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

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

"Don't try to move."

Mandakorr opened his eye. At first, he saw only blackness, ... a vacant expanse of nothing ... but, after a time, the void reluctantly began to stir and take shape. Shadowy, gray lines bled in the black soup, lines that eventually froze and adopted a uniformity of purpose, stretching, turning. Suddenly, the lines brightened, and the blackness surrendered. Surprised, Mandakorr realized he was lying on his back, staring up at an infinity of Borg power cables. The corridor's ceiling, a jumbled, chaotic, formless mass of barely illuminated conduits, cabling, and power indicators, settled into the dark but discernible, definable.

Mandakorr remembered where he was. He remembered waking up ... Borg. He remembered tearing his body from his assimilation alcove. He remembered achingly crawling the lifeless ship's accessways, hour upon hour seemingly without rest, until he found the communications interface for which he so desperately had searched. He remembered aligning a distress signal to a specific frequency he trusted detectable and decipherable by anyone serving on the Voyager's Main Bridge. He remembered -

"The drone?" he asked, frightened.

Instinctively, he tried to sit up, knowing that his attacker could be near, but his body flailed wildly.

"The drone!"

"Mandakorr," a voice cautioned, "lay still!"

"The drone! THE DRONE!"

Mandakorr felt a pair of hands clamp gently on his head and turn his view in a different direction. Slowly, he distinguished the familiar face in his new line of sight. Achingly, he forced a smile onto his face.

"Ensign ... Harry Kim," the Gallenian whispered, his voice hoarse. "I think ... you're on the wrong ship."

"Lie still," he heard.

"Harry -"

"That's an order." Harry tilted his head a bit. "Maxwell, get me a reading on Mandakorr's vital signs."

"Yes, sir."

"Harry?" Mandakorr persisted, voice weak and cracking. "The drone. There was a drone here. It tried ... it was going to kill me -"

"Mandakorr," the Starfleet Ensign replied, pressing his face closer to the Gallenian. "There's no one else here. There's you, me, and Maxwell. The drones are all regenerating. Otherwise, this corridor is empty."

"But, there was a drone! It was ... unlike the others -"

"There's no one here now," Harry reassured his friend softly. "Now, I need you to lie completely still. Conserve your energy. Let us try to help you."

Confused, lost in assumptions of what might've happened to the drone he thought he had vanquished in mortal combat, Mandakorr cautiously relaxed, his tensed muscles unknotting as he eased himself down on the deckplates. Closing his eye, he breathed deeply, utilizing the Gallenian meditation technique that had brought him this far, searching out the inner calm, the inner peace.

When his heart had slowed and the anxiety ebbed, he opened his eye again.

"That's better," Harry agreed, smiling. "You just relax. Let us do the work."

"Is that," the Gallenian began, "is this ... is it really you, Harry?"

"It's me," he replied. "And I'm not alone. I brought a friend, one of my shipmates from Voyager. Ensign Nathan Maxwell."

"Hello," Nathan offered, smiling politely, not taking his eyes from studying his tricorder readings.

"Harry?"

"I'm here, Mandakorr."

"Sir," Nathan began, whispering his report, "his vitals -"

"Keep it to yourself for the time being," Harry snapped curtly, infusing a command tone in his voice. All of the time in the Delta Quadrant, so far away from anything remotely similar to Starfleet Headquarters, Harry Kim was still committed to making the best use of his new-found maturity.

"Harry," Mandakorr said, and, for a fleeting moment, he savored the word. "I knew ... I knew you'd come."

"What?" Harry asked, reaching out and placing a hand on Mandakorr's chest. He wasn't touching Gallenian flesh but, rather, cold Borg armor. Still, he hoped the gesture wasn't lost on Mandakorr. "Abandon a friend in a time of need? That's not any Harry Kim I'd want to know."

Reaching up, Harry tapped his comm badge. "Kim to Voyager."

"Janeway here," came the reply.

"Captain, we've found him."

"Well done, Harry," Janeway replied, and Harry heard the praise in her voice despite the distance separating the two of them. "Prepare for immediate transport. We'll send you directly to Sickbay," she ordered.

Tapping his comm badge, Nathan quickly implored, "Belay that, Captain!"

"What?" Janeway asked. "What's wrong?"

"I'm reading total cellular degradation in Mandakorr's current condition," the ensign explained. "His readings are ... well ... they're fluctuating from one moment to the next, Captain. I'm quite certain that his constantly shifting molecular composition would be too complex for our pattern buffers. I'm no doctor, but, if I were to guess, I'd have to say that his Gallenian physiology is incompatible with Borg biotechnology." Nathan studied the tricorder readings closely. "His body is not only rejecting the implants, but it's as if ... somehow ... his DNA is attempting to recode itself as a defense." With that, Nathan Maxwell somberly closed his tricorder. "In his present state, if we successfully achieved a transporter lock, I don't think we'd have the ability to re-materialize him aboard Voyager. His DNA might shift again in transit, and the pattern would be lost. I don't think he'd survive transport."

"Is the condition irreversible?" Janeway probed.

Harry glanced up at his shipmate, and he saw Nathan's perplexed shrug, the man unclear of how to respond. Harry had seen it before. The inability to face the unknown. The hesitancy to explore the unthinkable. He had seen it in himself when he had first joined Voyager.

"Negative, Captain," Harry replied for his shipmate.

"Harry," Mandakorr whispered, weakly.

"I'm here," Harry said. "I'm with you."

"Stay with me?" the Gallenian asked. "What ... what Maxwell has found is true. I know ... I know that I'm dying. I've known that since I woke here ... on this Cube. I just ... it's just ... I don't want to die alone."

Aghast, Harry lowered his head. He forced himself to breath slowly, pushing aside the rising anger he sensed deep within himself at finding Mandakorr in this ... shape. Controlling his emotions, he concentrated instead on his alternatives. That's what Starfleet would want him to do. That's what Captain Janeway would want him to do.

Not far away, the Borg were regenerating in their respective alcoves.

Outside, the Delta Flyer awaited his return.

Captain Janeway had made her orders very clear.

'Beam in. Beam out. No sightseeing.'

"Harry?" Mandakorr tried.

"Captain," Harry broke his self-imposed silence, "Ensign Maxwell will beam back to the Delta Flyer. I'll order Tom to return to Voyager. There's no sense risking their lives at this point. Have Tuvok establish a transporter lock on my location. I'm prepared for emergency beam-out at a moment's notice, should it become necessary."

"What are you going to do?"

Harry sighed heavily, glancing down at his Gallenian friend. "I'm going to see if I can stabilize Mandakorr's condition."

"Harry, Ensign Maxwell said that -"

"I heard the diagnosis," Harry interrupted, realizing afterward he had made a poor career choice in cutting off a senior officer in mid-sentence. But, he didn't care. He couldn't be demoted any further. And what was Janeway to do for the duration of the trip home? Throw him in the Brig? "I ... I just can't accept it, Captain."

After a prolonged moment of silence, Janeway finally replied, "Understood. Keep me apprised of your progress. Voyager out."

"My species," Mandakorr sputtered, his words broken and a thin line of blue blood showing on his lips. Harry had kept his tricorder out, constantly updating his friend's medical condition, and the Gallenian's life signs had been steadily weakening over the last twenty minutes. Harry feared that death was near. "We've ... encountered the Borg ... hundreds of times ... as we've only known space travel. They're ... irrepressibly rude, don't you think?"

To his surprise, Harry couldn't help himself.

He chuckled out loud, dropping the tricorder and clutching his stomach. Mandakorr, fighting back the pain it caused, laughed with him. Their laughter echoed throughout the ship's corridor, possibly loud enough to wake the sleeping Borg.

As the laughter faded, the Gallenian swallowed several times and said, "We're ... what the Borg have always called ... genetically inferior."

In a bitter tone, Harry replied, "To the Borg, every species is inferior to their damned Collective. Trust me. You're not inferior to them, in any way, on any count. Don't you believe otherwise."

"You're friend ... the one who beamed in with you?" the ailing Gallenian tried. "He's right ... you know? His diagnosis? My species ... we can't survive ... assimilation. Genetically ... we're incompatible with Borg technology. We fail to ... adapt ... at the chromosomal level."

"Save your strength, Mandakorr," Harry counseled, again placing a hand on his friend's chest.

"... we fail ... to adapt ..."

"You wouldn't want to be a Borg anyway," Harry reasoned. "Say what you will about the One, but you were far better off under his dictatorship than you would ever be serving the Collective." Harry smiled, adding, "Your species is too gracious for the Collective."

His face contorting, Mandakorr smiled weakly, his blue blood now showing on his pointed teeth. "As always, Harry ... you are ... too kind. You ... you shouldn't be here, though."

"I'm staying," Harry stated firmly.

His body shuddering, Mandakorr said, "That's ... that isn't what I mean."

"Mandakorr, I'm said that I'm staying with you. Don't argue with me. You're in no position to win."

"Harry, you don't understand," Mandakorr tried. "You're going ... you're going ... home."

Confused, Harry asked, "What are you talking about?"

"Channelspace," Mandakorr said.

"What about it?"

"The moons," Mandakorr whispered, his dying voice taking on an almost magical element, as if he were telling a fairy tale passed down from generation to generation. "Harry ... the moons of Besaria. That's ... that's the secret. The three moons of Besaria. Rxsta'Haji. Rxsta'Fenru. Rxsta'Tomyl."

"I know about the moons," Harry tried, fighting back the tears forming at watching his friend slowly pass before his eyes.

"If you ... if you ... do you know the Trakill legends?" Mandakorr asked, turning his head to face the Ensign. "The moons of Besaria. They're named for the sons of Solahh, their culture's ancient spiritual leader." In pain, the Gallenian relaxed his head into its normal position, eye facing the ceiling. "They ... stand for the ... Besarian elements. The Sun. The Rain. And the Soil."

"I think I've heard that around," Harry replied, recalling a conversation he had had with Prefect Packell when he was aboard Voyager.

"Harry," Mandakorr almost spat out his name, fighting the sleep of death that now constantly threatened to overwhelm him.

"What is it?"

"Harry?"

"I'm here, Mandakorr."

"The Trakill have never ... seen the sun," the Gallenian rasped. "Besaria ... it always rains."

Curious, Harry looked up.

Mandakorr was right. The only time a Trakill would see the sun would be from space. Why would they call it an element? Tuvok had explained to Harry that the flora on the planet was responded to hydroponics, not photosynthesis.

"Solahh ... only had two sons," the Gallenian said. "Haji and Fenru."

"But the legend -"

"Rxsta'Tomyl," the Gallenian wheezed, panting suddenly as the pain wracking his body intensified.

"What about it?"

"Solahh ... had only two sons. The legend was ... corrupted years ago ... by the One." Mandakorr gritted his teeth. They were now showing more blood. "The Trakill ... the current generation ... they don't know any different. We ... the Gallenians ... we have a longer life span. I've ... I've been alive since the One originally took Besaria."

"So the Trakill don't know that the legend has been changed?"

Without the energy to speak, Mandakorr shook his head.

"Then how do you explain Rxsta'Tomyl?"

Panting, he spat, "It's ... manufactured."

Manufactured?

"It was ... placed there ... by the Moderators."

"The Dia'Soto?"

"Yes."

"So," Harry reasoned, leaning closer, "the conductors that make it possible for a ship to travel Channelspace ... Mandakorr, are you saying that Rxsta'Tomyl is the local conductor that Gallenian pilots use to access Channelspace?"

"The conductors ... they're disguised ... manufactured as planets or moons or even hidden deep within vast nebula," Mandakorr explained, his voice lowering in volume almost reverently. "Like ... like a hailing frequency ... if you transmit the conductor's corresponding hail over the proper frequency, the ship is pulled into Channelspace and ... transmitted to the next conductor in sequence."

Again, the dying man stopped speaking, overcome with a bout of continuous swallowing, an action not unlike a seizure. "Rxsta'Tomyl ... all of its transporter sequences head in the direction of what you call the Alpha Quadrant." Pausing, he breathed deeply, hoping to gain the strength to finish the tale he had started. "I ... I don't know how close it'll take you ... but anywhere is certainly better than ... here."

His eye began trembling, darting quickly to the left and right, before it relaxed again and was still. "Everything that I know ... the transmission coordinates? They're in the Borg primary neural implant, Harry, just above my ... facial prosthetic. You'll have to ... use your medical kit and remove it."

Suddenly, Harry felt the chill overwhelm his entire being.

"When I'm ... dead," Mandakorr said with grace, with serenity, "Harry, you're going to have to remove it ... if you want to go home."

A tear slipping down his cheek, Harry Kim glanced down at his dying friend.

"I wish I could see it," Mandakorr whispered, his voice trailing, all hint of magic gone from his inflection, "but I've found peace in knowing that you're ... going ... home ... friend."

His tale complete, the sickly Gallenian very slowly, very deliberately closed his solitary eye ...

... for the last time.

"Kim to Voyager."

Stunned into action, Captain Janeway stood.

"Go ahead, Harry."

"Mandakorr's gone, Captain."

Pursing her lips, not doubting for a moment the depth of sorrow her junior office must've felt at this moment, she swallowed hard before she offered, "Harry, Prefect Packell told me once that pilots on Besaria were assigned in a regular rotation to the ... various discovery missions ordered by the One. From what the records indicate, Mandakorr was the only helmsman in all of the fleet to be 'exempt' from regular rotation. That means he impressed the One so much with his command of spacecraft that he virtually spent his entire life on board a ship. If he wasn't at the helm, he wasn't far from command. He was ... he was a master at his art."

She paused, taking a moment to glance around the Bridge, knowing the chasm of grief she'd endure if she were to ever lose a member of her ... family.

Wiping an unexpected tear from the corner of her eye, she said, "You have my deepest condolences over your loss."

"Thank you, Captain."

There was a brief pause.

"Captain, Mandakorr's dying wish was for Voyager to have the ability to access Channelspace."

"Channelspace?" Janeway asked. "You have the transmission coordinates?"

"I have them," Harry replied simply, "but we're going to need Seven to decode them. They're encoded in a Borg neural implant."

"I'll alert the Doctor," Janeway agreed.

"The nearest Channelspace conductor is Rxsta'Tomyl, the third Besarian moon. According to what Mandakorr told us, it's manufactured."

"Manufactured?" she asked. "An entire moon?"

"From what Mandakorr told me," Harry continued, "the conductors are extremely well hidden throughout the universe, Captain."

"Harry, Besaria is falling apart as we speak," she explained quickly. "If we don't get back there immediately, there might not be a conductor left. We need you off that Cube and back here immediately -"

"Captain," Tuvok interrupted, "the Cube is showing signs of completed regeneration. I am receiving multiple energy signatures, and all Cubes are coming online."

Suddenly, Voyager rocked. The crew grabbed at their consoles, steadying themselves.

"What was that?" Janeway asked.

"A moment, if you please, Captain," Tuvok replied.

"Tuvok," she exclaimed, "we don't have a moment!"

Turning, she found his stare intently focused on the screens before him, his fingers quickly rolling across the console.

"I've lost the transporter lock on Mr. Kim," he announced, "and all scans are being deflected back."

Scans deflected back ...

"All scans are being deflected back?" she asked.

Where had she read that?

It was ...

The data logs on ...

"V'Ger!" she suddenly realized.

The Borg were utilizing Twelfth Power Energy!

"Tuvok, you have to find some way to get Harry the hell off that Cube now!"

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