It was 0300 hours and the promenade was quiet. Even Morn had finally left Quark’s bar for the night. Odo’s footfalls echoed in the silence as he slowly walked through the promenade, scanning the shops and offices.
For once, Odo was not watching for trouble. He wanted to absorb all the details of the place that, for ten years, had been his home. Soon, he would leave and never return.
Odo had accepted the Founder’s offer to return Kirdo to the Link in exchange for peace in the Alpha Quadrant. Of course, Odo had no intention of actually giving up the young changeling. He had made up his mind to shapeshift into a facsimile of Kirdo and go himself.
A noble sacrifice, Odo thought grimly to himself. That’s what they’ll all think.
He knew this day would come, ever since he first Linked with the Founder, a year before. When the Federation had retaken DS9, Odo swore to himself that he would put the Link out of his mind. He had even managed to get back into Kira’s good graces by explaining to her how utterly helpless he was in the Link – how he became someone different, someone he didn’t even know. He pleaded with Kira to understand and forgive him. Against all expectation, she had.
Later she had told Odo that was when she began to realize she loved him, for his inner nobility, and his struggles against temptation. Odo secretly wondered whether he reminded Kira of a certain vedek. It would be ironic if she regarded him as some sort of holy man. In reality, he felt quite differently about himself.
Odo was weak, and he cursed his weakness. He had always admired stability, strength and self-discipline. He cultivated these traits in himself, but now they fell away like a façade. He was preparing to return to the Link, not as a “noble sacrifice,” although he sincerely hoped that Kira would see it that way. He was returning because the Founder had given him a reason to return, and he could not think of an adequate excuse to refuse.
He knew that had Kira been on DS9, he would not have been able to go. For years, she had been a constant presence in his life. When they became lovers, Odo had convinced himself that he no longer needed the Link. Kira had kept him stable and grounded. There were whole days when he did not think once about what he had lost.
But Kira had been detained on Bajor for almost two weeks. His resolve had weakened. He had linked with the Founder.
The Link seemed to be more intoxicating each time he experienced it. Every aspect was more intense, more clear: the strange sensation as his cellular matrix dissolved and merged with the Founder; the slight feeling of panic and then bliss as his individual consciousness dissolved and then expanded to seemingly fill all time and space.
This expansion caused a profound change his mental state. He felt total disregard for “solids,” even for Kira. It was frightening and alien to everything he held dear. Yet it was also irresistible.
It was not just a yearning for “paradise.” Odo knew he was strong-willed enough to resist simple pleasure. It was something more elemental, more instinctual. He was struggling against his true nature. Knowing that he could not keep up the struggle indefinitely, he told himself he might as well give in now, and get it over with.
I know what they’ll think, Odo mused. I brought peace to the Alpha Quadrant by sacrificing my ‘freedom.’ They’ll never know how wrong they are.
Odo’s decision to join the Link had lifted a terrible burden from his
shoulders. For the first time since he had first gained consciousness and
assumed humanoid form, he felt truly free.
“If you’re here to visit sick friends, I’m afraid you’re too late,” Sisko said.
“Why?” Martok blustered. “Have all you weakling humans succumbed to a few days of hardship? I trust that even if you are a ghost, Worf survived!”
Sisko grinned. Martok knew very well that the Defiant crew had recovered from their ordeal in the Parox system. In keeping with Klingon custom, he was making light of their brush with death.
“No, I mean we ‘weakling humans’ are once again fit for duty,” Sisko said.
“Good! You may be a fragile species, but at least you’re resilient!” Martok said, with a resounding slap to Sisko’s arm that tested the resiliency of his upper humerus. “And how are the repairs to the Defiant coming along?”
“I was just on my way to check,” Sisko said. “O’Brien should be finished by now. If you want to…”
“Of course. Lead on, Captain.”
Sisko and Martok made their way through the crowded corridors of starbase 431 to the Defiant’s docking bay. On the bridge, O’Brien, Bashir and Nog were making final adjustments to the life support system. Intent on their task, they didn’t notice Sisko and Martok arrive.
“This morning, I overheard the communications officer from the Bortagon in the mess hall,” Nog said. “According to him, the Kalandra system has been totally overrun by the Romulans.”
“The Klingons are having a tough go of it,” Bashir said. “There’s a rumor that Archanis is the next Romulan target”
“Settling old scores, sounds like to me,” O’Brien said. “Nog, go to the conn and see if the life support indicator switches off when I disconnect it from here.”
Nog turned and hit his face on Martok’s chestplate.
Before anyone could speak, Martok raised his arms, as though addressing his troops. “It will be glorious, I tell you! The Klingon Empire – and our Federation allies, of course – fighting a desperate battle to the last!”
Sisko grinned. “I guess a rousing cheer of qapla’ is in order. The Rotarran was in spacedock, so the general came around to make sure we weren’t goldbricking.”
“And to see with my own eyes that you are alive,” Martok said, a bit more seriously. “Things did not look promising when we parted ways in the Duralis system.”
All work on the Defiant’s repairs ceased as Martok was regaled with three different first-hand accounts of the Parox story. Martok seemed to particularly like Nog’s version. But before the young Ferengi could get to the really good part -- his ferocious battle with the undead Keevan -- Martok was called back to the Rotarran.
“Good old Martok,” Bashir said, after the Klingon left. “What a character.”
“‘A desperate battle to the last,’ eh?” O’Brien said. “I’m glad someone’s so bloody happy about the way the war’s been going.”
“I don’t think he’s as happy as he sounds, Miles,” Bashir said gravely. “He’s trying to buck up our spirits.”
“Typical Klingon,” O’Brien said gruffly. “He thinks the Federation has no backbone!”
Sisko listened, but did not reveal his own thoughts -- that, possibly, Martok was blustering to buck up his own nerve. The idea that the Dominion could unnerve even Klingons was not something Sisko wanted his crew thinking about.
But within the past few weeks, the situation for the Federation and the Klingons had grown steadily worse. It was the sort of thing that historians later point to and say, “Yes – that was the turning point.” The loss of so many systems in such a short time. The Tantalus element experiments, and what they implied. There were even reports that the Dominion had begun genetic manipulation on planets under their control. The Federation had fought formidable enemies before, but Sisko could not recall any conflict where the odds were less favorable, and the consequences of defeat so unthinkable.
So don’t think about defeat, Sisko told himself. He had long ago mastered the art of not dwelling on the negative. Wallowing in self-doubt was not a luxury someone with his level of responsibility could afford. Fortunately, now that the repairs to the Defiant were complete, it was time to see Admiral Necheyev about his next assignment. If nothing else, it would keep his mind off the ominous thoughts of the future.
Sisko couldn’t help but be curious as he walked into Necheyev’s office. He recalled her cryptic words, the previous day. We have an important assignment for you, Ben. One that no one else can handle.
Necheyev gestured to Sisko to be seated. “Starfleet has been contracted by representatives of the Cardassian dissident movement, headquartered on an old starbase in the Organia system. I believe you know one of those representatives – Elim Garak?”
Sisko smiled. “Garak! I thought he’d find a way to survive. Yes, I do know him, Admiral. I’m a little surprised…”
“That the dissidents are still active?”
“Well, yes. And that Garak has joined them.”
Necheyev leaned forward, concerned. “So you don’t think he is sincere in his desire to drive the Dominion off Cardassia?”
“No!” Sisko said quickly. “I mean, yes! Yes, he is sincere about that. I meant that Garak never struck me as the type to join a lost cause.”
Necheyev smiled. “For a long time, the Federation did consider the dissidents a ‘lost cause.’ They were naïve and did themselves more harm that good. But this Garak of yours seems to be running things now. He claims that ‘his’ dissidents can create an insurgency within Cardassia itself. And that they have powerful friends, some even within Central Command.”
Sisko sat back and thought about this. “If you asking me, do you think Garak has a chance of pulling it off, I’d say he does. If you’ve seen his security file…”
Necheyev nodded. “Ex-Obsidian Order agent. Tends toward the ruthless, but then again, he’s effective. Personally, I think he could be a great asset. He could give us the chance to strike at the heart of Dominion operations in the quadrant. There’s just one problem.”
Sisko sighed. “The business with Vreenak.”
“I don’t for a minute believe the Romulans were as morally outraged as they pretended to be,” Necheyev said. “But who can ever figure out their motives? If it were only that, it wouldn’t be an obstacle. But there was also the incident on Empok Nor.”
“Now, wait a minute!” Sisko cried. “With all due respect, Admiral, it was explained in the inquest! Garak was under the influence of a drug…”
“Ben, calm down!” Necheyev said. “I’m on your side. But our Cardassian friend has a checkered past, to say the least, and some people in Starfleet are understandably nervous about supporting his activities. Your job is to go to Organia, assess the operations there, and report back on whether you think he is trustworthy.”
“But Garak is trustworthy! At least, he is, when it comes to fighting the Dominion.”
Necheyev nodded. “You know, and I know. It just needs to be in an official report.”
Sisko rolled his eyes. “I understand, Admiral. Even with the Dominion breathing down our necks, Starfleet still has its red tape.”
The trip to Organia was uneventful. Docking the Defiant at the starbase was by far the most interesting part. The base was over a century old, and the docking clamps had been crudely re-worked to fit modern starcraft. By the time O’Brien and Nog had finally gotten the clamps to operate correctly, Sisko was on the verge of simply beaming over.***
The first item on my report will be to send a Starfleet retrofit crew out here, Sisko fumed to himself.
As Sisko walked through the airlock, he was greeted by Garak and a dozen other Cardassians. Sisko took in the scene. The starbase was dilapidated, in far worse shape than DS9 had been when he was first assigned there. The other Cardassians – the remnant of the dissident movement – were very young adults.
Children, playing at politics, Sisko thought. No wonder Starfleet had written them off.
Garak enthusiastically took on the role of the perfect host as he introduced Sisko to his ‘pupils.’ The captain recalled Rekelen. But noticing that the young man – what was his name? – who had accompanied her to DS9 was not among the group, Sisko discreetly refrained from inquiring about his fate. He imagined that the dissidents had lost more than a few of their number over the past years.
Rekelen, although young, had been with the dissident movement for a relatively long time, and appeared to be one of their leaders. She was curious to see the Defiant, and as a courtesy, Sisko gave her permission to board.
The other dissidents were, for the most part, children of Cardassia’s privileged class, sent away by their parents on the eve of Dukat’s coup. The exception was a pair of twins, a young man named Anatos and his sister, Ferrin. These two were among the hundreds of Cardassian war orphans left behind on Bajor. Nearly a decade had passed since the Cardassian withdrawal. These particular orphans had grown up and found a home of sorts among the dissidents.
Garak sent his proteges back to their assigned tasks and took Sisko on a tour of the base. The wily Cardassian quickly guessed the purpose of Sisko’s visit.
“Tell me, Captain,” Garak said. “Does your presence indicate that Starfleet intends to embrace our cause, or kick us off their station?”
“Neither, as of yet,” Sisko said evenly. “They want me to make the recommendation.”
“Ah. Then I hope to make a good impression,” Garak replied. “As you can see, there are many people depending on me. Not just a station-full of children who need guidance and direction, but also billions of my people back on Cardassia. Strange as it may seem, this little operation of mine may be my homeworld’s best chance for surviving this war.”
“You mean, if the Federation wins?” Sisko asked, wryly. “I wouldn’t have pegged you as an optimist.”
“I never predict the future,” Garak said. “I’ve always found it to be a poor use of my time. However, I do make it a point to plan for several eventualities. One is that the Dominion will win. In which case, there is little that I can do for Cardassia.”
“Or for any of us,” Sisko added.
“True. Another option is indefinite stalemate. In such a case, a fifth column within Cardassia could help break that stalemate.”
Sisko said nothing. They turned down a long corridor and passed a communications station that was obviously off-line.
Garak continued. “The third option is the one we all hope for. Federation victory. Unfortunately, Captain, that would also mean a Klingon victory.”
“Well, yes, they are our allies,” Sisko said. But he saw where the conversation was heading.
“And could you convince the Klingons that they should also be the allies of the great majority of Cardassians who did not support this absurd alliance with the Dominion?” Garak said, pointedly.
Sisko shook his head.
“Of course not,” Garak said. “The Klingon Empire has always been at war with our people. If you’ll recall, it was the threat of Klingon encroachment that Dukat used to justify…”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Sisko said impatiently. “I’m familiar with the political situation, Garak. And believe me, I understand. If the war goes well for the Federation, it means disaster for Cardassia. Starfleet is aware of that.”
“And hopefully, also aware that an expansion of Klingon power within Cardassian territory would not be to the Federation’s advantage!”
“Obviously,” Sisko said. “But the Federation needs to remain on good terms with the Klingons. And we can’t do that by telling them to go easy on Cardassia.”
“Then, Cardassia needs to look out for its own interests,” Garak said. “And for the Federation’s interests as well. I’ve already sent feelers out to certain influential friends who agree with everything I’ve just told you. If Cardassians felt they could undermine the Dominion without risking Klingon incursions…”
“I don’t know, Garak,” Sisko said. “Klingons don’t take kindly to anything they perceive as betrayal.”
“Captain!” Garak said. “You misunderstand my meaning. In no way would the Federation be required to betray their noble Klingon allies! A simple understanding would suffice. If, say, Cardassian patriots were to eject the Dominion, and re-establish the Detapa Council, would the Federation accept the council’s suit for peace?”
Sisko did not answer immediately. But both he and Garak knew the Federation would be willing recognize the democratic Detapa Council, in the rather unlikely event that it regained its former power. But would the Federation risk antagonizing the Klingons, whose warlike ways made them dangerous allies at best? That was a question neither of them could answer.
“The Federation would consider any suit for peace,” Sisko said evasively. “After conferring with our allies, of course. And isn’t all this speculation premature? These ‘Cardassian patriots’ of yours would have to be pretty foolish to bolt from the Dominion. Not the way the war’s been going lately. Cardassia is on the winning side. Why would they switch?”
Garak narrowed his eyes. “Victory is not victory, Captain, if obtained at the expense of one’s soul. Cardassia’s soul is in jeopardy. This alliance with the Dominion has always been unequal, but lately it has become much worse than unequal. There are rumors of ‘experiments’ being conducted on the Cardassian population. I believe that you are familiar with the probable nature of these experiments.”
“You heard about Tantalus,” Sisko said.
“Hardly an isolated incident,” Garak replied.
“I wouldn’t have thought Cardassians would stand for such treatment,” Sisko said.
“Ordinarily not,” Garak said. “But the Vorta are insidious and clever. They never do anything to cause offense, or even raise one’s suspicions. Until it is too late. They have managed to infiltrate several key sectors of Cardassian society. They will be difficult to dislodge, and if we wait too long, these experiments may make it impossible! That’s why my operations here need both the blessing and assistance of the Federation.”
“You’ll have it, Garak,” Sisko said. “To tell you the truth, I knew my report would be favorable even before I docked. The Federation can’t pass up the opportunity to destabilize the Dominion, just because a few bureaucrats might be skittish about your methods.”
As he spoke, Sisko had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He knew that the “bureaucrats” weren’t the only skittish ones.
“If it will make Starfleet Command sleep easier, please inform them that I have no intention of hanging anyone up by their ears just yet,” Garak said, slightly annoyed. “Although it may prove difficult to dissuade some of my compatriots on Cardassia from doing just that. It seems that Cardassians have an innate dislike of the Vorta.”
“Garak, everyone has an innate dislike of the Vorta.” Sisko stepped over a jumble of ODN conduit wires, splayed across the corridor. “What a mess. When I submit my report, I’ll request an engineering crew be sent out here.”
“We would be extremely grateful for that,” Garak said. “Obtaining spare parts for this station’s antiquated equipment has proven difficult.”
Sisko stopped at what he assumed was the door to a storeroom. “I’ll have O’Brien inventory your supplies, and we’ll send what you need. This base has five cargo bays like this one, right?”
Before Garak could say anything, Sisko walked through the automatic door. He stopped short as he realized the former storeroom had been outfitted exactly like a Cardassian interrogation chamber.
Sisko looked up at the ceiling, where a metal bar was hanging. “Garak, exactly what kind of training did you say you were giving your ‘pupils’?”
“Lessons in survival, Captain,” Garak said. “If I’m going to send them to Cardassia, they need to know what they might face. And don’t tell me Starfleet doesn’t train its own people to handle…certain unpleasant realities.”
“As a matter of fact, we do. How else do you think I recognized this place?” Sisko looked at the metal bar again and unconsciously rubbed his shoulder.
This piqued Garak’s interest. “Then would it be possible to obtain the holo-programs that Starfleet uses…?”
“Those holo-programs are highly classified.”
“I imagine they are,” Garak said. “But we are on the same side, are we not? I can teach my students everything I know – and my knowledge is considerable -- but even I might not think of things Starfleet has. Captain, my operatives are going into a highly dangerous situation. They will need the best possible preparation if they hope to survive, much less succeed.”
Once again, Garak’s logic was unassailable. And Sisko’s stomach was
feeling worse by the minute. It wasn’t anything concrete – certainly nothing
he could put in an official report. But a vague instinct made Sisko wonder
if someday he would look back at Garak and his ragtag group, and think,
should have nipped it in the bud, right then and there.
Sisko had finished his tour of the base just as a call came in from the Defiant. It was Dax.***
“Captain, you’d better get back here,” she said. “It’s Kira. She’s traveled all the way from DS9 in a runabout and she has some unbelievable news.”
Sisko and Garak joined the crew in the mess hall, the only room on the Defiant large enough to accommodate the crowd. Kira sat at one of the tables, sipping a raktajino, obviously tired out by her journey. Dax, Bashir, O’Brien, Worf and Rekelen were also at the table. The rest of the crew was milling about, talking excitedly about something.
“All right people,” Sisko said, a little alarmed. “What’s going on?”
Everyone started talking at once. Worf stood up and bellowed for them to be quiet.
“Major Kira should be the one to tell the Captain,” Worf said, ever conscious of protocol.
“The Dominion is pulling out of the war,” Kira said.
Sisko pushed through the crowd to Kira; Garak followed.
“How do you know that?” Sisko asked.
Kira put down the raktajino. “Odo told me. When the Dominion tried to re-open the wormhole and couldn’t, apparently they decided that it was safe for them to, well, leave.”
“Leave the Alpha Quadrant?” Sisko said. “Just like that?”
“Just like that,” Kira said. “It may sound incredible, but Odo is convinced it’s true. I’ve been looking for you for days. I didn’t want to deliver this news to anyone else. I mean, who would believe me?”
“Well, it’s not that we wouldn’t believe you, Major,” Garak said. “And by the way, I am overjoyed to see that you weren’t, ah, inconvenienced on Bajor for too long. It’s just that…well, are you sure it was Odo who told you?”
“Listen, Garak,” Kira said testily. “I think I would know if they’d switched another changeling for Odo. It was him, believe me.”
“’Cardassia is dead,’” Garak said, stunned. “The Founder’s threat is coming true.”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” Sisko warned. “If the Dominion really is withdrawing – and they didn’t give Odo misinformation – the sides will simply be more balanced now.”
“I do not envy the Cardassians,” Worf said. “With only the Romulans to depend on as allies.”
Kira took another sip of raktajino. “Worf, even you have to admit that the Romulans have never pulled a double-cross this bad. The Dominion started this war, and now they’re leaving their allies in the lurch! Cardassia will be carved up like a roasted palukoo.”
“It’s a possibility,” Sisko said. “Obviously, we need to get this news to Starfleet Command immediately. Garak, I’d like you to wait a few days before relaying this news to your contacts on Car…”
Sisko stopped abruptly as he noticed Garak’s expression. He wants me to keep quiet about his contacts, Sisko thought. There’s someone in this room he doesn’t trust.
“Of course, I understand the situation perfectly, Captain,” Garak said, in a deliberately bland tone. “And I will eagerly await Starfleet’s decision on how we can best aid our common cause.”
As soon as Rekelen and Garak were back on the starbase, the Defiant departed.
“That was certainly an interesting visit,” Garak said.
“Interesting is hardly the word for it,” Rekelen snapped. “The situation is worse than we could have dreamed! Garak, the Detapa Council needs to be reinstated and recognized by the Federation right away, before the Klingons can take advantage of this situation. Do you have the list I asked for?”
Garak was cagey. “Unfortunately, being a foe of the Dominion on Cardassia is a hazardous occupation. The only list I could give you is the names of the deceased.”
Rekelen threw her hands up in the air in frustration. “If I had a prayer of getting through the lines, I’d go to Cardassia myself!”
“And probably meet the fate so many of your brave colleagues have,” Garak said. “I’ve told you to stop reacting and start thinking. You children have so much to learn.”
“And no time to learn it!” Rekelen said. “What are we going to do?”
“Don’t worry, my dear,” Garak said, cryptically. “I believe I have this all figured out.”
Rekelen huffed and stomped down the corridor.
“There’s one thing that’s been bothering me,” Garak called after her. “It seemed like an odd coincidence that Dukat would ‘pay me a visit’ on Bajor just before Kira arrived to free me. In my experience, such things are rarely a coincidence.”
Rekelen turned and glared at Garak. “What else could it be?” she said sourly.
“It was almost as if someone knew that Kira was planning to rescue me, and tipped off Dukat. Do you think we have a spy in our midst?”
“I doubt it,” Rekelen said.
She turned her back and left. Garak noticed that she walked a little faster than usual.
When she knew she was out of sight, Rekelen started to run down the corridor to her quarters. She opened a secured channel, and a familiar face appeared on her viewscreen.
“Ah, Rekelen,” Dukat said. “Do you have more names for me? I’m afraid the rather short list you sent before is hardly worth exchanging for your husband’s life.”
“And what about the warning I gave you – the Bajoran Major’s plan to free Garak…”
“It should be obvious to you that your information did not have the desired result,” Dukat said, frowning. “Since Garak is still alive, and now running your little dissident cell. So that hardly counts.”
“And is there anything that would ‘count,’ Dukat?” Rekelen retorted.
“Hmm. It would have to be something very useful, indeed. After all, Hogue is a traitor to Cardassia. But more importantly, a well-known traitor. His trial and execution will have a morally uplifting effect on the Cardassian people. They’ve been through a lot in the last few years.”
“Yes, because of you!” Rekelen said. “And now your reckless ambition is going to destroy us all! I’ve just learned that the Dominion plans to withdraw from the war and leave Cardassia to suffer the consequences of your folly alone.”
Dukat sat back and steepled his fingers in contemplation. “This may very well be worth Hogue’s life, Rekelen. But only if you agree to help me to avert this disaster to Cardassia.”
A long twilight had descended once again on Epsilon Canaris II. Keiko O’Brien found the extended dawns and dusks of this remote Federation world enchanting.***
Eps (as the natives familiarly called their home) was a beautiful planet, with lush, dense forests dotted with lakes and waterfalls. There were other things Keiko found less enchanting about Eps. It was pelted by frequent rainstorms, and mud seemed to be the dominant feature of the O’Brien family’s new life.
Keiko glanced around their home, low ceilinged and warm with a fine, golden light streaming through the windows from the setting suns outside. She couldn’t fault the hospitality of the Eps people, who generously provided comfortable living quarters for thousands of refugees from other Federation worlds. Keiko and her children were atypical, since they could return to Earth anytime they chose. Most of their neighbors were from worlds – Betazed, Medusa, Rigel, Benzar -- that had already fallen to the Dominion.
Keiko had befriended many of the refugee families. Keeping their spirits up gave her something useful to do, and kept her from worrying about her husband, Miles.
And from worrying about Kirdo. She recalled the disturbing message from Kira and Odo, warning her that the Dominion might be intent on reclaiming the young changeling. But still, Epsilon Canaris was a long way from the fighting. Kirdo was as safe with her as he would be anywhere else, short of putting him in some sort of high-security installation.
Keiko walked into a spare room, where Kirdo’s jar sat on a table in one corner. He had been in there for weeks, and still had not emerged. She would never get used to the idea that the pool of amber liquid could be a sentient being.
She closed the door and walked back into the main room. The warm light faded as a storm rolled across the sky, and rain began to patter on the roof.
Molly, Keiko’s nine-year-old daughter, was lying on the floor, drawing. She scribbled a few lines and then thew her crayons on the floor in frustration.
“It’s raining again,” Molly fussed. “Why can’t we just turn it off?”
“We’re on a planet now, honey, not a space station,” Keiko explained for the twentieth time. “We can’t control the environment.”
Molly pouted. “I hate planets! They’re boring. When can we go back to DS9?”
“I’ve already told you, Molly,” Keiko said. “It may be a long time before we can go back to the station.”
A voice behind them said, “Why?”
Startled, Keiko turned to see Kirdo standing at the doorway. He had resumed his humanoid form of a small boy, part changeling but with the wrinkled nose and chestnut brown hair of his Bajoran “mother,” Kira.
“I thought it was time to come out of the Link,” Kirdo said. “But where are we? Where are my parents?”
“Oh Kirdo,” Keiko said. “A lot has happened since you went into the Link.”
Unsure whether she was dealing with a child, or with a being of adult-level intelligence and emotional maturity, Keiko told Kirdo about the evacuation of DS9, and of his parent’s wish that he be sent far away from the Dominion.
“Don’t worry, Kirdo,” she concluded. “Your parents are safe on DS9, and you’ll see them again.” Keiko wondered whether she was trying to convince Kirdo or herself.
“The ambassador’s shuttle is approaching, Legate.”***
It was the message Damar had been waiting for. After weeks on a mission to Romulus, Weyoun was finally returning to Cardassia. From the small, desk-mounted viewscreen in his office in Central Command, Damar replied to the glinn who had delivered the news.
“Hail the ambassador’s shuttle for me, will you, Kelor?” Damar was in an unusually good mood. He held his ever-present glass of kanar up to the light and admired the greenish liquid as he waited for Weyoun to respond.
“Ah, Damar,” Weyoun said from the viewscreen. “I apologize for being away so long, but there is still considerable opposition to the Dominion among some elements on Romulus. It took some doing to…neutralize those elements. Romulan politics are quite a challenge, even for me!”
“We’ve managed to survive in your absence,” Damar replied, still looking at the kanar rather than Weyoun. He knew that annoyed the Vorta. “Besides, we have a saying on Cardassia: ‘Always keep one eye on a Romulan. That way, you never turn your back on him.’”
“I don’t think we need to concern ourselves with the Romulans’ loyalty,” Weyoun said casually. “They understand where their self-interest lies.”
Damar put down the kanar and addressed the viewscreen directly. “That’s good news. I’ll turn over the transmission to docking control. See you soon.”
With a smirk, Damar hit a button to switch to the shuttle’s exterior view. Just before it entered the planet’s atmosphere, the shuttle erupted in an explosion.
Damar tossed back the kanar. “Tsk, tsk, tsk. Those Romulans. Told you to keep an eye on them, Weyoun.”
Dukat came into the office from the main area of Central Command, where the explosion had just been monitored.
“Damar, Damar,” Dukat said, shaking his head. “That was stupid.”
Damar played innocent. “Who, me? I had nothing to do with that!”
“Why do you bother with these ‘accidents’?” Dukat said. “They’ll just contact the main cloning complex and activate the next Weyoun in line.”
Under his breath, Damar muttered, “Maybe I can’t kill him. But that won’t stop me from trying.”
Damar poured himself another glass of kanar, but Dukat abruptly look the glass away from him and vaporized it in the replicator. Damar was furious; it was bad enough being bossed around by a Vorta. But now Dukat was in disgrace, and Damar was in charge. This high-handed behavior was clearly out of line.
But before Damar could kick his former mentor out of his office, Dukat cut him off.
“Oh, don’t be angry,” Dukat said. “Damar, you don’t know what’s going on, but I do. The paghwraiths have revealed their plan to me. Soon, the Dominion will trouble us no longer. I need you to keep your wits about you for the next few days. And that means, no more kanar.”
Damar was puzzled and more than a little worried about Dukat’s wild pronouncements. He still clung to the hope that Dukat would regain his sanity, but instead he seemed to be getting worse every day.
“Well?” Damar said. “What is this plan the ‘paghwraiths’ have in mind?”
Dukat shook his head and left. It was obvious he would reveal the mysteries of the paghwraiths only when he was ready.
Damar found another glass.
A few days had passed since Kirdo had emerged, and Keiko was now sure of once thing: the young changeling was definitely still a child, but his intelligence and emotional maturity was developing much faster than would be possible for a humanoid.***
Kirdo needed only a few hours of regeneration each day. This left him with plenty of time to learn. And, like any young creature, he wanted to learn about his environment. Keiko had several data clips left over from her teaching days on DS9. From these programs, Kirdo quickly gained a basic understanding of the Alpha Quadrant -- its various planets, species, histories, and political organizations. But the data clips were intended for children. They painted a safe, simplistic picture, and included little on the Dominion.
It didn’t take Kirdo long to ask for something more substantial. Keiko had access to de-classified Federation briefs on the Dominion War, but hesitated to expose Kirdo to this information. But Kirdo pestered her with questions about the Founders and the Dominion. Finally, Keiko had to relent. Kirdo was no ordinary child, and he had a right to know what was going on.
Kirdo’s rapid development had worried Keiko at first. She caught herself watching for signs that he was developing “Founder-like” behaviors. But, to Keiko’s relief, the young changeling was acting more and more humanoid as the days passed.
On that particular evening, Kirdo entertained Molly and Yoshi with a new game. Inspired by his study of Alpha Quadrant history, the game was called “Cardassians versus Klingons.”
Kirdo sat on the floor, and shapeshifted his hands into “puppets” -- amazingly realistic depictions of a Cardassian and Klingon, in miniature. Molly and Yoshi watched intently and erupted in giggles every time the Klingon puppet whacked the Cardassian over the head with his tiny bat’leth.
Making his voice as deep as possible, Kirdo waggled the Klingon puppet and said, “Today is a good day for you to die, Cardassian!”
Two-year-old Yoshi was particularly enthusiastic about the game, and howled in protest whenever Kirdo tried to shapeshift any other puppets, or altered the bat’leth-whacking routine to the least degree. The show would have gone on all night if Keiko hadn’t finally gotten the kids off to bed.
The following day, Keiko took the three children to the local marketplace. Epsilon Canaris was an advanced society, but its people preferred to live relatively simple lives. The goods for sale in the market were an interesting mix of the latest technologies and the basic necessities of life.
Keiko held Yoshi as she picked over a stack of Alvinian melons. Molly was at her side, but Kirdo’s attention was distracted by the colors and motion of the marketplace, so entirely different from the Link.
Kirdo’s curiosity was fortunate. He happened to glance up just as a group of unruly children ran through the market and knocked over a tall stack of empty cartons. Instinctively, Kirdo shapeshifted into a tarp, to block the cartons as they fell towards Keiko and the children
Keiko was momentarily confused, but recollected her wits as Kirdo returned to his usual form. The cartons had been no real threat to their safety, but she was still impressed with Kirdo’s quick thinking.
She was just about to thank Kirdo when she happened to look around the market. Staring faces. Pointing fingers. Keiko was seized with a sudden horror, as she realized: These people are refugees from the Dominion. Now they think there is a ‘Founder’ among them.
Forgetting entirely about shopping, Keiko grabbed the children and left the market quickly. She didn’t notice a small, hunched figure also scurrying away, in the opposite direction.
Odo had met several Vorta in his life, but so far Keevan was his least favorite of all. He had all the nauseating unctuousness characteristic of the species. But unlike most other Vorta, Keevan was not entirely an open book. Odo sensed something just under the surface that was…he couldn’t put a finger on it. Disturbing.***
Whatever it is, it’s probably the reason the Founder asked him to come to DS9, Odo thought. As Vorta were cloned and re-cloned, occasionally one emerged that the Founders deemed to have “exceptional talents.” Those Vorta won the enormous privilege of working directly for a Founder. Keevan wasn’t just fanatically devoted to the Dominion; that could be said of all Vorta. He also had a particular genius for ruthless schemes that furthered the Dominion’s aims.
According to the Founder, Keevan had been working on some sort of “field trials” in the Parox System. The Founder had answered Odo’s questions about it vaguely, but Odo was sure these “trials” were nothing good.
All the more reason for Odo to convince the Founder to leave the Alpha Quadrant immediately. Odo feared that if Kira returned while he was still on DS9, he would change his mind. He wanted the decision to be irrevocably made, so that he could finally be at peace.
Odo walked into Ops and looked around. The Founder was nowhere in sight, but Keevan was at a console, busy with some task.
So that Keevan would not notice him approaching, Odo shapeshifted into a mouse and reformed his humanoid shape directly behind the Vorta. Odo simply didn’t want to deal with any Vorta groveling – which he didn’t like in any case, but found especially odious coming from Keevan.
“I need to speak with the Founder,” Odo said tersely. “Where is she?”
“I believe she is in contemplation, revered Founder. In her quarters,” Keevan said, head bowed.
Odo didn’t bother to tell Keevan not to call him a “Founder”; he was tired of repeating this mantra with every Vorta he met. Besides, he thought morosely, I’m going to be stuck for decades on a starship that no doubt will be full of Vorta. I’m going to have to get used to them eventually…
“What do you mean by ‘contemplation’?” Odo asked. But as he asked the question, he made a mental calculation. The Founder had been on DS9 and in humanoid form for at least 16 hours.
“Hmmph,” Odo said. “You mean the Founder is regenerating.”
Keevan seemed confused “I am sorry, Founder, I don’t understand. What do you mean by ‘regenerating’?”
“You mean to tell me that you Vorta don’t know that Founders regenerate?” Odo said in surprise.
“Of course, we have always known that the Founders who walk among us spend time in contemplation,” Keevan said, doing his best not to sound argumentative. “Is this what you mean?”
“No, it isn’t!” Odo said sourly. “This ‘contemplation’ is simply another of the Founders’ hypocritical shams. Have the Founders ever told you that they are entirely helpless for hours each day? That they have no control over when they need to regenerate? That they can’t emerge whenever they feel like it? Doesn’t seem very ‘godlike,’ does it?”
Keevan said nothing, since either arguing or agreeing with Odo would be sacrilegious. Despite himself, Odo took malicious pleasure in pushing the Founders off their pedestal. Or, at least making the attempt.
About time someone told these Vorta the truth, Odo thought, grumpily. He doubted he had made much impact on Keevan, but it made him feel better, anyway.
“The first order of business is to investigate the accident that befell my predecessor.”***
Damar was no longer in a good mood. His respite from Vortas had lasted little more than a day – the length of time it had taken for the latest clone of Weyoun to be activated and sent to Central Command.
“Terrorists, probably,” Damar said, unconvincingly “The Romulans aren’t the only ones who have ‘elements hostile to the Dominion,’ you know. Even some members of Central Command are under suspicion.”
Weyoun narrowed his eyes. “I am well aware that Cardassians can be quite devious and dangerous. We’ve determined that Weyoun 7’s shuttle was destroyed by a magnetic surge sent from this location. You don’t mind if I inspect the logs for evidence of sabotage?”
“Go right ahead!” Damar growled. “I’m surprised you remember anything yet! Number 6 had annoying memory lapses when he was first cloned. He kept getting me mixed up with Gul Kyarps. And we look nothing alike…for one thing, he’s much older and fatter than me!”
“Don’t be absurd,” Weyoun said, in a dismissive tone that matched that of every other Weyoun before him. “My predecessor’s memories have been transferred to me by the standard mnemonic implant process. I recall everything perfectly, as of a few hours before Weyoun 7’s untimely demise.”
Damar pretended to be distracted by a nearby scanning station. “What a tragedy that was,” he said, under his breath. “I hope you have a large supply of spares.”
“One hundred and four, at last count,” Weyoun said from across the room, never looking up from the logs.
Stomping as loudly as he could, Damar left Central Command for his office. He hadn’t bothered to cover his tracks very well, but it hardly mattered. Whatever Weyoun found could easily be blamed on some hapless glinn, just like the last time.
From where he sat at Damar’s desk, Dukat smirked and turned off the comlink he had open to Central Command. “Forgot about Vorta ears, didn’t you?”
“And you obviously forgot about Vorta memory transfer,” Damar retorted. “This Weyoun may be a new clone, but he’ll still remember you were responsible for closing the wormhole.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t matter now,” Dukat said patiently. “Just as I told you, closing the wormhole has been a tremendous boon to our cause. After all, the war is going well for us now, isn’t it?”
“What, do you mean the Romulans joining us?” Damar said. “That had nothing to do with the wormhole. It was just a fortunate accident!”
“Was it?” Dukat said, with a strange smile.
Damar wasn’t sure at first how to respond. “I don’t know! You and your paghwraiths – it’s confusing. Maybe they were behind everything. But Weyoun won’t see it that way! He’ll probably have you executed anyway, just for practice. I think you should leave immediately.”
“I can’t leave just yet,” Dukat said, looking serious. “It turns out we have a slight problem on our hands.”
“You’re the only one with a problem,” Damar said. “Things are going great for me! With the Romulans on our side, victory is only a matter of time. ”
And, to demonstrate that he was ignoring Dukat’s prohibition, Damar replicated an entire bottle of kanar, poured himself a glass, and tossed it back.
“Maybe not,” Dukat said. “I’ve learned from a reliable informant that the Founders plan to pull the Dominion out of the war.”
Damar choked on the kanar. “What?”
“Oh yes,” Dukat said. “Now that the Founders are convinced the wormhole is permanently closed, they feel quite safe. They’re abandoning the fight.”
Damar was stunned. “But then – it will only be us and the Romulans – versus the Federation and the Klingons!”
Dukat chuckled. “Oh, those odds are much too fair to suit our fickle Romulan ‘friends.’ They’ll declare a separate peace as soon as they hear about this.”
Damar looked greener than usual. “Without the Romulans…!”
“That’s right,” Dukat said, still smiling. “Cardassia alone is no match for the Federation and the Klingon Empire combined. We’ll be conquered within, oh, I’d say a week.”
Damar paced around his office, holding the bottle of kanar and babbling. “The Founders… how could they do this to us? Weyoun! I knew he’d turn out to be a backstabber! I should have killed him more often! And the wormhole being closed caused this! Do you still think it’s a ‘tremendous boon to our cause’?”
Dispensing with the formality of a glass, Damar took a swig of kanar straight out of the bottle.
“Put down that kanar,” Dukat said. “There’s no reason to panic.”
“We’re facing certain defeat!” Damar yelled. “I think this is the perfect time to panic.”
Dukat sighed. “Damar, I’m hurt that you have so little faith in me. I told you, the paghwraiths have explained everything. It’s all part of their plan! By the way, what time is it?”
Damar stopped in mid-swig. He stared at his former mentor, now certain that he was entirely insane.
“It’s 19:00 hours…why?” Damar said, in an unsteady voice that implied he didn’t want to hear the answer.
“You’ll see,” Dukat said. “It’s time we had a little talk with Weyoun. But whatever you do, don’t say anything! No matter what you see or hear.”
In Central Command, Damar was surprised to see the Founder speaking with Weyoun. He hadn’t realized she had returned from DS9. He was even more startled to see her dismiss her Jem’Hadar guards with a wave of her hand. Despite their serenely superior attitude towards “solids,” Damar had noted that Founders never went anywhere without their bodyguards.
From Weyoun’s expression, the Vorta also found this a departure from the norm.
“It isn’t necessary that the Jem’Hadar hear this, Weyoun,” the Founder said. “Only you need to know. The Dominion is withdrawing from the Alpha Quadrant. For us, the war is over.”
Damar put his hand down heavily on a nearby console to steady himself. He was shocked not only to hear confirmation of Dukat’s horrifying news, but that the Founder thought so little of him that she wouldn’t even bother to keep it a secret. Besides himself and Dukat, there were a half-dozen or so other Cardassians in Central Command. All of them had stopped what they were doing, and were now staring at the Founder.
Weyoun also looked a little uneasy, as though worried about getting the Founder safely out of a roomful of people whom she had just announced her intention to betray.
“Of course, revered Founder,” the Vorta said. “I will have all Dominion vessels return to this sector immediately. I will also ask your guards to return…”
The Founder cut Weyoun off. “Do no such thing. We are quite safe here.”
That’s what you think, Damar thought furiously. Killing the Founder and Weyoun would do nothing to avert the coming catastrophe, but he was too angry to care. But before he could raise his disrupter, Dukat grabbed his arm and shook his head. Then he walked past Damar into the lower section of Central Command, where Weyoun and the Founder stood.
Dukat smiled at the Founder. Oddly, the Founder smiled back. Then the Cardassian seized her arm, and with a swift motion, cut her with a small, concealed knife.
This was too much for Weyoun. He fumbled with his communicator, meaning to call the Jem’Hadar guards back to save the Founder from this insane Cardassian.
“Before you call anyone, look!” Dukat said, thrusting the knife nearly under Weyoun’s nose. The Vorta jumped back, fearing for his life. Then he saw what Dukat was trying to show him.
Red blood dripped from the knife. And continued to drip for several seconds. And several seconds more, until Weyoun understood that he was not speaking with a Founder.
“A Federation spy,” Dukat said, holding the unmasked “Founder” securely by the arm. “No wonder she dismissed her guards. They would have known she was an imposter.”
Weyoun took the knife from Dukat, and continued to stare at it.
“Don’t you see, Weyoun?” Dukat said. “It’s a Federation trick! A human, surgically altered to look like a Founder. You don’t think the real Founder would order you to withdraw from the Alpha Quadrant, do you?”
The Vorta finally regained his voice. “How dare to impersonate a god!” Weyoun yelled. “This is…this is…” Weyoun was so angry at this unthinkable crime that he was entirely at a loss what to do.
Dukat swiftly took charge of the situation. He had two glinns take the false Founder from Central Command, and gave them the knife as well, to hold as evidence.
Weyoun watched them leave, still in shock. “Dukat, how did you know she wasn’t the real Founder?” he asked.
Dukat put on a grim face. “I’m afraid I’ve learned some terrible news, Weyoun. The Federation has hunted down and killed all the Founders. Fortunately, we found out about this imposter in time to expose the plot before it succeeded”
Weyoun gave Dukat a skeptical look, but his voice was shaky. “That’s not possible,” he said. “The Federation might try to pass off this ridiculous fraud, but they could never harm the Founders! I assure you, they are well protected.”
“Well, if you don’t believe me, then contact DS9,” Dukat said. “Odo – or the Federation agent pretending to be Odo – will have expected his imposter to pass inspection, so he won’t be prepared. Ask him to produce the Founder. I willing to bet Damar’s entire kanar supply that he won’t be able to! And that he’ll try to convince you to pull out of the war, as well.”
“I won’t take that offer, because it wouldn’t be fair to Damar,” Weyoun said. “I doubt your ridiculous story could be true, but I’ll humor you.”
After an aggravating and convoluted conversation with Keevan, Odo had finally determined when the Founder had entered her regenerative state, and that it would still be at least an hour before she re-emerged. He was just leaving Ops when, oddly enough, Keevan told him that a communication was coming in from Cardassia.***
Odo motioned for Keevan to patch the call through to Sisko’s now-vacant office. Odo sat in front of the small viewscreen on the desk, while Keevan waited respectfully near the door.
It was Weyoun.
“My greetings, revered…I mean, Odo,” Weyoun said. “I need to speak with the Founder. It’s very important.”
“That’s not possible,” Odo said. “She’s regenerating.”
“Regenerating?” Weyoun said. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you mean. Is she in the Link?”
The Founders should engineer these Vorta some brains, Odo thought, impatiently. He was not happy at the prospect of repeating the whole explanation, this time to Weyoun.
“No, she’s regenerating, I said!” Odo reiterated.
Weyoun sounded a little alarmed. “I am so sorry to bother you with this, but I have reason to be concerned for her welfare. If you could possibly have her come out of the Link….”
“She’s not in the Link!” Odo shouted. “She won’t be able to resume humanoid form for at least another hour. I know the Founders never told you about this, but they need to regenerate on a set schedule. She cannot emerge now. Do you understand?”
Weyoun glanced at someone or something just out of sight of the viewscreen. “No, I don’t understand!” the Vorta said to Odo in a panicky voice. “Why wouldn’t the Founder be able to see me now? Founders can do anything they want! They don’t need schedules. I have to talk with her!”
What in Bahala has gotten into Weyoun? Odo thought.
Unwilling to waste any more time in this strange argument, Odo decided to drop a bombshell that was sure to shut Weyoun up.
“You’re right,” Odo said. “You do need to talk with the Founder. She’s going to order you to withdraw all Dominion forces from Cardassia immediately. We are leaving the Alpha Quadrant. Now do you understand?”
Odo’s statement had the desired effect. Weyoun simply stared, as though shot by a phaser on heavy stun. Someone pushed him aside and addressed Odo directly.
Dukat, Odo thought sourly. Wonderful.
“I’m afraid we do understand,” Dukat said. “It means that you, Odo – or whoever you are – and the Federation have killed the Founders. We’ve already unmasked the agent you sent here. You can’t trick Weyoun into surrendering to the Federation with these pathetic tricks…”
Weyoun stepped in front of Dukat, oblivious to the Cardassian’s displeasure at being upstaged during such a fine performance, and ranted at the viewscreen. “You’re right, Dukat! I didn’t think it was possible! I can’t believe…but you won’t get away with…murdering our…”
The Vorta paused, trying to find the proper level of invective for the occasion. But, of course, there was nothing he could say that could express his feelings about deicide.
When he spoke again, Weyoun was chillingly calm. “Many worlds have opposed the Dominion, and all of them have been made to be examples. You’ve seen only a small part of the Dominion’s work in the Gamma Quadrant. Crippling diseases that infect generation after generation. Genetic engineering that devolves whole races to the level of beasts, leaving only their intellect so they could understand what they have lost. Biogenic drugs that induce the overwhelming will to live, despite constant pain that causes insanity. But all that is nothing, trivial, compared with what the Federation will suffer for this, this…”
No words were sufficient. Weyoun cut off the communication.
Odo sat back in Sisko’s chair, wondering whether defects in the cloning process could have possibly created the strangest Vorta ever.
From where he had been listening, Keevan walked over and looked at the now-blank viewscreen. “Well, that was unique,” he said.
“Hmmph,” Odo said. “I think they’ve all been dipping into the kanar. Either that, or Dukat’s madness is catching. And I think I know how. Somehow, Dukat is behind all of this. I never thought I’d say this, but I almost feel sorry for Weyoun.”
Keevan bowed. “Of course you do, Founder. You are too magnanimous. Weyoun should be killed for daring to speak to you in such a way.”
“Well, don’t do it on my account,” Odo said, getting up from the chair. “When the Founder returns, ask her what to do. I’ve had enough of Vortas for one day.”
Like most Cardassians, Damar tended to dismiss Vortas as ridiculous creatures who could never personally be a threat. But even he had to admit that he had never seen anyone – not even a Klingon – as intensely obsessed with vengeance as Weyoun.***
For the past ten minutes, Weyoun had paced in a circle, talking mainly to himself rather than his audience of astonished Cardassians. He recited a list of dire punishments, and rejected them all as insufficiently horrible for the Federation’s unimaginable crime.
“If the Federation thought the Dominion was implacable before, they have no idea,” Weyoun said. “This is now a holy war of vengeance against the murderers of our gods.”
“Whatever you decide to do, you can count on Cardassia’s full support,” Dukat said.
It was impossible to tell whether Weyoun even heard him. The Vorta continued to pace. With a nod of his head, Dukat indicated to Damar that they should go back to his office. Damar dutifully followed, still trying to comprehend the events he had just witnessed.
“I underestimated the Federation,” Damar said. “How did they kill the Founders?”
Dukat found the bottle of kanar, sitting where Damar had left it on his desk, and poured two glasses.
“It’s quite safe to underestimate the Federation, Damar,” Dukat said offhandedly. “I’ve always made it my policy to underestimate them, and I’ve usually been right. They didn’t kill the Founders. The ‘Founder’ in there was actually Rekelen, my informant, surgically altered. We planted the human blood on the knife and arranged that little drama in advance.”
Dukat handed Damar the glass of kanar. But for once, Damar was too stunned to drink.
“But who was that we were talking to on DS9?” Damar said “And why couldn’t he produce the real Founder?”
Dukat grinned. “That was the real Odo. Damar, don’t tell me you’re as ignorant as Weyoun? I’ve known for years that the Founders have to regenerate at certain, predictable intervals. Remember, Odo was my chief of security on Terok Nor. I certainly made it a point to know when he was ‘out of commission.’ Determining his regeneration cycle was simply a matter of observation. The same was true for the Founder.”
Damar was astonished: “I never realized that…”
“You weren’t meant to!” Dukat said. “The Founders make it a point to hide their weakness from their minions. Oh, the Vorta know about the Founders entering the Link, of course. But the Founders pretend that they can re-emerge any time they like. But if they’re regenerating…”
“They can’t re-emerge,” Damar said. “You just need to know when they regenerate. That’s why you asked…”
“What time it was?” Dukat chucked. “Now admit it, Damar. You were getting worried about my sanity at that point.”
“I’m not worried any more,” Damar said, impressed. “That was ingenious!”
Dukat took a sip of kanar and pondered his genius. “Hmm. You flatter me, but I’m rather disappointed in myself – that it took me this long to find a way to use the Founders’ regeneration phase against them.”
Damar had a disturbing thought. “But how do we keep the Founder from telling Weyoun the truth?”
“My guess is, she won’t bother,” Dukat said. “With the wormhole closed, she will no longer care what happens in the Alpha Quadrant. The Founders have what they’ve wanted all along – security. And, of course, we’ll have what we want. The Alpha Quadrant.”
“Really?” Damar said, puzzled once again. “How?”
“Think about it, Damar,” Dukat said. “When the Founders leave, we will control the Dominion forces.”
“Oh, who cares about Weyoun!” Dukat said, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “He’s like any other Vorta – helpless without the Founders to tell him what to do! He’ll be easy to manipulate. The point is, Cardassia is no longer a Dominion puppet state. We’ll be in charge, and no one will be the wiser.”
Dukat wagged a finger at Damar. “And you thought closing the wormhole was a bad idea. I told you to trust me!”
The full importance of these events finally hit Damar. Not only had Dukat averted disaster, but he had finally given Damar a way to get the upper hand in his ongoing battle with Weyoun.
“What will happen to Rekelen?” Damar said. Then, in an uncharacteristic burst of generosity, he added, “She should be pardoned for her dissident activities. What she just did more than makes up….”
“That’s a noble thought, but I’m afraid it’s impossible,” Dukat said. “I had her arrested right after she left the room. She’ll be tried and convicted of treason with her husband, and that will mean two fewer dissidents for us to deal with.”
Damar quickly switched tracks, a skill that had served him well in his career. “Of course. Show no mercy to those damned dissidents. You’re absolutely right, Dukat.”
They finished the rest of the kanar, celebrating in advance Cardassia’s coming hegemony over the entire quadrant. Continuing a long-standing tradition, Dukat did most of the talking and Damar did most of the drinking.
Dukat, it turns out, had gained many profound insights from his conversations with the paghwraiths. Damar found most of it incomprehensible, but was happy to agree with anything the paghwraiths said. Damar didn’t even mind when Dukat started haranguing other people, despite the fact that the two of them were alone in the office.
At times, Dukat seemed to be debating with Weyoun; with that annoying Captain from DS9 and his more-annoying Bajoran second-in-command; and surprisingly, with Damar himself, though Dukat wasn’t even facing in his direction. But by that time, Damar was far too drunk to be insulted that Dukat preferred an imaginary Damar to the real one.
Later, as Damar wobbled back to his quarters, he felt strangely uneasy. A dim thought emerged: Dukat must have promised Rekelen something, in return for her help. A pardon? For her and her husband. Dukat never had any intention of making good on that promise.
He dismissed this notion. Forget about the dissidents! They’re scum. Dukat wasn’t obliged to tell them the truth. I can still trust him, and that’s what matters.
Damar fell asleep, with the peaceful mind of a man who has no worries, who is on top of the stars. Dukat’s smarter than I ever realized, Damar thought groggily. It’s a good thing he’s working for me.
As soon as the Founder had returned to Ops, Keevan told her of Weyoun’s unforgivable behavior. He did his best to convey the proper sadness at a worthy servant of the Dominion turning sacrilegious (and perhaps a little mad?), but Keevan’s display of remorse was tinged with manic glee. After all, this was an unprecedented situation, and therefore very exciting. And Vorta weren’t engineered for compassion, not even toward other Vorta. Particularly not when one of their tribe had broken the rules.***
“Should I open a channel to Cardassia, revered Founder?” Keevan asked. “Are you going to order Weyoun to activate his termination implant?”
After a moment’s thought, the Founder crushed Keevan’s hopes by shaking her head.
“This is a trivial matter,” the Founder said. “We will soon have Kirdo. It’s simpler to leave the Jem’Hadar, Weyoun, and the rest of the Vorta here. Odo wants us to depart from this quadrant immediately, and collecting them would take too much time.”
“Excuse my presumption, but wouldn’t Odo refuse to give the young Founder up?” Keevan said. “If he knows we’re leaving the Jem’Hadar behind.”
“We simply won’t tell Odo,” the Founder said. “This changes nothing. It’s best to leave the Alpha Quadrant races at each other’s throats. If the wormhole ever is useable again, they will be weakened by fighting among themselves.”
“But if we leave the Jem’Hadar behind, the Cardassians and Romulans
will win,” Keevan said.
“Of course, we can’t have that,” the Founder replied. “They were responsible for the destruction of our former homeworld. They, above all, must be punished. The solution is obvious. A short while after we depart, the Jem’Hadar will begin to die. Within a few weeks, they will all be dead.”
“I don’t understand,” Keevan said.
“It’s quite simple,” the Founder said. “You will visit all the ketracel-white processing facilities in the quadrant and alter the formula so that it no longer delivers the isogenic enzyme the Jem’Hadar need to survive. This will ensure that the warring Alpha Quadrant powers remain in an indefinite stalemate.”
Keevan bowed at the Founder’s wisdom. “It will also serve as an appropriate punishment for Weyoun’s rebellion.”
“Yes. He will be entirely helpless as all the Jem’Hadar under his command slowly die. Perhaps a bit harsh. I really believe he did not intend to rebel. But it can’t be helped. He should not have permitted Dukat to fool him so easily.”
Weyoun sat in Central Command and stared unblinking into the middle distance. Many hours had passed, and a new shift had come in. The Cardassians went about their tasks, apparently unconcerned about the death of the Founders.***
They don’t think it will affect the war, he thought. They assume they can run things themselves. Short-sighted idiots! It’s up to me to save us all…
Weyoun had stopped obsessing about vengeance for the time being. To the extent that his genetic programming allowed, he was trying to think a way to keep the Dominion from falling apart, without the guidance of the Founders. It never crossed his mind that he might be capable of managing on his own.
Then something happened that seemed to be a gift from the spirits of the Founders themselves, to repay Weyoun and all Vorta for millennia of fanatical devotion. But this became clear only in retrospect. At the time, the gift took a very strange form.
It was a communication from a vessel orbiting Cardassia Prime. A scrunched, pinkish face appeared on a viewscreen. Its voice was about as pleasant as the screech of an injured rastopod.
“Is this channel secure?” the pink thing said. “Hey, you! Wake up! Aren’t you listening to me?”
Weyoun finally realized the thing was addressing him. He looked at the viewscreen and flinched. Ferengi were far from being his favorite Alpha Quadrant species.
“Weyoun!” the Ferengi said. “I hope you know who I am! After all the secrets I’ve passed on to you, there should be a statue dedicated to me in Dominion City…or wherever it is you pack of grebbrats come from.”
“I recognize you, Brok,” Weyoun said. “You’re lucky I haven’t sent a squad of Jem’Hadar to hunt you down, after your last ‘secret’.”
“What?” Brok said, aghast. “I gave you good information. The Orion Syndicate is always on the lookout for kemacite, at the right price! Selling them some of the Cardassians’ surplus should have put you in good with…”
“With Syndicate Boss Benrah? You moron, Benrah was a Regulan! They can’t tolerate the subspace harmonics generated by twenty-three rechts of kemacite!”
“Is that why he melted into purple goo?” Brok said. “Well, how was I supposed to know? I’m a businessman, not an anthropologist! Besides, that’s ancient history. I have something really good this time! Something worth more than the usual payment.”
“I’d have to hear it first before deciding that,” Weyoun said.
“I’ve seen a Founder!” Brok yelled.
Weyoun bolted upright in the chair. “I’ll need proof.”
“I have proof! Wait, I’ll switch over to my ocular implant.”
Brok fumbled with something, and the viewscreen showed the marketplace on Epsilon Canaris II. In the distance, and off-center, Keiko and her children were standing near the pile of melons. Keiko was easy to identify, holding Yoshi in her arms. Molly’s head and shoulders barely cleared the melon stand, and Kirdo, being shorter, was hardly visible at all.
Suddenly, a giant tarp appeared over the melon stand, as a pile of boxes fell on it. Just as suddenly, the tarp vanished, the woman looked around, and she and the children disappeared into the crowd.
The sequence of events happened quickly, and the quality of the holo-recording was no better than could be expected from Brok’s cheap ocular implant. But nonetheless, it electrified Weyoun.
“It is a Founder!” Weyoun said. “Where…”
Brok didn’t need Ferengi lobes to know he had a sucker on the line. “I’ll tell you after you pay me, not before!”
“How much do you want?” Weyoun said, agitated by the delay.
“Great! I want 1000…no, 2000…no, 10,000 bars of latinum!”
“You’ll have it immediately,” Weyoun said.
The Vorta hit a few buttons on the panel in front of him. Brok’s piggy little eyes lit up as he watched the latinum rolling into his account.
“Hah, I knew you’d be a pushover!” he chortled. “The 51st Rule of Acquisition: ‘Religion enriches your soul, and depletes your wallet!’”
“Very enlightening,” Weyoun said, sarcastically. “Now, where can I find the Founder?”
“Epsilon Canaris II. Look for the household of a hu-mon female named Keiko O’Brien, on the outskirts of the largest city on the southern continent.”
Weyoun recognized the name of the star system instantly. “Epsilon Canaris! It’s Kirdo! The infant Founder wasn’t murdered with the others. Praise the Founders, the rumor was true!”
Euphoria was displaced by paranoia, as Weyoun realized that tragedy could have struck after the holo-recording was made. “Brok! How long ago did you see the Founder?”
The Ferengi’s eyes were still glued to his terminal, savoring the sight of so many lovely zeroes in his account. “What? It was yesterday…or the day before…”
Weyoun cut off the transmission. “We have to get there immediately! Who knows what terrible danger the Founder could be in, right at this very moment.”
Kirdo dodged as the pile of mud came crashing down on him. Covered in muck, he struggled to the surface.***
But it was no use. His adversary was waiting for him.
“Take that, Kirdo,” Molly screamed.
Another pile of mud splattered onto Kirdo’s head. Molly had captured the higher ground, and was hanging on to her advantage by pelting the young changeling with mud whenever he tried to crawl up the hill.
Of course, Kirdo could have won easily by shapeshifting. But he had learned the hard way that Molly considered this “cheating.” After experiencing one of Molly’s sulking sessions, Kirdo had agreed not to “cheat” any more.
However, it was still perfectly fair that Molly was older and bigger than Kirdo, and used this to her advantage in their games. Kirdo was learning more and more about humanoids every day.
Nearby, Keiko walked through the dense forests surrounding her home. With her was Omara Bren, a Betazoid woman who had come to Eps as a refugee.
“I heard about the incident in the marketplace,” Omara said.
Keiko sighed. “I’m really worried now that everyone knows that he’s not a Bajoran. I mean, I’m afraid that people might resent him. Especially since they’ve been driven out of their homes by the Dominion. “
“You and your children were driven out of your homes by the Dominion, but you don’t resent him, do you?” Omara said. “Molly seems to like him a lot.”
“You’re right, I’m probably worrying about nothing,” Keiko said. “And it’s wonderful that Molly has a friend here. She was getting impossible. She misses her home and her father.”
They walked in silence for a while.
“Anyway, thanks for listening to all my problems,” Keiko said. “I’ve forgotten how nice it can be to talk with a Betazoid.”
“You’ve known other Betazoids?” Omara asked.
“Yes, there was a counselor on a ship I…” Keiko begin. Then she stopped cold at the sight before her.
Two mud-covered children charged through an open field, about a hundred meters away. They screamed, fell down, clawed at the ground and got up with handfuls of mud, which they threw at each other. Keiko had a horrible feeling she knew who the children were.
Keiko ran forward into the field. “Molly! Kirdo! What are you doing? Look at you!”
Molly stopped. “I’m sorry, Mommy,” she said meekly.
Kirdo was confused. “Is something wrong, Mrs. O’Brien? You said play is good for developing imagination.”
Molly eagerly grasped this line of thinking. “That’s right! We built a mud castle. That’s imaginative, isn’t it?”
“We made mud people, who live in the castle!” Kirdo said. “But they had a battle.”
“A battle with mud,” Molly continued.” I guess that’s how…”
“Oh kids, don’t worry,” Keiko said, relenting. “The mud will come off.”
Keiko turned to Omara. “I’ll talk to you later, after I get these two cleaned up.”
Damar had left strict instructions that he not be disturbed. Still in a celebratory mood, and despite having woken up with one of the worst hangovers in his life, Damar had contacted Ciana in the morning, boasting that his already-spectacular career was headed for even more giddy heights.***
Ciana arrived within an hour. Her punctuality was one of her best qualities. Of course, she has so many ‘good qualities,’ Damar mused as Ciana sat on the couch and stretched languorously.
The com system beeped. Annoyed, Damar went to the viewscreen.
“Yes?” he barked.
A glinn appeared onscreen. “I thought you would want to know immediately, Legate. Ambassador Weyoun is moving the Dominion fleet away from Cardassia.”
“What?” Damar shouted. “How many ships?”
The glinn hesitated. “All of them…I think.”
“Hail the flagship, now!” Damar said.
The view switched, and Weyoun appeared.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Damar yelled.
“I’m taking the fleet to Epsilon Canaris II, to find the young Founder,” Weyoun replied, as though it were the most natural thing in the galaxy.
“The whole fleet?” Damar sputtered. “You can’t redeploy the whole fleet to one system! This will throw our strategic position into chaos. We’ll be pushed back on all fronts!”
“Territory can always be reclaimed,” Weyoun said. “The Founder may be in immanent danger.”
“But why do you need the whole fleet?” Damar pleaded. “Epsilon Canaris is undefended! You could conquer the whole system with two polaron cannons and a cargo ship!”
“Do you think I’m stupid?” Weyoun snapped. “This whole thing smells like a trap! The Federation deliberately left Kirdo alive, knowing that, of course, we would rescue the Founder. Well, if they want a fight, we’ll give them one.”
“But you’re leaving Cardassia defenseless!” Damar said
“You do still have your fleet,” Weyoun said, peevishly.
“They’re being re-deployed to Sigma Iota!” Damar retorted. “That was our plan, wasn’t it? The Romulans are expecting…”
“This would not have happened if you had been doing your job!” Weyoun interrupted. “Kirdo was on DS9. You should have known the Founder had been evacuated with Federation personnel. “
Damar snorted. “You expect me to worry about one child? I’ve had other things to keep me occupied, like, oh, running a war?”
“We can’t conduct the war without a Founder to guide us, and Kirdo is the only one left!”
“Well, why didn’t you keep track of Kirdo yourself?”
“We can’t keep intelligence records on a Founder, are you out of your mind?” Weyoun said, bewildered. “That would be sacrilege. Only the Founders concern themselves with that. But now they’re gone…” Weyoun faltered as the enormity of the situation once again descended on him.
“And now you have to think for yourself,” Damar said disgustedly. “That scares you so much you’d rather turn the whole war effort over to a child, and severely cripple our strategic position in the process!”
Weyoun cut off the communication. Damar was left gawking at the armada’s glowing impulse engines, stretched out like a field of stars. As the ships went into warp, the ‘stars’ abruptly went out.
Damar didn’t move for nearly half an hour. Ciana quickly got bored and left. Finally, an incoming message snapped him awake. It was Senator Letant.
“I’ve just received some disturbing news about the Dominion fleet, Damar,” Letant said. “I should remind you, when we Romulans opened the second front, it was on the assumption there would be a first front.”
“There will be,” Damar stammered. “This is just – a temporary maneuver. They’ll be back as soon as possible.”
“Hmmm, and I thought humans were unreliable,” Letant said.
“Now do a plate of strawberries!” Molly said.***
Dinners at the O’Brien household had become much more interesting since Kirdo had joined their family. It was important that he learn humanoid customs, and it had seemed perfectly reasonable that he do as his “father,” Odo, did – shapeshift food from his own body, and pretend to eat it, while reabsorbing it into himself.
Molly and Yoshi were fascinated by their new playmate’s ability to shapeshift any kind of food. The evening meal invariably became a dinner show, starring Kirdo
“Yum, yum,” Kirdo said, “eating” the strawberries. “Perfectly ripe.”
Molly giggled. “Now make a plate of gagh!”
Kirdo complied, holding the wriggling serpent worms up before eating them with loud slurps.
“Molly,” Keiko said. “Leave Kirdo alone and eat your broccoli.”
Molly pushed the food on her plate around with her fork. “Mom, can we have…”
“No gagh!” Keiko said. “Finish your broccoli.”
Keiko peeked in to make sure the kids were finally asleep. Ever since Kirdo had come out of the Link, he shared the same room with Molly. He never complained, but Keiko could only guess at the profound loneliness he must feel after living in the Link. The two children had quickly developed a close bond, and were inseparable.***
Kirdo didn’t need to sleep. Having a bed was one more concession to the habits of humanoids. After a few hours of resting, he would return to the jar that sat next to his bed, to regenerate.
After Keiko shut the door, Molly stopped pretending to be asleep. She turned on her side and looked at her friend.
“Are you scared?” Molly asked.
“Scared of what?” Kirdo said.
“That people will hate you because they know you’re a changeling.”
“I don’t know. People don’t hate Odo. Why would they hate me?”
“On the station, everyone knew Odo,” Molly said. “People here don’t know you.”
Kirdo thought about this, and about the history lessons he had absorbed.
“You’re right,” he said. “They might hate me.”
“Don’t worry,” Molly said. “If anyone tries to hurt you, we’ll run away together to someplace where you’ll be safe.”
“Do you think we really should do that?”
“I’m older than you!” Molly said, displaying the O’Brien stubborn streak. “So you should do what I say. Now go to sleep.”
The twin stars of Epsilon Canaris, the yellow sun and the brown dwarf, had presided over a system of a dozen planets for more than five billion years. Besides the incident 200 million years ago, when a massive meteor impact had knocked the frozen tenth planet into an elliptical orbit, nothing very exciting had happened in all that time.***
The brilliant light of the larger star glinted off a thousand silver neutonium hulls, as the Dominion fleet sailed between the third and fourth planets, and took a direct heading towards the system’s only inhabited world.
On the bridge of the flagship, Weyoun scanned space through the virtual display. The expected Federation armada was nowhere in sight.
Weyoun turned to the Jem’Hadar First, at the helm. “Slow to sub-impulse. We don’t want to charge into a trap. How many Federation warships are in the system?”
“None,” the First said, with the usual flat tone.
“Any evidence of cloaked ships?” Weyoun asked.
“No neutrino emissions,” the First replied.
Weyoun was suspicious. “What are they up to?”
“What are they up to?” Sisko said.***
The Defiant crew had just heard the incredible news from Admiral Ross, over a subspace channel. For unknown reasons, the entire Dominion fleet was leaving their assigned positions in Cardassian space.
At first, Starfleet assumed this was the hoped-for total withdrawal from the Alpha Quadrant. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that they were going the wrong way. The Dominion fleet was headed deeper into the Alpha Quadrant, and into Federation space.
“But where they’re going – Ben, it makes no sense,” Ross said. “There’s nothing in that sector, except the Epsilon Canaris system.”
O’Brien swiveled around from his station at Ops. “That’s where Keiko and the kids are!” he said, in horror.
Sisko saw it immediately. “That’s it, Chief! The kids! Including Kirdo.”
He turned back to the viewscreen. “Admiral, I know why they’re heading for that system. There is a young changeling staying with the O’Brien family there. If the Dominion really is withdrawing from the quadrant, they wouldn’t leave him behind.”
“They’re going after Kirdo?” O’Brien said, thinking of the danger to his family, and wishing he had heeded Kira and Odo’s warnings. “We have to stop them!”
“How?” Ross said. “No Federation vessels are in that system. We didn’t think there was the slightest chance the Dominion would attack Epsilon Canaris. That’s why we sent the evacuated families there in the first place! We’re redeploying as many ships in that direction as possible, but they won’t arrive in time. You’re the only ship in the sector. You might be able to get there ahead of the Dominion fleet.”
Sisko raised his eyebrows. “The Defiant against the whole Dominion fleet? I guess we’ll have to hurry. Chief, give me as much power as you can coax out of those engines.”
O’Brien’s response was an emphatic “YES, Sir!”
The engines were at the breaking point as the Defiant reached Epsilon Canaris II. They had made it ahead of the Dominion fleet, but only just barely.***
“We’re picking up the Dominion fleet on long-range sensors,” Worf said.
“How many ships?” Sisko asked.
Worf’s eyes lit up. “Approximately one thousand, Sir.”
“All right,” Sisko said. “This is going to be tricky.”
The Dominion fleet dropped into orbit around the planet, unaware that they were keeping company with the cloaked Defiant.
“We have to get to Kirdo out of there, fast,” Sisko said. “I need some…”
Before Sisko could finish, O’Brien spoke up. “I volunteer to lead the away team, Sir.”
“I thought you would,” Sisko replied. “Ensign Nog, you’ll have to stay sharp for this one. We’ll de-cloak for a moment to let the away team beam down. Then we reactivate the cloak and break orbit fast, before the Dominion vessels can react. Everyone got that?”
Moments later, with the away team on the surface, the Defiant took an evasive course out of orbit. A few Dominion vessels begin hunting for the Federation ship, scanning for the telltale neutrinos. The Defiant played hide-and-seek, dodging around the planet, and waiting for the away team’s signal.
Keiko was woken out of a deep sleep by the sounds of pandemonium outside. The more skittish of the refugees had monitored the planetary defense network from the moment they took up residence on Epsilon Canaris II. They feared a repeat of the day they had been forced to flee their homes. Now their worst nightmares were coming true.***
In the darkened streets, people were running everywhere in their nightclothes – although, with the Dominion fleet surrounding the planet, no one seemed to know exactly where they were running to.
Keiko found her friend, Omara, standing on a streetcorner in a daze with her young daughter, Alwaxa. Omara told Keiko what she had heard on the defense network.
“We’re going to the marketplace,” Omara said. “The planetary government will tell us what to do.”
Keiko doubted the government was at all prepared for this crisis. But she felt the same compulsion that everyone else did to seek comfort in the voice of authority, however impotent it might be.
“I’ll get the children,” Keiko said.
“No, let them sleep,” Omara replied. “Alwaxa will stay with them.”
The girl went to the O’Brien house as Keiko and her mother joined a stream of people headed for the marketplace. The eerie quality of the procession was accentuated by the silence, the darkness, and the dancing beams of blue light from palm beacons.
At the marketplace, alarms were sounding, which helped no one’s nerves. Keiko felt strangely calm, and realized the Betazoids were using their empathic abilities to dampen the crowd’s growing panic. It was technically a violation of Federation law for them to do so without the subjects’ permission. But Keiko doubted that anyone would complain, in these circumstances.
The marketplace had five large viewscreens. Keiko and Omara stopped near one.
“It’s President Renno,” Omara said.
On the viewscreen was a disheveled man. His iridescent skin made him instantly identifiable as a native of the planet. The fact that his complexion was dull rather than sparkling showed that he was under considerable stress. His hair stuck up at odd angles, and he looked like he had just been rousted from his bed. Keiko tried to hear what he was saying, but the noise of the crowd drowned him out.
Why did these people bother to come here, if they insist on talking and yelling so much? Keiko thought, looking around angrily. Nobody can hear…
The crowd gasped. Keiko looked up.
Weyoun had appropriated the viewscreens, and was speaking from the bridge of the Dominion flagship. Nobody in the crowd was talking now.
The Vorta got straight to the point.
“The Dominion has learned that a god is being held captive on this planet,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “We demand that the Founder be released to our care immediately. The Founder has assumed the form of a humanoid child and was last reported living with a human named Keiko O’Brien.”
Keiko nearly screamed, but could make no sound. A few people turned and looked at her.
“If the Founder is not delivered to us within one hour, ground troops will begin a planet-wide search,” Weyoun continued. “Even in this backwater of the Federation, I imagine you’ve heard of the Jem’Hadar? I assure you, cooperation is in your best interest.”
Weyoun’s veiled threats were unnecessary. Most of the people in the marketplace came from planets overrun by the Dominion. They were all too familiar with the merciless nature of the Jem’Hadar.
The viewscreen changed back to the president. In the wake of Weyoun’s announcement, the crowd was noisier than ever.
Omara took Keiko’s hand. “We have no choice,” the Betazoid said, sadly. “Kirdo will be safe. The Vorta and Jem’Hadar are genetically programmed to protect Founders. Aren’t they?”
Keiko was in anguish. “I promised Kira and Odo I would look after him!” was the only thing she could think of to say.
Nobody noticed the two small figures hiding in a dark corner of the marketplace. Molly and Kirdo had not been able to see the viewscreen, but they had heard every word***
“See, Kirdo?” Molly said. “I told you it was a good idea to follow Mommy here. They’re going to take you away, and give you to some monsters. We have to hide!”
Kirdo tried to think of the right thing to do. He certainly remembered Weyoun’s voice, and his own mother’s warning. She had told him the Vorta would “never give up” trying to bring him back to the thing called “the Great Link.” It must be something different from the “little” Link he knew. Daddy had seemed…afraid of the Great Link. It seemed like a bad thing.
“We’ll hide in the woods,” Molly said. “But I need to get things from home first.”
Molly grabbed Kirdo’s hand, and they ran back to the house. With his shorter legs, Kirdo had a hard time keeping up. They climbed in through the ground-floor window, the same way they had evaded Alwaxa.
Quickly, Molly grabbed what she needed for surviving in the woods: a jacket, a favorite doll, and a bag of icoberry candy. Molly put on the jacket and stuffed the candy into her pocket. She put the doll into a cloth bag. Kirdo didn’t need any “emergency supplies.”
The children climbed back out the window. Molly looked crossly at her companion.
“You won’t be able to run fast enough, Kirdo!” she said.
“Why don’t I shapeshift longer legs?” he asked.
“I have a better idea,” she said. “Change into a doll. I’ll put you in my bag and carry you!”
This idea could work. In his gelatinous state, Kirdo was very small – less than a liter of liquid. No matter what form he took, he wouldn’t weigh much more than one of Molly’s real dolls.
“Come on, Kirdo,” Molly said, encouragingly. “If the monsters catch us, they won’t know it’s you. They’ll think you’re doll, and you’ll be safe.” She was sure her parents would be proud of her for thinking of such a smart plan.
Kirdo couldn’t argue with this logic, although he was still confused about the monsters. Why they were chasing him and scaring so many people? Weyoun hadn’t seemed mean before, back on DS9. Well, not mean to me, anyway, Kirdo though.
But Molly seemed to understand the situation better than he did. So, he shapeshifted into a copy of Molly’s battered Bajoran doll. Kirdo still had both his eyes, and the stuffing wasn’t coming out of his seams. Other than that, he was the doll’s identical twin.
Molly put Kirdo in the bag with the other doll and ran down the trail into the woods.
The transporter chief had been given the coordinates for the O’Brien house on Epsilon Canaris. The ship’s scanners were useless. Kirdo would register as whatever he had shapeshifted into. If he were in humanoid form, he’d simply be one of millions on the planet. The away team had to conduct the search in person.***
The plan was to beam in, find Kirdo, and get out. O’Brien was tempted to beam his family back to the Defiant as well, but he knew that would simply put them in greater danger. The minute Kirdo was on the Defiant, Epsilon Canaris would cease to be the Dominion’s target. He also knew that the Defiant couldn’t dodge the Dominion fleet for long. Every second was precious.
At first, O’Brien thought they had beamed into the wrong house. He recognized some of the decorations in the main living area – Keiko had brought them from DS9. But what was a Betazoid girl doing here?
Alwaxa nearly jumped out of her skin at the site of people materializing near her. She was about to run out the front door, but changed her mind and dashed into an interior room.
“Wait!” O’Brien said. “We won’t hurt you. We’re from the Federation!”
O’Brien looked into the room where the girl had gone. She was preparing to flee out the window, with Yoshi in her arms.
The boy woke up and saw O’Brien. “Daddy!” he said.
O’Brien walked over and took his son. “See? Don’t worry. Now listen carefully. We need to find a changeling child…”
Alwaxa found her voice. “Kirdo? He and Molly are asleep in the next room.”
O’Brien handed Yoshi back to the girl. Keep focused on the mission, Miles O’Brien, he told himself. Your family will be safe once you find Kirdo and leave.
He looked in the next room. “There’s no one here,” he yelled. “Is there another bedroom?”
“This is their room!” Alwaxa said. “They should be here.”
A frantic search of all the rooms turned up nothing. Then a security officer thought to look out the window.
“Chief, come over here,” he said.
O’Brien’s heart fell as he trained the light of a palm beacon on the ground and saw little footprints in the mud, leading towards the forest.
As soon as they realized what would happen next, Keiko and Omara ran all the way back from the marketplace. The Eps security forces would converge on the O’Brien household as soon as they had identified its location. If the Dominion didn’t find it first.***
A crowd was milling around the house when Keiko and Omara arrived. Alwaxa was standing in the doorway, eyes wide in fear. Most of the crowd was made up of Keiko’s neighbors. There were also several officers of the Eps security force. Some of the officers were yelling at Alwaxa, and some appeared to be pleading. She said nothing.
Omara barged through the crowd and stood in front of her daughter. “What do you want?” she demanded.
“What do you think?” one of the officers said impatiently. “The shapeshifter. We know he’s here, but the girl won’t say anything!”
“Of course she won’t!” Keiko said. “You’re scaring her to death…”
The crowd drew back as several figured beamed in. As soon as they realized it was a squad of Jem’Hadar, the people fled in every direction, in total panic.
Weyoun paid no attention to the chaos he had caused. He had seen it a thousand times before.
The security officers were not so easily panicked. “We didn’t give you permission to beam down!” one of the officers yelled. “President Renno promised cooperation!”
“I know I have your cooperation,” Weyoun said, his eyes already darting around, looking for any clue of the Founder’s whereabouts. “I just thought you might need some help.”
“It’s under control…” the officer said.
Alwaxa, realizing her silence was endangering them all, finally spoke up. “The Founder ran away!”
Weyoun dashed up to her. “Which direction?”
The Betazoid girl led the group to the back of the house, and pointed to the footprints in the mud.
“I see,” Weyoun said. “Whose footprints are those?” he asked, pointing at larger tracks leading in the same direction.
“The Federation officers…” Alwaxa begin. Weyoun’s sudden change of expression frightened her, and she ran to her mother.
No one would ever accuse Vortas of having an excess of imagination, but there was one image that was emblazoned on their consciousness: The forlorn picture of a single changeling, fleeing for its life, from a murderous mob of solids. This, not footprints in the mud, was what Weyoun saw.
Weyoun pointed towards the woods. The Jem’Hadar understood perfectly. They cloaked themselves and disappeared. The foliage rustled as they passed into the forest, and then they were gone.
A few hundred meters into the woods, O’Brien staggered along the trail. He wished that he had kept up with those exercise programs Julian had given him. He wasn’t in the greatest shape, especially compared with the rest of the away team. But he had the best possible motivation to keep running.***
They came to a rise and shone their beacons down the trail. O’Brien thought he could see something in the distance. A dark-haired child, running as fast as she could.
“Molly!” he yelled. But she was out of earshot.
“Damn!” O’Brien said. “Let’s keep running.”
That was when the Jem’Hadar caught up with them.
Molly stopped. She had seen the beams of light behind her. The monsters were coming. Where could she hide?***
She looked up. Above, large tree spread its thick branches.
Molly whispered into the bag, hoping that Kirdo would understand. “We’re going to climb the tree. I’ll toss you up there first. Don’t be frightened.”
It would have been easier if Kirdo could have become a rope or a ladder, but he could never have held even Molly’s scant weight long enough for her to climb into the tree. She threw the bag a little ways up. It landed in the crux of two branches.
Molly grabbed a low branch and braced her foot, preparing to climb. Some sixth sense told her to look behind her.
From out of nowhere, the monster appeared and grabbed her arm.
“We have the Founder,” the Jem’Hadar First said, into his communicator. “She is unharmed.”
Back at the O’Brien house, Weyoun thanked the spirits of the Founders that this final catastrophe had been averted.
On the Defiant, Worf looked up from the tactical station. “The Dominion fleet has broken orbit. They’re moving off.”***
“Damn!” Sisko said. “That means they got what they came for. Hail the away team.”
“No response!” Worf said.
“Keep trying,” Sisko said, as he looked balefully at the departing ships.
The ketracel-white processing plant in the Pelossa system was new, but already it was operating at peak efficiency. It was the most productive plant in the entire Alpha Quadrant.***
Keevan walked along the sterile, brightly-lit corridors. His footfalls were drowned out by the constant, unvarying hum of the giant processing vats.
He stopped in front of a vat, filled with a milky, viscous substance. Another Vorta was checking a monitor that tracked the composition of the ketracel-white. She noticed Keevan, but said nothing. He had the highest possible security clearance, the commendation of a Founder. No questioned his right to go anywhere he wished.
The other Vorta left the room. Keevan opened a valve on the vat, and poured something in. He stopped at each of the vats and did the same.
Keevan walked out of the vat room, and saw a Jem’Hadar guard at the door. Of course, the guard had been there when he had entered the room. Like all Vorta, Keevan was so used to the constant presence of the Jem’Hadar that he no longer noticed them most of the time.
But there was something strange about the guard’s appearance. Keevan recognized the symptoms.
“You don’t look very healthy,” Keevan said. “Your tube is empty. When are you due for a new supply?”
“Not for two days,” the guard replied.
“Two days!” Keevan said. “That’s terrible. Who is your field supervisor? I will talk to him immediately.”
“It is not the Vorta’s fault,” the guard said. “Our ability to manufacture the white cannot keep up with the need on the front lines. We Jem’Hadar assigned to lower-level functions must sacrifice for the good of all.”
“Very commendable,” Keevan said. “The Founders would be proud of you.”
“Do you think so, Vorta?”
“I am certain of it. In fact, I think such loyalty should be rewarded.”
Keevan returned to the first vat. He put a tray of empty vials into a slot. In a moment, he pulled them out full.
“Three tubes fewer won’t make any difference on the front lines,” Keevan said. He handed the tubes to the Jem’Hadar, who took them wordlessly with an amazed expression on his face.
“May it keep you strong,” Keevan said. Smiling, he left.
The Jem’Hadar at the Pelossa factory were the first to die from the tainted white.
They were not the last.