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

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

"Oh, dear Lord," Janeway whispered in awe.

The moment that Tom Paris had followed protocol, announcing that they were dropping out of warp to enter orbit around their destination, the viewscreen showed the planet Besaria.

Clearly, even from this distance, Kathryn Janeway could tell that Besaria City was on fire. Slowly, gasping, she rose from her command chair, taking in the full scene of destruction on the main viewer.

"Captain," Tom began, pivoting quickly back to face his senior officer, "are you seeing this?"

The Planetary Shield, the familiar wave of pulsing blue energy, appeared securely in place, as it had been when Voyager departed. But, not far beneath it, the expansive Generatrix, the superstructure adjacent to Besaria City's Spaceport, was large enough to be visible from orbit. She glared at the screen and found that the complex was overflowing with orange, yellow, and red blossoms of flame.

Instinctively, Janeway blinked herself from a trance and rapped her comm badge. "Voyager to Commander Chakotay!" she yelled. "Report!"

Bringing up his arm to shield himself from the blast, Chakotay winced as a brilliant explosion shook the ground off to his left. The building used to house the Borg Army that had previously occupied Besaria City had erupted unexpectedly. Hot air washed over Chakotay in one massive wave. Quickly, he turned and wrapped the cloned Tallaxian in his arms, protecting the identical from the impending shockwave of the blast. It hit, rattling the two of them where they stood, but Chakotay somehow managed to hold his ground, despite the fiery debris mixed with the familiar Besarian rainfall pummeling them from all directions.

When the blast sudsided, he shouted at Neelix2, "Are you all right?"

Pushing himself away, glaring at the spot where Borg quarters had stood only moments ago, the identical said, "Yes! Yes, I'm fine, commander! Fine! By the way, I think your comm badge is active! When you pulled me in, I believe I muffled Captain Janeway's voice!"

Edging his partner along, Chakotay tapped the comm badge as he ran. "Chakotay here," he replied. "Captain, is that you?"

"Sorry I'm late," she said, and he could hear the relief in her voice.

"Thanks for coming back," Chakotay joked. "Sorry, but the house is a mess."

"You're off the hook this time, commander," she replied. "Are you all right?"

"We're fine."

"We?"

"Neelix and I," he answered, shouting over the roar of the destruction. Despite his optimism, the commander was starting to believe that Besaria City was destined to come crumbling down on him. "We've left Packell and the Trakill in the Grand Hall."

"Left them?" she asked. "What do you mean?"

He swallowed. Rounding the corner, he saw the Generatrix ahead of him. The upper levels, once a testament to austere machinery, were now nothing but flames.

"The Trakill," he exclaimed, pulling Neelix2 alongside him. "They've elected to go down with the sinking ship."

"Commander," he heard, "that's not an option."

"Kathryn," he began, hoping the use of her first name might demonstrate the futility of the situation, "this is their world. I tried. Believe me, I tried. But, the Trakill have a legend that speaks of their deliverance, and they believe it's arrived."

"But -"

"Packell even cited the Prime Directive."

"Commander, you and I both know that the Prime Directive doesn't apply to these circumstances any longer -"

"Kathryn, he's gone!" Chakotay insisted. "It's their choice! Right now, as your first officer I consider it my duty to point out that I think it's high time we stopped worrying about the Trakill's spiritual deliverance and started worrying about our own survival. How's Voyager?"

As if on cue from the commander's inquiry, the ship suddenly rocked from an explosion in nearby space.

"Stand by, commander!" she replied. "Tuvok, what the hell just hit us?"

"The Borg, captain," the Vulcan announced, his attention fixed on the new tactical readouts. "They have dropped out of warp behind us and are attempting to secure a tractor beam lock on Voyager."

"You know the drill!" she ordered. "Modulate all shield frequencies!"

"Already under way," Tuvok agreed.

"Captain," Harry Kim spoke up, excitedly, "I've scanned the Generatrix. The power cores have lost primary stability. The secondaries are offline. The building's infrastructure is starting to collapse. The deeper the damage goes to the Central Core, the more likely we are to lose the protection of the Planetary Shield, assuming we can get under it." He looked up from his console. "We have to get those people off Besaria now."

Janeway returned to the open comm channel. "Chakotay, what's the status of the repair crews?"

"All personnel, including non-Trakill, are in the process of a full-scale evacuation as we speak, captain," the first officer explained. "As a matter of fact, if you do a quick scan of the Spaceport, you may detect several craft that should already be airborne. But, we don't want to bring down that Planetary Shield if you've brought company."

She sighed heavily. "Twins," Janeway found the spirit to joke during the crisis, hoping it would boost morale in this untenable situation. "Two Borg cubes."

"Only two?" he asked.

"We did our best with the others," she explained. "Remind me to tell you about it some time."

"Captain," Tuvok interrupted, "Commander Chakotay is correct. I am detecting twelve vessels presently in various stages of lift-off from the Besarian Spaceport."

"Twelve?" Chakotay broke in over the comm channel. "There should be thirteen."

"Who's in charge?" Janeway asked.

"Ensign Davis."

"Ensign Davis?" she asked, incredulous.

"He was all I could spare," Chakotay explained. "On my word, he's done a fine job coordinating the effort. However we manage to survive these present circumstances, I think his file is due for a letter of commendation from his captain."

"Noted," Janeway agreed ...

... and Voyager shook violently again.

Tricorder in hand, B'Elanna Torres ran at breakneck speed toward the two figures she recognized approaching her position.

"Commander!" she yelled. "I thought you'd left me for dead!"

"Not a chance," Chakotay said, coming to a stop. "Then I'd be left entertaining Tom the remainder of the trip home, and that's just not in my foreseeable future."

"What about me?" she asked, panting, leaning forward and grasping her knees.

Considering her for a moment, Chakotay couldn't help but reply, "You, my friend, would be daily chewing my hide in the afterlife." He pointed at the Generatrix. "Status?"

"See for yourself!" B'Elanna yelled, waving her free hand at the burning superstructure. "As soon as all the power couplers failed, I high-tailed it out of there!"

"What did you manage to secure?"

Still panting, the half-Klingon held up her tricorder. "Well ... the Pulse Cannon ... I know you're not going to want to hear this, but it's dead ... the Planetary Shield is holding, but I don't know for how much longer ... and, by channeling what free energy I could locate of some fast and dirty scans, I've rigged a proximity containment field to contain as much of the blast from that Generatrix."

"Proximity containment field?" Chakotay asked, his voice laced with disappointment. "You mean -"

"That's right," she said, finally catching her breath, standing upright. "That's the best I could do ... with what I had to work with."

"I'm sorry," Neelix2 leaned forward, "I hate to interrupt, but I don't know what any of this means ... and I desperately want to!"

"What it means," Chakotay began, "is not only will the Trakill be going down with this ship ... but one of us as well."

Sparks flaring from the pilot's console, Tom immediately rolled clear of the spewing flame, scurrying for the extinguisher he knew was housed in a floor panel directly behind his post.

"Tuvok," Janeway shouted, seated once more in her command chair. "What's the status on those Cubes? Have they managed to raise energy shields?"

After a second, the Vulcan replied, "Negative, captain. Neither Cube has raised any Twelfth Power Energy shielding at this point."

Grimacing, she glared at the main viewer. The city far below was nearly out of sensor range. Voyager would soon have to turn about in order to make another pass.

"We need to get under that shield," she explained.

"With all due respect, captain, Besaria is doomed," Tuvok replied. "Dropping under protection of the planetary shield may only afford us a few minutes of additional safety. I suspect that we would only be prolonging the inevitable."

Smirking, she turned her head back toward the Tactical station. "That's not quite the plan I had in mind."

"Commander Chakotay," he heard over the open comm channel, "this is Ensign Davis! We're holding the last transport at the Spaceport for you and Lieutenant Torres! Please respond!"

Chakotay looked at B'Elanna.

Their eyes met in a moment of uncertainty.

Someone had to stay behind to manually maintain the shield integrity.

Someone had to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Someone had to die in order for the other to live.

Immediately, Chakotay tapped his badge. "Davis, hold that ship," he barked. "The lieutenant is on her way."

"But, sir -"

"Chakotay, out," he barked with finality.

Inhaling suddenly, B'Elanna said, "There must be some other way!"

"I need to know how to lower the Planetary Shield," Chakotay replied. "Those ships are going to need to achieve escape velocity, but they're not going to get very far with that shield up, B'Elanna."

"Chakotay -"

"That's an order, lieutenant."

Blinking back tears, she hesitantly slowly passed her tricorder to her commanding officer.

"Planetary Shielding is controlled by the right toggle," she explained flatly. "The defensive screen containing the Generatrix is directly to the left." Swallowing hard, she added, "When the Generatrix ... explodes, you'll have to manually engage the toggle."

"Hold it down?" the commander asked.

"It won't work any other way." Again, she swallowed. "That's the best I could do."

He smiled. "Commendable work, considering the obstacles."

They stared at one another for a moment.

"You'd better get going," Chakotay ordered. "I'll see you ... when I see you."

"Voyager to Chakotay," Janeway tried.

"I'm here, captain."

"When Tuvok gives the order," she said, "I want you to drop the Planetary Shield."

Staring up at the raining sky, Chakotay asked, "Have you contacted Ensign Davis and given him the order for the ships to escape the planet?"

"We're not escaping Besaria," she said. "Not just yet, anyway."

"But, captain -"

"Standby, commander."

Studying his defensive screens, Tuvok watched the outermost boundary of Besaria's Planetary Shield fast approaching. He didn't have to look at his monitor to know that, behind Voyager, the Borg were, literally within an arms reach.

"This will take precise timing, commander," the Vulcan spoke through the open comm channel. "Please listen carefully. When I give the order, lower the Planetary Shield. Then, two seconds later, raise it. Can you comply?"

"Give the word, Tuvok."

"Very well," the Vulcan agreed. Momentarily, Tuvok looked up from his station and glanced in the direction of the pilot's console. "Mr. Paris, bring us within fifty meters of the Besarian shield."

"Aye, sir."

Again, the ship rocked.

"Have they established a tractor beam yet?" Janeway asked.

"Negative, captain," Tuvok replied.

From navigation, Tom announced, "Presently holding at fifty meters."

Tuvok nodded. "On my mark, Mr. Paris, power down impulse engines to one-tenth."

Turning around to glare at the head of ship's security, Tom asked, "Uh ... sir, are you crazy? At one-tenth impulse at this proximity to the planet's gravity well, Voyager will drop like a rock ..." Realization suddenly washed over the pilot's face. "Oh." He turned forward and stared at the main viewer. "Oh, I get it."

"Thank you for 'getting it,' Mr. Paris," Tuvok said.

"My apologies for speaking out of turn, Tuvok."

"If this works, there will be time for pleasantries later," the Vulcan agreed. "On my mark, Mr. Paris."

"Ready, sir."

"Five ..."

Janeway closed her eyes.

"Four ..."

In her mind, she saw Packell, Aulea, and the other Trakill humbling praying to Sonah in the Grand Hall.

"Three ..."

Undoubtedly, she knew she'd never see any of them again. She wouldn't have the chance to thank Packell for all that he had shared, for the hope that he had fostered in her once again.

"Two ..."

Silently, she wondered if the crew of Voyager would be in Packell's prayers.

"One ... mark!"

Tom's fingers quickly played across the engine controls. Despite the inertial dampeners, everyone on the bridge sensed Voyager dropping.

Tuvok tapped his comm badge. "Now, Commander Chakotay!"

On the main viewer, the blue energy haze that was the Planetary Shield suddenly vanished.

Easily, Voyager dropped under the boundary of that invisible umbrella.

"Let's just hope this works," Janeway muttered, digging her fingernails into the arms of her command chair.

"The Borg are pursuing," Harry Kim announced from Ops.

Her eyes still closed tightly, Janeway imagined her first officer, on the planet below, re-initializing the shield.

"Planetary Shield has been engaged," Tuvok announced.

"On screen!" Janeway ordered, opening her eyes.

The main viewer morphed from a view of the crumbling Besaria City to the two lumbering Borg Cubes in hot pursuit.

Suddenly, the two vessels were obscured by a the familiar haze of blue Twelfth Power Energy ...

... but not before the leading Cube was cleanly sliced in half by the reactivated energy shield!

"Tom, evasive maneuvers!" the captain shouted.

"Yes, ma'am!" he concurred, and Voyager pulled away from the rupturing, tumbling remains of the vanquished Borg Cube. The remaining Cube bounced off the atmospheric protection, igniting a plasma discharge that ripped into the craft's structure, but the Cube managed to pull away into higher orbit in the knick of time.

'Damn!' Janeway thought. 'One more! Only one more!'

"Tuvok," she began, "send word to those evacuation ships. Get them into formation as fast as possible. We don't have time for dallying about, and, like the last time, the Borg aren't going to fall for the same trick twice."

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