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VOY, Neelix & Samantha Wildman, rated PG
Summary: After “Mortal Coil,” Neelix ponders the unprovable afterlife.
Tucked snugly under her covers, Naomi sighed softly, drifting into sleep. Neelix waited a moment longer, just to make sure she was sleeping, before he got up from his chair next to her bed. He had done a poor job of storytelling tonight; the images had not come easily to his mind as they ordinarily did, and the words had lacked their usual smooth flow. Naomi had seemed content enough, as she always did, but he could tell the difference.
The door slid open quietly, and Neelix walked out to find Samantha Wildman sitting on her couch, a cup of tea on the table in front of her. Sam was working on a needlepoint picture of two ducks in a lily-filled pond, her fingers moving deftly over the canvas as she added tiny stitches for the various shades of feathers. Sewing helped her to relax, she had once said.
If only it could be that easy for him.
He passed her without turning, his mind blank of anything to say, focused only on the door that led out to the corridor.
“Neelix.” The canvas made a soft sound, like leaves brushing gently against each other, as Sam put it down on the table. “While you were in Naomi’s room, Chakotay told me what happened. I don’t mean to pry, but if you want to talk, I’m here.”
“You wouldn’t understand.” Neelix looked down at his hands, which seemed almost like foreign objects, disconnected from everything real in the universe. “You’ve never been dead.”
Sam picked up her teacup and drank slowly, her expression pensive. “I’ve done some reading on near-death experiences. They are quite common in many Federation species. When people have been clinically dead for short periods — as you were — some report that they saw visions of the afterlife according to their culture’s beliefs, although most remember nothing. On the question of whether such visions are real, I don’t think we can draw conclusions either way. Would you like some tea?”
Neelix shook his head, rejecting both the tea and Sam’s attempt to reframe his experience. “If the Great Forest were real, I would have seen it.”
“It’s possible that you did see it,” Sam pointed out, “but that you had some short-term memory loss while you were being revived.”
“No, I was dead. Gone. Nonexistent. Anyway, even if some other people imagined they saw an afterlife, that doesn’t mean they really did. They could’ve just been hallucinating as they came back to consciousness.”
“You’re right, they could’ve been.” Sam finished her tea and set down the cup. “Chakotay told me that when you attempted the vision quest, you heard voices telling you that life was meaningless and you didn’t have a soul. That’s not necessarily true either, Neelix. It’s just as likely to have been a random hallucination.”
The teacup had a pattern of leaves and flowers, he noticed. Interlaced, unbroken, like the great lie of the Great Forest. How could he know what was real?
“Almost five hundred years ago,” Sam continued, “some researchers on Earth tried to prove the existence of the soul by weighing the bodies of dying people immediately before and after the moment of death. It was widely reported that the weight of a soul was 21 grams. Skeptics were quick to point out that the bodies might simply have lost water through evaporation, the scales might have been inaccurate, the sample size was too small for a scientifically valid study, and so forth. What it really showed was that if you want to believe in an afterlife, you can find evidence to support that belief. If you want to believe there isn’t one, there are plenty of arguments for that point of view, too. In the end, it’s all a matter of faith.”
Faith. Neelix turned the word over in his mind, seeking its meaning with little success, as if it were an unfamiliar sound in a different language.
“What if humans and some other species have an afterlife, but Talaxians don’t? What if the Talaxian brain isn’t evolved enough, or self-aware enough, to have an immortal soul?”
“I don’t believe that for an instant,” Sam declared vehemently. “One thing I’m sure of, Neelix, if anyone has a soul, we all do. Some of the worst atrocities in Earth’s history were committed by people who thought their victims had no soul. Even after the human species became civilized enough to outgrow most of its ethnic and religious prejudices, there still was bigotry toward people who had certain kinds of neurological differences. Such people sometimes were described as empty shells, lacking any consciousness or humanity. They were put away in institutions and treated like animals. Other species had, and to some extent still have, similar prejudices; the Vulcans, for example, have a long history of discriminating against anyone who might be seen as overly emotional.”
He finally realized that he was pacing back and forth in front of the couch, forced himself to stand still, and looked up into Sam’s face.
“Neelix, no matter what kind of brain you have — you’re not one of the monsters under Naomi’s bed.”
After a moment, he found that he was able to return her smile with genuine feeling. Maybe he would never know whether the Great Forest was real, but as Sam had reminded him, everyone else in the universe went through life having to deal with the same lack of certainty. If they could cope with it, he could, too.
“I think I’ll have that cup of tea, after all.”