John E. Payne
The planetary system was unremarkable. The solitary red giant star was catalogued as 2247-925. The bodies orbiting it counted in their number two gas giants with the usual gaggle of moons, one burned out rocky husk the size of Mars in an inner orbit, and a pair of captured comets dancing around each other in the outermost track. What inner planets there may have been had long since been devoured by the expanding bloat of the red star as it swelled toward its final death, still eons in the future.
Between the two bodies of swirling hydrogen clouds (listed prosaically as 2247-925/2 and 2247-925/3), was a sparsely populated necklace of nickel-iron and carbonaceous chondrites in barely enough numbers to be referred to as an asteroid field, its total mass probably no more than that of a small moon. It was toward one of these tiny islands of matter in the unending sea of space that a small starship - a Starfleet runabout – coasted. The boxy little starship’s orbit matched the rock’s within a few kilometers per second. Its pilot played its directional thrusters in gentle concert and teased spurts of thrust from the impulse engines until ship and asteroid circled the star in perfect pas de deus.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard, late of the Starships Stargazer and Enterprise-D, and current commanding officer of the USS Enterprise-E, sat back in a chair at the briefing table in the runabout’s aft compartment. He sat rigidly still, his chin cupped thoughtfully in one hand, alone with his thoughts. A billion kilometers outside the wide panoramic windows in the tiny starship’s stern, the grotesque ember of a star half again the size of Aldebaran edged into view glowing dully, still big enough to fill one window frame even at this distance. The red light filtering into the room was not enough to overpower the interior lights, but it cast a sanguine tinge on Picard’s face, and on that of his first officer across the table.
Commander William Riker craned his neck to see the asteroid as their ship swung into its "at-anchor" position parallel to the asteroid’s long axis. As in most belts, even Sol’s relatively dense one, there wasn’t another asteroid within human eyesight. "Looks like a big round rock from here," he said, as much to himself as to his captain. "I’m glad we can finally find out what this is all about."
"Indeed." Picard muttered, and Riker heard a certain familiar tone.
"You said you didn’t know what this was about, Sir. Now you sound like you do."
"Not actually, Number One. Just… suspicions."
"Can you share, Sir?"
Picard began to stand as he said, "Anything I have to offer would be speculation, Will." And Riker knew to let it lie at that.
A soft chime preceded a human voice over the intraship comm: "Holding station one kilometer off the base, Captain. Shall we hail them?"
"Yes, Lieutenant Lefler," Captain Picard said. "We’ll come forward directly."
"Robin," Lieutenant Commander Geordi LaForge smiled, "you are handy to have around."
The young woman beamed a brilliant smile back at LaForge from the pilot’s station and said, "I know. That’s why I made sure I got back aboard the new Enterprise; I knew you couldn’t do without me. Lefler’s law number six: make sure the boss knows you’re indispensable."
He laughed. Robin Lefler was as brilliant an engineer as he’d ever known at her age, but she never failed to amaze him with her variety of other talents. That she could pilot a runabout was indeed in her personnel jacket, but her presence on this mission was as an engineering specialist, not a pilot. Nevertheless she’d gleefully spelled him at the controls when he needed a break during their two-day flight from Starbase 223, and she handled this orbital rendezvous perfectly, and on manual. "For practice," she’d said. And Geordi had long ago learned to trust her judgement.
At the engineering station behind Lefler, Ensign Sonya Gomez keyed the communications console and leaned in needlessly close to the sound pickup. "This is the USS Delaware calling… calling the asteroid." She shrugged uncertainly at LaForge. "Who exactly am I calling, Commander?"
He was in mid-shrug himself when Picard and Riker emerged from the aft compartment. Picard said, "You’re addressing Commander Elizabeth Shelby, Ensign."
Gomez leaned into the pickup again, more visibly nervous with the captain present, but her first syllable was cut off. "Delaware, this is Commander Shelby." Gomez hovered at the edge of a response, but once again was cut short as Shelby continued; "We can beam you over immediately." Gomez now leaned back, frustrated.
Riker smirked, "All business, and as impatient as ever."
Gomez jumped and reached for the console. "Oh, sir," she said, "the mike was still open…" She killed the transmit key.
"I heard that, Riker," Shelby said. Was that a hint of humor in her voice? "Would you like time to shower and change first?" then, after a grunted laugh, "Shave?"
Riker smiled broadly, stroking his beard, and Gomez dropped her head into her hands. Picard leaned cautiously over the mortified ensign and reopened the channel. "Immediately will be fine, Commander. Give us two minutes to lock down the ship…"
"Already done, sir," Lefler said, and Gomez rolled her eyes at her crewmate’s efficiency.
Picard spared Lefler a more complimentary look and continued after a beat, "As I was saying, immediately will be fine."
The asteroid’s briefing room was of adequate size, but far less comfortably appointed than those aboard starships were. The floor was bare of carpet and the walls free of decoration. The table was composite rather than wood, and the unpadded plastic chairs would start to get uncomfortable rather quickly. It was impersonal, cold, much like the transporter room and dull gray corridors had been. The decor gave the base a feeling of impermanence. Shelby had ushered her guests into the room and let them find seats. Two of her own officers were already present, and she introduced everyone all around. Shelby’s second in command was a short, gruff, surly human with a little more hair than Picard and a much squarer head, named Commander Duval. Next to him was a lanky Vulcan Lieutenant Commander whom she introduced as Tosik. Both wore engineering gold.
"As you all know," Shelby began, "I’m supposed to be Starfleet’s resident expert on the Borg. When you first met me, when I was assigned to the previous Enterprise, I admit that I was pretty full of myself with that job description." She smiled at herself a little, pacing at the head of the conference table. "By the time I left the Enterprise, you might say, I was knocked down a peg."
Riker found himself smiling again. Shelby noticed, and laughed lightly, mostly at herself, he thought. That in itself showed how she’d changed from their first meeting.
"You gentlemen are certainly far more qualified at this point than I am. Which is partly why Starfleet wanted you here."
Picard straightened minutely in his chair. "Commander, generally speaking, I go where Starfleet Command points me. As do we all. This is not the first time I’ve been in the dark about a classified assignment. Nevertheless…"
"You’re here at my request, Sir," she answered his unfinished question. "To observe, suggest, help me test, what I hope will be the weapon we need against a real Borg incursion."
"Real?" Gomez blurted. Then she realized she’d spoken out of turn and blanched.
LaForge said, "It’s okay, Sonya, you’re here to contribute."
"I… just meant the first two… incursions… were plenty real to me."
"I can appreciate that, Ensign," Shelby went on, "but each time it was only one Borg vessel. We still can’t figure out why they’d sent only one, and it is beyond us why the second attempt was lead by their queen herself. I’d say it was arrogance, if I didn’t know better. If they’d come at Earth with even as few as five of those monsters they’d have won hands down. Our worry now is that we may have pissed them off by killing her, and they may not hold back with the next attack."
Riker interjected, "One assessment is that we may have broken their spirit and that they may just give up on us after this."
"I don’t believe they have a spirit to break, Will."
"Spirit," Picard said quietly, "is irrelevant." Riker felt gooseflesh rise hearing those words in that voice. It was a frightening momentary flashback to when Picard himself had been taken by the Borg and forced to speak for them. Everyone went silent for a moment. Picard saw their reaction and smiled self-consciously. "Forgive me. But you see my point."
"While it is also possible that they may give up on us," Shelby continued after a moment, "– after all, we’re a good 60,000 light years from their home base – enough of us at Starfleet have enough doubt that we’re still working on the problem. Even with ninety-nine percent of the fleet’s resources going into the Dominion war, that remaining one percent is going here, into this project."
"Which is?" Riker asked.
Shelby paced over to the large viewscreen covering one wall of the room and stood at ease in front of it facing her audience. "I have spent quite a lot of time in these last few years digging through Federation records going back to the beginning of Earth’s exploration of the galaxy. Particularly our conflicts with others. I was looking for something, anything, that looked like it might be useful against the Borg threat. A weapon; a tactic; anything. I didn’t expect much, really. But I think I may have hit paydirt." She tapped the screen controls and stepped aside.
What appeared before them was a simple cylinder – no, a cone. Irregularly shaped along its length, brownish in color. Its surface looked old and scarred. Stars floated by in the background. There seemed to be a glow at the open end. It looked more like a naturally occurring object than a manufactured artifact. There was nothing there to indicate scale, so it could have been as small as a flute as far as anyone could tell. At the bottom corner of the screen a time display ticked off, and Riker noticed right away that it was very old footage indeed that they were watching.
"That’s over a hundred years ago!" Gomez said quietly.
"Yeeesss…" Picard said, rapt.
The magnification of the recording snapped back to a lower power, and now they could all see that the object orbited a planet. Clouds swirled serenely across a marbled sphere of green and blue, and this strange – vessel? hovered placidly above it.
Then a beam lashed out from it. The magnification clicked back another notch and showed the very air exploding in lightning-like flashes that must have covered thousands of square kilometers. The reaction boiled atmosphere into steam as it lanced through in the instant before it struck solid ground. At orbital distance it was difficult to see the result, especially through the newborn cloud layer, but within a few moments a thick brown cloud began to rise into the lower atmosphere, top out into an anvil shape, and drift downwind. It reminded Riker of seeing a volcano from orbit. Only this volcano had a hurricane swirling around it as the beam reacted with the air. Then the camera switched to close-up for a moment and we saw the beam blasting into the skin of the planet, hurling chunks of blazing magma into the stratosphere as the planet’s crust exploded in mountain-sized divots. A wider view again showed the weapon – for that’s what it had to be – yawing and pitching in place to trace a pattern on the surface.
Riker was reminded of what the Crystalline Entity did to Melona IV, and he thought sadly of Carmen, whom he never got to know.
The beam pulsated and flickered, but never ended. The device swung in geometric patterns in its low orbit as the planet moved below it, and it blew glowing fissures out of the face of this once beautiful world, each burning puzzle piece apparently miles on a side. The force was such that masses of crust, whole shattered mountain ranges, were thrown almost into low orbit before the burning planet’s gravity reclaimed them.
Robin Lefler’s voice, low in her throat, said, "The power in that beam must be… I have no adjectives for it."
Gomez whispered, "I can only think of one thing that would do that, but it’s inconceivable."
The sudden blue-white spears of twin phaser beams were so unexpected that everyone jumped, except Shelby, who’d seen the footage before, and Picard. They lanced from the ship taking the pictures and seemed to travel for far too long before they hit its skin, wasting their energies in a sparkling wash that had as much effect as a garden hose. The phasers’ travel time lent some sense of scale, and LaForge muttered, "It must be kilometers long."
And it turned toward them.
Not quickly, for its mass was immense, but surely enough it turned. And they were looking down its throat into a dazzling inferno. The picture swung abruptly as the recording ship turned to flee, then the camera switched to a view aft. The planet fell away as the starship broke orbit, and they could see that it was already nothing but a patchwork quilt of boiling magma outlining scorched rock, the glow softened by a caul of cloud that had once been oceans. In one orbit the device had reduced a thriving, though thankfully uninhabited world to a cinder.
But the machine leapt after them, and in an instant the viewscreen flared white and the picture was gone.
Shelby brought the room lights up slowly to give everyone the chance to catch their breath. Gomez was stunned into silence, Lefler amazed. La Forge’s blue prosthetic eyes held Shelby in a look of impatient interest, urging her to explain what they just saw.
But Picard spoke. "That was from the log of the Constellation, wasn’t it?"
"Yes, sir," Shelby answered. "The original USS Constellation. Downloaded to the original Enterprise before the Constellation’s destruction. On stardate 4202, 106 years ago, they encountered this thing doing what you just saw – basically eating planetary system L-374 for lunch. Once it sliced a planet up like that it tractored in the debris for fuel. No one knows for sure, but Captain Kirk of the Enterprise speculated it was some ancient doomsday weapon, still destroying everything in its path eons after it wiped out its own makers."
"God, how hideous," Gomez muttered.
"Really," Lefler put in. "Talk about overkill."
"I read about it," LaForge said, remembering. "But I never expected there were visual records."
Shelby answered, "They’ve been classified for over a century."
"Elizabeth," Riker said, "Are you telling us this monstrosity still exists, and you’re proposing using it against the Borg?"
"No, no. I mean, yes, it still exists, it probably will still exist for millions of years more; the hull is pure neutronium, so it’ll never…"
"Pure…?" Lefler blurted. "That’s not feasible. How do you form it? It’s the densest naturally occurring element in the universe. That ship should have collapsed into a ball from its own gravity and fallen to the center of any planet it came near."
"Yes it should have, Lieutenant. And we still have no idea how it was made or how it worked. When Commodore Decker rammed the Constellation down its throat and set off her impulse reactors, it blew out every component not made of neutronium. The only thing left is the hull. It’s in storage in a… really big hangar somewhere classified."
Gomez looked shocked. "He did what?"
Picard explained, "As the story goes, Ensign, Mathew Decker tried to stop this device and it wrecked his ship. He had to transport his entire crew down to the nearest class-M planet and hope for rescue. The original Enterprise answered the distress call, but it was too late to save the crew. The machine had destroyed the planet by then." Gomez closed her eyes and lowered her head, an odd sound coming from her throat. "There is some doubt as to exactly what happened next, but the official record states that the machine almost wrecked the Enterprise as well, but Decker set his impulse engines to explode and took his ship into the thing’s… mouth, muzzle, whatever you choose to call it."
No one spoke for a few moments, and respect for he dead hung in the air. At last Shelby said, "But what we’re really interested in is the thing’s weapon. A beam of one hundred percent pure anti-proton."
"But that’s…" Lefler began. Then caught herself. "Never mind, I should have known better."
"It’s not impossible, Robin, but it’s… just so…" Gomez took a deep breath and started over. "The antimatter we use is molecular antihydrogen. That’s about as fine as our technology allows us to process it. We can produce limited amounts of pure antiprotons, but to produce it in the amount that… thing… must use is prohibitively expensive. And that beam was operating almost continually. Even something as big as that… thing… wouldn’t be able to store that much antimatter."
LaForge smiled to himself. Sonya’s social skills and self-image needed some refinement, but when she was talking about her work she was unstoppable.
Shelby looked over her audience for a moment, letting them… assimilate the information they’d just taken in. "Will you all join me out in the corridor, please?" and she went through the door.
The corridor outside the briefing room had what was obviously a bank of shuttered windows along the side opposite the room. Shelby crossed to a control pad set into the vertical between two windows and tapped a key. Shutter panels slid upward.
The asteroid had been hollowed out. They stood in a gallery inside the wall high at one end, overlooking a cavernous expanse at least three kilometers long and two around. The walls were lined with hectares of coarse netting to snare drifting rocks, for, unlike the asteroid-based O’Neill habitats, this one had not been set spinning for gravity. Spacesuited workers, scuttling work bees and Sphinx pods also showed that it was not pressurized.
In the middle of all this bustling activity was a white tube. Picard saw no more at first than that – a huge white tube, running the length of the cavern away from his vantagepoint. But its lines carried his eyes down its length, and there at the far end a good kilometer away were a quartet of warp nacelles in a starburst arrangement, and he knew it was a ship. Then he knew what it was, and his eyes darted to the front end directly beneath the gallery windows. It was hard to see from this location, but it seemed to be round… and open. He turned to Shelby in shock. But LaForge knew too.
"This is…" LaForge said to Shelby, his electronic eyes wide, "This is… an antimatter cannon…"
She nodded proudly. "The biggest God damned one we could build, Geordi."