This is an amateur, non-commercial story, which is not produced, approved of, or in any way sponsored by the holders of the trademarks/copyrights from which this work is derived, nor is it intended to infringe on the rights of these holders. And so it goes.
Benjamin Sisko was dreaming.
There is a state between deep sleep and wakefulness where you can find yourself dreaming, and you know that you are dreaming, but somehow the line between reality and illusion becomes blurred. And if it's a good dream, you find yourself curiously reluctant to rouse yourself from slumber—if anything, you struggle to extend this state for as long as possible. At the moment, he would have happily never woken again.
He and Jennifer were in a shuttle, soaring through the stars from some unknown origin towards an uncertain destination. Jake was back at that vague somewhere, and he was secure in the knowledge that the boy was in good hands. But more important was the fact that he and Jennifer had finally gotten away from their everyday world of starships, careers and children and were able to spend some much-needed time together.
He sighed and checked the instruments again to make sure they were on course. "Alone at last," he said playfully, glancing over at her and getting that warm smile of hers in return. "So," he continued. "What would you like to do first when we get there?"
"If you have to ask," she purred, "I think you needed this leave even worse than I thought."
"Ah," he nodded thoughtfully. "Dinner. Of course." Laughing, she lunged towards him and slapped him on the shoulder in revenge. "All right, all right," he conceded. "What else do you want to do, then?"
"Let's keep things open," she suggested. "But first, hadn't you better answer Dax?" Surprised, he strained his hearing and this time did hear Jadzia calling him—but that couldn't be right, because it should have been Curzon...something didn't make sense....
And then he woke up, clutching at the tattered, fading remnants of his dream even as his eyes opened. "Benjamin?" Dax's voice called again. "Benjamin, please respond." Grunting, he rolled up into a sitting position and rubbed his eyes. "Sisko here," he said tiredly.
"Ah, good morning, Benjamin." As always, her voice was serenity itself. "We were wondering what happened to you."
"Oh?" Curious, he checked the chronometer and discovered to his horror that he'd overslept by a good two hours. But that shouldn't be—he'd set the alarm last night, and surely Jake would have come in when his old man hadn't shown up for breakfast. What the hell had happened?
But in the meantime, first things first. "I...seem to have overslept. I'll be right up."
"That might be a good idea," she said. "There's something here you'll definitely be interested in seeing." She signed off before he could question her further—which wasn't like her. Something odd was going on, and on this day, above all others, he really didn't need anything out of the ordinary happening. It was going to be hard enough making it through today intact.
"Well, here goes nothing," he said softly to his empty cabin. Sighing again, he roused himself from his bed and headed for the closet.
* * * * * * *
The instant he arrived at Ops, Sisko knew he'd been had.
They were all standing around the main operations panel, grinning at him as he emerged from the turbolift. Dax in particular seemed pleased to see him, and before he could stop her, she went and said the words he had been hoping he wouldn't hear:
"Happy Birthday, Benjamin!"
And now Bashir was coming forward to shake his hand, his enthusiastic grin firmly on his face. O'Brien scowled slightly as the physician beat him to their commanding officer, but offered his own congratulations with a warm smile and firm handshake. Kira smiled and nodded, trying to stay in the party spirit and keep an eye on Ops all at once. Odo also nodded politely, but it was clear he wasn't quite sure what to make of this little celebration. And Dax...Dax was proudly standing beside a huge birthday cake festooned with gobs of white frosting and large red letters proclaiming...
"You are going to die for this, old man," Sisko warned as he saw his age clearly displayed for all to see. "You just wait until your next birthday!"
"We'll have to be careful," Kira said with a grin. "That many candles might set off the fire alarms."
"I was hoping no one would find out about today..." the commander lamented.
"Really?" Bashir asked. "I didn't think that it was that bad. After all, they say life begins at..."
"Doctor, I'll make you a deal," Sisko interrupted. "When you reach my age, you come tell me if that expression is true."
"Hi, Dad," Jake said, waving from the office stairs. As always, Nog was at his side.
"Aren't you supposed to be in school?" his father said, frowning.
"Keiko said it'd be okay for them to come for the party," O'Brien explained. "So long as they get back to class within a reasonable amount of time."
"Well...all right," His son grinned brightly and, springing to his feet, came over to where Sisko stood. For a moment father and son stared at each other, acutely aware of their public surroundings and unsure about how far they should proceed. Finally, Jake shrugged and with a slight tinge of embarrassment gave his father a hug. "Happy birthday, Dad," he said softly.
"I'm glad you're here, son," he whispered back. "I love you."
"Aw, Dad..." The boy quickly pulled away, but his eyes were bright as he hurried back to rejoin his friend.
Sisko smiled as he watched his son walk away, then turned to discover Odo standing there expectantly. The constable cleared his throat. "I understand it's a Human tradition to offer some sort of benediction to the celebrant."
"Yes, that's correct."
The shapeshifter pondered this for a moment, then bowed slightly. "Congratulations," he said, then without further ado walked over to the turbolift and ordered it to take him to the Promenade. The station commander watched him go, then shook his head and smiled.
"I told him the proper salutation was 'Happy Birthday'," Dax said as he came over to the main Ops console. "I suppose the idea of his wishing anyone a happy event was too much to bear."
"This is very nice, old man," he commented, studying the cake. "So whose idea was it to turn my alarm off?"
"Oh, that was Jake's," the Trill replied breezily. Sisko shot his son a mock angry glance; the teenager smiled and shrugged, a gesture that reminded him of his late wife and the dream he'd been having earlier. Dax noticed the abrupt change in his expression. "Everything all right, Benjamin?"
"Fine. I'm fine." He smiled again and accepted the presents the others were bringing to him: a bonsai shrub from the O'brien family, a book on Bajoran religious philosophy from Kira, a voluptuously feminine figurine from Bashir, and last of all, a large wok from Dax. "This is very nice," he complimented her, examining the craftsmanship of the object with a critical eye. "Sure you didn't buy it just to cadge some free dinners, old man?"
"Now Benjamin," she reminded him. "That was Curzon, not me." She lifted an eyebrow. "On the other hand, should you ever want a company for dinner, you know I've always enjoyed your cooking."
Especially since Curzon could burn water, he thought to himself—and something suddenly occurred to him. He turned to find Bashir slicing the cake with surgical precision. "Who made the cake?"
"I did," Dax said proudly. Sisko took the piece of cake the physician gave him, but did not immediately sample it. Instead, he watched the others as they took their first bites of her masterpiece.
It was an established fact that the Trill symbiot passed its intelligence and abilities to each of its hosts over the course of its long lifetime. As Sisko surveyed the expressions of disbelief, distaste and disgust on the revellers, he privately concluded that the symbiot's inabilities were no doubt passed as well.
Kira was the first to set her plate down. "Well..." she said around a considerable mouthful, "I really need to watch my weight..." O'Brien was glancing around the room, wondering where he could hide the large piece on his plate; Jake and Nog wore remarkably similar expressions as they carefully set their plates under the stairwell and crept over to the turbolift. All around him, Sisko watched plate after plate abandoned by the Ops crew.
With one exception. "This is wonderful!" Bashir exclaimed, claiming a second piece. "I have never tasted such delicious cake in my life!"
"Figures," muttered O'Brien in disgust.
"Thank you, Julian!" Dax said, obviously pleased by the compliment. She took a bite of her handiwork, got an exceedingly curious look on her face, then carefully set the plate down. "I really should be watching what I eat, too," she said, making a profound effort to swallow the rest of her mouthful down. She gave Sisko a brief apologetic look, then hurried over to her station, where she found no less than three plates of uneaten cake on her chair. She gracefully scooped them up and took them over to the disposal unit, her face expressionless.
"I'll have mine in my office," he said casually.
"I'm sure you will, Benjamin," she said, her eyes on her console.
"Would anyone mind if I took just one more piece down to the infirmary with me?" Bashir asked.
* * * * * *
As always, there was an huge pile of requests, complaints, and problems waiting for Sisko in his office, more than enough to take his mind off his birthday and other depressing matters. So absorbed in his work was he that he didn't hear the door chime until the third time. "Come in," he called.
The doors slid open to reveal Dax standing there. "Benjamin, I was wondering if you..." Her eyes spotted the still-uneaten piece of cake on his desk. "I wanted to take you to lunch," she concluded.
He looked up from his work and saw the cake sitting there. Glancing guiltily at her, he motioned for her to sit down. "I...thought I'd save it for dessert," he said lamely.
"I wouldn't. It tastes terrible." Dax gracefully slipped into a chair and regarded him critically. "So...are you all right?"
He frowned. "Why shouldn't I be?"
"Well, it is a traditionally depressing birthday," she said. "And I imagine that you've been thinking about Jennifer..."
"I had a dream about her this morning." He leaned back in her chair. "For once, it wasn't about Wolf 359. It was...pleasant."
Dax smiled. "That's good."
"As for the other...I don't know." He leaned back in his chair and searched for words. "I just...how did I get here so fast? I mean, it seems like yesterday when I got my first posting, when I met Jennifer, when Jake was born..." He smiled sadly and shook his head. "And you know something? I look back to my younger self, and today seemed like an eternity away. Where did all that time go?"
"You spent it living, Benjamin. That's where. The good and the bad. As it should be."
Sisko made an expression of distaste. "Is reaching this milestone something I should be depressed about?" He glanced around the office. "I look at all this, and I've admittedly done a great deal so far, but still...I sometimes wonder..."
"What if?" she prompted.
He sighed. "Do Trill have mid-life crises?"
"Oh, yes," she said with a nod. "Every couple of hosts or so. But we get over it by recalling all of the things we've done in our lifetimes."
"That I've done," he said. "It only depressed me."
"Then we look at all things we've yet to do," she replied. "And that is usually enough for us." She leaned forward. "So how about it, Benjamin? Surely there are things you want to do in the years to come! You've got so many years left to do them in, too!"
He smiled and nodded. "You're right, old man. And one thing I'd like to do has come to mind."
"Well?" Dax urged.
"I would like," he said slowly, "to go to lunch...and have you pay for it." She laughed with delight and got to her feet as he did likewise. As they reached the door, she turned towards him, suddenly somber. "You're sure you're all right, Benjamin?"
He nodded. "I'm sure. A bit wistful, a bit lonesome, perhaps—but not depressed. Perhaps I've lost a few things, but I still have so very much to be grateful for."
"That's the attitude to have," she said. "Now, how about lunch?" But as they walked back into Ops, Kira's voice shattered the ambient mood of seconds ago.
"We've got a priority-one distress call coming in," she announced. "Bajoran limited-flight craft coming into scanner range." Dax headed immediately over to her post and studied the readings. "Well?" the Bajoran major prompted impatiently.
"I'm showing severe damage to the hull and drive systems," the Trill reported. "Radiation analysis indicates that disruptors on frequencies commonly used by Cardassian warships struck them." She looked up. "The craft is starting to disintegrate."
"Can we lock on a tractor beam?" Sisko asked.
"No," Dax said, shaking her head. "The stress would tear the ship apart instantly."
"How far off is it?"
Kira consulted her console. "Approximately ten thousand kilometers." She looked over at her superior. "We could send out a runabout..."
"Not enough time. Are there any ships in its proximity that could lend assistance?"
The Bajoran's hands flew across her instruments. "One. The Marriv—it's a Renckloge freighter with transporter capabilities." She wasted no time in asking permission, but set to work. "Marriv, this is DS9, requesting your assistance with a vessel in distress—over."
"DS9, this is the Marriv," came a churlish feminine voice. "I'm busy and I'm on deadline. Get someone else to do charity work, or do it yourself. Over."
Kira's features tightened. "Marriv, this is DS9," she said in an oh-so-sweet voice that would send anyone who knew what that tone of voice implied cowering in a corner. "I repeat, your assistance is needed for a vessel in distress. And if you don't help out, I assure you that I will have your ship thoroughly searched for contraband."
"You won't find any," the voice replied a bit too quickly.
"Perhaps not. But while I'm searching it, your ship will be impounded, and I'll be very....very...thorough. So thorough that by the time you get your ship back, the perishable goods you're carrying will be a pile of rotting garbage."
There was a long pause. "DS9, this is the Marriv," the voice said resignedly. "We are moving to assist the vessel in distress.."
"Knew you'd be happy to help, Marriv," Kira replied. "Do you have visual contact?"
"Affirmative." Kira activated the main viewer; the Rencklogian ship was sweeping into range of the battered Bajoran vessel, but from the look of things it was going to be a touch-and-go rescue operation at best. "DS9, this is Marriv. I'm reading three life signs, please confirm."
Dax nodded. "My scans read three." Something caught the Trill's attention, but she apparently decided to let it slide for the moment. "Kira, she'd better hurry. The craft is breaking up rapidly."
"Marriv, you'll want to beam over three life forms, and fast," she relayed.
"Activating transporter." At that moment the Bajoran ship seemed to shudder violently, and a handful of seconds later, it exploded, sending debris out in every direction—including at the Rencklogian vessel. "DS9, you are going to pay for every single repair to my hull!" the pilot screamed.
"We'll be more than happy to compensate—did you get the passengers?" Kira snapped.
There was a long, uneasy pause; she held her breath and stole a glance at Dax, whose usual serene expression had momentarily faltered her. Then the Rencklogian pilot's voice came back up. "DS9, this is Marriv. I have three passengers with me. Estimated time of arrival is fifteen minutes."
"You've been assigned Cargo Bay Four, Marriv. Our staff will be more than happy to assist with repairs to your ship. DS9 out." Kira leaned against her console in relief and closed her eyes. "That was certainly cutting things close." She turned around discovered Sisko standing there, his relief a mirror image of hers.
"Very well done, Major," he said. "Would you care to join me at Bay Four?"
"All right," she agreed, then paused as something occurred to her. "Kira to Bashir. Possible medical situation coming in at Cargo Bay Four." She glanced over at Sisko, who nodded in approval, then started for the turbolift when Dax spoke up.
"Be careful. Something odd is going on."
They were at her station in an instant. "What do you mean?"
She looked up at them. "There were three people on that ship. But only two of them were Bajoran."
"So what was the other one?" Kira asked.
Dax took a deep breath. "Cardassian."
* * * * * *
Odo and three security officers were waiting at Cargo Bay Four's airlock, as was Bashir. "Be ready for anything," Kira ordered. "With a Cardassian involved, there's no telling what's going on."
Sisko looked at her, then at the constable. "Let's just be sure that we listen before we take any sort of action, shall we?" She favored him with a brief glare, and then there was no time to debate the issue further, because the airlock doors rumbled open.
The first person out was a tall, slender woman with long red hair and an attitude. "Who's in charge here?" she demanded hotly.
Kira graciously stepped back, deferring to Sisko; the woman took this as acknowledgment and immediately stormed right up to the Starfleet officer. "I want to know just where you people get off, threatening me with the loss of my cargo when I was just minding my own business! And when I agree to lend a hand, I damned near get killed by the people I'm supposed to rescue!"
She paused for a breath, and he seized the moment. "I would certainly agree that you took a substantial risk," he said in his calmest tones, "at considerable danger to your life. I cannot express my gratitude that you were able to save the lives of those endangered people..."
"Endangered? Hah!" She sneered at him, then turned around and pointed at the airlock. "No sooner do those Bajorans materialize on my pad than the old man puts a gun to me and tries to commandeer my ship! 'We're going to Bajor', he tells me. I tell him that we're putting in at DS9. And what does he do? He tells me 'We're going to Bajor. You're either coming with us as a pilot or a corpse'!" The young woman's face twisted into righteous fury as the first of the rescued Bajorans appeared. He was short and painfully thin, with short steel-grey hair and clothes that seemed to hang listlessly on his bony frame. But it was his eyes that captured Sisko's attention—they were filled with anger, purpose...obsession.
"I apologize for the inconvenience," he said quietly. "I was concerned about how we would be received until I heard Major Kira's voice." Sisko turned towards his first officer and found her standing stone still, staring incredulously at the old man. "It's been a long time, Nerys," he said to her with a trace of warmth.
She nodded dumbly. "It...certainly has, Furan." Recovering what she could of her composure, she turned to the commander. "This is Vestil Furan, Commander. He's a hero of the Bajoran people."
"A pleasure," Sisko said quietly. The old man nodded in response.
All this was too much for the freighter pilot. "Well, my name is Salja Tannis, and I demand to know what you're going to do about all this!" she bellowed.
Sisko returned his attention to her. "We are going to make every effort to repair your craft so that you can finish your run in time. We are going to provide you with accommodations at no cost until those repairs are made. In short, we are going to make this unexpected stop as pleasant for you as we can." His eyes suddenly grew colder. "And I would suggest that you make it as pleasant for yourself as you can."
The pilot backed away, sullen but knowing when she was beaten. He now turned back to the old man. "I'm Commander Benjamin Sisko, administrator of Deep Space Nine. If any of your fellow passengers require medical care, our chief medical officer," here he motioned to Bashir, who smiled and bowed slightly, "would be more than happy to treat them."
"I appreciate your kind offer, Commander," Vestil said. "But as you can see, my daughter and I are quite well." As he spoke, a thin teenage girl with long dark hair and large, frightened eyes appeared, gripping a long, ugly weapon tightly in her hands. "May I present my daughter Annya." Sisko nodded politely to her; she took two steps to her left, and made a 'hurry-up' motion with her weapon.
The third member of the party came into view. It was of course the Cardassian, the one that Dax had picked up on her scan. But while the Bajorans were for the most part in good shape, this man's fate had been apparently less than kind. His hands were locked within shackles. His ankles were bound with heavy-duty cuffs that were in turn connected by a solid iron bar. His leather uniform was ripped in various places along his arms and legs, revealing long, ugly welts and wounds that had not yet healed. His mouth had been covered with a half-mask that made speech impossible. And yet, as Sisko studied him, the Cardassian in turn stared back at him, with eyes filled with...peace?
He heard a sharp intake of breath from beside him; he turned and found Kira staring at the prisoner, the color draining from her face. "Balek," she whispered, horror and terror riding on each syllable.
Vestil looked pleased. "You remember, Nerys."
"I assume this is the remaining member of your party?" Sisko asked, a harshness that he'd hoped to excise from his voice slipping in anyway.
"Yes." The old man turned to stare malevolently at his captive. "Commander, this is Gul Balek, a Cardassian war criminal we are returning to Bajor for trial." He turned to face the welcoming committee. "As this is a Bajoran station and subject to the Bajoran government's wishes, I am hereby demanding that you provide us with transportation so that we can take our prisoner to Bajor and complete our mission."
Sisko stared at the Bajoran, then at the Cardassian, and suddenly wished that he'd stayed in bed after all.
Starfleet prided itself on training officers to rapidly assess a situation, ponder the possible courses of action, and act accordingly. Ben Sisko was selected to run Deep Space Nine in part because he possessed those abilities in great measure, and his talents had gotten him out of more than one sticky situation in the brief time he'd been posted to the station. But right now, he was damned if he could determine a graceful way out of this mess.
Vestil was standing there expectantly, waiting for the commander to accede to the his demands. Kira kept glancing at her superior, no doubt wondering what the problem was. The Rencklogian pilot was nearby, obviously seething but unwilling to confront him just now. And then there was the Cardassian, standing there calmly in his bonds.
Kira finally tired of waiting. "I'm sure that there isn't a problem," she said to Vestil. "In fact, I'll be more than happy to fly you to Bajor myself in one of our runabouts..."
"One moment." Bashir pushed through the crowd and strode purposefully towards the Cardassian. The teenage Bajoran guarding him took a step forward and levelled her gun in the doctor's direction, but the doctor in one smooth motion retrieved his tricorder from his pocket and shoved the gun barrel to one side. He scanned the prisoner thoroughly, growing visibly angrier with every passing moment.
"Commander," he said with overtones of outrage. "This Cardassian has been badly injured. I demand that he be taken to the infirmary for further examination and treatment."
"Absolutely not," the old man jumped in, moving over to join the discussion. "This is a war criminal. He deserves no more humane treatment than what he gave the thousands of Bajorans he tortured and slaughtered. I will not tolerate any further delays in my mission!"
"Commander," Bashir persisted, "in my professional opinion this man requires immediate medical care. I intend to file a formal complaint with Starfleet, Cardassia and the Bajoran government if I am not permitted to provide it."
"I will not tolerate any Starfleet interference in this matter..." Vestil yelled.
"I have to agree with him," Kira said to Sisko. "This is a Bajoran situation. Starfleet has no official interest in it. Commander, I can take Vestil, his daughter and the prisoner to Bajor and be back within a few hours..."
"This man needs treatment!" Bashir insisted hotly.
Kira glared warningly at him. "Doctor, you could come along and treat him on Bajor..."
"Absolutely not," the doctor said firmly.
Suddenly, Sisko saw a possibly way out of this mess and seized it. "Captain Tannis," he asked the Rencklogian pilot, "did you not say that this man attempted to hijack your vessel? That he put a gun to your head and threatened you?"
"He sure did," she replied, glaring again at the Bajoran.
"That has nothing to do with the prisoner..." Vestil countered.
"Perhaps not." Sisko said. "But attempted hijacking of a vessel is a very serious offense—one that does fall under Starfleet jurisdiction. And as a Starfleet officer I cannot let these charges go without a proper investigation—that is, if Captain Tannis wishes to press charges against you..."
"You bet I do," the spacer agreed fiercely.
The commander shrugged in resignation. "Well then, it seems my duty is clear. Vestil Furan, you and your daughter are hereby ordered to remain on Deep Space Nine until the charges against you have been duly investigated. If the accusations have basis in fact, we will consult with Bajor about the proper venue for a trial. Until that time we will be happy to provide you and your daughter with quarters."
"And what about him?" Vestil demanded, pointing at Gul Balek, who was looking on with mild interest.
"He will be escorted by our security forces to the infirmary, where Doctor Bashir will treat his injuries. And then we will place him in a security cell until your own situation has been resolved." Sisko smiled thinly. "Unless of course you have any objections?"
"Objections?" he roared. "Objections? You treat this...this animal as though he deserves any sort of consideration at all, and I am regarded as little more than dirt?" He balled his fists and grit his teeth. "As you wish, Commander Sisko—with two provisions. First, I would like my daughter to accompany the prisoner for my own peace of mind."
"And second, I request permission to contact the Bajoran provisional government."
Sisko nodded politely. "Of course."
Kira looked as though her commanding officer had suddenly started speaking in Klingon. "Commander, this is wrong..." she began.
He gave her a look that said "later", and she fell silent, though her gaze spoke volumes. He then returned his attention to the old man. "Major Kira will be happy to escort you to a communications port, then take you to your quarters." She glanced over at Sisko briefly, then set her jaw and nodded at Vestil. He stiffened momentarily, then smiled crookedly and let her lead him away.
Odo turned to one of his guards. "Lieutenant Agel, arrange quarters for Captain Tannis and obtain a statement from her." The security officer nodded and escorted the hotheaded pilot away; the constable then stepped forward to claim the Cardassian prisoner. The girl with the rifle stiffened slightly, then stepped back in deference to him. He acknowledged the action with a curt nod. "You're free to come along," he informed her, "but I don't allow weapons in the Promenade."
She stared up into his alien features, anger, respect and more than a little fear etched into her delicate features. He returned her gaze with unflinching command. After a moment, she looked away and handed the rifle over to one of his staff. "Thank you," he said. "Your cooperation is greatly appreciated." He nudged the Cardassian forward. "This way."
Sisko turned to Bashir, who was standing beside him, studying his tricorder intently. "Your opinion, Doctor?"
"I want your professional assessment of Gul Balek's injuries, along with possible causes."
The physician's jaw tightened. "In my professional opinion, Commander, someone has beating the hell out of Gul Balek."
"You're quite sure of that?"
"There is no way you'll ever convince me otherwise, sir."
"Very well. Proceed with our new guest to your infirmary. See if you can persuade the girl to take those manacles off him, while you're at it." Bashir nodded and hurried off. When the two contingents had vanished, Sisko let go of his pent-up breath. "Well, so much for celebrating my birthday quietly...."
* * * * * *
Jake and Nog had been given orders to head straight for Mrs. O'Brien's school the minute they'd left the birthday party. Naturally they'd started out in that direction, but for some strange reason the Promenade kept calling for them to stay a while. And since Odo had been called away on some priority assignment, the boys were able to stake out the comings and goings of the station personnel from their favorite perch on the second level.
"Dad's going to kill me if he finds out I didn't go to school today," the younger Sisko muttered.
"So go," Nog replied breezily. "No one is stopping you."
"I know," Jake sighed. "But it's just...I don't know, I just don't feel like being stuck in class all day learning about boring stuff."
"So what do you want to do?"
"I dunno. What do you want to do?"
The young Ferengi shrugged; Jake rolled his eyes and returned his attention to the main corridor of the Promenade. To his surprise, something interesting was going on—a team of security officers were politely pushing people back so that a wide path could be cleared. And a second later, Odo and Doctor Bashir were escorting a Cardassian down the way—a Cardassian that looked to be completely bound and gagged. And right behind them...
He felt his heart stop momentarily. She was breathtakingly beautiful. Slender, graceful, long dark hair, and her eyes...he'd never seen a pair of eyes so spellbinding in his life. She was, without a doubt, the loveliest girl he'd ever seen. Mesmerized, Jake watched her pass under the walkway, then found himself scrambling over to the other side so that he could continue to watch her as she followed the retinue into the infirmary.
"What's with you?" Nog demanded.
"Didn't you see her?" the teen breathed. "She was so beautiful..."
"If you say so," the Ferengi replied, unimpressed. "Say, why don't we see if any ships are unloading in the cargo bays?"
"No. I've got to meet her. I've got to find out what her name is."
"She's just a Bajoran girl. And you know how unpleasant they can be..."
Jake stood up. "I don't feel good," he announced.
"You were fine a minute ago."
"No, I'm definitely not feeling good. I think I'd better skip school and let Doctor Bashir take a look at me." And before his best friend could react, Jake was running down the stairwell and hurrying towards the infirmary. The Ferengi shook his head in bewilderment and rested his chin on the walkway guardrail.
"Hew-mons," he sighed to no one in particular.
* * * * * *
For the longest time, Kira struggled to find something—anything—to say to Vestil. The old man was content to follow her to the turbolift, his eyes looking all around at the nooks and crannies of the station. As they walked through the Promenade, she could feel the eyes of the other Bajorans as they recognized the distinguished hero in their midst, could hear the awed whispers that rippled through the crowd.
"Please, accept this food as our gift," begged a kiosk operator bearing a huge package, the contents of which emitted a sweet scent that made her stomach growl. Vestil thanked the man and shook his hand, then handed the box to her.
"Some clean clothing for you and your daughter," said a Bajoran clothier, shoving a colorful bundle atop the package Kira was carrying. "Our finest. Our tribute to you, Vestil Furan." The old man smiled again and thanked him, then moved on...
...to the next well-wisher, and the next, and the next. Somewhere along the way Kira gave up and grabbed a cart to carry the ever-growing pile of gifts. Vestil thanked them one and all, shook their hands, kissed their cheeks, blessed their children, and smiled brightly as they slowly made their way through the crowd.
Soon the news of the old man and his prisoner would be running rampant through the station, she realized—and she suddenly wondered if Odo's security would be up to the task of handling a mob screaming for Gul Balek's blood.
"I confess to be quite overwhelmed by all this," he said with a smile.
"It's only what you deserve," she replied, pushing the cart into a turbolift that seconds earlier had been full of ill-tempered Bajorans but was now miraculously empty. "And this is probably nothing compared to what all Bajor will want to honor you with. I mean...Gul Balek! That's quite a capture!"
"It took a great deal of time, resource and sacrifice," he said sadly. "He'd hidden himself quite well. But with the Cardassian superiority complex towards Bajorans, a quiet little mouse can pick up quite a few tidbits if he keeps his ears open." He leaned back against the wall of the turbolift and closed his eyes. "It has been a long hunt, Nerys. But when the butcher has paid for his crimes against Bajor, then I shall be able to rest."
"Are you all right?" she asked, suddenly concerned. She reached out and touched his shoulder, but the old man smiled and shook his head. "Look, we've got an excellent physician on the station," she insisted. "Doctor Bashir would be more than happy to..."
Vestil's eyes snapped open. "Yes...your doctor," he echoed. "And...Sisko, wasn't it? The Starfleet officers."
"Yes," Kira nodded. "Look, don't hold what happened out there against them. They're good men. Commander Sisko was instrumental in saving the station and in claiming the wormhole for Bajor."
"So he was The Emissary. Yes, I'd heard about that." He frowned. "But he seems reluctant to allow me to return to Bajor with my prisoner."
"Let me talk to Sisko. I can convince him to let me take you home."
"It is imperative that Gul Balek be tried and punished for his crimes," the old man declared, as though he hadn't heard a word she'd said. "I sense some reluctance from your Commander Sisko along those lines." She opened her mouth to protest, but he shook his head. "He's of the Federation, Nerys. He could never understand the depths of the anguish and pain this man put the Bajoran people through."
"I'm sure he'll understand once I explain things to him..."
"Very well, Nerys. Talk to him," the old man said, an unexpected edge to his voice. "But I still wish to speak to the Bajoran government. If Commander Sisko will not listen to you or to me, perhaps he will listen to the true owners of this station."
* * * * * *
Sisko had wasted no time—the instant he'd returned to his office, he'd secured a line to the nearest Starfleet station. Admiral Bloemker, a tough but fair-minded woman whom he'd worked with several times before and greatly respected, listened to his bare-bones report and shook her head. "Ben, you never seem to get any of the easy ones," she sighed.
"Well, for the moment I've got all the pieces of the puzzle here on the station," he replied. "But there's no guarantee how long that will last. And I'm sure the Cardassians will come calling—both here and on Earth." He leaned back in his chair. "I am very much open to suggestions, Admiral."
"I wish I had some to give you," she answered. "Ben, let me contact Starfleet Command and see what they've got cooking on their end. Perhaps we can offer mediation between the Bajorans and the Cardassians."
"I doubt the Bajoran government will go for that," he warned. "They'll settle for nothing less than my bringing him to Bajor with a red ribbon wrapped around his neck, suitable for immediate hanging."
"Lovely," the admiral sighed again. "Keep playing for time, Ben. I'll contact you as soon as possible. Bloemker out." He watched the viewscreen blink out, then turned in his chair and stared out at the stars, thinking about a cool spring day in Wembley Stadium, where the London Kings would be taking the field against the New York Yankees in the season opener...
* * * * * *
If there was one thing Julian Bashir was proud of—and it would be one of many—it was his ability to charm the opposite sex. With his good looks, bright smile and deep dark eyes, Bashir had persuaded dozens of women to fall willingly under his spell. Unfortunately, he always seemed to run into a brick wall with two particular species—Trill and Bajoran.
"Young lady," he said in his most reasonable tone of voice to the girl, who had thus far shown no inclination to being reasonable. "I assure you that your prisoner will not escape. Constable Odo and his men are here to prevent that from happening. But I cannot give this man adequate care until you release him from his bonds. Now would you please hand us the keys?"
The girl shook her head. Bashir exhaled in frustration and glanced over at where the Cardassian was standing; O'Brien was poking and prodding at the lock mechanisms to no avail. "Bloody hell," the chief grumbled. "Can't use a state-of-the-art security mechanism. Oh no. Can't use anything that I could open in two seconds flat. No, we have to use a bloody clugium spring-lock that's too damn dense to cut with a laser and non-magnetic to boot, so we either pick the lock or use the damn keys, and the little brat won't give them...."
The Cardassian watched from behind his gag-mask, seemingly impassive, but there was a glimmer in his eyes that made Bashir almost swear that he found the whole thing highly amusing. The chief abruptly cursed a blue stream of invective and threw a broken probe across the room, where it clanged against the wall and clattered as it hit the floor. He turned and glared at the Bajoran, who returned the gaze measure for measure. "Odo," he said in exasperation. "Why don't we simply search her and take the keys?"
"Because she's done nothing to justify a search," the constable replied as he came forward. The girl's eyes widened slightly as she took in his odd features, but he ignored her and headed over to the prisoner. "Perhaps I can be of service, however." The chief shrugged and withdrew; Odo studied the lock opening for a moment, then pressed his left index finger against the aperture. The digit shimmered and melted, pouring into the opening and filling the internal mechanism. Then the shapeshifter twisted his hand to the right, and to everyone's surprise the lock popped open. Within minutes, the Cardassian was free of all his bonds.
Gul Balek turned and stared at his liberator for several moments. Then he smiled slightly and said, "Thank you." The constable nodded curtly and returned to his post by the doorway. The Bajoran teenager glared at the shapeshifter, but remained where she was.
"I'm afraid you'll have to remove your uniform," Bashir said to his new patient.
"Certainly," the Cardassian nodded. "To be honest, though, I don't think I'll be able to put it back on." He smiled ruefully at the long jagged rips in the leather as he began to strip, but paused as his eyes fell upon the Bajoran girl. "Doctor, do you think we might possibly..."
"Ah. Yes. Certainly." The doctor motioned to Odo, who politely but firmly took the girl by the shoulders and escorted her out of the room. "Well then," the physician continued cheerfully, "now that that's done, let's get to work, hmmm? By the way, if you'd like, I could contact Garak. He's a Cardassian...clothier." Bashir reached over for his instruments and set to work on his patient's injuries. "I'm sure he could find something for you to wear."
"I would very much appreciate that, Doctor. My thanks."
* * * * * *
In the short time since Palig Nara had been working in the DS9 infirmary, the nurse had gotten to know a fairly large percentage of the station's inhabitants. More importantly, the redheaded RN had also developed an uncanny knack of knowing who was legitimately in need of care, who was developing a severe case of hypochondria, and who was just plain ducking work. At the moment, the son of the station's commander was definitely falling into the third category.
"I'm not buying it, Jake," Palig said firmly to the young man. "What is it this time? Exam? Homework? Out with it."
"Aw, c'mon, Palig," he pleaded, his eyes growing into doe-like dimensions. "I've got a stomach ache, and it's really making me sick." He winced for effect, and then the perfect excuse occurred to him. "See, I had some of the cake Lieutenant Dax made for my dad's birthday..."
"Say no more," Palig replied. "You're the fourth case this morning. Sit down and I'll get you something for it." Jake nodded and moaned softly for effect, cradling his stomach as he headed for the waiting area. And at that moment, the Bajoran girl that had entranced him earlier came out of Bashir's examination room—followed, unfortunately, by Odo.
The shapeshifter regarded the boy with acute suspicion—the teenager wondered how Quark managed to keep from confessing all his crimes when that gaze fell upon his Ferengi features. "Mister Sisko," Odo said with dangerous formality. "This is an unexpected pleasure. I would have thought you would be in school by now."
"I...have a stomach ache," Jake gulped.
"Really." The constable considered this, then apparently remembered the birthday cake, because he nodded in what he must have thought constituted sympathy. "Very well. Just remember to head straight back to class when you're done here. I've got far more important things to do than play truant officer to you and your Ferengi accomplice. Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir," Jake nodded, trying hard to look ill. It wasn't hard, because the very proximity to the girl made a legion of butterflies take flight in his stomach.
"Good. As for you, miss," he said to the girl. "You are welcome to remain here until Doctor Bashir is finished treating your prisoner. At such time, he will contact me, and I will escort him to the security cell I'm going to prepare for him right now. My men," and he nodded towards the three security officers standing by the examination room doorway, "will see to it that no one goes in or out until that time. Have I made myself clear?"
"Certainly," she replied coldly, but to the eavesdropping teen it was like hearing wind chimes in a spring breeze. Odo seemed satisfied and, nodding to his guards, headed out of the infirmary. Jake glanced at the girl out of the corner of his eye, drinking in her loveliness as much as he could, then pretended to be engrossed in some out-of-date Starfleet publication for a few minutes.
Then, as if he'd just noticed her, he looked up and gave her his most charming smile. "Hi," he squeaked.
She turned towards him, her fierce dark eyes appraising him carefully. "Hello."
"My name's Jake Sisko. I haven't seen you around here before."
"I just arrived today with my father. I'm waiting for our prisoner to be treated." She made a face of extreme distaste. "As if he deserves any."
He figured the prisoner had to be that Cardassian he'd seen in chains earlier. "Oh," he said casually.
She frowned and studied him more closely. "Your father is the commander of this station, isn't he?" she asked imperiously.
That was enough for her. "My father says that Starfleet people are a bunch of moralizing hand-wringers," she informed him. "And anyone who would give aid and comfort to a Cardassian," she spat on the floor, "is no one that I'd care to know." She turned away from him and stared at the exam room door.
Jake opened his mouth to say something, but damn her soul, Palig came over at that moment. "Come on, Jake," she ordered. "I've got some medicine for your stomach."
"But...but..." He found himself hoisted roughly to his feet and dragged into Bashir's office. "Palig, I'm really feeling a lot better now, honest!"
"Mmmm-hmm." Palig looked down at him and scowled. "I figured that if I waited long enough, your true motives would turn up. Like that little Bajoran girl, do you?"
"No!" he protested, all too aware of his blush creeping up his face as he spoke. "I just...just..."
"Let me give you a word of advice," Palig said not unkindly. "Bajoran women appreciate honesty and determination. They won't tolerate a man who won't stand up to them, or give up before he's started."
Jake blinked rapidly. "You mean you're not going to tell Dad?"
"I don't plan to," Palig smiled. "But if I check with Mrs. O'Brien in fifteen minutes and I find out that you and your Ferengi buddy aren't in class, then I intend to make a call upstairs."
He nodded breathlessly. "I'm already on my way, Palig." He headed for the door, but the nurse suddenly called out his name. When he turned around, curious, she smiled again.
"Her name is Vestil Annya, Jake. Good luck."
If there was one thing Sisko utterly hated about his job, it was dealing with bureaucrats. They were generally so small-minded, petty and set in their ways that he sometimes found himself flinching when he received a call from Bajor. One night not too long ago, he had a bit too much wine during a late-night bull session with Dax and gotten effusive. He had boldly declared that in his opinion, the very first Borg had been some civic servant who had been too busy following regulations to notice that anything was amiss. And for better or worse, the entire Borg race had been formed from that initial template.
Right now he found himself deep in conversation with Chancellor Latrin Sayden of the Bajoran provisional government. Unfortunately, the conversation was decidedly one-sided. "I must emphasize, Commander, that unless you have a suitable reason for detaining Vestil Furan, the Bajoran government must insist that he be allowed to bring his prisoner to Bajor," the pompous little ass was saying.
"With all due respect, Chancellor Latrin," the Starfleet officer said with fading patience, "I am investigating charges brought against him by the pilot who rescued him. Until those charges are resolved, I cannot in good conscience permit him to leave the station. In addition, my station physician is treating Gul Balek for injuries that might have been caused by..."
"Commander, I do believe you're attempting to stall us," the official said slyly.
"Not at all. I simply want to see everything resolved in a fair and impartial manner." Sisko paused for a moment, then decided to go for broke. "As I was saying, the station physician believes that the injuries to Gul Balek were inflicted by Vestil Furan."
"I would not be surprised," replied the Bajoran. "He no doubt put up quite a struggle when he was captured."
"Doctor Bashir believes that these injuries were inflicted after the prisoner was put in restraints."
There was silence from the other end for a moment or two; Sisko looked up and saw Kira standing in the doorway. She lifted an eyebrow, and he waved her inside. "Commander Sisko," Chancellor Latrin was saying. "Those are very serious accusations to be making. And to make them against one of Bajor's greatest heroes is disturbing, to say the least."
"I agree. Which is why I am inclined to order a second investigation." He waited a beat for that one to sink in. "The Federation has very strict guidelines about the humane treatment of war criminals, you understand."
"Of course," said the bureaucrat coldly. "A pity that this is not a Federation matter. An even greater pity that the Cardassians had no such guidelines when they were busy exterminating my people. The official leaned back in his chair. "Commander, you can read the case file on Gul Balek and his crimes. You can interview dozens of people on the station. But unless you lived through his reign of terror—unless you survived it—then you cannot possibly understand why we want this Cardassian brought to justice."
"I understand far more than you realize. But I want fair and impartial justice to be done—not the lynch mob version that's performed with a rope or a firing squad."
Latrin smiled thinly. "We will be eagerly waiting for word of Vestil's impending arrival."
"I'll be more than happy to let you know when I can permit it. Sisko out." He switched the comm unit off and closed his eyes momentarily, then turned to Kira. "Well?"
She shook her head. "He's right, you know. You can't possibly understand what that animal represents to Bajorans. Not unless you've been there."
"I take it you don't approve of my actions, Major?"
"No, I don't." She rose to her feet and leaned over his desk. "Commander, quite frankly, you're treating Vestil Furan as though he were the criminal and Gul Balek the injured party. He's almost legendary on Bajor—his determination, his obsession to bring Balek back to justice has been inspirational to my people. You didn't see the way they crowded around him down on the Promenade. You didn't see the gifts they gave him. You didn't see the way they looked at him. If you insist on keeping him from taking his prisoner to Bajor...you are going to make a lot of Bajorans unhappy, both on the planet and up here."
He regarded her evenly. "Including yourself."
She rolled her eyes. "I can't say I understand why you're being so obstinate. This isn't a Starfleet affair, no matter how you try to twist and turn it..."
"Major. Suppose an Orion trader came in with a cargo of human slave labor. The men and women are in chains and have been beaten. What would you recommend we do?"
"That's different," she protested.
"How? Do we arbitrarily decide this race deserves humane treatment, but this one doesn't?" He leaned forward. "If Bajor is to someday join the Federation, your people are going to have to respect the basic rights of all races, not just the ones you happen to be allied with at the time."
Kira sighed in exasperation. "Look, Commander. Maybe—just maybe—Vestil did beat him, and maybe it wasn't in self defense. But quite frankly, had it been me...the bastard would never have made it to Bajor alive." She sat back down and stared at the floor.
Sisko let the silence fill the room, then rose to his feet. "Can I get you some tea?"
She nodded absently; he went over to the replicator and requested a cup of her favorite blend. She took it gratefully and took a long, thoughtful sip. He sat back down in his chair and leaned back, folding his fingertips together speculatively. "You've encountered Gul Balek before, I take it."
Kira shuddered. "Oh yes. I know all about him. He was in charge of a prison camp for many years—right up until the Cardassians left. And he was very, very good at what he did."
"Torture and extermination." She closed her eyes tightly and took another sip of her drink. "He killed thousands of Bajorans, Commander. Killed them for no other reason than the fact that they were Bajoran. Men, women, children, the young, the old...it made no difference to him. They were garbage to be taken out and gotten rid of."
"And Vestil Furan?" he said softly.
She took a breath and forced herself to swallow. "Vestil was a clock maker. He wasn't anything special—had a wife and a daughter, lived in the district capital, never gave the Cardassians any trouble. Then they scooped him and his family up one day and took them to Balek's camp." She closed her eyes again. "And when he protested, Gul Balek made him watch his wife raped and killed by five Cardassian soldiers."
Sisko found himself unable to say anything.
"And so, when the Cardassians left and the Resistance liberated the camps, Vestil and his daughter decided that they were going to track that butcher down and bring him back to justice. It didn't matter how long it took, or how far away he was—they were going to avenge that poor woman for what he'd done. He's regarded as a great hero for his persistence." She looked over at him. "And that's just one story. I assure you there are thousands more who can—and will—testify to his brutality."
"I get the impression that you're one of those thousands," he said carefully.
She nodded and looked away; her voice took a vacant, distant tone. "I was captured during a raid on Balek's camp. The Cardassians did to me what they did to all the Bajorans they hadn't yet killed." She smiled thinly. "I got the hell out of there as fast and as soon as I could." Sisko opened his mouth to speak, but Kira cut him off. "I really don't want to talk about it any more, Commander."
"Very well." He glanced out his window and stared at the multitude of stars. "I would say it's safe to assume we're going to have a visit from our good friend Gul Dukat soon."
"Probably," she agreed absently. "No doubt he'll want his precious fellow Cardassian back." Her eyes burned fiercely at him. "Let Vestil go, Commander. Let him take Balek to Bajor. This isn't your problem. Don't get involved."
He smiled slightly. "I'm afraid it's too late for that, Major."
"I was afraid you'd say that," she sighed as she rose to her feet. "If you change your mind, let me know."
"I appreciate your candor, Major."
She turned in the doorway and smiled. "For a change."
* * * * * *
"This way," Odo ordered. Gul Balek nodded and stepped into the security cell that had been prepared for him. He was dressed in a simple blue outfit, one that had been hastily provided by his fellow Cardassian, Garak. He looked around his new surroundings and nodded approvingly. The shapeshifter ran a final scan over the prisoner to look for weapons or any other illicit materials, then activated the force field.
Odo turned to the young woman standing beside him. "I hope this meets your standards," he said sardonically.
Annya frowned at the shapeshifter, unsure if he was being serious, funny, or sarcastic. "It will do," she finally stated. She hadn't been pleased with the constable's decision to bring Balek down here without any sort of bonds, but the Cardassian had behaved himself. Still, she wished she still had the laser rifle; something about it was oddly comforting to her. With a sigh, she sat down behind the table which sat in the center of the holding pen. "You can go now," she said quietly.
The constable stared at her quizzically. "I beg your pardon?"
"I said, you can go now. I will remain here and make sure that he," pointing at the cell, "does likewise."
Odo leaned over the table, putting his face directly opposite hers. "Are you implying that my security system is inadequate?"
She met his gaze as steadily as she could. "I am stating that I am remaining here to make sure our prisoner is not freed, either by accident or design. My father will be here to relieve me in eight hours or so." She rested her arms on the table. "May I have your permission to use your facilities as I have need of them?"
Odo stepped back and regarded the young woman carefully. "Certainly," he finally said. "I will notify your father as to your whereabouts, if you wish."
"I would appreciate that," she said, her eyes now locked upon the Cardassian, who was placidly washing his face and hands in the cell sink, his back to her.
"Very well." The constable gave the odd couple one final look before leaving. Gul Balek finished his washing and stretched out on the cot with a long, content sigh. Then he turned and studied the girl, whose gaze never seemed to waver from him.
"There's no need to be so cold and vigilant, Annya," he said. "I'm not about to do anything that might put us both on your father's bad side again."
She shivered slightly but said nothing.
* * * * * *
Odo returned to his desk and performed a routine sweep of the station, then called up Lieutenant Agel's report. He read Captain Tannis's statement carefully, his perpetual scowl deepening. He reread it just to make sure he hadn't missed anything, then routed the statement to Sisko, marking it high priority. He leaned back in his chair and shook his head. "Wonderful," he said to the empty room. "Simply wonderful..."
* * * * * *
To no one's great surprise, a Cardassian armada showed up about two hours later. Kira assigned the flagship shuttle a docking bay that would cause Gul Dukat the optimal amount of inconvenience. One had to have one's standards, after all. He appeared in Ops a short time later, looking highly irritated—which pleased her to no end. The Cardassian wasted no time in talking to her but instead headed straight to the doors of Sisko's office—which were shut. He looked around the nerve center of DS9, painfully aware that the only workers to be found were all Bajoran—another one of her touches, and one that she was quite proud of.
"I want to speak to Sisko," he finally snarled at her.
She smiled sweetly. "The commander is rather busy right now. I'll let him know you're here. In the meantime, help yourself to some of his birthday cake." She pointed to an abandoned console where Dax's pride and joy had been placed. Dukat eyed her suspiciously, but when he was sure no one was watching, he went over, cut a large piece out of the leftovers and gobbled it down greedily. "Hmm...."
Kira and her Bajoran compatriots smiled pleasantly to themselves and continued with their work.
* * * * * *
Sisko had been doing a great deal of reading, most of it about Gul Balek. Kira had not been understating the depths of hatred the Bajorans held for him, nor had she lied about the atrocities he had either approved of or performed himself. Admittedly, the Cardassians seemed to have taken great delight in subjugating the Bajorans over the years of their occupation, but his achievements clearly surpassed the others. Obviously a man who took great pleasure and pride in his work, as she had said.
He'd once heard a group of Starfleet officers in Quark's bar talking about people that they wished the Borg had assimilated. Sisko had been momentarily horrified by the mere suggestion that someone—anyone—deserved that awful fate...but within two minutes he'd come up with a list of names himself. At this moment, he'd be sorely tempted to place Gul Balek's name at the top of it.
And yet...when he had stared into the Cardassian's eyes, the acceptance, the peace that he found there just didn't seem to match the man in these reports. There was no bluster, no arrogance, not even any fear to be seen or felt. Just...peace. How strange, how very strange, he mused. Perhaps a private interview might be in order.
Then there was the matter of Vestil Furan. Sisko had read the statement Odo had sent him several times to make sure there hadn't been some mistake. If what Captain Tannis had said was true, then he would be forced to take action...action that would not be very popular with the Bajorans.
Initially, he'd pushed the spacer to press charges in order to give Bashir time to treat Balek. The plan had been to later persuade the Rencklogian captain into dropping the accusations, then allow Kira to fly Vestil and his prisoner to Bajor while he attempted to persuade the Federation to intervene on the Cardassian's behalf. But now, based on Tannis's tale of what had happened aboard the Marriv...he sighed and briefly dreamed about Wrigley Field on a crisp October afternoon, but the comm signal brought him back to reality.
"Guess who's here?" Kira said.
"Our good friend?"
"None other. Thought you'd like to know. Kira out." On impulse, he decided to let his counterpart cool his heels a bit longer. "Sisko to Bashir," he called out. "Have you finished your report?"
"Bashir here," came the reply, "and yes, I have."
"Your opinion, Doctor?"
"Has not varied one iota." They'd all learned to be a bit vague and talk in generalities when the Cardassians were around—when you knew your communications were being monitored, there was no sense in giving out every last detail of information. "I'll be forwarding my findings to you shortly."
"Thank you, Doctor." He waited a moment for the line to cut out, then raised his voice again. "Sisko to Odo."
"Odo here," the Constable's voice responded. "Our guest is in his cabin...and has a watchdog for company."
"See to it that both of them want for nothing reasonable."
"I assume that means I shouldn't give back that little toy she was carrying around."
"I think not. By the way, I've received and read Captain Tannis' statement."
"I thought you'd be interested in it."
"Very much so. Sisko out." Satisfied, he hit the switch on his desk and let his office doors open. "Greetings, Gul Dukat," he said quietly as the Cardassian entered, but did not rise from his chair.
Dukat strode over to the desk and leaned over it, his burning eyes a sharp contrast to the Starfleet officer's impassive appearance. "You are holding a highly-honored hero of Cardassia hostage in your security area," he declared without preamble. "And I am here to take him back home."
Sisko looked him straight in the eyes. "Please—sit down." The Cardassian's face twisted slightly for a moment, then he took a deep breath, nodded and took one of the two chairs opposite the desk. Sisko leaned back in his own chair and regarded his counterpart carefully. "I take it we're speaking of Gul Balek."
Dukat's face twisted into a tight smile. "Let us not play these games, Commander. I am not in the mood for them."
"Very well." Sisko leaned forward, resting his elbows on his desk. "I can't release him."
"Cannot, Commander? Or will not?"
"We've had this conversation before, Gul Dukat. There are...complications...to this situation, as there were the last time. You can surely understand my position by now."
The Cardassian officer shook his head. "There are no complications at all, Commander. A group of Bajoran terrorists kidnapped this poor fellow from his home and brought him here. You have managed to keep them from dragging him to Bajor and certain death—and Cardassia is quite grateful for your efforts along those lines, I'm sure. But now I will take him off your hands and return him to his home." He leaned back and smiled. "As I said, I fail to see any complications in this matter."
"On the contrary," Sisko replied pleasantly. "For one thing, he is a witness to an attempted hijacking. I'll relay the details to you later. For another, there is some debate as to whether he is the victim of ill treatment at the hands of the Bajorans you mentioned. If he wished to press charges against them under Federation law—well, as a Starfleet officer, I would be obliged to at least review the case."
Dukat's polite smile fell away. "This is a Bajoran station, Commander. Federation law does not apply here."
"Ahh, but if he chose to request asylum..."
The warrior rose to his feet and slammed his fist down on the desk. "Enough! Asylum implies guilt, Commander. Gul Balek is not guilty of any offense! You will remand him to my custody immediately or I will..."
Sisko remained seated, gazing at the Cardassian with calm regard. "What will you do, Gul Dukat?"
The enraged Cardassian caught himself and returned to his seat, but his agitation was still plainly present. "There are many options available to me," he finally said. "I would hope that you will not force me to review them...or worse, implement them. We have managed thus far to maintain a workable, if not ideal, relationship, Commander. I would not like to see that relationship destroyed."
"Nor would I, Gul Dukat. But there is one final consideration." Sisko let his arms stretch out across the desk, palms down. "Gul Balek is a war criminal with charges pending against him by the Bajorans. He is, as you noted, in Bajoran jurisdiction. I certainly can't defy their wishes in this matter."
"So you will not remand him to my custody?"
"Nothing would please me more. But no, I cannot...and I will not." Sisko turned his hands so that his palms were up in apology. "I'm sorry."
Gul Dukat rose to his feet slowly, nodding thoughtfully and allowing a malicious smile to stretch across his alien features. "Yes, I believe you are sorry, Commander. But not nearly as sorry as you will be." He walked to the door, then turned around. "I give you twenty-four hours to find a way to return our Cardassian brother to his people."
"And if I cannot?"
He shook his head. "You do what you must, Commander. As do I." The Cardassian passed through the doors and vanished from sight. Sisko leaned back in his chair and folded his hands in front of his face, wondering what in the hell he was going to do now.
* * * * * *
Gul Dukat strode through the corridors of the station that was once his fief. He was pleased to glimpse the looks of recognition and fear on the faces of the Bajorans who scurried out of his way. Even the occasional angry grimace brought him satisfaction—it was always good to know that one was remembered, respected...and hated.
The Promenade was full of people from a multitude of species. They gave him no more notice than they would any tall, leather-clad soldier whose every movement challenged them to give him grief. Here and there he could see his men, ostensibly enjoying some unexpected leave from the cramped confines of the flagship, but at the same examining the security setup and probing for potential weaknesses that could be quickly and effectively exploited.
And of course, there were more Bajorans. You couldn't get away from them. Cardassia had tried to eliminate the vermin, but no matter how many cleansing expeditions were sent out, they could never quite get completely rid of them. They scurried off into dark hiding places where they could not be found, and they waited...and they bred...and they hated. Oh, how they hated. And eventually, they began to fight back. Slowly, ineptly at first, but eventually growing into a foe that even a Cardassian had to grant the barest glimmers of respect.
Even now, when they preached peace and hope for a new era of greatness, you could still see the hatred in their eyes. It lurked there in the dark recesses of their minds, just waiting for an excuse to break free. All that held it there was the fear and the memories. And Gul Dukat made sure that neither of those factors ever went completely away.
He found the shop he was looking for and went inside. Two of his men saluted smartly and quickly exited, leaving him alone with the proprietor. "Gul Dukat!" Garak said delightedly. "I knew your ship had arrived, but I certainly did not expect a visit from such an august personage as yourself! How may I serve you?"
He gave the clothier a cold stare. "Are we alone?" In reply, Garak closed the door to his shop and, reaching behind a collection of knick-knacks on the top shelf of a nearby storage cabinet, retrieved a small device which he switched on and sat down on the counter. Dukat nodded in approval at the scrambler, then pretended to examine a garishly-colored shirt. "Have you seen him?" he asked quietly.
"Not directly," Garak replied. "I was asked to provide him with some clothing—from what little I was able to gather, the outfit he'd been wearing was tattered beyond repair."
"Sisko had mentioned some allegations of torture." The Cardassian commander went over to a second ensemble and scrutinized the workmanship. "Security?"
Garak shook his head. "Odo has every available officer on duty. I would assume that all possible precautions have been taken. In addition," he said as he joined his superior by a half-dressed mannequin, "the daughter of the kidnapper is standing vigil in the holding area."
"They don't give up without a battle, do they?" Dukat mused. "Well, hopefully Sisko will see that we're providing him with a graceful way out of this mess...but if not, then we must take appropriate action." He looked over sharply at Garak. "No matter what the cost, if Gul Balek does not leave this station with the Cardassian fleet...he does not leave here alive. Is that understood?"
Garak nodded. "Good." The commander headed for the door, then paused. "One other thing...on a more personal note. If you could..."
"Anything I can do, I shall," Garak bowed outrageously.
"That cake they give Sisko for his birthday..." Dukat smiled. "I should very much like to have the recipe. It was indescribably delicious."
"Jake, why are you doing this?" Nog demanded. He scrambled to keep up with his best friend, who was carrying a tray of food towards Security. "This is pointless! She isn't interested in you! You told me she snubbed you in the infirmary!"
"I know. But my dad said that Mom didn't show any interest in him until he cooked a meal for her."
"You didn't cook that," his friend pointed out. "Your father did."
"I know that, and you know that. She doesn't."
"Well, at least you didn't give her a piece of birthday cake for dessert." The Ferengi made an awful face. "I've tasted some awful stuff since Uncle Quark brought us here, but that..."
They had reached the entrance to Security; two Starfleet officers stood on either side of the doorway. Despite the staffing problems it caused, Odo had decided against using his Bajoran staff on this assignment, choosing to err on the side of caution. Lieutenant Peterson smiled at the teenager. "Very kind of you, Jake. Susanna and I are starved." She grinned over at her partner, Hoffs, who flashed a smile of her own at the boy.
"Uhhh...this isn't for you, Lieutenant. It's for the girl who's watching the Cardassian in there."
"Jake, isn't there a fully-functional replicator in there?" Peterson asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah, but this is home cooking. You know there's nothing like it." He looked up at the guards with a hopeful expression. "May I please take this to her?"
The women pretended to consider the proposal. "You promise you're not going to try and knife the prisoner?" Hoffs asked.
"Or feed him any of your father's birthday cake?" Peterson chimed in.
"Well....all right," Hoffs conceded. "But next time bring us something, okay?" Jake grinned and nodded as he walked through the doorway. Nearby, Nog rolled his eyes and sat down heavily on a bench, watching his friend continue to make an utter fool of himself.
* * * * * *
Vestil Annya yawned and glanced at her chronometer; she still had about two hours before her father was due to relieve her, which was about two hours too many in her opinion. She was tired, she was hungry, and worst of all, Gul Balek was being a model prisoner. After several attempts to open a conversation with her, the Cardassian had finally shut up and gone to sleep on his cell cot. And to make matters worse, he snored horribly.
Had things not gone wrong, she and her father would be on Bajor now. The prisoner would be in custody awaiting trial, and the Vestils would be basking in the acclaim of having brought back one of the most notorious war criminals in Bajoran history. They'd be outside, basking in the warmth of a sunny afternoon. They'd be lounging in the finest accommodations available. They'd be dining on a sumptuously-cooked meal. They'd be doing a thousand other things...if only the damned ship hadn't fallen apart at the worst possible moment.
She strongly suspected the Prophets had a perverse sense of humor.
She sighed softly and tried to not think about beds and sleeping, which, considering the sonata coming from the cell, was next to impossible. If only Father would come a little earlier, she could get out and stretch her legs a bit around the Promenade, which had looked highly intriguing earlier. And if she were extremely lucky, she might even find a place from where she could see the Celestial Temple open up—she'd heard it was a sight not to be missed.
Of course, if Father went to the local drinking establishment, all bets were off.
Annya tensed as she heard someone approaching. Since the security personnel were always careful to announce themselves in advance, she decided not to take any chances. Quietly, quickly she positioned herself against the wall beside the door and waited until the intruder had stepped completely in the room. Lunging forward, she wrapped her opponent in a tight headlock and squeezed. "Help!" he squeaked.
She took a close look at the intruder, recognized him as the boy who'd spoken to her in the infirmary, and let him go. "Don't you ever come in here without letting me know first," she warned. "You might not live to regret it." He nodded furiously and brought the tray he was carrying—and had miraculously not spilled during her assault—over to the interrogation desk. The smells of something delicious hit her nostrils like a starship. "What's this?"
"Eggplant stew," he said proudly. "My father's recipe. I thought you might like some food that didn't come out of a replicator."
She looked at him suspiciously. "How do I know this isn't drugged? Your father might have sent you here with this food to get me out of the way. That way he could give him," she pointed at the Cardassian, "back to his people."
The teenager shrugged and removed the cover to the bowl, dipped a spoon into the stew and ate three portions. She tried to ignore her stomach's growling as she watched him eat. "All right," she finally conceded. "I believe you." She sat down and began to eat greedily. "What did you say your name was?"
"Well, thank you...Jake." She tore into the sourdough rolls sitting beside the bowl. "So why are you doing this?"
"Because I thought you might like it." He sat down in a nearby chair. "I mean, it's got to be a real pain staying in here all day because you don't trust Odo's people."
"It's not your security people we don't trust," she said, shaking her head. "Where a Cardassian is concerned, you can never let your guard down—not even for a moment. It can be fatal." She sipped at the herbal tea and was surprised to find it to be one of her favorite blends.
"That's Major Kira's favorite," he informed her. "I figured it might be yours, too."
"It is." She sighed and sat back, now full in the belly and slightly sleepy. "I think I owe you a big apology, Jake."
"That's okay. I can understand why you feel that way. Heck, a lot of Bajorans working on the station aren't thrilled that Starfleet's here." He nodded towards the sleeping Cardassian. "He must have given you a lot of trouble, huh?"
She shook her head. "Actually, other than our ship falling apart, things went pretty smoothly after we captured him. It was snatching him that was horrible. We lost three of our team breaking him out of the insane asylum he'd taken refuge in."
"Is that where he got hurt?"
"No...." She felt a sudden surge of irrational anger roar through her and quickly suppressed it. "Look...Jake. I appreciate all this, I really do. But I think you'd better go. My father won't be pleased to see you or the food you brought."
"Okay." He picked up the tray and headed for the door, then paused. "Vestil?"
"Call me Annya," she said. "What is it?"
"When you do get out of here, could I show you around the station? I know a really good place to see the wormhole, and there're a couple of ships leaving in the next few hours..."
She wanted to say no, to dissuade him, but something inside her wouldn't permit it. "It may not be for a while...but yes. I'd like that. Thank you, Jake."
"Anytime," he said breathlessly, and was gone in a flash. She shook her head and struggled to stifle a yawn. What in the world was she thinking?
* * * * * *
"Is this place always so dull?" Captain Salja Tannis demanded. She looked around the crowded yet subdued confines of Quark's bar and shook her head. "I'd heard that you could always find a good time here, that there was always some action to get in on. Look at this!" She swigged down her drink and set the glass down. "Gimme another."
The Ferengi proprietor complied quickly, flashing his most charming and ingratiating smile. "My dear, you underestimate my little establishment." He handed her the glass, then leaned over the bar and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. "The problem is that you fail to see where the action truly lies...and from there, the opportunities."
"What do you mean?" Tannis was tired, irritated and bored. She'd been forced off course, threatened by some old madman with a Cardassian prisoner, stuck on this godforsaken station by an idealistic commander, and had a deadline looming in front of her. She was in the mood for a good, wild time, in search of an outlet to let off some steam. It had been a crappy day and there was no promise of better things to come. And now the damned Ferengi was telling her that she was too ignorant to see "action".
"Well," Quark said, "let's begin by studying who is seated where. Note that the Cardassians are fairly well spread out, in groups no less than three and no greater than five. They're reporting back to their squad leaders about the security perimeter around the esteemed prisoner that you so graciously brought aboard earlier today. Now notice the Bajorans. Wherever the Cardassians are, there is a group of Bajorans with the same number of people so that the balance is maintained."
"Really?" the pilot said, a whiff of disinterest in her voice.
"Oh yes. And then there are the Starfleet people, who are spread out in a fairly even distribution. They're here to keep the Bajorans and the Cardassians from killing one another, but they're taking great pains to appear utterly inconspicuous." The Ferengi chuckled to himself. "And then there are the rest of my customers, who are utterly ignorant of the entire situation. They simply want to have a good time...which is, after all, my primary reason for being here."
She shrugged. "Fine. I want to have a good time, too. Find me one. It's duller than a B'kian honeymoon here."
Quark sighed. "I've run this establishment for a long time, my dear. Intrigue is sometimes all that keeps me going. It would appear, though, that your interests lie in a more obvious pursuit." His jagged, crooked teeth flashed. "Might I suggest an hour or two in one of my holosuites...?"
"Can't afford it." Tannis drained her glass and held it out for yet another refill. "Now, had I been able to get my cargo to its destination, then I would have been in good shape. But now..." She shook her head. "And I've checked every possible outlet for any extra cargo. Gods, a place this big, you'd think they'd do more than just bring goods in!"
The Ferengi's huge ears picked up. "You're looking for additional work?"
"Was," she corrected. "No one's interested."
"That's because you asked the wrong people," he said. "Had you come to me, there is in fact a most delicious opportunity that, while calling for caution and discretion, could result in a wonderful profit for the right people..." Quark abruptly shut up and scowled at the sight of Chief O'Brien coming their way. "Starfleeters," he sighed. "Always showing up when you don't want them."
O'Brien handed her a PADD. "Captain, I wanted to let you know that the repairs to your ship will be finished tomorrow. This is a list of what we worked on."
"That's very kind of you," she nodded. "Now if you could get your commander to let me go, I'd be in perfect shape." She suddenly smiled at the Starfleet officer. "Chief...let me buy you a drink and thank you properly."
He shook his head. "I'm very busy, Captain...and very married." He nodded politely and left. Tannis scowled in disgust and held her glass out for yet another drink, but the Ferengi had gone somewhere. She was just about ready to call it a night when someone jostled her from behind. She whirled around angrily, a profane diatribe all set to come out, but the snarl abruptly became a smile.
"I'm terribly sorry," Doctor Julian Bashir apologized, his white teeth gleaming. "Might I buy you a drink to make up for my clumsiness?"
* * * * * *
"So what will you be having tonight?" Quark asked Dax. The Trill had come in only moments after O'Brien, and the Ferengi never missed an opportunity to personally serve such a lovely specimen.
"Let's see...what did I try last time?"
"A Bolian Shadow," he answered after consulting his drink list. The Trill was sampling his wares in alphabetical order, which suited him just fine. Since she only bought one or two drinks per visit, Quark was guaranteed a good long number of future encounters...and possibilities.
"Hmmm....let's be different tonight. Give me a Rimborian Jonah. I haven't had one of those in about seventy-five years." Dax looked around the bar as the big-eared owner scurried to fix the drink—Dax preferred hand-made concoctions over replicated synth. "Have you seen Julian? We were supposed to meet here."
"Afraid not," Quark lied, handing her the drink. "Here you go. Enjoy."
"Thank you. Ah, there he is." She pointed over to where Bashir was engrossed in conversation with the captain of the Marriv. "But he seems to be busy."
"She is a lovely creature..." he admitted. "But not so lovely as you. I can't see why he'd settle for anything less."
"Thank you, Quark," she said with a smile. "But you're jumping to conclusions. Julian is a very dear friend, nothing more." Her smile grew slightly tighter as she spotted the pilot's hand sliding down Bashir's thigh. "On the other hand, what kind of friend would I be if I were to let him fall into the embrace of a barracuda? Excuse me." To the Ferengi's distress, she slid gracefully off the bar stool and was making a beeline for Bashir when a nearby voice called out:
"Please. Sit down and grace an old man with your beauty."
Having been one herself, Dax had a soft spot for old men. She turned to find Vestil Furan sitting by himself in a darkened booth. His eyes were bright and shining with a boozy haze as he motioned for her to join him. She glanced over at Bashir, who wasn't objecting one bit to Tannis's advances, and with a sigh sat down just opposite Vestil. "I'm tremendously flattered," she said to him.
"No, it's me who should be flattered," he replied with a crooked smile. "I'll be the envy of every man here tonight."
He'd definitely been here for some time, she thought to herself as she studied his craggy, tired features. She could smell the reek of alcohol—the real thing, not synth—from every pore of his body. And the collection of empty glasses that littered the table spoke ample testimony. "You've been busy."
"Gifts," he said with a tired smile. "From my people. They wish to honor me for my work."
"Celebrating Gul Balek's capture?" she asked.
He shook his head. "I will not celebrate until he has been returned to Bajor, tried, sentenced, and executed," he declared, saluting his statement with a long pull at his drink. He stared at the Trill for a long time, obviously trying to frame a question in his alcohol-riddled mind. Finally, he sighed and opened his mouth. "Why does your Commander Sisko hate me?"
Dax smiled gently. "Benjamin Sisko doesn't hate anybody."
"Then...why will he not let me take my prisoner back to Bajor? Why does he try to stall me with trumped-up charges...?"
"You attempted to hijack your rescuer's ship," she pointed out. This reminded her of Tannis and Bashir, and she turned in the direction they'd been standing, but no one was there.
"My duty is to bring that Cardassian animal to justice," came the reply. "Nothing...nothing must stand in the way of that duty."
Dax knew that she'd be treading on thin ice if she asked, but then again, in his current state she'd never get a better chance for an honest reply. "Did you beat him?" she inquired softly.
For a long time the old man said nothing, merely stared at his empty glass as if pure will could fill it. Then the words came out, spilling one after the other with no hint of drunkenness behind them. "I was a craftsman. My clocks ..." He lifted his hands up and showed them to her. "They were not thrown together by some machine and spewed out one after the other. I put them together piece by piece with my hands. I gave them all a small piece of my soul. They were beautiful.
"And then...the Cardassians came. Our friends, they claimed. Here to help us, they promised. And I, in my foolishness, believed them. I calmed my wife's fears, I swore by the Prophets that nothing would happen to us. I continued my work—I even made several clocks for our guests." He gazed into unseen shadows and shook his head. "I was so...trusting back then.
"And then they began their reign of oppression. And my family was gathered up and put into a work camp. My wife defied them—I told her, begged her to be quiet, but she would not listen to the words of a coward, or so she said." He closed his eyes. "Gul Balek struck her across the face. She felt to the ground. Before Annya or I could help her, we were held back by his guards. And we watched as they beat her....we watched as they kicked her...we watched as they..."
The old man began to shudder; she reached out and put a comforting hand on his shoulder. He sniffled and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his shirt, then forced himself back into a semblance of normalcy. "We buried her that evening...they did not let us honor her with the chant. Several tried, and had their vocal cords cut for it. So time went on, and we worked, and we endured...and we remembered." Steel now entered his voice...and hatred as well.
"And now, the man who forced me to watch his men beat and rape my wife...he was in my power, every bit as helpless as I'd been that day." His eyes burned into hers. "Are you and your Starfleet friends so noble, so honorable that the slightest glimmer of vengeance would not even flicker in your heart?"
Dax thought of Sisko, and Locutus, and said nothing.
Vestil slowly slumped over upon the table. "I am so tired," he murmured, "but I cannot sleep. They haunt me, everywhere I go. They cry to be avenged, to return their pain to Gul Balek a hundredfold. They give me no peace, so I must drink until I can no longer hear them...or care..." His voice trailed off, followed seconds later by a long snore.
Dax sat there for some time, watching the old man as he slept. Then she motioned for Lieutenant Perez, who'd been sitting quietly nearby, to come over. "Help me get him to his cabin," she said softly. Between the two of them, they were able to get the old man out of the booth. They half-carried, half-dragged him to the door, where to her surprise she discovered Bashir waiting for them. "Weren't you with Captain Tannis?" she asked.
"Her idea of a good time was bit too exuberant for my tastes." He grabbed his tricorder and scanned the old man. "This isn't good," he shook his head.
"He isn't the first person to pass out at Quark's," she said.
"No, but his liver is practically non-existent, his heartbeat is too fast and too erratic, and there are a number of other problems that should have been addressed long ago." He replaced Dax on one side of the old man. "Let's get him to the infirmary. Jadzia, could you please let his daughter know where she can find him?"
Suddenly, Vestil lifted his head and looked up at them. "No," he muttered.
"Sir," the physician said firmly, "you are not a well man. You need immediate medical attention. It's going to take a week or so, but I can..."
"No," the old man repeated. "No time."
"Sir, I must insist..."
"Take me back to my cabin," the drunk man mumbled. "Don't tell her..." His head lolled, then fell forward as he passed out.
Dax looked first at Vestil, then at Bashir. "What should we do?"
"We're taking him to the infirmary."
"He can leave tomorrow when he's in his right mind. In the meantime, I can do something about the terrible shape he's in. And besides, he's getting heavy. Let's go." She frowned, but it was getting late, and she couldn't think of any better options.
"All right," she nodded. "You go on. I'll talk to his daughter."
* * * * * *
To her surprise, Dax found Jake dozing just outside Security. She bent down and gently shook the young man's shoulder. "Aren't you supposed to be in bed?"
"What?" He looked up and blinked rapidly. "Oh. What time is it?"
"About twenty-three forty-five. What are you doing here, Jake?"
"I was waiting for Annya. Her father's supposed to relieve her." His face grew tighter with worry. "Has he been here? Has she gone?"
"No." Dax smiled and offered her hand. "Come on. I have to talk to her anyway." Peterson and Hoffs had been replaced by two new guards, who nodded and them pass. They walked to the holding area, where they found Annya sound asleep on the interrogation table. Her prisoner was also asleep, snoring peacefully in his cell.
Dax considered the options, then motioned for Jake to follow her out.
* * * * * *
"Back so soon?" Quark said with a trace of surprise in his voice.
"Shut up and pour me a drink," Tannis ordered, looking extremely unhappy. "Not only is this place boring," she continued, "but the great looking guys are all prudes. I can't wait to leave this dump."
"While we're on that subject," he said as he handed her a glass, "I have a business proposition that I'd like to discuss with you."
She leaned forward. "I'm listening."
"I have a certain shipment that requires a fast ship and a deft touch." The Ferengi filled her glass with double the amount of alcohol he normally poured. "As it so happens, the shipment needs to be taken to Arclogia, which is, I understand, your original destination."
The pilot's eyes narrowed. "How did you know that?"
Quark smiled. "Oh, I know many things, my dear. I make it my business to know everything. One never knows where profit lies waiting. At any rate, I am willing to pay you quite well for taking on this additional cargo."
Tannis smiled as she took a long sip of her drink. "Keep going."
"Here's the deal. I am willing to pay you two bars of gold-pressed latinum..."
She snorted in derision.
"...plus another five bars awaiting you at Arclogia upon my associate's claiming of the shipment." A master of reading expressions, Quark smiled her face betrayed her greed. "Do we have a deal, Captain Tannis?"
The spacer smiled and lifted her glass, clinking it against his bottle. "To profit."
"Indeed. To profit." He stepped away from the bar and moved over to the pilot's side. "Now then, why don't we take a look at your cargo and make arrangements for substituting my shipment into a portion of it?"
She frowned. "You're going to hold part of my original shipment? I don't know if I like that..."
"Think of it as insurance," Quark suggested grandly. "You complete the run and tell the consignee that part of it was stolen at the station. You'll have a penalty taken out of your pay, true, but my shipment will more than adequately compensate for that. And in the meantime, I will contact the consignee and offer the remaining cargo to him. When he accepts, I'll hire you to return here and take the cargo to him—which gives both you and I an additional profit."
Tannis laughed. "You've got all the bases covered, don't you, Quark?"
The Ferengi smiled crookedly. "Always, my dear. Which is why I'm still in business."
They never stopped screaming. They were always there, lurking in the back of Kira's mind, begging for mercy or crying out in agony. It never stopped. During the day, she could drive them off into some distant corner of her head and concentrate on her job. But at night, when exhaustion wore her defenses down and she had to sleep, the voices and the memories returned...and they never stopped screaming.
She lay in her bed, her body twisted and tangled within her sheets and blankets. Her head jerked back and forth, struggling to deny the dream from overwhelming her senses again. A soft moan whispered past her lips as she drifted back to another, more dangerous time and place.
And now she was back on Bajor, a few years younger. creeping through the dark and silent Gannarha work camp with the rest of her strike force. The air was cool and a refreshing change from the scorching heat of the day. No moonlight or stars lit their way as they crept from building to building. Their goal was simple: liberate Bajorans, exterminate Cardassians. In order to expedite the former, the latter had to be done as quickly and quietly as possible.
Her eyes glittered with eager anticipation. She felt unusually alert, her mind and body working in perfect synchronization. With graceful stealth she slid up to the first Cardassian guard in her way and, slipping up from behind him, reached around and slit his throat with her knife. The blade cut deep enough to sever the guard's vocal chords, so all anyone could possibly hear was a soft gasp. She gently lowered the body to the ground, wiped her blade on the Cardassian's uniform, and went on to the next guard...and the one after that...and the one after that.
It was so easy, almost child's play, she thought to herself. For such a militaristic race, the Cardassians seemed to be utterly inept at protecting themselves. Perhaps it was because up to now they hadn't really regarded the Bajorans as anything more than a nuisance. Well, after tonight some eyes would be opened up, especially when they found her primary target stretched out on the ground with his body slit open and his organs exposed to the morning sun.
Kira had told no one of her private agenda. Someone older and with more sense might have talked her out of it, or worse yet, claimed Gul Balek for himself or herself. She hungered to prove herself to her comrades, to show that she was a true daughter of Bajor who could do what had to be done. This need drove her on as she slithered into the commandant's quarters. She grew increasingly cautious, because it would not do to become too confident at any point during the raid, especially now. But everything had gone so well that perhaps this might too...
Suddenly, light flooded every inch of the room. Blinded, she stumbled backwards and fell into the arms of a Cardassian. Instinct took over and she slammed her knife into his gut, smiling as she was rewarded with the soft grunt of a surprised soldier finding out he would be dead in just a moment. But she still couldn't see, and now they were all over her, their combined weight dragging her down to the floor. Someone had hit a nerve juncture in her hand, and she could hear her knife clattering on the floor nearby, so close and yet so far away...
She cried out as a needle pierced her arm, and seconds later a warm, pleasant sleepiness trickled through her veins. The slightest movement seemed to take an impossible effort to accomplish, and it just seemed so...unnecessary, somehow. So she let herself go limp, not resisting the Cardassian guards who pinned her to the floor. She knew what was going to happen—she'd heard the litany told time and again by the camp survivors, and yet she wasn't really afraid. The Prophets would reward her when she entered the Celestial Temple. One final round of agony, and then she would at long last know what peace felt like.
The guards lifted her to her feet. A giggle escaped her lips as she felt her rubbery knees buckle under her weight. Two Cardassians grabbed her arms and kept her up. She felt someone reach under her chin and turn her face towards him. Her eyes rolled around in large aimless circles. A long stream of drool hung from the edge of her lip, slowly descending to her chest. Though she knew she should be terrified, she could only giggle as she looked into the icy cold eyes of the Cardassian she'd come to kill.
Gul Balek examined her with slow, deliberate care. "A bit skinny," he commented to his men. His eyes fell upon her chest. "But there's plenty there for you to enjoy." A guttural chuckle drifted around Kira, who could only smile insipidly. This was all so stupid, so pointless, she thought to herself. Just beat me, rape me and kill me so I can get to the Celestial Temple. Get it over with, I'm a busy woman and have things to do when I get there, like find my family...
"Take her outside," he ordered quietly. She felt them drag her through the door, then briefly experience the sensation of flight as the threw her into the night air. But all too quickly the ground came up to meet her with its hard embrace. She grunted as she hit, and felt a distant twinge of pain in her side. Rib, she thought dazedly. Must have broken a rib. All in a good cause...
They were on her again, picking her up and ripping her clothing away with savage pleasure. She shivered as the cold night air hit her bare skin. Then she was flying again, naked and free, for a few brief moments. This time she landed face down in a huge puddle of water. The bitter taste of mud filled her mouth and flooded her nostrils, and worst of all, she still couldn't move. The part of her mind that still functioned panicked, because she still couldn't move on her own, but the rest of her simply accepted this humiliation as part of the price for entering the Celestial Temple.
Then she felt herself being picked up again by two pairs of hands. She looked up just in time to see the palm of a hand heading straight for her face. There was a second blow, and a third, and a fourth, and more, and more...and then...and then...
"No!" Kira heard the echoes of her scream reverberate in the shadows of her room. She was not surprised to find herself sitting up in bed with her arms stretched out in self-defense. She had gotten rather used to it, to be honest. Looking around, she felt the darkness suddenly too oppressive to bear. "Lights," she called out hoarsely.
For a long time she simply sat there, struggling to catch her breath and quiet her pounding heart. She tried not to think about the dream, tried to banish it as she'd tried hundreds of nights before. But it remained there, locked in the forefront of her mind and unwilling to fade away into distant dreamy memory. "It's all right," she repeated over and over to herself, trying to make the litany reality. "It was just a dream, just a dream..."
For a while there, she thought she'd had this problem licked. The dream, and others like it, all dark and violent and drenched with blood, had been coming further and further apart, and they hadn't been quite so real to her. But with Gul Balek's arrival, they'd all come back with a vengeance.
She considered her options. She'd never get back to sleep on her own. She could call Bashir and ask him for something to help her sleep, but the last time she'd done that, she felt so dragged out the next day that she thought her shift would never end. Work...there was an option to consider. There was always the never-ending battle to catch up on the paperwork that the provisional government demanded...it might just exhaust her enough to let her get back to sleep...without dreaming.
Then another idea came to her in a flash, and she was out of bed and getting dressed before she quite knew what she was doing. Her heart pounding, Kira left her cabin and strode towards Security.
* * * * * *
The Starfleet guards let her in without any trouble; she gave a curt nod to the officer standing watch behind the main desk and walked back towards the holding area. Along the way she glanced into one particular side room. Odo's bucket sat unobtrusively in the far corner, looking forlorn and abandoned—which was just the way he liked it. From the look of it, the shapeshifter was resting inside the container.
She took a deep breath just outside the holding area and summoned every ounce of authority she could muster before walking into the room. Vestil's daughter was sound asleep on the interrogation desk, but Gul Balek was awake, lying on his cot and writing on a PADD. He looked up and nodded politely. "Major Kira."
She tilted her head slightly. "You know my name."
"You were at the docking bay."
"Ah." She leaned against the table and stared at him. "I was a prisoner in your camp."
He shook his head. "There were so many that came through those gates. One face would be impossible to recall."
"I snuck in. I was going to kill you."
He sighed. "There were a number of attempts on my life."
She felt an irrational surge of irritation rush through her. "I escaped."
"Did you?" Balek asked quietly. "Did you really? Did any of us?"
Kira suddenly felt awkward. She found a chair nearby and sat down. "Am I keeping you from anything?" she said with mock politeness.
"No." He looked down at the PADD. "I was writing a letter to some...friends. One of your Starfleet officers was kind enough to give this to me."
"They'll never receive it, you know."
"Probably not. But it makes me feel better in making the attempt, and it's something to do." He set the PADD aside and regarded her. "So, Major, why are you here?"
He smiled. "I find it hard to believe that you would come here at this hour simply to discuss old times, Major."
She felt herself freeze under his gaze. "I...I just wanted to make sure you were secure. That's all."
"You don't trust your constable? He's very efficient—almost as thorough as a Cardassian. No doubt that's why Gul Dukat put him in charge of station security during the Occupation." This seemed to amuse him for some reason, and his chuckles rumbled softly around the room. She glanced over at the sleeping girl and wondered just how exhausted the child must have been, to sleep so soundly in the presence of her enemy.
"You're right. Odo is very good at his work." She bit her lip. "All right. To be honest, I don't know why I'm here."
The Cardassian leaned back against the wall and paused to gather his thoughts. "Perhaps you wished to see me like this—imprisoned, helpless, at the mercy of the people I oppressed?"
"Well, here I am. Does it satisfy you?"
"No. I won't be satisfied until you've paid for your crimes against the Bajorans."
"That seems to be a common sentiment, these days." He smiled sadly and glanced over at the girl. "I don't suppose you could fetch a blanket for her, could you?"
"What?" Kira said, surprised.
"Well, it is rather cool in here. It's not like I'm asking you for any special consideration on my part, is it?"
"Why should you care if a Bajoran is cold?" she growled. "You hardly cared about our welfare back at your prison camp!"
"I know that," he nodded.
"You tortured us, humiliated us, killed us for your own private pleasures..."
"...mutilated us, starved us, worked us to death..."
"Major!" Balek's voice caused her to pause in mid-rant and stare at him. "The blanket?" he prompted. She marched over to one of the empty cells and grabbed a blanket, then spread it over the girl. "Everything you've said is true. I'm guilty. I admit it. And I am deeply regretful of the things I've done. Such a waste..." He sighed and stared off into nothingness.
"Save your regrets for the tribunal. I'm sure they'll be glad to hear them."
"Do you think I don't know what's going to happen?" he asked. "I will be tried, found guilty, and sentenced to die—no doubt in a very slow, painful, and public manner."
"Just desserts," Kira retorted.
"Even if I were innocent of my crimes—which I'm not—that would be the end result. Your people cry for vengeance, for blood—my blood. Perhaps my death will help move them beyond that need and begin to heal their wounds. Perhaps it will force Cardassia to acknowledge its crimes against your people and a thousand others. I don't know. I'll probably never know. It's in the hands of the Prophets."
She felt an icy chill slice through her body. "What did you say?"
"I said it's in the hands of the Prophets."
"You have no right to say that!" she growled in a low voice, finding herself directly opposite the Cardassian, separated only by the force field. "I won't let you belittle our beliefs! You take that back, right now!"
"Why?" Balek asked. "It's the truth..."
"Because you don't believe! You can't believe!"
"Really? Do the Prophets hear only the cries and the prayers of Bajorans? Is that what you're saying? One of your vedeks said something quite the opposite in a monograph on that very subject about 200 years ago..."
"Stop it! Stop it!" Kira's voice had risen to a hysterical level. The Bajoran girl was stirring from her deep slumber, looking over at the odd tableau by the cell and unsure of what she should do. "You can't believe in the Prophets! You can't! You don't even have a pagh!"
In sharp contrast to her tirade, the Cardassian remained calm and unruffled. "Are you sure, Major? Are you absolutely certain about that?"
She stared at him, her eyes raging with anger and fear. "Yes! Cardassians aren't worthy of a pagh!"
"Are the Prophets the exclusive province of the Bajorans, then? Is there no hope for these Starfleet people? And what of The Emissary, Major? Why did he enter the Celestial Temple before even the Kai? How do you explain that?"
"Stop it!" Tears were streaming down Kira's face. Her fists slammed against the force field over and over. "Damn you, I'll kill you myself! Stop it!"
And then Odo appeared out of nowhere, taking her by the arms and guiding her briskly away from the cell and out of the holding area. Gul Balek watched her leave, an expression of sadness and regret etched clearly on his face. He turned to regard his Bajoran captor and shook his head. "I apologize that our little discussion woke you up. But if you'd like, feel free to go back to sleep. After all, I'm not going anywhere."
* * * * * *
"Are you all right?" Odo asked her. He'd taken Kira back to his office, sending the security officer on duty away with a curt nod. His voice was uneven, a bit ragged, and he looked as though he was perspiring heavily.
She sat down in his chair and struggled to regain her breath and her composure. Try as she might, though, her hands refused to stop shaking. "I'm fine," she said, her own voice quavering. Her chest rose and fell rapidly as she drank cool air into her lungs. "I'm fine," she repeated. She looked up at him and frowned. "I thought you were..."
"I was." He glanced towards the hallway. "But I heard you and thought you might be in trouble." He shuddered slightly and grimaced. "I really must return to my bucket now."
Kira nodded tiredly. "I understand. Go on. I'll be fine."
The shapeshifter regarded her closely. "If you'd like to talk later..."
"No, no. I'm okay, really. Get back to your bucket before we have to mop you up." She smiled with a confidence she didn't feel as Odo favored her with a slight bow, then hurried back to the room where his bucket sat waiting to reclaim him. When she was sure he was gone, she leaned back in his chair and closed her eyes, struggling inwardly to attain some sort of equilibrium that would carry her back to her own room and perhaps a few sweet hours of sleep. But some part of her knew that this wouldn't be possible, not after all that had just gone on.
* * * * * *
"I hate late-night calls," a sleepy-eyed Bashir said as he came through the door to Kira's quarters. He reached into one of the pockets on his robe and pulled out his tricorder. "Let me do a quick scan before I give you a shot."
"All right," she said, glancing uneasily at the small device that he was waving in front of her. "Doc...I really do appreciate this."
"All part of my job." He retrieved a hypospray kit from the other pocket and loaded it with a small green capsule before pressing it against her arm. She heard the soft hiss and felt a wetness against her skin. "There. You should have about ten minutes before it starts to affect you. Do you want me to give you the morning off?"
"Why?" she asked sharply.
"Because you're probably going to sleep through it."
"I told you to keep it down to a minimum..." she began, but Bashir held up a hand to silence her.
"I did keep it down. But quite frankly, your body is considerably run down. Were we not in a state of crisis, I'd recommend an extended vacation. The smallest dose of this," he held up the hypospray, "is going to keep you off your feet for at least eight to ten hours, possibly more."
She felt a soft, cool drowsiness slipping slowly through her body, and she knew that she wasn't going to get the benefit of those ten minutes. "All right," she said thickly, and looked down at the floor; it seemed to be a thousand kilometers away. "I think I'm going to go to sleep, Doc."
"I think you will, too." He helped her into her bed and stretched the blanket over her. "Pleasant dreams, Major."
Her eyes opened wide, and her hand shot out, gripping his arm tightly. "You told me that this stuff wouldn't make me dream," she said tightly.
"It won't, Major. I promise." He carefully pried her suddenly unresponsive fingers off his arm. "It was just an expression. Go to sleep." That suddenly seemed like an irresistible proposition to her, so she closed her eyes and let the cold, harsh reality around her slip away as exhaustion and the drugs carried her off to sweet, lovely oblivion where no one was screaming.
Jake Sisko crept quietly into the dark cabin where he and his father lived. He tiptoed carefully through the shadows, squinting ahead to navigate any potential hazards in his way. He risked a quick peek into his father's bedroom to make sure the old man wasn't lying in wait for him, but the soft snoring that drifted across the room made him sigh with relief. With stealthy steps he moved into his own room and, slipping beneath the covers, fell quickly asleep.
Jadzia Dax glanced up at the chronometer and gasped in surprise. Yawning, she set the book she'd been reading on the nightstand and called for the lights to dim. Curzon's old habits were decidedly difficult to break, she thought to herself as she drifted into dreamland.
Doctor Julian Bashir wrote a quick summary of his visit to Kira's cabin and carefully put his equipment in its accustomed place. He threw off his robe and plunged back into bed, falling instantly into a deep slumber.
Benjamin Sisko dreamed of his wife, a shuttle, and a long-overdue shore leave.
Quark carefully counted the night's receipts for the third time and glanced around to make sure his brother and other relatives were doing a suitable job of cleaning up.
Vestil Furan tossed and turned in his alcohol-tainted dreams, groaning softly to the night.
Major Kira Nerys slept but did not dream.
Odo lay in his bucket, his thoughts and his dreams his own business.
Gul Balek finished his letter and, calling for the lights to dim, settled down to sleep. Nearby, Vestil Annya had long since returned to her own deep slumber.
Miles O'Brien slid closer to his wife and wrapped an arm around her as he settled back down.
Captain Salja Tannis inspected the repairs to her ship.
Up at Ops, Lieutenant David Larson studied the station readouts and directed the never-ending flow of traffic that entered and left DS9. He noticed an increase in debris drifting around the station, but chalked it up to spacers dumping their garbage prior to departure. He left a note for Sisko about the matter and thought nothing more of it.
Which was just the way Gul Dukat, sitting in his command chair aboard the Cardassian flagship and watching intently, wanted it.
If he'd thought yesterday had been trying, Sisko hadn't seen anything yet.
The first item on his "to do" list was to have a brief chat with his wayward son. He found Jake sitting at the dining table, eating breakfast and furiously roaring through his homework. "Morning, son," he called as he headed to the replicator. "Computer, breakfast meal three."
"Morning, Dad." Or at least it sounded like that, slipping past a mouthful of toast and oatmeal. The boy didn't even look up as his father sat down in the chair directly opposite. He sipped thoughtfully at his coffee and regarded his son, who was shovelling food into his mouth with one hand and finishing a math problem with the other. It was a talent that in all his travels Ben Sisko had seen only one other person accomplish—his wife.
He pondered the possible openings, and finally decided on the direct approach. "Mrs. O'Brien said you never returned to class yesterday," he said quietly.
Jake looked up. "I had a stomach ache, Dad. I think it was that cake."
Base hit to right, Sisko thought to himself. "So what did you do?"
"I went to the infirmary, then came home and took a nap."
And herein was the problem—it was all plausible, if not the truth. He had done some checking and found that his son had indeed gone to Bashir's office, and from there had come back here for an hour or two. There was one little flaw in the argument, though. "So where was Nog? Mrs. O'Brien said he didn't return either."
"I don't know—we split up when I went to the infirmary." The boy was getting a bit too smooth and adept at this. Next thing you knew his ears were going to expand to impossible sizes.
"All right." That left one little point to cover. "So where were you last night?"
And now his son looked worried and evasive. "Nowhere, Dad."
"Jake, this station is located in the middle of nowhere. Be more specific."
The boy picked up his food tray and headed over to the reclamation area...a wise move, because now he didn't have to maintain eye contact with his father. "I was waiting for someone, and she never showed up."
"She?" A distant warning alarm sounded inside Sisko's head.
"Yeah. We were going to go for a walk, but her father wouldn't let her leave."
"Do I know this girl?"
Jake shook his head. "I don't think so." He grabbed his homework PADD and headed for the door. "I gotta get to school, Dad. See you later." Before he could react the boy was gone; he picked up his cooling coffee and sipped at it tiredly.
"Strike three and you're out..."
* * * * * *
Vestil Annya gasped as she was roughly shaken by the arm and roused from her deep slumber. Her eyes snapped open angrily...and quickly widened in fear as she focused on the furious features of her father. "You were supposed to be watching him," he hissed into her face. "And I find you sound asleep on duty!"
"But you were going to..." That was all she was able to say before the back of his hand smacked against her face. She reeled backwards and tumbled off the table, cringing as her father slapped her again and again, blind fury etched all over his gnarled features. "I'm sorry!" she cried out in both pain and fear. "I'm sorry, Father! Please!"
His hand paused in mid-air as rationality took hold again. But the anger was still plainly evident in his voice as he pulled her up to her feet. "Don't you realize that the Federation would like nothing better than to return him to his people?" he demanded angrily. "And this place is crawling with his kind! Annya...we can't trust anyone except each other! Don't you understand that?"
She nodded again and again, biting her lip to keep her tears from flowing. "I'm sorry, Father. I won't let you down again. I promise."
"Good." He patted her shoulder awkwardly. "Go to our quarters and rest. You can relieve me in twelve hours." She nodded and hurried out the door; he turned and found Gul Balek studying him closely. His eyes were filled with disdain and disgust.
"What are you looking at, you animal?" the old man snapped.
"It takes one to know one, it seems," the Cardassian replied.
* * * * * *
Annya managed to maintain a semblance of dignity as she left the security office—it wouldn't do to show any sort of weakness in front of the Starfleet people. The shapeshifting constable eyed her oddly as she walked briskly past his office, but she didn't give him an opportunity to speak. Only when she was well away from the Security area did she allow herself to break down and cry, her tears blinding her as she stumbled down the corridors...straight into Jake Sisko.
He was taken aback at the ugly red welts which were just starting to emerge from her pale skin. "Annya? Are you okay?" he asked, voice filled with concern. "What happened?"
She looked up at him and blinked back her tears. "Jake?" To her horror, she didn't have enough inner reserves to try and regain her composure; instead, she began to cry again and let Jake guide her to a nearby bench, where she buried her face in her hands and sobbed piteously for what seemed like an eternity.
When at long last she was able to look up, she found he was still there, concern on every inch of his features. "What happened?" he demanded. "Did someone hit you?"
"It's...nothing, Jake. I'm fine," she lied.
"Look, let me take you to the infirmary. Doctor Bashir can take a look at you..."
"No." She said it a bit more harshly than she'd meant to, and regretted the pained look in his eyes. "It's all right," she repeated, a bit more gently this time. "It doesn't hurt that much. I'll be fine in a little while. I just need to go and rest for awhile."
"Well....if you're sure..."
"I'm sure," she smiled through her pain, then something occurred to her. "Jake...I don't have the slightest idea where I'm staying. Could you possibly..."
He thought about his homework, his teacher and his father for all of one second. "Sure. No problem." He smiled at her and helped her to her feet. "And if we're lucky, there's this really cool spot along the way that gives you a great view of the wormhole...the Celestial Temple, I mean."
She smiled gently at him, touched. "I hope we're lucky, then," she said. "I'd very much like to see it."
* * * * * *
Sisko's day quickly went from bad to worse upon his arrival at Ops. A note from Bashir informed him that Major Kira would be taking a day off for medical reasons. There were no further details, which was either an accidental or deliberate omission by the young physician, and the commander wasn't sure which. There was a message to contact Admiral Bloemker at Starbase 250, priority one. And of course, Chancellor Latrin wished to speak with him at his earliest opportunity—the man couldn't be a Bajoran, he thought to himself. Bajorans never said 'earliest opportunity'. They said 'now', preferably with boldface lettering and underlining for emphasis.
And to top everything off, the birthday cake Dax had made for him was still sitting in Ops, half-eaten and abandoned. He'd spotted it the minute he'd arrived, and to make matters worse, the one section still remaining was the one with his age emblazoned upon it in red frosting. It figured.
For one brief, fleeting moment, he considered Wrigley Field on a warm spring day. Then he sighed and set up a call to Starbase 250. Within a few minutes, the tired, worried face of Admiral Bloemker appeared. "I take it the news isn't good," he said quietly.
"God save me from angry Bajorans and Cardassians," she replied with a weary smile. "Ben, my heart goes out to you."
"Neither side was interested in the Federation acting as a neutral arbiter."
"Interested? The Bajorans told me that this was a private matter which we had no business interfering with. They all but accused me of wanting to return him to the Cardassians. And while we're on that subject, they demanded the safe return of 'the honorable Gul Balek' as soon as possible, and insisted they were aware of our plot to hand Balek over to the Bajorans for trial and execution." She sighed and shook her head. "And I thought the Romulans were a pain. At least we know where we stand with them."
"I see." Sisko leaned back and placed his fingertips together. "So where does this leave us?"
She shrugged. "In the middle. As always." She smiled slightly. "Any chance you can just stuff him in a photon torpedo and let both groups chase it?"
"I'll keep that in mind. Beyond that?"
"Beyond that, I haven't got any good advice for you, Ben, except be very careful and be very sure of your decisions." Bloemker smiled sadly. "I'm sorry I can't do more."
He took a deep breath, then spoke. "What...is the possibility of the Enterprise, or a similar vessel, coming here as a friendly presence?"
"The Reliant is on its way," she said. "But they're at least two days out. That's the best we can do for now, Ben. Play for time. Bloemker out."
He sighed and stared up at the cold metallic ceiling. "She makes it sound so easy..." Then he heard a tapping at the door, and looked up to find Dax standing in the doorway. "Come on in," he waved tiredly. "Give me the bad news straight. I apparently haven't gotten my quota yet."
"It can't be that bad, Benjamin," she chided gently as she sat down. He handed her the PADD with his priority list on it and watched her read it. "I take it back," she said with a smile as she returned it to him. "It can be that bad. What are you going to do?"
"I've already talked to Starfleet and gotten their 'you're on your own' message out of the way," he said ruefully. "Now I'll talk to Chancellor Latrin and receive my standard 'this is a Bajoran station, and you work under Bajoran law' lecture. By then I'll have gotten a brilliant idea to straighten all this out." He leaned back in his chair and eyed her warily. "What did you need to see me about?"
Dax smiled. "Nothing that can't wait. I was just wondering if you knew that Jake has a crush on Vestil Furan's daughter." She studied the reaction on his face and her smile grew. "Apparently you didn't."
"I'm just his father. I'm always the last to know." He sighed and shook his head. "How did you find out?"
"I helped take Vestil to his cabin last night—he'd gotten himself quite drunk and wasn't able to take the watch from his daughter. When I went to Security to tell her, Jake was waiting for her."
"Lovely. Just lovely. I wonder how all this came about?" Sisko turned his chair so that he could study the stars outside his window. "So what do you suggest I do, old man?"
"Let it run its course," she said. "I don't think it's going to amount to much."
He nodded tiredly. "I feel so old today. How can things get any worse than they already are?" Just then there came a strong rap at the door; they turned to find Captain Tannis standing there.
"I'm dropping all charges against that Bajoran," she announced.
* * * * * *
Chancellor Latrin looked immensely pleased by the news he'd just received. "So there is nothing holding back the transfer of the prisoner to Bajor?" he asked with a large smile.
Sisko glanced over at Vestil Furan, who had reluctantly left his post in Security. The old man looked particularly haggard, which didn't particularly surprise the commander, given what Dax had told him. But the news that he was free to take Balek to Bajor had seemed to revitalize him, restoring the fierce fanatical gleam in those haunted, bloodshot eyes. "We'll be leaving as soon as arrangements can be made," Sisko assured the bureaucrat. "My security chief and I will be personally escorting the party in one of our runabouts. Constable Odo is working out the transfer procedure as we speak."
"Excellent." the chancellor beamed. The screen blinked off abruptly; Sisko imagined that Latrin was already making up invitation lists to Balek's execution ceremony.
He turned to Vestil. "Odo assures me that we'll be able to leave within the hour. You and your daughter can gather up your personal belongings and meet us at Docking Bay Five."
The old man nodded absently. "My thanks, Commander. I would like you to know I harbor no resentment towards you or your staff. You were merely doing what you thought was right...as was I." He rose to his feet and shuffled to the door. "I'll see you in one hour."
"Very well." Sisko let the doors to his office snap shut, then leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
* * * * * *
"There," Jake said softly. He pointed to a ship that was soaring away from DS9. "Keep watching." He had brought Annya to his favorite viewing spot, partially to be with her, but more to take her mind off whatever had happened in Security. The ugly red welts on her face and arm were deepening in color, but she refused to go to the infirmary. So he brought her here, high above the bustling Promenade, to witness the breathtaking spectacle that never lost its magic for him, no matter how many times he watched it unfold.
As the ship continued its ascent, an explosion of light erupted from a particular point in space. The fabric of reality rolled like thunderclouds in a summer sky, and suddenly it was though the fist of the Prophets uncurled and stretched out its fingers to clutch at the fabric of stars and space. The tiny ship shot through the brightly-lit gap and within the span of a heartbeat was gone as the wormhole collapsed upon itself with a final burst of light. Jake glanced over at his comrade and was surprised to see tears streaming down her face again—but this time they were born of joy and awe, not pain.
"The Celestial Temple," she whispered.
"A stirring sight," agreed a voice from behind them. They jumped and whirled around to find Vestil Furan standing there. "You must be Commander Sisko's son," he said politely to Jake. "I am Annya's father." And with that, the boy's presence was dismissed by the old man. "Annya, we've received permission to take our prisoner to Bajor," he informed her. If he saw the slight cringe in his daughter's posture, he acknowledged it no more than he did her friend. "I want you to go back to our cabin and pack our things. We leave within the hour."
"You're leaving?" Jake squeaked. "But..." The elder Bajoran turned and regarded the boy with a deep, burning gaze; he suddenly decided it might be far more prudent to keep his mouth shut.
Vestil's gaze returned to his daughter. "Come on," he ordered. "There's much to be done." She nodded meekly and scurried off without so much as a word to Jake, who could only stand there and watch as the two Bajorans walked away.
* * * * * *
"Well, she's all set and ready to go," O'Brien said to Captain Tannis. They stood side by side in Cargo Bay Four, where the Marriv sat waiting. "I've documented everything we checked and repaired for your approval," he continued, handing her a PADD. "If you'll give your authorization at the bottom, I'll clear you for takeoff."
"Good job," she said as she quickly scanned the list—he was a bit surprised at how fast she went through it, considering how vocal the spacer had been about the damage to her craft when they'd first inspected it. There was also an odd gleam in her eye, one of anticipation and impatience, that for some reason made the Chief extremely uneasy.
"They're finished loading your cargo." He pointed over at the ship's cargo hold, where a group of Bajorans was leaving with their carriers. "Looks like that's it, Captain Tannis. Have a safe trip."
"Right," she said absently, having forgotten completely about him as she hurried into her vessel. O'Brien scratched his head and watched her close her ship's bay doors and vanish from view.
"Well, that's gratitude for you..." he said to himself, then shrugged and gave the order to clear the bay.
* * * * * *
"Incoming message from Gul Dukat."
Kira's voice startled Sisko out of his reverie; he jumped from his chair and hurried out of his office. His Bajoran first officer was standing at her accustomed post, looking haggard but determined. She nodded curtly at him, then brought the incoming call on-screen.
Sisko's internal radar went berserk the instant the Cardassian's face filled the Ops viewscreen. Even Kira narrowed her eyebrows and frowned when she looked up. "I take it you have good news for me, Commander," Dukat said with cold warmth.
"I'm afraid not, Gul Dukat. The pilot who had accused Vestil Furan of attempting to hijack her ship has dropped charges. As a result, I have no grounds for detaining him or his prisoner. They will leaving for Bajor shortly."
"I see. You realize of course that this is a serious insult to Cardassia—one that I am obligated to take action upon."
"I regret that such a situation exists," Sisko replied. "I would suggest that Cardassia lodge a protest with the Federation. We have offered mediation between the two sides in this matter..." From the corner of his eye Sisko saw Bashir and O'Brien emerge from the turbolift and walk to their stations. Good. He had a feeling he was going to need all the help he could get in a few minutes.
"There is no need for mediation." Dukat leaned forward, anticipation gleaming in his eyes. Sisko wondered what his foe was up to. "Gul Balek was kidnapped from Cardassia and brought here against his will. He will be returned to me immediately."
"I believe I hear an 'or else' in there."
"You're correct," the Cardassian said. He made a motion to an off-camera subordinate. "I regret that we must take these measures, Commander. I had so hoped for an amicable solution. But you leave me no choice."
Kira glanced down at her station status screen just then. "The Marriv is leaving the station, heading 427 mark 6," she reported.
"Get her back here," Sisko ordered crisply.
She activated the comm unit channel and hailed the ship repeatedly, to no avail. "She's ignoring us, Commander."
Suddenly, Dax spoke up from her console. "Benjamin, I'm picking up an energy surge around the station." Her fingers flew across the keyboard. "Correction...a number of small surges."
"What's going on here?" Sisko demanded, staring angrily at the monitor.
"My dear Commander, if you will not return our brother to us, then we are honor-bound to ensure that he is not taken to Bajor for a sham trial and humiliating public execution." Dukat was positively enjoying himself. "Therefore, we have taken steps to ensure that he will remain where he is...until you decide to return him to us."
"I'm picking up an object moving on an intercept course with the Marriv," Kira reported, her voice tight. She switched the main screen from Dukat to the outside; Sisko spotted the tiny freighter instantly...and a second later, saw something moving purposefully towards the ship.
"Get her back here!" he roared.
"Still ignoring our hails...wait a second." She glanced up, and he saw the fear in her eyes. "She's taking evasive action...it's closing fast..."
And suddenly, the stars were blotted out by a bright, furious explosion where the Marriv had been only instants before.
Sisko found it difficult to speak for several seconds. Though the image of Gul Dukat had just reappeared on the main screen, in his mind's eye he could only see the explosion that had destroyed Captain Tannis and her ship just instants earlier. Kira, Dax, Bashir, O'Brien...they were similarly stunned by the sheer audacity of the Cardassian action. But at the same time, they looked to him for the right words, the proper control. He could not let them down.
So he took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Just what in the hell have you done?" he demanded of the Cardassian, barely keeping the rage that seethed beneath his words in check.
Dukat smiled. "Very simply, Commander, I have taken steps to keep your guests at your station for a bit longer. My fleet has deployed a series of proximity mines around your station. They will home in on any vessel that emits an ion emission trail. If necessary, we can manually activate any or all of the mines as we so choose." He let that sink in for a moment.
"My proposal is this, Commander. You return Gul Balek to us within 24 hours, and we will render the mines inert. If you wish, we will be more than happy to gather them up as well. But if he is not surrendered within that time, we will detonate every single mine at once....from a safe distance, of course." His smile grew even broader. "And Deep Space Nine will become a mere footnote in Cardassian history."
"Dax?" he called quietly, keeping his eyes fixed on the viewscreen.
"I'm scanning," the Trill replied, her eyes fixed on her instruments. Bashir hurried over to her station, sat down and started assisting her.
Dukat raised a finger. "Let me also recommend that you refrain from attempting to shoot the mines out of position with your phasers, or perhaps clear a path from the station by using your shields. If we detect the merest hint of clever plots, we will not hesitate to detonate the field."
"I'm reading a heavy concentration of Type-B proximity mines, set in a random pattern around the station," Dax confirmed. "They're all on 'standby' mode, with a variable frequency communications pattern."
"Which rules out any jamming," Bashir added glumly. "If we don't hit the right frequency at the right moment....boom."
"I'm going to have to speak to the Bajoran government," Sisko informed Dukat.
"Be my guest, Commander," he said graciously. "Take all the time you need...so long as it doesn't exceed twenty-four hours." His face vanished abruptly from the screen. For a moment silence filled Ops, then just as quickly everyone started working.
"I'm cancelling all departures and shutting down the docking bays," Kira announced. "Setting up a warning message for all incoming vessels..." She looked up in surprise. "They aren't jamming any of our communication lines."
"Why bother?" he answered her unspoken question. "There aren't any starships capable of aiding us in close range, and they could care less about anyone coming in. They just don't want anyone leaving." He turned to his science officer. "Dax, I could use some good news..."
"We're working on it, Benjamin," she said absently, eyes fixed on her screen. "I've got to be extremely careful, though. I wouldn't want any of our scans accidentally setting off any of those mines, especially those by the station."
"I'm going down to the infirmary," Bashir announced. "When word of this gets out, we may have a panic on our hands."
"Good point." Sisko tapped his comm badge. "Sisko to Odo."
"Constable, would you please escort Vestil Furan up here? And while you're at it, you'll want to increase security in all public areas. We have a problem."
"Why am I not surprised? Very well. We'll be there presently."
Sisko now turned his attention towards Kira. "So how did those mines get out there?" he asked a bit more sharply than he'd intended.
"I'm checking last night's log," she replied. "Lieutenant Larson was on Ops duty, but he doesn't seem to have noticed anything...except...debris?" She looked up at him with a pained expression. "They must have masked the mining by dumping their garbage all at once. It's a standard Cardassian action. The log says he left a message with you."
"I haven't had a chance to check my mail," he said, wincing. He hurried into his office, the Bajoran officer hot on his heels. A quick scan of his messages confirmed Larson's missive. "Damn."
"So what are you going to do?" she demanded.
He glanced over at the turbolift, which had just brought Odo and the Bajoran family to Ops. "I haven't the faintest."
* * * * * *
Vestil Furan took the change in the situation about as well as could be expected.
"This is an outrage!" he screamed, pounding his fist against the desk. "You have no right to surrender Gul Balek to them! He is a Bajoran prisoner being held on a Bajoran station! He is to be brought back to Bajor and justice!"
Sisko for his part remained calm. "No one has said anything about giving him back to the Cardassians," he said quietly.
The Bajoran leaned over the desk, eyes wild with anger. "But you will, won't you?"
"If we come down to the end of the 24-hour period and no other solution presents itself...yes, I will."
"If you hadn't detained us for so long," Vestil growled, "he would be in custody on Bajor and none of this would have happened. This is all your fault, Commander. You and your misplaced Federation compassion." Nearby, Kira bit her lip but for once said nothing.
"I had valid reasons for detaining you, Vestil Furan. You attempted to hijack a ship. You beat a prisoner severely. These aren't trivial matters to be glossed over in the name of justice." The old man snorted in blatant derision; Sisko chose to ignore the insult, and went on: "There are innocents aboard this station, men and women who have nothing to do with the Bajoran/Cardassian situation. Would you have me condemn them to death for the sake of a principle?"
He studied the old man carefully. "That's a very thoughtful and considerate statement."
"You cannot surrender anything to a Cardassian. To do so is suicide. All they understand is the principle of defiance."
"Even to the death?"
Sisko glanced over at Kira, then returned his attention to Vestil. "Admittedly, this station belongs to the Bajorans. But it is being administrated by Starfleet, of whom I am their ranking officer. It is my assignment to ensure that this station operates smoothly under the guidelines set by Starfleet. And if I have to disrupt the relationship between our people to save the lives of the people on this station, so be it." He leaned back in his chair and regarded the old man carefully. "I understand your pain. I understand the need for justice that drives you. I will do everything in my power to reach a workable solution for all sides. But if I have to, I will do what is best for the people I'm responsible for. Is that clear?"
The Bajoran stared speechlessly at the Starfleet officer for a long moment, then turned abruptly on his heel and stormed out of the office. Sisko shut the doors and turned towards Kira. "Well?"
Her eyes were cold steel. "I kept trying to tell you to stay out of this. You had no business interfering with him. But you had to play the all-knowing, self-righteous Starfleet commander, come to teach the natives how to be just like you. You didn't know when to leave well enough alone. And now look at what you've done!"
"Have you read the statement Captain Tannis made against him?"
"What's the point?" she demanded hotly. "She's dead! The charges were dropped, anyway? How is that going to get the Cardassians off our backs and Gul Balek to Bajor?"
"It won't," he replied evenly. "But it might give you some insight into my actions."
She shook her head and smiled thinly. "Then it must be fascinating reading, because right now I can't say I understand...or agree with...anything you've done in this matter!" She whirled on one heel and strode purposefully out of his office. He stared at the empty doorway for a moment, then looked up at the ceiling.
"Computer. I need a priority-one channel to Admiral Bloemker at Starbase 250..."
* * * * * *
As Odo walked through the Promenade, he could sense the tension that rippled through the quiet crowd. The atmosphere was eerily subdued, tinged with a foreboding anticipation that pressed down upon everyone. Even the vendors didn't seem to have their hearts set on hawking their wares; they stood at the door of their shops and watched the people pass. Bad news travelled at light-speed, from the look of it.
Situations like this bothered him; right now DS9 was a powder keg of emotions that wouldn't need much to ignite into a fury of violence. The minute Sisko had called him, the constable had put his entire staff on alert, even those who'd been on duty the night before. As a countermeasure, however, he ordered his people to wear casual clothing, not wanting to further antagonize anyone with the authoritarian sight of uniformed security officers wherever the eye could see. It would take a trained eye such as his to see the pattern of deployment now.
The constable strolled with practiced casualness into Quark's bar. The dabo wheel clicked mournfully by itself, pushed around by a bored dealer who was obviously hoping to lure someone over to her game. But the few patrons there were more interested in staring at their food and sipping forlornly at their drinks than in spending their credits on a crooked game. Nearby, Quark's nephew was pushing a broom across the floor with all the enthusiasm of a Worthenal priest. "Aren't you supposed to be in school?" he asked—he hated having to be a truant officer on top of everything else, but duty was duty.
Nog looked away. "Mrs. O'Brien cancelled classes today."
The young Ferengi whirled around, eyes blazing. "It's the truth! You can ask her!"
"Rest assured I will." Odo ignored the obscene gesture the boy flashed at him when he thought the constable's back was turned and moved on. He nodded briefly at the plainclothes officer sitting at a nearby table and walked over to the bar. The only two people there were Morn, who was hunched over a drink as always, and Rom, who to his surprise was working the bar. "Where's Quark?" he asked curtly.
"He's...not feeling well," the Ferengi replied after a moment. "Can I get you anything, Constable?"
"Not feeling well?" the constable echoed. "Not anything serious...I hope?"
"No, no," Rom shook his head. "He suffered...a tragic loss. That's all."
"I see. Then perhaps I should pay my respects." Ignoring the dimwitted Ferengi's attempts to block his way, Odo strode around the bar and headed for Quark's private quarters. The Ferengi was sitting morosely in the center of the dark room, looking like a man who'd just lost something dear and precious to him. He sipped absently at a drink, then set it down on the arm of the chair and sighed heavily.
The shapeshifter permitted himself the pleasure of drinking in the sight a moment or two more, then cleared his throat. "Suffered a tragic loss, I understand?"
Quark didn't even bother to look his way. "Go away."
"I've never seen you so defeated. It suits you." He walked over to the Ferengi's side. "What was she carrying for you?"
"Captain Tannis. The spacer who just got herself killed."
"I don't know what you're talking about. Now go away."
Odo leaned forward so that his face was close enough to make Quark uncomfortable but far enough away so that the shapeshifter couldn't smell the Ferengi's breath. "My sources say that you and she were rather...'chummy' last night. Left the bar and spent two hours on her ship, laughing and talking like old friends all the way there and back." Odo let his nastiest smile flow across his face. "And then this morning she drops all charges against that Bajoran who tried to hijack her ship, a Bajoran that one day earlier she would have dearly loved to see punished. Now I wonder what could have changed her mind so quickly, hmmm? Must have been something very expensive...and very illegal, too."
"What does it matter?" Quark said listlessly. "It's all destroyed now, anyway."
"Not necessarily." Odo was pleased to note that this had an effect on his foe. "While the ship was destroyed, perhaps traces of her cargo are still floating out there. Maybe, maybe not. At any rate, when this current crisis is complete, perhaps I'll arrange to have a quick scan performed out there and see what I might find, hmmm?" He backed up and smiled again. "My sympathies, Quark." He walked away, holding the terrified look on Quark's face in his memory and thinking to himself that Lieutenant Dax had been right that time they'd talked—one had to enjoy the simple pleasures every chance one got.
* * * * * *
Sisko shut off his viewer and turned to find Kira standing in the doorway. "Yes, Major?"
She stepped inside hesitantly and shuffled over to his desk. "I...wanted to apologize," she said slowly. "For what I said, and the way I said it."
"Accepted." He studied her haggard appearance. "Are you all right, Major? Doctor Bashir informed me that you wouldn't be working today..."
"I'm fine. Just a little tired."
"Very well. I take it you read the statement?"
She nodded as she sat down. She fidgeted momentarily, then locked her fierce, intense gaze on him. "Do you think she was telling the truth?"
"Up until this morning, I would say yes. Her abrupt change of heart has me concerned, though." He called up a memo on his personal screen and turned it around for her benefit. "Odo tells me that Tannis was very friendly with good neighbor Quark last night. Perhaps she was simply in a hurry to make a special delivery?"
She made a face. "I hope she was paid well. It would take a lot of money to make me friendly with a Ferengi. Gah." She rested her head against one hand. "As for Vestil...I don't know what to think. He certainly has a temper, but under the circumstances I can see why he'd be angry."
"Threatening a pilot I can chalk up to desperation and obsession," he replied. "Slapping his daughter and shoving her back into a wall when she attempted to intervene...now that I have a bit more difficulty rationalizing."
"I know. It's just..." She searched for the words. "He's a hero, Commander. An inspiration to all of Bajor. Almost a living legend."
"Hard to look past the legend and see the man behind it," Sisko nodded. "I know the feeling. I had the same problem not long ago with a Starfleet captain. But the fact remains—circumstantial evidence points to Vestil Furan beating and torturing a Cardassian prisoner. Starfleet has a treaty with Cardassia that forces me to take action if such allegations can be proven. Now do you see why I was reluctant to let him take Balek to Bajor?"
"I can see it," she sighed, "but I sure can't approve of it."
"Understandable. Now, as to our current situation...your opinion?"
She sighed glumly. "We're doomed." Rising to her feet, Kira began to pace back and forth in front of his desk. "No one can get in, no one can get out. The nearest Starfleet help is two days away." A tired smile crossed her face. "Maybe we could have Chancellor Latrin talk the Cardassians into submission."
Despite the gravity of the situation, Sisko had to chuckle. "It would probably solve one of our problems. We'd never have to deal with him again." He grew sober again. "Seriously. Do you see any other options besides surrendering Gul Balek to the Cardassians?"
"There's no guarantee that Dukat won't detonate the mines anyway if we do give him back."
"I don't think Gul Dukat or Cardassia would relish the repercussions of that action."
"But if we do give him up," she reminded him, "we are going to burn for it. You don't understand just how badly the Bajorans hate Balek for what he did."
"Oh, I'm getting a pretty fair impression," he replied. "You know, there's one thing that still troubles me about all this. I can certainly understand the Bajoran point of view regarding our esteemed prisoner..."
"But?" she prompted.
"But why are the Cardassians so desperate to reclaim him that they'd risk an incident like this?" He leaned back in his chair, mentally turning the situation around and around in search of clues, then his attention snapped back to Kira. "Can you free yourself from Ops for a while?"
She shrugged. "Probably. With the bays shut down, there isn't much going on. Why?"
"I think it's time we paid a call on Gul Balek." He noticed the odd look that crossed her face when he made the suggestion, but it passed so quickly that he decided it wasn't worth bringing up.
* * * * * *
To Sisko's surprise, Jake was standing outside Security. "Aren't you supposed to be in school?" he asked his son.
"Mrs. O'Brien cancelled class." The boy shrugged, indicating that the action suited him just fine.
"So why are you here instead of with Nog? Is it Vestil Annya you're waiting for?" The resulting flinch gave Sisko a sort of perverse pleasure; now perhaps his son would stop assuming his old man was an idiot.
"Ummm..." Jake shuffled his feet. "Well, I kinda offered to show her around this morning. But I didn't ask her until I was already out of class," he added hurriedly.
Sisko frowned. He'd noticed the charged atmosphere in the Promenade and knew how easily the station could erupt into violence. "Jake, I want you to go home and stay there."
Sisko turned and glanced at Kira, who nodded and went on to Security. "Jake, I mean it. This is a very dangerous situation we're in. You remember when the Cardassians fired on the station?" The boy nodded. "Well, this is very similar. I can't do my job and worry about your safety at the same time. So spare me the arguments and go home. All right?"
"All right," the boy finally agreed. As he turned to leave, though, he turned to his father. "Dad?"
"Isn't this a whole lot of trouble, just for a crazy guy?"
"What makes you say that?"
"Well, Annya said that they'd snatched him out of an insane asylum..."
Sisko felt time crawl to an abrupt halt. "Jake," he said quietly, his heart pounding. "Tell me everything she said to you about Gul Balek..."
* * * * * *
A few minutes later, Sisko strode purposefully into Security. Kira took one look at his face and frowned. "What's wrong?"
"I've had enough," he said. "No more mysteries. No more secrets. I want answers, and I want them now." He motioned to the hallway which led to the holding area. "Let's go."
Vestil Furan and his daughter were sitting at the interrogation table, eating lunch. Gul Balek was doing likewise in his cell. All three looked up at Sisko and Kira as they entered the holding room.
"I think we need to have a little chat," the commander said quietly.
"Commander Sisko," the Cardassian said politely. "A pleasure to see you. I regret that I have not been able to give you my thanks for your hospitality and care." From any other Cardassian, Sisko would have suspected massive doses of sarcasm and arrogance in those words. But from him, it was almost...friendly.
The old man was another matter entirely. "I have nothing to say to you," he snapped.
Kira meanwhile had noticed the bruises on the young woman's face. "What happened to you?" she asked, going over for a closer inspection. Annya glanced fearfully at her father—a look that didn't escape the major's notice. She paled slightly and cleared her throat. "Now I definitely think you need to have those looked at," she said. "Come on. I'll take you to the infirmary." The girl didn't protest, but hurried out with the older woman.
Sisko studied the girl's face as she went past, then took his time gathering his thoughts before speaking. He recalled the bruises on Balek when he'd first come through the docking bay doors, matched them with those on the girl and came to a terrible conclusion. "Vestil Furan, did you beat your daughter?" he said with tight control.
"That is none of your concern."
"That was not an answer."
Vestil sneered. "That's all you're going to get. My daughter is my business, not yours."
"He beat her," Balek said from his cell. "And this morning was far from the first time, too. He hit her when he couldn't risk my life by hitting me."
"Shut up, Cardassian!" the Bajoran yelled, lifting his dinner knife as though it was a weapon.
The father in Sisko dearly wanted to throttle the old man for what he'd done to his daughter, but that would have to wait until after the current crisis was defused. "We can talk further about this another time," he said reluctantly. "What I want to know is whether or not you liberated this man from a Cardassian insane asylum."
The old man snorted. "Yes I did. And it wasn't easy, either. I lost three good people in the process."
"So it was a high-security facility?"
"Yes, yes. But it was worth it...at least until now." He shot Sisko a look of sheer loathing. "Come to give him back to his fellow monsters?"
"That remains to be seen." The Starfleet officer turned his attention to Gul Balek. "And what is your point of view in all this?"
He smiled slightly. "I was in the asylum," he said. "You know, were it not for the current circumstances, I might be a bit grateful to him for obtaining my freedom. It wasn't a particularly nice facility."
"And why were you in there?" Sisko prodded.
"Because I was insane, obviously," he replied. "Ask the Cardassian fleet for my medical records. It's all there."
"You were hiding," Vestil snorted. "You knew I was coming for you, and you thought you'd be safe in there. But you were wrong, animal."
"I was in that place long before you ever thought about pursuing me."
Sisko cleared his throat and repeated the question. "Why were you in there?"
"Because I was determined to be insane by some of the finest doctors in the Cardassian Battle Fleet. Who was I to argue?"
"You're only telling me part of the story."
"Guilty as charged, Commander."
"So would you mind telling me why we're playing games instead of getting to the point?"
Balek glanced over at the Bajoran in reply. Sisko immediately understood and turned to the old man. "Vestil Furan, would you mind leaving us for a few minutes?"
The Bajoran glared at him. "Yes I would. You're just looking for a chance to beam him back to his people. I am staying."
Sisko tapped his comm badge. "Sisko to Odo. Would you please escort Vestil Furan out of the detention area?" A minute or so later the shapeshifter entered the room, nodded politely to his superior, and proceeded to drag the old man kicking and bellowing out. Sisko watched them leave, then turned to Balek. "So. Here we are."
The Cardassian nodded, then to Sisko's shock bowed low before him. "I am honored to be in the presence of the Emissary."
"What?" Sisko gasped.
He slowly straightened up and smiled. "I apologize for not showing proper respect earlier," he said. "But my attempts to speak with him about the Prophets and their ways have met with violent reaction. He is not a well man, Emissary, and I do not wish any more Bajoran deaths upon my conscience. And so I chose polite familiarity in speaking to you. Again, my apologies."
"No apologies are necessary, and my name is Commander Sisko." He sat down and tried to comprehend the implications of what Balek had just said. "Do you mean to tell me..."
"That I believe in the Prophets and the Celestial Temple? Yes."
"That's...incredible," Sisko said slowly.
"'The ways of the Prophets are mysterious in their beginning, but at the journey's end all is clearer'," Balek quoted. "That was from Kalen Palwen, a Vedic from 340 years ago. I find his writings give me great comfort during my ordeal."
"I see. So how long have you been a believer?"
"Another long journey that now seems so...predetermined. During my time on Bajor, I was fascinated with the power of the natives' belief in the Prophets. It was unshakable. They would submit to any torture, any humiliation, any death if it meant that they might enter the Celestial Temple with honor and glory. I'm sure you've seen other aspects of their faith as well...it's really quite incredible. Nothing like it on Cardassia."
"Go on," Sisko said.
"Well, over time my fascination drove me to...collect?...various Bajoran religious leaders to my camp. And I carefully questioned them about their beliefs, all under the pretext of interrogation, of course. It wasn't easy—you could hardly expect them to explain their religion to an enemy, especially to one with my reputation, which unfortunately was well-earned." His voice turned melancholy. "At the same time I was obtaining books from various raids on Bajoran cities—all done in secrecy—I simply couldn't be caught with such treasonous items! The repercussions would be too terrible to contemplate! But l listened, I read, I learned...and one night, not long after we'd abandoned Bajor...I found I believed, as well."
Balek rose to his feet and began to pace, his words burning with fiery intensity. "How can I describe the anguish in my soul? For that night I looked into my soul and saw the monster I had been. All the souls of those whom I'd ordered beaten, tortured in a thousand horrible ways, executed for the slightest of crimes, or simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time....they weighed upon me, they gave me no surcease. As time passed, I saw myself as they saw me—as an animal, a butcher, baptized in their innocent blood and bound for eternal perdition!
"I found one of the books from Bajor that I'd secretly brought back with me and began to read, For the faith of those determined souls still puzzled me...I suppose I even admired and envied it for the peace it brought them. Could I somehow find some way of ridding myself of the pain and torment in my soul? I began to read, and suddenly I felt the power of the Prophets roar through me and purify my pagh!" He stretched out his hands wide. "At that moment, I truly knew myself, saw my soul for what it was...and then I felt a peace unlike any other sensation I'd ever experienced...and I knew that the Prophets had forgiven me my sins and redeemed me." He closed his eyes and sat down, bliss etched on every inch of his features.
Sisko said nothing, merely let the silence grow and waited.
Eventually the Cardassian opened his eyes and smiled. "The next morning, I saw things so clearly, Commander. I saw the sins of Cardassia with open eyes, eyes no longer blinded by arrogant pride. We were all of us guilty of our crimes against the Bajorans and a thousand other races. And that morning I knew what my penance was to be—my gift to the Prophets for what they'd given me. I would be a light to the Cardassian people...a guide to the Celestial Temple and the Prophets who awaited us therein."
"That didn't go over well with the ruling elite, I take it," Sisko said.
"There were those who listened, but many more who would not." Balek shook his head sadly. "I began to teach a small group of my brothers and sisters of the ways of the Prophets, and they in turn brought others in. We were growing slowly but steadily. But in my zeal, I forgot the Cardassian maxim that one must always watch out for the friendly traitor. My home was raided a few months later—we were probably carrying a spy in our midst, one who was reporting my activities to the ruling class. Many of my students were killed, others were jailed." He sighed and stared at the ceiling. "And I was taken to an asylum, no doubt spared from death or jail due to my 'heroic' status during the occupation. A status I would eagerly trade for the right to see the Celestial Temple just once." He smiled wistfully at Sisko. "You have no idea how much I envy you, Commander. You have seen and experienced what I can only dream of."
* * * * * *
Along the way to the infirmary, Kira had picked up a second escort—Sisko's son, who'd insisted on walking with them. She saw the intense look in the young man's eyes and reluctantly agreed to let him come along. Now he stood beside her as DS9's chief medical officer examined the frightened Bajoran girl.
"This looks terribly familiar," Bashir said, an undercurrent of rage in his words as he studied the bruises on her face. "In fact, these look remarkably similar to the injuries I found on Gul Balek yesterday."
Kira stiffened, recalling her earlier conversation with Sisko and the dead spacer's statement.
The doctor gently pushed the girl back onto the diagnostic bed. "Please lie still while I complete this scan." He studied the readings on both the diagnostic panel nearby and on his tricorder, then walked over to Kira. "There's sufficient evidence of prior beatings, too," he said softly to her. "All we need now is to have her press charges."
"You think..." she started.
"I know, Major," Bashir interrupted. "Vestil Furan is responsible for this."
"You don't know that for a certainty," she shot back. "Circumstantial evidence."
His eyes widened with disbelief. "Three people arrive from Cardassia in a shuttle. Two of them are badly beaten. The third doesn't have a mark on him—and believe me, I know. I did a surreptitious scan on him last night. Now, then—what does that imply?"
"Doc, this might not be a good idea," she warned. "We're already in trouble over this situation..."
"So you'd prefer to cover this up?" Bashir demanded. "Keep the image of the Bajoran Hero intact while his daughter and others continue to suffer his wrath? Is that truly what you want?"
"It's going to look like we're trying to find more excuses to keep him here and harass him," she said. "Starfleet's reputation is going to suffer..."
He was in her face so fast it caused her to flinch. "I don't give a damn about reputations," he said in a low, angry voice. "I care about people—people who are in need of help. And Vestil Furan needs help every bit as his daughter does." Kira stared into his intense gaze for a long time, then nodded reluctantly.
Bashir took a deep breath and composed himself, then returned to the diagnostic bed. "Annya," he said softly. "I realize this is going to be a difficult question for you to answer, but I'm required to ask. Did your father hit you this morning?"
"No," she replied, looking away.
The doctor bit his lip and tried again. "Then how did you come by these bruises?"
"I fell," she said.
He gently forced her to look into his eyes. "Annya, I know better. There is no way you could have gotten those bruises from a fall. " She tried to look away, but couldn't. "Your father is ill. He needs help. I will move heaven and earth to get him that help, but until I have conclusive proof of his actions, I cannot do anything. I need you to tell me the truth. Now—did he hit you this morning?"
Kira had come over to join her. "Tell him," she urged. "For his own good...and yours."
She trembled and took a deep breath. "Yes," she whispered. "He hit me. Has hit me. Many times." And now she began to cry, shaking pitifully as she struggled to take deep gulps of air. Her heart breaking, Kira wrapped her arms around the girl and rocked her gently back and forth, while Bashir said a quiet prayer of thanks to the ceiling and prepared to treat the girl's injuries.
Nearby, Jake simply stood there and watched, wishing desperately that there was something he could do, and wishing that it was he who was comforting Vestil Annya.
* * * * * *
"You must admit, this is difficult to believe," Sisko said.
"Imagine my position," Balek replied. "Just out of curiosity, who did they send to reclaim me?"
"Ahh," the Cardassian nodded. "A dangerous man. Fitting. I'm sure he could tell you how many people were killed in the raid that freed me. The Bajorans have a natural talent for the sneak attack. Keep that in mind, just in case you ever get on their bad side."
"I'll remember that," Sisko promised. ""I wish I could believe you."
"I'm afraid that requires faith, and to be honest, if I were in your shoes, I'd have trouble believing me."
Sisko leaned back and mulled everything over. "Assuming you're telling the truth, though, the question remains: what do I do with you? Your options are not good either way."
"Agreed. "Either trial and death by the Bajorans, or imprisonment by my own people." He looked up and smiled. "You know, though, in some ways it might be better if I were to go to Bajor. They might gain some catharsis from my death. And admittedly, I'm guilty of practically everything they've charged me with, so justice would be served. And just imagine the Cardassian reaction if I were testify about all this." He considered the idea. "Some good might come of all this. It might be what the Prophets wish after all."
Sisko nodded, then froze as the soft sounds of something outside drifted into the room. "Excuse me a moment."
The Cardassian shrugged. "I'm not going anywhere, Commander."
* * * * * *
"You're doing the right thing," Kira assured the girl. They were walking back to Security, with Bashir and Jake in tow. The bruises and welts were completely healed up now, but the terror on her face was plainly evident; she was not looking forward to the impending confrontation.
"What will they do to him?" she asked.
"I've contacted several colleagues on Bajor—this is far from an isolated case," Bashir replied. "There will be confidential counseling and therapy for both of you. It will not be a quick or easy process," he warned, "but by taking the first step, Annya, you've taken a giant step towards ending the problem."
"I hope so," she whispered, trying to control her trembling.
Kira's eyes narrowed as they reached the Promenade. "You hear something?"
The physician frowned. "Seems to be some sort of gathering..."
There was indeed a large crowd in front of Odo's office. And perched atop a makeshift podium was Vestil Furan, and the anger on his face could be seen from as far as Bajor itself. "Gul Balek is a criminal!" the old man was shouting. "He has killed thousands of innocent Bajorans, scarred how many more? He is the very symbol of what the Cardassians did to us for so very long! And now, when he is almost within the grasp of Bajoran justice, these Starfleet interlopers, these outsiders who have no comprehension of how we have suffered would give Balek back to the Cardassians, all in attempt to save their own cowardly necks and surrender to their erstwhile allies!"
She heard the crowd's murmurs of agreement and made a face. "Uh-oh. Stay here, all of you," she ordered. "I'm going to break this up."
"But if Dad's in there..." Jake protested.
She whirled around and fixed him with a deadly stare. "Stay. Here." The young man gulped nervously and nodded fiercely. Satisfied, the Bajoran took a deep breath and strode forward towards the crowd.
Unfortunately, Vestil saw her first. "And here," he continued, casting a disdainful finger at Kira, "is a former daughter of Bajor, who now serves a new cause—the cause of the Federation!" She felt the heat of the crowd's burning gaze but refused to stop or look away. "She works with them, day after day, allowing their influence to taint her loyalties! Has she even attempted to force these people to give Balek to the Bajorans? Has she done one single thing to call the Cardassian's bluff? No! And why? Because she is no longer a true daughter of Bajor!"
Kira stormed through the angry crowd, shoving aside those who wouldn't move willingly, until she stood in front of Vestil. She looked up at him. "That's enough, Furan. Get down from there and shut up. You're inciting a riot."
His gaze was pitying. "Ahh, Nerys. I had hoped you might still stand for Bajor."
"You aren't going to get justice this way. All you're doing is stirring up an already-frightened group of people into doing something stupid."
"Did you hear that?" he asked the crowd. "She would have us wait for Starfleet justice. And do you know what Starfleet justice will be? We'll have the right to watch the Cardassian fleet take Gul Balek back to their home world and listen to them laugh at us again!"
"Furan, that's enough," she demanded, but her voice was lost in the roar of the crowd. Before she could react further, a pair of arms wrapped around her waist and pulled her into the security office. She whirled around to find Odo standing there.
"I think that you might be safer in here," he said.
"Why aren't you doing anything?" she demanded. "They're going to riot..."
"Any action I take right now will result in a great deal of damage to people and property," he replied. "Besides that, most of my people are out in the station, not here, so making a heroic last stand would be pretty senseless, don't you think?"
At that moment, Sisko emerged from the holding area. "What's our status, Constable?"
"See for yourself," Odo replied, nodding to the doorway.
"So what are you going to do when they come storming in here and demand Gul Balek's head on a silver platter?" Kira said.
"This." The constable tapped his comm badge. "Mister O'Brien, if you please..." And a second later, a force field wall separated the mob from the Security compound. "There. "
The major smiled. "Not bad."
"I do try." Just then an angry roar indicated that the crowd had discovered the force field. Kira turned and saw Vestil Furan's face against the door, his features contorted by insane rage, and she shuddered.
"Let us in!" he shouted above the crowd's din. "Give us Balek! Give us justice!"
"I think not," Odo said mildly.
"So now what?" Sisko asked.
"Well, if they have any sense left, they'll realize the futility of it all and go home," the constable replied. "If not..O'Brien had another idea that he said would solve the problem without doing much damage to the Promenade."
"This I have to see," Kira muttered.
* * * * * *
Vestil Furan slammed his fists against the force field again and again, screaming in blind rage as he struggled futilely to get past the barrier. The crowd surged around him, bellowing their own anger and pushing against the energy field in vain. As the minutes passed, the crowd began to slacken in their efforts as their fury burned out...
...and then Garak came out of his shop to see what the fuss was all about.
The old man spotted him and screamed. "There! All Cardassians are guilty! All of them!" And there was still enough power in his words to incite the mob towards Garak, who stood there paralyzed with shock and fascination. Just as he regained his wits and started back for his shop, a rock came flying out of nowhere and struck him on the side of his head. The Cardassian tailor crumpled to the floor of the Promenade, and within instants the mob was on top of him.
Inside Security, Odo assessed the situation and tapped his comm badge. "O'Brien, start phase two." And he waited...and waited...and waited.
"O'Brien," he called again, this time with a bit more urgency. "Get going."
"You mean it hasn't?" came the surprised reply. "Bloody hell...we must have a relay down. I'll run a diagnostic...should have it bypassed in a minute or two..."
"We don't have a minute or two," the shapeshifter snapped.
"Oh no," Kira groaned by the doorway. "What in the hell is Bashir doing?"
The physician was running towards Garak's shop. "Stay here!" he called to Jake and Annya, and before he knew what he was doing, he was shoving through the crowd towards the center. "Get out of my way, damn it!" he yelled as he shot through the mass of bodies towards the injured man.
Standing just above Garak's unmoving body was none other than Vestil, who had somehow gotten hold of a long, thick wooden pole and was poised to bring it down on the Cardassian. As it swooped south, Bashir's hand shot out and snagged it in mid-flight. "That will be enough of that," he said firmly, snatching the pole away from the old man.
The Bajoran regarded him with hate-filled eyes. "You would spare the life of this...animal?" he spat.
"I would save the life of any sentient creature," he replied. "I'm a doctor."
And Vestil smiled wickedly. "Then die with him, Cardassian lover." Without warning, the old man slammed a fist into Bashir's stomach. The doctor staggered back, and suddenly fists were coming from every direction and driving him down to his knees. Bashir curled up into a ball for protection and cursed himself for his act of compassionate stupidity. One of his greatest worries had been who would treat him, the only doctor on DS9, if he'd ever become injured or ill. It looked as though he was about to find out the hard way.
There was a sudden roar and explosion from close by, and the beating abruptly ceased. Bashir cautiously peered up and was surprised to find that the crowd had backed away. Rising slowly to his feet, the doctor looked around and saw the reason why.
Kira was standing in the Security doorway, holding a long, ugly weapon that had a long wisp of smoke trailing from its barrel. Garak's storefront window was a shattered, blackened memory. The crowd had turned as one and watched as she slowly, deliberately aimed the gun into the center of their number.
"Who's next?" she asked quietly.
Everyone abruptly remembered a pressing appointment or two and quickly deserted the Promenade. She smiled with satisfaction as they scurried away like rats in the daylight. "Very nicely done, Major," Sisko said from behind her.
"I thought I told you that I don't allow weapons on the Promenade," Odo growled.
"Lecture me later. Let's see how Garak and Bashir are." They hurried over to the ruined storefront, where the physician was already examining the fallen Cardassian. Jake and Annya emerged from their hiding place as well and joined the others.
"Are you all right?" Kira asked the doctor.
"I'll be bruised, but I'll live," he replied absently, his full attention focused on Garak. "I need to get him to the infirmary..." And suddenly there was a gasp from nearby, and the DS9 officers turned around.
Annya was crouched beside her father, who lay unmoving on the ground. "Help me!" she cried. "He's dying!" And at that very moment, the sprinkler systems above the Promenade—O'Brien's second line of defense—finally sprang into life, thoroughly drenching them all as the water fell like tears from the Prophets.
It seemed extraordinarily chilly in the infirmary, Sisko thought as he watched Bashir and Palig Nara work on Vestil Furan's pale, unmoving body. He tried to ignore the damp uniform that clung to him uncomfortably and studied the diagnostic table's readings for some clue to the Bajoran's fate. Beside him stood Kira, who fidgeted impatiently but said nothing. And nearby were Jake and Vestil's daughter, who stared at her father so intensely it was if she was keeping him alive through sheer force of will.
Garak lay on a bed not far away, recuperating from the beating he'd received. One of the other nurses tended to his cuts and bruises while Bashir worked on the more critical patient.
Kira sighed and wrapped her arms around her chest. She shivered slightly and looked down at her uniform, as though suddenly realizing she was soaked to the skin. Sisko leaned back against the wall and marvelled at Bashir's cool, steady demeanor as he fought to keep the old Bajoran alive. While the young doctor did have a tendency to stick his overeager foot in his mouth, his medical skills were more than adequate compensation. At times like these the commander thanked the stars that the fates had sent Doctor Julian Bashir to DS9.
"There." The physician looked up and smiled tiredly. His face was a road map of reddish welts and puffy purple bruises. "I think we've gotten him past the worst of it."
"Will he live, Doctor?" Sisko had long ago learned to read between the lines of doctorspeak.
"Given time, rest and luck...I think so. But we're not out of the woods yet." He turned to Annya and smiled reassuringly. "Your father has suffered a massive heart attack," he told her gently. "And from the look of things, this wasn't the first time, was it?"
"No," she said softly, her eyes never leaving the old man.
He drew closer to her and placed a hand on her shoulder, then withdrew it immediately as the girl flinched violently. "I won't lie to you, Annya. His heart is very weak. I don't know if he'll survive this attack. But I will do everything I can to keep him alive. All right?"
She nodded and looked away. "I have to get back to the prisoner."
Bashir drew back in surprise. "I would have thought you'd want to stay with your father..."
"My father would want me to guard the prisoner," she replied. And before anyone could respond, she was out the door, followed quickly by Jake. Bashir watched them go, then shrugged to himself and headed over to Garak's bed.
Sisko looked at his first officer. "You look extremely uncomfortable."
She made a face. "I feel extremely uncomfortable." She glanced up at him and smiled. "You look like a used dishrag, yourself."
"Good analogy." They left the infirmary and headed down the corridor. "I had an interesting chat with Gul Balek," he continued as they passed the now-deserted Promenade. "He claims to have converted to the Bajoran faith."
"He'll say anything to save his hide," she replied tightly, staring straight ahead.
"Actually, he hopes that his trial and execution might promote healing on both sides." They reached the turbolift area and waited for one to show up. "So you don't think he truly believes?"
She turned to face him, eyes burning fiercely. "Commander, this man slaughtered and maimed so many Bajorans that no one can be completely sure of the final count. He ran the most efficient and escape-proof camp during the Occupation. And now, when he's on the edge of getting what he deserves, he suddenly sees the light and embraces the religion of his enemies. Now do you really expect me to believe him?"
He nodded and gestured for her to enter the just-arrived turbolift. "Ops," he requested as the doors shut, then returned to the conversation. "The Cardassians believed him enough to place him in a high-security asylum."
She turned around abruptly, eyes wide. "You're kidding!"
"Ask Vestil Annya. That's what she told Jake, and Balek confirmed it independently. So did her father."
"Then the Cardassians want him back..."
"...so that they can put him back in his quiet little cubbyhole, where he can't proclaim his testimony and throw both the Cardassian and Bajoran worlds into further disarray. Or failing that, they'll buy his silence with our blood." They reached Ops and exited the turbolift; Dax raised a curious eyebrow at their disheveled appearance but continued her work without commentary. Sisko nodded towards his office, and Kira followed him in, passing by the forlorn remains of his birthday cake. Someone had applied a "toxic waste" sticker to its base.
She flopped down into a chair as the doors shut behind them. "So the Cardassians think he's serious," she mused aloud as she ran a hand through her hair.
"Look outside and tell me how serious they are," he said as he sat down in his chair.
She snorted softly. "I can just imagine how Bajor would react if he pulled this 'conversion' act during his trial..." she began, and then a horrified look slowly emerged on her features. "The repercussions could tear the everything apart," she finished softly.
"We seem to have a no-win scenario on our hands," he said with a sigh. "We can't give him to the Cardassians..."
"Why not?" she asked abruptly.
He looked at her curiously. "Do you mean to tell me you're in favor of returning him to Gul Dukat now?"
"Why not?" she repeated. "Returning him to his people gets rid of the mines. He'll go back into their custody and he won't be able to talk about his newfound faith."
"What about Bajoran reaction?" Sisko pressed.
Kira smiled crookedly. "They'd have both our heads...but better that than watch Balek shatter whatever passes for unity on Bajor."
He nodded. "Very kind of you, to put your head on the block right next to mine."
"What are first officers for?" she asked.
They fell silent for awhile, lost in thought. Finally, Sisko looked up and sighed. "Knowing what you do about how Cardassians treat their prisoners, could you willingly give someone to them?" he asked quietly. "Even Gul Balek?"
She smiled nastily. "Damn right I could. Especially if it was him. Now that would be justice."
"And what if he truly believes in the Prophets?" he persisted. "What then? Do the Prophets ignore the cries of their believers? Or do they listen...and punish those who put their children through such suffering?"
She fell silent at that and idly ran her fingers up and down the armrest as she pondered the situation. "Maybe I couldn't," she finally conceded, then snorted softly. "You know, maybe we should just kill him here and now and tick everybody off at once."
He smiled despite himself. "I need better solutions than that, Major."
She rose to her feet. "Then let me get back to my cabin and get some dry clothes on. I can't concentrate on better solutions when I'm soaking wet." She hurried out of his office; Sisko reached into a desk drawer and retrieved his battered old baseball, turning it around and around as he contemplated the intricate stitching. Then a slow smile of inspiration struck him, and it grew as a plan suddenly came together in his mind.
"Sisko to Dax," he called. "I need to see you in my office right away."
* * * * * *
Jake had to increase his pace to keep up with Annya. She was making determined progress towards Security, which surprised him somewhat. Had it been his father lying there in the infirmary, a battalion of Cardassians couldn't have dragged him away. "Hey, slow down, willya?" he pleaded as he drew up to her side.
She shook her head. "I've got to get back to the prisoner. It's what he would want me to do. It's all that matters."
He glanced around at the practically-deserted Promenade and shivered slightly; the debris that lay strewn around Garak's shop reminded him all too much of his arrival at DS9. "Doesn't your father mean anything to you?" he asked, and upon receiving an icy glare immediately regretted it. "Sorry."
Annya finally stopped just outside Security and turned around. "Look. Go home. Go somewhere, anywhere you want—but leave me alone. All right?"
Her rejection smacked him square in the stomach, but he managed to hide it. "I just don't see why you're so loyal to your father. I mean, it's not exactly like he's done anything to deserve..." Before he could finish, the Bajoran girl had balled her fists and sent a one-two combination into his gut; he fell to the floor and wheezed desperately for air.
She leaned over him and forced him to look into her eyes. "Whatever else he has done, my father is a great man," she said in low, dangerous tones. "He has dedicated his life to bringing Gul Balek back to Bajor. You have no right to judge him."
"Does that justify him smacking you around?" Jake gasped, wincing as she suddenly slapped him hard across the face. But he held his ground and stared into her rage-twisted face. "I get it," he said quietly. "Like father, like daughter, huh?"
His words shocked her back to reality; the wild anger vanished, replaced with horror and shame. "I'm sorry," she whispered, then turned and ran into Security. He remained sitting on the cold metal floor of the Promenade and gingerly touched the tingling area where her open palm had hit.
"You okay?" one of the security officers at the door—Lieutenant Hoffs, he remembered—asked. She and her partner Steele had stayed out of the discussion out of politeness, but he suddenly realized they'd seen everything. And no doubt they'd tell Odo, and he'd tell his father, and...
"I'm okay," he shrugged nonchalantly. "Uhh...you guys can kind of keep this to yourselves, okay?"
"Hey, we're Security," Steele grinned. "We're real good at keeping secrets."
"Yeah," Jake said as he rose to his feet. "That's because you usually die before you get a chance to tell 'em." He hurried off before either of the women could make him regret that parting remark.
* * * * * *
Jadzia Dax walked into his office, her face full of puzzlement. "Is there a problem, Benjamin?"
He smiled at her. "Sit down and listen to this. And then I want you to think of every possible loophole, every snag, and throw them back in my face." And he proceeded to tell her the plan he'd just concocted.
She nodded and bit her lip as he talked, narrowing her eyes as she examined the plan from every angle. When he'd finished speaking, she regarded him with eyes dancing with amusement. "Benjamin, that is the sneakiest, dirtiest, most under-handed idea I've ever heard. Curzon would be so proud of you..."
"You think it'll work?"
Dax smiled. "What did Curzon teach you about long shots?"
"How much did Curzon lose on long shots?" he retorted, then leaned forward across his desk. "We haven't much time. Let's get everyone together, run it by them, and see how it plays."
* * * * * *
One of the things Kira regretted about DS9 was the fact she didn't have an office. Prior to Sisko's arrival on the station, she had that huge, lovely haven all to herself, and she took full advantage of it. There was something comforting about having a room all to yourself, where you could close the doors when the world and its harsh realities became too much to cope with, and with that soft hiss you could sit back and drink in the lovely silence.
But Sisko had come along and taken the office, which was his prerogative, and she decided to situate her work station in the center of Ops so that she could keep on top of everything There were, of course, disadvantages; her feet ached from the constant standing, and some days it was a wild scramble to keep up with the station's hectic pace. But she persevered and survived; it was what she did best.
And in lieu of an office, Kira had her window. It was just one amid the hundreds that lined the outer walls of DS9, but in her pagh she had claimed this particular site. And when everything got too much for her she could come here, stare at the stars and let the stillness of space quiet her troubled soul. And best of all, it provided a stunning view of the wormhole—the Celestial Temple—and it seemed that whenever she was most troubled, a ship would just happen to enter or exit the portal and bless her with that awesome display.
Right now she could have used that display, but with the mines and the Cardassian fleet it wasn't meant to be. She sighed and settled for staring into the endless darkness, wondering if this was the last time. It certainly looked like it. Not for the first time she wished that Vestil Furan and Gul Balek had never set foot on DS9.
While she didn't approve of the old man's violent actions, and she was certainly suspicious of the Cardassian's alleged conversion to the Bajoran religion, she felt that these were side issues that distracted everyone from the main problem: Gul Balek was a monster who had committed far greater atrocities against her people than anything Vestil could have done to him. Bajor screamed for vengeance against this butcher. They couldn't give him back to the Cardassians, not even if it meant the death of every person aboard DS9, herself included.
And yet...was Sisko right? Was a principle worth so many deaths? She was certainly no stranger to killing, but lately she'd come to regret the things she'd done in the name of freedom, and found herself loathe to place any more bodies on her personal death count. She wanted peace. She wanted release from the guilt. She wanted...what it seemed, she reluctantly admitted, Gul Balek had in great measures.
"Sisko to Kira." She jumped at the abrupt call, but quickly composed herself and acknowledged him. "If it isn't a problem," his voice continued, "I'd like to call a quick staff meeting right now. Can you attend?"
"I'm on my way." She gave herself one last, long look at the stars outside her view, then hurried off towards the nearest turbolift and Ops.
* * * * * *
Odo's smiles were all too rare, Dax reflected as she gave the constable the results of her scans on the remains of the Marriv, and that was probably a good thing. For when the constable did smile, they all too often boded ill for someone down the line. "You're absolutely sure of this," he said, almost gleefully reading the results for the third time.
"I'm sure," she said.
"Thank you, Lieutenant. This is most helpful." He nodded thoughtfully and took his place against a nearby wall, the smile still firmly in place. Bashir came in, took one look at the shapeshifter, and hurried over to the seat beside her.
"Someone certainly seems to be in for it soon, wouldn't you say?" he said softly, nodding in Odo's direction.
"I think it's Quark. He never smiles like that for just anyone. How is Garak?"
"I'll be releasing him tomorrow. Mostly bruises and the sort."
" What about Vestil Furan?"
The doctor frowned. "Hard to say. He needs about a week's worth of rest, and absolutely no more stress. Not that he'll listen to me when he wakes up." He smiled tiredly. "Of course, if worst comes to worst, none of us are going to have any problems after tomorrow, will we?"
"Your fatalism is noted, Doctor," Sisko said from behind his desk. He fixed the startled physician with one of his patented disapproving looks, and was pleased to see Bashir quickly assume a more mature, professional pose. At that moment Kira appeared in the doorway, and after a brief nod of acknowledgement to her, he returned his attention to his staff. "Our backs are against the wall. If we return Gul Balek to the Cardassians, the Bajoran provisional government will no doubt be poorly disposed towards us. There might be terrible ramifications among the Bajoran people as well. In addition, if we consider what will happen to Balek if we do surrender him to Gul Dukat, that option becomes completely unacceptable.
"On the other hand," he added, "if we refuse to give him to the Cardassians, at best they'll back down, and we'll have to release him to Bajoran custody."
"Where he'll be tried, sentenced, and executed," Kira interjected. "Assuming the Cardassians don't assassinate him before the trial, which isn't unlikely, given the circumstances."
"And of course, we all know the worst case scenario." The commander leaned back in his chair and rubbed his chin. "Major Kira made a comment to me in an earlier conversation that, given the choices, we'd be better off just killing Gul Balek ourselves. After due consideration, I believe she has the right idea."
Shock rippled across the faces of his staff with one exception—Dax simply sat there smiling. Bashir looked as though he was still waiting for the punch line that would never come, Odo was giving him a skeptical, penetrating gaze that attempted to peel Sisko back layer by layer until the truth emerged. O'Brien looked torn between outrage and disbelief, and Kira...Kira simply sat there, stone-still, with her mouth open and her eyes wide.
"Perhaps what I should have said," he continued, "was that we should give the Bajorans and the Cardassians the appearance that he has been killed. If we do this right, the Cardassians would thereby have no reason to keep their mines activated, and the Bajorans will think justice was served and say nothing more about it." And with that, he went over his master plan, detailing the parts each of them would have to play. His officers listened intently, each fully aware that this might be their only way out of a no-win situation.
"All right," Kira said when he'd finished. "It might work, and we certainly don't have that many options left open. But the question is—" she gave him a long, penetrating look "—what do we do with him afterwards?"
"Assuming this works, we'll have all the time we need to decide that."
"I don't like this," she said, shaking her head. "I don't like this at all. It looks like he's getting away scot free..."
"I know that," Sisko said gently. "But give me a solution that satisfy both the Cardassians and the Bajorans, and I will be more than happy to implement it."
"I can't," she said after a moment.
"Well then," he said. "There's the plan. We go into action tomorrow morning at eight hundred hours. Doctor, you're the first one up to bat. Do us proud."
"Do you know," Bashir said to Dax as they left, "I'd almost considered a career in acting?" O'Brien hurried out behind the doctor, no doubt going to tell his wife that he was going to be busy all night on a priority project. That left Kira and Odo, each of whom probably wanted to speak with him alone, based on the wary glances each was given to the other.
"Go ahead," he said to them both. "I expected it."
"I dislike subterfuge," Odo said. "I dislike deliberately misleading my people."
Sisko stretched out his hands in supplication. "Give me that better way, and I'll take it."
"I dislike it," the constable repeated, "but I'll follow it." He nodded respectfully and left the room.
Sisko watched Kira as she paced slowly across the room; her hands were locked behind her back, and her eyes were deeply troubled. He could have said something and brought the upcoming confrontation to a head right then and there, but instead he chose to wait and let her air her feelings first.
It didn't take long. "I wish I could come up with that 'better way'," she said quietly.
"I know how much this troubles you," he said.
"No. No you don't," she retorted, shaking her head. "You are asking me to assist in letting this...this animal...slip free from what he deserves. You weren't there. You didn't see...didn't experience...the things I saw. He deserves to die, Commander. He deserves to die in a very slow and painful fashion."
"Major," he said slowly. "Bajor will think that you killed Gul Balek—-killed him rather than see him returned to the Cardassians. Don't you think that they'll believe justice was served, and better yet, served by a Bajoran freedom fighter?"
"But I'll know," she said, tapping at her breast. "I'll know the truth."
"No matter what happens, he'll have to watch his every step for the rest of his life. He will never be able to show his face anywhere, ever again. He will never be free again. His life is effectively over. Isn't that hell of a sort?"
"No," she said tiredly. "Yes. I don't know..."
"Get some sleep," he suggested, escorting her to the door. "And if you find a better idea comes to you by morning, call me and tell me about it. If it works...we'll play it your way."
"All right," she nodded. "Good night, Commander."
"Good night, Major."
* * * * * *
Garak looked around the tattered remains of his haberdashery and shook his head sadly. Unfortunately, this action resulted in a razor-sharp pain shooting through his body. He winced and cursed his injuries, which troubled him far more than he'd let on to Bashir. The young physician had not been pleased to see his patient leave, but Garak had assured him that he'd be fine. For a moment, the Cardassian wished that he had the luxury of recuperating from his beating another day or so.
Walking slowly to his back room, Garak glanced at his computer console and saw that a message was waiting. He accessed the note and ran it through his encryption system; it was from Gul Dukat, as he'd expected. He read it and quickly purged the letter from the computer, then sat down and closed his eyes, stretching slowly and wincing again as his sore muscles protested the action.
He'd expected this all along, of course. The Cardassian commander was not so foolish that he would destroy the station and risk a major incident over a madman. He had expected Sisko to release Gul Balek to him by now, but the Human's obstinateness and determination had surprised them all. So where threats did not work, perhaps stealth would.
Opening his eyes, Garak rose to his feet and walked over to his work table. A fresh change of clothing for Balek lay waiting to be delivered. The Cardassian clothier rummaged around in a drawer until he found a small bottle hidden deep in the back. He examined the label and smiled to himself with satisfaction. This would do nicely. Clear, odorless, and quite undetectable.
He turned the shirt inside out, then opened the bottle and liberally doused the fabric with the contents. Garak finally returned the shirt to its original state and folded it with professional care, setting it atop the slacks. He called for the lights to dim and headed for bed.
By this time tomorrow, Gul Balek would be dead of an apparent heart attack, the Bajorans would be thwarted, and the Cardassians would be free of one potential embarrassment. Garak let that thought comfort him as he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Kira called for the computer to deactivate her wake-up alarm five minutes before it was due to go off. Sighing, she sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes, then stretched her arms and scooted off the bed. She stared at her haggard features in the mirror for a moment, then proceeded with her normal morning rituals, just as she'd done all these months since coming aboard DS9.
She did not let herself think about the possibility that today might be the last time those rituals might be performed. There was no need to; that notion, and her critical role in Sisko's master plan, had kept her awake the entire night. She dressed in her duty uniform and slipped on her boots, then wrapped her holster around her waist. She pulled her gun out and studied it briefly, then took a deep breath, and left her quarters.
Kira passed a few people in the station corridors, but they were official personnel on critical assignments; after the near-riot, Sisko had instituted a general curfew and Odo's staff had strictly enforced it. She nodded to anyone who passed her, trying not to look like she was extremely apprehensive—but then again, she was supposed to look that way. "Well, that's going to be easy," she muttered as she took a turbolift to the Promenade.
On a whim she decided to slip into the infirmary for a moment and check on Vestil Furan. Despite his actions, she could feel no malice for the old man. She'd experienced a great deal of what he'd suffered, and understood the demons that constantly tormented him. He was to be pitied and cared for, not condemned. And while she wasn't completely happy with what was about to happen, at least it would end this poor man's obsession and let him spend his remaining years on Bajor in peace.
He lay sound asleep on his bed. Someone had placed a small bouquet of flowers on an adjacent table; she let her fingers drift along the petals for a moment and moved on. She glanced over at the other beds and was satisfied to see that Garak was missing. That meant Bashir was already on his way, playing his part in the little drama about to unfold. Garak's presence was crucial to the scenario; he provided them with a witness the Cardassians would believe.
Shaking her head at the insanity of it all, Kira bit her lip and turned to leave. She heard a soft sound behind her and started to turn back around. There was a sudden explosion of pain at the back of her head, and she collapsed, hitting the floor hard.
Vestil Furan let the glass vase in his hand fall to the floor, then bent over and pulled her gun away from the holster. Studying it briefly, he changed the setting from "stun" to "kill" and shuffled slowly out the door, leaving the unconscious woman behind.
* * * * * *
"I greatly appreciate your help, friend Julian," Garak said, leaning against Bashir as they left the Cardassian's debris-littered shop. "I fear that I'm not quite healed, but I didn't want Gul Balek to be without clean apparel."
"Quite all right," the physician assured him. "Take your time." But not too much time, he added silently as they headed towards Security. While the show couldn't go on without their presence, the longer it took to get all the players in their correct positions, the easier it would be for something to go wrong. And there were too many lives at stake for this charade to go badly. Bashir unconsciously picked up the pace, forcing the Cardassian to do likewise.
"I do hope you aren't lumping me in with my fellow Cardassians," Garak continued as they drew closer to the main entrance to Security. The good doctor's presence was crucial for what was about to happen—Garak needed an credible witness to verify Gul Balek's untimely heart attack. Besides, the physician had no experience with Cardassian poisons, and so wouldn't notice any telltale signs of treachery—or so he hoped. "I don't at all approve of Gul Dukat's actions—I find them distasteful in the extreme," he said with a slightly sardonic smile. "Especially as they directly put me in danger, hmmm?"
"No one here blames you," Bashir assured him, glancing worriedly at the front door. Something had gone wrong, he was sure of it. Where were the security guards? They were supposed to be leaving right about now!
And just then, as if on cue, a group of security personnel came running outside. One of them, a Starfleet lieutenant named Robles, collided with a linen cart that had been carelessly sitting beside the main entrance. Bashir helped her up. "What's going on?" he asked.
"We just got a tip that the Cardassians set bombs at various points inside the station yesterday, as insurance," she replied, shooting an angry scowl at Garak, who shrugged weakly. "Are you going to see the Cardassian?"
"Yes. Garak here has some fresh clothing."
Robles considered this. "Look," she said, "we're having to call everyone out to verify the rumor. But that Bajoran girl is still in there keeping watch. Just be careful and call us at the first hint of trouble, all right?" When the doctor nodded his assent, that seemed to satisfy the officer, and she hurried off to join the hunt.
"No one believes I'm just as responsible, hmmm?" Garak said pointedly.
"It's the company you keep," Bashir replied. They entered the deserted Security compound and headed into the holding area. Vestil's daughter was sitting in one of the chairs that circled the interrogation table. "Hello, Annya," he said, straining to keep his voice casual. "Garak's brought some clean clothes for your prisoner."
She stared suspiciously at Garak, who gave her his finest, most charming smile. It didn't help. "Give me the clothes," she ordered. Bashir handed them over to her and watched her frisk them with professional scrutiny. As she worked, Garak stole a glance at Gul Balek, and to his surprise he found his kinsman staring back at him. And at that moment, Garak could swear that he somehow knew. But that was impossible....
"All right," she said at last. "But I'd prefer that you give the clothes to him, Doctor." She scooted the bundle back to Bashir.
"Fine by me," Garak said, lowering himself into a free chair. "I'm exhausted."
She lowered the force field and watched the Starfleet doctor approach the prisoner. Her hand remained steady over the computer panel, ready to restore the barrier at the first sign of trouble. Bashir walked over to where the Cardassian prisoner was waiting. "Here you go."
"My thanks, both to you and Garak," said Balek. He took the clothing and looked over to where the Bajoran girl was standing, as though he was about to ask for a moment or two of privacy from her, His expression suddenly turned into puzzlement, and Bashir turned around, knowing full well that Kira would be standing there, her gun aimed at Annya's head...
But it wasn't Kira. It was Vestil Furan who held the gun—which looked like Kira's—and it was aimed straight at Bashir's chest. "Oh, damn," he muttered under his breath.
"Get away from him," the old man ordered. Stunned by the abrupt change in actors, the doctor actually hesitated a moment or two before complying. Nearby, Garak sat perfectly still in his chair, unwilling to give Vestil the slightest excuse to shoot at a closer Cardassian target.
Bashir studied the old Bajoran with a critical eye and didn't like what he saw. His chest was rising and falling far too quickly for the doctor's taste. And where in the hell was Kira? "Sir," he said as calmly and as with as much authority as he could muster. "Give me that gun and sit down. You ought to be resting."
"Your commander's going to give him back to his people," the aged Bajoran said in a shaky voice. "Surrender him to save his own cowardly hide."
"I assure you I know nothing about that," Bashir pleaded. "But please, listen to me and put that away." He remembered the daughter and changed tactics. "Annya, your father could have another heart attack at any moment. He's very ill. Take the gun away from him and let me return him to the infirmary." But she simply stood there, stone silent and eyes wide, as Vestil seemed to draw on the last dregs of his strength and stilled his shaking hands. He lifted the gun slowly into position and took dead aim at Gul Balek.
And to his horror, Bashir could see that the gun was set on 'kill', not 'stun'.
"I find you guilty of crimes against Bajor," the old man said calmly. "And I sentence you to hell." And before anyone could react, he fired a single shot which struck the Cardassian square in the chest. He cried out briefly, then collapsed. Bashir raced to his side; Garak suddenly propelled his chair backwards, slamming into the old man and his daughter. All three of them went crashing to the floor.
"Dear God," Bashir breathed. He rolled the victim onto his back and searched for some trace, any trace of life.
At that moment Kira stumbled into the room. She had a hand pressed against the back of her head, and looked as though every second was a struggle to stay conscious. "What...?" she gasped, taking in the entire scene. "Oh no..."
"Doctor," Garak called from where the aged Bajoran lay, "I think you're needed over here..."
The physician rushed over and whipped out his tricorder. "It's as I feared," he said as he scanned the Bajoran. "A massive heart attack." He grabbed his medikit and set to work on his patient, oblivious to everything else around him. Annya stood behind Bashir and watched him work, her eyes wide and a hand jammed against her mouth. Garak sat nearby, transfixed with terrible fascination as Bashir struggled to force the old man's battered heart to resume beating. And Kira slowly staggered towards Gul Balek, her head still pounding from the earlier sneak attack.
She knelt beside the unmoving body and felt for a pulse. A grim smile slid across her lips as it confirmed what she'd suspected. "Annya!" she called. The girl looked over at the older woman, hearing but not hearing. "Annya, there's a cart just outside the main office," Kira said tightly, fighting to concentrate past the throbbing in her head. "Bring it here—now!"
"What?" Annya said, blinking in confusion.
"Get me the cart outside the main office!" When the girl failed to move, Kira stumbled over to the young Bajoran and shook her roughly. "Listen to me—we haven't got much time. Gul Balek is dead. I need your help to get rid of the body!"
Garak looked up in shock. "Balek's dead?" His eyes drifted over towards the body. By all the gods, he thought to himself, I went to all this trouble for nothing!
"Last time I looked he was. Want to go over and see if anything's changed since a minute ago?" She shook the girl again. "I need your help, Annya. Go get the cart!"
"Bashir will do everything he can. But there's nothing you can do except get in the way. Help me honor your father, girl—get the damned cart!" The order finally seemed to sink into the girl's head, and with a nod she hurried out.
Kira looked down at Bashir. "How is he?"
"Not good," the doctor admitted, never looking up. "What happened?"
"Later." She bent down and retrieved her gun, which had been lying beside Vestil's body. Annya returned with the linen cart just then; with the girl's help, Kira was able to hoist the Cardassian's body onto the middle shelf. She covered the top and sides of the cart with some of the sheets that had been lying on the top shelf, then nodded at the younger woman. "Let's go."
"What in the nine Hells are you doing?" Garak demanded. He started to rise to his feet; Kira's gun magically appeared in her hand and pointed itself at Garak. The Cardassian sat back down.
"I'll be damned if I'm going to let your people take this monster's body and give him a 'Cardassian war hero's' funeral," she snapped as she pushed the cart forward. "I'm going to give him a special Bajoran sendoff instead." She handed the gun to Annya, who covered her as the cart passed Bashir and Garak. Then, with a final glance at her father's body, she hurried off to join Kira.
* * * * * *
With a considerable amount of luck, they were able to get Balek's body to the closest torpedo bay unseen. Kira whipped the sheet off the cart and motioned for Annya to assist in getting the Cardassian off the lower shelf. "What are we doing?" the girl panted.
Kira went to the main console and requisitioned an empty torpedo shell. "We're going to dump the bastard in a casing and aim him at Bajor," she replied.
"But won't that activate the mines?"
"Maybe. But look at it this way—if a mine collides with it, the Cardassians just destroyed the body of their precious 'war hero'. And if the torpedo makes it to Bajor, he'll burn up in the atmosphere and be scattered over the world he raped. I think that's fitting." She entered the target coordinates, then went over to open the shell. "All right. Let's get him in this, and fast. No telling when Odo or someone else is going to find out about what happened."
"What will happen?" Annya asked.
"Well, the Cardassians will probably be angry, and they'll stomp and threaten, but they're pragmatic. They'll withdraw the mines and leave. And Bajor? Well, if there's any justice the provisional government will give your father a medal and a hefty pension. Now help me get him over to the torpedo."
Between them, the two women managed to drag Gul Balek's body over and into the shell; Kira shut the hatch and activated the conveyor belt. "Good riddance, and I hope you burn in hell," she said softly as the firing bay hatch slid into place. She turned and smiled at Annya. "Want to do the honors? Keep it in the family, as it were?"
"All right." She pressed a blinking button, and the torpedo shot towards Bajor. Kira moved over to the main control panel and called up a viewscreen. They watched as the torpedo soared towards their home planet, only to be intercepted by a flotilla of mines. A bright explosion filled the screen, dazzling their eyes for a few moments before the light faded and the familiar look of space returned.
"It's over," Kira said softly. Suddenly more tired than she could endure, she sat down on the conveyor track and closed her eyes. "Your father needs you," she reminded the girl. "Go to him."
"Are you all right?" the girl asked. Kira waved her off and Annya wasted no time in hurrying back to Security. She never saw the catering cart shimmer and remold itself into the familiar appearance of Odo.
He tapped his comm badge. "Odo to O'Brien."
"O'Brien here. The package arrived safe and sound."
"Very well. Odo out." He walked over to where Kira sat; her hands were pressed against her face. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. Just tired, and my head is killing me." She looked up and managed a wan smile. "We'd better get back and find out how Vestil Furan is doing."
As they walked back, Odo asked, "So how did Vestil end up with your role?"
"I visited the infirmary to look in on him. He snuck up on me and hit me on the head, then took my gun and shot Balek." She shook her head gingerly and smiled. "Guess that makes him a stand-in of sorts, hmmm?"
"I suppose so." They entered Security just in time to see Bashir and Garak leaving the holding area. Kira stiffened as the soft sounds of sobbing and chanting drifted from the room; the doctor looked at her and shook his head briefly. Kira and Odo exchanged a glance, then the constable went to recall his personnel while she went on in.
Vestil Furan lay on the floor staring at the stark grey ceiling. His features were twisted and pained, and his hands were gnarled up into tight little balls. Annya crouched beside him, weeping and sobbing as she performed the Bajoran death chant.
Kira knelt down and closed the old man's eyes. then took a deep breath and added her voice to the dirge.
Deep Space Nine reverberated with the death chant for Vestil Furan. As word spread of his death and the circumstances around it, every Bajoran paused in his or her duties and joined in. The soft keening played eerily along the metallic corridors, echoing and ringing as it drifted from level to level, and giving the station a cathedral-like atmosphere.
The Starfleet personnel also stopped working, standing at respectful attention as the chant grew in numbers and in volume. When the chant reached Ops, Sisko contacted Bashir and confirmed the news, then bowed his head for a moment and offered a quiet prayer for the dead man before heading to the turbolift.
Odo had commandeered a freight cart and put Vestil's body upon it. A huge crowd had gathered in the Promenade; as the constable guided the cart out of Security, the mob parted like a living sea and continued the chant. A steady shower of flowers descended from every direction, gently falling upon the old man until his body had vanished in a sea of colorful petals. Kira walked just behind the delegation, draping a protective arm around Annya, who continued to mouth the chant in a numb, flat voice.
Above the procession, Jake sat and watched with awe and amazement. His eyes fell upon Annya, and the expression on her face broke his heart. He wanted to go down and tell her how sorry he was—though he wasn't; the old man had been cruel to her, and part of Jake hoped that wherever Vestil Furan was, he would suffer just a bit for what he'd done. The size of the crowd, however, persuaded him to remain where he was.
Sisko was waiting for the procession just outside the infirmary. "I want you to know that you have my deepest sympathies," he told Annya..
She nodded absently. "Thank you, Commander. If it's all right, I would like to be alone with my father, please." Everyone nodded and hurried off, save for Bashir, who carefully set the body on the morgue table before leaving.
Annya stared at her father's body for some time, lost in thought. She walked over to the table and moved slowly around it, studying the corpse with intense curiosity, as though she'd never seen a dead body before. Which was silly, of course—she'd seen far too much death in her brief existence. It was as familiar to her as life, and in some ways even more.
She idly picked up a limp hand and with one finger traced its outline. She poked at the meat of the palm. She twisted it this way and that. Then she let it fall back to the table, where it hit with a soft thud.
A tear slipped down her face. She lifted a hand to wipe it away, but somewhere in the gesture the hand became a fist, and the fist slammed down against the dead man's chest. It rose again, fell again, rose again, and again, and again, and again...and somewhere in it all, she heard a scream of anger and pain that was so deep, so intense that it seemed impossible to contain.
* * * * * *
Deciding there was no point in prolonging the inevitable, Sisko arranged to speak with Chancellor Latrin and Gul Dukat simultaneously. His viewscreen showed the Bajoran on the left side, the Cardassian on the right. There was an odd gleam in the Cardassian's eyes, as though he had been expecting the call. "Gentlemen," he said. "I regret to inform you of a terrible incident which occurred this morning."
Dukat almost smiled—he definitely knew more than he should. "I hope that nothing has happened to Gul Balek, Commander," he said smoothly. "We are anxiously awaiting his return."
"Commander Sisko," the Bajoran bureaucrat warned, "if you surrender Gul Balek to them, you can be sure I will not rest until you have been removed from your post..."
"As I was saying," Sisko said in a tone of voice that caused the bitter enemies to shut up, "I am sorry to inform you that Gul Balek was killed this morning by Vestil Furan."
"WHAT?" both voices erupted in shock. He found it even more intriguing that whatever the Cardassian had been expecting to hear, it certainly wasn't what he'd just said. "I'm afraid I'm just as shocked as you," the Starfleet commander continued. "And moreover, Vestil Furan died from a massive heart attack immediately afterwards."
The Bajoran official's face fell. "Bajor has lost the bravest of her sons today." He then smiled slightly. "But at least he died in a noble cause—ridding the galaxy of a terrible butcher and avenging the Bajorans he slaughtered."
"Feh," Gul Dukat spat, his scowl truly terrible to behold. But to his credit, he managed to recover quickly. "I would hope," he said silkily to Sisko, "that there will be no trouble in returning Gul Balek's body to us, so that he might be buried with full honors, as befits a hero of his stature." The last few words were aimed straight at Latrin, who clenched his jaw tightly.
"Now that you mention it, Gul Dukat, there is a small problem," DS9's commander said, barely able to contain his own amusement at what was to come next. "You see, Major Kira and Vestil Furan's daughter put the body in an empty photon torpedo shell, intending to let it burn up in Bajor's atmosphere. Unfortunately, your mines got to it first..."
The look of sheer consternation on his opponent's face was utterly priceless as the implications fell into place—Sisko wondered how the Cardassian was going to explain this one to his superiors, and guessed that Gul Dukat was no doubt wondering that as well.
"I...see..." Dukat finally managed to get out. The chancellor for his part was keeping a straight face, but his jawline was twitching madly. "Well," the Cardassian said in a brisk, businesslike tone, "I would say that under the circumstances, we no longer have any reason to keep the proximity mines in place. "
"I'm glad to hear that," Sisko said. "Especially since the Reliant will be arriving in twenty-four hours. I wouldn't want anything to happen that might cause an incident between our peoples, Gul Dukat."
"I quite agree. I'm ordering my crews to begin cleanup operations immediately." The Cardassian nodded curtly and abruptly vanished from the screen; Latrin's signal expanded to fill the breach. "Chancellor, please allow me to express my deepest sympathies," Sisko said.
"I appreciate all you've done for us in this difficult situation," the chancellor said. "If I might make one more request—could his body be brought back to Bajor?"
"It would be my pleasure and my honor," Sisko replied. The Bajoran smiled and nodded his thanks, then signed off. The commander smiled to himself, then glanced up to find Kira standing in the doorway. "How are you feeling, Major?"
She sighted. "I've got a terrible headache and I'm embarrassed to death for letting an old man ambush me. But I'll manage." She came in and sat down. "Strange how things work out, isn't it?."
"I'll say. By the way, O'Brien says everything is fine on his end. I'll take care of those arrangements. Would you be willing to taking Vestil Furan's body back to Bajor?"
"I'd like that very much." She shook her head sadly. "I don't know what his daughter's going to do, though. She's all alone, and there's so much pain and anger inside her. I wish there was something I could do for her."
* * * * * *
Annya ignored the door chime the first time it rang, and she ignored the second. But when the chime signalled for the fifth time, she gave in and went to the door. As she expected, Jake Sisko was standing there, looking painfully sympathetic and eager to lend an ear. "Hi. I just wanted to see if you were okay..."
"I am. Thank you." She tried to shut the door, but he was too quick, slipping through the portal before the panels snapped together. She turned and stared at him in exasperation. "Look. I appreciate your concern, but I want to be alone right now. So leave while I'm still feeling polite."
"Look," he pleaded. "I know what it's like, losing a parent. I lost my mother in the Borg attack..."
"But you still have your father," she snapped. "Whose interference caused my father no end of stress and contributed to his heart attack. Get out."
"Why won't you let me help you?" he asked plaintively. "I just want to help, Annya!"
"I don't want your help!" she screamed at him. "Leave! Now!" Before he could react, she pushed him towards the door, which obligingly parted in his path. He fell backwards and landed on the floor, where he saw her raging, pained expression for one brief moment before the doors shut again. For a long time he simply lay there, staring at the floor and wondering what he could do to make things better for her, to make her see...
"You can't do anything," Nog informed him. He was leaning lazily against a nearby wall, nibbling at a nopai stick. "She hates you, she hates your father, she hates everything. Typical Bajoran, like I told you."
"How long have you been here?" Jake asked, embarrassed.
"Long enough," the Ferengi answered breezily. "Now then, hew-mon, are you going to continue to beat your fists against that wall, or will you do the honorable thing by admitting there is no profit to be made and moving on to new ventures?"
Young Sisko thought about it for a minute or two, then shrugged and got to his feet. "I guess you're right," he said with a sigh. "Still friends?"
"Friendship—feh," Nog said, disgusted. "Better to be partners, I say. Come on. The ships are starting to return, and who knows what opportunities await?"
* * * * * *
"Ahhhh," Odo said with satisfaction as he spotted his quarry scurrying towards his private quarters. "Quark. I'd like a word with you."
"I'm very busy," the Ferengi retorted. "Another time." He pounded in vain at the door, which stubbornly refused to open.
"I think now would be more appropriate," the chief of security persisted. "I had Lieutenant Dax analyze the debris from the Marriv. It was a most...fascinating...list of remains. Especially when some of the items identified on the scan were not on the ship's original manifest."
"Why should I care?" Quark snorted, giving up on the door and now studying a datapad intently.
"Because among those items were strong traces of galshonti. A most powerful, dangerous and highly illegal drug on most worlds. And to make matters even more interesting, I had my men scan both the storage hold that Captain Tannis used for her cargo while her ship was undergoing repairs, and one of the holds that you've been known to hide contraband within. And do you know what I found? More traces of galshonti. Isn't that fascinating?"
The Ferengi abruptly whirled around. "Very. But nothing you've said implicates me in any way."
"You were having a very friendly talk with her two nights ago."
"She liked my lobes."
The constable scowled. "Several men known to have been on your payroll were seen around her storage hold later that night."
"And what were they doing, pray tell?" Quark asked sweetly. "When you interrogated them, did they point their finger at me and accuse me of having masterminded some dastardly scheme? I think not. Odo, you don't have a single concrete piece of evidence, because if you did, you would have had me arrested and thrown into your security cell within a second. You're trying to bluff me into confessing my involvement in something I had nothing to do with. Nice try, but no good."
The shapeshifter regarded his nemesis for a long moment or two, then smiled nastily. "Another time, another place. Sooner or later, you'll slip up, Quark, and when you do..."
"I'll probably land on top of you," the Ferengi sneered. "Go off and play policeman, Odo. Leave an honest businessman alone to work."
"If I ever find one in here," Odo retorted, "I'll let you know." He walked purposefully away, leaving Quark to muse over the listing on the datapad. As he headed back towards his bar, the Ferengi could talked softly to himself:
"Let me see, there's always the remainder of that cargo. All I need to do is find a pilot willing to take on an additional shipment in exchange for past favors. Who's run up time in the holosuites? Ahhh, here we go...." He looked up at a despondent-looking redheaded woman and smiled. "Captain Duncan. I've got a little proposition for you that will profit both of us quite handsomely..."
* * * * * *
The Promenade was slowly coming back to life, Sisko was pleased to see. Now that the crisis was over and the space traffic returning, the shops and kiosks were bustling with customers again. There was something comforting about walking among the crowd, a sort of rightness, that all was as it should be.
He paused in front of the small Bajoran temple, and on a whim went inside. There was but one person in front of the altar—the old priest who had relayed Kai Opaka's first summons to him. That day seemed so long ago to him, though only a handful of months had elapsed.
The priest turn and bowed. "Greetings, Emissary." Sisko had long ago given up trying to get the more religious Bajorans to drop that title, and simply put up with the embarrassment.
"Greetings to you," he said, instinctively softening his voice in the sacred confines of the temple.
"When your preparations are complete, she awaits you," intoned the priest. There had been a time when that sort of message would have succeeded only in confusing the Starfleet officer, but now its meaning was crystal clear. Sisko nodded in acknowledgment and bowed in farewell.
He tapped his comm badge as he exited the temple. "Sisko to O'Brien. I'm coming to inspect that package of yours. Be ready to let me in. Sisko out." He strode purposefully for the nearest turbolift, already planning his next moves.
* * * * * *
Bashir rubbed his eyes and stifled a yawn, silently chiding himself for showing any sign of exhaustion in front of a beautiful woman. After all, it might be misinterpreted as disinterest, and where this woman was concerned, that would never do. "I'm sorry," he apologized. " What was I saying?"
Dax smiled and signalled the waiter. "Please bring Doctor Bashir a cup of hazdig tea." The Ferengi scurried off to comply. "It'll do you a world of good in helping you rest, Julian. Trust me—I've got years of experience to back it up. Now—you had just reached the point where Vestil Furan had shot Gul Balek."
"Oh yes, that." He accepted the tea from the waiter and set the cup on the table. "Well, I wasn't sure just what was going on—I mean, first off, I was expecting Kira to show up, not him. And when I saw the gun was set on 'kill', not 'stun'..." He sipped the tea and made a face as the bitter taste hit his tongue. "But before I could move, he shot Balek and collapsed." He smiled ruefully. "Do you know, I didn't even get a chance to pronounce Balek dead? Kira got him out of there while I was working on Vestil." He closed his eyes and sighed. "Such a waste, really. The father, the daughter...such a damned silly waste, all of it."
"You did all you could, Julian," she said.
"Not really. I should have stepped in the instant I'd confirmed that Balek had been beaten, or forced the old man to stay in the infirmary. That might have saved a life." Bashir shook his head. "But everything just got out of control."
"I think you need to get some sleep."
He rose to his feet and blessed her with his most dazzling, charming smile. "Care to tuck me in? Read me a bedtime story, wish me sweet dreams and give me a kiss on the cheek?"
She shook her head and laughed with delight. "You never give up, do you?"
"Well, at least I don't go around calling you 'old man'. Remind me to have the Commander's vision checked as soon as possible."
"Go to bed, Julian," Dax ordered. He saluted smartly and shuffled off towards his cabin; she watched him leave and, still smiling, returned her attention to the cup of Klingon coffee sitting on the table and the PADD beside it.
* * * * * *
Vestil Annya gaped at Deep Space Nine, awed by the sheer size of the station as seen from outside. Beside her, Kira guided the Rio Grande off the landing pad and ascended into space. The ship arced around the station and soared towards Bajor; within its cargo hold lay her father's body, carefully tended and prepared for burial by Bashir for his final trip home.
"It's beautiful," the young Bajoran whispered as she stole one final glance at the diminishing station.
"It is," Kira agreed with a smile. "Though I didn't think so the first time I came here. At the time, I thought it was the closest thing to Hell that I'd ever see." She glanced at the instrument readings and nodded to herself. "So," she said quietly. "What are you going to do now?"
For a long time the girl said nothing, merely stared at the stars. "I don't know," she finally admitted. "I think...I think I'd like to find out what it's like to be at peace. That sounds very nice right now. But I don't know where to find it, or how to get it."
"If you ever do, tell me," Kira responded, only half-joking. She let the silence grow into a comfortable blanket around them. Then, as Bajor loomed before them, she turned towards the girl. "I'm sorry about your father—about the whole thing. I wish it hadn't ended up like this."
Annya 's eyes focused on some unseen horizon. "It was going to be his greatest moment, you know. Gul Balek—the very personification of Cardassian repression—presented to the provisional government. Watching as he stood for judgement and paid for his crimes—sometimes I think that it was all Father lived for. Maybe it was all he had left to live for." She looked away.
Kira pondered her next words for a minute or two, then spoke. "Perhaps...perhaps you should visit Kai Opaka. She could help you find some peace in your life."
"The Kai doesn't see anyone."
Kira smiled gently. "Oh, if someone spoke up on your behalf, I'm sure she'd make an exception..."
* * * * * *
Sisko was never quite sure how someone so small and unassuming could wield so much presence and command such respect. He bowed to her as she strolled casually out of the monastery she called home and walked towards him. "Greetings, Kai Opaka," he said solemnly.
"Greetings to you, Commander," she said with a smile. "The Prophets rejoice that the Emissary visits us once more." She let her gaze wander past him to the Yangtzee Kiang, which sat nearby. "You know," she commented casually, "I have always wanted to travel in your craft, even if it were only a brief trip."
He smiled. She knew, he thought to himself. There was no possible way she could know, but she did, just the same. And she was even providing the perfect excuse. "If you were able to spare the time," he replied, "I'd be more than happy to give you that trip."
She beamed happily. "I think the Prophets would permit an indulgence this one time. You have been through much," she commented as they strolled to the runabout. "But the Prophets have seen you through this difficult time, as they always do. As they always will."
"It was a bit touch-and-go," he admitted as he opened the main hatch and gestured for her to enter. She nodded and scrambled into the interior of the craft, looking around at everything with undisguised delight. "If you'll be seated," Sisko continued, motioning to a nearby chair, "we'll be on our way. I promise this won't take long."
"As the Prophets will," she replied, snuggling into the seat and leaning forward to watch as he lifted the runabout off the ground and into the sky. For a few minutes she was content to watch as Bajor rushed past them. Then she turned to him and smiled. "You may bring him in."
He nodded and hit an intercom button. A minute later, Gul Balek emerged from the living quarters. The Cardassian loomed over the Bajoran for a moment or two, then knelt at her feet. "I am honored to meet She Who Walks With the Prophets," he intoned solemnly.
She studied his face for a long moment, then gently reached out to his left ear and pinched it. Sisko watched as their faces brightened with understanding and joy at the touching of their paghs. Then Opaka's fingers slowly withdrew, and she stared at the face of her people's enemy for a long moment before speaking.
"The Prophets greet you, Balek," she said quietly. "You are known to us and are welcome."
"Thank you," the Cardassian said humbly, visibly shaken by what had just transpired. A faint echo of the ecstasy he must have experienced still remained on his face as he sat down in a nearby chair.
Sisko set the controls on automatic and turned to him. "My apologies for the subterfuge," he said. "But it wouldn't do to have a dead man walking around DS9, especially after all we went through to kill you."
"I quite understand, Commander. Though I must admit to some sorrow that your plans included Vestil Furan's death. Despite his actions against me, I did not ever wish him to die."
"That wasn't part of the plan," he confessed. "Major Kira was supposed to have the honor of killing you, but he got there first."
"I was surprised to find your Chief O'Brien and Lieutenant Dax staring down at me when I awoke," the Cardassian said. "I was expecting something a bit more....spiritual, shall we say? Especially since I remembered seeing the gun set to kill."
"That was Kira's idea. She rigged the gun so that it would only stun, no matter what the setting. She felt it added to the realism and would convince everyone of your death."
"It must have worked, as we're all still here to talk about it." Balek glanced out the window. "Would it be improper to ask where we are going?"
"That's a good question." Sisko glanced over at Opaka, who sat there smiling quietly to herself. She said nothing for a minute or two, then nodded. "We are here," she announced quietly. He stared out the window and spotted a small settlement sitting about a mile away in the midst of a huge desert.
"That was a good answer," he informed her.
"The Prophets guide us in many ways," she replied.
* * * * * *
They landed near an old, crumbling monastery that from the look of things hadn't been inhabited in years, perhaps decades. In every direction the dry, dusty desert stretched out like a golden blanket over the cracked, battered surface of Bajor. The air was hot and dirty, and the afternoon sun beat down mercilessly upon them all.
Balek looked around at the desolation with mixed emotions. "I think it's safe to say that no one will ever find me here," he said ruefully.
"The nearest settlement is several days away," Opaka nodded, looking oddly at home in even these barren surroundings. "But you have shelter, and within there is a well that has not run dry in over five hundred years. With patience and time you will learn to nurture the ground to providing you with food, and there is also wildlife for meat." She smiled at him. "You will prosper here."
Despite her assurances, he looked almost wistful. "Perhaps," he said reluctantly. "But such isolation is...difficult to endure. The solitude..."
Sisko had been staring at the monastery, wondering what it would be like to live here for the rest of his life. The bleak isolation gnawed at him even now, making his soul itch for cooler, more crowded places. Admittedly, Balek had his life, which was more than anyone else had been willing to grant him. But despite Opaka's words, he wondered if being trapped here alone for a lifetime wasn't a nastier punishment than death itself.
And then he saw several figures emerge from the shadowy depths of the monastery entrance, garbed in long, weathered robes with oversized hoods that hid their faces. They walked towards the newcomers with slow, placid ease, as if their time in the desert had taught them the futility of rushing forward through life—or perhaps it had instead taught them the rewards of peace and patience.
"I did not say you would be alone," Opaka said to Balek.
"But you said I'd be safe here," he said, panic evident in his voice as the delegation drew closer. "Every Bajoran knows me, of my crimes....you know what they'll do to me when they recognize me..."
The leader of the group lifted a hand. "Peace, brother," he said in a calm voice. "You are safe among us." And with that, he and the others in the delegation removed their hoods.
Every single one of them was a Cardassian.
Balek stared unbelievingly at their smiling faces, then turned towards Opaka and Sisko, sheer dumbfounded joy radiating from his face. She regarded him with affectionate tolerance. "Did you truly think you were the only one of your kind to be called by the Prophets?" she asked, a gentle teasing in her words. "Perhaps you need to meditate on the folly of egotism a bit more."
"I....perhaps I should," he said, still overwhelmed.
"All of us come to the Prophets alone," she said, her gaze falling across each of the Cardassians standing before her. "And in that moment, we are alone no longer, for They walk with us and bring us to our brothers and sisters. Over the years, many of your people have come to see the wisdom of our ways. And as they came to us, we brought them here, so that they might discover the deeper ways of their faith without fear of discovery or reprisal. And one day," she concluded, "perhaps there will be no Bajoran, no Cardassian—only the children of the Prophets."
Balek suddenly fell to his knees before her. "Forgive me for what I have done, Opaka, to your people. I am not worthy of the compassion and mercy of the Prophets!"
She placed a hand upon his head and smiled. "I judge you no longer, for you are no longer Gul Balek. He has died and exists no more. You are now simply...Balek. Walk with the Prophets." He looked up at her, and Sisko was stunned to see tears streaming from his eyes as he smiled up at her. "Walk with the Prophets," she repeated.
"I shall, Kai Opaka," he said in a broken voice.
"It is time we departed," she said to Sisko. "My children will be fretting at my long absence." He could have sworn he'd heard something rueful in her words, but quickly dismissed the notion. She bestowed a final blessing upon the brethren, who were even now gathering around the new member in their midst, then headed for the runabout. He took one final look at the Cardassians as they returned to the temple with Balek, then followed her inside.
* * * * * *
A short time later, Sisko returned to DS9 and hurried back to Ops. Kira was busy managing the flood of ships that were returning to the station now that the crisis was over. She glanced up from her work and gave him a quizzical expression; he nodded briefly in reply. That seemed to satisfy her, and she returned her attention to the console.
Dax was at her station, smiling at him as he came over. "The mines have been deactivated and taken away by the Cardassian work crews, Benjamin. We're back to normal."
"Or whatever passes for it around here," he said with a grin. Looking up, he spotted his birthday cake still sitting by itself in a nearby corner, still proclaiming his age to everyone who passed by it. Grimacing, he walked over to the cake, picked it up, and with great solemnity took it over to the closest disposal chute, where he dumped the whole thing with great satisfaction. Looking around, he found everyone staring at him expectantly.
"Well?" he demanded. "Don't we have work to do?"
"Aye, Commander," Kira said, unsuccessfully trying to hide a smile.
"Then let's get to it," he declared, and headed for his office.
"Prisoners" came to life in early March, according to my notes. It was originally called "The Powderkeg", and was to deal with a situation where DS9 was caught between the Cardassians and the Bajorans. The idea of a Bajoran version of a Nazi hunter came soon after, and this was supposed to be Kira's story, complete with a "Silence of the Lambs" scene between her and the prisoner.
If you heard screaming and wailing during "Duet", which aired in June, you now know where it came from. While I had my reservations about continuing, I felt I had a different enough story that it was worth finishing. I still feel that way, despite the fact that this, the longest work I've done to date, was completed in just under three months.
My thanks go to Gary, Gregg and Dave, three co-workers who read the first draft and offered their advice and criticism—and in one case, pointed out a very glaring plot hole that had to be fixed. The GEnie gang offered encouragement every step of the way, and of course, there was BEKi, whose talented writing always pushes me to work harder.
Most of all, there is Mary, my wife, who offered criticism, advice, and threats in equal measures when needed. She also forced me to stop watching "Duet" when it was rebroadcast in early August, because she got tired of the moaning coming from me. Mary also provided an insight on one character that turned everything around, for which I'm eternally grateful.
This story is dedicated to the memory of Kathy Hintze.