FEDERATION'S END
by E. L. Zimmerman

Chapter 03

Aboard the leading Bezza Clawship, the Borg named Cole stood patiently waiting for his pilot’s exploratory report. Large for the Command Deck – even the tallest Bezzans were barely over one meter high – Cole dipped his head to avoid cracking skull plating against the low bulkhead. As only a drone could, he understood, appreciated, and admired the craft’s trim efficiency. Clawships were designed for one purpose: interplanetary combat. Consequently, the Bezzans had stripped their ships to the bare bones, ignoring all amenities save for the occasional medical scanner or med-supply cabinet scattered throughout their vessels. Instead, they focused their attention on maximizing warp and impulse power, perfecting the rotating umbilical couplers, and enhancing the reliability of phase-firing weapons.

The Grembionic Cloak Generator had been installed by decree of his Highness, the One, after the Bezzan Fleet was captured on Besaria. The Bezzans had suffered a massive drought on their homeworld after a red giant star had, unpredictably, rained three months of grueling solar storms down upon Bezza Prime. In only a matter of weeks, the planet was transformed from a lush tropical paradise into a desert. Once all indigenous plant life had been destroyed, Bezza’s atmosphere began its inevitable decay, so the survivors stowed their belongings aboard an armada of Clawships and ventured into deep space in search of trade. On Besaria, they knew, food was always in great supply, but they found that commerce required the greatest sacrifice … uncompromising allegiance to the Besarian Foundation, forever subservient to the needs of the One.

With little choice, the Bezzans quickly surrendered.

In return, the One absorbed the race into his worker class, Lemm Society. As well, he commandeered their Clawships for his own growing fleet, ordering the vessels refitted to service his particular …

… desire for expansion.

Chiming, a display terminal rang.

Adjusting his flight path to compensate for the detection, Mandakorr exclaimed, "Commander, I’ve established sensor contact with the approaching ship!"

Unimpressed, Cole required all pilots to follow the protocols preceding intersection of an alien craft.

"Pilot, have you assigned the appropriate catalog number?"

"The next in sequence is 8213847."

Ambivalent, Cole gestured his mechanical limb at the main viewer. "Display Sensor Contact 8213847 on your screen."

"At your service, commander!" Mandakorr announced with ample enthusiasm.

Instantly, the slouched, red-skinned Gallenian pilot sat bolt upright behind the drive module. He went to work, flipping switches, toggling buttons, trying to capture the best view of the unidentified spacecraft that he could. However, to Mandakorr’s chagrin, the charcoal viewscreen came to life with little more than a splash of brilliant white.

His Borg eyepiece humming electronically as it rotated, Cole studied the resolution for several seconds. "Your intensification setting on your sensor resolution buffer is out of alignment," he concluded. "De-magnify contact by eight hundred percent."

"Apologies!" the Gallenian offered, his voice trembling with fear. "My deepest apologies, commander!"

The screen blanked, the white spiraling like water down an open drain. When the recalibrated image winked onto the viewer, Cole lowered his gaze to study the sleek metal spaceship. At warp seven, the smooth craft sliced unencumbered through open space. Sensor Contact 8213847 split the darkness with a massive, oval fore section, a ship reaching fearlessly toward the oncoming vacuum as if welcoming parts unknown. Covered with visible cabin ports, the vessel bore its own stars, twinkling vibrant shades of red, yellow, and blue onto the black canvass of outer space. Despite his Borg programming, Cole couldn’t help but marvel at the craft’s overall shape. The ship was fluid, almost graceful and elegant.

Trailing Sensor Contact 8213847 ominously close was a Borg Sphere, Scout Class. His eyepiece adjusting, he ignored the threat.

"The twin-nacelle configuration matches the design preference of Species 5618," he remarked.

"Commander?"

"Species 5618," he repeated, his eyes glued to the screen. "Human."

Clearly unaware of what race his superior was referencing, Mandakorr weakly replied, "Ah, yes, yes, yes!" It wasn’t the first time he found himself confounded by what these Borg said, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. As far as he was concerned, they were fountains of seemingly useless knowledge. Whether anything they said was right or wrong, the Gallenian wisely chose to ignore. He had learned long ago that, if he wanted to maintain flight privileges, it was far better for him to concede the obvious when lacking evidence to support the contrary.

"Yes, I see, commander. The people! Aboard that ship! They must be human!"

"Perform a visual scan of Sensor Contact 8213847," Cole ordered.

Raising a thin finger to the screen, Mandakorr pointed at the Borg vessel. "But what of the Sphere, commander?"

"The Sphere will disengage shortly."

"But how can you –?"

Glaring down at the Gallenian tucked uncomfortably into the pilot’s chair, Cole edged forward, and Mandakorr silently wished he had kept his mouth shut. Emphatically, the drone, "Pilot, the Sphere will disengage shortly, or we will destroy it." Again, his eyepiece circled as he fixed his gaze upon the shrinking Gallenian. "Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir! Yes, sir!"

"Now," Cole stated, "perform the visual scan of Sensor Contact 8213847."

"Scanning," Mandakorr complied, his slender fingers nervously punching the commands directly into the Clawship’s computer core. Was it suddenly warmer than usual in the cockpit? Thankful for the speed of the efficient system, he watched as a smaller personal display to his left surged to life, information trickling across the dark plate.

"I have it coming in now, sir!" Reading aloud, he explained, "The hull markings confirm what appears to be a visible registry number."

"What is it?"

"It is N-C-C-7-4-6-5-6."

Nodding slowly, Cole glanced at nothing in particular.

"Pilot, is the ship’s name printed across the saucer?"

Surprised, Mandakorr exclaimed, "Why, yes, commander! There it is!" Again, he was curious where these omniscient Borg came up with their information. "The scan confirms it! It reads, U-S-S-Voyager!"

The Gallenian wasn’t certain, but did Cole just …

… gasp?

"The United Federation of Planets?"

Unfortunately, Mandakorr had never heard the phrase before … just as he had never heard the words ‘human,’ ‘Species 5618,’ and ‘U-S-S-Voyager.’ Slowly, frightened, he turned his head to glance up at his superior. Swallowing, he replied, "I … don’t know … about any federation, commander."

Tilting his head, the Borg studied the viewscreen for several long moments. He was obviously disinterested with Mandakorr’s remark. All that mattered, at present, was his prey.

"Unlikely," he finally concluded.

Glancing back to the cockpit, he ordered, "Signal the other Clawships to prepare for assault on my mark."

When the turbolift doors whisked open, Harry found himself bathed in the crimson wash of red alert lighting. Stepping slowly onto the Bridge, he assumed that the combat simulation had begun without him …

… until he saw the crisp, glistening image of a trailing Borg Sphere on the Bridge’s main viewer!

Gasping, his mouth dropped open. Struggling for something to say, all he could come up with was, "That’s never been part of the drill."

"Mr. Kim!" Chakotay acknowledged him curtly, not rising from his seat at the conn to face the ensign. With tremendous concentration, the first officer ordered several command queries for display on his chair-side tactical screen. "So glad you could join us. Take your post at Ops, if you please."

Harry’s heart raced. Quickly, he tore his eyes off the Borg ship and rushed toward the Ops Station. Surveying the Bridge as he ran, trying to absorb as much as he could of the situation, he noticed that everyone – Lieutenant Tuvok, Captain Janeway, Commander Chakotay, Lieutenant Paris, and Ensign Arelldo – was all busily attending the respective duties.

"I’m sorry, commander!" Harry blurted. "I was detained in the galley!"

"Let me guess," Captain Janeway spat, not turning away from the viewscreen. "Rawwen Oil again?"

"Yes, ma’am," he answered. "The way Neelix carried on, you’d think the stuff powered the warp core!"

Arriving at his post, the ensign input his personal access code. Before him, the LCARS system came to life, activating with a soft recognition twitter and hum. The colorful displays visually shifted, reconfiguring the layout to his custom settings. The screens were active, each one streaming list after list of Voyager’s current statistics. Immediately, he tapped a sensor plate, recalling the duty reports flooding in from all decks and stations throughout the ship. At a glance, Harry was relieved to find that all of Voyager’s primary systems were functioning at peak efficiency.

Pleased, he announced, "Captain, it looks like three weeks of combat exercises have paid off."

"Look again," Chakotay warned.

Then, Harry saw it.

Engineering.

Specifically, warp power.

Clearing his throat, he said, "Except Engineering, ma’am. Maximum speed available at present is warp seven."

"Thank you, Mr. Kim," Janeway said flatly. "However, we’re all painfully aware of that fact."

Grimacing, he added, "Ma’am, I’m sure that I don’t need to point out, at warp seven, we won’t outrun the Borg for long."

"That we’re aware of, as well," the captain replied.

Harry glanced up at the main viewer again, watching the Sphere grow slightly larger.

"If no one minds my asking, where did they come from?"

From the helm, Lieutenant Tom Paris inclined his head in the direction of Ops. "That’s what you get for missing the start of your shift, Harry. Believe it or not, the Sphere dropped out of hiding from within a Class Two nebula."

Sounding defensive, the ensign tried, "Isn’t that our trick?"

"I guess they learn from only the best," Ensign Arelldo muttered.

Realizing she had been gripping the arms of her command chair, Janeway relaxed and placed her hands in her lap. "Mr. Tuvok, what’s our present distance from that ship?"

Seated at the Tactical Station, Lieutenant Tuvok studied the data stream from his sensors. "One hundred thousand kilometers," he reported, not a hint of emotion in his measured Vulcan tone. "The Borg, however, are currently maintaining warp seven-point-one-five. They are closing on us at ten thousand kilometers per minute."

Visibly confused, Chakotay turned to his captain.

"Warp seven-point – ?" his voice trailed off. Curious, he retrieved and examined Tuvok’s report on his own screen. "They can easily overtake us, but all they’re doing is maintaining warp seven-point-one-five?"

"Aye, commander," the Vulcan answered.

"That doesn’t make any sense."

Ignoring his puzzlement, Chakotay instead went to work on finding alternatives. "Perhaps that M Class planet ahead of us might offer some assistance." He faced the Sciences Station. "Ensign Arelldo, can you scan the planet for signs of any civilization?"

Ishanti’s console chirped angrily at her when she tried to comply with the commander’s request. "Negative, sir," she said. "Unfortunately, a concentrated surface scan must still be out of range of the ship’s sensors. All I’m receiving is an electronic gibberish mixed with our sensor echo."

"Contact Seven of Nine in Astrometrics," he ordered. "Perhaps she can enhance the clarity of a long range scan."

"Aye, sir."

Determined, Janeway tapped her comm badge. "Bridge to Engineering."

"Engineering here, captain," Lieutenant B’Elanna Torres’s voice broke clearly through the comm channel.

"How soon can you get us to warp eight?"

Sighing heavily enough for it to register on the comm’s filters, B’Elanna tried, "I’m sorry, captain, but the Borg came out of nowhere. They caught us in the middle of a level one diagnostic. We’re putting things back together down here as it is. For now, warp seven is the best we can manage."

Janeway stared at the viewscreen.

At the rate of gain, the Sphere would be upon Voyager in less than ten minutes, and no good captain in Starfleet would ever be caught with his pants down smack in the middle of a crisis of this magnitude. Emergency drills were a necessary evil, but next time Engineering was off limits.

‘Next time,’ she mused, ‘and there will be a next time.’

Choosing her words carefully, the captain said, "B’Elanna, you have five minutes to take us to warp eight."

"Captain, I –?"

"Lieutenant, if we don’t, the consequence may well be assimilation."

The half-Klingon, half-human female made a sound that Janeway didn’t want repeated over an open comm line. "Understood," she finally agreed. "Engineering out."

Abruptly, the line went dead.

Slowly, Janeway stood, captivated by the image before her. The dark Borg aggressor now occupied almost the entire width of the main viewer, and it was still growing.

‘Is this it?’ she wondered. ‘Have our skills, our cleverness, our technology deserted us, or have we run out of luck?’

She always feared this day would come.

To her dismay, this sector of space had turned out to be ripe with Borg activity. Cubes and Spheres were, literally, crossing Voyager’s path everywhere they traveled. The drones had become an increasingly routine adversary in all of her journeys, her encounters, her adventures … an ever-present harbinger beckoning the captain to once and for all surrender her ship, herself, her crew, and all that she held dear for assimilation to the Borg Collective … but she couldn’t. With solemn resolve and fast thinking, she and her crew had managed to elude capture at every turn, at every impasse. True to their Starfleet heritage, the family of the Voyager had triumphed over the Borg time and time again, even when all hope appeared lost …

‘But has our luck run out?’

Despite their repeated success, Janeway feared that the Borg might one day be her personal undoing. Somehow, they’d call her bluff. Even her sleep was plagued with dreams of the Borg one day capturing the ship, cornering it in some remote star system. In those furtive nightmares, she watched as her crew was assimilated, turned into mindless drones, deprived of their individuality, denied the inalienable rights to pursue happiness … or, as was the case with this ship, to simply keep heading for home.

Earth.

So far away.

So very far away …

Angrily, succumbing to sheer, irrepressible frustration, she brushed a hand hard across her face, wiping away several fine beads of sweat that formed on her brow.

She couldn’t let the crew see her sweating.

She wouldn’t let them.

Barking, she spat, "Suggestions?"

Except for the barely perceptible thrum of the warp engines, the Bridge remained eerily silent for a very long time.

"Captain," Tuvok began, his fingers dancing across the defense panels before him, "might I offer an observation?"

Surprised, Janeway turned to him. As a Vulcan, Tuvok had never been one to debate alternatives. Rather, he spelled out the obvious, allowing his captain to make whatever decision was needed.

"An observation?"

Pausing, he stared at her for several seconds. "While it may conflict with your better judgment, I strongly suggest that we maintain our current heading."

Reaching an arm behind her, she pointed at the screen. "What of the Borg?"

Succinctly, he nodded. "At present, ignore them."

Incredulous, all eyes on the Bridge turned to face the Vulcan seated at the Tactical Station.

Swallowing hard, Paris whirled on his shipmate, asking the question that had undoubtedly gone through the mind of each member of the Bridge crew. "Tuvok, have you lost your mind?!"

"If I may," he began, "I would like to take a moment to clarify several inconsistencies our present situation bares to previous encounters with the Borg. Based on our past engagements, we know with absolute certainty that Voyager is at present well within the range of the Sphere’s weapons."

"But they haven’t fired?" Janeway pried.

Chakotay rose from his seat at the conn, turning to face the lieutenant. Before he could speak, Ishanti asked, "Mr. Tuvok, could the Borg be experiencing a weapons malfunction of some sort?"

The Vulcan cocked an eyebrow. "A reasonable theory, ensign," he conceded, "but unlikely." Curtly, he queued several keys on his console, attempting another scan of the Borg ship. As usual, it was reflected back completely void of any relevant data. "It is logical to assume that, were the Sphere damaged in any way, it would have remained in hiding and declined pursuit."

"Hiding?" Janeway repeated, taking a single step in the direction of Tactical. Despite their years of friendship, Tuvok still managed to faithfully deduce conclusions that surprised if not delighted the scientist in her. "Did you say that the Borg were hiding?"

The Vulcan nodded. "Indeed."

"From what would they be hiding?" Chakotay asked.

"Species 8472?" Ishanti tried. "Aren’t they the only race that the Borg fear?"

"That’s not possible," Harry answered for his shipmate. "I’ve been tracking any warp traffic we’ve detected since these simulations began three weeks ago. At the captain’s request, I’ve also been monitoring space for any form of transit we’ve encountered during our time in the Delta Quadrant." He shook his head. "I’ve only identified Borg activity."

"Captain,"Tom interrupted, "Tuvok might be on to something. That’s a Borg Sphere out there. It may only be one of their Scout Class, but if they wanted us they could’ve had us easily by now."

"Indeed, Mr. Paris," Tuvok said. "However, what I find a curiosity is the fact that, despite maintaining pursuit, the Borg appear to display no interest whatsoever in capturing us or our ship."

Nodding slowly, Janeway had finally reached the same conclusion as her ship’s Chief of Security.

"And," she said, "that isn’t the Borg we’ve come to know so well." For a brief moment, she faced the approaching Sphere, studied it, hoping that a single glance would reveal its secret. The fear for the safety of her ship and crew she had once felt creeping up inside her was subsiding. The scientist’s instinct had now fully taken over, and she easily pushed the trepidation aside.

"Any theories, Tuvok?" Chakotay pried.

Glancing back to his console, the Vulcan touched three keys, trying once more to establish a sensor lock on the enemy.

As usual, it failed.

Considering the alternatives he had been expanding upon, he replied, "There are two obvious alternatives. Perhaps the Sphere is damaged in some fashion that the Borg are incapable of resolving … or perhaps the repairs are beyond the Borg’s regenerative capabilities."

Incredulous, Chakotay asked, "Weapons, tractor beam, and propulsion?" He grimaced. "Forgive me if I sound Vulcan, but that’s statistically improbable."

Ignoring the conversation around her, Janeway kept her eyes locked on the Sphere.

‘What aren’t you telling us?’ she wondered.

"As I said," Tuvok suddenly interrupted, looking up from his station, "I said that there were two obvious theories. There is, however, another possibility we might consider."

"Let’s hear it," the first officer ordered, planting his hands firmly on his waist.

With odd-sounding Vulcan certainty, the Tactical Officer stated, "Perhaps the Borg are no longer in control of the Sphere."

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