by E. L. Zimmerman
"In short, people," Captain Janeway began, a broad smile on her glowing face, "welcome home."
From around the conference table, a cheer went up as the crew broke into a round of spontaneous applause and laughter.
"I, for one, am pleased to share how happy I am to be back to normal, captain," Tom piped. He was now free of his drone disguise, compliments of the ship’s EMH, and his boyish face reflected his senior officer’s warm grin.
Lying her own Quorum-required prosthetic onto the conference room table, Janeway sighed heavily. "Frankly, Seven, I don’t know how you managed wearing one of these things for so long. They’re so heavy!" She waved her hand at the group. "Despite what the Doctor says, I’m certain that my shoulder will be giving me problems for weeks!"
"You certainly look much better out of that Borg get-up," B'Elanna said, flashing her eyes in the direction of Voyager’s helmsman. Politely, she added, "No insult intended, Seven."
Nonchalantly, the former drone replied, "None taken, lieutenant."
"What?" Tom asked, innocently. Mocking, he leaned closer to her, adding seductively, "I thought you said you were beginning to like it!"
Heartily, the crew laughed.
"And you!" Tom shouted, pointing accusingly across the table at Harry. "I can't believe you let someone else drive my ship!"
Shrugging, Harry put up his best expression of innocence.
"Let's not kid ourselves, Mr. Paris," Janeway cut in. "This ship belongs to all of us. And, I like to think of it as far more than just a ship. As I said, it's our home."
Slowly, she rose from her chair and began walking around the table. "However, as far as I'm concerned, our work here isn’t quite yet finished. There’s this issue of ChannelSpace, a possible means to take us back to the Alpha Quadrant." Reaching Harry’s back, she placed her hand on his shoulder. "The possibilities of exploring ChannelSpace didn't end with Mandakorr's assimilation. This world was full of Gallenians, and I trust another pilot will have the same information." She gestured at the commander. "I've instructed Chakotay to contact Mandakorr's fellow pilots ... those we can still locate. While many of them have possibly returned to the planet Gallen, others simply fled once they learned of the prospect to be free. I have the feeling that even those fortunate few will eventually come home to roost." She began walking again, very deliberately. "But surely other species must have knowledge of how we might access this ChannelSpace ... and that is why I'm going to propose a slight delay of sorts to our journey home."
"Captain?" Harry asked, leaning forward.
Nodding, she explained, "If we can't locate ChannelSpace, we might have the next best thing. I think the explanation is best left to Seven."
All eyes in the room turned to their blonde crewmate.
She shifted in her chair, bringing her arms to rest on the conference room’s table. "In the past," she began, "we have been understandably reluctant to utilize non-Starfleet technology to further our progress toward the Alpha Quadrant. On other occasions, we have embraced ... shall we say ... alternative solutions?"
Realizing that she had the command crew’s undivided attention, she paused. Seven had never considered herself more than an efficient public speaker, but she had come to understand the human propensity to inspire others. More than just delivering the message, she had to motivate them to follow her, and that responsibility made her uneasy.
"Species 3141," she announced, ignoring her momentary fear and forging ahead. "The Gallenians. While under internment on Besaria, I consulted with several of their scientists. One of their spatial engineers, a male of their species named Libera, shared with me one of his many projects." Retrieving the PADD in front of her, she retrieved a crude schematic she had uploaded and passed it around the table. "Libera was amplifying graviton pulses through a Rubarian graviton accelerator. To his surprise, Libera learned that the accelerator, when fueled by Twelfth Power Energy, creates a miniature singularity."
The PADD reached him, and Chakotay took it, studying the information closely. "A wormhole?" he asked.
"A way to the Alpha Quadrant?" Neelix asked, sounding hopeful.
"Unfortunately, the resulting conduit is little more than two meters across, and that’s hardly large enough to accommodate Voyager or even a crudely modified shuttlecraft," Seven explained, and she sensed the mood around the table quickly sliding toward disappointment. "However ... the size would allow transit for a communications beacon."
She studied the faces staring back at her from around the conference table, and, suddenly, she realized how interested her crewmates had become.
"I will try to simplify," she went on. "These Gallenian scientists had concocted an elaborate if not ingenious escape plan. Their intention was to lock their transporter signatures into a signal resonance buffer, one custom-built to fit within a probe's computer core. The buffer was designed to impede transporter signature degradation over extended periods of time, allowing for someone to remain in transporter stasis indefinitely.
"Due to the size of the probe, the buffer could accommodate only a handful of occupants. Those elected were to be chosen by lottery. They would have been placed into transporter stasis. The probe would’ve been launched from the Besarian surface. Equipped with the Rubarian accelerator, the probe would’ve generated it's own singularity, thus escaping captivity of the planetary shield by, in effect, tunneling through the atmosphere." She noticed several pairs of raised eyebrows at the prospect of a wormhole being created within a planet’s atmosphere. "A dangerous proposition, I agree, but it was their hope that the probe would eventually encounter a ship whose crew would possess the knowledge to identify what they had found adrift and to unlock the buffer's inhabitants. While I found the proposition risky, it had potential."
The PADD finally reached her again, and she laid it down on the table.
"However, the Gallenian scientists lacked the technology to build a signal resonance buffer small enough to correspond with the size of the probes available from the spacecraft on Besaria," she continued. "Their timetable changed dramatically when they learned of Voyager's transporters, as well as our probes. Fortunately, Starfleet technology was highly compatible with Gallenian data storage techniques."
"So why didn't they escape?" Neelix asked. "I know that if I had been imprisoned here as long as these poor folks were, I would’ve jumped at the chance the moment I knew it was available!"
"They encountered a problem during their computer simulations that they hadn’t anticipated, namely the maneuverability within a singularity," Seven explained. "In short, the Gallenians could launch the probe into the wormhole, but, as the craft could accommodate no pilot, the craft was incapable of escaping on its own … until the power source was extinguished."
"You mean," Tom began, "not until it ran out of gas?"
"A reasonable analogy," Seven concluded. "Twelfth Power Energy, powering a craft of that size, would have trapped the inhabitants inside the self-created singularity for several millennia." Again, she studied the faces of the crew, and she understood their expressions of defeat. Before continuing, she glanced out the nearest viewport at the dark planet far below. "Eventually, over the course of time, the probe would have succumbed to an individual force of gravity comprising the wormhole, and the craft would have been ripped apart." She turned back to the table. "Upon review of their findings, I postulated that the key to overcoming this failure was not due to achieving vector control, as Libera and his colleagues had hypothesized, but rather in maintaining a plotted course over vast distances."
""That would be impossible, Seven," Harry reasoned. "A craft that small? With no pilot? Even with an automated drive system, piloting through a wormhole for centuries would require periodic course adjustments." He shrugged. "Maybe once every five hundred years or so."
Seven nodded. "Agreed. That was when I suggested another possible alternative to the Gallenians."
Was it her imagination, or did everyone seated at the table lean toward her in anticipation?
"If they were unable to control the craft, perhaps they could control the wormhole."
"You’ve got to be kidding," Tom quipped.
She shook her head. "In fact, I ran several successful simulations around maintaining directional control of the singularity."
"I am unaware of how such a singular feat would even be attempted," Tuvok interjected.
"Again," she began, "Twelfth Power Energy. Theoretically, its applications are limitless. Instead of launching the probe from the planet’s surface where the craft would need to achieve escape velocity, I suggested that the probe be released into space … without the confines of planetary gravity. There, the probe would require only a millisecond burst from its engines in order to engage a singularity."
"I think I'm beginning to understand where you're coming from," B'Elanna joined the conversation.
"If we could control the direction of the wormhole as well as the duration of the burn – firing it toward the Alpha Quadrant – then the resulting momentum would carry it through the singularity to a point in space that we could calculate?" The engineer placed her palms on the table. "It would be like throwing laundry down a laundry chute."
"A ... chute?" Seven asked.
"Another old Earth term," B'Elanna explained. "A slide, only we control the beginning, and we control how long the ride would last because we know the inevitable destination. By controlling the direction of the wormhole instead of trying to pilot the craft, we would … slide the probe to wherever we directed it." B'Elanna glanced at her senior officer. "Captain, if we use the power generators on Besaria ... I agree with Seven. We might be able to make this work!"
"But wouldn't the gravitational eddies of the wormhole still effect the probe?" Harry asked. "Theoretically, couldn't they still destroy the probe?"
Tuvok finally spoke up, recognition beaming in his Vulcan eyes. "Building upon Seven’s theory, I believe that we could modify the probe’s shield emitter. Much like Besaria’s planetary shield, we could construct a simple shield bubble that would be impenetrable with the strength of Twelfth Power Energy fueling it. Such a casing would serve to more than adequately protect a communications beacon from damage while in transit."
"Here's the only thing I don't understand," B'Elanna replied, rapping her knuckles against the table. "What good would sending a communications probe be to us?"
Satisfied, Janeway answered, "We'd be sending message."
Everyone turned to her.
"To Earth," she concluded. "I'll take it from here, Seven."
The captain had circled the conference table. She took her seat again, clanked her Borg prosthetic onto the table, and leaned into the group.
"What I'm about to share with you would have me court-martialed in the Alpha Quadrant," she began, "but I believe the circumstances of our latest encounter with the One warrant my ignoring Starfleet protocol on this subject."
She sighed, the weight of command thankfully being shared amongst her closest colleagues … and friends.
"Arguably, the One was the most formidable threat we’ve encountered in the Delta Quadrant thus far. I say this because, alone, he managed to overpower the Borg so easily. He assimilated them in a way that I won’t pretend to fully understand. He possessed a weapon – the Pulse Cannon – that could, literally, incinerate a Borg Cube. I can't say for certain, but I do not believe that even Species 8472 would pose any particular threat to him. He would've crushed their will just as easily he did to the other species he trapped here on Besaria. It would only have been a matter of time.
"Now, what was his motivation for subjugating these races?" she asked rhetorically. "Was it out of, as he would call it, compassionate protection from the universal constant of extinction? I don't this so. Rather, I believe that the One's behavior was based on either cultural philosophy or genetic programming. As for a culture, he didn’t have any … at least, none of his own. He was one of a kind, without others of his race to learn from … to teach him."
"Captain," B’Elanna tried, "are you saying there may be more like him out here?"
Ignoring the answer – the classified information – she knew in her heart, Janeway held up her hand. "I don’t know. But, to him, dominance was a way of life. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can't accept that his ways were learned behaviors. Rather, I think serving as the ultimate ruling class was all he understood. He just didn’t know any different."
"If I understand you, captain," Tuvok offered, "then you are saying that the One was genetically programmed … to rule?"
She breathed a heavy sigh.
"That question being asked, it brings me no pleasure to share with you that there exists a Captains-Eyes-Only file. It’s classified, written and maintained by Starfleet Intelligence. Clearly, this file could've grown since our departure from the Alpha Quadrant. We have no way of knowing. But … the file details the fact that shapeshifters do exist in the Alpha Quadrant and, quite possibly, the Gamma Quadrant … and their numbers are far greater than any of you might suspect. While Starfleet has known about them for some time, we have no idea of where they come from or if they have any particular missive. Rather, Starfleet’s primary concern has always been: do they exist elsewhere? The pundits in San Francisco could only speculate, but we now have the proof to answer that question.
"As a race," she went on, "what are the principles that these shapeshifters support? What are the modes of accepted behavior amongst their people?" She shook her head. "Again, Starfleet's top minds could only guess. But, if we've glimpsed what threat the shapeshifters could pose to the rest of the known universe, then I'm willing to risk a court-martial in telling you that this information must get to Earth long before we do. It has to become our priority." She looked around at the pensive expressions drawn on the faces of her crew. "For the time being, think of it as our own Prime Directive."
They had fallen curiously silent, their faces sullen. They were obviously lost in thought, curiously pondering the prospects of an Alpha Quadrant they all called home being overrun with tyrannical shapeshifters.
"Your orders in this new exercise will follow from Mr. Chakotay shortly," she explained. "People, a genius who worked for NASA – Earth’s early venture into space – said it best. Failure is not an option. The fate of the Alpha Quadrant may very well rest in our hands. Starfleet has to be informed. What we know, they must know. I can’t stress the importance of this matter strongly enough.
"For now," she concluded, "this meeting is dismissed."