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

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

Captain's Log (supplemental) - It's been two days since the planet Besaria consumed itself in a release of Twelfth Power Energy, the likes of which haven't been witnessed since the days of the legendary Captain James T. Kirk and his crew of the Enterprise. Lieutenant Tuvok, with assistance from Seven of Nine, have begun extensive study of the sensor logs' recording of the events in hopes of learning more about the mysterious energy source, its applications, and a possible link to the Borg and an as-yet unseen species known as the Dia'Soto.

I am making a formal request for all Starfleet records to reflect that the Trakill, primarily farmers and nutrition technicians, were a peaceful society whose untimely end is an example of the gravest of all tragedies. In my mind, I have no doubt that their extinction is an event that will impact this region of the Delta Quadrant for many years to come.

For their service in this crisis, I am drafting commendations for the personnel files of Ensign Kim, Ensign Davis, Lieutenant Torres, and Commander Chakotay. At Chakotay's request, I am committing a personal note of distinction to the ship's records of Mr. Neelix, our morale officer.

On a personal note, I would confess that I find this entire affair one of the saddest in my tenure as Captain of the USS Voyager. I consider it a scar. Its memory will go with me throughout my life. The lessons it taught me are timeless ... namely, life is the most precious gift in all the universe, and those we share it with deserve to witness the very best in our hearts, the finest our minds have to offer, and the deepest demonstration of true compassion ... for these companions we meet along life's pursuits may be ripped away from us at any time, with or without cause.

Thankfully, all of the evacuation ships survived the blast. Of the thirteen, seven ships have already departed with our blessing, settling down on habitable worlds we've found upon resuming our course for Earth. I expect the remaining six ships will do likewise in the days ahead.

Unfortunately, the Doctor has been unable to decipher the encrypted Borg files within Seven's nanocortex. He has, however, isolated the files and uploaded copies into the computer core we will be sending via probe through Channelspace. Our hope is that this probe will arrive safely in the Alpha Quadrant, where Starfleet's best minds can be put to work on cracking open whatever secrets the files may contain. Certainly with their vast resources and countless great minds from the races of the Federation, Starfleet Sciences may bear fruit on this endeavor many, many years before we do.

His door chimed.

Fumbling with his rank insignia, Commander Chakotay turned and yelped, "Come!"

The doors hissed, parting, revealing an expressionless Captain Kathryn Janeway, dressed in Starfleet formal attire. She stepped through the archway. Glancing across the room, she found her first officer and managed a weak smile. "As you're always arriving while I'm in the process of primping for ceremonies, I thought I'd return the favor and pick you up for a change. It's a pleasant surprise to see that turnabout is fair play."

Warmly, he returned the smile. He abandoned the mirror and approached the woman. His palm extended, Chakotay showed her his Maquis-designed command insignia. "Captain, can I ask you to keep a secret?"

Considering him, she arched an eyebrow. "You're finally going to tell me where you hide that cider we've been sharing?"

"No, no," he admitted, "but, in over five years, I don't think I've ever been able to pin this on straight." Extending his arm to her, he held out the PIP. "Would you mind?"

She stared at the PIP. "It'll cost you."

"Name your price."

Leveling her eyes on him, she demanded, "Two glasses of cider."

He shrugged, grinning. "Well, you're a cheap date. You should have asked for three. I do have plenty to spare, you know."

"That means you're storing it somewhere with lots of space but relatively limited access, otherwise it would have been discovered years ago." For a moment, she indulged herself in other thoughts, stroking her cheek as she thought aloud. "Astrometrics? No. Seven wouldn't tolerate that. Engineering? Could be. B'Elanna and you do have a personal history." Suddenly, she gripped her chin and stared at him intently. "A cargo bay, perhaps?"

Smirking, he concluded, "With all due respect, ma'am ... keep guessing."

As she stepped forward, the doors closed behind her. She took the insignia from his hand and reached up to his collar. Squinting, she placed the PIP where she thought it looked best and pressed it firmly to his dress uniform.

"Task complete," Janeway admitted.

"Thank you."

"I'll expect two glasses of cider in my ready room by the day's end," she concluded. "You can join me, if you like."

Noticing her expression had gone unchanged throughout their playful banter, he tried, "Permission to speak freely?"

Shrugging, she replied, "Your quarters. Your rules."

"Kathryn," he said, clasping her gently by the shoulders, "we're not attending anyone's funeral today."

Nodding, she turned, forcing Chakotay to drop his arms. Slowly heading to the chair and tables inside the entrance, she dropped into a seat and gestured for him to do likewise. Quietly, he walked over and followed suit.

"The Trakill," she explained.

"What about them?"

"I can't stop thinking about them." Leaning forward slightly, she clapped her hands together, gripping. "They didn't deserve this, Chakotay. They were nothing but a society of harmless farmers! They lived with an existence of simple nobility. All they wanted to provide food for any species that came calling on their doorstep." She sighed, the memories swimming inside her head. "But, as this ship's crew can certainly profess, Fate throws a mean curveball. We were there to cry foul, and we couldn't stop it."

"You weren't there," Chakotay corrected.

Again, she raised an eyebrow at him. "What do you mean?"

"You weren't there," he repeated. "On the planet. In the end. Kathryn, I was there." He sat back, prepared to take the news. "You're upset with the choice I made as commander?"

Defensive, she immediately held up a single hand. "Chakotay, please. This isn't about you. Granted, we've had our intellectual sparing, as any good captain and first officer should, but you know how deeply I trust your judgment. In case you can't find it, the word is 'implicitly.' I have faith in your judgment as much as I do my own."

"Then," he pressed, leaning forward, "what's the problem?"

Quietly, she studied his expression. "You're ... okay with this? All of what happened? A world died back there, and we couldn't stop it."

Shaking his head, he answered, "Not exactly." He drew his lips tight, searching for the words to say. "Captain ... Packell, Aulea, all of the Trakill ... they were, and will always remain, a spiritual people. They committed their lives to very basic principles, ones that had been provided to them by their own spirit guide. You said so yourself by mentioning that they aimed to do little more than grant food to whomever was hungry in this little corner of the universe." He closed his eyes, steadying himself with the words he trusted he had to say. "Granted, I don't think that the Trakill expected the One, the Borg, or even Voyager, for that matter, to play as significant a role in their world's end as history played out ... but those last few Trakill in the Grand Hall believed that they had reached the end of a cultural journey. Simply, they had arrived at precisely the point where they were destined to be. It was their deliverance. It was their rest. It was their ... Amuhlachi, I believe they called it."

Sighing, he stared at an indistinct spot on the floor before peering deep into her wanting eyes, and he melted. "What kind of officer would I have been if I had deprived them of the chance to, finally, be at peace?" Shaking his head, he added, "Even if you had ordered me otherwise, captain, I couldn't have done that. If the roles were reversed, there isn't a soul in the galaxy who could talk me out of the decision to step into my own spiritual afterlife."

"Chakotay, I'm not blaming you," she offered, placing her hand on his nearest forearm. "I'm ... upset."

"Understood."

"Thank you."

"Can you keep another secret?" he asked, the corner of his mouth slowly turning up into one of his now-famous wry smiles.

"Two secrets?" she asked incredulously. "In one day? You're feeling generous."

"I've never ... I've never fully believed in the Prime Directive," he admitted.

"I beg your pardon?"

"As a matter of fact," he continued, "it was, ultimately, one of the reasons that helped influence my decision to leave Starfleet."

Curious, she tilted her head. "How so?"

"I've always thought of the Prime Directive as the impossible dream," he explained, again relaxing in his chair. "How can we, as Starfleet officers, be expected to fulfill our role as explorers in a galaxy that's proving ... every day ... every mission ... to be fuller of life than our ancestors could ever have imagined when they drafted that guiding principle?

"By virtue of erecting duck blinds to witness cultures as they evolve, haven't we - in some small way - actually taken a role in their development ... only without their knowledge? Let's say something went awry. Let's say that the planet was facing a catastrophe only we could avert. Let's say that, with Starfleet's blessing, we agreed to avert an asteroid on a collision course with that world. I, for one, couldn't stand by and watch them die, knowing that I had access to the technology that could save their planet. Under that set of circumstances, I'd be forced to violate the Prime Directive, and, the moment that duck blind came down, I'd be viewed as gods to an inferior culture that never knew we existed."

"Say you could avert the catastrophe," Janeway challenged, "without sacrificing the duck blind?"

"Then the events I influenced could still be written into that culture's history as the results of a benevolent god," he answered. "In either case, I've still affected the evolution of that culture." Shrugging, he glanced nonchalantly around his quarters at nothing in particular. "Of course, I could follow one of the several emergency protocols. If I were discovered, I could try to convince those who discovered me that I wasn't a god. But, who's to say that their reaction wouldn't one day compose the myth of the day when the god's folly was to be mortal?"

He shook his head. "I remember debating the Prime Directive with instructors back at the academy. I used the same example with them that I used with you today." Finally, he turned back to his captain. "I believe, much like you do, that there are times when the Prime Directive is nothing more than a fool's pursuit. Like I said, it's the impossible dream."

"Isn't that why we're all here, Chakotay?"

Rising, Janeway never took her eyes of her first officer.

"Isn't that our natural tendency," she continued, "to dream the impossible dream? It drives us. It fuels our imagination. It pushes us to achieve heights that we previously thought were unattainable." Shrugging, she added, "Prime Directive or not, Voyager's circumstances aren't exactly textbook. We've been thrown on the other side of life as we know it. Granted, the first rule - survival - has forced us to bend the rules every now and then, but that doesn't mean the rules are bad, does it?"

He rose. "As usual, it looks like we've reached a stalemate."

"Yes," she agreed, smiling, "and the fact that we can reach a stalemate only underscores the level of debate our ancestors must have endured when deciding to enforce the Prime Directive." Turning to leave, she tried, "So, let's you and I agree to stick to arguments where I come out the winner."

Following her, he chuckled. "Are those your orders, captain?"

"Call it captain's prerogative."

They entered the Mess Hall, and the room was bustling with activity.

Through the wall of Starfleet dress attire, Janeway noticed the Doctor seated at a table with Seven of Nine. Politely, she excused herself from Commander Chakotay and shuffled politely through the crew to where the two of them sat. Legs crossed tightly, the Doctor rest his face heavily in the hand of the arm braced on the tabletop. To her surprise, Janeway actually believed he was ...

... pouting?

"Doctor?" she asked.

He glanced up. "Captain," he replied flatly. "Welcome to the party."

"That doesn't sound very jovial."

"You'll have to forgive me, captain," he answered. "I'm not feeling very jovial at the moment."

Controlling her emotions, Janeway placed her hands on her hips. "Would you mind explaining your attitude, doctor?"

"Captain," Seven interrupted from her side of the table, "I believe that the Doctor is exhibiting behaviors synonymous with the human tendency to pout."

"I am not!" he bellowed at her.

"That, Doctor, is the first sentence you've said to me since we arrived," she challenged, flashing the hologram her icy stare. "Apparently, captain, we are not speaking to one another."

"What's the problem?" Janeway asked.

"What?" the Doctor tried. "Am I not imitating human behavior strongly enough to indicate my disappointment? I'm being antisocial. I'm displaying smug indifference. I'm exhibiting slouching posture. Am I getting it wrong?"

"Why are you so upset?"

Rising, he stood before his captain. "I apologize for my behavior, captain."

"I believe I am owed an apology as well," Seven interrupted.

Sarcastically, he turned and added, "And I apologize to you, Miss Seven of Nine!"

"Doctor!" Janeway chastised him. "That's enough!"

Sighing, he faced his commanding officer. "I am disappointed, captain, in my inability to decrypt those Borg files."

"I believe the Doctor is holding me responsible, captain," Seven spoke up without invitation.

"I am not!"

"His performance aboard this vessel has been exemplary," she continued. "His medical solutions have repeatedly been visionary, often times without scientific precedence. However, what the Doctor fails to understand is that, in this present dilemma, he was faced with a technology vastly superior to any reference in, perhaps, galactic history. The coding is exponentially more complex than his holomatrix. Thus, he is emotionally compensating for what he perceives as his failure. What he truly fails to see is that he is projecting his guilt by ignoring me."

"Thank you, Sigmund Freud," the Doctor chirped.

Calmly placing a hand on his shoulder, Janeway asked, "Doctor, is this troubling you?"

He studied her expression and succumbed. "I feel as if I've let you down, captain." Quietly, he glanced around the room. "We've all been through so much. The One. The destruction of Besaria. The loss of Channelspace. And here ... I couldn't solve a simple mathematical puzzle!"

"Doctor," she began, now gripping his shoulder for emphasis, "that mathematical puzzle may very well have been drawn up at the beginning of the universe. We know nothing about what it contains. There isn't a single person aboard this ship that expects perfection. As a captain, I only expect the pursuit of it by any person under my charge." She smiled at the hologram. "As a matter of fact, Chakotay and I were just debating the merits and failures of the Prime Directive, of all things. We disagreed over the merits of having it as a guiding principle for Starfleet exploration." Releasing his shoulder, she dropped her hand to her side. "There is no perfection, Doctor. It is ... an impossible dream. Like I told Chakotay, the only expectation I have of my crew is that we keep dreaming it."

Slowly, he nodded, his expression brightening. "Understood, captain. And ... thank you."

"Besides, to err is human," she added.

"I'm not human," he replied flatly.

"Like I said," she chided the man with a smile, "keep dreaming."

Gathering across the Mess Hall's windows, the crew of the USS Voyager pressed closer and closer, jockeying for the best position for a view outside.

"Captain," Chakotay whispered, "B'Elanna's signaling that she's ready to release the probe. You might want to say a few words."

Nodding, Janeway turned to face those members of her crew that had gathered. "Commander, if you would," she began, "put this on ship's audio so that those on duty might hear."

"Understood," Chakotay agreed.

She considered the throng before her.

"Over five years ago," she started, "we agreed to a journey. When we did so, little did we anticipate the challenges we would face ... or the enemies that lay in wait ... or the allies that we'd eventually meet. It's often been said that space is cold. Dark. A void. My friends, I would say to you today that our journey has proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that space is everything but empty."

Slowly, she glanced around at the faces staring at her.

She smiled.

"Everywhere we've ventured," Janeway continued, "we've found new life. Everywhere we've looked, we've found new civilizations. Space is far from cold, dark void. Space is, in fact, brimming with new life that, today, thankfully exists in more than just our collective imaginations. I'd like to think that every species we've encountered on this journey, especially the Trakill, has only enriched the value we place on our own existence.

"Besaria was unique. Although a warp-enabled culture, the Trakill long ago made one solitary conscious decision, at the guidance of their spiritual leader. Their decision not only altered the course of their own history but also impacted this entire region of space. Simply, they chose to be farmers, and they believed it was their divine responsibility to provide nourishment to anyone in need. Collectively, the Trakill cast aside the pursuit of worlds unknown in favor of serving a greater, nobler cause."

Nodding, she added, "I'd like to think that, in our own way, we're making that same choice today."

Behind her, through the viewport, the tiny ellipse that was the probe hovered into view, parking about one thousand meters off Voyager's hull.

"We're about the send a message home," she announced, "a message in a bottle. This message contains more substance than proof of our survival. It's our symbol of hope. I've seen to it that a complete record of our encounter with the Trakill has been incorporated into the data logs, alongside your notes and letters to loved ones, so that the honor of their existence will not go unrecognized despite the distance separating us from Earth. The Doctor has uploaded some encryption files that might, once and for all, equip the Federation with the knowledge of how to reason with the Borg, not fight them at every turn.

"In one sense," she concluded, "our journey home ends today, with the launch of that probe through Channelspace."

She nodded at Commander Chakotay.

He tapped his comm badge. "Launch the probe, B'Elanna."

Turning, Janeway stared out the port and watched as the probe's engine ignited.

Immediately, a thunderclap of energy produced a swirling blue fog before the probe. Not unlike the event horizon of a black hole, the fog churned, immense waves of gravity producing a rainbow of colors as spatial particles were sucked into its maw. Eventually, that gravity found the probe, bit down, and tugged at its hull. The tiny craft shook as though a giant hand had gripped it and was attempting to crush it into a million pieces. Against the onslaught, the probe's integrity held, the engines flaring wildly.

Suddenly, surrendering to forces unimagined, the probe shot forward, spinning in a wide arc toward the pinpoint of light at the center of the twirling fog. It rocketed across the short distance, and, in no time, the probe and the light kissed.

Another thunderclap of energy shook Voyager as the probe vanished, along with the tiny opening into Channelspace.

Smiling, her eyes fixed on the spot where the event had finally taken place, Janeway whispered to no one in particular, "God's speed."

END of THE WITCHING HOUR

To be continued in FEDERATION'S END : TWILIGHT

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