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

CHAPTER THIRTY

"Report!" Janeway barked, her attention riveted to the main viewer where four Borg Cubes were displayed, closing in on her ship.

'We've survived so much out here,' she mused. 'This damned Delta Quadrant! So many encounters with species bent on annihilating us. So many entanglements. So much death and destruction, all during my first command. Now ... it comes down to this? In the face of our greatest adventure, we're simply being ...

'Out-flown?'

Breaking the silence, she shouted, "I said report!"

"Captain," Tuvok began, not looking up, concentrating his efforts on the Tactical Station's scanners, "the Borg cubes are maintaining pursuit. However ..." His voice trailed off.

"What is it, Tuvok?" she asked.

"Captain," he said, "I am ... I am detecting that two Cubes have retained functioning Twelfth Power Energy shields, while the other two have not."

"What?" she asked curiously.

"Puzzling," the Vulcan agreed.

"How could that be? Have they sustained damage?"

"A moment, if you please."

Smiling, the captain admired - and wished for - the Vulcan's ability to maintain a calm, almost mellifluous tone, even in the face of futility.

"As soon as you have it, Tuvok, I want your report." Angrily, she glanced over at her pilot. "Tom, what's our speed?"

Speaking over his shoulder, Tom replied, "We're topped out at warp seven-point-nine, captain. According to Lieutenant Carey, that's the best he can give us for now."

"Harry, how about the Borg?" she asked. "Are they matching our speed?"

"No, ma'am," the ensign responded, also directing his efforts at his scanners. "They're presently at warp eight-point-five."

"That's all?" she asked.

"Ma'am?" he tried.

Tiredly, she brushed a hand across her face, surprised to find a bead of sweat stretching down her right cheek. "Only Warp Eight?" she thought aloud, for the benefit of those scattered around the bridge. "They're capable of so much more. Why aren't they at Warp Nine, or Warp Nine-point-five, for that matter? They'd overtake us in less than a minute."

"Captain," Tuvok announced, glancing up from his console. "I have a theory."

Pleased, she sighed and sank back into her command chair. "I was hoping someone would. I'm fresh out."

"As Mr. Kim explained upon his return to Voyager," the Vulcan began, returning his view to the tactical displays before him, "the Borg drone that attacked him required no time to adjust to the energy frequency of his plasma rifle. In fact, the drone's personal defense screens automatically absorbed Mr. Kim's solitary blast. This is atypical to our experience in previous encounters with the Borg. At best, a single shot was required in order for the drones to analyze and accordingly modify their personal defense screens, thus rendering our weapons useless."

"Go on," she urged, still transfixed by the sight of the four Borg cubes approaching from behind. "I'm all ears."

"If what Mr. Kim told us is correct, this would indicate that the Borg have undergone an alteration to their need to adapt to our energy signatures," Tuvok concluded.

"I don't know, Tuvok," Tom chirped from the pilot's console. "We fought the Borg on Besaria. Those who were re-assimilated would have working knowledge of our weapons' capabilities. Couldn't they simply have adapted then, while we're just learning about it now?"

"I had considered that variable," Tuvok replied. "However, there is evidence to support that the Borg, while perhaps having successfully adapted to our current weapons' frequency, remain in a state of flux."

This time, it was Janeway who cocked an eyebrow as she glared back at her Tactical Officer.

"Explain."

"The mass stabilization field," he answered. "We have never encountered it before. Seven of Nine has never disclosed its existence or explained its applications in any of our ongoing security briefings surrounding the Borg. If it is Borg technology, then it is, without question, new."

"New?" Harry asked. "Couldn't they just have assimilated the mass stabilization field from any culture?"

"If that were the case," Tuvok continued, "then it would have been programmed into the Collective and shared with all Borg vessels. Yet, like the Twelfth Power Energy shields, two of the Cubes currently in pursuit do not have these fields." The Vulcan paused for a moment, considering the detailed reporting that was coming in from his ongoing scans. "I believe that, when we arrived at the Cubes, they were dormant for the purposes of a reprogramming effort."

"Reprogramming?" Janeway inquired. "From the Collective?"

"Unknown," Tuvok stated. "Furthermore, I believe our arrival interrupted the successful completion of that reprogramming."

"You mean," Harry tried, "they had only partially rebooted their primary systems?"

"Precisely," the Vulcan agreed, nodding. "When we transported Mr. Kim back aboard and substituted the modified photon torpedo in order to accommodate the mass stabilization field ... again, technology the Borg utilized that we have yet to encounter ... the detonation of the Twelfth Power Energy core housed within the torpedo would, without question, have experienced no difficulty in destroying the Cube. In fact, we witnessed the destructive potential from the safety of the Bridge. However -"

"That second Cube," Janeway muttered excitedly, realization washing over her like shivers. "That second Cube! It should've moved out of the way, but it didn't!"

"Precisely," Tuvok continued. "For points of clarification, I've just now completed a cursory review of the tactical logs of that encounter. Scanners indicate that the second Cube moved into position to assist the first, causing its own destruction."

"But wouldn't the Collective have warned the second -"

Again, Janeway shivered from the understanding she had reached.

"The Collective," she muttered. "The Collective ... is not operating? Tuvok, are you telling me that the Borg are isolated from one another?"

"I would not support that supposition, captain," the Vulcan continued, momentarily glancing back at his console. The Borg were getting closer. He knew that they had only minutes before being overtaken. "If the Collective were disengaged, then the reprogramming I suspect was occurring when we arrived could not have been taking place. The Borg are still acting in unison but with marked delay. As the Cubes took up our pursuit, there was a two-point-three second difference between the subsequent departure times of each vessel.

"Therefore, I believe it safe to conclude that the Collective is functioning. Rather, I find reasonable evidence to support the theory that the Collective's reprogramming was incomplete. Perhaps this lack of closure is causing intra-fleet communications to, likewise, experience delay."

"The commands," Janeway interrupted, trying to understand Tuvok's theory. "You're saying that the commands are delayed?"

"As you have indicated, the second Cube did not adjust its course to avoid the imminent danger," he stated, flatly. "A review of my tactical logs does show that, at the last possible moment, the Cube altered course slightly, but the effort was much too late to be effective. Thus, it was destroyed."

The Vulcan paused for a moment, allowing for his shipmates to comprehend what he had elucidated. "I warn you," he added, "this is only a theory."

Slowly, Janeway stood, facing the main viewer. "That doesn't change the fact that it's the best we have!" Quickly, she turned to her Tactical officer. "Tuvok, can you configure one of those photon torpedoes to simply detonate ... in open space?"

The Vulcan played his fingers rapidly across one of his brightly lit consoles. "It is done, captain."

She turned back to the screen. "You said that two Cubes had functioning shields and two didn't. Is that correct?"

"Indeed," Tuvok replied.

Defiant, she crossed her arms. "Target the leading Cube lacking an energy shield."

"Captain?" Tom asked.

"Trust me, Tom."

"But, captain, there are four ships out there," he pressed, "and we have only two torpedoes."

"That's right."

"In order to fire," he continued, "we're going to have to drop out of warp. That's going to bring those Borg down on us like a second skin!"

"Your objection is noted," Janeway assured him.

"Captain," Tuvok announced, "the target lock secured. I will have to adjust once we drop out of warp."

"Understood," the captain confirmed. "Mr. Paris, drop to full impulse at once. Tuvok, when the Borg do likewise, I want you to park that torpedo one thousand meters off that lead Cube's bow."

"Aye, captain."

"Dropping out of warp," Tom confirmed, his voice sounding deflated.

Under her feet, despite the inertial dampeners, Captain Janeway felt the hum of the ships engines change, and she trusted that Voyager was now running on full impulse.

"The Cubes are dropping out of warp with us, captain," Harry announced.

Glowering at the main viewer, Janeway lowered her head, staring down the bridge of her nose at the enemy vessels.

"You picked the wrong day to wake up on the wrong side of the bed," she whispered at the closely situated ships. "Fire!"

The captain watched as the torpedo whisked away from Voyager's aft firing bay, bearing down on the leading Cube, slightly to her left.

To her satisfaction, the Cube screeched to a dead stop in space as the rocketing torpedo exploded before it, drawing a virtual line in the sand. The explosion produced a firestorm of brilliant colors that played out in almost magical, glistening reflections off the lead Cube's metallic hull ...

... but, without the advance warning of the Collective's voice, the Cube following the targeted ship hadn't stopped.

"Brace for shockwave!" Janeway screamed.

In an instant, the two Cubes smashed into one another, the collision hurling a radiance that momentarily ignited the deep blackness of outer space. The explosion filled the screen, and Janeway threw herself to the deck as Voyager was hit by the energy wave. Her ship was pitching like a helpless boat on the waves of a stormy sea. Surrendering, she flattened herself to the carpeting, gripping the soft shag with her fingers, to keep from being thrown about on the floor. Closing her eyes, she heard the ruptures of power conduits channeling power to some of Voyager's bridge consoles, and she silently hoped that the warp core was still online.

As the shimmering effects of the explosion subsided and the Voyager settled, she lifted herself to her knees, shouting, "Damage report!"

Harry Kim's voice broke the silence first. "Power to decks three through five is out. Auxiliaries are engaged. Engineering is reporting casualties, but no fatalities. Injuries only." He paused briefly, reading the scrolling data from the screen before him. "All warp systems are fully functional."

"Tuvok," she pressed, "what about our friends?"

"The two Cubes with functional shields veered off to avoid contact with their destroyed counterparts," he announced. "They're regrouping, captain, and heading this way."

"Well," she said, "that trick's only going to work once. Tom, get us back to warp. Next stop is Besaria. And someone tell Commander Chakotay that we won't be coming alone!"

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