By Gabrielle Lawson
The Defiant came to a stop, dwarfing the smaller Rio Grande. It pulled close enough to encompass the little ship in its shields. Ezri read the sensors' results. "No life signs, Benjamin."
The outpost had called again, when the doctor had not arrived. Sisko remembered what the Gidari captain had said. The Defiant left the station less than an hour after receiving the message.
The runabout proved easy to locate. It was found adrift less than five thousand kilometers from the Badlands. There were no other ships in the vicinity. Though there were several warp signatures.
"Is she stable?" Sisko asked.
O'Brien, obviously trying to ignore Dax's statement, bent over his console. "Perfectly, sir. She hasn't even taken a hit."
"Well, then, let's go see." Sisko chose Dax and Worf for the away team, but he also knew he couldn't keep O'Brien back. Bashir was his best friend.
The four of them materialized on the Rio Grande with phasers drawn but they were met with silence. One officer, Ensign Payven, Security, leaned over the helm console. Blood dripped slowly from the console to the floor beneath him. "Dax?" Sisko asked, knowing the answer already.
Ezri drew her tricorder and scanned the ensign. "He's dead, Captain."
"Captain?" O'Brien breathed.
Sisko turned and saw what O'Brien had been looking at. The bulkhead at the back of the cockpit area was smeared with color. Red, dark red. The stain began five feet above the floor and trailed down to a broad pool. "Spread out," he ordered. "Find them."
Dax was already kneeling, taking a reading with the tricorder. Worf and O'Brien headed to the back. There were three bodies left to find. Bodies, not crewmembers.
Dax stood and closed the tricorder. She turned to look the captain in the eye. "It's human. Type B negative." She inhaled a long, shaky breath. "It's Julian."
Sisko turned away from the sight, but that only put Payven in his view again. But then he noticed something else. Two phasers laying side by side on the floor. One was Federation, its gray surface unmarred. The other was Bajoran, and like the wall behind him, it was smeared with blood.
"And that?" he asked Dax, pointing.
She scanned it and then nodded. "Same. I see marks, from fingers, but no prints."
Worf and O'Brien both appeared at the same time. "No sign of Colonel Kira, Dr. Bashir or Ensign Savolar," Worf reported. "However, there is also no cargo. The medical supplies have been taken."
Sisko didn't say anything, but he looked around the room, checking the instruments and readouts. He needed to know what happened. "Security logs," he said finally. He stepped forward himself and found the control panel. "The internal security sensors are still running." He thought about playing it there, but he knew that Bashir was dead. It was too much blood for him to have survived. And if Kira and Savolar weren't aboard, he feared they were dead as well. He wasn't sure about Worf, but he knew he, himself, did not want to watch how they died in the same room where it happened. Sisko touched his comm badge. "Sisko to Defiant. Lock on a tractor beam and set course for the station. I'm uploading the security logs from the last twelve hours. Route it to my ready room. Four to beam up."
The four of them went straight to the ready room upon their return to the Defiant. Sisko ordered the helmsman to return to the station and left orders to call if any other ships came into range. "Sit down," he told the other officers who were standing around the room. "This won't be easy."
Dax clutched at Worf's hand but she sat. O'Brien looked dazed. Denial, Sisko thought. Sisko waited for him to sit and then seated himself. "Computer begin playback, Rio Grande Security Log."
The log began quietly. Kira, Bashir and the two security officers filed aboard the Rio Grande. Kira and Bashir took the front seats at helm and ops. The others stowed the gear in the back. After a system check, Bashir lifted the runabout expertly from the pad. Kira ordered a change in speed as they cleared the station.
"Pause," Sisko told the computer. "We know they made it to within 5,000 kilometers of the Badlands. That shouldn't have taken them more than five hours. Computer, play log from a time index four hours, forty-five minutes forward of the present index." The computer sceen went blank and then came back to life with the two security officers at the helm. Bashir and Kira were not in the picture, but Payven was very much alive.
"Colonel, three ships coming into range," Payven reported. "They'll intercept in ninety seconds."
Kira's voice answered over the comm system. "Who are they?"
Savolar checked his console. "Unable to identify. They're closing fast, sir."
"Raise shields," Kira ordered. "We're on our way."
Payven closed the comm channel and tried to raise the shields as ordered. But Savolar stopped him. He grabbed Payven's arm, and, with one hand keeping him away from the control, he slit Payven's throat with his other hand, which had become a knife. He let Payven fall over the console and then wiped his hand on the dead man's sleeve. Then he returned to his seat at the helm.
Kira and Bashir arrived only moments later. They stopped there at the door though, and Sisko could see that they instantly knew something was wrong. Kira had reached for her phaser.
Savolar stood. "I wouldn't, Colonel," he said, his back to the camera. "You'd never get the shields raised in time anyway."
Then the Jem'Hadar beamed in. "The three ships," Worf pointed out, though everyone had probably deduced that anyway. Six Jem'Hadar took positions around the cockpit. Kira and Bashir were disarmed. Their phasers were handed to Savolar, whose uniform changed into the drab outfits the changelings generally showed themselves in. Savolar had been replaced.
Kira whispered something to Bashir without turning her head. Bashir nodded slightly, whispering back. The log could not pick up what they had said.
But it did pick up the changeling. "Oh, I think," he said, "that you were right, Colonel. The Doctor has been the cause of quite a bit of trouble. And one might conclude that he is the cause of your death."
"She said that to him?" O'Brien asked, allowing a hint of anger to enter his tone.
"Shh," Sisko said. He didn't want to scold the Chief. They were about to watch their friends and crewmates die. It wasn't a time to be scolding. Besides, he might have missed what Kira said next.
The changeling didn't react. He merely placed the phasers down on the helm and then walked back toward Kira and Bashir. Kira was pulled out of the way by a Jem'Hadar until she stood near Payven's body with her back to the camera. Only Bashir faced it now, besides the Jem'Hadar who held his arms behind his back. He'd gone pale, but he otherwise stood motionless.
The changeling stepped forward with his hand out, palm toward Bashir. "Why not just shoot me?" Bashir asked. The log barely registered his voice.
"Poetic justice, as you humans would say." Bashir spoke again but it was inaudible this time. The changeling's answer was not. "We know you better than you know yourself." He was close enough now that his hand reached Bashir and rested on his chest. He took another step forward and blocked the camera's view of all but the tall doctor's head. Bashir looked toward the camera, toward Kira, Sisko realized, with an expression that said he knew what was coming.
After a few minutes, Bashir gasped and the Jem'Hadar released him. He appeared to be in pain, but he was too far from the camera to really tell. Sisko didn't really want to see it closer anyway.
"You are solid," the changeling was saying. "You cannot understand the Great Link. You can't know the loss you have caused. We know now that we underestimated you. We should never have left you alive. Your escape—three times—taught us this. You have cost us several of our own." Bashir dropped, though not all they way to the floor. The changeling must have been holding him up somehow.
In the foreground, Kira turned to look at the phasers. The Jem'Hadar nearest them shook his head to discourage her. She turned back to Bashir, who gasped again, loudly.
There was a scream. Just one, and very short. Sisko knew it had come from Bashir, but he could no longer see him. The changeling blocked his whole view of the doctor now. But that was only for a second. The changeling lifted him up, and Sisko could see that his hand was still placed flat against Bashir's chest. He could see red. Blood. And Bashir flew back against the back wall, smearing it with his blood.
Ezri inhaled sharply and Sisko looked away from the screen. Worf was holding her. She was crying. Her hand covered her mouth. O'Brien had dropped his head into his hands. Bashir was dead. But it wasn't over yet. Kira was still alive. He looked back to the screen. Kira was taken aft—away from the camera—and thrown down beside Bashir's body. She touched his face.
"How touching," the changeling said. "Give me her weapon." So they would shoot her. Kira didn't turn back to them. She took Bashir's hand and leaned over him. The changeling fired the shot and she went limp. Sisko sighed. That accounted for the lack of lifesigns. The Jem'Hadar beamed off the runabout with the changeling, and the camera then recorded an unmoving scene.
"Computer," Sisko tried to say, but his voice wouldn't work. He tried again, more forcefully. "Computer, freeze playback."
"They did not take the bodies," Worf declared, breaking the silence in the room. "Who did?"
Sisko nodded. "Computer, continue playback one point five speed." The computer complied, though it was unnoticeable to Sisko. The scene never wavered, but suddenly, the screen went black. "Computer, what happened?" Sisko asked. "Continue playback."
"The log is playing as requested," the computer replied. But the screen was still blank.
"Then stop it. Back it up, normal speed." The screen stayed black for a few seconds and then flashed a brilliant aqua-blue. The familiar scene of the runabout's dead became visible again.
"What was that?" O'Brien asked. Sisko hadn't thought he was still watching.
"That was the Gidari," Dax said, wiping a tear from her eye. "Their transporter."
"Wiped out the sensors," Sisko agreed. He'd seen that before, too. "Computer, forward playback, double speed." The flash was so quick now that it hardly registered in Sisko's vision. The screen became blank. It remained that way for two minutes before another instantaneous flash brought the sensors back online. The runabout's interior returned to view, but the bodies of Kira and Bashir were gone.
"Why would the Gidari want their bodies?" O'Brien asked. Sisko shook his head. He just didn't know.
He awoke to darkness, so much so that he wasn't sure it was waking at all. But there was light. One single light shone above him. He stared at it for a few minutes, without blinking, without taking a breath, without even registering there was a light at all. And then he inhaled, and his mind awoke with his lungs. The scenes of his life played quickly in his memories and he remembered having died.
"Kira!" he said, and was surprised to actually hear his own voice. He turned his head and found that he could move. He saw her then, lying motionless with her hands crossed over her chest, but palms turned up in an unnatural position. He tried to sit and realized that he was in the same position. Is this death? he wondered. Was there an afterlife after all?
He sat up. It wasn't hard, and there was no pain. Still, he was afraid to try and stand so he crawled over to her. She wasn't breathing. He touched her face. It was cold. He felt her neck for a pulse but couldn't find one. And then he thought to check his own. None there either. He looked down, expecting to see his chest ripped open. That's what it had felt like anyway. But his uniform wasn't even torn. There was a large dark patch though. Blood, he realized. He unzipped his uniform and saw another dark, jagged patch on his chest, only it was darker and more like a shadow. His hand shook when he lifted it. He had to know. He touched the center of the shadow and found that his hand went through it. It was a hole, a hole in his chest. He really was dead. But he was breathing where Kira was not.
He thought maybe if he spoke to her, she would wake up like he had. "Kira," he whispered. "Can you hear me?" She didn't move. He tried his voice again. "Kira. Nerys, wake up?" He touched her arm, shook her lightly. She was a corpse. Nothing more. But then neither was he. So he waited. He pulled his knees up close to his chest and wrapped his arms around them.
She opened her eyes first and saw nothing. And then the light made itself known to her. She was dissapointed. She expected more from the Prophets.
"Kira?" she heard. It was Bashir's voice. She turned her head and saw him sitting there. He released his hold on his knees and moved closer to her. Was he one of the Prophets, she wondered, disguised as Julian? Perhaps he had come to lead her to what came after life. She tried to ask him, but she had no air with which to use her voice. She took a breath and felt the air rush into her without understanding why exactly she needed it when her body was dead. The inrush of air started her heart beating as well, and she could feel it in her chest. Maybe she wasn't dead after all.
But she knew for certain that Bashir was dead and that he shouldn't be sitting beside her trying to talk. She pushed away from him until she ran into a wall. "Who are you?" she asked.
"It's me," he answered. "Julian." He was confused. He certainly looked sincere. But that was impossible. She saw him die, felt him die. He was gone.
"Julian is dead," she told him. Was he a ghost? Or a changeling? Was he meant to trick her? Another Kira was probably left on the runabout. It was her turn to be replaced.
"As near as I can figure," he told her, "we both are."
She shook her head. "Dead people don't talk."
He went back to holding his legs. He was as afraid as she was. "I didn't think so either, but then I've never been dead before. I could have been wrong."
That did sound like Bashir. But it didn't make sense. Alive or dead, this wasn't right.
The matter was dropped though when the door was opened. Bright light filled the doorway, but her eyes didn't hurt from looking at it. A figure, wearing a long robe stepped into view, silhouetting itself against the light. "Healer," it spoke, a feminine voice. "Come with me."
Bashir, or whoever he was, looked back to her. "Gidari," he whispered in wonder. He was still confused.
She began to worry that he really was Bashir. And the Gidari were taking him away. She stood. "Where are you taking him?" she addressed the robed figure.
"You are Honored," the figure answered, dipping her head, "but you are not the Healer. I speak only to the Healer. I am the Protector of Life for this vessel."
A vessel. Not the Celestial Temple, not heaven, as the humans would call it—those who believed in such a thing. A ship.
Bashir stood. He looked back at her once more and then followed the figure out the door. And then it was her turn to wait.
"Your Life," the priestess explained, "which the Creator gave you, was gone. I, as Keeper of Life for this vessel, found you and found your Life. I have drawn it back."
Bashir recognized her voice. He'd met her before. This ship was the Gindarin, a Gidari trading vessel that had come to DS Nine several years before. He noted that even on the ship, she did not remove her hood. But then Bashir didn't expect that she would. Gidari only showed themselves to Gidari.
"You are not Gidari, so I must explain," she went on. "This Second Life is not like the First. Your Life wishes to go on its way, to be with the Creator. It has been detained. It can only be held for two hundred Glif. This is one week on Bajor."
"So I'm not dead?" Bashir asked, trying to comprehend the meaning behind her mystic words.
"You must listen!" she ordered. But then her tone softened. She bowed her head. "You are Honored. This is a serious, solemn thing, and it does not endure. You must not waste even one Glif."
Bashir didn't want to be scolded. He wanted to understand. He was dead, but now alive. "Why only one week?"
"All Gidari know this," she explained. "Life must go to the Creator. All Life is on this journey. It can only be stayed for a Purpose."
"And what is the purpose for staying my life from the creator?" Bashir asked.
"You are needed. The Leader has been exposed. Those who sent your Life away seek to send hers."
The Dominion. "But why not just stop it, revive her like you did me?"
"You do not listen!" The priestess was becoming frustrated. "We will reach the Homeworld soon, and you will still be asking questions, wasting our Glif." She sighed and turned away, obviously trying to get her temper under control.
It was so different from their last meeting that it intrigued Bashir. It must be something to do with being Honored, he thought. Maybe she has to treat me with respect.
"Fah-Rhek is not to be taken easily," she told him. "And it is not for the Leader. Only those who serve the Leader and only those with Purpose. Few aliens have ever been chosen to be Honored."
Bashir didn't know whether to be grateful or not. He didn't necessarily want to be dead, but he didn't exactly trust the Gidari either. They were notoriously ethnocentric, and they guarded their privacy with deadly devotion. Besides, one week was not much time to live. It was a reprieve from the death that had already occurred, but he would want to spend it with his family or his friends, not with the Gidari. "Why me?" he asked.
"I told you," the priestess contended, "the Leader has been exposed."
Bashir shook his head. "No, I mean why do you need me? Your medicine is apparently more advanced than ours."
The priestess turned and walked a few steps away. When she spoke, her voice was quiet. She was ashamed. "Our Healers and Protectors were unable to solve the Leader's dilemma," she explained. "We remembered you. We know of your abilities, of what you have done. You are exceptional. You have faced this sickness before. You are the Leader's last hope. In three hundred Glif, she will be dead, unless you can keep her Life from the journey."
"But I only have two hundred Glif to do it," Bashir reasoned.
She turned back, facing him. "Less. One Glif has already passed while we waited for your Other's Life to join her Being, and it will take three Glif to reach Gidar. But in this time, you can learn our devices. We have salvaged much of yours from your vessel."
"My devices," Bashir said, offhandedly. He remembered. "The outpost. They needed those supplies."
"It is irrelevent," she stated.
"No," he argued. There were over a thousand people on the outpost. "It is relevent. People are dying."
"You cannot help them." She sounded like a school teacher drilling the answer into an impatient student. "Your Life had gone away. Your Life, your purpose, your vessel. All are not as they were. Already, your leader has learned of your death. He has taken your vessel away. Your Life is now this one; your Purpose, to heal the Leader; and your vessel, the Gindarin. We go to Gidar, and you must fulfill your Purpose. You will explain this to your Other. She will aid you."
Kira was waiting for him when he returned. Two more red-robed Gidari were waiting, too. They held folded, purple robes in their hands. "You must wear these," the priestess explained, "so that all will know that you are Honored." Containers of medical supplies now filled the small room. Kira had recognized some of them as Bashir's supplies for the outpost.
"What's going on?" she asked. She looked to Bashir, trusting now that he was her recently deceased crewmate.
"I can explain it," he told her, but he didn't. He waited for the Gidari to leave them alone. The priestess bowed, first with her hands crossed palms-up in front and then sweeping them back behind her until her arms were parallel to the floor. She remained that way until, awkwardly, Bashir repeated the gesture. She straightened and the three Gidari left them alone in the room. "At least some of it," he finished.
"Well?" Kira sat down on one of the crates and waited for his answer. "Where are we?"
"On the Gindarin," Bashir answered. "We're going to Gidar, their homeworld."
Kira remembered the ship. It had come to DS Nine before. But she was concentrating on another aspect of what he said. "We've been kidnapped," she concluded. "Why?"
Bashir sighed. "We were dead, apparently," he began. "They revived us, apparently as part of some ritual. Fah-Rhek, she called it. It would appear that they ocassionally revive dead people temporarily in order to fulfill a particular purpose."
Kira stood. "Dead? Temporarily?" She was upset. "How temporarily?"
"Two hundred Glif," he answered. "She said that was about one Bajoran week."
"One week?" She couldn't help repeating everything he said. "And then what?"
Bashir sat down himself and didn't look at her. "Apparently we go back to being dead."
"We die—again—in a week?" Kira sat too. Alive, dead, alive. It was too much to take in. She probably would have managed being dead. She believed the Prophets would have taken her pagh. But now she wasn't dead and she didn't want to be. Not now, and not in a week. "Why can't we just stay alive?"
Bashir turned his head to look at her. "I don't think we're really alive."
"What do you mean, we're not alive?" she contended. "You said they revived us. I'm breathing. My heart is pounding. I can think. I can walk." She would have continued, but Bashir startled her by standing up so abruptly and reaching for her hand.
He put two fingers to her wrist and felt her strong pulse there. His forehead was creased, his brows pulled down. He didn't expect to find her pulse, she realized. He touched his own neck.
"What?" she demanded.
Bashir just shook his head. "I don't," was all he said.
You don't what? she wanted to ask, but she could see that he was troubled. He took her hand and placed it to his neck. She felt nothing. She tried a different position and then used both hands. She couldn't find his pulse. "Didn't they heal us, in order to revive us?"
Abruptly, she took his shoulders and spun him around so she could see his back. Then she pulled her hands away and covered her mouth. She felt the gorge rise up her throat, but there was nothing in her stomach to vomit. She had known what the changeling had done to him, but she hadn't seen it. His uniform was torn and his skin was broken. Some of it hung limply around a hole the size of her wrist that apparently reached into his chest. And then she noticed something else about it and dropped her hand. "You're glowing."
Now Bashir was the one to be repetitive. "Glowing?" He tried to look over his shoulder but quickly gave up and unzipped his uniform to look down at his chest. Kira realized there was a larger hole there, though oddly his uniform had not been torn. Why had the changeling bothered? she wondered, though she didn't worry about it for long. A lightly incandescent blue glowed from within the jagged hole. Now he looked like he would be sick. "Tricorder," he whispered. "See if you can find a tricorder."
They both delved into the cases, and Kira was the first to find the medical kit with his tricorder. She opened it and handed it to him. He scanned himself. When he didn't say anything for a few moments, Kira pressed him. "Well?"
"I'm dead," he told her. "No pulse, no blood pressure." He said it so matter-of-factly that it scared her. He had a blank look on his face. "I've got brain activity though. And my cells are receiving oxygen."
"And me?" She waited for him to scan her and then digest the readings.
"You are alive, more or less. Pulse, brain waves. Blood pressure would be good, too, if you had any blood."
"If?" No blood, she thought, no blood. Her mind was racing trying to make sense of what was happening.
Bashir rubbed his free hand through his hair. "It, um, seems they've replaced our blood with—" He seemed to struggle for the right term to use.
"Something that glows," Kira finished for him.
Bashir nodded. He took a deep breath, a somewhat ragged one, and Kira could see that he wasn't taking this any better than she was. He seemed younger to her then, more like he was when she first met him. He swallowed and opened his mouth to talk. "It's feeding us oxygen and nutrients." His voice faded until he was only whispering. "I don't need my heart."
Dead or not, the officer in Kira took over. Bashir had just gone through a traumatic death, moreso than she had, and he wasn't dealing well with what had come after. He needed to focus on something other than the negative state of his health. "What purpose?" she asked. "You said they did this for a purpose."
He took another breath, centering himself. "They need me to heal their leader. The Dominion did something to her. Poisoned her, I suppose. She said the leader would die in 300 Glif—a week and a half—unless I could stop it."
"And you agreed?" She wasn't sure yet if that was a good or bad thing. She was just thinking out loud.
Apparently he felt the same. "I didn't disagree," he said. "I don't see how it could help to refuse. She said Sisko found the runabout, took it away, back to the station. They'll know we died."
"But they won't know we've been revived." Kira nodded. "They won't come looking for us."
"We're on our way to Gidar now," Bashir continued. "I suppose we could look at the positive side." He smiled, but it was a little unsure.
"The positive side?" Besides being alive—and that was debatable, not to mention temporary—she couldn't see a positive side to this situation.
"We'll get to see more of the Gidari than anyone ever has."
Kira laughed in spite of herself. And then she felt sad. "But we won't be able to tell anyone about it. Why did they revive me? You're the healer."
Bashir shrugged and shook his head. "I don't know. They called you my other, said you would aid me. Maybe they think you're a nurse."
Kira thought about that, about how they must have found their bodies. Now she laughed heartily.
"Not a nurse," she told him. "A wife, maybe." He gave her a questioning look, so she clarified. "I was, uh, upset when you died. I was beside you when they shot me."
"How touching," Bashir said, finally getting it. "And this you find humorous?"
Kira didn't see why he didn't get it. "You," she pointed at him, "and me. Five years ago, I would have dropped dead at the thought."
"Okay, I see your point," he said and finally smiled. "But I can think of worse people with whom to spend the last week of my life." He opened one of the unfamiliar cases and began to look through its contents.
Kira didn't want the conversation to end. Not now. If it did she'd have to think about what was happening, what had happened. It was easier to go on with lighter things. "Oh, like who?"
He was quick to answer. "Commander Worf. You?"
She had to think a bit. He'd taken the best answer already. "Um, Quark. Your turn."
"Morn," he said. "He'd have time to tell me his life story at least six times."
"Gul Dukat." She couldn't think of anyone worse.
"Damar," Bashir countered. "At least Dukat can make good conversation now and then."
It was only two hours—3.2 Glif, by Bashir's best estimate—before the priestess had returned to inform them of their arrival at Gidar. Bashir had been so engrossed with the Gidari medical equipment that he hardly noticed her entrance. Kira did though and she tapped him on the shoulder. They both stood.
"You are not wearing the colors." The priestess sounded impatient and yet resigned.
"Colors?" Bashir asked. "Oh!" He remembered now the cloaks they'd been given. He picked them up off one of the boxes and handed the smaller one to Kira. "Just forgot. Sorry. How long until we arrive?" He wasn't sure though, if the cloak was meant to be worn alone or over their own clothes.
"By your time, five minutes. You are not doing it correctly." She clapped her hands together once and two figures stepped out of the dark behind her. Bashir hadn't seen them even enter the room.
One of them went to Kira and pulled her to one side of the room. "What are they doing?" she asked. If she was afraid, she didn't show it.
The other figure had taken hold of Bashir, and he decided to do as Kira had. No fear. Just do what they want. They were "honored," or so the priestess had said. The figures—men, Bashir decided—wouldn't hurt them. "I think they're trying to help us dress." And that did, indeed, seem the most plausible explanation. Within minutes, the Gidari had both their uniforms off and the cloaks on.
The priestess clapped again and boots and gloves were brought to them. "Put them on," she ordered. "You must hurry. We will put down soon. Wait until you are called." She turned swiftly on her heels and left the room. The two attendants followed, leaving Kira and Bashir to put on their boots.
"Well," Kira said after they'd gone, "that was fun." She found her uniform on the floor. "Keep your comm badge," she told him. "Just in case."
Bashir nodded and found his own uniform a few feet away on the floor. He was starting to get anxious. Gidar. The Gidari were interesting, he'd give them that. And mysterious. But what little he'd seen of them—and that was more than most—showed them to be dangerous as well. No, not just dangerous. Scary was a better term, though it did deflate his ego a bit to admit it. That they were powerful was obvious, and they had an almost magical quality. Forget almost, Bashir told himself. I'm dead, remember?
"Julian?" Kira had moved to his side, and she was tucking her comm badge inside the cloak. She seemed distracted for a moment. "There are a lot of pockets in here." She removed her hand and then grew serious again. "I don't really want to go to Gidar."
"I don't either," Bashir agreed. "But I don't see how we can get out of it now."
Kira turned away and began to pace the little room. "Me, neither. But let's make a pact. No matter what the Gidari have us doing, no matter what they think our purpose is, we're going to find a way back. Okay?"
Bashir nodded his agreement, but he felt he had to voice some dissension. "But we've only got a week and then we die."
"We're already dead. But I'd rather take my last breath on Deep Space Nine, wouldn't you?"
Of course, he thought, and then another thought came to him. "We could say goodbye."
Kira turned back to him. "Not everyone gets that chance."
The door opened again without warning and a Gidari in beige stepped inside. Crew, Bashir thought, not priest. The man—or so Bashir guessed—turned his head away. "You must cover yourselves. All must be covered in Nardinosti."
"Nardinosti?" Kira asked.
"The Port," the Gidari replied. "Only after we leave the city can we remove our covers. Aliens walk in Nardinosti."
Bashir thought about that for just a second. It only took a second. He was used to Garak and his enigmatic speech. The Gidari were cryptic but if you tried to think like they did, it wasn't so hard. The Gidari do not want to be seen by other species. "We're aliens," Bashir told him, pointing out the obvious.
"You are Honored," the Gidari countered. "When we leave the city gates, you will be uncovered as will we. You are Honored among the Gidari; you are not alien."
"I see," Bashir replied, though he really didn't understand.
The Gidari seemed satisfied. "Cover yourselves and follow me." He turned, as swiftly as had the priestess and stepped out the door. The door, for once, remained opened behind him. Kira and Bashir pulled their hoods over their heads and walked out together.
Kira was surprised to find that she could see quite well through the purple material covering her face. She was hoping to see more of the Gidari ship now that she'd been led out of the room, but the corridor they entered was as plain as the room had been. There were no panels, fixtures, or features of any kind on the walls. There weren't even any doors. She turned her head to see the door she'd just left, but it had disappeared into the bland wall.
Their guide turned and walked directly into one of the walls. The wall retained its appearance but not its solidity. The Gidari walked right through it. Bashir's head, covered like hers, turned toward her. He shrugged and followed the Gidari into the wall. Kira tested it with her hand first. It was like no hologram she'd ever seen. It never wavered with her touch. There was no ripple around her wrist. It was as if the wall were solid and she a mere mist. She stepped through and found herself in a brightly lit corridor no different from the one she'd left. But now they were not alone. The corridor was filled with beige Gidari, and the light was coming from beyond a great door. Daylight. And yet it had an artificial quality to it that she couldn't quite place.
Kira felt alone all of a sudden but it was easy to spot Bashir among the crowd. He was slightly taller than most Gidari, and his purple cloak was like a beacon of color in the sea of beige. "Follow," their guide whispered. It struck her then just how quiet the corridor was. The many Gidari there were walking toward the open door, but their footsteps made no sound on the deck. Not one of them uttered a word. They parted before the guide though, allowing the Honored, in their purple cloaks, to move ahead.
The door, when they reached it, towered over Kira's head. Four stories, she estimated. The ship was huge, larger than she remembered from its time docked at the station a few years back.
There were buildings beyond. Gray buildings without windows, as featureless as the corridors of the ship. There was a ramp and their guide stopped just before he stepped onto it. He motioned with his hand that she and Bashir were to continue on. Kira could see a clearing beyond the end of the ramp. And in the clearing were twelve figures in red. The priestess stood at the foot of the ramp. Past the circle of red, more beige Gidari stood watching, but sprinkled among them were other species. The blue face of a Bolian, two Teldarians, the white hair of an Andorian. This was a port city after all and the Gidari were traders.
As she and Bashir reached the end of the ramp, the crowd behind the priestess parted. She turned and bowed, bringing both arms behind her back, bent up at the elbows. It almost looked painful. A figure emerged. Gidari, but dressed in black. Neither priest, nor crew. Then what? Kira wondered. It was a woman, she decided, based on her figure beneath the cloak. She returned the priestess's bow. And then turned toward the ramp. She froze there, and turned back to the priestess.
"They are Honored!" she said, obviously surprised.
"Our Enemy," the priestess explained as if it were explanation enough.
The black one accepted with a nod. "Then the Healer is Honored indeed," she said. "There are two."
"His Other. Also Honored."
Satisfied, the black one turned again to the ramp. She moved forward and stopped just in front of Bashir. "Healer." She bowed, like the priestess had, with her arms first crossed in front of her and then spread behind her. Apparently the bows meant something, like the colors did. Bashir glanced Kira's way and then bowed, too, repeating the other's movements. "I am Tarlingen Nardek," she said. "I will be your liaison. Come with me."
Sisko let the doors close behind him, shutting out the everyday noise of Ops. This just wasn't everyday, although it was happening more often since the war started. Today, he had calls to make. Payven's wife was due back at the station in an hour. He'd tell her in person. Kira didn't have any family, so there was no one to call but the Bajoran officials. Bashir was harder. Sisko knew that he and his parents had only recently reconciled. And he remembered another time when he had to tell them their son was dead. This time, he would not be found marooned but alive. This time, Bashir really was dead.
Sisko sat down and turned on the comm panel. But then he turned it off. Not yet. He wanted to think about what he'd say to them. It was easier last time. There has been an accident; there had been a body. This time wasn't an accident. Julian was murdered.
Sisko thought about the first time he'd met Bashir, how he stuttered when he was nervous, and how naive he was when Garak first contacted him. He'd changed a lot. He had grown darker. And with good reason, Sisko supposed. He'd been abducted by both the Dominion and the Federation. But even then he'd still kept—for the most part—his sense of humor and his caring demeanor. He was a doctor throughout, and he had kept his ideals.
And Kira. While Bashir had grown darker, she had grown lighter, shedding some of her war-hardened shell. She relaxed more, smiled more, and made friends more easily.
Bashir was a good example of that. She had barely tolerated him at first. But now they were closer in some ways than they were with anyone else. Shared experience, Sisko guessed. She as a liberator; he as a prisoner. In moments of personal crisis, they had confided in each other. No one should die alone. Bashir had told her that once. Well, at least there was that. They hadn't died alone.
Now he'd have to make more calls. One to Bajor asking for a new liaison officer. One to Starfleet for a new doctor. It wouldn't be the same. Ops wouldn't be the same without her in it, standing by the Ops table, staring down some Cardassian gul. And the Infirmary was Julian's place. Kira had made sure it stayed that way those six months they'd thought he was dead before. It wasn't the same, though, without his comforting smile and soft voice. Sisko had met many doctors over the years, but none were as personable as Julian. He could make you feel better just knowing he was there. Anyone else was just a doctor.
It was times like this that Sisko felt the full weight of the pips on his collar. They were his responsibility. All of them, even Savolar. They trusted him, depended on him. He was their captain. They were his crew.
The crowd parted before them as it had for the figure in black. Tarlingen Nardek. Like the captain of the ship. Bashir remembered his name. Sanglin Nardek. Perhaps they were related. Several of the crew followed, carrying the crates of equipment.
As strange as being dead—and still walking—was, he had to admit that his interest was piqued. Tarlingen led them through the crowds and past the monotonous, gray buildings. Past her, and past the onlookers, Bashir could see a long row of gray cloaks. And gates bathed in a reddish glow. The gray Gidari were guards, he guessed. Three to a gate and armed with rifles of some sort. As they neared, Bashir turned his head, but he couldn't see the end of the row in either direction. It was as if they surrounded the entire city.
They reached one gate and the guard there bowed as the priestess from the Gindarin had. Tarlingen returned it. Then she turned back to Bashir and Kira. "Wait here and then follow me through. I must linger. You may step through." She didn't wait for confirmation. She stepped into the glowing gateway. Energy flowed around her, lighting her silhouette beneath the cloak and hood. She stood for a few seconds in the matrix and then stepped forward. As she did, she disappeared.
Bashir looked to Kira, uncertain about following. She seemed to know what he was thinking. "What choice do we have at this point?" she asked quietly. She took a step forward and disappeared beyond the gate as well. Bashir followed her and felt the tendrils of energy fall like rain upon his shoulders. He didn't stop as Tarlingen had, but stepped through. Beyond the gate was a whole other world.
Kira stood motionless, entranced by it. Bashir took little notice of her and stared instead at the sky. Everything was bathed in red light, not white like the sunlight in Nardinosti. The sky rolled with fast moving clouds though he felt only a slight breeze.
The buildings here were ornate and light danced on their window panes. An occassional tree threw its shade onto the brick-lined street. Its branches were covered with red and orange leaves which fluttered in the breeze like flames. Even the air smelled different.
Tarlingen took a deep breath, drawing in the air for over three seconds before blowing it out again. She repeated the gesture three times and then turned to her guests. "Welcome to Gidar." And then she removed her hood.
Kira actually gasped. Bashir could hear it. He understood. He'd felt the same way the first time he'd seen them. He still felt it. Tarlingen's blue skin glowed purple under the red sky. Her eyes, blank and white if they'd been back in Nardosti, were now filled with color, reflecting the movement of the clouds. Her hair, like a million tiny mirrors, glittered as the breeze gently blew. She was regal, like nothing he'd ever seen.
And she wasn't alone. Bashir looked around. All the other Gidari here were unhooded. And they all looked alike. Not exactly, of course. They varied in height and build and certain facial features, but all of them—men and women—were beautiful. They literally stole his breath.
"Come," Tarlingen said, drawing them out of their reverie. "We must go to Nodgarin. Load the equipment," she ordered the crew.
Kira started to pull back her hood, too, but Tarlingen reacted quickly, catching her hand. "You mustn't."
"We were told that we could," Kira stated firmly.
"The one who told you was mistaken," Tarlingen replied.
"Why?" Kira asked. "Because we're aliens?"
Tarlingen smiled and it was dazzling. "Yes, actually, but not for the reasons you think." She turned to Bashir. "You have your medical device?"
"M-medical device," Bashir stuttered. "Oh yes, the tricorder." Bashir removed it from one of the many pockets of his cloak and held it out to her.
"What does it tell you about my world?"
Kira was watching him, or at least he thought she was, since her head was turned his way. He opened the tricorder and it sang with blips and bleeps. The sensors on it went haywire, detecting an environment so foreign that it wasn't even classed by Starfleet. "Infrared," he reported, picking out the most obvious reason for staying hooded. "Among other things. It would damage our skin." The metallic sheen to the Gidari's complexion was apparently a natural form of protection.
"You will be safe from it indoors," Tarlingen nodded. "You may uncover yourselves then. This way." She held out a hand, indicating a building on the right. Kira was apparently satisfied with the explanations and ascented.
But the building was hardly more than another facade. It was no more than a long hallway, less than two meters wide. It was clear they'd be leaving it soon, so he didn't bother removing the hood just yet. Another Gidari, wearing trousers and a jacket instead of a cloak, met them there. He bowed. "You'll be going to Nodgarin, Liytner?"
Bashir suspected he was some sort of administrator, a civilian, apparently in charge of the transportation. Perhaps "Liytner" was a form of rank, the one signified by a black cloak. Now that he thought about it, he realized that he hadn't seen any other black cloaks. And the building, a station of some sort, was crowded with travelers.
Tarlingen nodded, but stood at attention. "Yes, straight through and we must leave immediately. Alter your schedule accordingly."
"Of course, Liytner. Platform eylen. You have cargo, as well?"
"Yes," Tarlingen said. "I ride with the Honored. No others. Mark the car."
The administrator was taking notes, counting the cargo. "Certainly. For whom? Liytner or Honored?"
Tarlingen had been looking toward the exit, toward the many platforms visible past the full length windows and open doors. Now she looked back at him, and for the merest moment, Bashir thought he saw a flash of blue in her eyes. The administrator backed away and bowed again. He'd offended her. "Liytner," Tarlingen clarified. "We go to Nodgarin."
"Forgive, Liytner," the administrator begged, still bowing.
Tarlingen glared at him for another moment and then returned the bow. "Forgiven. Mark the car."
The administrator straightened and then ran out the doors toward the platforms.
Tarlingen turned then to the crew. "Load the cargo one car back. Mark it as well."
The crew moved to obey. Tarlingen had a great deal of authority, Bashir decided. Honored, it seemed, carried a high rank in Gidari society. Still, he wondered just what a Liytner was.
They were outside again as soon as the crew had passed. Red grass and gray gravel marked the end of the building and the beginning of the platforms. Single tracks crossed the landscape, perhaps fifteen of them. There were signs hanging over them with markings Bashir had never seen before. Most of the tracks were empty, but three had greenish trains waiting. At least, that's what they looked like to Bashir. They were long vehicles, broken into many compartments. They hovered just above the tracks.
The adminstrator was waiting beside one of the compartments of the nearest train. He waved a hand over a black panel. Immediately the compartment turned red, blending with the sky beyond. He waved again and the car changed to purple. For the Honored, Bashir realized. The administrator pressed his hand to the panel and the car turned black. Liytner, like Tarlingen Nardek's cloak. It was marked for rank.
Bashir glimpsed movement from the corner of his eye as they crossed the platforms with Tarlingen in the the lead. They were quick, little creatures, and they darted down the tracks as Gidari feet approached them. They were so fast that he couldn't get a good look at them, but he thought they looked a bit like lizards. Pushing the thought of the creatures out of his mind, he concentrated on memorizing the path they'd taken so far. If he and Kira were to return to Deep Space Nine, they would have to go back through the gates and Nardinosti. In his mind he was going past the streets and buildings beyond the red energy gates. Consequently, he wasn't paying attention to the car as he stepped in.
Tarlingen had stepped aside to let Kira and him into the car. The door was slightly shorter than he was, so he had placed his hand on the side of the door. He heard it before he felt it. A soft, short whistle. It felt like a needle stabbing him just above his right wrist. There was no pain, just the sensation of something foreign. He could still see it. Before he could even turn his head to see what had happened, Tarlingen had reached that side of the door and snatched the culprit. It was one of the lizard-like creatures, but now that he could see it, he realized it wasn't a lizard at all. It was an insect. A large one. It was at least ten centimeters long, with six long legs and constantly twitching antennae.
There was a small circular orifice where its mouth might have been. It squirmed in Tarlingen's hand, trying to free itself. But she held it tight, and it gave up the struggle, letting its long, needle-sharp tongue hang loosely out its mouth.
Satisfied that its strength was spent, Tarlingen tossed it away behind her. It bounced along the ground a few times then bounded away into the tall grass beyond the tracks. "Please," she said, "we must leave."
"Is it venomous?" Bashir asked, unsure of whether or not to worry in his present state.
"Inside," she insisted. She touched him on the shoulder and led him inside the car. There were five cushioned seats for them to sit in. Bashir took one near a window, hoping to see the landscape that they passed. "The haftha is venomous," Tarlingen now answered his question. "But you needn't worry. Even if you were Gidari, it is easily cured."
"Are we immune?" Kira asked. Bashir thought she must be thinking the same things as he was. Were they invulnerable now that they were deceased? Why then was the sunlight a problem?
"You are Honored," Tarlingen said, as if that were explanation enough. But she went on. "Your body can be damaged, but you will remain." She put her hand inside her cloak's sleeves and pulled out a what was unmistakably a weapon. Not a phaser or energy weapon, but deadly just the same. Bashir tensed instinctively. Kira, beside him, did the same. "As Honored," Tarlingen went on, "you do not require sustenance or sleep. Your body received all it needs from the ritual, Fah-Rek. If I were to shoot you, you would fall down. But you would get up again. It would only damage your body." She replaced the gun and pulled another weapon from her sleeve. "But if I were to use this, there would be no more body. Your Life—your spirit, as you say—would have no where to be. It would not matter that you were Honored. The light from our sun would likewise damage your bodies. It would not harm your spirit, but I did not think you would want to have your skin burned away, just as you would not like to be shot." She put the weapon away. "Either way, you are safe here. The windows filter the light and I would not harm you. No Gidari would. You are Honored."
The door closed and the train began to move. It started slowly, smoothly gliding over the track and past the flame-colored trees. But it picked up speed quickly, racing past the landscape and startling a whole swarm of the haftha insects. Bashir removed his hood and ran a hand through his hair to smooth it down. Tarlingen watched him carefully and then turned her attention to Kira as she removed her hood. "You are different," she said, surprised. "Is this because you are female?"
"No," Kira said with an angry glare. "I'm Bajoran. He's human."
Tarlingen caught the anger. "Forgive me," she said. "You were not expected. I was told only the Healer would come. You are his Other?"
"No," Kira answered, shaking her head.
"She's my superior officer," Bashir said.
"Another healer?" Tarlingen asked.
"No." Bashir had an idea. Tarlingen had introduced herself as their liaison. Perhaps that was as much a title of respect as Honored seemed to be. "She's also a liaison. She's First Officer and Bajoran Liaison Officer to Deep Space Nine."
Tarlingen was quiet for a moment. "Ah," she said finally. "Bajor, the planet near our Enemy's pathway. The Federation commands the station that Bajor owns. So you are liaison for your people. Yes, I understand this."
"I was the liaison," Kira corrected.
Tarlingen sighed and nodded. "The Enemy took your Life. For that I am sorry. But they cannot harm you now. They cannot come here."
"Then how did they threaten your leader?" Bashir asked, catching a glimpse of something outside his window. It was a herd of animals. A large herd, since he could still see them. The train was moving at least four times faster than the animals. They were large repitilian creatures that ran on their back legs. Their front appendages were small and weak compared to their powerful hind legs. In fact, they very much resembled dinosaurs of prehistoric Earth. He looked away when Tarlingen began to explain.
"One did come here," she admitted. "He changed himself. Became a member of the Vesmir's crew. We knew he was not human when he passed through the gates. He said he was a Founder of the Dominion and he must speak to the Leader of the Gidari. We held him prisoner until the Leader gave him audience at Nodgarin. He and the Leader could not agree."
"So the Founder poisoned the Leader," Kira concluded. "And your healers couldn't find an antidote."
"Many have tried," Tarlingen explained. "But time is short. She is growing weaker. We know what Bashir did for the disease on the other side of the pathway. The Blight. We hope he can help."
Bashir shook his head. "I never found a cure for the Blight." He'd never given up trying though. He had hoped to find it someday. Now he was out of somedays.
"But you found prevention," Tarlingen said. "We do not expect you to cure her. We only expect you to try. Our best Healers have been unsuccessful. But we also know that the poison is passing. Two Healers contracted it. They were sent to the Creator to prevent its spread. You will try to cure the Leader. But we must prevent the death of more Gidari."
It could be the Blight, Bashir thought. This could be how it started on Teplan III. It had taken him nearly two months to find a vaccine there. Here, he had less than a week. And then he'd be dead. He looked out the window again. The herd was still there, but one of the beasts had fallen. As the train sped by, Bashir could see a hundred or more little haftha insects swarming over the beast as it struggled to regain its footing. Before it was out of his sight, the beast was dead. Without thinking, he touched his arm where he had been stung. Dead. "They were killed," he said, speaking about the healers.
"They were going to die," Tarlingen said in the Gidari's defense. "More might have died had they lived. They knew this. They knew their duty. They are Gidari."
It angered him. He was a doctor, a healer. It was wrong to kill sick people just because they were going to die. They'd been poisoned. If they were trying to find a cure for the leader, they should have tried to find one for the healers. The same antidote would work. The Gidari didn't value life. They killed some, revived others, as if it didn't matter either way. One was sent to the Creator with no thought to the possibilities and opportunities thrown away. The other was given a week to live with no thought to his family, his friends. He was taken away from everything he knew and given a purpose he didn't choose. Either was more than just a body, just a vessel, just a duty.
O'Brien knew what she was asking. Bashir had been reported dead once before—twice. And the first time, Miles had been reported dead, too. "I'm sure." It hurt just to say the words. It helped, though, saying them to her. But it hurt again when he realized he couldn't hold her. He couldn't even touch her. "Security sensors showed the whole thing."
"Sensors have been wrong before," Keiko reminded him.
"Not this time," O'Brien told her. "Julian's blood was all over the wall."
She looked away, but she nodded. "And Nerys?" she asked, looking up. Her eyes glistened with tears. "What will I tell Molly? At least Yoshi's still too young."
Now Miles looked away. "I don't know." Molly thought of Kira as Aunt Nerys. She had carried Kirayoshi. She had been his surrogate mother. He tried to think of an answer, but Keiko didn't leave him time.
"I used to think sometimes," she said, "about what I would tell her if it was you. I couldn't think of anything."
Miles had never felt so alone. He had used Julian, he admitted now, for company when Keiko was away. Julian kept him occupied. Now he didn't have Julian, and he didn't have Keiko. He met her eyes. "I wish you were here."
Keiko reached out and pressed her hand to the viewscreen. "Me, too."
Miles met her hand with his own.
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