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

CHAPTER TWENTY

Nodding viciously at the lifeless, silver object she had deposited on the conference room table moments ago, B'Elanna Torres placed her hands victoriously on her firm hips. "What you're looking at is, by my best estimates, an energy distribution inhibitor. My guess is that it we owe our compliments for its invention to the all-powerful, the all-knowing ... the One." Triumphantly, she then brushed her hands together vigorously, freeing her delicate fingers of the dust and debris that had collected.

Dumbfounded, the gathered senior staff stared at the glossy, half-meter, saucer-shaped instrument of chaos B'Elanna had hand-delivered. Surprisingly small for its destructive potential, the inhibitor bore a digital interface, one that displayed a long series of glowing blue characters ... some letters, some numbers, some shapes. Clearly, Janeway concluded, it was encoded, somehow, and the character string could either be an initiation command or a deactivation sequence. A ridge of tiny black nodules laced the interface, fixed into the saucer's center plating, showing receptor slots that obviously the half-Klingon engineer had dealt with by unplugging the unit from wherever she found it in one of the chambers housed in the sprawling, failing Generatrix.

"The Besarian power facility is littered with them," B'Elanna continued, disgustedly, quickly rounding the conference table, nudging her chair into a half-spin, and taking a seat. "Captain, there must be hundreds if not thousands of these things incorporated into the distribution infrastructure of the multiple power cores."

"Thousands?" Janeway asked desperately, all hope of saving the planet disappeared from her tone.

Grimly, B'Elanna nodded. "Now that we know what we're looking for, I figure we can use Voyager's sensors to get a more accurate picture of what we're up against."

At a loss for words, Kathryn Janeway bit down hard on her lower lip, stifling the fierce retort that almost slipped loose. Angrily, she glared at the saucer, emotionally torn between following the scientific instinct to study the mysterious object or to follow a defensive posture and jettison the inhibitor into space. Had it all come down to this? Thwarted by ... machines? In a rare moment of abandoned diplomacy, she ignored all professional grace and spat the only word that came to mind:

"Damn."

"Once Harry and I stumbled across the first ... this one," B'Elanna divulged further, leaning back in her seat, enjoying what little comfort she could find in exchange for the sheer exhaustion she felt from her labor on the planet below, "it was only a matter of time." Realizing she commanded the attention of the senior staff, she continued. "Our tricorders detected an anomalous, intermittent transmission so faint that it's no wonder it was overlooked by all of the work crews. We traced it to this inhibitor's transmission. Then, we sat and waited for the next transmission. When it came, we tracked the corresponding broadcast signatures to multiple emitters throughout the section we were assigned to. All of the inhibitors we located were hidden in strategic locations throughout the Generatrix."

Pointing at the device, Janeway asked, "And you're convinced that these ... inhibitors ... they're the single cause for the multiple power distribution failures throughout Besaria City?"

"Precisely, Captain," Ensign Harry Kim piped up. As well, he followed B'Elanna's lead, rounding the conference room table and taking a seat beside her. "From what we've been able to learn since their discovery, we understand that these inhibitors are encoded. The inclusion panel - the digital interface you see there in the center - requires a twenty-seven-digit input. As you can tell from the display on this unit, the sequence consists of numbers, letters, and some characters we've never seen before. Based on sensor data alone, finding every inhibitor hidden within the Generatrix's power cores would take, with the ship's complement working around the clock, a minimum of three weeks. Cracking the individual codes specific to each unit? Even with the assistance of Voyager's main computer, that could take years."

"The One?" Janeway pried. "What would he have to do with this? Why would he have done such a thing?"

"It's only a working theory, Captain," B'Elanna explained, "but it's the only reasonable one we have."

Reaching out, B'Elanna grasped the saucer, sliding it closer to her. "Harry and I believe that these inhibitors were originally all synchronized. Keep in mind, Captain, that ours is only a theory; but, based on the sensor imaging and our knowledge of the One, it makes perfect sense."

She inhaled briefly before launching her tale. "Suppose ... suppose that the One desired a safety mechanism, something that would guarantee his and only his rule over the planet, Besaria. If he couldn't have the world and the society he created, then no one could, not even the original residents, the Trakill. Out of these delusions, he creates this intricate network of inhibitors.

"If he were to do so," she continued, her eyes moving around the table to the other crewmembers, "the smartest move would have been to have the inhibitors respond much like a neural net. In neural communications, one neuron fires off the message to the next, the process continues until all of the neurons receives the same information, and so on and so forth." Unconsciously, she brushed back a strand of her dark hair that had fallen across her forehead. "The One ... all he had to know was the original initialization sequence. He'd input his code into a master panel ... say ... every forty-eight hours. The inhibitors, programmed to recognize the sequence and deploy it simultaneously within their own network, would've taken this simple act as assurance that the One was still in command.

"Now, in the event that the One failed to input his code, the neural net of inhibitors would've responded differently, evaluating that something had gone wrong. The net, by design, collapsed. From that single moment forward, it wouldn't have been enough for any of us to have discovered and input the original initialization sequence into the master controls. Rather, all of the energy inhibitors would've required re-initialization ... with individual codes."

"As opposed to synchronous failure," Harry interrupted, "the One probably programmed the inhibitors to fail in multiple, unrelated power centers." He folded his hands on the table before him. "Who knows what the timetable would be before all of the inhibitors shut down? We've been working overtime, struggling to keep individual systems online, when the dirty trick is that, with the One to command Besaria, the Generatrix was programmed for overload. We can re-establish a single system, but another one crashes. Eventually, they'll all break down. That's why it's easy to assume that the One programmed the net to disband in the event of his failure to input the initialization sequence."

Admiringly, B'Elanna shook her head. "It's actually quite brilliant ... in a maniacal and paranoid sort of way."

"Maniacal and paranoid," Janeway repeated. "Two words I'd use in the same sentence to describe the One."

"Lieutenant," Tuvok broke in, leaning forward, "is there anything we can do to neutralize the inhibitors? Perhaps some kind of massive pulse from Voyager's deflector dish?"

"Without the codes to disable them," Harry answered on behalf of the chief engineer, "there's absolutely nothing we can do."

"What about ... what about removing them from the Generatrix?" the Captain continued trying to find an escape on behalf of the Gathered Races of Besaria. She refused to surrender, unafraid to hide her emotions under the uniform.

Sighing heavily, B'Elanna shrugged. "Again, it's almost impossible for us to say, Captain. These inhibitors were synchronized, we suspect. They still could be, at some level, exchanging basic telemetry. This one was dead, its programming spent, when we found it. We're dealing with a technology here that we've never seen the likes of in all of Starfleet history. Who knows what disabling and then removing a single unit would entail or might cause? We might trigger that inhibitor to transmit a distress signal to the remaining inhibitors. Whereas now we're only facing failures of individual power networks, we could have an immediate overload of all Generatrix systems on our hands, the result of which I couldn't speculate."

Pleading, Janeway tried, "Give me something, B'Elanna."

Grimly, the half-Klingon concluded, "Captain, I believe that all of Besaria would ultimately be destroyed in a massive energy feedback. Attempting to disable even one of these things might cause the Generatrix to explode!"

"It appears that's going to happen anyway," the Captain argued.

"But ... we're slowing down the process, Captain," Harry assured her, softening his tone. "We're giving them time to consider their options and evacuate. I want to help the Gathered Races of Besaria as much as anyone, but you're going to have to trust us on this. Theoretically, there is no way to dismantle these inhibitors.

"I don't like it any more than you do," Harry added gloomily, "but ... Besaria is doomed."

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