FEDERATION'S END
by E. L. Zimmerman

Chapter 23

The Bridge of the USS Voyager had never felt more like home to Captain Janeway. As the turbolift doors parted and she stepped off the platform, she heaved a deep sigh as the comfort of familiarity whisked around her like a welcoming warm breeze. She smiled so wide her cheeks hurt. Finding her senses, she glanced around at the stations, realizing that the chairs were occupied with crewmen whose faces were unfamiliar to her. Brushing aside her concerns of facing the Borg with an untried, untested crew, she felt a growing surge of inspiration building inside of her, knowing as any captain did that – sometimes – it wasn’t so much a crew as it was the ship. Maintaining a congenial smile for all of those new shipmates to see, she ventured further onto the deck, sensing the heavy burden of living amongst the hopelessness the past few days lifting with each step she took.

A Gallenian-Lemm looked up from the helm, and she nodded enthusiastically at the man. Quickly, he rose, adopting an official stance not unlike a soldier in Earth’s armies of the late 20th century.

"Ambassador on deck!" Mandakorr announced, his arms firmly clutched to his sides.

"At ease, pilot," she replied. "That’s an order. You’d better relax, or it looks like you might hurt yourself."

"Thank you, ambassador … and welcome aboard."

Janeway felt it to the depths of her soul. This ship was destined for adventure.

"Captain!" Harry cried out the moment he saw her.

"Mr. Kim," she replied, walking toward the Ops Station, "it’s good to see you again."

"Likewise, ma’am."

"You’d better relax as well," she teased, "or you’ll strain those vocal chords." Reaching his console, she greeted him with a warm hand on his shoulder. "How's everyone’s favorite ensign faring?"

"I feel much better now that you’re here, captain," he admitted.

Her eyes were drawn to the visible scar across his forehead. The wound was obviously still healing from their initial battle with the Borg.

"Either these Lemm don’t know a thing about dermal regenerators," she said, "or that’s a fresh injury. If that’s a fresh injury, you’ve some serious explaining to do."

"No, ma’am," he replied, beaming. "Once the Voyager had docked on the Besarian surface, the Borg confiscated much of the medical equipment. As well, they made several rounds to scavenge what they could from crew quarters. Frankly, anything that wasn’t bolted down was considered fair game … all in offering to the One."

"He’s been onboard?"

Harry nodded. "I haven’t seen him, but he never stayed for long. As I understand, the ship didn’t seem to hold his interest." He cleared his throat, turning to his console briefly to tap in a few commands. "In the meantime, these Lemm have been keeping me company." He gestured around the Bridge at the makeshift crew, and they were studying her, their faces pensive. Upon closer inspection, she recognized several Trakill amongst the replacements, a few Gallenians, and several other species. As well, the Bridge was populated with at least a dozen Borg drones. "What with limited training, this crew has grown very efficient with ship's systems. We've taken Voyager into space for several brief tests of their abilities. However, they are no more excited about engaging a Borg fleet than we are."

Easily, he leaned forward, whispering, "Have you seen any of the others?"

"Only Tom and the Doctor," she replied softly.

"Are they all right?"

Suppressing a smile, she offered, "The new and improved Tom Paris might take some getting used to."

"Ma’am?"

"Yes, Harry," she told him. "They're both fine."

"Captain," he pressed on quietly. "These Lemm? They’re good people. Some of this crew have logged more space-hours than us, Tuvok included." He gestured lightly over his shoulder toward the helm, hoping to not attract the attention of any sentries. The captain peered down toward the pilot’s console and noticed only the back, red-skinned Gallenian skull. "The Lemm who greeted you? His name is Mandakorr. He's piloted ships into deep space for over one hundred years. Ma’am, don’t tell Tom that I said this, but Mandakorr could out-navigate him or any other Federation helmsman for that matter." He lowered his voice even further. "He's been telling me about this phenomenon called ChannelSpace. It sounds like little more than a series of massive transporter conduits, and they’re located throughout the entire galaxy. According to what he’s told me, these conductors generate enough power that they can actually beam ships across entire sectors." He glanced over at the nearest Borg, still ensuring their privacy, before he concluded, "Mandakorr even believes there is a good chance that a combination of the proper conduits might stretch all the way back to the Alpha Quadrant ... to Earth."

"Be careful what you wish for, Harry," she cautioned.

"Captain, there isn't a species on this bridge wouldn't join us in overthrowing the One. If we could -"

"Hello, captain," she heard, and Harry’s face blanked.

Turning around, Janeway came face-to-face with another sentry. She hadn’t seen him when she entered the Bridge as he had been sitting in her chair.

"Hello," she answered. Turning her body to face the drone, she asked, "Who might you be?"

"I am Jorta’Rel," he replied efficiently. "I have been working with this crew to accomplish the repairs to Voyager."

Flashing Harry a quick look of concern, she told the Borg, "Then I guess I owe you my thanks."

"Irrelevant," the drone explained. "I fulfilled my duty assignment."

Nodding her head, she offered, "I’ll thank you anyway."

"Your Mr. Kim is quite efficient."

Again, she glanced up at the ensign, who was busily touching the launch sequence into his Ops Station console.

"I’m certain that your praise is well deserved," she replied. "Harry’s been one of the most reliable members of my Bridge staff. It’s good to hear that he has served the One to your satisfaction."

Succinctly, Jorta’Rel bowed his head.

The turbolift doors whisked open. Commander Cole lumbered onto the Bridge, closely followed by a curious-faced Senator Packell. The Trakill saw Janeway and smiled his green teeth at her. "Ambassador," he greeted her.

"Packell, what are you doing here?"

Gesturing with his arms open wide, he explained, "I received notice moments ago that I have been asked by His Highness, the One, to accompany you on this mission … in my capacity as your sponsor."

"Welcome aboard," she said. "You should know that we should all be prepared for quite some ride."

"Greetings, senator."

Pivoting, surprised by the voice, Packell glowed of excitement in even his natural green color. "Jorta!" he exclaimed. "It’s good to see you, old friend!"

"It is agreeable to see you again, senator."

Gesturing warming, Packell explained, "Ambassador Janeway, have you met Jorta’Rel? As Cole serves as your attaché for your tenure as ambassador to the Quorum of the One, Jorta served as mine. He was of considerable help to me in my trail period." Placing a hand on his waist, Packell asked, "Jorta, is this the assignment you moved on to? Supervising the repair of the Voyager?"

Dipping his head, the drone replied, "It is, senator."

"Your former attaché has been most complimentary of one of my officers," Janeway announced, smiling at the drone. "I think, in all my travels, that was the first time I heard a Borg surrender a compliment. The Voyager has been fortunate to have his services."

Indifferently, Cole marched across the Bridge and took a position at Janeway’s side.

"Mr. Cole," she greeted him.

Civilly, he turned and nodded at her.

Leaning close to him, she whispered, "Kill any friends today?"

To her surprise, he reacted by glowering at her. She watched his eyes for any glimmer of lasting emotion – anger, hurt, frustration – but she found nothing.

"Federation humor?" the drone asked.

"Well, you can call it that if you like. The all do serve the One."

Remaining at peace, Cole stared at the main viewer. He kept arms at his side. After several seconds, he broke the uncomfortable silence, explaining, "As ordered, I exterminated Simonsen."

She shook her head. "You disappoint me, commander."

"Your opinion is flawed."

"My opinion is dead right," she challenged, considering him with disdain, "and you know it. Your blind indifference to an order that never should have been followed is what’s flawed here, commander. Don’t you forget it."

"You are mistaken," he replied, physically unmoved, not facing her. "You are human. You weigh your decisions with emotion and morality. You perform your exploration of space to satisfy your curiosity. I am Borg. Say what you will, ambassador, but I and others like me will exist and continue to exist when your species has grown extinct. Consequently, the Borg are superior. The Borg are without end. The Borg seek perfection and will someday attain it."

She pulled one corner of her mouth up into a wry smile. "You’re going to have to take my word on this one, commander." She stuck her face threateningly near his. "Nobody's perfect."

Again, to everyone’s surprise, the turbolift doors hissed opened. Together, they turned and found His Highness stepping onto the bridge, Senator Cytal trailing close behind.

Wearing a highly reflective, intricately woven chain mail adorned with glittering gemstones and sparkling jewels, the One strode onto the ship’s primary deck, his magnificence on display for all to see. The armor – constructed of interwoven layers of thin metal fibers – was accented with inch-wide streaks of vertical, emerald stripes. The garment’s edging was sprinkled with gems of many colors, cut with many faces, embedded strategically inside the lines. Stretching nearly to his feet, the garb was belted with braided bands of black and green leather, the green matching perfectly the armor’s emerald highlights. His overall appearance reminded Janeway of the iron mesh battle suits worn in the mythology of Earth's legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

As he marched from the turbolift, the One actually shimmered.

"Greetings, gallant crew of the Voyager!" he bellowed in grand spectacle.

Everyone on the bridge – except Captain Janeway and Ensign Kim – bowed their head to show their honor.

Everyone ... except one more.

"Praise the Essence for ALL THAT IS SACRED!" Packell screamed, rushing toward the turbolift.

His tone filled with dread, Cytal interrupted, "Take your place, senator."

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THAT UNIFORM?"

Stunned, Janeway had never seen an outburst from the Trakill.

His Highness held up a single, gloved hand, showing his palm to the enraged junior senator.

"Calm yourself, Packell," he warned.

"I WON’T!" the Trakill barked. "THIS IS AN OUTRAGE! IT IS AN INSULT TO MY PEOPLE!"

Gesturing his hand across the armor, the One replied, "This is a trophy taken from the field of battle. I instructed Jorta’Rel and the crew of the Voyager recover one of your battle suits drifting amidst the wreckage of the Borg Sphere." Raising his chin, he added, "The dead Renegade Trakill was making no further use of it, and I wouldn’t see such a prize wasted."

"It is Trakill Visi," Packell explained, forcing himself to calm down, "armor intended for our fiercest warriors. No disrespect, Your Highness, but for you to wear it is not only an insult to my people but also blasphemy to yourself."

Raising an eyebrow, the shapeshifter glanced down at himself. "Oh, I don’t know. I rather like it."

"It doesn’t suit you, Your Highness."

With vehemence lingering in the air, the One turned to the Trakill ambassador. "You’re in no position to pass judgment on me, Packell."

"I think you should take it off."

"I won’t."

"I think you should."

"And I’ve told you already, Packell," the One seethed, taking a step in the senator’s direction. "I won’t."

Mustering every last ounce of courage within, the Trakill started toward the changeling. Fire burned in his eyes. "I WILL NOT ASK IT AGAIN!"

"Cole, if Packell takes another step, kill him," the One ordered calmly, indifferently.

Janeway stepped forward. "Now, just a minute -"

"I'll not dirty my hands with Trakillian blood today," High Highness concluded.

Packell stopped suddenly.

Furious, he glanced from Cole back to the One. Then, he looked to Janeway and, finally, to Jorta’Rel.

Forcibly, the Trakill tried smiling, once more forcing his emotions to relax, to lessen, but his efforts were unsuccessful.

"Your Highness," he began slowly, fumbling for the words to express his innermost thoughts. "As I said, the Visi is blessed by Solahh himself. That armor you’re wearing is reserved as the highest honor given to Trakill's bravest warriors." He swallowed, finding little comfort in standing stock still where he was on the Bridge. "I beg your understanding. It is intended only for Trakill who have risked their very lives in the name of the Essence. It is meant only for those who have faced their own mortality in combat and vanquished death." The senator breathed slowly, resting his hand on Janeway’s shoulder. "Respectfully, sir, your wearing it ... it is considered a violation of the gravest magnitude, punishable only by death."

Smiling, running his gloved hand along the smooth, glistening armor, the One glared at the junior senator. "Packell?"

"Your grace?"

"How do you think I feel, Packell?" he asked.

The Trakill started to reply but stopped. He found the proper words – ones of respect and admiration – and asked, "Whatever do you mean, Your Highness?"

The One held his arms wide. "Look at me. I’m dressed … absurd. I’ve stooped to the level of wearing Trakillian armor, of all good things? I’ve resorted to wearing actual clothes ... all for the sake of honoring your people?"

"Then," Packell tried, peaceably, uncomfortably, "Your Grace, why don’t you take it off?"

The One glanced around the Bridge, and he found everyone studying him. "Because I choose not to, Packell." Shrugging, he added, "It's a prize, nonetheless, senator," he answered, "rightfully won in battle. Jorta recovered it from the remains of the dead." Again, he cherished the suit he wore, smiling. "Packell, if it makes you rest any easier, why don’t you consider my wearing it an act of showing honor – not disgrace – to the Trakill, a dying race they may be."

The ambassador tried. "But it is ... a sacrilege!"

"Oh, please!" His Highness whined back at the ambassador. "Show some individual conviction, will you?" The shapeshifter stepped toward Captain Janeway. "Here. Perhaps this will make you happy."

Feverishly, he reached toward Janeway and grasped her comm badge, plucking it from her uniform. He slapped the badge onto the Trakillian breastplate, where it hung out-of-place amongst the many twinkling jewels.

"There, Packell," he conceded. "Now, you can find peace in knowing that I’ve insulted more than a single species today."

Surrendering the argument, the senator dropped his head angrily and shuffled back near the weapons console.

Watching him go, the One calmly leaned toward the captain. "My apologies, ambassador, for stealing your trinket." He raised and relaxed his shoulders. "Although," he added, smirking, "I hope you understand that no apology is unnecessary."

Coldly, she replied, "How gracious of you."

"These Trakill," he muttered to her, adjusting the armor over his massive chest. "I suppose I really should put an end to them, don't you think?"

She cocked an eyebrow up at him. "Your Highness?" she challenged him. "You would perform an act so vile over a disagreement about attire?"

She t’sked at him.

"Well, they’re always blustering about duty, honor, privilege, their Essence!" he argued, standing tall. "I can’t tell you how weary I’ve grown of such … nonsense." He brushed his gloved hand across his brow. "They're fortunate I haven't jettisoned every last one of them into space."

"Even more gracious."

Glancing down at her from the corner of his eye, he warned, "Stifle your tone, ambassador."

"I, of all of your servants, wouldn’t insult you, Your Highness," she continued, not easing up. "May I ask … what pleasure it is that brings you to the Voyager this morning?"

He glanced around the Bridge, this time studying the various stations and consoles and Lemm busily attending their respective tasks. "After you left the Grand Hall, Cytal and I spoke."

"Ah," she replied. "The faithful orator."

Cytal grimaced at her stinging remark.

"He suggested that I join you on this little mission," he explained. "By all accounts, it should be one fraught with great danger, and I do get out of the Palace infrequently these days. I hope you don't mind."

"Not at all. It’s a pleasure to have you aboard," she lied.

"I may take command," he confessed, "should the occasion merit."

Frowning, she cautioned, "That may not be a wise decision, Your Grace."

"Yes, yes," he muttered. "Still, I'll ... try to respect your opinion. After all, you do know this ship far better than I."

He smiled down at her, and she detected actual warmth in that grin. "You and I? We banter quite well, hmmm?"

Defiant, she didn't reply. Instead, she ignored him and his observation.

"Cole?" the One suddenly barked, turning his head slightly. "Has Simonsen been dispatched?"

The drone nodded once. "The all shall serve the one."

"Good," the shapeshifter crooned, displaying a whimsical expression of glee at the thought of injury to another living being. "Very good. What say we hunt and trap us a few Borg today?"

Again, Cole nodded.

"Ensign Harry Kim," the One began, "is the ship prepared to leave the planet?"

"It is, Your Highness," Harry reported. "Engines are standing by."

Walking toward the center seat, the One watched Janeway as he did. "Then I’ll take the captain's chair, and let's get under way, shall we?"

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