FEDERATION'S END II: THE WITCHING HOUR
by E. L. Zimmerman

CHAPTER THREE

'Bridge to Ensign Kim.'

Harry fluttered his eyelids. Gradually, he opened his eyes, awakening to the dim light of his quarters.

He found himself slumped back in his desk chair, his head leaned back against the cushion. Breathing slowly, he stared at the dark ceiling overhead, focusing on nothing but the dull, flat expanse that stretched as far as his eyes could see. The monotony of that vision, the monotony of nothingness, produced the sensation to sleep again, and, slowly, he closed his eyes, nodding his head forward, drifting back ...

'I repeat: bridge to Ensign Kim. Harry ... are you there?'

'Oh, damn!'

Startled, he opened his eyes.

He sat bolt upright in his chair.

He had done it again. He had fallen asleep reading at his console.

'Ensign Kim here ... to bridge,' he shot, suppressing an errant yawn.

'I thought we lost you there for a moment, Harry.'

'Ensign Verena?' he asked, relieved.

'Thank goodness it wasn't a ranking officer.'

'My apologies, Verena. I was just ...'

Quickly, he calculated his options, ran only the immediate scenarios through his mind, and then conceded to the inevitable.

'I was napping.'

'It sounds like someone's not been getting his fair share of beauty sleep.'

'I'll try not to take that as an insult,' Harry replied, smiling.

'None intended. Harry.'

In that moment, Ensign Harry Kim realized that everything Tom Paris had been saying about Ensign Verena Lacoste was true.

She had a crush on him.

'I'll have to use this to my advantage,' Harry mused.

'One junior officer to another,' he tried, 'I hope we can keep this between us.'

'Understood,' Verena replied. 'Ensign to ensign, of course.'

He smiled and sighed. 'Thanks, Verena.'

'Not a problem on my end, Harry,' she admitted. 'With Chakotay on duty down on Besaria, I won't even note it in the duty logs ... so long as you're here within the next fifteen minutes, your tardiness is on a need-to-know basis only.'

A full yawn overtook him. He stretched, arms high over his head.

'I owe you one, Verena.'

'Harry, as of this week, your tab's about full.'

'Then, if you'll pardon my insolence one last time,' Harry began, 'would it be too much to ask for thirty minutes? I'm in the middle of reviewing my personal logs from the Borg occupation of Voyager.'

'For what? I mean, what are you looking for?'

Dismissive, he shrugged. 'I wish I knew,' he admitted, tapping a key, activating his console. It had engaged an automated shutdown, obviously, not long after he had fallen asleep. 'I kept a wealth of notes. When I wasn't on duty, I was in my quarters, transcribing anything I thought might be of future value. Given that I was the only one onboard, and the Borg had disengaged the bridge logs, I didn't have much other choice. I got by on very little sleep, and I'm guessing that's why my head's not quite clear right now. I recall having several conversations with Mandakorr about ChannelSpace.'

'You miss him,' she acknowledged.

He leaned back in his chair again. Running his hands through his black hair, he shook his head forcefully, denying the creeping impulse to fall back asleep.

'I do miss him, Verena. I feel ... I feel almost responsible for his assimilation.'

'Harry,' she counseled softly. 'There's nothing more you could have done. You were surrounded. Outnumbered. The rest of us consider ourselves lucky that you and Captain Janeway made it out alive.'

He grimaced. Verena was right, but he couldn't ...

No.

He wouldn't accept that.

'The conversation might've had to do with accessing ChannelSpace manually. I'm not sure. Best as I can guess, it's one of those things that I'll recognize when I see it.'

'Understood, ensign,' Verena replied. 'I'll expect full disclosure at a time more convenient.'

There was a brief pause on the comm line.

'Maybe ... we could chat over dinner,' she tried.

'Dinner?' he asked.

'Well,' she began, 'you could use something ... anything ... to help clear your mind. Maybe a nice dinner in the mess hall with good company would do you a world of good, Harry Kim.'

Succumbing, he smiled. 'Call it a date. We 'lower decks' have to stick together.'

'That's the truth!' she heartily agreed.

'I'll see you in a bit,' he concluded. 'Kim out.'

His console hummed to life.

Harry Kim knew he was obsessing. He knew his obsession was interfering with his duty. But, he couldn't help himself. For some reason, he felt that the lives of his shipmates rested in his hands to remember ... to remember ...

'Computer,' he ordered, drumming his fingers along the top of the console in his quarters. 'Access personal logs of Harry Kim, Ensign First Class, USS Voyager.'

'Specify,' the computer replied.

'Oh,' he muttered, 'give me a composite of the last thirty entries.'

'That should cover it,' he mused.

The console chirped. 'The personal logs of Harry Kim, Ensign First Class, are encrypted.'

'Same old song and dance.'

'Decipher and print to screen from the most recent log entry backward, chronologically, for the last thirty entries,' he ordered. 'Authorization Alpha-Tango-Three-Kim-One.'

'Decryption codes verified,' the computer replied.

'Thank you very much,' he said.

'Affirmative.'

Turning, he read through the personal notes he had recorded, at tremendous risk to life and limb, while the Voyager was under occupation from the Borg forces, commanded by the One. During his off-hours, he had been confined to quarters, under Borg guard. He had spent the better part of that time, every waking moment he could spare, to transcribe every scrap, piece, detail, and tidbit of information shared between himself, the Borg guards, and any of the Lemm Society, the One's worker class.

Of particular note, Harry followed much what he had coined 'the tales of Mandakorr.' The red-skinned Gallenian had been travelling space for what must've been a century. His species, as Harry had learned, had a life expectancy well over 300 years. Most of that lifetime, due to a decree from their ancestors, Gallenians lived behind a pilot's console.

Outer space was the universal Gallenian passion. Space exploration was their cultural identity. In his journeys, Mandakorr had discovered ChannelSpace, and he had spent a great deal of time discussing it with Harry Kim. Apparently, the concept of secret transporter conduits that stretched from star system to star system, galaxy to galaxy, didn't interest the Borg. At least, from what Harry could recall, the Borg never stopped them from talking about it.

'Curious,' Harry thought. 'It hadn't dawned on me before, but why wouldn't ChannelSpace interest the Borg?'

He brushed the idea aside, delving further into his notes.

There had to be something here ... something he had forgotten ... something about the means to access ChannelSpace ... or was it something about the Borg and why they weren't interested in it? In passing, Mandakorr had contributed some ... some ... some detail that had perked Harry's interest, and the fact that neither could he remember it nor could he forget it completely was gnawing at Harry Kim's insides.

There was something of significance ...

He flipped electronically, note after note after note, completely uncertain as to what he was looking for, hoping deep within himself that he would know what it was when he found it.

There was something ...

There had to be ...

Packell asked, 'What might your Earth be like today?'

Standing there on the Klemmer platform, Kathryn Janeway lost herself in the quietly mesmerizing beauty of the Earth spring. The sight of the planet regularly produced the effect on her. No longer could she look at the Earth and not imagine, in her mind's eye, what was waiting far beneath the visible atmosphere. Inside her head, she imagined all of the sights, the sounds, and the smells of the Midwestern United States. In her imagination, she always found herself standing on the typical front porch just off of the typical three-to-four bedroom home residing in the typical little town in anywhere, Indiana. The house she had grown up in had a porch much like the one on inside her mind, and there was an old-fashioned porch swing, one made of creaking, thin lumber and speckled in blistering white paint. 'The sun always took its toll on that swing,' she thought. Then, in her imagination, she watched herself approach and take a seat on the swing. She would begin to rock ever so slowly, listening to the welcome patter of a light springtime rain that was just starting to fall ...

'Captain?'

'What?' she asked, still lost in thought.

'Your planet?'

'Earth?' she mumbled.

'Your home?' Packell explained. 'Your planet, Earth.'

'Yes?'

'How might it look today?'

Realizing she had been daydreaming, Janeway mentally pulled herself back to reality.

'My apologies, prefect. You were asking about Earth? What would it look like today?' She pursed her lips, running the permutations in her head. 'I would imagine it's much the same as when I left it,' she surmised aloud. 'Much the way it's been for hundreds of years. Like you, my people build and we build. My civilization has fought more than its fair share of world wars. But ... Earth has always had a unique charm ... it's own subtle way of ... braving the worst elements ... and surviving.'

Aulea complimented, 'Much like your crew.'

'You're too kind,' Janeway offered.

'Ah, your modesty is your most enduring trait, captain.' Packell nodded, walking slowly around the platform to consider the world before him from more than one vantagepoint. 'My Aulea speaks the truth. Your world must be a strong planet, as your crew is a strong, brave people. Unfortunately, as you've come to know, Besaria has not faired nearly as well.'

'Packell,' she began, 'you're starting over. Those Trakill who have remained here are committed. They've come together, much as my crew had to when we found ourselves transplanted into the Delta Quadrant. You've begun anew. Under the circumstances, a better tomorrow might be the least of your worries.'

Silently, for the course of several minutes, the three of them considered the planet spinning slowly before them.

Finally, Janeway ordered, 'Computer, eliminate the planet Earth from the simulation.'

Immediately, the blue planet faded. The disappearing sphere gave way to an expanse of limitless, glistened stars, shimmering in the dark night where the big blue ball once hung. Together, the three observers shuffled their way across the Klemmer Platform and sat on large stone benches lining the edge of the building.

'Packell,' Janeway began, 'I have a confession to make. While I wanted you and Aulea to see the image of my homeworld, I had an ulterior motive in bringing you here today.'

Surprised, the Trakill leaned back, studying the Earthling's expression. 'What is it, captain?'

She grimaced. Dredging up the past was never an easy task, but dredging up the memories of years and years of subjugation at the hands of a maniacal shapeshifter couldn't be avoided ... at this point.

'The One,' she answered.

Packell's face lost all expression.

Aulea gasped.

'I'm terribly sorry,' Janeway tried. 'The last thing I want to do is bring up a topic that will produce the painful memories of your culture's years of occupation. But ... I need to speak with you about him. Briefly, I promise.' She suddenly reached up and tapped her comm badge. 'Mister Paris, report to Holodeck Two.'

'On my way, captain,' she heard.

Visibly, Packell swallowed.

'Captain, we haven't considered the maniac since his demise.' Lifting his head, the Trakill glanced across the starscape until he looked back into Janeway's eyes. He sighed heavily. 'He is gone. His rule is over. He can no longer harm any of us, captain. Ask what you need to know.'

Janeway nodded. 'The One had captured your neighbors,' she explained. 'The Gallenians.'

'Yes,' Packell agreed. 'The planet Gallen is not far from here. It only made sense that the Borg Army would find them sooner or later. The Gallenians were captured many, many years ago, while my father was very young and his father held the ambassadorial post for the Trakill. The Gallenians were on Besaria for far longer than I could ever know.

'And, what a brilliant people they are, captain! Why, they've traveled space for centuries! One might say, it is their sole purpose in life! I remember ... I had often heard it said, among their people, that the average Gallen male reached maturity behind a pilot's console! They felt it their duty to explore the vast reaches of outer space.'

He shrugged, an awkward gesture for a Trakill, due to their narrow shoulders. 'Of course, my people respected their differing beliefs. We were never enemies. We just ... evolved under different influences. The Gallenians worshipped the stars, while the Trakill cherished the land. My people knew that our future was more about building homes and harvesting land on the world that our mighty Sonah provided.'

Janeway smiled at Packell's reference to the Trakill savior.

'To several of my officers, the Gallenians made reference of a phenomenon,' Janeway continued. 'It's called ChannelSpace.' She leaned forward, hopeful. 'It is my sincere desire ... actually, it's the hope of every last man and woman aboard this ship that perhaps the Gallenians might've imparted some of the secrets of ChannelSpace to you.'

'ChannelSpace,' Aulea said, nodding.

'You've heard of it?' Janeway asked.

Aulea nodded. 'While in the Palace, Packell probably did not hear much of it. My post was in the Sciences Complex, near where your Lieutenant Torres worked. ChannelSpace was the gossip of all pilots, captain. Gallenian or otherwise.'

'Gossip?' Janeway asked, deflated. 'Then ... it's only a myth?'

'Oh, of the Essence, no!' Aulea relied. 'The Gallenian pilots discovered ChannelSpace many, many years ago. It is quite real, captain! I assure you!'

'Did they ever tell you how to access it?' Janeway asked.

Frowning, Aulea admitted, 'Sadly, no. That knowledge rests in the minds of only a few Gallenians, I would imagine. While the Borg showed no immediate interest, I believe that the Gallenians feared that, one day, they would be deprived of its use.

'Apparently, ChannelSpace was the prime reason why the Gallenians were so successful at mapping sectors of space far, far away from here. If I understood their gossip correctly,' she continued, 'there was very little a pilot could do once captured in transit. Much like your transporter technology, ChannelSpace is actually 'beaming' a ship across vast distances through established teleportation conduits. While in transit, your technology ... your ship's engines, its operating systems ... they would be virtually useless, until you exited the conduit and re-materialized elsewhere in the galaxy.'

The Holodeck arch appeared as the doors slid open, and Tom Paris entered the room, walking over to the marble table around which the group sat.

'Aulea's right, captain,' Packell assured her. 'In the palace, I would've heard very little about such things. But I can tell you, among the Gallenians, ChannelSpace is rumored to have existed for thousands of your Earth years. If I have the mythology correct, ChannelSpace is the product of the Dia'Soto.'

'The Dia'Soto?' Janeway asked.

'Their species name,' Aulea assured the captain. 'But, informally, they've been known as the Moderators for ages.'

'The Moderators?' Janeway asked.

Pleased, Aulea nodded.

'And ... just what exactly do they ... moderate?'

Taking a seat at the table, Tom offered, 'I hope I'm not interrupting anything.'

'Not at all, Tom.' Janeway reached out toward Packell and his lifemate. 'Prefect, I believe you've met my helmsman, Mr. Paris.'

Packell nodded.

'We were just sharing some of the known history regarding ChannelSpace,' the captain offered. 'Packell and Aulea have been very gracious hosts while we've visited their planet. They've seen to it that Mr. Neelix work with some of the local agrarians to supply Voyager with enough fresh fruit and vegetables to last us for quite some time on our journey.' Janeway turned and glanced directly at Tom. 'On the topic of a free and impartial exchange of information, I think it's our turn.'

'Captain?' Packell asked.

Janeway nodded. 'It's time for us to reciprocate some of what we know, Packell. Keep in mind that some of this might be mere speculation, but I think it's important that you, in your position as prefect of your people, are made aware of what we know. I've had Mr. Paris prepare some information for us all to consider. I think ... it might be of particular interest to you.'

Packell glanced at his lifemate. She shrugged her reply.

'What is it, captain?'

Tom brought up a PADD he had been holding at his side.

'Packell, Aulea,' he began, 'have I got a story for you.'

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