps stopped, the sound of something scurrying across the dirt and pebbles drew his attention.
It was small and spherical. Explosive device was his immediate thought and his response was to dive on it to shield Alex as much as possible. But this device did not explode but Stillwater did feel pressure and something pop.
A small cloud of gas escaped beneath him. "Shit" he said knowing what was to come. Too little too late. This gas was going to knock them out.
It happened as fast as the initial attack. Almost in slow motion she saw that small silver ball roll across the uneven ground, lights blinking here and there and an ominous sound that started to fill the air right up until she saw Stillwater throw himself upon it. She had reached out to grab him, but before she could grab his arm the device went off. Her heart stopped in fear. For him, for her. Please let it be quick… but neither of them were immediately killed in the aftermath. Instead she saw the detonation momentarily lift Stillwater a little ways off the ground before they were quickly enveloped by a thickening fog of grey.
The taste of it on her tongue followed her into unconsciousness as she slumped to the ground beside Stillwater as the Ferengi closed in on them from all sides.