EMPATHOGEN
by E. L. Zimmerman

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

"Neelix!" she exclaimed. "Neelix, wait!"

Racing behind her Tallaxian lover, Kes carefully dodged through the crowd of robed Rintellans and her casually-attired Voyager shipmates, all gathered on the city's pavilion. Night had fallen. The expansive dais was illuminated with soft, pinkish hues thrown down from overheard fluorescents dangling from a series of ornate power cords. As she understood the schedule that had been detailed earlier by one of the talkative Rintellan hosts, the planet's scientific community sponsored a fireworks-like display every twilight. As Rintellan children called it, the StarStorm was actually little more than atmospheric energy discharges induced meteorologically by the stationary satellite network high above the surface. A cultural ritual, every inhabitant of the small world attended what had long ago been christened 'the Observance of Life.'

On good authority, the stellar display was rumored to be nothing short of breathtaking.

Recognizing that she was quickly losing sight of him, Kes cried, "Neelix, please! Slow down! I can't keep up with this pace!"

"Hurry, Kes!" she heard his rushed reply. "We've got to hurry!

"Neelix, what is it?"

Racing through the crowd, trying to maintain the pace of her Tallaxian suitor, she hoped that she didn't appear rude to their hosts. Still, she couldn't lose Neelix ... not when he had that look of studied determination in his eyes. Some intense motivation was driving him, propelling him to do what he was doing, and she desperately needed to understand.

"Neelix!" she tried again. "Neelix, wait!"

Panting, he stopped, leaning down to grasp his thighs. He allowed her to catch up with him and to catch her breath.

"Are," he rasped, teetering just a bit from being winded, "are you okay?"

Swallowing, breathing hard, she nodded.

"Very good," he said. "Let's go!"

With that, he grasped her delicate hand and once more resumed course through the gathering.

"Neelix, where are we going?"

"We need to find the Captain!" he shouted. "Or, at least, Commander Chakotay!"

"What's the matter?"

Carefully brushing aside anyone in his path, her suitor rushed headlong through the group.

"Neelix!" she screamed.

Suddenly, the Tallaxian stopped again and whirled on her.

Emphatically, Kes stated, "Neelix, I'm not taking one step further until I know what's going on."

Fretfully, he glanced around the crowd. He scanned to the left and the right. Suitably pleased that they were in their own pocket of confidentiality, the Tallaxian leaned into his mate, and he whispered his explanation.

"At the base of Wyxlyn Falls, I stumbled across some roots on the edge of this Rintellan forest." Cautiously, he glanced around to see if he were drawing any attention. He didn't believe so. "They looked extremely healthy, a ripened shade of green. So I scanned them for nutritional properties. I thought they might be a possible ingredient I could use in a stew or, perhaps, even a quiche or a soufflT back aboard Voyager. As it turned out, several of them were quite promising. I tried them, and they were quite tasty, even in raw form."

Again, the Tallaxian glanced around for security purposes before continuing.

"I attempted to upload my tricorder scans through an uplink to the ship. Things were going nicely. The data was transferring. The link had been established. The chemical compositions were being transmitted ... when all of a sudden - "

Softly, he clapped his hands.

"Poof!" he cried.

"Poof?" she asked.

"Yes," he answered, adjusting his tunic. "Poof!"

Confused, she studied her mate for several moments. "Neelix, what does that mean?"

"It means that the uplink was severed," he whispered conspiratorially, once more glancing into the growing evening crowd. "My tricorder's records were no longer being received by Voyager. I tried my comm badge, calling up Mr. Kim, but it appears that, while we can communicate with one another here on the surface of the planet, we've been cut off from the ship!"

"Why don't you just hail the Captain or the Commander on your comm badge?" the Ocampan asked.

Smiling and nodding in the direction of some Rintellans who were glancing at him, Neelix responded, "I've tried that, but there is no answer. Either our senior officers have been ... compromised ... or they've returned to the Voyager by shuttle. I noticed one lifting from the landing pad not thirty minutes ago."

Considering the events, taking into account the welcome she and her shipmates had received, Kes tried, "Neelix, you don't actually think that the Rintellans have anything to do with this, do you?"

In a huff, he replied, "I most certainly don't know what to think! All I know is that we've mysteriously lost contact with our ship!"

Again, he pulled at his tunic, ensuring that he was presentable to the alien hosts. "Now, you and I need to get this information to either Captain Janeway or Commander Chakotay. They'll know what to do in a moment like this! Let's hurry! Before it's too late!"

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