FEDERATION'S END II: THE WITCHING HOUR
by E. L. Zimmerman

CHAPTER ELEVEN

'Commander?'

Startled, Chakotay glanced up from the hissing, near-useless long-range scanning console and found himself staring at the patiently grinning face of Neelix2. The commander had been so engrossed with the Besaria systems that he hadn't heard the clone of his shipmate enter the sciences' chamber. 'Either that,' he thought, 'or the manufacturing mechanism is still engaged, and now it's beaming additional Neeli throughout the Generatrix!'

'What is it?'

Smiling, Neelix2 stepped forward, now that he had been acknowledged, and stopped. Rocking nervously for a few moments, he then took what appeared to be a somewhat proud posture before the Voyager commander, folding his hands behind his back in a gesture of formality. Finally, he stood completely still, thrust his chest forward, and reported, 'I'm pleased to inform you that I've concluded the transfer of all of the required food stores from the Besaria holding yards to the ship's Cargo Bay Three.' With even more pride and enthusiasm, he added, 'The Trakill were of tremendous assistance! They worked harder and faster than I had expected! Their gratitude to Voyager is unquestionably without measure! I might add, I'm pleased to have finished the task well ahead of schedule, thanks to their help.'

Reciprocating the smile, the commander nodded, returning his view to the console's fluttering screen. B'Elanna had cut primary power to the planetary scanners in order to reconfigure several malfunctioning energy junctions, and Chakotay was waiting to hear from her that all systems were, finally, fully primed and operational.

'I'll express your gratefulness to the Besarian prefect,' Chakotay offered. 'Outstanding work, Neelix. You should be commended on a job well done. I'll be sure to tell the captain.'

'Thank you for your kind words, commander, but we owe our thanks to the Trakill,' Neelix2 confessed, raising his hands to brush off Voyager's first officer. 'Without their help, I frankly don't know where we'd be.'

'Understood,' Chakotay agreed.

Pleased with his report, Neelix2 lowered his hands and placed them behind his back. He smiled at the commander, and, for several awkward moments, the two simply stared at one another, uncertain of what to say.

Finally, Chakotay broke the silence with, 'They're certainly gracious hosts, considering we've helped return their world to them.'

'Ah,' Neelix2 nodded, 'yes.'

Again, the clone and the human stood staring at one another. Chakotay studied Neelix2 closely, and Neelix2 faced him, smiling.

'Now,' Chakotay interrupted, 'if you'll excuse me, I do need to get these long range scanners back online.'

Abruptly, Neelix2 stepped forward. 'Might I assist?'

Declining, the commander shook his head. 'I don't think so,' he admitted. 'Actually I'm just waiting on main power to be restored.'

Nodding vigorously, Neelix2 replied, 'Ah. Yes.'

Chakotay raised an eyebrow. Uncomfortable, he added, 'B'Elanna is taking care of it.'

Again, Neelix2 nodded with a burst of excitement and enthusiasm.

'Thank you,' Chakotay finally said. Then, instinctively, he added, 'Dismissed.'

Gradually, his smile fading, Neelix2 looked away, mumbling, 'I see.' Despite the order to depart, he didn't move or flinch in the slightest. 'Of course,' he added, 'commander.' Shuffling his feet uncomfortably, his hands again poised behind his back, the cloned Tallaxian pivoted and started towards the exit. 'Sorry to have bothered you,' he said.

'Bothered me?' Chakotay wondered.

'What's on your mind?'

Neelix2 stopped in his tracks. 'Commander?'

'Your behavior,' the first officer pressed. Leaning forward, he rested his palms on the console. 'You're acting as if I've insulted you.'

Cocking his head slightly, Neelix2 asked, 'Haven't you?'

'If I have, I apologize.'

'If I have, I apologize ... Neelix?' the clone asked.

Confused, Chakotay squinted at Neelix2, who slowly turned around.

'Neelix,' the clone repeated. 'My name, commander. It's Neelix. The entire time ... you haven't even addressed me by my given name.'

Gripping the edge of the console, Chakotay realized that the clone was right. However, the first officer also understood that a portion of this denial to refer to the clone by his true shipmate's name was a conscious effort to separate the two. Chakotay, at Captain Janeway's advice, had agreed that there were dangers with ... getting attached, especially to the wrong Neelix.

'My apologies, Neelix,' the commander finally surrendered.

'No, no,' Neelix2 replied. 'My apologies to you, commander. You're a busy man. I'm just in the way here.'

'What's on your mind?' Chakotay began. 'If you want me to call you Neelix, then fine. I've done that. But, the Neelix I know and respect has never been at a loss for words. If there's something bothering you ... or if there's something that I've either done or said that's insulted you ... I'd like to know about it.'

Snorting out a laugh, Neelix2 edged closer to the console.

'It's ...'

Chakotay could tell that the clone was visibly struggling to find the right words to capture his true feelings.

'Maybe he's not an exact duplicate, after all,' the commander reasoned.

'It's ...'

'Out with it, Neelix,' Chakotay barked.

'Well, commander ... it's the simple fact that ... based on what I've come to - first - understand, and then - second - accept ... it's the fact that I'm not ... well ... I'm not real.'

Aghast, Chakotay didn't know what to say.

'It's precisely that, commander,' Neelix2 admitted. Within seconds, he was nervously wringing his hands together, and the familiar Tallaxian sideburns started to quiver from the build-up of emotion. 'Everything inside my head ... all of the memories from Voyager ... all of the adventures we've shared ... all of the lives we've touched ... the fact that I can't please Tuvok with any of my attempts at Vulcan cuisine ... the fact that Captain Janeway has an allergic reaction every time I serve my delicious MontMont Tomato Soup ... none of it's ... well ... none of it's REAL!'

Fearing that perhaps the clone wasn't designed to mimic Tallaxian emotions, Chakotay held up his palms toward the clone, hoping to calm him down. 'Now, slow down, Neelix. Just take it easy.'

'The away missions!' Neelix2 shouted, flinging his hands apart and into the air. 'All of the danger! The intrigue!' Angrily, he began quickly pacing back and forth on the tiles before the scanner console, just out of reach of the commander. 'Species 8472! The Borg! The Hirogen! Remember when they overran the ship?' Suddenly, he stopped, dead in his tracks, and he turned to face the first officer. 'Kes! My dear ... my dear, departed Kes! And the rest of the crew ... including ...'

His voiced suddenly lost all excitement, and he started to trail off before finishing with, 'Including even you, commander.'

The commander grimaced, sighing heavily.

Standing in the science chamber, the clone slumped his shoulders and pouted. 'Commander, I feel ... I feel like such a fraud,' he confided.

Firmly, Chakotay stated, 'You're not a fraud.'

'Then what am I?'

At that, Chakotay fell silent.

Weakly and with measured conviction, Neelix2 whispered, 'It's how I feel, commander.'

'Neelix - '

With his eyes open and his expression suddenly wanting, Neelix2 asked desperately, 'Is it because ... I've done no good?'

Chakotay considered the clone for several moments. He was uncertain of what to say, how to respond to such a seminal question of existence. Neelix2 had fulfilled a function; he had completed that which Captain Janeway had agreed to. Now, he was void. Taskless. Without purpose. Chakotay understood that the clone had somehow psychologically progressed to the point of questioning what everyone did at some point in life.

What comes next?

'What you're asking,' the commander began, choosing his words cautiously, 'there are no easy answers for, Neelix. Life isn't as simple as a mathematical equation.'

'I never was any good at math,' Neelix2 confessed.

Inadvertently, Chakotay smiled. 'You're facing existence. And, in the short time, you're starting to achieve ... a level of consciousness that cries out for more. You want answers. I understand the questions. Who am I? Why am I? Where do I go from here? Is this all there is?' Glancing away, the first officer sighed heavily. 'I wish I could give you the answers, Neelix, but what you're asking ... these are matters that scholars, academics, and theologians have been questioning for centuries.' He turned back to the waiting clone, and he said, 'I don't know what your destiny is, but, when you begin to look closely for it, you'll find that the universe is filled with answers. Eventually, you have to find your own way.'

'For me, there is no way,' Neelix2 assessed. 'I'm a fraud. A copy. A facsimile of the real thing. I have no right to exist in this universe. I serve no purpose.'

'Neelix, you're not a - '

'Please, commander,' Neelix2 interrupted, vigorously shaking his head. 'I understand now. It's what I am. It's not who I am. It's not what's inside this head of mine. The memories? None of those are real ... or, in the very least, none of those are mine.' Turning, he waltzed toward the exit, wandering aimlessly through the room. 'The Neelix who has traveled with you all of those light years? The one who's earned the trust and fellowship of you and your crewmates? That isn't me. The sad fact is ... that'll never be me, no matter how hard I try. I'll always be ... just a fraud.'

Chakotay grimaced. 'Neelix, a long time ago my father taught me that we choose the weights we carry with us on our journey through life. We might not realize it at the time, but, on a subconscious level, we allow for the various insecurities and second-guessing to steer us off the true path of our existence.' Slowly, Chakotay moved around the console and took a position near the clone. 'Despite the fact that you are not the Neelix who has served Voyager with distinction, that doesn't mean that you aren't destined for the greatness of the life he's led.'

Finally, Chakotay reached out and placed a hand on Neelix2's shoulder.

'As my father taught me, I'm telling you: the choice is yours.'

'I understand, commander,' Neelix2 replied weakly.

Then, he shook off Chakotay's hand, stiffening.

'Once a fraud, always a fraud.'

Quickly, the clone turned and marched toward the exit.

'I'm terribly sorry to have bothered you,' he said.

Then, he disappeared through the arch.

'B'Elanna to Chakotay,' the commander heard.

Defeated, he tapped his comm badge. 'Go ahead,' he replied, sighing.

'The power should be coming back online ... right ... about ... now,' she said.

Overhead, the lights of the scanning room flickered. Chakotay glanced up toward the blinking panels, and he found himself wondering if the lights would choose to work or if this was all the trick of the One's hot-wired power systems.

After several seconds, the lighting stabilized, and Chakotay smiled.

'How do you manage, B'Elanna?' he asked.

'With plenty of help from Harry Kim,' she replied.

'Nice work,' the first officer complimented. Quickly, he moved for the console, and he began tapped the keys, bringing the systems online.

'Commander, Harry needs to speak with the captain. He has quite a bit on his mind.'

Instinctively, Chakotay glanced in the direction that Neelix2 had disappeared. 'Don't we all?' he thought.

'It'll have to wait,' the commander replied. 'Right about now the captain and Tuvok should be addressing the Besarian assembly.'

'I'm afraid that this can't wait, commander.'

'Explain,' he stated, suddenly curious at the change of tone in her voice.

'Harry has a theory about those Borg we recently engaged,' B'Elanna concluded.

The console flickered momentarily, but then the screens came alive, sputtering at first several shades of electronic snow which gradually coalesced into distinct shapes against the blackness of outer space. Chakotay glanced down and noticed immediately that the long range scanner's display had come blazingly to life.

He gasped at what it showed.

'You don't say?' he replied to B'Elanna.

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