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

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Sighing tiredly, Neelix2 had finally mustered the strength to deny exhaustion. He was prepared to figuratively 'butt heads' once more with an angry Trakill the likes of Packell. And, try as he might, the identical was going to shout, if necessary, the logical arguments supporting a timely evacuation of Besaria one last time ...

... when he felt the floor beneath him move.

"What was that?" Aulea interrupted.

Near the greeting room's only window, she slowly rose from the chair she had occupied, where she had patiently watched the two men banter back and forth for the last hour. Extending her arms cautiously, she stood precariously. "What WAS that?" she asked, her forehead wrinkled with concern.

Turning his gaze toward the window, Packell glanced past his lifemate and out into the rainy darkness. "I don't know, beloved," he dismissed her gruffly, "but I think that more than this debate is over."

Suddenly, Neelix2 felt the floor lurch and heard Aulea's scream.

The cloned Tallaxian shot forward from the shockwave, fumbling for a handhold. He caught, by just his fingernails, the corner of a long, wooded table beside him. Straining, he groped and found the surface, gripping his fingers tightly around the table's ornate edging, and he held on for dear life as the entire room trembled.

"Packell!" Aulea's howl momentarily filled his ears, overpowering the audible rumbling that accompanied the earthquake. "What's happening?" she screamed. "WHAT'S HAPPENING?!"

Steadying himself as best as he could, Neelix2 glanced up, peering around the quivering room. He found the Prefect. Packell was pitching to and fro about the room, nothing solid to grab within his immediate reach. Fortunately, Aulea had apparently fallen back into the chair, and, her face contorted in terror, she grasped the window frame.

"WHAT'S HAPPENING?!"

Pushing off the table, fearing for the Prefect's safety, Neelix2 threw himself in Packell's direction. His arms wide, the cloned Tallaxian dived across the gap separating the two of them and wrapped the Trakill leader safely in an embrace.

"I have you, sir!" Neelix2 shouted over the raucous. "I have you!"

Together, the two stumbled in Aulea's direction, recklessly toward the open window, where they luckily rammed into the wall instead of crashing through the glass portal. Putting all of his weight into it, Neelix2 leaned into the Prefect, calming their motion as best as he could. He released his hold on the Trakill and grabbed for the window frame, opposite Aulea.

"There!" Neelix2 heard Aulea's scream. "THERE!"

He glanced over toward the woman.

Insistent, she pointed out the window.

From his experience deep within the facility, Neelix2 knew that the Generatrix was a massive subterranean complex, with only a mere four of its over one hundred levels were visible above ground. The topmost level housed the Pulse Cannon, a weapon powerful enough to destroy a Borg Cube with a solitary blast.

Neelix2 saw that the level just beneath the destructive cannon was brilliantly aflame.

"Commander Chakotay," the Tallaxian muttered.

Before their eyes, the burning intensified. The rabid, hungry flames stretched and twisted and curled. They viciously licked dangerously near the adjacent buildings, threatening to take the entire surroundings up in smoke.

Suddenly, a wall of blue fire tore through the Generatrix, spewing molten steel girders in every possible direction. Behind the flying metal, the explosion erupted into a crimson balloon that lifted into the air and lit the eternally night skies over Besaria City.

"Oh, my dear," was all Neelix2 could mutter.

Slowly, the quake subsided, and the floor stilled.

"Packell!" Aulea screeched at her husband. "What's happening to our home?"

Standing up, pulling himself away from the Prefect, Neelix2 looked into the Trakill's eyes. They were glazed, fixed straight ahead, focused on the Tallaxian. The Trakill was lost in deep thought, the identical realized, possibly contemplating the events of the last few days, coupled with the surprise of Voyager's arrival and his subsequent freedom. Packell was a leader desperately in need of a course of action to lead his people.

"Our people," he finally mumbled.

"What?" Aulea asked, her tone softening.

"Our people," Packell repeated. He blinked, finally finding himself. Gently, he pushed himself off the wall and brushed past the Tallaxian. "This is a time of need," he stated clearly, with authority. "A reckoning. Our people are going to need me." Heading toward the entryway, he added, "There will be panic. No doubt they'll be heading for the Grand Palace. I'll summon the others to the Assembly. There, we'll find comfort in numbers."

"Packell!" Aulea screamed, rising from her chair.

The Trakill stopped, but he didn't turn.

"Neelix is right," she said simply. "This planet ... it's dying."

"It isn't," he countered.

"I tell you it is!"

Frustrated, the Prefect whirled on his wife. "Then I won't let it die! Not this way! Not any way!" Angrily, he pointed a trembling finger at Neelix2. "You believe this ... this ... this Lemm!"

Taken back at the obvious insult, Aulea gasped at her husband. "How can you say something so hurtful?"

"This world is not dying, Aulea," Packell assured her, gradually composing himself. "This world, with all of its bounty, is life itself." He lifted his hands toward her, palms reaching out for her blessing. "Don't you see?" Quickly, he pointed toward the window. "That! That blasphemy! That Generatrix! It is dying! Everything that the One has left behind from his filthy rule is dying! Can't you see that, Aulea?" He pleaded with his wife. "Sonah is cleansing Besaria, cleansing it of the reeking machinery that spoils our harvest ... cleansing it of all traces of a ruler who was never meant to be in any part of our history!"

Uncertain as to what to say to the man, Aulea remained silent.

After several moments, Packell turned away, heading toward the door. Stopping briefly, he grabbed a cloak, hanging from a hook, and quickly slipped into it. "The Trakill know better, Aulea," he assured her. "Our people will not be fooled so easily."

"Packell," she tried, her voice weak, "why won't you listen to reason?"

Sighing heavily, his shoulders slumping, Packell stared at the floor in front of the doorway. Neelix2 guess that either the Prefect couldn't face his lifemate or he simply refused.

"I cannot accept this," he spat over his shoulder.

The room was silent.

"Aulea," Packell began, still not facing her, "I know that you were betrothed to me, in your youth, at a very young age. I know ... I know that it was our fathers' choice, as is the Trakill way. I know that you never chose me, just as I never chose you. Still, we honored the traditions set forth by our families, by Sonah. I didn't need to live with you these last few years, to wake up in your arms each morning, to know that you remained faithful to me while I was imprisoned in an ambassadorship, serving a people forced to submit as their world was slowly stripped away by a madman." Slightly, his head turned, but he would not face his lifemate. "I did nothing. I didn't stop that madman, and I have felt nothing but ... for that, I have felt nothing but shame. Now, I find my people suddenly free, and I ... I've been elected to rule?" He paused, taking a deep breath. "I'm no ruler. I don't deserve this post. But I alone am forced to choose between preserving our heritage ... here ... on this world ... where we are destined to be ... our destiny by the words of Sonah ... or abandoning it."

Packell glanced slightly in her direction. "I can't leave. I can't abandon our people. I won't forfeit all that we were raised to believe. But -"

Again, Packell silenced. Neelix2 watched as the man stood remarkably still near the doorway.

Finally, the Trakill spoke. "If you choose to leave with Voyager, I understand your choice. All I ask is that you understand my choice to remain on sacred soil."

With that, Packell opened the door and disappeared into the darkness outside.

Slowly, Neelix2 glanced over at Aulea, who collapsed into her chair. He reached out and took her shoulder, eventually stepping closer as she started to cry, her body convulsing. He tightened his hold on her shoulder, and he consoled her with, "I'll stay with you as long as I can, Aulea."

"No," she said meekly. "Like my husband, your place is with your people."

Somewhat amused by her response, Neelix2 admitted, "Well, you may not understand this, but I truly have ... no people."

Then, he remembered one of the reasons he had come to see Packell in the first place. The seemingly endless distraction of arguing about evacuation had distracted Neelix2 the chance to share what he had found.

"As a matter of fact," he confessed, "all I have is this." From his coat, Neelix2 tugged out a tightly rolled fabric.

"What is it?" she asked, wiping her tears as she glanced up.

Neelix2 swallowed. "I've seen many amazing things in this galaxy," he tried, realizing that it was far from the truth. "Today ... well ... I saw something I had never expected. And, I collapsed ... after looking at hundreds of different copies of myself."

Aulea cocked an eyebrow at the Tallaxian.

"It's true!" he insisted innocently. "There's a cloning chamber! In the Generatrix! That's how the One kept his conquering army staffed with endless Borg! Anyway, before I entirely passed out at the sight of myself, I lay there on the floor with the most bewildering sensation. I've heard others say this is true. I felt as though ... and I know how this will sound, but it's true ... I felt as though someone was watching me."

Shaking her head slowly, Aulea asked, "What happened?"

"Then, I blacked out," Neelix2 confessed happily. "However, when I came to, with my friend Commander Chakotay nearby, I realized that someone was, in fact, watching over me."

"The commander?"

"Not quite," the Tallaxian replied.

He held up the fabric, and he pointed to it.

Aulea glanced where he directed, and she noticed a pair of eyes embroidered into the cloth he held up in front of her.

Trakill eyes.

"One of the tapestries," she whispered, her voice suddenly full of wonder.

"I believe it is," Neelix2 said. Smiling, he added, "And a quite beautiful one, at that. As I said, I've seen a great many things in this galaxy, but I've never seen anything as magnificent as this!"

Quickly, hungrily, she reached out and snatched the fabric from his hand, oblivious to the rudeness of her own actions. She dropped off the chair and onto her knees, tossing the bundle onto the floor. Her hands dashed for the folds, and she spread the cloth wide. As she haphazardly rolled out the material, she ordered, "Don't just stand there, Neelix! Help me!"

Stepping around her, the identical then dropped to the floor, and, together, they stretched the material out as far as it would go.

"These were forbidden," she explained as they worked, straightened the dusty cloth of its wrinkles, Aulea almost breathless with awe and anticipation. "The One hated them! He ordered them burned in our own city's square while everyone ... stood ... by ..."

"Well," Neelix2 offered, straightening out the corners of the tapestry, "one of your flock must've escaped with this one. No doubt he paid for it with his life. I found it hidden away amidst the machinery of the Generatrix."

Realizing that Aulea had fallen silent, the identical looked over at her. She drew her hands to her mouth, her eyes wide. With the glint of an excited child's eyes, she glared at him, dropping her hands, and said, "Amuhlachi."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Amuhlachi," she repeated, almost whispering the word as if it were a prayer.

"Amuhl-?"

"Amuhlachi," she savored the word once more. "The final resting place of Sonah," she whispered reverently, tears slowly welling up in her tired eyes. "The haven where all Trakill find blessed sleep after the harvest." She glanced down, virtually drinking in every color of the tapestry with her eyes. "This was ... this was in the palace. It was ... it is our most sacred piece."

Before them, embroidered in magnificent craftsmanship, lay a butchered field littered with seated Trakill. Parked near them were carts, and the carriers spilled over with a recently harvested leafy crop. But what amazed Neelix2 the most was the detail of what must have been thousands upon thousands of embroidered Trakill farmers, stretching all the way to the horizon under a clouded sky ... however, at the far corner, in the distant stretch of the imagination, the identical thought he saw a threaded ...

Sun?

Pointing at it, Neelix2 asked, "I thought Besaria was covered in eternal rainclouds?"

Tears streaking down her cheeks, Aulea sniffled. "Amuhlachi. It was ... Sonah dreamed that, one day, our world would be visited by a star." Grimacing to hold back her crying, she fought with all her might. "The star would ignite the darkness, signaling an end to the final harvest of Besaria. Only then would the Trakill know true rest ... in Amuhlachi."

"An afterlife?" Neelix2 asked.

Releasing the tears once more, Aulea smiled at the identical. "A deliverance."

"A deliverance from what?" Neelix2 asked.

"Not from anything," she replied, laughing softly, "but a deliverance to our Maker so that we may finally achieve tranquility. A deliverance to our Maker! He who seeded our world!"

Taken back at the worth of his find, Neelix2 was at a loss for words.

"Packell will need to see this," she insisted, wiping her tears. "Here. Help me roll this up."

Quickly, the cloned Tallaxian complied with her request, picking up the corners delicately and walking the tapestry in toward Aulea.

"You're coming with me," she demanded.

"Where are we going?" he asked.

"To the Assembly," she explained. "Maybe that stubborn Packell of mine was right. Maybe our destiny has arrived after all."

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