FEDERATION'S END
by E. L. Zimmerman

Chapter 13

"Remove your Trakillian filth from this sector of space now," Kathryn Janeway heard an unrecognized guttural voice threatening, "or His Highness will have no recourse but to destroy the remnants of your ilk."

Wrapped in her sheet, she stormed into the Grand Hall, angrily pushing through the wall of Borg guards stationed at the chamber’s entrance. Trying hard to keep up, Cole bounded clumsily into the room closely behind her, following as best as he could down the hall’s center aisle. Although her formal attaché, he had long ago surrendered the idea to convince her against her present course of action as she clearly no longer listened to reason.

Around her, the gathered senators noticed what she was wearing – or rather, what she wasn’t. Bewildered, concerned, or enraged, they all stood, watching her march down the passageway approaching the dais. A collective gasp seethed out. Suddenly, they were muttering protests to one another. Ignoring them, she stomped forward, but then she noticed, to her left, Ambassador Packell quickly elbowing and sidling his way past the inhabitants of his row. He was trying frantically to reach her, to stop her before she reached the royal platform. Fortunately, he found the row’s end, stumbling into the walkway, and, lunging, gripped her human arm.

"Ambassador," he tried, smiling politely, "will you please tell me what you are doing in here … perhaps the most sacred of all places in the city … dressed like … well, dressed like this?"

Whirling on him, she pressed her face near his. "What does it look like I’m doing?"

Slightly panicked, glancing about and flashing a nervous smile at his fellow senators, he crouched a bit and warned through clamped teeth, "Ambassador, you cannot enter the Quorum’s most revered meeting halls looking … well … rather, dressed like this! His Highness would view this as an action punishable by death … for the both of us." He eased his grip on her arm, but he didn’t release her. "If you’re not going to think of yourself, then I ask kindly that you think of me. Think of Cole. Think of your crew. With a doubt, all of us would face the same fate for such blatant defiance."

She glared at the defenseless Trakill. "In case you hadn’t noticed, Packell, I’m already in the Grand Hall. I’m standing in an open aisle. There’s no doubt, in my mind, that His Highness has already seen me."

Around them, the senators were gradually returning to their seats, still mumbling amongst themselves about the inappropriateness of Janeway’s appearance. Packell breathed a warm sigh of relief.

"Yes, yes," he muttered, visibly struggling to find the words to adequately convey his thoughts. "You’re right. I think the Quorum can plainly see you, and I think they’ve taken offense. You’ve made quite an impression with this … dramatic entrance of yours."

Threatening, she warned, "I’m ending this, Packell, here and now."

Trying to decide which course of action might save them all from punishment, he turned on the drone. "Commander Cole! Will you please explain yourself? How could you, of all the Borg, allow the ambassador to show such … such … such obvious blasphemy in open quorum?"

"Packell," Janeway shot with conviction, garnering the senator’s attention once more, "Cole had nothing to do with this."

Realizing that his political maneuvering relied on her assistance, he leaned into her. "But, Ambassador -"

"I demanded that he escort me here once I had found out what this madman had done to me," she explained furtively, slightly lifting her Borg prosthetic for the senator to see. "I won’t stand to have this … thing attached to me, and I want to speak with the One now!"

Gently raising his hands, still trying to calm her, Packell smiled weakly. "Ambassador, I cannot counsel you strong enough against this present course of action. Your present attire is inappropriate."

"Senator," she replied snidely, sizing him up for a fight if that was what it was going to take, "I consider what he’s done to me a violation! It’s entirely inappropriate!"

Stepping close to her, he whispered, "Captain Janeway! Look around you and lower your voice! All of the Quorum are fitted with prosthetics! Do you think you’re the only one to feel violated?"

The use of her Starfleet rank caught her off guard, and, smartly, she guessed that was precisely what her sponsor had intended. If he was going to get his message across, he needed her undivided attention. He finally had it.

"Packell, I won’t be silenced," she argued.

"You will remain silent for the time being," he cautioned firmly, his voice low so that others around them couldn’t hear. "Do it now, Kathryn … or your insubordination will certainly lead to our deaths … and perhaps the torture of far more defenseless beings than you can possibly imagine."

Huffing, she closed her eyes. Once more, she sought a place of inner calm. She felt his arm now comfortingly on hers, and she turned to face the elevated platform.

A massive viewscreen, perhaps ten times the size of Voyager’s primary unit, hung high over the throne. Active, it displayed the obviously angry face of a Trakill, another of Packell’s race. However, the One refused to face the monitor behind him. Instead, he faced the body of people that was his ruling Quorum.

Now, he studied the Voyager captain.

Slowly, he smiled.

'Kate, you’re wearing only a sheet, after all,' she reminded herself.

Standing behind an ornate wooden podium adjacent to His Highness was another being wrapped in course, amber, ceremonial robes. His skin was a deep and healthy purple, the lines of his cheek punctuate by raised reptilian scales that stretched down his face and disappeared under the neckline of his garb. His wide-set eyes were open under a high forehead, and his bare skull stretched back to where a single lock of braided, black hair wound tight as a rope wrapped loosely about his neck. His mouth, an elegant ellipse with only the hint of lips, was open slightly. Even at this distance, she discerned his thin, yellowed fangs for teeth.

As the One did, the alien gawked at Janeway.

Turning to Packell, whispering, she asked, "Who is that? What’s going on?"

Relieved that she was now calm, he slipped an arm around her and nudging the occupants of the nearest row to move down. Anxious, he pulled her onto the pew beside him.

"That is Cytal of the Iajohh," Packell explained quietly. "He is the One’s chosen orator. At present, he is addressing a group of Renegade Trakill who stole a Borg Sphere from His Highness’s fleet about one jlarra ago."

Startled, she turned to him. "Did you say … a Borg Sphere?"

"Yes," the senator answered, focusing his attention on the main viewer. "Somehow, an assault group of Renegade Trakill commandeered the Sphere while it was conducting military exercises in orbit. Apparently, they’ve managed to elude capture or even detection from the Borg Army’s routine defense patrols. They must have stayed in hiding, perhaps within some gravimetric distortion or one of the nearby nebulae." He swallowed hard, considering the consequences that his people would face for defying Besarian law. "Forgive me if I speak ill of my own people, but their efforts were senseless if not outright ignorant. They knew nothing about controlling that ship, nor did they know how to operate the offensive and tractor systems. Nonetheless, the renegades slaughtered every Borg and Gallenian aboard the Sphere, and, for that, the One will surely make them suffer."

"When did they get here?" Janeway asked.

"They entered airspace only moments ago before you so gallantly marched in here," he explained, trying to hide the inappropriate smile creeping at the corner of his mouth, "and now they’re claiming to have mastered the Sphere’s weapons technology." Grimacing, he faced her. "They’re demanding the unconditional release of all resident Trakill."

"You?" she asked. "Your people?"

He nodded. "Yes, but it won’t work. Regardless of the weaponry aboard the Borg craft, they’ll never breach the planetary shield. The Pulse Cannon will destroy them with a single volley, the fools."

"Pulse cannon?"

Quickly, he returned his attention to the dais and the viewscreen. "Ambassador, please! So many questions!" He softened his tone. "Another time, Kathryn. I promise to tell you all … so long as we survive this meeting after your grand entrance. For now, let me have peace so that I may hear my brethren out."

"For the last time, I tell you that we will not withdraw," the determined face on the viewscreen announced. "Nor will we retreat … not unless you agree to release all of the Trakill you're holding against their will to our protection."

"You are a fool, Wainwraith, to ignore the warning," Cytal announced, his attention returned to the viewer. "You know as well as I that His Highness, the One, does not often grant an entire species a stay of execution. I am afraid that your insolence may very well be the undoing of your entire species … if it is the wish of the One."

"Speak for yourself, Cytal!" Wainwraith demanded, his visage filling the screen. "Be more than the puppet of that deranged lunatic!"

"I speak for the One," Cytal challenged, a hint of gallantry added to his voice, "as do all members of the Quorum."

"Then perhaps I should speak with my own ambassador," the rogue replied. "Perhaps he can convince His Highness of the error in his ruthless ways!"

"Oh, dear Solahh, not me," Janeway heard Packell’s feverish whisper. She glanced up toward the dais, and she realized that the One was still staring at her. He hadn’t diverted his attention from her, his chin resting in his hand, his eyes studying the expression on her face.

"Packell?" Cytal said, chuckling evilly. "Wainwraith, you know that Packell has only recently completed his probation for servitude to the Quorum. Need I remind you of the fate his father suffered for less impudence than you’re showing today?"

Beside her, she felt Packell stiffen.

"You have taken leave of your senses," the orator pressed, "and, if you wish to throw caution to the rains, it may very well be the end of your entire race." Tilting his head, making sure that the renegade’s eyes were on him, Cytal added, "How would you feel, Wainwraith, going to your grave with the knowledge that it was your actions that led to the extermination of your entire race?"

"I demand to speak with Packell!"

Calmly from his throne, the One finally spoke. "I’ve grown weary of this game. Cytal, retract the offer for their retreat." Then, as suddenly, the One began twirling his throne, spinning around and around and around, whirling out of control like a child’s top.

Rebelling, Wainwraith shouted, "We will attack Besaria City!"

"Must you be so eager to commit genocide?" Cytal asked. "Really, Wainwraith, be an obedient Trakill and prepare for your own death. Pray for forgiveness to your precious Solahh should the One decide that those you left behind suffer the same proper fate."

"We will destroy everything you have built!" the renegade challenged angrily. "We will burn everything you hold dear!"

"You’re being unreasonable," the Iajohhn senator replied patiently, sighing tiredly. "You forget whom you’re dealing with. Clearly you forget the technology housed on this world. One simple Borg Sphere possesses neither the tactical ability nor the firepower to scratch this planet’s defenses."

"We will destroy all that you have made!" the Trakill pressed forward in his tirade. "We will free all you have imprisoned!"

His Highness finally stopped twirling, stopping in position to face the viewscreen.

"You speak the impossible, Trakill scum," he spat.

Determinedly shaking his head, the Trakillian captain glanced out from his monitor, shouting, "May the essence of Solahh be with you, Packell! Today, we liberate our people … and our world!"

Then, he gestured toward someone off-screen.

The picture blanked.

Rising from her seat, Janeway demanded, "What's going on?"

Casually, the One angled his throne so that he could face the newest addition to his Quorum. "Considering your attire, ambassador, I was about to ask you the same thing." Tiredly, he added, "Packell?"

"Your Highness, please!" Packell shouted, rising, stepping past Voyager’s captain and into the open aisle. He took several steps toward the dais and then stopped, knowing full well that his movement could be viewed as aggressive. "Show Wainwraith mercy! They are lost! Consider them mad, if you must, but show them your kind graces!"

"Packell," the One tried, his face contorting with confusion, "they have sealed their own fate and, should I deem it necessary, the fate of you and your people. And you ask that I be merciful?"

"You are wise beyond measure!" Packell flattered the dictator. "Wainwraith commands the last group of Renegade Trakill that we know of. He doesn’t speak for my people. At your graces, I have been given that responsibility." Gesturing at the viewscreen, he tried, "You know that the Borg Sphere poses no threat to this planet. Certainly, you know that his weapons are no match for your Pulse Cannon!"

Arrogant, the One leaned forward, fixing his glare on the lone Trakill ambassador. "How is it, Packell, that you speak to me with such inappropriate candor? Are we friends? Are we colleagues?" Sitting back, the shapeshifter relaxed on his throne. "I think you forget your place in this Quorum."

From the podium, Cytal spoke up. "Your Highness, perhaps Packell needs to be taught a lesson on behalf of those he has been chosen to represent." Pointing up to the blank monitor, he explained, "Certainly the gall of the Trakill to consider insurrection a reasonable penance in return for your continued generosity cannot be discounted in this matter. I think that perhaps you are right. Perhaps it is his people who need to be taught the lesson, both Renegade and resident."

"Your Highness," Packell stammered nervously, "please forgive me! I was merely demonstrating that Wainwraith and those Renegade Trakill pose no threat to you, nor to Besaria!"

Rising, the shapeshifter bellowed, "There are standing orders, are there not, for all Renegade Trakill to be exterminated upon sight? You know that, Packell, or should I poll the entire Quorum to see if you are alone in your misunderstanding?"

His shoulders dropping, Packell knew he wouldn’t have support from the terrorized members of this sham government.

"All I am saying, Your Highness," he tried slowly, deliberately, "is that a great leader shows mercy where a lesser leader immediately chooses force."

Laughing, the Iajohnn senator stepped around the podium. "It would appear, Your Highness, that the junior senator has elected to do your thinking for you."

"That is a lie, Cytal, and you know it to be so!" the Trakill challenged the orator, pointing at him from where he stood. "I am fighting for the preservation of my species, as is the right of every senator!" Lowering his arm, the senator concluded, "You know, far better than I, that the Pulse Cannon will annihilate that Sphere in an instant."

"Yes," the One crooned, almost taunting the entire Quorum at this point. "Yes, Packell is right, Cytal. You’re far too rigid. Far too poised. So … perhaps we should test the accuracy of his statement."

"Your Highness!" Packell cried. "Please! I’m begging you!"

"Stop this!"

Having heard enough, Janeway rose from the pew and stepped into the aisle, taking a position alongside the Trakill senator.

"If what Packell says is true," she reasoned, "if that Sphere poses no threat to you or your precious Foundation … then what value would there be in wasting the effort to even return fire?"

"This?" Cytal asked, pointing at the Voyager captain, openly showing his disdain for the ambassador. "If the strength of a senator’s argument is measured by the company he keeps, then I think you had solicit stronger support from your colleagues … someone other than the nearest female wrapped in a sheet." Confident, the Iajohh sauntered gracefully across the dais and took his post behind the podium. "One would think that a fledgling senator would show more concern about how he could best serve his people, especially if His Highness shows mercy in allowing your pitiful species to exist after such a shameful display of obedience."

Janeway took a step closer to the platform, only to find herself again caught within Packell’s grasp.

"Now, just one minute -" she began.

Incensed, the One sat back in his throne, gripped the arms of the chair as tight as he could without splintering them. "This debate is over!"

"You’re going to destroy those Trakill?" she asked.

"I am," the One agreed.

She flashed him a look of pure, unadulterated hate. "Then you’re even more insane than I originally thought."

"The way of the universe, ambassador," he began, rising to his feet, "is extinction." Furious, he gestured toward the drones lining the rear of the Grand Hall. "At the very least, those simpletons you fear – the Borg – understand that! Why do you think they roam the galaxy, assimilating entire races, attempting to subvert all races into a single species? For sport?" Convinced, he lowered his arm. "Extinction pervades the very fabric of the universe. It has since the dawn of time, and it will until the bitter end. Perhaps it is our sacred duty to remind those Renegade Trakill of such a fundamental truth." Raising his shoulders, he shouted, "It would be a reckoning for the reckless! It would underscore that no one escapes extinction, no matter how hard they try!"

"This has nothing to do with extinction," Janeway argued, her voice filled with contempt. She felt Packell’s grip on her arm tighten, but she ignored his silent plea for restraint. "This is about the abuse of power. This is about control. This is personal for you. Those Renegade Trakill somehow managed to escape, and that’s a threat to this dictatorship you call a ‘foundation.’ The fact that they escaped your clutches gives these people hope, and you don’t dare give an oppressed civilization a principle so simple as hope." She paused, catching her breath from the emotional release. "You can’t have that, so you choose to annihilate them." Cautiously, she glanced around at the lowered faces of the Quorum’s senators. "You’ve terrorized this body for so long that it’s something these representative have either forgotten … or they choose to ignore it."

Turning back to him, she concluded, "Well, I can’t do that. I’ll never do it … not for someone the likes of you."

"They escaped?" he bellowed at her, enraged. "They found freedom? If that is the case, what are they doing here? Eh? What do they choose to do with their freedom? They waste it! They squander it away in a futile attempt to free their brothers!

"Ambassador Janeway," he continued, "those Trakill in that petty Borg Sphere have sworn to eliminate me! Why? As you see it, they're free! They’re free to leave this sector of space and roam the galaxy! Free to go anywhere they like! Instead, they choose to provoke me, to make me have to defend this Foundation!"

"You stole their planet!" Janeway countered.

"If they weren’t strong enough to keep me from it, they didn’t deserve it!"

"Where I come from," she pressed, "that kind of theft has been the cause for countless wars! What more reason do they need to satisfy your mercy?"

Frustrated, the One rose and waved his arms across the assembly before him. "Would you have me serve justice by eliminating every last Trakill? I tell you, extinction is the only constant in the universe! Therefore, extinction of the Trakill will be my lesson!"

Calming slowly, he looked over his Quorum and saw what Janeway had moments before. A congressional body that refused even eye contact with their ruler. Sneering at them, he walked back over to his throne and sat back down. "Or ... near extinction."

"Near extinction?" she asked.

"I certainly can't hold Packell or any of the Trakill-Lemm responsible for the actions of renegades, now can I ... Packell?"

No one in the Grand Hall spoke.

"Cytal, have the Sphere destroyed," the One ordered.

The display overhead flickered back to life, this time showing the single Sphere against the backdrop of outer space.

'How many people?' Janeway wondered. 'How many people are going to die?'

"Your Highness," she tried, controlling her anger, "from what I understand, that ship is insignificant against your power." Considering the only option she had left, she appealed to him for leniency. "My ship, the Voyager, was chased by that very Sphere on our way to Besaria. They surprised us, dropping out of hiding and taking up pursuit. Originally, I thought I had engaged the Borg, and I feared that they were intent on assimilating my crew … but, now I know that it was these Trakill. They didn’t even know how to communicate with us! I give you my assurance as … your ambassador … that they are no threat to you or your foundation." She paused, hoping that her words, a simple explanation, were finding sympathy, compassion, mercy. "I mean you no disrespect. I mean no disrespect to Senators Packell, Cytal, or any of these people here. But, you and I both know that the Renegade Trakill pose no threat to the security of this Foundation. Killing them would not only be cruel, but it would also serve no useful purpose."

From his chair, the One considered her for a brief moment. Lowering his head, he stared down his nose at her. "Don't play tricks with the allegiance of this Quorum, ambassador," he stated icily. "What you and I both know is that the Sphere was property stolen from this Foundation. I’ve read your ship’s log. You and your people have encountered the Borg before. You know far better than most senators here what threat those weapons can pose when exercised by the wrong hands … and those Renegades are a threat to the good species living here under my protection."

"Under your protection," she finally challenged, "or under your control?"

"Destroy the Sphere," the One decreed. "Now."

Grinning, Cytal activated a switch on the podium.

Suddenly, a barrage of rocketing blue energy burst onto the viewscreen. Like blazing lightning, the beam arced wide enough that it engulfed the entire Sphere in its single wake. The hull buckled sharply, like a rock wall instantly buckling under the force of a phaser drill, and the craft ruptured, spitting orange and yellow teeth into the blackness. The blue beam dissipated, and the Sphere erupted into a hurricane of fiery debris spiraling in all possible directions. Eventually, gradually, the flame in space subsided, leaving the sector blotted with floating, glistening hunks sparking like the embers of a dying campfire.

The group remained silent.

A Borg Sphere.

Destroyed ... in a blast.

"Senator Packell?" the One’s voice cracked the stillness of the Grand Hall.

Calmly, the Trakill released his hold on Janeway. "Your Highness?"

The One considered him briefly. "I am pleased to inform you of the following. First, as I said, I will not hold you or any of your Lemm responsible for the actions of your Trakill brothers today. That would be barbaric, as I'm certain Ambassador Janeway would agree. Second, I am pleased to inform you that you are now, without question, the highest ranking member of your species … remaining alive."

Packell swallowed, fighting back the venom he wanted to lash out at his captor. Instead, he replied softly, "Thank you, your Highness."

Interrupting, Janeway marched to the dais. "You're a ruthless maniac."

"Will it please the Borg Army," the One stated tiredly, "to remove all senators except Janeway and Packell from the Grand Hall immediately? Also, I’d like Commander Cole to stay behind, as well."

Slowly, the senators, accompanied by the Borg, filtered through the exit. Janeway watched them filing out, and, in the group, she noticed Cytal. He wore an evil grin, directed solely at her, on his purple face. As the room emptied, the huge stone doors slid shut. Cole and Packell took their place at Janeway’s side.

"Ambassador, explain yourself," the One ordered.

From beneath her sheet, she pulled up her Borgified right arm. "I never agreed to this."

"Your consent was not required!" he yelled at her. "The prosthetic is not a surgical replacement of your human arm. It is merely a series of implants grafted onto your outer dermis. What I meant was for you to explain your appearance!"

"When I awoke and found what you had had done to me, I came here directly from what one might call a surgical facility," she spat back at him.

"In the future, you will contain your enthusiasm to confront me before the members of my Quorum! Is that absolutely clear?" the One exclaimed, his voice building in intensity. "I will not tolerate any such open disrespect from a foolish, foolish human! You have disgraced yourself! You have disgraced your people! You have disgraced this Grand Hall! And, in doing so, you have disgraced me!"

"Your actions bring about your own disgrace," she challenged.

She could see him breathing heavily through his nostrils, his eyes squinting as he studied her face.

Sitting back on his throne, he laced his arms silently across his chest. "Janeway, what do you want?"

Again holding up her right arm, she ordered, "I want this prosthetic removed!"

"Agreed," he replied, nodding. "If the ambassador does not wish it, I certainly can show … what was the word you were throwing around endlessly? Ah, yes. Mercy. I can show you mercy. I may be a dictator, but I am a patient one, at that." He stopped nodding and leaned toward her. "As a penance, which of your crew shall I commit to death?"

She drew in a sharp breath.

"What?"

"You heard me, human."

"How dare you."

"How dare I?" he asked. "Today, I am in the business of righting wrongs." He glanced at Packell. "As the senator can tell you, I have righted the wrong of escaped Renegade Trakill by wiping out that sad following." Then, he glared at the drone. "As Commander Cole can tell you, I have righted the wrong of his allowing a Borg Sphere to be captured by those Trakill scum!"

Shocked, Janeway turned to Cole.

The sentry remained still.

"So long as it is my duty," the One pressed, "I am willing to right the wrong of having the Borg prosthetic, required of all the Quorum, applied to your arm, but it will not be without cost. So, I ask you again, which of the members of your crew shall I put to death?"

Returning her attention to the platform, she objected, "I won’t have you harming a single -"

Suddenly, the One rose, leaping from the raised platform, landing hard directly in front of her.

Frightened by his closeness, she looked up as he towered over her.

"Allow me to clarify. Ambassador, Commander Cole and Senator Packell can entertain you for hours with stories of how reasonable I truly am. I make the law, and I keep it simple. The all serve the One. Should you choose to defy the One, you are eliminated." Pointed at her, he continued. "You, I have made the ambassador of your people. In exchange for this privilege, you are afforded all the rights I have given the ambassador class since the organization of the Besarian Foundation … so long as you adhere to my requirements. One of those requirements is that you wear the Borg prosthetic. It is an honor. It is a symbol. It is a badge of honor to distinguish you from your Lemm. It is a physical representation of the union here of the Lemm and Borg societies." He lowered his arm. "Now, if you do not wish it, so be it. In return for my granting your wish to have the prosthetic removed, I require a penance. So, and this is the last time I will ask this question, which of your crew shall I commit to death? The choice is yours."

She considered his proposal. "You are truly insane."

"What? No stomach for command?" he teased. "You can choose one, or you can choose them all, for all I care."

"If this is how you enforce your law," she argued, "then you may as well kill us all."

"Ah, ah," he replied, smiling, waggling a finger at her. "You're excepted, ambassador. You are not part of the bargain. You’ve pledged your allegiance to me, and that oath will be honored. Your people can die, if you so choose, but you will live. With these Borg, I have the technology more than adequate to keep you alive indefinitely. I'll have Commander Cole here personally see to it. These Borg, unlike their inferior cousins roaming endless space, require little time to regenerate. Cole will watch over you, should I give the order. He will ensure that you refrain from doing something so foolish as to take your own life."

Sneering, he laughed at her. "Oh, come now, ambassador. I may be insane, but I'm consistent. Would you like an example of my consistency? Here. Your time has expired. The prosthetic stays, and your crew lives on until I say so. My decision. Not yours." His eyes wandering, he glanced down at the sheet wrapped around her feminine torso. "However, the next time you enter the Grand Hall, I expect you to be wearing your Starfleet uniform. If you fail to meet this simple request, I guarantee that a member of your crew ... one of my choosing ... is executed." He returned his eyes to hers, smiling devilishly. "Who knows? Perhaps I will choose someone dear to you. Perhaps not." He turned his back on her, heading toward the platform. "We’ll leave it to random chance. Do I make myself clear?"

Infuriated by her own silence, Janeway lunged at the One.

As if responding to instinct, the front of the One morphed through his backside, his arms extended. His hand and a prosthetic clamp met Janeway’s. Angrily, he hoisted her effortlessly from the floor into the air before him. Their faces were close, and she felt his hot breath on her neck.

Curious, his gaze wandered downward, considering once more her feminine shape, the outline of her body visible through the medical sheet barely covering her. Cocking his head to the side, he asked, "Tell me, ambassador: are you what one of your male comrades would call ... attractive?"

Just as suddenly, he dropped her to the floor.

Furious, she picked herself up. Janeway wouldn’t allow herself to be intimidated by his strength.

"Where's my ship?"

"In my spaceport."

"Where's my crew?"

"Working, each according to his strengths."

"If you've harmed them in any way," she threatened, "you'll have more to worry about than a wayward Borg Sphere."

Curiously, he studied her pensive eyes. "The Borg files on Species 5618 are very accurate. You define yourself and your existence by your relationships, don't you?"

She glared back him but didn't respond.

"Your bridge crew?" Strolling along the front of the platform, the One lost himself in thought. "Let me see. Chakotay and Tuvok. The Vulcan, I believe? They are working, performing manual labor in the Generatrix. Really, ambassador, can this exercise be that interesting for you?"

"Working where?"

He shrugged. "The Pulse Cannon you just witnessed destroying that Sphere requires a high degree of routine maintenance. Cleaning. Calibration. That sort of thing. As it turns out, Chakotay and Tuvok have strong backs. They are perfectly suited for the task."

"Seven of Nine?" she pressed.

"Ah, yes," the One chided. "The former Borg. Yes. She, of course, was of curious interest to the Borg Army. They're examining her, as we speak."

"Re-assimilation, I assume?"

He shook his head. "No. It was requested, but I forbade it. At this juncture in her own personal journey, she is far more Species 5618 than Borg than she would ever admit. Her genetics are best left alone. Regardless, the Borg wanted to ... how do you say ... experiment?"

"If she's harmed -"

"She won't be harmed, ambassador," he assured her. "Sciences, I believe, will eventually make extensive use of her talents."

"Harry Kim?" she continued.

"Ensign Kim? He’s much better, now that his wounds have been attended to." Relaxing, the One sat on the edge of the dais. "Harry's been granted a special assignment. I’m sorry to say, but it’s classified. I'm afraid I can't share more. However, I give you my word that no harm will come to him or any of your crew ... so long as you cooperate."

"B'Elanna Torres?"

"Sciences Lemm," he sighed, tiredly. "As I said, to each his or her strengths." Gesturing weakly, he asked, "You don’t plan on reviewing your entire ship’s complement, do you?"

She flashed him a cold stare. "Tom Paris?"

The One, who had chuckling at his own joke, stopped.

Squinting with his human eye, he looked at her.

"Who?"

"Tom Paris?"

Curious, the One cocked his head. "This name I've not heard." Immediately, he snapped his fingers. "Commander Cole?"

Obediently, the drone stepped forward. "There is no information available on a Tom Paris."

"Was he listed in the ship's registry?"

"He was," Cole answered.

The One grimaced. "Then, there clearly is information available on him, isn’t there?"

"He was not found on board. The suspicion is that he possibly fled when the Borg Army seized the Voyager."

"Possibly?"

Cole stood. He remained silent.

His anger rising, the One demanded, "First, you lose a Borg Sphere, and now you lose a member of Janeway’s crew?"

"The suspicion is that he fled when the Borg Army seized Voyager," the drone repeated.

Clearly irritated, the One leapt back onto his platform. Marching back to his chair, he sat down in his throne. "Were any craft detected abandoning the Voyager at that time? Shuttlecraft? Escape pods?"

"The ship's log is replete with unauthorized shuttle launches."

"That's a cheap shot," Janeway countered.

"Enough!" the One said. "Both of you! Cole, were there any authorized or unauthorized shuttle launches during the completion of your mission?"

Cole shook his head.

"Then how do you reach the conclusion that Tom Paris fled?"

Cole did not reply.

Leaning forward, His Highness frowned. "Cole, I’ve already demoted you from commanding the Borg Army once. Do I need to have you dismissed from Talesee Palace? Perhaps the orchards are in need of a new commander."

Still, Cole maintained his silence.

Dismissive, the One waved his hand. "Clearly, I have something to think about. In the meantime, Cole, I order you to get this woman back into her uniform if you have to dress her yourself. The next time she enters the Grand Hall in anything other than her proper attire, she won't be the only one punished."

"Yes, your Highness."

"Packell, I’d like you to begin tutoring the ambassador for her future senate position with the Quorum," he continued. "Clearly, she hasn’t won favor with Cytal. As orator, he will inevitably make service as difficult for her as he did for you. That, and you know how the Iajohh feel about females."

"Yes, your Highness," Packell agreed.

"And as for you?"

The One glared one more time at Janeway.

"Get used to the arm."

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