"USS Wolf. Aptly named, I think." Commander Shelby said.
"Simple and to the point," Lefler agreed, "not that the Borg will even understand the reference."
"No indeed," Picard said levelly. "They had no designation for Wolf 359. It was just another star to them."
"A star where they killed eleven thousand people," Shelby added. Picard closed his eyes as if a momentary headache had caught him. Shelby bit her lip and said, "Sorry, Sir."
But Picard wouldn’t have it. "Continue, please, Commander."
She turned back to the viewscreen immediately, wisely getting right back to business. It had been Picard’s knowledge, his mind under the control of the relentless half-machine beings called the Borg, that had made that slaughter possible.
"One thousand meters long, one hundred in diameter. The aperture is sixty meters in diameter." Shelby tapped off details with a remote on a huge cross-sectional diagram of the vessel she’d built. "The ‘gunbarrel,’ if you will, is about eight hundred meters long and works more or less like a rail gun. Anti-hydrogen in slush form is shot into it at the root from one of ten torroidal tanks along the length, through a piping system arranged radially and out this nozzle at the rear. The entire contents of each tank go into each shot. Ten tanks, ten shots. Ensign Gomez, if you ever do figure out how Decker’s doomsday machine kept up continuous fire, please let us know. Unlike it, we can run out of ammo. Electromagnetic field coils accelerate the antimatter slush up along the length of the tube and heat it up to a gaseous state. Expansion of the gas fills the whole chamber as the volume of gas moves forward. At the muzzle is a ring of subspace field coils to both constrict the resulting particle beam and accelerate it up to about point-nine cee."
Lefler noted, "Then it’s a sublight weapon only."
"I’m afraid so," Shelby answered. "To shoot at a Borg ship, you’ll have to get them to come out of warp first. We have four torpedo launchers mounted around the muzzle to help encourage them. But I have confidence that when this hits them, no amount of adaptation will help."
Gomez looked uncomfortable. She was always uncomfortable speaking to an officer, but here it was something else. "Excuse me, Ma’am? But that’s a huge volume of antimatter to put into a single ship. It’s three times the amount a supply tanker is allowed to carry. The consequences of a containment failure on any one tank…"
"Oh, don’t think I haven’t had my share of bad visions about that," Shelby said, then shrugged lightly. "Ensign, did you know that when the first atomic weapon was exploded in 1945, the scientists suspected that it might set off a chain reaction in the atmosphere and burn up the Earth?"
Gomez nodded understanding. "Yes I did, Ma’am." She said sheepishly, "And they had to go ahead anyway because they were at war."
"How do you intend to test this?" Picard asked Shelby.
"We’re going to shoot something."
Though spartan, the asteroid base was intended to house its crews for the duration of the project. Tunneled within its walls were quarters, common rooms, a gymnasium, a rec room and a cafeteria. Due to their lengthwise placement within the walls of the asteroid the rooms tended to be long and narrow, and there wasn’t a curved corridor to be seen. Sonya Gomez found that the difference from a starship’s ubiquitous concentric circling hallways took a little getting used to. Being in a single passageway that went straight for more than a hundred meters was unusual, and this base had some that were almost a kilometer long. Turbolifts were limited to vertical travel in this temporary site, so the hallways were wide and dozens of small 2-passenger hovercarts glided up and down them – the irony of anti-gravity vehicles operating in an artificial gravity field was not lost on the young engineer. The effect of looking down the wide horizontal shaft, seeming to converge at infinity, was slightly vertiginous.
Sonya and Robin Lefler found a bank of replicators at one end of the long, narrow cafeteria. Though her few years in the service had blunted Sonya’s youthful enthusiasm just a bit, she still had the habit of saying "thank you" to a food slot when she took her meal. It was intelligent circuitry, after all. Commander LaForge had once told her that she got along better with the machinery than she did with people. It was true; though she essentially liked people as individuals, she always felt uncomfortable with strangers and was a little agoraphobic in crowds of strangers. She’d always carried what she considered a healthy fear of authority figures, instilled by her father’s strict code of household behavior (which certainly led to her thanking replicators for making things for her), but such a thing got in the way in the service. It was good to respect a senior officer, but not to fear them. Captain Picard was such an imposing personality that Sonya couldn’t help but lose her composure around him. Lieutenant Commander LaForge was different. He was a very outgoing, open person. Even though he was her immediate boss, she felt at ease around him, even slipping up and calling him Geordi in lighter moments, which he thankfully didn’t seem to mind. With their trays full of lunch in hand, they could see no empty tables in the room. It was just shy of 1300 hours, and A-shift’s lunch was just winding down.
"We should’ve waited a few more minutes," Gomez said, looking hopelessly for a place to sit, feeling the weight of several dozen strangers around her.
"Oh, baloney," Lefler waved a hand at her, "How else do you expect to meet people?" She sighted a table for six with only three people sitting, and set a straight course for it.
Sonya followed her hesitantly. "If you want to meet people," she muttered to herself. "What if you just want lunch?"
The three men at the targeted table were huddled in conversation when the women approached, so they didn’t see them until Lefler asked, "Hi! Room for two more?" and sat herself down. All three men reacted in variations of surprise. They were of a people that Sonya had never seen before, basically human in form, but covered with a fine indigo fur and crowned with rich heads of equally deep blue hair.
Calmly, but menacingly, one of them said. "No. Away." And shooed the women with a toss of the hand. He then turned back to his friends and continued in an odd rhythmic language, ignoring Sonya and Robin.
Lefler seemed to accept this in stride, said, "Okay, sorry," and simply got up again and scanned for another table. There was one nearby with another three occupants; two of the strange new species and one human. She locked on and headed straight for it, smiling.
Down the row of tables Sonya saw a whole table-full of people get up and leave. "Oh look, Robin," she said with false brightness, "there’s an empty one over there."
"No," said one of the blue men to them, "Please." He gestured to the empty seats at his table. "New people we meet so not often."
The nearer one beamed a broad smile at Lefler that revealed a single dental ridge, rather than teeth. The second, whose fur was tinged with gray, glowered at the women, though not as menacingly as the three at the previous table. The third, wearing a Starfleet gold uniform and an ensign’s pip, merely raised a curious eyebrow. Sonya hesitated to sit, seeing the older man glowering at them with solid jade-green eyes. Lefler had already sat. She looked up at Sonya and patted the seat next to her. Sonya didn’t try to mask her sigh of resignation as she gave up and sat. The blue man continued formally in carefully pronounced English, "I Drosenagla Buta Denda Ramlitakana am. This my father is…" he indicated the older man, who still looked horribly unhappy "…Drosenagla Buto Tawan Ramlitakana, and this is our friend, Bob." Sonya swore she saw Lefler barely stop a double take at "Bob" when she was expecting another parade of syllables. Sonya herself certainly let her eyebrows rocket upwards before she could stop them. He continued, "Ignore bad manners from others there," he nodded at the table of people that snubbed the women. "Religion theirs very strict."
Lefler had already begun digging into her soufflé, but she managed to finish her mouthful in time to introduce herself and Gomez. Sonya raised a piece of her grilled cheese sandwich in hello and smiled unenthusiastically. "Those are very long names." Robin said and then glanced at Bob. "Well, you two anyway," she smiled winningly at the other two. "Are there shorter forms?"
"You call me Denda. My father is…" he met his father’s glare and seemed to change his mind "… well, his name is Tawan, but better call him Buto Drosenagla to prevent yelling." The elder Drosenagla’s glare only increased in intensity at his son, but Lefler failed to stifle the short laugh. Even the so-far enigmatic Bob smiled slightly. Denda went on, "We civilian contractors are. I control systems analyst. My father is propulsion technician. Bob is part of Wolf’s crew. You two?"
Sonya was content to let Lefler speak for them both while she worked on her lunch. "Sonya is our antimatter specialist. I’m an engineer, but I’m hoping for chief engineer someday." She smiled winningly and took a petite bite. After swallowing, she went on, "We’re on loan here from the Enterprise."
One of the men at the other table looked startled. "Enterprise," he said. "Is Enterprise here?"
"No," Lefler said, "She’s still back at Earth under repair."
The blue man went back to his intense conference.
"Mm," Denda grunted, "We read about Borg encounter yours. Amazing survived you at all. Maybe next time Wolf we have ready, eh?" He directed the question to Sonya, probably hoping to get her to join in. She nodded noncommittally, wanting only to get the grilled cheese into her previously empty stomach. Robin had barely touched her soufflé, and Sonya had visions of being trapped at this table for hours.
"So," Lefler said after another miniscule bite, "I’ve never met people like you before. Where are you two from."
Sonya looked at Lefler in shock. How could anybody be that direct? she whispered, "Robin!"
"I like not…" the father began, but Denda stopped him.
"Father not as used to out among different cultures being as am I." He said to his father, "Question was meant to not offend us; lady curious just was." Then to Robin he said, "From Bonn we are, about five light years from here, in next system to galactic east. Starfleet call it "Alturis Beta Three," but of course we do not. Blues we are light and dark, pinks and browns you are, but inside we much like humans."
His father glared at him and muttered a syllable in their language. From the tone Sonya was sure he said "No we’re not" in a most insulted manner.
"People all people are," Denda said to his father. "Federation this teach."
"Not all," Buto Drosenagla said, shifting his glare to the three at the first table.
Sonya found herself looking at the third member of the party while she chewed her sandwich. He seemed content to listen to the conversation going on around him, and if he reacted at all he hid it well. She realized he hadn’t said a word, much less volunteered where he was from. She began to wonder if he even knew what was going on. Maybe he was a hologram.
"Bob?" Sonya said around a mouthful.
He met her eyes neutrally. She raised her eyebrows and nodded, prompting him.
"I’m from New Jersey," was all he said. Sonya looked at Robin pleadingly.
Denda said, "Met Bob here. Despite what Father about humans say, found we had much in common with each other."
"Is Bonn a Federation member?" Lefler asked. Maybe a quarter of her lunch had been eaten, and Sonya stuffed the last bite of her own grilled cheese into her mouth. Could she leave now, she wondered? Or did courtesy demand she sit it out until Robin was ready? Were the walls actually closing in?
"Oh, no." Denda said mildly, while his father’s eyes seemed to narrow at the prospect. "But our R&D corporation has been working contracts classified for fleet for a while now. Some admiral or another liked our work past and hired engineering business ours for project. Bob assigned here was, I think." Denda looked at Bob as if to turn the conversation over to him.
Sonya finished her soda. Bob remained passive.
"Bob?" she prompted.
He seemed to wake up. "Yes. Assigned here."
Sonya leaned in to whisper to Lefler, "Eat faster."
By 1300 hours the room was almost empty. The Bonns at the first table had left a few minutes before, with an unreadable parting glance at either Sonya and Robin or the other Bonns at their table – difficult to tell with the characteristic opaque green eyes. Denda’s father stood abruptly and insisted they must go back to work. Denda apologized suavely and held Lefler’s hand for an instant, nodded politely to Sonya, and the three of them left. Bob said nothing, met no one’s eyes. Sonya felt her shoulders relax suddenly. She hadn’t been aware how tense she’d been. "Could that have been more awkward?" she asked herself aloud, rife with sarcasm.
Lefler grinned and said, "The fur on his hand is soft as Eiderdown." Sonya rolled her eyes. After finally eating the last of her lunch, Robin added, "I think Bob liked you."
Sonya stared at her in amazement.
From the exterior of the asteroid it looked no different than any other. Picard knew there was a rather huge rolling corrugated tritanium door there at the end, but it was disguised from the outside by a holo projector which recreated an image of the asteroid’s end in its natural state, before the engineers had bored a two-kilometer diameter hole through it. Picard wondered all at once what they’d done with all the debris they’d dug out of this thing. This project was so important that they’d disguised an asteroid which was almost impossible to find, in a star system so out of the way it didn’t even have a name. It would be foolish to leave a cloud of tailings drifting down-orbit advertising a construction operation. He queried the runabout’s sensors. They picked out a few hundred asteroids on this side of the system, and nothing smaller. Well, no matter. Perhaps they’d dumped it into the star.
The holo field faded, showing bare unmarked alloy and smooth-hewn rock. Two huge doors rolled back in opposite directions and light spilled out into the void, illuminating nothing. A small fleet of work pods and two other runabouts scooted out and hovered around, waiting. In time, an ugly blunt snout began to emerge slowly, like an eel poking its head out of its undersea den to see if a potential meal presented itself.
The USS Wolf emerged from its lair. In the dull red glow of 2247-925 it looked more than sinister to Picard. The other two runabouts scuttled in and anchored tractor beams to its hull, acting as tugs. Their impulse exhausts were pouring spent plasma harmlessly on the asteroid shell, whereas the Wolf could only move its great mass safely with small spurts of its forward thrusters inside the hangar. The whole image reminded Picard of a swarm of insects shepherding some great lethargic queen out of her hive. He was finding it hard to pin down his feelings about this whole affair, and he was indeed having a strong reaction to it.
"Number One," he said to Riker, gazing out of the runabout’s windscreen with him.
"Why did you join Starfleet?"
Riker breathed an ironic laugh, seeing where his captain was going. "Overwhelming curiosity to see what was out here, Sir. Adventure, romance. The usual young man dreams."
Picard nodded. "Myself also. I felt there was more to life than grapes and wine. My father, my brother, couldn’t understand that. Why would I want to leave such an honored and traditional vocation? It had been generations since a Picard had wondered very far from the vineyard. To them, the rest of the galaxy was no different than Paris, New York, London, Saint Petersburg; just another place where other people lived. Our tradition was there in LaBarre. So why go anywhere else?"
"It’s been my experience," LaForge said from the pilot’s seat, "that people who ask that question can’t have it explained to them. It’s… just not within them to understand."
"Indeed." Picard answered. "So off I trotted to join Starfleet to placate my ‘overwhelming curiosity’ – dear God was it forty nine years ago? Incredible. And do you know, Will, Geordi… that curiosity is still not sated to this day." He ran his eyes along the length of the most monstrous weapon the United Federation of Planets had ever constructed. Not a single research lab aboard. Not one compartment among two dozen devoted to science or exploration. He thought of his last Enterprise, the ‘D.’ Science labs from stem to stern, not that she’d had a stem. She’d had families aboard – families! What a hopeful thing to do. The intent of the whole Galaxy class project had been to commit long duration exploration missions for up to a decade, ranging far afield from known space, engaging once again in that original Enterprise’s legendary mission of seeking out new peoples and places that we hadn’t seen before. Exploration. Surely the noblest of vocations, at least to Jean-Luc Picard’s mind. But the ‘D’ had never been used much for that purpose, had it? He’d ended up shuttling diplomats around and rescuing colonists and putting down brush wars, never getting far enough away from Federation space to discover much of any significance. Except, perhaps, the bloody Borg.
Then there was his new Enterprise; a product of the post-Borg era. Still equipped for a degree of exploration work, but essentially a battleship armed with weapons beyond what even the Galaxy class ships could mount. Just in the last ten years his gloried vision of discoveries yet to come had been bludgeoned to death under the weight of Cardassian actions, Maquis uprisings, Romulan incursions, and full scale war with the Klingons. And now these Dominion beings from the other side of the galaxy. What a tragedy it was that the Bajoran wormhole had raised hopes of wondrous new realms to explore, only to end up embroiling the Federation in yet another unwanted war, its most costly to date. He was surprised to find himself thinking that they should just find a way to close the wormhole permanently and be done with it.
"But," Picard continued to Riker, "here I find myself about to test a new way to destroy our enemies." He turned and sat heavily in a passenger seat and looked at his crew. "This is not what I signed on for, gentlemen, ladies."
Lefler said quietly, "But we go where Starfleet tells us to, Sir?"
He smiled painfully. "Indeed we do, Lieutenant."
"It’s not that they’re wrong," Riker said. "There’s no doubt we need a weapon like this at this point in history. Shelby brought up the first atomic weapons. In the context of the times they were necessary. Hopefully the future will judge this the same."
"Oh no, they are not wrong at all, Number One, more’s the pity. I don’t have to like it, though."
The trip to the other side of the star system, arcing around the bloated red giant to arrive at a point exactly opposite the asteroid’s orbit, took eight hours at full impulse. Picard, perhaps in defiance of his current assignment, took a full range of sensor readings from the star for the sake of pure research. The little fleet passed within about 40 million kilometers of its surface on their parabolic fall past it, and at that range its ugly red face filled their view like a burning wall in front of their noses. Once it had been a normal main sequence G2 sun not too different from Sol, possibly with life-bearing planets. But that had been five billion years ago. Some day Sol would look like this, the Earth a long gone tidbit swallowed up by the very source of its life. All good things …
They arrived at a scene much like the one they’d left across the system. A large asteroid, maybe two kilometers around though not a perfect ball by a long shot. Riker could see work crews buzzing around it, and a Starfleet freighter standing off a kilometer or so.
Commander Shelby was in command of the Wolf for this test, and she crewed it with a minimum engineering staff and a bridge crew only. The ship itself was mostly automated, but there was only so much that could be done with that. A crew was essential in the reactor room in case of emergencies, although the weapon itself was entirely automated. The idea had been to keep the fighting crew to a minimum because no one really believed there was that much chance of surviving a direct shootout with a Borg cube. There were probably about 20 people aboard at the moment, though a nominal combat crew would be more like seventy people. Still, quite a small crew for a kilometer-long starship. Riker had been paging through the specs on a PADD Shelby had given him before they left. Every screen had been topped with a "most secret" classification and he’d had to sign for the PADD, which was copy-protected and locked to his thumbprint. He’d have to turn it in afterwards.
Crew spaces were sparse aboard the Wolf, since the ship was intended for deployment only in reaction to a Borg attack. It was figured to be out for a week on average, a month at the most. There was a superstructure at the fore end of the tubular hull that enclosed only control spaces, bunkrooms, a galley, and a shuttle hangar. Engineering was tucked away in the stern, with a couple of turbolift shafts and a long walkway connecting. That was the extent of USS Wolf’s accommodations. Not much more comfortable than a submarine 500 years ago. That was a fair analogy, actually, Riker thought - one of the old attack subs, all weapon and a crew jammed in so tight they slept with the torpedoes. The captain was right, he thought, we seem to have taken a step backward with this.
La Forge, Gomez and Lefler had the test schematics up on the main viewscreen in the Delaware’s aft compartment. It was rather ingenious what they’d done, Robin thought. Since they were testing an anti-Borg weapon, they’d built themselves a simulated Borg ship with as little expense as possible. A solid iron asteroid about the size of a Borg cube (although round) had been singled out. It had been fitted with several hundred metaphasic deflector shield generators on continually rotating frequencies powered by three pretty huge fusion reactors that alternately handed off primary and backup power to the shields. It simulated fairly well the adaptability the Borg showed when dealing with energy weapons.
"What do you think, Sonya?" LaForge asked.
"I almost have no basis to judge by, Commander. No one’s ever dumped this much antimatter onto something before. At least not that we know of. As for their simulated Borg… I suppose it’s as good a sim as any. But we still don’t know the mechanism behind the Borg’s adaptability. I can sure tell you what’s going to happen if that beam breaks through and touches that asteroid, though."
"Mm-hm, me too!" La Forge asked, "How far away do you think we should stand off, Sonya?"
She laughed, "How does Earth sound? Oh, um… Sir. I’m sorry. Sir."
Geordi smiled brilliantly at her. "You actually relaxed for a second there."
Gomez’ olive complexion turned bright crimson and she turned back to the screen to hide her own smile.
One drawback with the design was that the antimatter cannon was aimable only by pointing the ship. The beam came straight out and that was that. Shelby supposed that some kind of electromagnetic steering field could be conjured up for future mods, but right now it worked like a gun. You had to be flying straight at your enemy, or holding still pointing at him, to shoot him. Any difficulty the enemy might have hitting the tiny target sillouhette presented by the ship’s small cross-section was offset by how easy it was to aim at a target with no lateral movement. Wolf would be a sitting duck when she was firing. Well, one thing at a time.
She turned to her communications officer. "All ships."
"All ships, aye," he acknowledged.
"This is Shelby. I want everyone accounted for before we proceed. Runabouts, are you on stations?"
The three runabouts were stationed fifty thousand kilometers away at three of the other four cardinal points to the Wolf, although the Wolf itself had to be within five thousand for its beam to hit cohesively. That was another temporary drawback; the beam spread after that distance like a flashlight. They needed to add an annular confinement field too to keep the beam focused. She heard "Delaware, aye," then Duval’s voice, "Hudson, aye," and Tosik formally acknowledged, "This is the James, we are on station."
"Acknowledged. Freighter Orontes, are all your work crews aboard?"
"Orontes, aye," a woman’s voice answered. We’re starting back for the barn now. Good luck, Lizzy."
Shelby closed her eyes at the momentary stab of annoyance that hit her. The Orontes captain was an old friend, but the last thing Shelby wanted was for anyone in the universe to call her "Lizzy" on an open channel. And with Picard and Riker listening in! That overgrown bearded frat boy was going to bring this up some day, she knew it. "Thanks," she said evenly, not trusting her voice. "Okay, everyone. Five minute warning. Red alert. Weapons, tie into helm. Helm, release to weps. Mr. Tomita, aim the ship please."
"Aye, sir," the weapons officer acknowledged, as the ship’s speakers blared a claxon sound.
"Here’s the plan, people: We will fire a five-second test shot from each of the four forward phaser emplacements. That shouldn’t even dent the target’s shields and will provide calibration for the test instruments. There will then be one shot from the big gun. After the sensors have chewed on their data from that, follow-up shots are authorized at my order until we blow up the asteroid or empty our magazines. If we fail, then the project fails; we’ll never kill a Borg if we can’t do this."
They had all ten tanks filled with semi-frozen antihydrogen slush. Enough to fuel half the fleet if it were more refined. Not for the first time, Shelby had thoughts of accidental collisions or containment failures, and she shuddered imperceptibly as she pushed the thoughts back into their respective cubbies to be ignored.
She knew it was too much to hope for that the first shot would succeed. The thought of facing down a Borg cube and needing more than one shot – giving them time to analyze it, or repair any damage the first shot caused, or just to get a shot off themselves – gave her another shudder. This had to work. And if it did, she herself was ready to take on the next Borg that showed itself in the Alpha Quadrant.
"Tactical," she commanded, "Red alert. Forward shields to maximum. And I mean maximum."
She had no idea how big an explosion to expect, but she felt horribly close to the target. She had a nasty feeling it was going to be like firing an old-fashioned shotgun into battleship armor from a foot away.
Robin Lefler found herself pretty fascinated by this whole exercise while she watched the Wolf rotate to a firing position on her viewscreen at the copilot’s chair. That thing’s warp dynamics must be crappy as hell with that big blunt nose and straight sides, which was probably why they needed four warp nacelles to get a decent speed out of it. But really, if you looked at it, it had the beauty of simplicity. The most efficient ways to enclose a space were a ball, a cube, and a tube. The designers had just taken a tube, put what they needed inside it, tacked on the engines and there you were: instant starship. It had the beauty of being the right shape for the design purpose, and the right shape for inexpensive construction. In the back of her mind she was already working on hull shape refinements to suggest. An undercut at the bottom of the stern would help guide the warp field spill wake, for one thing, and eliminate the usual field turbulence associated with blunt objects at warp.
She saw directional thrusters flare minutely on the big tube’s ends to cancel its rotation, and it settled into an attitude pointing right at the big chunk of iron. It was up-orbit as well, so that any debris would tend to drift away from the ship. Not that any pieces would drift fast enough to be a danger five thousand k away.
Commander Shelby was broadcasting every command on an open channel to keep everyone alert. Lefler heard her say, "Thrusters at station-keeping," and the acknowledgement from her helm. "Impulse power at station-keeping." That was something Robin hadn’t thought of – the particle stream was being thrown out of the front of the ship by a huge electromagnetic rail gun (well, without the rails, but it was the same principle). That would produce a considerable amount of aftward thrust. They’d have to counter that with automatic forward thrusts from the impulse engines. "Alright," Shelby’s voice announced, "Secondary weapons. Phaser one, fire."
There was the characteristic flare from the collimator strip above the Wolf’s "muzzle" as energy coalesced into a coherent beam. The phaser beam glowed like a flare and traced a straight five-thousand-kilometer-long line. The asteroid target was actually nearly invisible in the optical range because it was such a dark brown color, and the dim red sun was so weak at this range. But it was visible enough when the phaser hit it. A bubble of shield energy flared bright green around it and the weapon’s energy discharge reaction sizzled and snaked upon its surface briefly, and then went out. Robin leaned back to get a look at the readouts on Sonya’s panel at the test station behind her. The asteroid’s deflector grid showed no loss in strength at all. This part of the test was testing the target as much as it was testing the new ship. They wanted to make sure the parameters were valid.
"Phaser one test good," Shelby’s voice crackled. "Phaser two, fire."
The shot was repeated for all four of the Wolf’s forward phasers, arranged evenly around the circumference of the muzzle between the ship’s still-unloaded photon torpedo tubes. Each time they hit, the shield bubble reacted the same way, and each time it firmed up to its starting specs perfectly.
Shelby’s palms were sweaty. It wasn’t like her career was riding on this or anything; she’d just move on to the next project if this didn’t work. It was her baby, though, and she wanted it to go perfectly. Besides, if this did work, she just might be able to get herself command of this ship for good, and a captaincy to go with it.
"Well, everything works so far," she said to the general audience. "All right, I want a ‘go’ ‘no-go’ from all stations. Helm."
"Go," was the sharp response.
"Aye aye, Sir!"
She smiled at the enthusiasm. "weapon antimatter containment."
Each facet of the big weapon’s function was covered by a crewman for this first ever shot, and each person responded with a firm and certain affirmative. The first-time checklist lasted almost five minutes, but it was necessary to get everything right. Her career may not exactly go up in smoke if this didn’t work, but she would go up in smoke literally if it went wrong. And again she envisioned the horrors that could happen with this ship in service – collisions, containment failures, structural failure, taking a hit in battle – all of which would be beyond unpleasant for her and any ship within a half million kilometers of her.
She took a deep breath. "Very well. Main weapon: target the asteroid dead center…" she let her breath out slowly "… and fire."
Sonya Gomez saw the energy spike of Wolf’s massive electromagnetic coils on her instruments even as she heard Shelby give the command. A white fluorescent cloud in the shape of a light beam stabbed from the Wolf’s open jaws and closed the distance to the asteroid in microseconds. If she’d been able to view the ship and the target in one picture they’d have both been so small they’d be invisible, and the matter stream itself would be a barely apparent white hairline against the black sky. But she had two of the Delaware’s cameras locked onto the ship and the asteroid respectively so they could monitor the important parts and not the in-between.
The asteroid’s shields held. The matter stream had defocused to impact roughly a two hundred-meter diameter area from its starting width of sixty. The shields flared into an incandescent green ball around the asteroid, so bright they were opaque. Her instruments showed the field generators cycling randomly to push more and more power to the impacted area. The shield frequency rotated intelligently until it found a harmonic opposite to the beam’s for maximum resistance. The shields held. Sonya felt a welling disappointment. Fearsome as this weapon was, it was also a very good idea in light of the Borg threat. God, how much antimatter was pouring out of that ship? She saw the impulse engines on the stern flare to counter the beam’s push. Tiny sparkles crackled in the matter stream, probably dust and micrometeoroids drifting into it and being blown into oblivion. But the shields held.
For about a second.
They crumpled like a bursting balloon. The glowing green field peeled back around the little rock as the grid generators failed in cascade from the impact area outward.
Immediately, the beam touched the iron mass.
The explosion was off every scale Sonya was monitoring. The asteroid splashed away like a ball of ice cream hit by a fire hose, the splash being composed of blazing subatomic reactions. Every molecule in the asteroid annihilated under the antimatter onslaught in the next quarter of a second. The energy released by debonding atomic particles on this scale was of cosmic proportions. The beam itself lasted for two full seconds, but after the first second and a quarter it was pouring antihydrogen through a boiling white fireball the size of a moon.
Sonya crossed herself without realizing it and muttered "Sweet Mary, Mother of God…"
The Wolf’s viewscreen whited out, then blacked out to save the crew’s eyes. It popped back on an instant later at a stopped-down setting and showed a sparkling ball of subatomic particles four thousand kilometers in diameter. The forward shields suddenly flared against the expanding heat front, and a few moments later the blast wave hit. The crew felt the lurch slightly as acceleration fields kicked in. The ship was pushed backward fifty kilometers before the impulse engines negated the sudden rearward acceleration. Her shields glowed almost as fiercely as the asteroid’s had, but it was mostly heat and they absorbed it and dispersed it and kept it from getting through. The push backwards killed a little of their orbital velocity around the star, and the Wolf’s orbit moved in toward the star minutely. With the station-keeping command in the computer, the ship brought itself back to its previous velocity immediately, though there was no longer anything to keep station on. There were a few chunks that had blown off at first, but most of the solid iron body had simply blown away as a haze of particles that had once made up iron atoms. The cloud of reacting particles died quickly, and only a few rapidly-spinning boulders, moving away from "ground" zero at several thousand kph, remained of the target.
Shelby found herself in the captain’s chair. She’d been standing when she gave the order to fire. She realized she was staring at the empty viewscreen with her mouth hanging open.
"Okay," she said, shaking herself. "Um. That worked…"