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

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Cautiously, Chakotay reached out and touched Neelix2's face with a moistened corner of fabric he had ripped from the sleeve of his own Starfleet uniform. Immediately, the Tallaxian identical awoke, eyes bulging wide. Fidgeting, he pulled himself up quickly and sat up with his back to the wall.

"What happened?" he asked.

"You fainted," the Commander answered.

"I fainted?" Neelix2 asked, sounding incredulous. "Why did I -"

Then, the vision of hundreds of Neelixes, all crammed into the Generatrix's duplication storage facility came back to him. The Tallaxians stood there, behind the thick-plated glass, and stared at him, penetrated him, silently cried out to him for mutual understanding as to what, in the entire universe, could possibly be happening to them.

Reaching down, Chakotay placed the cloth in Neelix2's own open hand. "I moved you over here, out of the open corridor. I tried to prop you up, but you kept falling over. Like dead weight." Chakotay smiled sympathetically at the identical. Weakly, Neelix2 only mimicked the gesture.

Studying the clone's eyes, the Commander asked, "How are you feeling?"

Neelix2 didn't answer right away. He blinked several times, clearing his vision, and then he brought the damp cloth up to brush across his eyes. The temperature within the Generatrix was climbing; even he could feel it.

"I'm ... fine, Commander," came the eventually reply. "I just ... well ... I must have ... lost my footing is all."

"Lost your footing?"

"I must've fallen," Neelix2 continued, defensive, stumbling with his own forced explanation. "I must've slipped and struck my head." With slightly more energy, he continued, "I must've knocked myself out cold! Then, you happened across me, and ... well ... here we are."

Chakotay stared at it floor. "It happens, I suppose." Quickly, he lifted his eyes and planted them on the identical. "These passageways are filled with loose cabling and downed wall plating. Quite frankly, there's debris all over this place." Sighing, he conceded. "Neelix, it's a wonder you didn't break your neck -"

Blurting out his words, the identical stated, "I saw 'them.'"

"Them?" Chakotay asked.

"Yes. I saw 'them.' All of 'them.'"

"You saw whom?"

"'Them,'" Neelix2 repeated, the right corner of his curling up to show his disdain for the other identicals that the Captain, no doubt, had ordered remain under lock and key. "An entire room filled with ... well, a replication chamber filled with all of those versions of me."

Uncertain as to what reply might be appropriate to the circumstances, Chakotay swallowed, trying, "Neelix, we don't know the limits to which Twelfth Power Energy can be applied."

"But we know that what it creates isn't real," the identical replied flatly, challenging the Commander.

"You're saying that you're not real?"

"I'm saying that, if all of those other Tallaxians need to be locked away from the rest of you, then how can you tell me they're accepted as real?"

"Look, Neelix -"

"Those Tallaxians counterparts trapped in that room aren't real," the identical declared definitely, apparently stifling any chance for debate. Sniffling, rubbing the damp cloth again around his sweat-filled eyes, he added, "Commander, if they're not real, and not a single crewmember aboard the Voyager senior staff, you include, accepts them as real, then where does that leave me?"

Grimacing, Chakotay stood.

"Listen to me, Neelix, because, for the sake of time, I'm only going to say this once," he said firmly. "You know as well as I do that this conversation has nothing to do with our present mission." He placed his hands on his hips. "In case you haven't noticed, the Generatrix is falling apart around us. We've detected Borg cubes, lying in wait, not two systems away. This planet is a virtual time bomb. I can't defuse it. We don't have the technology to understand it, let alone shut it down. I have no way of determining how long before this facilities power reserves go into overload and start lighting up Besaria like a supernova ... but I do know one thing." He paused for a moment, dragging his own sleeve across his brow to wipe the sweat away. "I want to be nowhere near this facility when it explodes. There's enough power trapped in here to wipe out ... well, to wipe out who knows how much."

Lifting up his eyes to the Commander, the identical sat quietly.

"So, the way I see it," Chakotay continued, lacing his words with the right mix of anger and compassion, "you have a choice to make, and you'd better make it quickly. Here. If you can't say it, let me say it for you. No. Absolutely not. You may not be the Neelix who has selflessly, diligently, and with unfailing integrity has served Voyager these past several years, but I know this Generatrix's equipment well enough to understand that you sure as hell have every impulse our faithful Tallaxian every felt running through you. You can sit there and feel sorry for the shortcomings of your own ... manufactured existence ... or you can do what the memories, instincts, and intuition embedded in that identical brain of yours are collectively telling you to do." Chakotay paused, hoping only that his words were finding their mark. "Either way you choose, you have my unquestioned support. But, I have work to do, and I'm not getting it done if I have to stand here and play the part of your personal counselor."

Sadly, softly, Neelix2 replied, "I don't know who I am anymore, Commander."

Smiling, extending a hand to help him up, Chakotay offered, "You're the morale officer who's going to help me stabilize this facility's main power core before you, I, and the Gathered Races of Besaria are all fried like that Renuvian Toast you added to the menu last Thanksgiving."

Suddenly indignant, Neelix2 huffed, reached up, took the Commander's hand, and stood. "With all due respect, I reported that the replicator needed service. The Renuvian Toast was not my fault. You can blame Tom Paris for the burnt toast. He promised to have a member of B'Elanna's staff get to it long before the dinner. That never happened, and ... well ... you know the rest."

"Still, the turkey more than made up for it," Chakotay conceded, smiling.

Returning the smile, Neelix2 agreed, "It was delicious, wasn't it?"

Patting his Tallaxian identical firmly on the shoulder, the Commander turned and started up the long corridor. Sparks erupted from a junction panel, and Chakotay dodged to one side.

"Be careful, Commander!" Neelix2 cautioned, following.

"As you can see," he retorted, pointing in the direction of the unexpected minor blast, "we've more than our fair share of work cut out for us."

Taking up stride behind his senior officer, Neelix2 chimed, "We'll persevere, as always! Right with you, Commander!"

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