Well, I’m impressed." La Forge announced, a slight choke in his voice. It was the first comment to break two full minutes of silence in the runabout Delaware since the explosion had died away. He’d meant it to be a little flippant to break the tension hanging in the cabin, and Gomez let out a little giggle before she choked it back in self-conscious panic.
"Indeed." Picard whispered, studying readouts.
LaForge added, "Instead of ‘ready, aim, fire,’ though, I think you should say ‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff…’"
Lefler chuckled. Picard looked up from his screen long enough to spare Geordi a pained look. Geordi decided he’d done enough to lighten the mood.
Riker’s expression seemed to be one of concern. Geordi could only speculate at what the first officer was thinking. From an engineering viewpoint, this weapon was a colossal achievement and a technological milestone. From a sociological viewpoint, however, he could see… a few problems.
"Captain?" Riker said tentatively.
Picard grunted acknowledgement absently over his shoulder.
"What are we going to tell the Klingons about this?"
Picard rotated his chair to face Riker, apparently surprised by the question. "Hm," he grunted. "Or any of our allies, for that matter. For the moment it’s still classified, though."
Lefler added, "Well, barring anyone doing a subspace scan intentionally looking this way, we’re about 150 light years from anything remotely affiliated with the Klingon or Romulan Empires. So it’ll be 150 years before anybody outside the Federation sees that flash in the electromagnetic spectrum."
"Which is why the test was held out here," Riker said. "Granted a disclosure is far in the future, but that ship has the potential of being the thing that saves the Alpha Quadrant from the Borg. The Klingons would be righteously pissed if, say, a Borg incursion did them some major harm and they found out we had the means to stop it, and kept it to ourselves."
"And God forbid the Romulans should find out," LaForge said. "They’d almost certainly think we were planning on using it against them, allies or not."
Picard shook his head. "I think, Geordi, that our alliance with the Romulans will not last long. Once they feel that the Dominion is no longer a threat to them, they may well abandon us to the Jem’Hadar’s mercies. No, I think it more likely that if word gets out about the Wolf, our allies will ask us why we’re not using it against the Dominion."
Gomez ventured, "Shouldn’t we, Sir?"
"No," Riker answered. "It would be too valuable a commodity to risk in combat. We’d have to hold it back for its primary purpose. The Borg."
"And the Klingons would pitch a fit," Lefler said.
Newton’s laws were no less valid for their age. A few minutes of well-synchronized boost at half impulse power sent the Wolf and her three escorts falling on a parabolic course around the star to catch up with the base asteroid on the other side at something near an eighth of the speed of light. Once they were on course all four shut down their drives and coasted the rest of the way, a probably-unnecessary precaution against being detected, in case the explosion had drawn somebody’s attention. They were actually traveling quite a bit faster than local escape velocity, and they’d have to decelerate to match speed with the asteroid base even though they were coming up behind it as it sped around its sun.
Commander Elizabeth Shelby sat in the captain’s chair of the USS Wolf and tried to keep her mind from straying to a dream vision: that ghostly spear of glowing antiprotons boring unchecked through the hull of a Borg cube - or two - with herself sitting right here commanding the most powerful ship in the fleet, four gold pips of her captaincy showing proudly on her collar. Yes, it was quite a proud moment for her. Remaining humble was difficult. Besides, she’d worked her ass off on this project, she should be allowed to strut a little. She’d just have to wait for an admiral to show up to do the strutting. Well. Six more hours to go before they were back at base. Almost twenty since she’d gotten any sleep. She may as well retire to the captain’s cabin. She stood.
"Mister Eng," she said to the helmsman, "You have the ship. I’ll be in my cabin."
There was a time, Shelby admitted to herself as she left the bridge, when her ambition had outweighed her common sense. Like when she’d gone aboard the Enterprise and tried to run over Riker to get his job. She’d made herself a few enemies in her "brash youth." Sometimes the problem with life was that you changed and the people you’d hurt in the past didn’t know it. To them you’d always be an asshole. Well, at least with Riker she seems to have straightened things out. There was still a little edginess in their dealings with one another, but he seems to realize that she’s just another person who deals with life as best she can. Aren’t we all? Riker. What a stiff he’d been when they first met. Seems to have softened up quite a bit since then. Especially around the waistline.
The captain’s cabin was almost directly aft of the bridge. Inside, there were only enough essentials for the immediate two-day test run. She needed a shower. In the mirror, the circles of fatigue under her eyes stood out like dark nebulae. Her blonde hair was piled atop her head in total disarray. "Dear God," she muttered to herself, "Call this captain material?" I ought to cut it shorter, she thought. Maybe not; she was already short enough. The hair gave her another eight centimeters at least.
A blue-faced figure appeared in the mirror.
She spun, her heart suddenly pounding.
One of the design engineers from that nearby system.
He had a phaser pointed at her.
He said, "Please, you will –"
Shelby had no idea where the kick came from, but the next thing she knew she’d knocked the phaser from his hand with a passable cross-kick. Academy training, somewhere deep in the back of her brain. He was off balance; hadn’t expected it. Once she planted both feet again she followed through with a firm left hook to his jaw. Even with the impact she felt how soft his fur was, and from the fact that it hadn’t hurt much she knew she hadn’t managed to get much power behind the punch. He staggered away and she dove on the phaser, landed on it. She’d have to roll sideways to use it. But then the blue man landed hard on top of her back and the phaser jabbed her below the sternum and her breath blew out of her lungs all at once. She tried to roll, tried to reach up, tried to breath, but all their combined weight was pinning her hands under her and she needed to get air into her squashed lungs.
The fur on the fist that struck her in the temple was soft as Eiderdown. The bones in it were not.
A sensor readout bleeped a change on Delaware’s tactical panel. LaForge said, "Captain," into the comm panel. Picard acknowledged from the aft compartment. "The Wolf’s impulse engines just came on line."
"Indeed? Hail them. I’ll be right there."
LaForge nodded to Gomez and she keyed intership. "Wolf this is Delaware. Acknowledge, please," she said.
"Oh, I hate when this happens," Geordi mumbled. "USS Wolf, this is the Delaware," he repeated. "Please acknowledge."
Picard and Riker stepped double-time through the doors aft. Picard went straight to the comm panel and repeated the hail, also answered by silence.
"They’re accelerating," Lefler reported.
Riker said, "Lefler, whatever they do, you follow them, got it?"
"Delaware," the speaker said, "This is Lieutenant Commander Tosik in the Hudson. We are unable to contact the Wolf. Do you know why they are departing from plan?" Tosik’s Vulcan evenness was in stark contrast to the edge of worry building in Geordi’s stomach.
Picard answered, "Commander, we are also unable to contact them. I suspect something may be wrong."
"Me too," said another voice. "This is Duval in the James. Suggestions anyone?"
"This is Riker. Don’t lose her for one thing. Let’s see what she does."
"Tosik here. Perhaps we could beam over…"
"Their shields just went up," Lefler reported. "Warp drive just came on line."
"… Perhaps we could not," Duval finished.
"Merde," Picard cursed. "I don’t like this one bit. Picard to all runabouts. It looks as though Wolf is going to go to warp. I suggest we follow her until we know more."
The Wolf was far too close to the star’s enormous gravity well to attempt warp, but by the time it crossed the orbit of the first planet, it would be safe even with Wolf’s poor warp dynamics and untried engines. The huge ship’s impulse engines throttled up to full now, and she accelerated quickly. The parabolic orbital curve she was tracing extended on Delaware’s tracking screen with her increase in speed. She was definitely heading out of the star system. Gomez set the comm system to repeat the hail continually.
Lefler suggested, "Her hangar deck could fit us if we could get inside her shields. Didn’t Ensign Ro do that one time?"
"Once, yes" Picard said, "But with our cooperation."
Riker said, "I wish O’Brien were here. I’ve seen him beam through shields. Geordi?"
"Mmm," LaForge said, "The way he got aboard the Phoenix that time. Robin, you’re our transporter specialist. What do you think?"
"I know the technique, but you need to know the shield frequency and recycle time. Is that in the specs, sir?"
Riker scrolled through the information on his classified PADD. "No."
"Sir, can we keep up?" Lefler asked. "Isn’t the Wolf much faster at warp speed than a runabout?"
"Now that may be a problem," Riker admitted.
Two hours at full impulse later instruments showed the local gravity well was weak enough to go to warp. The crews of the runabouts readied themselves. Lefler had Delaware’s warp core on line for the last fifteen minutes.
"Any change in status, Ensign Gomez?" Picard asked.
"No, Sir. Her shields are up, engines at full impulse." A flair on a readout, and a telltale bleeped. "There it is, Sir, they’re forming a warp field."
Picard touched Lefler’s shoulder and she nodded while she watched her instruments. "We’ll be right with them, Captain," she said.
At the instant the wolf’s massive warp coils energized they gave off the characteristic blue/white flash as cascading plasma brought their immense magnetic fields into play. Lefler increased her finger pressure on the warp-initiate key. But instead of suddenly sweeping off into subspace, the glow in the Wolf’s warp nacelles flickered and died.
"Robin wait!" Gomez shouted, too loud, her excitement getting the better of her.
Lefler, startled, raised both hands above her shoulders in the cadet’s classic "I didn’t do nothing" pose to show she was off the key.
The USS James, however, distended abruptly and disappeared into the starburst flash of warp transition. Her helmsman wasn’t quite so alert.
There was a barely discernable puff of smoke and debris under the Wolf’s stern. A tiny stick-shaped object floated there, still inside the deflector shield bubble. It glowed a mild blue, then went dark. LaForge had a camera on it immediately and put a magnified view up on the central screen.
"Somebody ejected the warp core!" Gomez exclaimed, still excited.
LaForge said, "I can not wait to find out what’s going on here!"
A flare of white light announced the return of the James, which rolled back into formation promptly. Commander Duval’s voice crackled over the cabin speaker, "All right, what the hell was that all about?"
Picard stabbed the transmit key again and began, "Wolf. Commander Shelby, will you please…"
Riker had an uneasy feeling. Something he’d read. He tabbed through entries on his PADD, found it, said to himself, "Damn, I thought I’d seen that…" Abruptly he ordered, "Lefler, look sharp on the throttles…"
The Wolf’s nacelles flared into life again.
"What…?" Gomez said
"She has two warp reactors," Riker finished.
The Wolf blazed into warp, and was gone.
The USS Delaware and her two sister ships had warped out of the system less than a minute behind the USS Wolf. It may take them several hours to catch up. Depending on Wolf’s speed it may take several days. They may not be able to do it at all. Precious time had been lost in moments of confusion, which Picard had cut short with a firm, decisively barked order to pursue. But the model runabouts they were using topped out at warp six. The Wolf was rated at warp nine point two max, nine point seven emergency speed. But, Robin Lefler thought to herself, Wolf’s warp dynamics plainly sucked, and it wouldn’t be possible to maintain such a high speed for long without enormous structural strain. But, also, whoever was flying her might not care, either. The blown warp core would certainly be a factor. Four-nacelled ships that depended upon two reactors didn’t make as good speed with only one running. Some ships used each reactor to power one pair of nacelles. Had that been the case with the Wolf, ejecting one core would have disabled her until the engineering staff could reconfigure the drive software to run the ship on the warp field generated by two nacelles, lest the asymmetric driving force shear the ship in half. But the Wolf took the concept further, according to Riker’s spec manual. With a Borg cube on your tail, stopping to change a flat, as it were, was not an option, so the pair of antimatter reactors powered all four nacelles evenly. Having lost one, the Wolf’s warp dynamics were intact, bad as they may be, and although her speed must certainly be reduced she was perfectly capable of starflight.
They were following Wolf’s warp signature and the faint plasma trail from her impulse engine exhaust. They wouldn’t know how fast Wolf was actually going until they caught up with her, at least to sensor range. Or they may never know.
From the navigation console, LaForge turned to Captain Picard, who was pacing like, well like a wolf in a cage. "I have a solid course for them, Sir," he said.
"Once they swung out of 2247 dash 925’s singularity well, they established a course to galactic east. The trail shows a heading of eighty-seven mark three-five-zero. Pretty much a straight line to the next system over.
"Bonn?" Lefler exclaimed. "Oh, no."
"Well," LaForge read his readout, "Alturis Beta. Bonn?"
Gomez said, "Isn’t that where your fuzzy friend was from, Robin?" She realized the captain was present, and quickly corrected herself, "…Lieutenant?"
"Denda. Bonn is the indigenous name for their planet."
Picard sat down opposite Lefler and gave her his full attention. "Please. Lieutenant, what do you know that may help us?"
Lefler recounted their lunch with the Drosenaglas, and noted that there were at least three other Bonns at the station, probably more considering they were from a contracting firm.
"Well, that doesn’t tell us much," Riker said.
Picard thought aloud: "Some peoples have different ideas about property than we do. Perhaps the Bonns may think that because they worked on the project they should have use of the ship."
"The impression I got," Lefler offered, "was that Denda, at least, was proud of his work and his association with the Federation."
"But his father gave me the creeps," Gomez added.
"How so?" Picard asked.
"Well, Sir. Umm. He was… belligerent, I guess. No, not quite. He just obviously didn’t want us around. And he kept staring at the other blue people at the next table."
"Staring. How? Conspiratory? Hateful? Admiring?"
"The second one," Gomez said. "Hateful. Sir."
Lefler’s eyes lit. "Oh crap," she said. "Crap, um, Sir."
Picard nodded encouragement.
"Two things they said," Lefler explained. "The ones at the next table were worried when they heard we were from the Enterprise. More than worried. They were afraid the Enterprise was here. Really worried about it. The other thing was something Denda said about them."
She hesitated. LaForge spoke up: "Well, don’t stop now, Robin! What?"
She went on, "I guess I have a standard reaction of ignoring people when they show a cultural bias. It just breezed right over my head at the time. Denda said the others had a very strict religion. So what, right? I let it pass. But there was obviously some serious animosity over it."
"Oh, sacré merde," Picard groaned. "Lieutenant, please get on the library computer and get everything Starfleet has on this planet."
She accessed the LCARS database on planetary governments and punched up the information on Bonn – or more precisely, Alturis Beta Three.
Bonn was not a member of the United Federation of Planets, nor would they be considered for membership. One of the primary prerequisites for Federation membership was that the planet in question be sufficiently developed socially to have established a single world government. Bonn was still fractionated into countries and republics and island city-states. According to the Federation contact report, twenty-five nations occupied Bonn’s four continents, with an additional ten on as many large islands. The individual nations were insular and unfriendly toward each other. The bases for these animosities appeared to be complex and manifold, as with any world at Bonn’s level of development. One nation, called "Condra," had become the most industrially advanced. It had developed spaceflight first, and was now in its first faltering steps toward starflight. Bonn’s first manned hyperlight probe to a neighboring star, five years ago, was what caught the attention of Federation explorers. They were surprised to discover that, though 300 years behind in starflight, the Bonns were quite advanced in other aspects of mechanical design, and their industrial designers were quick studies. Many corporations from Condra dove right into the technology sharing program, and were eager to become subcontractors on Starfleet naval projects.
The second-largest nation on Bonn, Theronn, was less far along industrially. They had their own space program, but it was confined to low orbit and satellite programs. They had apparently visited their own moon, but they had nothing like the capabilities of their neighbors, who had established a scientific colony on the system’s fourth planet. The lesser nation had pointedly declined any association with the Federation as long as they treated with their rivals. Federation diplomats continued their entreaties, which continued to fall on deaf ears. There was some debate in council whether this unfair situation should continue, or the Federation should just pull out of the Bonn system and tell them we’ll be back when they can work and play well together.
The island nations were what could be considered ‘third world’ nations, with little industrial base and largely agrarian economies. They were principally customers for the larger two nations’ products, having little but food to offer in return.
The religious situation on Bonn was no better than the political one. Ancient rivalries were still intact. And acts of violence were common. Practitioners of the major religions seem to have gravitated together, and for the most part each country had its own state faith. This has lead to continual squabbling among the island countries, and there was evidence of full scale war between Condra and Theronn as recently as ten standard years ago. Orbital scans revealed goodly-sized nuclear stockpiles on both sides, but there was no evidence of any nukes having been used in war. Specifics of the various religions have not been discussed with Federation emissaries, and the association was too new for the diplomats to feel comfortable prying.
All factions had been behaving themselves as long as they’d been associated with the Federation, though. Federation proposals to mediate had been rebuffed firmly. There was obvious xenophobia in that respect.
That was pretty much all there was on Bonn’s socio-political structure. Their business practices were well documented from years of dealing with Condra’s corporations. The company Denda worked for had been contracting with Starfleet Engineering Division for three years as a private company not necessarily associated with their government or religion – the report made a point of mentioning "or religion" – in the last year gaining security clearance to work on classified projects such as Wolf, so long as personnel stayed in seclusion during the project.
She left the display up and turned to the captain. He, in turn, looked at Riker.
Riker closed his eyes and rubbed them. They had all the clues they needed. "I have seen far too many religious wars in this galaxy," he said.
"And now in this one," Picard said, "one side has the power to win for all time."
"I will not let you use my ship for murder!" Commander Shelby screamed through her cabin door, punctuating the last word with her fist. She was getting hoarse from screaming, but if there was anything Elizabeth Shelby could do for a long time, it was make noise. Unfortunately they’d turned off her comm system before she’d awakened, twelve hours ago. According to her cabin’s chrono she’d been unconscious for at least twelve before that. A whole day since her ship was taken from her. The lump on her head throbbed mercilessly, and most of that side of her face was bruised. "Where’s my crew?" she bellowed. "What have you done with them? Let me out of here, you evil bastards!"
She had to take a break. Her throat hurt too much. She got some water from the replicator and sat, staring at the door.
"What a damn disgrace," she said to herself. "How can I expect a promotion if I let myself get hijacked by a couple of overgrown plush dolls?"
What in hell were they doing with her ship? Nothing good came to mind. She’d created a hugely powerful weapon here, and there was only one reason for anybody to steal it: to kill people. That’s what it was made for, after all. If you could think of Borg as people. Well, many of them were ex-people. Damn it, how did that contractor and his friends get aboard anyway? It was Starfleet personnel only during a test flight. There was plenty of security at the base. None on board, though – only the twenty crew. God, she hoped they hadn’t killed the crew. They hadn’t killed her, so maybe that was one good sign. They were thieves and kidnappers, but not killers yet. If she could just get them to talk to her…
"Let me the hell out of here!"
Good, her voice felt much better. Her hands hurt from pounding on the door, Though. She started staring at the ventilation shaft, wondering if she could fit. No. Stupid. The main trunks could pass a human, but the room ducts weren’t even big enough for her slender build. Too bad the replicator could only make food, not a damn phaser.
Wait, was it possible to make an explosive out of food products?
"Oh, Lizzy," she said to herself, "you are losing it."
Her comm panel came to life. On the screen, the face of one of the Bonn contractors appeared. She didn’t know them well enough to be able to tell which one. Before she could say a word he said quickly, "Ship yours we need. No crew harmed are, locked away all in bunkroom. Intention ours was to borrow, and unharmed return. Engineer yours, before we could stun him, warp core number one eject. Not our fault! Damage not on us! Done we be in five days, then ship we give back. Would sooner be if both cores intact. Blame engineer! You stay in cabin yours. Be comfortable. No harm to Federation people meant."
"Now just a fu…" the comm panel went dead instantly. "…Oooohhhh, crapcrapcrapcrapCRAP!"
Lefler had stayed up front at the controls – someone had to – but the rest gathered in the Delaware’s aft compartment at its small table. The forward wall screen was split into two similar scenes of the other two runabouts’ aft rooms, each with three of their crew, minus pilots. A feed to the cockpits included the pilots in the conversations without their needing to leave the controls. Any starship could certainly run itself, of course, but regulations and common sense said that someone had to be up front at all times in case the universe, as was its wont, pulled a surprise out of its hat.
As it happened Picard was the senior officer aboard all three ships, and was thus the default commander of this little expedition. He no doubt would have assumed command anyway. Lieutenant Commander Tosik and Commander Duval, despite having more relevance to take charge due to their familiarity with all concerned, were happy to yield responsibility to him.
Duval was saying, "According to what we heard from base, five of the twenty-five Bonn contractors are unaccounted for. None of them were scheduled for leave at home, so they’re probably on the Wolf. Five people could probably operate the ship for a limited amount of time, but not if anything went wrong. You need a crew for things going wrong."
"Wait a minute," Gomez said with the light of realization in her dark eyes. "It couldn’t be as simple as… could it…?" she said tentatively to LaForge.
"An idea, Ensign?" Riker asked.
"Well, Sir, it may sound silly, Sir…" she continued nervously, "but what if they just… want to go home?"
Duval said, "So they steal a top secret starship to do it? That’s ridiculous!"
Gomez lowered her head and whispered. "Yes, Sir, it is, Sir."
LaForge heard Sonya lose a notch of her spine just then. It was hard enough to get her to speak up around senior officers. When one put her down like that, however unintentionally, she often held her tongue for the rest of the meeting. That was partly why she was still an ensign while Lefler had progressed in rank ahead of her – Robin never let anything stand in the way of her opinion. But in this situation that could cost them, because Gomez certainly had something to contribute here. "She has a point, Captain," he said. "I mean, it may not be the case, but what do we know about their social customs? Their association with the Federation is very new. They may know as little about how to act in our society as we do about theirs." Gomez didn’t meet Geordi’s eyes, but he saw her smile a thanks. "Maybe they figure with the construction of the ship done, they can use it to go home."
"Okay," Duval said, "I hadn’t thought of that." Gomez looked up, rejoining the meeting. "But I think the situation smells." On the other screen Tosik raised an eyebrow. Duval saw it and shook his head. He went on, "I mean the whole thing reeks of violence. Why steal Wolf just for a trip home?"
"Indeed," Tosik said. "It would have been more sensible to procure a runabout at a time other than during the test procedure. Why steal a large experimental warship just to transport five persons?"
Lefler’s voice chimed in, "Because it’s hard to stow away on something as small as a runabout. Sir."
"Plenty of room on the Wolf," someone from Hudson’s crew added.
"Nevertheless," the Vulcan continued, "It would seem far easier to abscond with a runabout directly from the base, taking it when no one was about, and drawing no attention to oneself."
Someone behind Tosik said, "Sir, the only way out of the asteroid with any ship is the main hangar door. It’s locked down, guarded, force field sealed, and controllable only from the flight center. And everyone would see it opening. It would be easier to take a ship once its outside."
Picard summed up, "So if this theory is valid, then the Bonns only want transportation home. Then all we need do is allow them to go there and disembark, and we may go about our business without further incident."
Riker added, sotto vocé, "Don’t forget the part where we arrest their asses."
"Oh like hell," Duval said. Picard’s eyebrows now raised. "Sorry, Sir," The commander continued sheepishly. "I just don’t buy it. When someone steals a kilometer-long antimatter cannon with a nearly full magazine, they’re going to blow something up."
"That is the only logical conclusion," Tosik said with finality.
Picard thought for a moment. "I concur, I’m afraid." He met Gomez’s eyes, "But it’s refreshing that someone considers that people may indeed have good intentions as well as evil." She smiled and blushed lightly.
"So," Picard continued, "What can we do about it?"
"With just a runabout’s phasers?" someone said, "If Wolf’s shields are up, we can’t even annoy them."
One of Hudson’s crew offered, "Enough concentrated phaser fire will eventually wear down any shield. If all three of us concentrate on, say, the impulse deck area… pulse the beams… the rebound effect flexes the shield envelope… if we keep it up, eventually the shields will dimple and one of us will punch through. Take out the sublight engines."
Tosik said, "I would point out that, if at full impulse, the ship will be traveling at one quarter the speed of light. If we disable its impulse engines it will have no way to change course or speed. It will continue on until it hits something, and there will then be a very large explosion. If that something is Alturis Beta Three…"
Duval added, "And I’d like to point out that the Wolf’s aft phasers will be carving into us while we’re trying this precision marksmanship."
Someone off screen, one of the other pilots, said "So we make continuous coordinated attack runs, evading return fire while we come around. Having three targets in constant motion will confuse the hell out of any civilian contractor trying to shoot at us."
"But not the Wolf’s defensive combat computer," Riker said, reading his PADD’s data, "which is fully automated, fully operational, and I quote, ‘capable of handling twenty-four targets simultaneously in each defensive quadrant.’"
"Crap." The voice said.
"We got no cards to play," Duval said. "Three runabouts against a thousand-meter starship. The word ‘inadequate’ is inadequate."
"We have five days to come up with something," Riker said.
In the early hours of the third day of the pursuit, Commander Duval’s voice chirped into being in the Delaware’s cockpit. It was two in the morning. LaForge and Gomez were on watch. Everyone else was asleep in the bunk compartment. Duval said, "Thar she blows."
LaForge stifled the yawn he had going, resisted the urge to ask "whereaway?" and wordlessly accepted the sensor patch-through from the James. The Wolf was about an hour ahead of them doing warp five point seven. They were indeed gaining on her marginally. She was still on a straight-line course for Alturis Beta. When she arrived there, the runabouts would still be about ten minutes behind her. In ten minutes the Wolf could turn at least two major cities and their populations into glowing clouds of quarks.
"Okay, Commander," LaForge answered, "We’ve got it."
Someone from the Hudson, not Tosik, confirmed reception also. LaForge wondered how the Vulcan would have reacted to the old Earthly seafaring slang that Duval had used.
Gomez asked sleepily, "Should I wake the others?"
"No, let ‘em sleep, Sonya. The situation won’t change by oh-six-hundred. There’s nothing duller than a long tail chase." His yawn came back to finish what it had started, and Geordi let it have its way. "All we can do is follow them until we catch up."
"I should have brought a book."
LaForge chuckled, and ran through the Delaware’s status check one more time. Not that it needed continual checking, but there was nothing else to do except drive on and wait.
All systems nominal.
Gomez said, "Commander?" hesitantly.
"How old were you when you made lieutenant?"
Already knowing where this was going, Geordi answered. "Let’s see – I think I was about 22. Over-achiever, I guess. Let me guess, Sonya, you have a birthday coming up."
She nodded and blushed. "Two weeks ago, actually. Twenty-nine."
"Uh-oh," he jibed, "big three-oh approaching; shields up!"
Gomez made a gagging sound and they laughed together a little.
LaForge regarded his officer. Young and energetic, yes. But even now her posture showed her key personality trait – she was sitting slumped a little forward, her legs crossed, her hands clasped together in her lap. Arms huddled in to her body as if hugging herself with her elbows. Sonya was one of the most insecure people he knew. She could be very outgoing with her peers, but with an officer around, or anyone she perceived as an older authority figure, she retracted her antenna and closed her shutters.
"Sonya, you’re a good – no, you’re a great engineer. I’ve only met two people in my life with more savvy of antimatter systems."
She looked stricken. "Who?"
"Me, and an old guy named Montgomery Scott."
Everybody knew who Scotty was. Sonya relaxed again and shared a chuckle at the joke. Then she sobered and said, "But?"
"No ‘but’ Sonya, you’re the best person I have for the job you do. That’s why you and Robin are along on this little camp-out." He saw her flinch microscopically at the mention of Robin’s name, and his prosthetic eyes registered a slight flush in the infrared around her neck. "Does it bother you that Robin made looey before you did?"
She breathed a frustrated sigh. "I’m not being, um, petty, Sir. It’s more disappointment in myself than anything like anger at Robin. But she’s two years younger than me, and she made looey two years ago, at 25! I can’t help but feel… I don’t know…" there was a word she was having trouble using. "…some degree of…failure."
Geordi pointed a finger at her nose. "No. Don’t say that about yourself. Didn’t I just tell you you were the best antimatter specialist I have?"
"Yessir." She hung her head. Meekly, she asked, "What’s keeping me back, then, Sir?"
It was his turn to sigh, only his was of exasperation. He didn’t want to go here. "Well, for one thing, Sonya, there’s only room for so many Lieutenants on a ship. Eventually you run out of departments for them to be in charge of. Lieutenant Tandosee rotated out just at the time Robin’s review came up that year, and Robin was clearly the best choice for both the job and the promotion. Sonya, don’t take this badly, please, but she is very good with people. She’s clearly in charge of her staff."
Gomez attempted to smile and joked, "Yessir, I know, I’m one of them."
"Do you think you could handle people as well as she does? I know you have the ability to make decisions and analyze problems, but…"
"…But my social skills suck. I know, Commander."
He shook his head. "Well, social skills have never been a requirement for command, God knows." She laughed out loud, and caught herself short before she embarrassed herself. Geordi continued. "Okay. I guess you deserve a straight answer. The issue to me is self confidence. Frankly: No matter how well you do your job, until you show me that you’d be able to command a staff of junior officers firmly and decisively, and with confidence, I can’t in good conscience justify a lieutenancy for you to my superiors."
She looked at her hands in her lap. She was squeezing her fists together nervously, white knuckles on olive skin. She was shaking a little too. She always did that when she was on the spot like this. "I see," she whispered.
The world below was pristine and blue, flecked with tatters of peaceful clouds painting their intricate patterns along jetstreams and tradewinds. As she orbited around, a continent rolled leisurely into view. Brown, green, dotted with lakes. A smear of gray where a city lay. Candle-flickers of city lights on the approaching limb where night began. From this height, she was surprised to be able to see the v-shaped wakes of cargo ships plying the seas. It was a beautiful little planet. If only she could take it with her. Keep it. Make it hers. She found herself coveting the tiny sphere. Maybe not all of it. Maybe just… maybe just that city. Its people. Its technology. For herself. Its distinctiveness would be incorporated. She reached out and dug her hands into the soil around the city, cupped it in her hands, and lifted it to her eyes to look. Tiny blue people. Screaming. Running. Dying. She looked down to the planet and saw the divot she’d scooped out. That was all she’d wanted. The rest was waste. She opened her mouth. A golden shaft of light shot out and speared the little planet. Atmosphere ignited. Rock exploded. Blue people flashed into vapor. It was hers. It fed her now. She was Shelby. Of Borg. Shelby. Queen of the Borg.
Her pounding heart woke her. Commander Shelby lay unmoving on her bunk. She felt like she hadn’t breathed in a year. She took in air sharply and deeply. Looked around. Woke up fully before trying to move. The room lights were on. She hadn’t turned them off to sleep since she’d been locked in. She didn’t want to sleep long enough to need the dark.
She remembered the dream.
Dear God, how in hell did Picard live with his memories?
Two icons showed on the tracking display on the Delaware’s main panel. To the right, a Starfleet emblem. At left, another. The right icon was marked with a small block of text beneath it which read "USS Wolf, NX-75984, Range .42LY, Speed W5.7." The left icon listed the names of all three runabouts, grouped in formation so closely that at this scale it was pointless to show separate symbols.
Picard stared at the screen, having little better to do. He knew intellectually that the distance between the two symbols was indeed closing gradually. But there was no apparent relative movement visible. It seemed to him their closing speed was no greater than the rate at which stars formed, and civilizations rose and fell, or the galaxy turned on its axis. He wondered if they’d catch up to their quarry before the galaxy completed another full revolution. Four days now. Ah well, he’d had longer waits in his life. Lying abed after his heart replacement surgery while his Academy classmates progressed without him. Those interminable weeks in a tiny shuttle packed with survivors of the Stargazer’s last – hm, second-to-last – battle. Virtually any dealings with that omnipotent buffoon, Q, never seemed to end.
The stars were sparse in this area of the Alpha Quadrant, in the low star-density region between two of the Milky Way’s spiral arms. They were near the border with Beta Quadrant, as far from the Bajoran Wormhole as they could be and still keep the whole Beta Quadrant between them and the Borg in the Delta Quadrant. Billions upon billions of stars in a galaxy a hundred thousand light years across and they still had to hide from warmongering races halfway across its disk. He longed for the day, probably millennia in the future, when mankind found a way to traverse the immense void between galaxies themselves. Maybe there was one out there where everyone lived in peace. No, come to think of it, he’d read something about an encounter James Kirk had had with people from the Andromeda galaxy. They hadn’t been very friendly, he recalled. And, hadn’t the planet killer that had inspired the design of the Wolf itself come from outside our own galaxy? For all he knew it and others like it had wiped out all life in its home galaxy before coming to ours.
Damn. Was everyone in the universe fighting with everyone else? Surely that can’t be the only reason for life to exist. Wasn’t there anyone out there besides himself who wanted to improve themselves by learning and exploring, rather than conquering and enslaving?
Riker, returning from the head, broke Picard’s reverie. "Captain, you look awfully somber."
Picard grunted a grudging laugh. "Will, this is going to sound a bit peevish, but I haven’t been having a very good time lately."
Riker chuckled. "It has been a rough year or two, hasn’t it, Sir? Between the Borg and the Dominion. Almost losing the new Enterprise on top of losing the last one."
Picard’s eyebrows lifted, crinkling his brow up to his hairless scalp, and a hint of a smile played at his mouth. "May I remind you, Number One," he admonished, "that you were in command of our former ship when it was destroyed."
"Yes, Sir," Riker smiled, knowing he was being kidded. "The hearing board reminded me of that often. But…"
"But, Commander Riker?"
In a tone of voice emulating a whiney teenager, Riker finished, "… well… Deanna was driving!"
She’d been locked in her cabin for five days, desperation and fury raging within, both vying for control over her reason. Her hands hurt. She’d pried the ventilator grid off barehanded, finally giving in to the absurd hope she’d be able to crawl through. The grate lay on the floor. Her anger didn’t make her feel any the less stupid for actually having tried to get into an air vent. She couldn’t even squeeze her damn head into the opening. And as soon as it went into the wall the narrow trunk made a ninety-degree vertical turn that nothing larger than a squirrel could have negotiated. And she’d known that before she’d pried the panel off the wall.
She had a foreboding sense that she was almost out of time. Her captors must be nearing the end of their voyage – he’d said five days. She had black visions of her hoped-for title of Commander (Captain?) Shelby, creator of the weapon that saved the Federation from the Borg and the Jem’Hadar, transforming into Commander (civilian?) Shelby, the pariah who resurrected a doomsday machine and let terrorists steal it.
Pocket doors. Everything in Starfleet was sliding automatic pocket doors. If the door swung in, she could remove the hinges and escape. If the door swung out, she could probably smash it down. No. It slid open, into the wall. On the floor in front of the door were the bent and snapped remains of a half dozen butter knives she’d used to try to pry the door open, the nearest things to actual weapons or tools she could coax from the food replicator. When she’d decided to take the vent grille off, she’d asked the replicator for a screwdriver. It had given her the drink. Synthehol, too, not even real.
With the comm panel off and her commbadge confiscated she couldn’t command the ship’s computer to alter the replicator pathways to give her objects other than food. She could hope her kidnappers would talk to her again, and forget to turn off her panel. Pipe dream. The only other time they’d spoken to her, they were on and off in less than a minute. They would never let her finish such a command string.
Hey. Wait a minute.
"Any second now, Captain," Lefler reported, watching a readout. "Alturis Beta’s singularity mass is smaller than average and Bonn is pretty far out from it, so they’ll be able to break out of warp pretty near the planet. Maybe fifteen minutes out at full impulse."
The Wolf’s warp signature was strong on the display now that they were close by. There was very little chance that her pirate crew didn’t know they were being followed unless they didn’t know how to work the sensor platforms. That seemed fairly unlikely to Picard. The runabouts were trailing ten minutes behind the Wolf now. If they neutralized warp at the same spot the Wolf did, they’d still be ten minutes behind her with little or no hope of catching up if she ran at full impulse to Bonn. If the Wolf held off coming out of warp to a spot closer to the star than the safe limit, it would be a tremendous risk to do the same. But a planetful of people may be at stake. And they still had no idea what to do about it.
With a dismayed shake of his head, LaForge reported, "Wolf’s shields are still up, Captain. I just don’t see anything we can do to stop them."
"Nor do I, Geordi," Picard answered. "Ensign Gomez put me on ship-to-ship with the James and the Hudson, please."
The ensign took a moment to tear herself away from the ships’ plot, waiting for something to happen. "Ship-to-ship, Sir."
"This is Picard. When the Wolf comes out of warp, wherever it may be, I want the three of us to continue past that point and overtake her as much as possible before coming out ourselves. Right on top of her if possible."
"Oh, my God, Captain..." Gomez started as Duval and Tosik acknowledged, Duval with a fatalistic sigh.
"Ensign…" Picard began to chide her for her outburst.
"Oh, Sir, I mean … right on top of her … that gave me an idea."
Picard raised an eyebrow. "Pray continue then, Ensign."
An alarm bleeped urgently. "She’s out of warp, Sir," Lefler said. "Further out than we anticipated! Twenty-five minutes to Bonn orbit. We can hold warp six for another ten minutes and be right on top of them."
Riker smiled broadly. "Our first break." Then to Gomez: "You think you can give us another one?"
"Remember how they used the runabouts to as tugs to pull the Wolf out of the hangar, Sir?"
"Sonya," LaForge said, "We don’t have enough power between us to tow … Hey, wait a minute..."
Picard looked impatiently at LaForge. He furrowed his brow pointedly.
"Sir," Gomez went on, "we don’t have enough power between us to tow a ship that big if it doesn’t want to be towed, but the runabouts’ engines are a whole lot more powerful than Wolf’s directional thrusters."
Lefler laughed. "Sure! We can lock onto the hull with tractor beams and steer them anywhere but at the planet! But no, Sonya – the tractors won’t be able to get a solid lock on the Wolf with her shields up. We’ll slip pretty badly."
Gomez shook her head. "Get underneath. Our shields against their shields, and push."
Lefler scrunched her face up. "Pretty iffy, but sure, it could work. We could try the tractors as well to supplement our grip."
"And if we time it right," Gomez went on, "we could alter their course radically enough that they would overshoot their orbital insertion point and sail on past the planet."
LaForge nodded, "It would take them a while to get realigned. It would buy us some time."
Riker added. "It’s an option that doesn’t require firing on the Wolf. At least not right away."
Picard’s mouth pinched in thought. Then he nodded sharply. "Make it so."