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

CHAPTER TWELVE

Much to her delight, Kathryn Janeway discovered that the Besarian palace's Grand Hall had undergone a much-needed renovation. Previously, the cathedral chamber had been used as the joint living quarters and council room to the planet's deposed and destroyed changeling/dictator, The One. Now, Trakillian Prefect Packell and his senatorial committee had ordered the facility summarily stripped of any potential reminders of The One and had officially renamed it, simply, the Assembly.

'Their unity is growing,' Tuvok stated.

Despite the fact that she knew the message they were here to deliver wouldn't be warmly embraced, Janeway couldn't resist a smile at what progress had evolved on Besaria since The One's demise. 'Tuvok, my friend, we've arguably logged more hours in space than any ship in the fleet's history. In all this time, would you find it so hard to believe that perhaps the single greatest common denominator between here and there is that, no matter how far you go, the Federation will still find new life and new civilizations just as resilient as our own?'

'Indeed,' the Vulcan agreed.

Glancing around, studying the new surroundings, Janeway found that the room possessed an unnaturally aesthetic cohesion of union and disarray, of liberty and chaos, even about its simple furnishings. Destroyed were the row upon row of wooden pews, once arranged to provide seating for the convened Quorum of the One to 'worship' the cruel Besarian autocrat. Those pews had been burned, splintered, upturned, or blatantly thrown aside, perhaps in the celebration following the planet's liberation. Their remains lay in pieces against the Assembly's walls. In their former place, Janeway found stone benches, crudely forged from walls obviously disassembled from the castle's adjoining ambassadorial chambers. The Assembly was replete with these new benches, all serving a purpose similar to the wooden pews, but now the space possessed a markedly consistent décor.

'It would appear that the spirit of rebuilding, and the corresponding sentiments of new opportunity, have grown even stronger since my last visit here,' Tuvok remarked.

Janeway nodded. 'Now it's my turn to say 'indeed.''

Merely in the rushed Assembly's remodeling alone, it was evident that the collaboration between Besaria's remaining resident species was growing.

Trusting full well that the impact to the message they would shortly deliver would be of pure hopelessness, Tuvok asked, 'Captain, do you feel pity for these people?'

Grimacing, she initially ignored the question. Heading for the elevated platform at the head of the room, she realized that the stage was the only characteristic of the room that remained untouched since The One's reign. She assumed the Packell and his senators agreed that a rostrum would be needed for the makeshift government's imminent meetings.

Over her shoulder, she finally muttered to her Security Officer, 'We're about to destroy the hopes and dreams of over three hundred survivors, Tuvok. What would you have me feel?'

More as a natural response to mounting frustration than out of necessity, Commander Chakotay dropped his conduit stabilizer, listened as it 'clanked' and echoed across the metal deckplates. Disgusted with the dwindling progress he and his team were achieving in bringing the Generatrix's systems under control, he slapped his comm badge hard.

'Chakotay to Voyager.'

'Voyager here, Commander.'

Bewildered, he didn't recognize the voice. 'Who's minding the store this evening?'

Over the crackling interference of the comm line, the first officer heard, 'Ensign LaCoste, Commander.' He lost the signal momentarily to a humming static, and then the connection cleared. 'How can I be of assistance, sir?'

He couldn't help but smile. 'Spending some quality time in the center seat, are you, Verena?'

With a spark of enthusiasm Chakotay had grown to admire in the ensign, she replied, 'The captain has been very generous as of late, commander. And ... you know me! I jump at the chance to earn any command experience I can get. This is, after all, a golden opportunity. I can prove what I'm made of and make the crew proud!'

She was right. The extended layover on Besaria had afforded Captain Janeway with a generous amount of routine and preventative maintenance. Maintaining orbit as long as the ship had also allowed the 'lower decks' to show their mettle at commanding Voyager. 'Not a big ship,' he mused, 'but a ship nonetheless.' Sharing an unspoken connection with LaCoste, he tried to remember his Academy days. Had he ever been as exuberant in his Starfleet youth? He did recollect the day he received his first command uniform. He recalled firing his first phaser in an open engagement, not a training drill. But ... he couldn't remember being that excited about the center seat. Accordingly, he was willing to guess his enthusiasm at that time came nowhere near LaCoste's.

'Well, forget about jumping to the head of your class, ensign,' he replied. 'Are you game for a little homework?'

Once again, the comm line burped and hissed back at the commander. The Generatrix's core instabilities, already plaguing local communications, were now making ship-to-shore dialogue nearly incomprehensible.

'Just ... name it, sir,' finally came the reply.

Chakotay nodded. 'I need you to locate Mr. Neelix.'

'Mr. Neelix is aboard Voyager, sir.'

'Not that Mr. Neelix.' He sighed, realizing that not all of the Voyager's crew had been briefed on Besaria City's replication chamber. 'One of the identicals,' the first officer explained.

'Identicals?' she asked.

He shrugged, placing his hands on his hips. 'I guess you really haven't heard any of the surface updates, ensign.' He frowned, glancing down at the energy nodes that had occupied much of his attention. The silver couplers visibly started destabilizing again, popping and trembling, meaning that his personal stress and strain of the last three hours had ultimately been for naught. 'Given the current set of circumstances, I'm neither surprised ... nor do I have the time to bring you up to speed.'

Still, the comm line proceeded as if it had taken on a life of its own. It, literally, barked at him.

Frustrated, Chakotay tapped the badge once more. 'Did you get that, LaCoste?'

Through the static, he heard, 'I got enough of it, sir, to catch your drift.'

'Good.'

Suddenly, the couplers he had been observing rattled violently loose. Their connections blew, and reddish green sparks exploded into the air. Chakotay smelled the acrid fumes of insulator fusing. Reacting instinctively, and to avoid being sprayed with residual energy discharges, Chakotay angrily stomped his protective boot down across the dancing cables before they arced toward him.

'Ensign,' he shouted over the deafening exhaust spray automatically brought to life by the Generatrix fire suppression systems, 'I need you a thorough scan of this entire facility. Concentrate on Neelix's life signs. I don't doubt he's aboard Voyager, whipping up some noxious concoction in the galley. But, don't be surprised if the ship's sensors tell you otherwise. Hundred-fold, I might add.'

'Ahhh,' began the reply that finished with, 'understood.'

'In other words, I'm looking for a solitary match,' Chakotay cautioned, a wry smile slowly working its way across his face, 'not a couple hundred.'

'Sir?'

'You'll understand soon enough. Contact me when you lock on,' he ordered. 'Chakotay out.'

Whatever crew had accepted the challenge of recapturing the grandeur of this once-elegant Grand Hall had begun painting the drab stone a healthy, evening-sunset maroon. Janeway noticed that the hue was reminiscent of the standard issue Starfleet uniforms from just a few short years ago, and she found herself momentarily longing for the safety and security of Alpha Quadrant. Undoubtedly, the painters had worked at a feverish pace, painting by hand only a high as they could reach and then moving along and along and along the outside wall. She smiled, realizing that the room had a slightly irregular look to it as much of the painting stopped at a mark seven feet above the stone floor. It was almost as if the bottom half of the Grand Hall had somehow been lifted from its foundation, dipped into a burgundy tank, sloshed around a bit, and then retrieved, leaving an uneven scrawl between maroon and the dull gray stone circling the room.

'They're going as fast as they can,' she mused.

Although heartening, the progress was as much to Janeway's chagrin.

It only made the purpose for this evening's meeting that much more somber.

Quickly, she glanced around and found that the Assembly was filling with Besaria's remaining population. Despite the presence of the Voyager crew and those Lemm simply making repairs on a spacecraft they had claimed in preparation for their own inevitable departure, Besaria City boasted a good handful of remaining inhabitants. According to a provisional census, over 300 residents would be remaining in Besaria City ...

... to rebuild ...

... to establish a new homestead ...

... to find new hope.

The other 15,000 had evacuated, hastily, recklessly, rejoicing in their freedom. Still, Janeway couldn't blame them. She wouldn't harbor any ill thoughts for those who sought emotional recovery elsewhere in this or a neighboring system or as far as the ship they had commandeered would take them. They had, after all, suffered countless years here as prisoners.

As for those left behind?

Normally, this time of year, Packell had assured the captain that the citizens of Besaria would be busily going about the reconsolidation of their new home ...

... planting and harvesting Gallush fruit ...

... discovering new destinies ...

... but not today.

Today, those 300 residents were filing into the Besarian Assembly, as scheduled, to hear a message required from their savior, Captain Kathryn Janeway, of the starship Voyager. As they entered, shuffling through their own little chaos to find a seat near the front, some of them pointed in her direction, smiled, even waved or saluted in their species respective greeting. She responded with a wave and a smile, when she felt appropriate, but she anticipated a much different climate to the chamber once her message was clear.

In that moment, Kathryn Janeway wished for a different message to deliver.

Crying silent tears, Neelix2 roamed aimlessly through the subterranean hallways of the Generatrix, each passageway seemingly darker than the one before.

Somehow, he knew that this place ...

... knew where he was heading ...

... and something else convinced him that he was hopelessly lost.

This facility was alien to him. It was as unfamiliar as the Voyager had been when he first arrived there, momentarily butting heads with Captain Kathryn Janeway, thinking that she would be disputing ownership over some area of a singular star system as insignificant as a spatial debris field. Still, the Generatrix felt somehow familiar ...

... somehow understandable ...

... somehow felt like home.

After all, the Generatrix was his rightful home.

It was, in point of succinct fact, his birthplace.

'And isn't identity the secret to life?' he told himself, unsure of where he had either heard, read, or perhaps even uttered the proverb.

For whatever his feelings were worth, he trusted that when Voyager departed the Besarian System, he would not be on board.

Saddened, sulking, he dropped his shoulders and walked down what appeared endless corridor after endless corridor, not so much as seeking a destination as he was walking for the sake of movement.

'I'll know where I am,' he solemnly told himself, 'when I get there.'

'People of New Besaria,' Janeway announced from the raised platform ... the same place where the nefarious One had once kept his polished and ornate throne, 'I cannot express to you in words strong enough to detail the personal joy I feel at seeing so many people from so many vastly different cultures pulling together around a single, unifying cause ... that task being to restore a desecrated homeworld to its former stature.'

There was a brief round of applause, and the captain took a moment to glance around those gathered for her presentation. She was disappointed to find that Prefect Packell hadn't yet arrived. She had begun her speech because she knew, better than anyone, that there was a timetable that needed to be kept.

Her message could no longer wait for any one man, for any one woman.

'Your efforts bring me tears of joy. What you have done ... well, to be honest ... it's remarkable. It reminds me much of my crew and of our journey. When we arrived in the Delta Quadrant, we were, without a doubt, an odd lot. Most of us belonged to Starfleet, a galactic organization for peace from my home ... the Alpha Quadrant ... that represents well over five hundred membership worlds.

'However,' she continued, studying the crowd closely, realizing she had caught much of the group's interest as they had leaned forward or aimed an ear in her direction, 'when we found ourselves, much to our surprise, in this quadrant of space, we were forced to team up with a band of rebels calling themselves the Maquis. Some of them were, in fact, former Starfleet officers. They had resigned under ... well, let's just say under reasonable circumstances. Many of them, believing they had the protection of Starfleet, had instead found themselves literally torn from their homes, the end result of political maneuvers between the United Federation of Planets and the Cardassian Union.

'Like you have done, we demonstrated the ability for people of differing opinions ... differing perspectives ... perhaps in from differing worlds to band together under the universal need for survival.'

She stopped, taking a deep, relaxing sigh, as any speaker would before engaging the audience in a possible battle of wills.

'Unfortunately, I'm not here to praise either of our cultures today,' she stated, 'and I can't tell you how strongly I wish that were not the case.'

If they could have, the audience would've leaned even more forward as she spoke. They were, literally, hanging on her every word. Her only disappoint was that Packell wasn't here to see or hear it.

'Yet.'

Sighing heavily, she continued, 'The peace treaty between the United Federation of Planets and the Cardassion Union was signed in the year 2367 ... but, unfortunately, I am here today to share with you events from somewhat earlier period in Earth's history. Much to our surprise, as I'm certain it will be to yours, our meeting ... the meeting of the Voyager being seized by the One and brought to Besaria ...'

A rare occasion, Kathryn Janeway struggled to find the words that she felt every man, woman, and child in the Assembly needed to hear.

'What I'm trying to say is ... that the meeting of our peoples may not have been by chance after all,' she concluded, leaving her statement as simple and open as she could. 'In fact, our mutual destinies might have been on a collision course for nearly one hundred years.'

With that, her audience released a collective, surprised gasp.

'Please, Captain Janeway,' she heard, and she glanced toward the rear doors to find Prefect Packell and his lifemate, Aulea, entering the chamber. 'We consider you and your crew to be one with our people.' Packell and his wife marched toward the raised platform and found open seats waiting for them near the front. 'Whatever message you have for us, we are here to experience it together.'

'You'll understand shortly,' she continued, smiling at the now-complete Besarian Assembly, 'that there exists a connection between the history of your planet ... and an incident from my planet ... Earth ... from which my people barely survived.'

Sobbing openly, Neelix2 wandered and wandered the corridors of the Generatrix.

For reasons unknown to him, these hallways, as of late, appeared increasingly familiar.

Sniffling, he raised the sleeve of his brightly colored jacket ...

What was that Tom Paris had jokingly taunted about?

Not long after his admission to the Voyager crew, Neelix was the brunt of one of Tom's jokes. What was it he had said?

'You dress much like a Ferengi barkeep I once saved Harry Kim the honorable embarrassment of being swindled by.'

Upon assignment to his and Kes's quarters, Neelix2 had scoured the ship's libraries for any and all topics relating to the Ferengi. Once the facts were found and catalogued, Neelix2 had committed everything to memory.

According to the Starfleet registry, the Ferengi were a technologically sophisticated humanoid race.

According to the Starfleet registry, Command knew very little about them, save for the solitary underlying theme of supporting galactic commerce for the benefit of their homeworld, Ferenginar.

According to the ship's computers, the Ferengi and the United Federation of Planets had established first contact at the planet Delphi Ardu in the year 2364 ...

... and that was a meeting Neelix2 sorely wished he had been in attendance, if for no better reason than to understand Tom Paris's joke.

What lessons those Starfleet pioneers must've learned! What insights they must've gained from the simple Ferengi slogans of commerce! Indeed, as the Ferengi say, 'good things come in small packages!'

And ... latinum.

Precious ... priceless ... latinum.

Neelix2 had long felt Tom Paris's comparison to the ultimate capitalists of the Alpha Quadrant to be the single greatest compliment he had ever been paid. In fact, it was worth far more than a endless supply of bars of latinum.

Ultimately, the compliment underscored how much he meant, or would come to mean, to the crew of the starship Voyager.

Neelix2 had never felt more at home.

Neelix2 had never felt more at peace.

Slowly gaining control over his emotions, drying the tears from his spotted face with the sleeve of that uniform that so much reminded Tom Paris of a certain Ferengi barkeep, Neelix2 rounded the corner ...

... and came face-to-face with the reasons that he would no longer be accepted by the starship crew he had long considered his adopted family.

'Oh, no,' he muttered softly.

Kathryn Janeway peered out over the curious faces of the Besarian crowd. There must've been over thirty different races, she guessed, represented in the new Assembly. Despite her ignorance of the meaning of their respective facial expressions, she sensed overwhelmingly that this was a captive audience ... a crowd wanting to know so much more ...

... in so little time.

'For the purposes of clarity,' Janeway concluded, 'I'm going to turn this briefing over to Voyager's Security Officer, Mr. Tuvok.' She nodded in the direction of the Vulcan, and he rose from his position on a nearby stone bench. 'At my behest, I've had Tuvok reviewing Starfleet records for several days, perusing in greater detail the historical accounts I believe to be significant to what you may now need to know. He can provide you with the best summation of relevant data possible.'

As she backed away from the podium, Tuvok approached the dais with a serene, deliberate, Vulcan stride. In his hand, he grasped a silent Sciences' PADD. Calmly, emotionlessly, he passed his superior and took his place at the podium, nodding a customary greeting to the gathering.

'Greetings, Besarian Assembly,' he begun succinctly.

Then, he raised the computer PADD to reading level and glanced down at the facts quickly scrolling across the visual interface. With practiced graciousness, he returned his view to the assembly.

'I will try to be brief,' he said, dispassionately, 'and, following the conclusions I will share with you this evening, I will agree to answer any questions, should any arise from the facts I'm about to disclose.'

Janeway watched as those in attendance appeared to lean forward, waiting for the presentation they had been long promised to finally begin.

Behind the thick glass, staring dumbfoundedly back at Neelix2, was ...

... Neelix3 ...

... Neelix4 ...

... Neelix5 ...

... and so on and so forth.

Somehow, in his meandering through a complex as massive as the Generatrix, Neelix2 had found himself here.

The replication chamber.

Staring at over three hundred versions of himself.

And ... they were staring back.

Startled, he gasped.

To himself, he swore he watched as the other Tallaxians did the same.

Sensing rising dread, he stepped backward from the glass port.

'What are you doing out there?' one of the identicals asked.

'You should be in here with us,' another stated.

'How did you ... how did you get out of here?' yet a third tried.

Facing a kaleidoscopic vision of himself from hundreds of different perspectives and profiles, Neelix2 suddenly sensed the hallway starting to spin. His stomach churned. His vision blurred. He forcibly blinked again and again and again, trying desperately to correct his vision into proper alignment.

'What ARE you doing out THERE?!'

'HOW DID YOU GET OUT THERE?!'

'Captain Janeway isn't going to be very happy about this!'

The hall spun faster and faster and faster.

Surrendering, Neelix2 closed his pained eyes.

'Did you hear what I said?' he heard, but he tried desperately to ignore the familiarity in the voice, as he recognized it as his own.

'Wait 'til Captain Janeway sees what you've gone and done! You're not supposed to be out there!'

'YOU'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE!'

Exhausted, drained, Neelix2 rolled his eyes upward until only blackness was visible. He felt himself slipping, falling backward ... drifting ever so peacefully into the welcome land of sleep ...

'In our year 2271,' Tuvok began, focusing intently on the crowd gathered before him, 'Stardate 7412.6, near coordinates 5783911 by 2113490.78 by Alpha Q 700712 on the galactic charts, three Klingon cruisers were performing routine military training exercises when they detected an indefinable cloud of energy quickly approaching the edge of the imperial borders.'

Suddenly, the Vulcan stopped. He turned to his captain.

Grimly, she nodded.

Continuing, Tuvok returned to the Assembly. 'At this point in their cultural development, the Klingons were a race of fierce battle warriors, intent solely upon seeking out combat with other species. Their philosophy was to vanquish the opponent, and thus lay claim to proprietary rights of the defeated species' possessions, technology, and resources. Consequently, Klingon scanning technology was predicated on principles of identifying heightened energy sources. As is often the case, energy - not mass - is utilized as a primary means of defense and offense. As a point of comparison, I would draw your attention to the Besarian planetary defense shield. It is based entirely on the output of energy, not mass. In contract, as my shipmates and I have since come to learn in studying the technology pirated from the Borg by The One, the Pulse Cannon utilizes mass ... a torpedo housing a Twelfth Power Energy reactor ... in order to achieve its destructive potential.

'However, in their attempts to classify the cloud, the Klingons were ineffective. As the approaching mist registered on their sensors as nothing more than pure energy, it appeared simply as anomalous to their pattern definition buffers. Outside of the visible similarity to space nebula common throughout the Alpha Quadrant, the cloud possessed no definite characteristics. The Klingons appropriately determined that a closer visual inspection of the cloud was necessary to determine the liability of allowing it to pass through their imperial space. They broke off their military exercises and changed course to intercept the anomaly. After all, should the flight officers capture the intruding anomaly, harnessing an unimaginable power source would logically provide the Klingon Empire with unimaginable power.

'Upon closer engagement,' Tuvok pressed on, 'the Klingons determined that the cloud was, in fact, a functioning entity possessing highly advanced weapons and scanning technology. All attempts to perform even cursory scans, from a closer distance, were reflected back, indicating perhaps the use of some type of scanning inhibitors, a technology unheard of at the time and still undeveloped. Rather than frighten the Klingons into retreat, the warriors realized how valuable the prize would be should capture prove possible. After little debate, the flight officers agreed upon yet another course adjustment ... that of entering the cloud.'

Breaking momentarily, Tuvok sighed, solely for his benefit and not for the sake of theatricality, as the Besarian Assembly assumed.

'Immediately upon entrance,' the Vulcan continued, his voice unchanged, 'the Klingons found themselves with the ability to make minimal scientific assessments of the cloud. Scanning was now possible, albeit limited. Specifically, the crew aboard the Klingon attack cruiser Amar determined that the transgressor of their imperial space was far more than just a cloud ... far greater than a combination of indeterminate gaseous elements. Rather, they detected what appeared to be a massive functioning organism. In short, the Klingon High Council, to this day, contend that they achieved first contact with the galaxy's first living machine.'

From the raised platform, Janeway heard some gasps from the throng.

'With little resistance or effectiveness,' Tuvok persisted, 'the three cruisers - two of which the names remain classified out of respect for the Klingon ancestors for which they are named - were destroyed.'

Kathryn Janeway recognized the rapture of an audience when she saw it. The Gathered Races of Besaria - she had heard Packell refer to his new people on more than one occasion - were utterly captivated by Tuvok's recounting of pure fact.

'A Starfleet sciences station, Epsilon IX, recorded and encoded all of the relevant data and transmitted it, via subspace, to Starfleet Command,' the Vulcan pressed on, oblivious to the emotional impact he was having on the audience. 'For this period in history, Starfleet's scanning technology was markedly different from the Klingon application. While the detection and isolation of energy matrices is unquestionably the underlying principle of all scanning philosophy, the Epsilon IX Space Station was equipped with matter enhancement meters, auditory indicators, and deep-space visual photography units. Epsilon's scans, directed and summarized by the station's commander Zephram Molaire, remain one of the oft-cited case studies of purely impartial scientific analysis for cadets enrolled in sciences classes at the Alpha Quadrant's Starfleet Academy. Indeed, the comparative scans were thorough, cross-referenced, and filtered through countless permutations of resolution ... visually, audibly, and electrically.'

For no apparent reason, Tuvok suddenly paused. Janeway noticed as he glanced momentarily at his PADD and then back at his audience.

Then, he reacted.

She saw it.

Kathryn Janeway trusted only someone as close to him as she would notice the ever-so-slight cock in his left eyebrow.

Despite all of her dealings with various cultures, races, and peoples, she knew that that solitary trait - the subtle yet perceptible rise in an eyebrow - was as close to an open display of emotion the Vulcan people would ever allow.

'Dr. Molaire's scans were reviewed in increasing detail by Starfleet Command,' Tuvok continued with his recitation of history.

'Why?'

Janeway looked up from her seat toward the source of the voice. Surprised, she found the question had come from ...

'Packell?'

'I asked why?' the Trakill Prefect repeated.

Tuvok remained unfazed. 'I do not understand your question.'

'Why did your people spend so much time studying the cloud?'

Nodding, Tuvok placed his PADD on top the podium.

'Because,' the Vulcan began, 'the machine/organism was, without question, on a precise heading for the planet Earth.'

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