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

CHAPTER SEVEN

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He opened his eye.

The eye tearing slightly, he stared straight ahead, focusing on the charcoal metal wall across from him, slate coloring like the shade of his flesh.

No. That wasn't right. His flesh ... it was supposed to be ... red?

He peered down and tried to find his hand, but the clamp at the base of his neck kept his head immobile. Unsure as to the reasons, he couldn't sense anything below his shoulders. He couldn't sense a single impulse. Not even a breeze.

At present, all he could do was look around, his head locked firmly in place.

Then, he again heard the voices in his head.

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No.

This wouldn't do.

He refused to listen to them and their demands, their orders, their programming. He refused to hear their superiority. He defied them.

This wouldn't be his future.

His future would be built around the premise of individuality, of freedom, of denying the oppressive weight of many commands to strip him of what it meant to be ...

... to be ...

What was he?

He didn't know. He couldn't be sure. Not any longer.

However, he did know that this condition of irrevocable servitude wasn't meant for him. It wasn't meant for any of his friends, nor for his people, or for anyone in the charted sectors of the universe.

This existence was obsolete.

This existence was torture, pure and simple.

It was insufferable agony, and he refused enduring it or anything that remotely took its shape any longer.

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Gritting his teeth, mentally preparing himself for what was about to happen, he slowly pressed his head forward.

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Fire lanced through his neck!

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Muscles tightened in his jaw!

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Tears burned from his eye!

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Still, he pressed his head forward. The pain intensified, like a concentrated phaser blast with a focused beam heating solid rock until the point at which it would melt into molten form and pass from solid to liquid state. He concentrated on the voices, using them as a distraction from the pain but knowing full well that they wouldn't be with him for very much longer, should he succeed, and he pressed and he pressed and he pressed forward.

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Finally, he heard an audible 'click,' and he sensed movement. He guessed, feebly, that it must have been the eventual shattering of a bone somewhere between his skull, his neck, and his shoulders. In that particular area of the anatomy, Gallenians were a mass of fragmented bones and cartilage tissue, and he guessed something had to give, and he guessed that something certainly wasn't mechanical. Still, he had achieved movement. Not much, but very, very little. Perhaps nothing greater than the width of a fingernail, but he pressed his head forward more, baring all of his teeth, as release was a triumph he would not be denied. Not today. Not ever. This was not his destiny.

He opened his mouth ...

... and he screamed.

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The sound of his voice carried eerily throughout the tranquil corridor. The piercing howl echoed violently back at him and around and around and around the open space. Its sheer intensity drown out those authoritarians mechanically chanting their programming protocols inside his mind, but, as the echo died, they increased their volume several decibels to compensate.

But, he didn't stop. He wouldn't stop. He couldn't stop.

This wasn't his destiny.

He screamed again, opening his mouth as wide as was possible, and he pressed ever forward.

Click.

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Click.

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Click-k-k-k.

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'Plock.'

Suddenly, his head flopped forward. His chin clanged into a metallic chestplate. Again, pain raced through him, flaming his head, his chest, his shoulders. This time, however, there was another pain, a new pain, that brought with it a momentary almost-sadistic pleasure.

The welcome pain, localized in his jaw, was the end result of screaming. The corners of his mouth, he sensed the moisture, were bleeding.

But ...

The voices were barely audible. They were yet a whisper.

A defiance of what once was.

A threat of things to come.

He couldn't be certain.

The nape of his neck boiled as though charred from intense phaser burns.

Slowly, he closed his eye, watering. Exhausted and exhilarated, he allowed the tears to flow cleanly and easily down his trembling face. He cried openly, unabashedly. He whimpered, and he realized that the undulating sensation from the sound, produced in his face, eased the panic that had begun building in his aching body once more.

Whimpering and crying louder, he concentrated on the whispers in his head. What were they now, trying to drive him insane? Trying to test his limits? Trying merely to be heard.

Unabated, he tried moving his fingers, tried rolling them and flexing them into a fist.

If any movement was taking place, he couldn't feel it.

The muscles in his forearm were either removed or dead to sensation.

The ... bastards.

The bastards and their damn genetic-level programming.

Again, he wiggled his fingers, and he realized sensation was gone.

'One battle at a time.'

The words had come back to him like the lancing pain in his neck. His father. Many, many years ago. How many? He couldn't guess. His father had told him that, had provided that counsel, about the dangers of engaging another ship in combat out amongst the stars, in the vacuum of outer space.

'The only way to fight them is one battle at a time,' the senior Gallenian had warned.

Mandakorr tried, but he couldn't remember his father's face.

'You'll win, Mandakorr, if you're meant to win. The way you're meant to win is to face the fight one battle at a time. A pilot who fights more than one battle ... a pilot who doesn't know the workings of his ships ... how it handles outside of the gravity wells ... how it steers and buckles and careens in the emptiness of outer space ... that pilot will lose.'

Mandakorr concentrated, but he couldn't remember his father's face.

'The pilot who wins the war did so by fighting one battle at a time. He didn't concentrate on yesterday. He didn't dream about tomorrow. He stayed in the moment and thought solely about today, right here, right now. That pilot ... he will achieve any goal because he is at peace in understanding that the first step necessary in engaging the enemy is presently before him. That pilot knows that what he learns today is only preparation for the pilot he is to become tomorrow.'

Pilot?

He was a pilot.

He was sure of it.

He whimpered, more to ease the pain than emotional need, as he remembered piloting throughout the endless void of space.

'I am a pilot,' he muttered, exhausted from pain yet pleased to discover that he could still speak. His voice was broken, dry, but it was there.

Besides screaming, he could communicate.

That gave him an advantage.

'A message,' he told himself louder than the whispering lot who were still trying to convince him otherwise. 'A message. A message. A message. It's as simple as a message.'

Slowly, he pressed his body forward against the restraints pinning him into the alcove.

'I have to send a message,' he told himself.

The first battle was over, and he had emerged the victor.

The second battle began ... now.

He intensified his pressure on the restraining straps that must've held his arms in place.

'I won,' he reassured himself, and, now, he engaged the enemy, once more.

The first victory only prepared him to fight the second battle. It helped make him the warrior, not the pilot, which circumstances dictate he become.

Neck still burning, he cautiously lifted his head from his chest, defying the sensations that wracked his tired body, and he turned gradually to his right, again turning to the whispers as a momentary distraction from the pain he felt.

He was a corridor, dimly lit, that stretched forever.

The corridor was lined with alcoves, like the one in which he stood. Immediately, he recognized the alcoves he had seen before on ... on ...

Besaria.

The Borg.

Regeneration alcoves.

He knew where he was. He was standing in one of them.

He ... remembered.

From the Voyager bridge, he had been abducted. The Borg, not like those of Besaria, not like those under command of the One, had touched his neck with biomechanical tubules, and then ...

The voices began.

His surroundings lost all meaning.

His flesh withered from red to ash to charcoal.

Grimacing, contorting his body, ignoring the pain, screaming ...

He pried his body forward.

He yelped again and again and again until, finally, after immense suffering, he tore himself free of the alcove. Mandakorr saw the corridor spinning wildly out of control as he dropped to the deckplates ...

... unconscious.

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