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

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

"Captain," Tuvok announced, the data quickly filtering onto one of his many defense screens, "I'm detecting highly accelerated levels of radioactive contaminants in the Besarian atmosphere." He touched a few keys to retrieve a quick analysis. "The signature of the radiation is extremely comparable to that of Twelfth Power Energy."

"The Generatrix?" she asked.

"I believe the structure has achieved critical mass," he concluded. Again, he touched some additional controls, reviewing a degradation chart he had initiated upon their return to Besaria. "My best estimate gives us two minutes before the city's power center ignites," he stated unemotionally.

"Captain!" Harry called out from Ops. "If the Generatrix goes up, the planet's core will rupture. Besaria will explode. The explosion of a planet this size will easily destroy the three moons."

"Meaning?" she pressed, curious.

"Meaning if we don't abandon Besaria now," Harry explained, "we forfeit all access to Channelspace."

Channelspace.

In the fight for survival, she had forgotten all about their Holy Grail.

Leaning her forehead into her hands, Janeway closed her eyes and concentrated. She took a second to collect her thoughts. Why, in their seemingly infinite trek across the Delta Quadrant, did their decisions always rely on these variables? If Voyager broke off now from saving the inhabitants escaping a planet falling apart around them, the crew might secure a transportation system that could deposit the ship back in the Alpha Quadrant, possibly hours from Earth. If Voyager continued, here, all hope would be lost?

"Captain," Harry added, "Mandakorr's death will have been for nothing."

Her head finally clear of the swirling thoughts, the decision was easy.

Glancing up at the main viewer, she replied, "No, Harry. Mandakorr made us aware of Channelspace. Even if we're assimilated, the Borg can't take that away from us. His sacrifice will not go unacknowledged." She flashed him a quick, knowing look, trying to provide her ensign what comfort she could. "Our first priority is staying alive, and Mandakorr explained that there were other conduits out there. If it turns out that we can't use this one, we'll do as we've always done. We'll keep searching for another way home."

Frowning slightly, Harry Kim nodded, understanding precisely the sentiments of his senior officer. "Aye, captain."

Enjoying the momentary peace, quiet, and safety under the Planetary Shield, Janeway realized how tired her 'ole bones' felt. The entire Besarian affair seemed as though it had begun months ago. In real time, Voyager had been delayed here for only a matter of days and weeks. But, the ordeal still felt like forever. Despite overcoming every obstacle that had been thrown their way, the crew of the Starship Voyager wasn't out of danger yet.

One Borg Cube.

One dying planet.

Rising, her hands on her thighs, she faced the main viewer.

"I don't know about the rest of you," she began, "but I'm personally ready to get the hell out of here."

Someone on the bridge, she wasn't sure who, chuckled, but she was quite confident that it wasn't her Vulcan security officer.

"Tuvok? Send a message to all of the escape craft. Order them into a V-flight formation. I want them out in front of Voyager, leading the way. There's a lone Borg Cube overhead. My suspicion is that the Borg will eventually find a way to crack that Planetary Shield. That vessel will come for Voyager first, so we're all those escape craft have for protection. Likewise, all we have to defend ourselves is a single modified torpedo. After that, we'll be shooting blanks."

"Understood, captain."

Next, she tapped her comm badge. "Janeway to Chakotay."

"I'm here, captain," came the reply.

"Well, you're supposed to be up here," she concluded. "Prepare for transport, commander. We're beaming you out of there. You can control the Planetary Shield from here. We're going to need it lowered in order to make our final escape attempt."

"That's not possible, captain," she heard.

"It isn't a request, Chakotay."

"You can't do it, Kathryn."

"May I ask why not?"

"The Generatrix," he replied. "The only measure of containing the explosion of the Generatrix is a containment field. Unfortunately, all B'Elanna had time to configure was a system requiring manual control. It's triggered to a proximity transmitter on the tricorder in my hand."

Janeway heard her first officer sigh heavily over the comm channel.

"To put it lightly," he concluded, "if I go anywhere, Voyager doesn't."

'Damn,' she thought, lowering her head.

"We're not leaving you, commander," she said, defiant.

"Captain, you have no choice."

"Captain," Tuvok interrupted, "the remaining Borg Cube has somehow engaged a protective energy shield of Twelfth Power magnitude."

"No," she whispered, knowing full well what the consequence meant.

"As their frequencies are compatible, the remaining Cube has just passed through the Planetary Shield unharmed," the Vulcan continued. "It is on a direct intercept course with Voyager."

"Tom, evasive maneuvers! Now!"

"Aye, aye!"

The ground tremors suddenly intensified ten-fold. Neelix2 reached over and took hold of the commander's shoulder, doing his part to steady the two of them against the seismic onslaught. Together, they turned around to find that the metallic surface that was the Generatrix was now almost entirely consumed in deadly crimson flame.

"There's my cue," Chakotay said.

Glancing down at the tricorder, he engaged the containment field, pressing and holding the toggle.

Immediately, before their eyes, a blue haze not unlike the Planetary Shield ignited. From the ground, the wall of blue shot skyward, high into the air, curling and meeting at the building's topmost floor. The shield sealed close, creating a protective bubble around the superstructure. As the flames from the building erupted, they now crackled and hissed safely behind the last defense mechanism.

"Commander?" Neelix2 asked.

"It won't be long, Neelix," the commander explained.

Somberly, the identical nodded.

"If you have any Tallaxian prayers," Chakotay added, "you'd better say them now."

Struck by an energy bolt lashed out from the remaining Borg Cube, Voyager pitched and rolled angrily until Tom stabilized their flight path.

A secondary, unoccupied console exploded, causing Janeway to raise a hand to protect herself from the flying debris.

"Tuvok!" she shouted. "Are the escape ships in the proper position?"

The Vulcan checked his monitors once more before reporting. "The Besarian craft have assumed a tight V-formation directly in front of Voyager."

She nodded. "Keep us between them and the Borg for as long as you can!"

Another beam struck, colliding with Voyager's primary hull. Responding, the ship trembled violently. Her reflexes taut, ignoring her fatigue, Janeway latched onto the arms of her chair to keep from spilling down onto the floor.

"Target the center of the enemy craft and fire that last torpedo!" she ordered, yelling to ensure that she would be heard.

"Captain," Tuvok warned, "that torpedo is our final defense -"

"And if we don't use it now, it won't do us one damn bit of good! Fire, Tuvok! Fire now!"

Instantly, from her chair, she heard the familiar 'whoosh' of a photon torpedo launch.

"On screen!"

The main viewer blanked and then showed the Borg Cube. At the screen's bottom, the torpedo appeared, glimmering, whisking on course, honing in for the center of the Borg Cube.

Suddenly, a blue lightning bolt lanced out from the top corner of the enemy vessel. It crackled and danced in the open atmosphere until it dropped as if caught by gravity and found the fast approaching torpedo. When they touched, the torpedo stopped, dead in the air, and its glow expanded, seemingly growing in size as the brilliance grew, until the weapon ...

... vanished.

Silence filled the bridge.

"What happened?" Janeway demanded.

"Unknown," Tuvok explained from his Tactical Station. He initiated a quick scan before reporting, "Captain, the effect the Borg Cube produced was not unlike those on record from the V'Ger archives we reviewed with the Trakill Assembly."

"Explain," she said.

"During encounters with the Starfleet in the Alpha Quadrant," the Vulcan began, "V'Ger displayed the tactical ability to reduce matter to what it termed 'data patterns.' The archives from that time period detail that V'Ger possessed the technologically superior ability to reduce entire planets to what appeared to be molecular-electronic storage for purposes unknown. The theory was that Voyager Six was cataloguing the universe for transmission to its creator." He pointed at the main viewer. "Based on these facts, I can only assume that the Borg Cube, now fully equipped with Twelfth Power Energy and its various applications, has exercised a tactic similar to that of V'Ger. I believe that our last torpedo to has been committed to electronic storage."

"Damn!" she shouted. "We have to get out of here!"

With Vulcan calm, Tuvok agreed, saying, "It would be prudent."

She tapped her comm badge. "Chakotay, drop the Planetary Shield!"

"Captain!" Chakotay's voice rang over the comm channel. "I'll lower the shield, as ordered, but alter your course! Plot your escape vector for one final pass over Besaria City!"

"Captain," Tom interrupted from his post, "when the Cube dropped under the Planetary Shield, I had to do an about face in order to elude capture. We're actually coming up on Besaria City now."

"Chakotay," Janeway said, "report!"

"I think ... it's time for you to go, commander," Neelix2 stated, calmly. Reaching out, he closed his hand over the open edge of the tricorder.

Chakotay glanced at him. "What are you doing?"

The identical smiled back. "Commander, you know as well as I do that you don't belong here."

"Neelix," he warned, "I have to stay here to -"

"No," Neelix2 interrupted. "No, you don't have to stay. If you'll allow me to do my duty, I'd like to take care of this ... sir."

Grinding his teeth, Chakotay wanted to lash out in anger at the futility of the situation, but he realized that the cloned Tallaxian wasn't at fault.

"Commander, your home is aboard that ship," Neelix2 encouraged the man. "You know that, and I know that. Unfortunately, much like the Trakill, this is the only home I'll ever know."

Glancing up at the angry sky, Chakotay warned, "Neelix, I can't ask you to do this."

"I wouldn't expect you to," the identical replied. "I'm volunteering. I think I know what you have in mind. All I'm asking for is this one chance to prove myself ... worthy." He smiled at Voyager's first officer. "Commander, I know that I'm not real ... well, at least not real in the sense that you, Captain Janeway, or the rest of the crew are, but that doesn't change the fact that I have all of these memories, copied as they were from the original Neelix. I know how deeply that Tallaxian cares for your ship, its mission, and its crew. Those memories are speaking to me. They're telling me that this ... this sacrifice is something I should do in your stead. If it meant saving the ship, your Neelix would sacrifice himself without question. As he and I are eternally linked in ways you can't possibly imagine, I can do no less." He paused, taking a moment to study the commander's blank expression. "I'm certain that you can understand."

In silence, the two men locked eyes for a moment.

"Commander, you gave the Trakill back their planet," Neelix2 reasoned. "All I'm asking for is a chance to fulfill my own destiny. And, in the process, the least I can do is give you back your journey."

Slowly, Chakotay released his grip on the tricorder.

"For someone who isn't real," he said, "I was just beginning to like you."

Reaching up, smiling, the identical tapped the commander's comm badge.

"Hurry," Neelix2 said. "You don't have much time."

"Voyager!" Chakotay shouted. "One to beam up!"

"Do it!" Janeway ordered. "Beam him directly to the Bridge!"

Voyager rocked as another energy beam struck the port nacelle. At that moment, Commander Chakotay slowly materialized next to the pilot's console.

"What made you change your mind?" the captain asked as the first officer took his seat beside her.

"The decision wasn't mine," he admitted. "Tom, stay on course for Besaria City! Take this craft directly over the Generatrix!"

Besaria's eternal rainfall dotting his eyes, Neelix2 glanced up at the sky. With his free hand, he wiped the water away. The reflection of the city's countless fires glistened like angry searchlights against the low-level cloud cover. Then, suddenly, several small, unfamiliar spacecraft whisked by far overhead, and Neelix2 waited. He wanted to see it ... one last time ...

... and there she was.

The USS Voyager.

It soared gracefully, a powerful light blue bird on an errand of mercy to save its young. The colors of the city's flames reflected off the ship's majestic underside, and Neelix2 couldn't help but feel the sensation of burning tears welling up in his Tallaxian eyes.

"Home," he said.

He had finally seen the only place he understood to be his 'home.'

After the Voyager cleared, he saw the Cube.

Sniffling briefly, he spat, "I believe the old Earth expression is ... see you in Hell!"

With that, he released the containment toggle.

The main viewer was flooded with brilliant white light.

The Generatrix finally exploded in one fateful blast. The wall of flame and energy caused Voyager to buckle. Quickly, Tom stabilized the flight path. From the safety of the Bridge, Captain Janeway watched as the remaining Borg Cube emerged from the wall of fire, the enemy ship now itself in flames.

"He did it," Chakotay whispered.

The Borg Cube teetered, tiny explosions ripping through the immense vessel. Slowly, it careened out of control and began spilling its debris toward the planet's surface.

"Tuvok," she said, "tell those ships that it's time to leave! Break formation, and let's get as far away from here now!"

"Aye, captain."

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