The holographic image hung in the air over the conference table and rotated slowly, so everyone there could see all sides. It was a cursory survey mapped onto a globe, sent by subspace transmission from Alturis Beta Three by the first Federation starships to arrive. Ships were converging on mercy missions from all directions, but the very reason the Wolf project had been situated out here was because of its remoteness from most Federation, Klingon and Romulan territories. The first ship of any size had taken a week to get there, staging from Starbase 223, and it dropped Fleet Admiral Alynna Nechayev off at the asteroid base on its way. Meanwhile, three runabouts and a freighter had been all there was to render aid to the seared husk of Bonn.
As best anyone could interpret the sensor data, six ten-kiloton tactical nuclear missiles had hit the USS Wolf in succession. Each one had been big enough to destroy the center of a large city. Wolf’s shields held until the sixth missile. Whether it had penetrated the shields or just caused enough damage aboard the ship to cause it to explode, no one would ever know. The rest of the three dozen or more missiles that were in flight were most likely simply annihilated by the Wolf’s antimatter explosion without going off.
All it probably took to set off the Wolf’s full load of semi-frozen antihydrogen slush was contact with the holding tank walls after the electromagnetic containment fields failed. That explosion alone would have been tremendous, and enough to cause apocalyptic damage to the planet’s surface beneath the ship. But warmed by the nuclear blasts and the initial antimatter reaction, the mass of slush quickly expanded into a gaseous antimatter cloud that contacted the atmosphere. The chain reaction that followed was the explosion that the runabout crews had seen, that had rivaled the star Alturis Beta for a moment in its glare.
The Wolf had just orbited over the ocean when it happened. That may have contributed to the destruction. What better to react with antihydrogen than H2O? Much of the planet’s western ocean had gone into the resulting chain reaction, as had practically all of the atmosphere on that hemisphere. It blow-torched the planet to its bare rocky crust over at least a third of its surface. The heat pulse and concussion wavefront wrapped around the planet at several times the speed of sound, evaporating lakes and toppling and burning forests. The two major nations and the continents they occupied were struck on their facing shores and were skinned to the bone for much of their breadth. Condra, the country that had been the target of the hijackers’ attack, was wiped clean from the face of their planet . But nearly half of their own country was equally obliterated, including their capital city. All of the island nations had been scoured of life sentient, animal and plant as the oceans that once fed them and protected them surged over them in concussion-born tidal waves. People on the day side had time to watch and wonder at a spectacular daytime light show of sparkling plasma that raced toward them from the horizon before they were hit with overpressure winds in the hypersonic range and tidal waves that reached as high as the low clouds that had been blasted away before them. People on the far side, opposite ground zero, saw a blazing aurora reach a curtain into the sky all around them, shepherding before it roiling clouds that continually evaporated and recondensed from the constantly changing heat and pressure forces; a curtain that closed quickly upon them. Those who were scientists probably recognized their world’s doom happening, but, since the sun was high in the sky and not going nova, wondered in ignorance and terror at the reasons. Then the winds and tides must have reversed, because a goodly portion of the planet’s oceans and atmosphere were annihilated in the blast, and what was left rushed back to fill the empty ocean basin, which was much deeper now from being scoured of eons of sediment and muck. At ground zero, the crust had probably been burned through to the planet’s molten mantel, but the inrushing ocean waters had flash-quenched the liquid rock and sent exploding geysers of steam and fractured rock soaring into the voided sky. The remaining air all over the world spread to fill the vacuum in a great planetary inhaling and thinned to just over half its former density and pressure, leaving populations who survived the plasma front, floods, waves, tornadoes, hurricanes and firestorms, gasping like beached fish. There was as much air to breath at the former sea level now as there had been on a high mountain, which was just enough to keep you alive if you didn’t move around too much. The high mountains, though, now poked their caps through the rarified atmosphere into the border of space. Those peaks that weren’t denuded of their glaciers and snowcaps by the reaction now saw the ice and snow sublime away into the partial vacuum. Ocean water thrown into suborbit by the blast rained back down for days all over the planet. Dust, steam clouds and smoke from flash-burned forests hung like a death caul all over the world, blocking the sun. Firestorms still raged, devouring the remaining few of Bonn’s forests, destroying the very mechanism that might have a chance of restoring the breathable atmosphere.
The holoimage was repulsive to look at. But seated around the asteroid base’s briefing table Captain Picard, Commanders Duval, Riker and Shelby, and Admiral Nechayev looked at it. They read the stats, they listened to the recorded reports, and no one said much of anything.
Bonn was dead. A whole planet was dead. It would never again support life in any meaningful fashion. Not without a few million years of natural recovery. The planetary ecology was obliterated. If the atmospheric density was ever to return to normal it would require eons of plants expelling oxygen, but most of the world’s plants had been wiped out and the rest were dying. Of its population of nearly four billion people, less than one billion survived, half of them injured, all of them essentially homeless and helpless. The whole world’s infrastructure had been destroyed. There was no power anywhere. The only food was in stock houses in the least damaged areas. Riots to get at it included mobs numbering in the thousands. There was so little livestock left that no one dared butcher any for food without fear of bringing the breeding population to the edge of extinction. That, of course, wasn’t stopping people who hadn’t eaten in week from killing it anyway.
"What can we do?" Nechayev whispered. "Can we relocate a billion people? It would take every starship we have left a hundred years, and that’s if we didn’t need them all against the Jem’Hadar."
Shelby started to speak, changed her mind, started again. "I feel… I feel responsible. I’d like to be involved with… whatever it is we do."
"You can’t blame yourself, Elizabeth," Riker said to Shelby. "We can’t blame ourselves for the actions of a madman."
"Yes," the admiral agreed, "that’s an old debate: is the owner of a weapon responsible if it’s stolen and used by the thief? I tend to think not. People are responsible only for their own actions. Legally speaking, in most accepted judicial systems, Starfleet is not accountable for this disaster."
Picard smiled ironically. "An appropriate word. ‘Disaster’ is Latin for ‘evil star.’ I’m sure the people of Bonn will be thinking of Starfleet in that vein."
"In fact," Nechayev said, "those Alturans who know what happened are inclined to hold us responsible. That’s emotion talking, I hope. Once the anger fades…"
"If it ever does," Shelby interjected. Nechayev eyed her for the interruption, but Shelby was staring at the rotating image of the corpse of Bonn. The admiral nodded to herself.
"…if the anger fades. I hope reason will prevail."
"One may hope," Picard mused. "But what can be reasonable about this?"
Shelby stood and came to attention. Everyone’s eyes went to her. "Admiral Nechayev, I would like to officially volunteer to head up the efforts to aid the people of Alturis Beta Three."
Nechayev gave her a look of deep consideration. "I thought you might. Shelby, we need you on the Borg projects. I was planning on assigning you to the Fleet yards at Planitia to supervise construction of the first six Wolf-class starships."
Riker sat upright like he’d been stung. Nechayev eyed him pointedly.
"Of course we’re building more, Riker," she said before he could give voice to his obvious outrage. "The concept was brilliant, the execution perfect. The ship worked just fine."
Riker looked at the charred remains of the planet hovering over the desk. He turned the hologram off in disgust.
"Will," Picard said, "She’s right. The weapon worked perfectly. All this tragedy happened because it was stolen and misused, not because of any fault in its design or in our justification for building it. The reason for its construction still exists. We need as many of them as we can get."
"And what, Sir? Ram Cardassia with them and reduce it to this." He waved at where the hologram had been.
"Of course not, Number One," Picard spat out angrily. "We may be at war, but we still fight with humanity and honor. But, I imagine," he went on more calmly, looking to the admiral for conformation, "that we can free up most of the fleet guarding Earth from the Borg now and send them to the front." Nechayev nodded. "No, we need them, Will."
Riker exhaled an indignant huff. "But we don’t have to like it," he said, parroting Picard’s statement of over a week ago.
Picard nodded somberly.
Shelby cleared her throat. "Anyone can supervise that, Ma’am. I recommend Commander Duval. He was as involved in this project as I." Nechayev started to speak, but Shelby went on, "Please, Admiral." And she met Nechayev’s eyes. "How could I do any good at Mars while my mind is on Bonn?"
"If you interrupt me again, Shelby, I will say no."
Shelby smiled slightly. "Thank you, Ma’am."
Robin buzzed at the bunk room door marked with the flowing, looping script of Bonn as well as standard Starfleet characters. "Denda? Drosenagla Denda?" she said into the audio pickup. "It’s Robin Lefler. We met in the lunch room last week?"
There was no reply. The station’s twenty Bonns had gone into seclusion the moment they’d heard about their home. There was no brig aboard the station, but the five hijackers were being kept in another locked bunk room under human guard until their people decided what to do with them. Starfleet and the Federation certainly had enough charges to file against them, but Admiral Nechayev had brought the news that the decision had been made to turn them over to whatever may be left of the Bonn governments.
The door hissed open. The younger Drosenagla stood glaring in the doorway. Behind him, his fellows sat in a circle around a small figurine and glowing lamp. Robin supposed it would have been a candle if there had been any aboard. Denda’s father bared his dental ridge at her. Less threatening than fangs, but the emotion it conveyed hit her as hard.
"What do she here?" Drosenagla Tawan hissed. This time she couldn’t brush off the hostility. She felt it like a slap. No one had bothered them since they locked themselves away. What right did she have to annoy them? But someone had to reach out, didn’t they?
"Well, I just wanted to, to see if you were all right…"
"All right?" Denda asked, perplexed. "You would be?"
She lowered her head, unable to meet his featureless, penetrating eyes. "No." She ventured a look again. "What will you do?"
Denda stepped outside and closed the door. "You interrupt mourning." He spoke in the clipped tones of anger, all the music gone from his voice.
"I’m… I’m sorry." She said, frustrated that he wasn’t letting her communicate. She wanted very badly to communicate. "I thought you weren’t of the ‘strict’ religion."
For a moment she realized the question may have been rude and he may get angrier. But Denda had been around humans long enough that such things didn’t get to him. "Not strict," he answered matter-of-factly, "Just the same; religious."
She nodded, uncomfortable. "There’s something I wanted to ask. It’s been bothering me. You knew last week when we talked… you knew the Bonns at that other table were from your…what, rival? rival country."
"Rival not. Enemy was. Enemy is."
"Well why didn’t you say anything?" she blurted. "You could tell who they were, you must have suspected they were spies."
"Knew spies they were," Denda said evenly. "Thought only plans or technology they after. Reported it, Father did to company. Company said, take care of it will they when home we go."
"But, surely… I mean, didn’t you think to tell us? We could have arrested them. Or at least watched them!"
Denda’s eyes narrowed. "You’re fault is, you know."
Robin rocked back on her heels, the ridiculous accusation like a blow. "What? How our fault?"
"Federation teach, everyone same. Everyone friends. No fighting, no arguing over thing you believe. Together, everyone live in peace. What Tosik Commander say? Diversity infinite in combinations infinite? So strange that was to me, but somewhere inside me, felt it did I that that was true. Like thing shown to me in bright light from darkness!"
"A revelation?" Robin offered.
"Yes, that. Believed it all, I did. Tried to live it, while here on job at least, with Federation people." He shook his head violently back and forth and squeezed his beautiful eyes shut. Then he looked at her, and she saw the – not hatred, but a kind of disgust. "Stupid!" he spat. "Stupid for listening. Stupid for trying. Nothing does Federation know about me and my people."
He turned to palm the door open and go back inside. "Should have let Father kill those five like he wanted."
Again, his words shocked her like a slap. She wanted to protest his uncivilized brutality. But she couldn’t. Look where civility had gotten him.
"What will you do?" she asked again.
He sighed, if that’s what that whistling breath through his nose meant. "Take we the worldkillers. To colony we go on fourth planet ours. Few hundred thousand there. Court system, it has. Try them. Maybe to Bonn send them back."
"Send them home? What kind of punishment is that?"
"What better? Live they then like everyone else, no air, no water, no sun. Father, wants he to still kill them. Not enough, now I say. Torture them first. Beside, on Bonn, find out will someone who they are. Tell everyone, we will who they are! Then, they die, maybe nice and slow."
There was no reply to that. She could become indignant, lecture him on Federation morals, tell him there’s no difference between the murderer and the executioner. But she didn’t have the strength to climb out of her depression and onto her high horse today. Besides, she realized with a yet another shock, she agreed with him.
Having nothing more to say, she left him.
They’d brought the Delaware into the asteroid’s hangar with the other two runabouts and parked it in one of the small pressurized garages in the wall. LaForge wanted to check it over inside and out before they went on another two-day flight through the void. Combat, no matter how light a hit one took, often had unexpected effects on a spacecraft, and he’d heard of runabout warp cores blowing for less reason than a couple of phaser hits. He asked Gomez to check over the propulsion systems while he checked out the hull and control systems. She’d said nothing more than "Yes, Sir," and gone about her assignment. And that was not Sonya Gomez.
Geordi was worried about Gomez. When she’d first come aboard the Enterprise-D during that fateful week when they’d first met the Borg, Sonya had been a whirring bundle of energy unable to hold still, full of excitement about exploring the wonders of the universe and unable to stop talking about it for a second. He smiled to remember that the first time she’d met Captain Picard she’d spilled hot chocolate all over him in her blustering. Of course she was older and wiser now than that hyper 22-year-old, and somewhat more sedate, but since Bonn she seemed to have withdrawn almost completely. Having once been a withdrawn youngster himself, Geordi knew to leave her alone for a while. But he was worried. If she stayed this down for much longer he’d wonder if she was going to stay that way forever. Thanks to the Dominion war Starfleet psychologists were rediscovering old phenomena long thought abolished – post traumatic stress for one. Helplessly witnessing three billion people die while you ran away could surely be described as traumatic. Geordi was working through it by, well, by working. If he didn’t have the Delaware to check out he’d probably be elbowing his way into helping them check out the others ships. The alternative was just sitting in his cabin sulking. Then he’d probably be in the same shape as Sonya. He’d have to get Counselor Troi to talk to her when they got back to the Enterprise. On the other hand, Deanna Troi had her own worries with her homeworld, Betazed, having been occupied by the combined Dominion and Cardassian forces. Damn, but the Federation was in a sorry state these days.
Gomez was under the runabout with the antimatter pod inspection hatch open and her head stuck up inside the ship. LaForge happened to be nearby checking the clamps that held the modular travel pod to the runabout’s frame. He heard her voice, meek and uncertain, echo hollowly under the short expanse of ship’s flat bottom between them.
He knelt to where he could see her under there. "Mmm hmm?"
She crawled out from under and surfaced in front of the starboard impulse pack. They ended up leaning side-by-side on the starboard nacelle, which was just a little too high to sit on. She was hesitant, trying to think.
"Was anybody right?" she finally asked.
"What do you mean?"
"I felt… I felt such anger towards that man… because he took the Wolf just to kill people."
"And now?" Geordi prompted.
"I remember what he said about his family, and about what the other country was doing to his."
"Uh huh," Geordi nodded. "And now you don’t know who to blame."
He nodded. "I hear you." This was the most Sonya had talked to him in almost a week. He was going to keep her talking. As exhausting as the old Sonya Gomez was, he liked her a whole lot. "Well, it’s hard not to feel guilty about it. But I wonder if they wouldn’t have found another way to destroy themselves eventually, you know?"
"Especially with us around to help," she said cynically. She gave a sharp ironic laugh, then choked it back. It almost turned into a sob, which she also choked back.
Geordi thought about putting an arm around her, but it wasn’t a thing a superior officer should do with someone who worked under him. Besides, his state of mind wasn’t far from needing a good cry either and he didn't want her to get him started. His cybernetic eyes were tear-proof, of course, but he hated having to clean them.
"Actually," she said through angry, misting eyes, "I think I do know who to blame."
He looked at her cautiously. "Who, Sonya?"
Riker had gone ahead to the Delaware to check on LaForge and the junior crewpeople, and Duval had left citing a million things to do. Shelby had turned the hologram of Bonn back on, and now she studied the less damaged hemisphere in greater magnification, a scrolling mass of text on the desktop viewer giving additional details. There were elevated plateaus where the tsunamis hadn’t scoured the land, and shielded valleys where the heat pulse hadn’t scorched the trees bare. The point opposite the blast was fortunately mostly land. Had it been ocean, there might not be any habitable land surface at all. Judging by what he’d seen of how the Alturans – Bonns – got along with each other, Picard thought the greatest challenge Shelby faced was getting them all to live together on the remaining viable land mass.
She was already thinking ahead: "I suppose we could eventually tractor comets in from the outer system and drop them into the atmosphere over the dead side. They’d burn up and add their water to the atmosphere… It’d take an awful lot, though, to add back the missing five hundred millibars planetwide. But that’s for later. Food and shelter first."
Picard nodded. "For a billion," he mused hopelessly.
Nechayev had been deep in thought since Riker had left. Now she leaned forward and rested her arms on the desktop, hands clasped together. "Shelby, I want you to consider the possibility of moving the entire surviving population to their fourth planet colony."
Shelby stuttered for a moment. One of the rare times Picard had seen her nonplussed. "Well, Ma’am, of course I’d considered it, but it would be an astronomical undertaking! As you and the Captain have pointed out, even in peacetime we wouldn’t have the ships, even with help from every other major power in the quadrant."
The admiral nodded. "I know, Commander. I know. But I’d like you to see if you can find a way. If we can get everyone off the planet, or at least into some kind of underground shelters, I might have a way of… well, I’ve been debating with myself whether to even bring this up. Mind you, it’s something I’m not actually allowed to discuss."
Picard was immediately intrigued when an admiral said such words.
Nechayev pointed a firm finger at each officer in turn. "What I’m about to tell you doesn’t leave this room until I discuss it with Fleet and the President."
"Yes Ma’am," Shelby said, not bothering to hide her look of astonishment. Picard nodded expectantly, knowing that Nechayev knew him well enough to take that as affirmation
"If you know your history, you may have heard of this project," the admiral went on. "But you may have assumed it was abandoned as a failure. It was not, and the Federation has been perfecting it in secret for almost a century."
Picard knew his history, and he smiled at Nechayev’s courage in bringing this up. If it could be pulled off, it would be a landmark achievement and the fulfillment of a centuries-old dream.
Admiral Nechayev asked, "Have either of you ever heard of Project Genesis?"