Alturis Beta was a painfully bright point about a quarter the size of Sol seen from Earth when the runabouts reached their critical downwarping limit. Picard held their speed for five more minutes. Limits were there for minimal safety considerations. Minimal was unacceptable with this many lives at stake. They might have had considerably more time if the planet had been on the far side of its sun, requiring the pirates – that’s the only way Picard could think of them now – to spend hours at sublight swinging around the star. But the planet was right there in front of them, ten minutes ahead of the USS Wolf and her weapon. The huge starship was visible to the naked eye now, perhaps a thousand kilometers ahead of them, shining brightly in reflected starlight.
LaForge said, "They’re starting to slow for orbital insertion. They’re doing it a lot sooner than they need to." "They’re unsure of themselves," Riker postulated. "Being careful on unfamiliar controls. Sir, I don’t think they know we’re here."
"Based on the fact that we’re still alive?" LaForge asked. Riker nodded grimly.
Lefler offered, "Well, there’s only five of them. Maybe they couldn’t spare someone for tactical."
"All ships: Close and surround the Wolf," Picard ordered. "Shields up."
The three tiny starships, gnats against Wolf’s mass, swarmed forward at full impulse. The Hudson and James slid into formation below the big ship’s bow. The Enterprise crew in the Delaware slightly astern of them. Ahead, magnified on the viewscreen, the pristine planet Bonn circled its star serenely with gentle pale veils of clouds around its tropics. The Wolf wasn’t pointed right at it, she was aiming ahead of the orbital track to meet the planet and fall into orbit. Her impulse engines were still thrusting at minimal power this far out, with terminal maneuvers still ahead.
Picard saw on the tactical plot that his ships were in position. This would be tricky. He said, "Engage."
The two runabouts touched their tiny shield bubbles against the Wolf’s own. Then tractor beams, oscillating cones of sparkling blue gravitons, popped into being like flashlight beams, skittering and washing over the Wolf’s deflector shields, raising holiday-sparkler nimbuses; not gripping but helping minutely. Like trying to hold on to a fish, Riker thought. Without pausing, all three of the small ships pitched up at sixty degrees and their impulse engines flared to full power. Their propulsive force was indeed much greater than the larger ship’s control thrusters, which immediately began firing automatically to right the ship, and the USS Wolf’s nose reared upward out of the plane of the system’s ecliptic. So far it was only a rotation, though, and with her impulse engines at minimum the deflection from her forward course was nil. It continued forward with its belly facing the planet.
"Mark," Lefler called when the ship itself had achieved sixty degrees relative to its line of flight. The runabouts stopped thrusting, and Picard watched the tracking display. Wolf’s engines continued thrusting, and indeed her course began arcing up and away from Alturis Beta Three’s orbit.
We need an experience tug pilot, Riker thought to himself.
Picard barked, "Commander Tosik, with us please."
Tosik disengaged the Hudson’s tractor beam and brought the runabout quickly around behind the Wolf. Together with the Delaware, each ship attempted to lock their tractors onto one of the Wolf’s opposing warp nacelles and push from behind, to give the huge vessel a shove upward and out of the system’s ecliptic plane. Their shield bubbles bumped against the Wolf’s and dazzled as the beams danced madly for a lock-on.
A moment before the plan might have worked, the Wolf’s impulse deck flared brightly, and a fan of glowing red plasma blasted outward radially from her stern. Her four massive engines, each backed by a fusion reactor more powerful than any pair of runabouts’, was thrown into full reverse. Spent plasma poured through her thrust-reverser slats and fanned out into the void, and the runabout crews felt their little ships lurch against their compensating force fields. The tractor beams were holding somewhat, and the Wolf was tugging at them now. Picard ordered the runabouts to resume thrusting, but against the Wolf’s engines their forward speed began to ebb immediately. They would be no match for such power, and this move would play hell with all their orbital dynamics. They were already within the orbit of the planet’s moon, but way too slow to maintain it. They would fall toward Bonn’s gravity well.
The main view screen blinked to life on Delaware’s bridge. A fuzzy blue face appeared. If facial expressions were the same for Bonns and humans, this being was exasperated.
"What do you?!" he shouted. "Where from you come? Follow us not should you have!"
"Heave to!" Picard answered with martial force. "You have stolen a Federation warship. If you do not cease fighting us and surrender the USS Wolf to us, you risk inciting punitive action against your world."
"What? Fight us?" the being said in wonder.
Lefler caught Picard’s attention long enough to say, "That’s not Denda or his father – I think it’s one of the ones from the other table, the ‘strict-religion’ guys."
The Bonn went on, "Starfleet Federation no harm from us meant! Ship we return! We want to not harm you! Go away! Please!"
"It’s too late for that now…" The Wolf’s thrust had brought the chain of ships to a relative halt, and was now pulling them all backward against the planet’s gravity. The maneuver was sloppy as hell; the Bonns were just applying opposite force to the situation without considering any other tactics. "… and if we don’t all stop this thrust-match right away we may fall into your homeworld."
"Then you stop!" the blue man ordered. He stabbed at controls off screen. A series of phaser beams lanced out from the Wolf’s defensive batteries. Each runabout was hit exactly twice in rapid succession. At a range of less than ten meters they could hardly miss, automatic or not. It was shocking for a moment until everyone realized no one was damaged.
"That had to be an automated defense system they just turned on," LaForge said. "That was too damn good."
Lefler checked a panel. "Shields holding – they hit us at one-one hundredth power. It was just a warning."
Picard considered for a second. "He said he didn’t want to hurt us. Let’s see how much he means it." Gomez shot him a wary look, which he caught peripherally and chose to ignore. "Maintain full impulse. All reserve power to the tractor beams."
Another round of phaser bursts rippled from the Wolf and tagged all the smaller ships. This volley was at a higher setting, and the James abruptly dropped away. "We’re all right," Duval reported. "Control circuit burnout… auxiliary engaged… we’re coming back, Captain."
"No," Picard said heavily. "All ships disengage. This is not working, and we can’t stop them if we’re all dead."
The runabouts backed away, and the Wolf seemed to shake off its confusion – perhaps the Bonns trying to decide how best to come back on course. Then it pitched its nose slowly back down, fired its engines and realigned for a standard orbit around Bonn, as deadly as it ever had been.
Gomez dropped heavily into her seat again and said, "Nuts."
When Shelby’s comm panel came back to life, she was sitting against the wall directly under it. She heard the tone it made reactivating and stood up smartly to face the screen.
The same blue contractor as before faced her. He spoke urgently: "Starfleet ships yours are here, I need you talk to them…"
She gave him less than a sentence to see if he had anything to say that she could use. He had, and now she cut him off before he could finish and cut her off. "Computer, " she spoke as quickly as she could and still have the machine understand her, "Voiceprint Shelby Elizabeth security code Shelby Epsilon three…"
"What? No, to them you talk…"
Quickly now: "Security code fifteen execute. Repeat…"
"Stop it!" the Bonn stabbed buttons on his panel furiously, trying to cut her off. It didn’t work. She smiled. It reminded her of herself, pounding on her own door for days. That door slid open on its own now and she calmly stood a chair in the doorway to keep it from closing again. She went back to the comm panel. Her adrenaline was pumping hard, but for the first time in days she felt she had some control.
"All hands this is Shelby. Split into two groups, I want the bridge and engineering secured. Move!"
Gomez exclaimed "Her shields are down!"
The cabin speakers announced: "Starfleet vessels, this is Commander Shelby. My ship has been taken and my crew and I have been locked in quarters. I don’t know the situation aboard just yet, but I’ve managed a code fifteen. No telling how long before these guys figure out how to bypass it from the bridge. We’ll see what we can do here. I’d appreciate a little help."
Riker keyed the mike. "Shelby, this is Riker. We suspect five Alturans aboard."
"Riker, can you beam me into my bridge?"
"Not alone, you don’t. We’ll beam you here first, then we’ll both beam over, armed."
"Hurry. I have no commbadge, you’ll have to scan for me. I’m in my cabin."
While Riker sprinted back to the weapons locker to get another phaser and a spare commbadge for Shelby, Gomez, showing uncharacteristic sharpness, rushed back to the runabout’s two-stage transporter booth just behind the cockpit and started scanning. "Got her," she said. Immediately Commander Shelby shimmered into presence.
Riker, trotting back into the cockpit, stopped short when he saw her. Her hair was a curly blonde tangle hanging limply to one side. A bruise covered one side of her face. She clearly hadn’t changed or showered in the five days of her captivity. She saw his reaction and said, "Shut up. Get on."
He smiled at her and stepped onto the transporter pad, handing her a phaser and badge.
"Wait!" Lefler said in disgust. "Wolf’s shields just went back up."
"Damn it!" Shelby shouted and punched out, hitting Riker hard in the ribs. As he bounced off the transporter booth wall she realized what she’d done and grabbed him by the arm as his knees buckled. "Oh crap, I’m sorry. Will, I’m sorry. I’ve been punching walls for five days, I forgot you were there."
"’S’okay," he grunted. "You’ve been under a little pressure lately."
She looked around, seeing where she was for the first time. "All you brought was a runabout?"
The rest of the crew had been staring in amazement at the scene. Now Picard said "Three, actually. It’s all that was handy, you know."
Under control of its hijackers once again, the USS Wolf fell into orbit around Alturis Beta Three. The three runabouts buzzed about her like mosquitoes, waiting for an opening, finding none. Continued attempts to hail her bridge met with no response, but the freed crewmembers had gotten to a comm panel. The engineering officer, Lieutenant Bidura, spoke to Shelby. The crew had secured engineering and taken prisoner three of their former captors.
"We have the remaining core shut down, Commander," he reported, "and the impulse deck. Seems to be too late, I suppose, if we are at their destination. I am sorry, Ma’am."
"Don’t worry about it, Lieutenant. Is the weapon disabled?"
"No, Ma’am, and we cannot bring the shields down either. Remember we designed this thing so a Borg party in engineering had limited ability to harm us."
"Yes, I know." Shelby explained to Picard: "Absolute final control for the main weapon and the deflector shields is on the bridge. There’s no way to override from anywhere else."
Picard gave her an ironic smile. "It seemed sensible at the time," he said.
Shelby spoke to her crew again. "Can we get into the bridge?"
"No Ma’am. They have a full security lock down in effect, including a force field. We cannot even burn our way in with phaser rifles."
"What about your prisoners? Make them talk to their friends."
"They refuse of course. They are all of the same cause."
She sighed heavily, feeling quite helpless again. "All right, Rachime. Get a crew into the Jefferies tubes and try to cut power to the main weapon. I know we made it impossible to do that, but be creative. Make sure everybody has commbadges on, if those shields come down and it hits the fan I want to be able to beam everybody out of there stat."
"Yes, Ma’am," the engineer answered with a fatalistic sigh.
Outside the viewports, the massive starship hung in Bonn’s sky. Below, deep indigo ocean rolled past. An archipelago of small islands capped with cumulus bonnets. To the south, a tropical storm swirled. Shelby remembered a dream, vaguely, and felt a touch of panic.
Picard sat furtively at the comm station and keyed the mike. "This is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Starfleet calling the Bonns aboard the USS Wolf. Please respond. I ask you to stop what you’re doing and allow us to take our ship back. I warn you again that any aggressive action you take may cause reprisals from the United Federation of Planets."
There was only the slight hydrogen hiss of the carrier wave for a moment. Then the lyrical cadence of the Bonn’s voice: "Starfleet Captain, Kadentawa Buta Disda Henk, I am. Harm you not I want. Beg you I do to go away. Harm aliens I must not, but show my brothers this ship I must! At stake is so much, you do not see."
Picard muted the mike, looked to Lefler. She picked up on his unspoken question. She explained "His given name is Disda. The form is: family name, title, given name and I think clan name."
"How do I address him formally, Lieutenant?"
"Buta Kadentawa. Bu-ta meaning the son. His father would be Bu-to…" Picard held up a hand indicating he had quite enough information and opened the audio pickup again.
"Buta Kadentawa," Picard answered, "You are correct, I do not see. If you would lower your shields and let us come aboard, I think we can discuss this and come to some agreement. You see, that is how we do things in the Federation. You cannot just take what you want; that is not our way. If all you want is to show the ship to your people, that could certainly have been arranged. All this was unnecessary."
"My country we approach now. You be quiet."
A land mass rose over the eastern horizon as their orbit brought them around the planet. The Dream hovered in the back of Shelby’s mind, not quite clear, just beyond remembering.
In his native language, flowing in rhythmic cadence like a song, Kadentawa broadcast to his nation. The Delaware’s translator spoke with his voice in English: "My friends, my people, look up to heaven and see what I have brought! A weapon so wonderful and powerful that our enemies will never dare to attack us again, now that we have this. War will be impossible now, because no one will be able to beat us. No one will dare."
Riker whispered, "Oh, how many times has history heard that ridiculous claim?"
The alien voice went on: "Our new friends, the Federation, have helped us build this wonderful ship. With them, and with this, our enemies will keep us down no more. By our laws, we have built this ship together and we share its use." (this last seemed a pointed comment at the Starfleet personnel) "And the Federation will honor this, as they honor all planets’ traditions."
Picard hung his head and sighed in frustration. He transmitted directly to the Wolf’s bridge. "Buta Kadentawa, that is not our way. We honor your traditions, yes, but we do not trade warships. You’ve helped us build this ship, yes, and you have been paid for your work. That is the end of it. I’m sorry. We can certainly arrange a trade agreement whereby our engineers share technology with your world – mark that: your planet, not just your country. But this? No, I’m afraid you have the wrong idea. Now please drop your shields and allow us to beam over before this goes any further."
"Speak for Federation you do not. Ship I give back to you in twenty minutes. I go home, you go home. Build then you new ship for my people. We, Federation, be friends."
"Twenty minutes?" Gomez said, "Why twenty minutes?"
"Don’t you see it, Sonya?" Lefler said with an obvious edge of fear, "This isn’t Denda’s country below us. We thought all the Bonns on the project were from Condra – the technologically superior nation – but these five aren’t from Denda’s country. Remember he said they were from a stricter religion; with what we know now that can only mean they’re from the other country. Denda’s enemies. They’re spies or something. Maybe planted in Denda’s company to do this. What’s below us now is Theronn; the country that says it’s being oppressed by Condra. Now they have a weapon that’s superior to anything even Condra has. What happens in twenty minutes is that the Wolf will be over Condra!"
"Oh, Christ," Shelby whispered.
Ocean showed on the horizon, and the terminator between day and night. It crept toward them too quickly.
Shelby keyed the intership. "Bidura, do anything you have to. Turn off the weapon, get the shields down, gas the bridge, eject the bridge module, anything. We are way past out of time!"
The engineer’s answer didn’t come immediately, which meant he was indeed trying something at the time.
"We built her too good, Ma’am" he said, out of breath. "Whatever is happening out there, do not wait for us."
Picard locked eyes with Shelby, as both knew the only way left.
"It’s your ship, Commander," the Captain said.
Shelby nodded. "All runabouts, this is Commander Shelby." She took a deep determined breath. "I want a concentrated attack on the Wolf’s bridge. I don’t care what it takes, we have to get through those shields and take out the bridge. To the Wolf crew: get everyone aft to engineering and stand by." She looked at her almost-command as it hung, looking not at all unlike that planet-killer of a century ago, over a cloud-swirled deep blue ocean. "Remember that entire hull is an antimatter tank, so target only the bridge. Pattern Bravo. Let’s go, people. Execute."
Tosik and Duval’s pilots acknowledged simultaneously. Lefler moved to the copilot’s seat to operate the phaser panel while LaForge flew. The runabouts scattered, turned and came at the Wolf from three different vectors. Their phasers struck out and stabbed at the warship’s deflectors. Her shields sparkled pale green where the beams splashed their energies, and they held. The gunners pulsed their beams; the rebounding effect would weaken the shield bubble. They pulled away one-by-one before they could cross paths and collide and retreated for another attack run.
The power of a modern ship’s impulse engines made maneuvering in orbit less tricky than it once was, but the pilots still had to account for the fact that they were moving laterally at orbital velocities while also trying to execute a coordinated attack. Although the ship’s control computers compensated by figuring what the pilot wanted to do, the basics of orbital dynamics still applied, and they got in the way of this kind of maneuvering. Slowing down made you fall lower and cut a tighter radius from the planet’s center, thus appearing to go faster than a higher, faster object; speeding up put you in a higher orbit with more distance to go to catch up to a slower object. It was counterintuitive to the way a throttle was supposed to work. If one didn’t want to end up porpoising all over the sky and never reaching the objective, one had to use huge amounts of thrust to counteract nature’s laws, keep from falling into the atmosphere, and drive in straight lines. LaForge drove straight as possible at the great ship’s bridge while Lefler tapped the phaser fire control and aimed the beam. Wolf was not shooting back. Maybe the engineering crew managed to cut phaser power. Or maybe the Alturan truly didn’t want to hurt them. Or maybe the two remaining aliens had their furry little hands full just keeping the ship in orbit.
"Stop you will!" the Bonn shouted across the vacuum. "Hurt you I do not want to! But stop it!"
After the second pass drew no return fire, Picard ordered his de facto fighter squadron to come to a relative rest and fire point-blank into the bridge module. The runabouts drew together line-abreast and began pouring phaser energy into the Wolf’s shields. They were formidable indeed. But runabouts didn’t have the most powerful phasers one could find on a starship. The Bonns finally activated the defensive phasers, and a staccato ripple of short bursts issued from Wolf’s hull, bouncing the runabout crews a bit.
"Stop now!" the voice of the Bonn crackled through dancing electrons on the shield surface. "Done almost am I. Ship you have soon. Why do you stop not?"
Gomez muttered, "I really hate their sentence structure."
Lefler quipped, "You found a structure?"
Shelby order evasive maneuvers and the defensive firing stopped.
"Buta Kadentawa!" Picard called out. "I cannot let you harm anyone with our starship. Don’t you see that?"
Another land mass loomed over the planet’s horizon. It was night over there, city lights glowing like fireflies about an hour past the terminator. Shelby felt a chill of déjà vu. The Wolf’s directional thrusters flared and the great cylinder rotated its muzzle to face directly down at the planet’s surface. Shelby’s chill turned to cold fear. She lifted an arm, irrationally reaching out, wanting to grab hold of the nightmare, grab onto the ship and pluck it from space.
"Captain," she said, her voice barely a whisper, "we can’t let them."
Picard met Shelby’s eyes. They both knew the weight of the situation. He met Riker’s eyes then too. The command decision passed between them all, unspoken.
"Geordi," Riker ordered, "Put us in the way."
LaForge didn’t hesitate, but his sigh and his headshake spoke eloquently. "Getting in the way, Sir."
He slowed the USS Delaware, dropped her below the USS Wolf, then fired an angled thruster burn to match the big ship’s orbital velocity again. He rotated the runabout’s nose vertically.
Shelby stared straight down (up?) the barrel of the largest, most destructive single gun ever made by humankind. She could feel, in her imagination, her skin being annihilated cell by cell, in a time frame where femtoseconds lasted for eternities. The main injector would glow with its magnetic field, down at the root of the tunnel. Then a spray of antihydrogen would gush outward in a fan shape, meeting the magnetic field of the accelerator coils. She saw herself watching this happen, and saw the beam obliterate the runabout’s windows, console, Lefler and Geordi, then her, particle by particle, atom by atom, watching as they all died.
Gomez choked back a small animal cry. "Sweet Jesus," she strangled out, "Captain? Sir?…"
"As you were, Ensign," Picard said firmly. "Buta Kadentawa. I hope you meant what you said. If you do not wish to harm us, If you do not wish to risk war with the Federation, then end this. Do not fire on your own people. Let us come aboard and take our ship back where it belongs."
"My own people?" came the angry reply. "Not my own people! Tyrants! Murderers! Family mine they kill! Cities ours they bomb." In his fury he reverted to his own language, and the ship’s translator kicked in. "You can not call them even people who do not believe in the Spirit of Heaven. They do not pray, they do not give tribute. They speak his name aloud and defile it. And with all that they have the nerve to hold their scientific advances over us, deny us their secrets. They travel freely to the other planets while we have to beg rides on their ships as workers and assistants. When we demand our share, they destroy our factories from orbit. My factory. My family’s factory! They are all dead! Now the enemy will all be dead!"
They were about to cross over the western coast of the "enemy’s" continent. An alarm twittered for attention on Gomez’s panel. "Oh my God oh my God." She cried out "Captain, he’s powering up the antimatter cannon!" Riker clamped a firm hand on her shoulder and stared her down. Her panicked expression didn’t relax any, but she held her tongue. Sweat stained her chest and back. It’s not that no one else is scared, Shelby thought, it’s just that we’re too steeped in Starfleet nobility to let it show. What the hell is wrong with us? The other junior officer, Lefler, was also less than cool, but she was holding her own. Riker looked resolute as always. He’d been here before. This was how he’d looked when he’d ordered the Crusher boy to ram the Enterprise into the Borg cube over Earth years ago. Picard may as well have been ordering tea for all the emotion he showed now. But after all he’s been through, all the times he’s faced death, was this time any different? Shelby had heard survivors of life-and-death situations say that once through that, the rest was gravy. Meaning that once you’ve cheated death the rest of your life is a gift, and there’s no sense complaining when your number is finally called. Or maybe it was that Picard was so sure that his bluff would never be called.
"You will kill us too, if you fire," Picard said calmly, reasonably, to the Bonn. Then all hopes for friendly relations with the Federation will be gone. Do you want this? Do your people - you’re people - realize this?"
Commander Tosik radioed, "Captain Picard, I urgently recommend you move out of the way. Scans show that the weapon is about to fire."
The Bonn’s voice, now without its musical quality and heavy with throatiness, spoke to them: "Defend you those who my family killed? Protect them you would?"
Picard answered, "We defend and protect everyone. It is our most sacredly held belief that we not let others come to harm because of us." An exaggeration, but it might work.
The silence stretched. Shelby couldn’t pull her eyes away from the infinite depths of the black shaft before her.
"Then, with my enemies, you burn too."
It didn’t work. Shelby tensed. Outside, down the long, deep tunnel of the weapon she’d created, a faint glow started.
And when the gun powered up…
"Holy crap," she swore. "Lefler! phasers right now! Quarter power. Hit that light source."
Lefler tapped off the safety and keyed quarter power while she said, "But, the shields?" And she hit the trigger even with the question on her lips.
The phaser beam dashed down the eight hundred meter tunnel lighting its whole interior as it went in a sparkling coruscation. The ribwork of rings that made up the electromagnetic accelerator coils stood out in sharp, shiny relief from their own harsh shadows. They looked like a rib cage. She felt like she was looking down the throat of some massive, gaping fish. The beam impacted at the hub of a complicated-looking array of piping – the antimatter injector nozzle. The explosion was probably a lot larger than it looked, way down there, 800 meters away in a sixty-meter diameter tunnel. A fireball rolled up at them – down at them – propelled by the activated accelerator coils in the walls.
"Geordi," Shelby ordered briskly, "Zee plus one hundred meters, now."
Training and instinct superceded LaForge’s surprise. The runabout jogged out of the way just as a roiling cloud of flaming plasma spit from the Wolf’s muzzle and dissipated. But that was all. The nozzle was fused shut.
"What did you!?" The Bonn’s voice hissed at them.
Gomez was crying, trying to keep it quiet. Riker’s grip on her shoulder softened to a reassuring squeeze. Lefler let out a huge sigh and said, "The shields went down for the shot? They didn’t do that at the test."
"You just didn’t notice," Shelby answered. "The shield segment in front of the muzzle comes down for the shot. I guess I’m a little more tired than I thought or I’d have remembered sooner."
Riker said, "I was having a little trouble remembering things in the last few seconds myself."
"Not me," LaForge said. "I remembered everything very clearly. My whole life in about half a minute. I’m glad we didn’t die just then, there are some things I need to work on."
Picard was smiling proudly at Shelby. "Well done, Commander. I was not anxious to follow through with my stance."
The Bonn was raging on the speakers, back into his native tongue and translated by the computer. He no longer had anything good to say about the Federation. The pleasant cadence of Bonn’s conversational language had turned to a harsh martial stridence, all sharp, clipped syllables. But he was, essentially, defanged now, with the Wolf’s engines off line and the weapon disabled. Abruptly, he stopped.
Had that been the sound of a phaser?
Then the voice of Engineering Lieutenant Bidura was there in his singsong Indian dialect. "We are on the bridge, commander Shelby," he reported. "The ship is ours again."
"Shields are down," LaForge announced.
Shelby shooed Gomez out of her chair and dropped into it herself like a string-cut marionette, all the tension released from her. She took a moment to close her eyes and smile to herself. "Thank you, Rashime. You are a wonderful person." Riker looked like he couldn’t believe she’d just said that to another being. She looked at him tiredly, but still not too tired to tease. "What’s the matter, Riker? Never heard me compliment someone before?"
He thought for a moment with exaggerated difficulty. "Nope."
She laughed out loud. "Rachime. How long to get the Wolf spaceworthy again?"
"If you are in a hurry, an hour. If not, I should check for damage from the ejected warp core, and send a crew to see if there is any critical damage in the gun barrel. Someone shot a big hole in it without asking my permission."
She laughed again. She was so damn tired she was getting giddy. She’d hate to collapse in a giggling fit in front of Jean-Luc Picard. And it would give Riker years worth of ammunition. The release of tension now that this was over was intoxicating.
A light blinked on the comm panel. Incoming message from the planet. "Someone down there finally noticed us," Shelby said. "RF band." She looked to Picard, and he nodded a go-ahead to her. As long as she was sitting there. She keyed the call. "This is Commander Elizabeth Shelby of the Federation starship USS Wolf." That sounded rather nice, she thought. "We apologize for this intrusion…"
The translator filtered a harsh, upset voice. "We heard the voice of our enemy. We saw his first attack attempt…" The phaser burst exploding? "… He will not see another chance. You Federation people must go now. Go, for we wish you no harm. Go while we make an example of these zealots."
An alarm sounded. The threat warning panel came alive on Lefler’s weapon station. "Missile launch on the planet!" she called out. "Multiple launches."
Gomez sniffed loudly and said in a quavering voice, "Oh, Jesus, if they hit that ship…"
"Picard to runabouts. We must intercept those incoming missiles…"
"Sir!" Lefler interrupted, a tiny flash of panic on her face at the breach of protocol. "Thirty-six missile launches. Nuclear warheads. Small warheads - tactical, but nuclear. More powering up on the ground. All over the continent."
Picard froze. He looked to Riker. Riker looked to Shelby. Shelby looked back to Picard.
Bidura’s voice: "Captain Picard, not even Wolf’s shields can handle that, and we are dead in space at this time."
"Wolf’s defensive phasers…" Riker began.
"I am afraid I pulled the main power coupling the last time this blue fellow started shooting at you."
"Lefler, time to impact?"
"Six gees acceleration… six minutes to orbit. The nearest one."
Bidura’s response was like the sound of a coffin closing: "I need fifteen to restore phasers, an hour to move the ship."
It took only a moment to decide. Shelby gave the order. "Bidura, abandon ship. No wait - stay where you are, we’re beaming you out. Got that everybody? Start beaming. We have six minutes to get the hell away from this planet. Geordi, get going!"
The engineer didn’t even bother to answer. He swung back to the two-pad transporter. With the three of them working as fast as the systems would go, they just might make it before they were all vaporized.
Gomez was starting to shake visibly. "Sir?" she pleaded to Picard. "The planet… all those people… All that antimatter…"
"Yes, I know, Ensign. I know. There are no…" his voice caught "…no rabbits left to pull out of the hat."
Sonya Gomez bolted out of the cockpit, sobbing. She ran through the narrow little central corridor and into the aft compartment. The aft compartment with its panoramic picture window. The ship was still nose-up to the planet, pointing accusingly at its murderer. The continent below edged away, the ocean shoreline lapping at its east coast placidly. People sleeping. City lights like strings of jewelry. They laid their cities out radially down there. They looked like illuminated spider webs. Moving lights – aircraft? Or missiles. There – that was a missile. A cloud glowed briefly as a rocket exhaust passed upward through it, then the booster flame became a tiny spark again. To the north, there was an aurora, pretty green curtains dancing. All those sleeping people. All that antimatter.
Sonya slowly went to her knees, one leg at a time. Was God closer in space? Or was He back watching Earth, letting other Gods tend to their own worlds? Four hundred years exploring space and no one had come close to finding that answer. Did it matter? She needed to talk to Him, so He was there.
The compartment door opened and Riker ushered in a few of Wolf’s crewpeople. One was saying that they’d told the computer to erect the shields after the last person beamed out. And there were two Bonns, their wrists bound behind their waists with some cable. Everyone noticed Sonya, but they saw her emotions and looked away politely. She watched them come in, not caring that her face was scrunched and soaked with tears. The Bonns turned their jade eyes away from her and sat at the briefing table with their backs to her, only a few centimeters away.
She wouldn’t have that.
"Oh, no." she croaked. She grabbed the nearest Bonn by his shoulders and dragged him out of his chair. "You watch!" she shouted in his face and slammed his back on the carpeted decksole. One of the Wolf crew moved to stop her, But Riker stopped him with a hand on his arm. Let her.
She wrenched the blue man up, using his thick head of hair as a grip. "You watch!" was all she could say now and she jammed his face against the windows. The runabout rotated, pointed up-orbit, and was suddenly underway at full impulse. The light-speckled land mass below fell behind. The USS Wolf fell behind. The ocean fell behind. Bonn fell behind. In less than a minute it was a full globe, receding. The other two runabouts slid into formation behind the Delaware. Behind them, the planet Alturis Beta Three got smaller and smaller. The Bonn struggled, but Sonya’s strength came from somewhere deep inside her anger. She mashed his face into the glass, her own face pressing there next to his, her lips against his furry blue ear. "You watch," she whispered, her voice harsh and grating from sobbing.
The Wolf was too small to see now, but the nuclear explosion that enveloped it flared like a match being lit. A point of light glowed there for a moment while the fireball died away. That one didn’t breach the shields. "You watch." She watched with him. So many deaths must not go unseen.
Another match flared.
The runabouts skirted over Bonn’s small moon. Its crater-pocked landscape rolled swiftly beneath them. They were very close to its surface, but their velocity would keep them from falling into orbit. Robin was using the moon as a shield. That was unnecessary. The explosion wouldn’t be that big. But just before Lefler arced the flight path to go behind the moon …
The explosion came.
It was like a sun had been born over the rim of the moon.
Kadentawa Buta Disda Henk shrieked, squirmed, kicked. Sonya lost her grip on him, but got it back quickly. "You watch!" she screamed and slammed him into the window. Sonya was a small person, but she was fit, and the Bonns were close to her size. And nowhere near as mad. The blood from his nose was deep violet.
The other Bonn had folded into a ball on the deck, his shrieks counterpoint to his leader’s. One of the crew of the late USS Wolf held him there in case he got violent. But he didn’t.
Bonn’s moon receded. The runabouts were probably at a quarter of the speed of light by now. The moon’s entire disk was framed by a billowing, burning white sphere of subatomic particles. Particles that used to be people, trees, ocean, air, everything.
Sonya finally felt the energy seep out of her as if a valve had been opened. She let the blue man go. He pulled away, turned away, fell down. Stayed down. He kept shrieking. She couldn’t get up herself. She sat with her back against the rear wall, crying softly now, her anger no longer able to drive her muscles. She brought her knees up and hugged them, and hid her head between them. Time passed.
When she looked up again, Robin was sitting next to her. Robin’s eyes were red too. But not very. She was always the stronger of the two of them. That was why Robin was a lieutenant now while Sonya was still an ensign.
Riker didn’t look so good either. The Bonns had run out of steam and stopped screaming, but they weren’t moving, like they were in shock. They were curled up together in the aft corner, much like Sonya and Robin. Riker was glaring at them looking like he wanted to twist their arms off and beat them with the severed limbs.
She tried to speak, but her throat was too constricted. But Riker heard whatever sound she’d made and looked at her.
"Can we… go back to the Enterprise now? Sir?" she managed to say.
He nodded. "Very soon, Ensign. We have to go back and see if we can do anything at Bonn, first."
She looked at the inanimate pair of fuzzy blue men.
"Make them look," she said.