“It’s definite, Dowd. There’s some sort of vessel, dead ahead of us.”
Dowd gazed at the tiny speck of light on the viewscreen. As it grew bigger and took shape, he felt apprehensive and excited. It had been a long time since they had encountered intelligent alien life.
Fate had given his people a hard road to travel. Countless centuries before, they had been driven from their homeworld by brutal invaders. No doubt, they were the last of their kind. For twenty generations, they had lived aboard their flotilla of a dozen ships.
At times, their ancestors had made landfall on friendly worlds, but only to repair their vessels. They had always left to resume their journey among the stars.
Dowd’s people were nomads. But their wanderings were far from directionless. They always moved in one direction: away from the murderous demons who had destroyed their homeworld.
The alien vessel was now within hailing range. First contact with aliens was always tricky. Sometimes, the aliens would shoot first. This was particularly dangerous for Dowd’s people, since they were peaceful and unarmed. Dowd hoped these aliens were the kind that talked first.
As the alien ship approached, Dowd saw ominous signs that its makers were a warlike race. The round, compact vessel before him bore structures that could only be weapons. Scars and blasts on the hull indicated that it had recently been in a fierce fight. Dowd prayed that the aliens would notice his flotilla was unarmed.
Dowd’s hopes soared when his communications specialist told him that the aliens were attempting to broadcast a signal to them. “Open a channel,” he said enthusiastically.
Aboard the Defiant, Captain Sisko pondered the sight before him. They had been returning to DS9 when Ensign Nog had detected a group of ships to starboard. The battle with the Dominion had gone badly. All the battles seemed to be going badly recently. Sisko wasn’t expecting trouble this far inside Federation space, but, as a precaution, he had given the order to investigate.***
They probably just need a place to make their repairs, Sisko mused. They’re lucky they didn’t stumble into Dominion-held territory.
“We’re getting a visual transmission from the lead ship,” Nog said.
Sisko smiled and put on his best “diplomat” demeanor. The war occupied most of his time nowadays, and it seemed like years since he had welcomed strangers into Federation space.
The viewscreen resolved into an image of a small man who smiled and bowed. The Universal Translator allowed Sisko to understand his first few words. “Greetings. I am Dowd. My people have come a long way, and we were wondering if you….”
Momentarily speechless, Sisko recovered from his shock. “Worf! Lock quantum torpedoes on the lead ship!”
The Klingon did not hesitate to comply. It was obvious to everyone on the bridge why Sisko had given this order.
“Our weapons on trained on your vessel,” Sisko barked. “We will escort you to Deep Space Nine. I suggest you don’t make any suspicious moves.”
Dowd simply nodded. These aliens were obviously powerful, dangerous, and very suspicious of him for some unknown reason.
“Of course, we will comply,” Dowd said, inwardly thankful for his people’s innate skills as diplomats. He and his forebears had talked their way out of tricky situations before, and he hoped this would be no exception. “But I assure you, we are no danger to you! We have no armaments at all.”
Sisko squirmed in the command chair. Was this Dowd being honest? Or was it some strange trick?
“If you’re so harmless, what is a Vorta doing in Federation space?” Sisko snapped.
Dowd was nonplussed. “Yes, my people are called Vorta. How did you know who we are? None of my people have ventured this far.”
Sisko glowered. What was going on? This ragtag flotilla looked nothing like Dominion vessels. Yet Dowd, with his pale skin, dark hair, weird glowing blue eyes, and large, pointed ears, was unmistakably a Vorta.
“Ensign, resume our heading to DS9,” Sisko said. “We’ll sort this all out when we’re there.”
Dowd wandered along the promenade, overwhelmed by the scale of the structure and the variety of the beings who inhabited it. Just as he had been impressed with the Federation cruisers, Klingon birds-of-prey and Romulan warbirds that had seen docked or in parking orbit outside DS9.***
It was obvious that this part of the galaxy was embroiled in a massive conflict. Dowd still could not comprehend how these aliens – from a political organization they called the “United Federation of Planets” – had known his group were Vortas. But he wasn’t overly concerned. Their initial hostility could easily be explained as a natural consequence of being in a state of war.
As promised, he had been very cooperative. He had answered all their questions truthfully. He wanted to ask some questions of his own, but thought it might be better to wait. The aliens were now being quite hospitable. The necessary repairs were being made to his ships, and a few of his people were allowed to visit the station, under the strict supervision of the station’s Bajoran security force.
The stares had not escaped Dowd’s notice. His presence seemed to alarm people. Being a very peaceful person, he was troubled by this. He wished he knew more about this situation, but something told him that he might not like it when he learned the truth.
Sisko watched the Vorta, shadowed by two security officers, stop at the jumja stick merchant.***
“He seems to be curious about everything,” Sisko said. “I’ve talked with several of them. They’re about as non-threatening as they could possibly be. Personally, I think he’s telling the truth.”
“Hmmph,” Odo replied, from behind his desk. As usual, the security chief found it difficult to dismiss his suspicions. “If you can believe a story like that. Vague legends about demons, and murderous, gigantic beasts….”
“That part sounded familiar,” Sisko said. “It all happened long ago, and of course the stories would be muddled by time. But what Dowd described sounded to me very much like a Jem’Hadar attack.”
“And how do you explain his claim that everyone on his homeworld was killed?” Odo asked.
“He assumes that. But he admits, his ancestors fled during the first stages of the attack.”
“I suppose it could be true.”
“And it would also explain why Dowd was surprised we recognized his people as being Vortas,” Sisko said. “He doesn’t know anything about the Dominion. Or about what evidently happened to the Vorta after his ancestors left.”
Sisko frowned at Dowd, who was now staring at the gaudy lights outside Quark’s bar. “And I don’t know how to break the news to him. It might be kinder to let him think the rest of his people are dead.”
“Maybe,” Odo said skeptically. “But now that they’re here, it won’t be long until they find out the truth. Whether we tell them or not.”
Sisko nodded in agreement. “It’s interesting that they look exactly like the Dominion Vortas.”
“Hmmph,” Odo said. “So much for the Founders’ self-serving legends that they evolved the Vortas from primitive creatures. The only thing the Founders did was to genetically engineer blind obedience and viciousness into a peaceful species. Typical.”
Dowd disappeared into the crowded bar, with the deputies right behind him. Odo got up from his desk. “If he’s going in there, I better go make sure Quark doesn’t bilk him.”
Dowd was sitting at the bar, gingerly tasting something that Odo recognized as Romulan ale. He made a face and put the glass down on the bar.***
“Good decision,” Odo said. “Never could stand that stuff myself.”
“Hello,” Dowd said, recognizing Odo’s uniform. “Are you a Bajoran, too?”
“In a manner of speaking. I’m Odo, the security chief here.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Dowd said. Then his attention wandered, once again caught by the bustle and noise of the bar.
Well, that’s proof that Dowd is telling the truth, Odo thought. Any Dominion Vorta would recognize me as one of their Founder ‘gods’ and start fawning all over me in their usual, nauseating manner.
Odo’s musings were interrupted by a small girl, about four years old, who charged into the bar.
“Daddy!” she yelled. Colonel Kira ran into the bar, hot in pursuit.
Dowd reached down and picked the girl up.
“Well, Kersis,” Dowd said. “How did you get here?”
“The lady brought me.”
“Sorry,” Kira said. “We were escorting another group around the station, and she got away from me.”
The bar’s Ferengi proprietor rushed over. “Hey, no kids allowed in here…huh? Is that what I think it is?”
Quark took a better look at the miniature Vorta who was squirming in her father’s arms. “A baby Vorta. By the Divine Treasury, I never thought I’d see one of those.”
“Why not?” Dowd said, with a quizzical expression. “What’s so unusual about a baby Vorta?”
Odo shot Quark a look that clearly told him not to pursue this line of conversation. “Oh, uh…nothing.” Then Quark noticed a deep blue stone that hung on a cord around Dowd’s neck. Wanting to change the conversation to anything else, he asked Dowd what it was.
Dowd returned his daughter to Kira and removed the cord from his neck. He held up the smooth stone so that Quark could see it better.
“I wear this always. It’s been passed down through the generations. When my people originally fled our homeworld, one of my ancestors had the presence of mind to pick up the stone as she was leaving. It’s the only piece of our home we have left.”
Quark’s lobes wiggled as he fingered the stone. Hmm, maybe it’s worth something, he thought.
“I’ll give you five slips of latinum for it,” Quark offered.
“Sorry, it’s not for sale,” Dowd responded. As he lifted the cord to put it back around his neck, the cord broke. The stone bounced off the bar and rolled into a grate in the floor.
Quark kneeled and looked into the grate. “Darn, it’s lodged all the way down there! I can’t reach it.”
Odo walked around the bar and pushed Quark out of the way. “Let me get it.”
Shapeshifting his hand into a narrow tentacle, Odo easily fished out the stone. He got back on his feet, returned his hand to its original form, and held the stone out to Dowd.
Dowd stared at Odo’s hand in horror.
Kersis began thrashing around, screaming “A demon! A demon!” Kira could barely hold her.
Dowd collected his wits and calmed his daughter down. “He’s not a demon, darling. It’s just a…strange coincidence,” he said, looking uneasily at Odo.
Then Dowd explained. “I’m very sorry. We don’t mean to be rude. But my people have legends of the shapeshifting demons, who destroyed our homeworld. That’s why we have never settled on any planet. We fear that the demons are chasing us.”
Quark and Odo exchanged rueful looks.
There it is again! Dowd thought, uneasily. What is it that these people aren’t telling me?
“I’m afraid I have some bad news, Dowd,” Odo said. “The demons aren’t pursuing you. They’ve beaten you here.”
“Explain it again,” the interrogator said. “Why did you order your ship into the dark nebula?”***
“We picked up anomalous signals from the nebula,” Keevan responded, with a casual demeanor. “I was curious to see what they were.”
“That’s not what you said before!” the interrogator yelled. “You claimed your navigational instruments had been damaged!”
“I did say that, didn’t I?” Keevan responded, clearly enjoying the game. “Feel free to believe the story you prefer. If you don’t like either of those, I’m sure I could think of….”
The interrogator leaned close to the Vorta. “You think you’re pretty damned smart, don’t you? Well, you’ll tell us the truth – eventually.”
Keevan narrowed his eyes and stopping smiling. “Don’t bother with your pathetic threats. I doubt you could ever force the truth out of me, or any Vorta. You Starfleet types have an exaggerated notion of your own strength.”
Then Keevan leaned back and grinned. “But faced with a Dominion debriefing, you people snap like twigs. I’ve personally seen this many times.”
“You won’t feel so smug when…” the interrogator began.
“This is boring!” Keevan interrupted. “If you want to know why I ordered my ship into the nebula, that is simple to arrange. I’ve heard that Federation POW facilities are uncomfortable, and I prefer comfortable environments. Give me my own shuttlecraft and my freedom, and I’ll tell you whatever secrets you care to know.”
“So you’ll betray the Dominion just like that?” the interrogator said, suspiciously.
“Why not? The Dominion got me into this mess. Loyalty is for fools.”
Sisko froze the holo-recording. “It goes on and on, pretty much like that. They never did get a straight answer out of the Vorta.”
Dowd circled the frozen images of Keevan and the Starfleet interrogator. But mostly, he looked at Keevan – with a combination of amazement and disgust.
“I do not know what kind of creature this is,” Dowd said, firmly. “He may look like a Vorta, but none of my people would ever behave as he does.”
“This may be difficult for you to accept, Dowd. But all the Vorta in the Dominion are just like Keevan. Well, he is one of the worst I’ve encountered. But the others are just as malicious and devious.”
Dowd was rattled by this statement. “How many Vorta have you encountered, anyway?”
“Personally, I’ve seen less than a dozen,” Sisko admitted. “Most of them activate their termination implants rather than be captured.”
“What’s a termination implant?” Dowd said, warily.
Sisko wished he hadn’t mentioned it. “It’s a…device implanted in all the Dominion Vorta. It allows them to kill themselves quickly and easily.”
Dowd sat down in a chair, his face even paler than normal. “What has happened to my people?” he whispered.
“This must be a terrible shock for you,” Sisko replied. “But it’s important that you know all this. Dr. Bashir thinks he’s found a way to reverse the genetic changes that the Vorta have undergone. And it just might help us end this war, as well.”
Bashir carefully explained what Dowd was reading. “These are the autopsy results on a Vorta clone named Weyoun 6. That means he was the sixth clone of Weyoun. The interesting thing about him that he behaved entirely differently from all the other Weyouns. Some ‘defect’ in the cloning process gave him a conscience.”***
“So, out of all the Vorta, one had a conscience,” Dowd said, putting the padd back down on Bashir’s desk. “And he died because of it. What good does that do us?”
Bashir became animated, the way he always did when faced with a fascinating medical riddle. “Starfleet Medical thought Weyoun 6 was a fluke. But your group contains the true Vorta genome. I’ve come up with a theory. The latent, original genetic structure of the Vorta was awakened in Weyoun 6. This may mean that every one of the Dominion Vorta has a latent genetic makeup that could be brought out.”
Bashir tapped his medical console and called up a display. The monitor showed the twisted strands of Vorta chromosomes.
“I took a better look at Weyoun 6’s genetic makeup, and compared it with samples that some of your people provided,” Bashir said. “They’re very similar. But the most surprising thing is that Vortas have 246 chromosomal pairs!”
Dowd just looked at the monitor, confused.
“You see, Dowd, that’s a lot more genetic material than any known species. For instance, humans only have 23 pairs. Klingons have 17. Compared with Vortas, other species are practically with single-celled organisms!”
Bashir turned off the display and spoke directly to Dowd.
“What this genetic complexity means is that, to a much greater degree than in other species, Vortas’ behavioral traits are determined by their genes. Genes never totally control anyone’s behavior. Socialization always plays a role. But this is less true of Vortas than other species. This makes Vortas very susceptible to changes in their genetic structure.”
Dowd nodded gravely. “That must be the reason Vortas were chosen by the shapeshifters to serve the Dominion.”
“Very probably,” Bashir replied. “The Founders control the Jem’Hadar through drugs, but they can control Vorta behavior directly, by changing their genetic structure.”
Bashir activated the display again, this time showing a close-up of a chromosome. “I’ve located the genes that influence certain behavioral traits. In the Dominion Vorta, some genes were reinforced – ones that govern tendency towards dogmatism and obedience to authority. Others were virtually turned off, such as empathy and independent-mindedness. But genetic engineering is a tricky thing, and some genes seemed to have been changed inadvertently.”
“What do you mean?”
“Vortas apparently have no sense of aesthetics. And I’ve heard they can’t see, smell or taste very well. But they do have excellent hearing.”
Dowd pointed to his own ears. “The hearing part is natural. But is it really possible that my people were so profoundly changed, just by changing their genes?”
“I’m afraid so. The good news is, I think I have a way to repair the damage. But I’ll need your help. Now that I know how Vortas’ genetic structure was changed, I can design a benign retrovirus capable of replacing a person’s RNA sequences with new ones. It’s complex, but the point is that any Dominion Vorta infected with this virus will be restored to their original genetic makeup.”
For the first time, Dowd felt a little hope. “And their behavior will be restored to normal, as well! But what do you need me to do?”
“Well, we need a vector for the virus – you. If you agree, that is. I’ll inject you with a sample of the virus and we’ll use our contacts on Cardassia to smuggle you to somewhere where you will be near enough to other Vortas to infect them. Shouldn’t be difficult. The virus is airborne. You’ll only have to breathe. We’ll do a test run at first, to make sure it works like we think it will. Then we’ll send in more of your people – enough so that the virus will take hold in the Dominion Vorta population.”
Bashir held up a hypospray. “Dowd, you should probably take some time to think about this. The virus won’t have any effect on you, but this assignment is far from risk-free. We don’t think anyone in the Dominion would have any reason to suspect you. After all, you’re a Vorta, just like them. But you never know, something could go wrong.”
Dowd thought for a moment, and then stuck out his arm. “I’ll do it.”
Sisko and Bashir watched at the window as the shuttle left the docking port and streaked away into the inky expanse of space.***
“You’re sure the Cardassian contacts can be trusted?” Bashir asked.
“Garak vouches for them,” Sisko said. “And I’ve never known him to be a poor judge of character. They’ll get Dowd through the Dominion lines. Then it’s all up to him.”
“He’s very brave,” Bashir said, wonderingly. “He didn’t hesitate to risk his life for people he doesn’t even know. It’s sobering to think that trait could be just switched off by genetic manipulation.”
“But he fully understands the ramifications of his actions, doesn’t he?” Sisko asked.
“I’m not sure. All he knows is that his people need help. But if he succeeds, the war could be over, right? If all the Vorta were like Dowd, they’d be useless to the Dominion.”
Sisko nodded. “The war could end. And none too soon, either. We’re losing by inches – have been for months.”
“Couldn’t the Dominion continue to fight even without the Vorta?”
“Starfleet’s strategists don’t think so,” Sisko replied. “The Vorta are the linchpin. The Founders give orders, but there are far too few of them to effectively run things themselves. The Jem’Hadar were engineered to be incapable of independent thought. Without the Vorta in the center of the command structure, the Dominion will collapse.”
Dowd was glad to be away from his Cardassian escorts. They were brusque and made no secret of their antipathy towards him – even though they knew he was on their side. One of them even referred to him as the “Federation spy.” But he did so with an obvious sneer that suggested the Cardassian liked the Federation no better than he liked his putative Dominion allies.***
The politics of this part of the galaxy are incomprehensible, Dowd thought. No one trusts anyone else. And everyone hates the Vorta.
Dowd nervously waited for the airlock to open. Soon, he would find out why his people were so despised.
Stepping through the airlock, Dowd entered the bridge of the Dominion battle cruiser. This was the part of his mission he had feared the most. Five Jem’Hadar were at their stations, preparing the ship for departure.
After a lifetime of hearing myths and fables about the murderous monsters, Dowd was unsure how he would react to seeing them in real life. But surprisingly, it was easier than he had thought it would be.
The Jem’Hadar were large, but not nearly as large as they had grown in legend. Their craggy appearance made them look as if they were made out of stone, as the myths said. But Dowd realized that they were just as much flesh and blood as he was. Rather than roaring at him and attacking savagely, they barely noticed him. Intent on their tasks, the Jem’Hadar seemed like a group of clerks.
Dowd smiled at the irony. Then he turned around and came face to face with the Vorta in command of the ship.
The Vorta stared suspiciously at Dowd, who quickly masked his expression. No smiling, he told himself.
“I am Edikal, the field supervisor for this unit,” the Vorta said. “Who are you?”
Dowd gave him the padd that he had brought from DS9. Sisko and that strange Cardassian “tailor” named Garak had assured him it would provide an adequate cover story.
“An observer,” Edikal said, reading the padd. “You’re in the final stages of training for a command of your own? Well, stand over there and don’t get in anyone’s way.”
The battle cruiser got underway. Dowd stayed in his corner, wondering how long it would take the retrovirus to work.
“Could I inquire as to our mission?” Dowd asked.
“Why not,” Edikal said, with a bored tone. “But it’s just routine. We’re going to Rakal IX. It’s a not-very-important planet with a small Cardassian population. Our assignment is to obliterate the colony so that we can establish a supply depot and cloning facility there.”
“I see,” Dowd said. “Why is it necessary to destroy the colony?”
Edikal flashed a look that told Dowd he should already know the answer to that question.
“We need Rakal IX for a cloning facility. It’s a very sensitive installation. We don’t want Cardassians snooping around.”
“Won’t the Cardassian government object?” Dowd asked.
“Not when we tell them the colony was destroyed in a Federation attack.”
“Oh. Will they believe you?”
“Why not? They believed us last time.” Edikal’s face contorted into a grin. Dowd tried to grin back, but somehow it wasn’t so easy to smile this time.
The Jem’Hadar First interrupted their conversation. “The target is within our sights.”
“Good,” Edikal replied. “Arm the polaron cannons.”
Without the virtual display that Edikal and the Jem’Hadar First wore, Dowd couldn’t tell what was going on. But he was gripped with horror. This Vorta was about to calmly murder untold numbers of people. Worse, Dowd was beginning to suspect that Bashir’s retrovirus would never work at all.
“Polaron cannons armed,” the First replied.
Edikal said nothing, but continued to look at his virtual display.
“Vorta. The polaron cannons are armed,” the First reiterated.
“What?” Edikal said. He staggered away from the command console and looked straight at Dowd. “What are we doing?”
Dowd thanked all the gods of Kurill Prime. The retrovirus had worked. Edikal looked like someone coming out of a dream – or a nightmare. It was proof that the Dominion Vortas were no more inherently evil than any other species. Everything could be made right again.
The Jem’Hadar First stepped forward. “Vorta. Are you unwilling to fulfill our mission?”
“Of course I’m unwilling, you idiot!” Edikal retorted. “This is madness!”
“It is the will of the Founders,” the First said calmly.
“The Founders are lunatics!” Edikal yelled.
The First grasped Edikal’s neck and snapped it. Dowd stared at Edikal as he crumpled like a doll and hit the floor. The Jem’Hadar first bent down and retrieved the virtual display from the corpse. Then he presented it to Dowd.
“You are now the field supervisor of this unit,” the First said.
Keep calm, Dowd told himself. His expression remained unchanged as he took the virtual display and placed the over his eye.
Dowd managed to beg off completing the mission, using his inexperience in command as the excuse. The Dominion vessel returned to its base so that another Vorta could be assigned to it. Dowd lost no time finding his Cardassian contacts again. He had to return to DS9 immediately and break the bad news. The plan would not work.
DS9 was in an uproar. More vessels than ever were docked or in orbit, and the promenade was jammed. People talked in small groups, in hushed tones. Dowd didn’t understand what was going on, but he could feel the tension.***
He found Bashir’s infirmary.
“Dowd!” Bashir said, looking up from his work. “I didn’t know you were back. Did you report in to Captain Sisko yet?”
“No,” Dowd said, still looking out the door at the bustling crowds of the promenade. “The captain is too busy to see me now. What is happening?”
Bashir’s expression was grave. “The whole Klingon front has collapsed. It’s the worst setback we’ve had in months. But what about your mission? Did the retrovirus work?”
“Yes, it did,” Dowd said distractedly. “It worked perfectly.”
Bashir brightened. “Why didn’t you tell me that right away? From the way you looked when you walked in here, I thought it had been a total failure. We should tell Captain Sisko immediately. After all the bad news he’s gotten today, this is just the thing to cheer him up.”
Dowd started to say something, but stopped. I might as well wait until everyone’s together to break the bad news, he thought. The virus may work, but the Federation cannot use it.
After a quick procedure to remove the last traces of the retrovirus from Dowd’s system, Bashir and Dowd took the turbolift to the Ops level.***
“It’s all right,” Bashir said to the security officers guarding the wardroom. “Captain Sisko is expecting us.”
They walked in. Sisko sat at the end of a conference table. The room was crowded, mostly with angry-looking Klingons. Given that their fleet had been recently thrashed by the Dominion, it was only natural that three of the Klingons drew their bat’leths upon seeing a Vorta enter the room.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen!” Sisko said. “This is Dowd and Dr. Bashir. No doubt they’re here to report on the mission I was just telling you about.”
Sisko walked up to Bashir. Under his breath, he said, “The Klingons need to hear some good news about now.”
Bashir smiled. “We have good news. The retrovirus worked! Dowd, tell everyone what happened!”
Dowd looked at the roomful of glowering Klingons, and decided that he probably shouldn’t have waited to break the bad news.
Gathering his courage, Dowd launched into it. “The virus was a success. The Vorta commander of the ship I was on was affected within a few minutes. His demeanor changed completely, and he refused to carry out his mission or accept any further orders from the Founders.”
Dowd was drowned out by the Klingons, who enthusiastically pounded Sisko’s conference table.
General Martok rose to his feet. “Excellent work, Captain! And you, too, Doctor. This will certainly throw some bloodwine on the Dominion’s campfires! Their fleets will be in total disarray! And then they will learn that any victory gained over the Klingon Empire is a temporary one.”
The Klingons upped the noise level a few dozen decibels with cheering and stomping. Dowd waved his hands frantically, trying to get the Klingons to listen. With Sisko and Martok’s helped, the pandemonium finally subsided.
“I haven’t told you all of it!” Dowd said. “After the Jem’Hadar First realized the Vorta no longer would unquestionably serve the Founders, he snapped the Vorta’s neck! Just like that! If we use the virus, the Vortas will be regressed, but they won’t have long to live.”
Martok slammed his mailed fist on the table. “Good! I would not want to sully my bat’leth with unworthy Vorta blood. Let the Jem’Hadar do it for us.”
The other Klingons growled their agreement.
With his usual keen perception, Sisko sized up the situation. He needed to discuss this with Bashir and Dowd in private.
“Thank you Dowd, and Dr. Bashir,” Sisko said, with an expression and tone Bashir could not fail to miss. “Doctor, I’d like to discuss this further, in my office, in one hour.”
Both Sisko and Admiral Ross were waiting in Sisko’s office. They asked Dowd to give them a more detailed report of exactly what happened on the Dominion cruiser. But the end result was still the same – the virus worked, and it would be a death sentence for the Dominion Vorta.***
The impassive expressions of the aliens worried Dowd. He had trusted them because they had acted nicely and told him how principled their Federation was. But it was clear that they were losing this war. How principled could he really expect them to be, now that he had given them a way to win?
“You’re not thinking of using the virus anyway, are you?” Dowd asked nervously.
Sisko sighed and rubbed his forehead. “We can’t use it without your cooperation. No other species is genetically compatible with the virus. But I’m asking for your help. Now that the Klingon front has collapsed, the Dominion will redirect most of their firepower at us. We were having a difficult time holding the line before, but now….”
Dowd looked at the floor. “I know you need my help, but I can’t do it. We’ve journeyed for centuries thinking our people were dead. Now that we’ve found that they’re alive, how can we bring themselves to be the instruments of their death?”
“We’re not talking about killing innocent civilians,” Ross snapped. “The Vorta are combatants. And they’ve never been known for showing mercy towards their enemies. Why should we show mercy to them?”
“I can’t believe you’d be so heartless,” Dowd cried. “The moment they are regressed they will cease to be combatants! Would you condemn me or the other un-altered Vortas to death? Then how can you condemn the Dominion Vortas? Once the virus has changed them, they will be no different than us.”
Sisko was growing angry. “You haven’t been in the Alpha Quadrant for the last two years, Dowd! You haven’t seen what’s gone on. The Federation didn’t start this war, and we’re damned if we’re going to lose. This virus – it certainly isn’t the way I would have wanted to end the war. But at this point, we don’t have much of a choice!”
Bashir put his hand on Dowd’s shoulder. “Dowd, the Dominion isn’t interested in peaceful coexistence. Not with the Federation, and not with you. You’re in just as much danger as the rest of us. If the Dominion wins, it’s certain that you and your companions will either be killed or genetically changed into Dominion Vorta. I don’t think this is a decision you should make on your own. The others are involved as well. Why don’t you discuss it with them?”
Dowd nodded. “I’ll do that. But I think their answer will be the same as mine.”
The elders of the flotilla gathered in the largest room on Dowd’s ship. Dowd and the other ship captains attended, but the decision would be made by the elders.***
Tevan stood to address the crowd. He was stooped with age, but his mind was still sharp.
“This Federation has given us two choices,” Tevan said. “We can help them murder our own people, or be destroyed ourselves!”
The crowd murmured.
“But we have found on our travels that the galaxy is vast,” he continued. “It contains many wondrous and diverse things. There is never just two ways to go. Let us find the third path.”
The elders understood his meaning.
“Our people have always been diplomats,” old Senza said. “Even before the Dispersion, we were known for our skill in finding the third path. We must use these skills now, to save our people. Let us talk with these ‘Dominion Vorta.’ We will make them understand that their way is wrong. It is not the true way of the Vorta. Perhaps they will agree to follow the true way of their own accord.”
“But what if they refuse?” one of the ship captains asked.
“Then we will tell them of the Federation’s plan,” Senza replied. “They will know what danger they are in. If they do not cooperate, we will help the Federation, and they all will die. Of course, we would never actually do such a thing. But first, we offer the sweet kava berries. If the kava is not to their taste, we let them hear growl of grebbrats emerging from their lair. One or the other has always led to a happy resolution when we have negotiated with aliens in the past. Certainly, we can expect other Vortas to be as reasonable as we are.”
Dowd felt a great relief. The elders’ wisdom had saved them before. Perhaps it could again.
“I volunteer to be the negotiator,” Dowd said. “I’ve seen these strange Vorta, and I think I understand them.”
Bashir rushed into Sisko’s office, alarmed. “I heard that Dowd and the rest are leaving!”***
“That’s right, they are,” Sisko replied grimly. “They’ve requested clearance to leave spacedock and we’ve granted it. I guess we have the answer to our question.”
“But where are they going?”
“They’re on a heading for Dominion-held space.”
“They’re going to make contact with the Dominion?”
“Looks that way. Maybe Dowd thinks he has a better plan than the options we gave him.”
“But you can’t let him go!” Bashir said. “Dowd doesn’t understand….”
“Doctor, this is none of our business. They’re not Federation citizens, and they’re free to go where they wish. The only thing we can do is – wish them luck, I suppose.”
Bashir was stunned. “They’ll need it.”
“The Vorta who requested an audience is here,” the Jem’Hadar guard announced.***
“Are you sure he said his name was ‘Dowd?’” Weyoun asked.
Weyoun frowned. “Fine, send him in.”
Dowd entered the large room warily, but with hope. The rest of the flotilla had remained outside Dominion space, as a precaution. He had asked to be taken to whoever was in charge. So far, so good.
Weyoun glanced at Dowd and then returned his attention to the console before him. “What is your name?”
“That’s what the Jem’Hadar said. But it’s impossible. There’s no one by that name in our data banks. What is your security code?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have one.”
Weyoun glared at Dowd. “You must have one. All Vorta do.”
“I’m not a Dominion citizen.”
Now Weyoun was very confused. He hit on the most reasonable explanation. “Don’t tell me – you’re a new clone, and your memory chip is faulty. I hate it when this happens. Let me contact the main cloning facility on….”
“I’m not a clone, and I don’t have a memory chip.”
Weyoun narrowed his eyes. Something was very strange about this Vorta. He picked up a hand scanner and swept it near Dowd’s head.
“Amazing! How can you function without a memory chip?”
“I don’t have a – what are they called? – termination implant either.”
Weyoun used the scanner again and quickly confirmed Dowd’s shocking claim.
“Exactly who are you?”
“A Vorta,” Dowd said. “A real one.” Then he flinched at his own tactlessness. Not a good way to start.
With a bit more care, Dowd explained about his flotilla, and the strange history of the people it carried. Weyoun said nothing, but only stared intently with a gaze that Dowd found unnerving. He couldn’t tell whether Weyoun was happy, sad, or indifferent to his story.
Dowd took the cord from around his neck. “This is a stone from Kurill Prime. I’d like you to have it as a symbol of the way our home once was.”
Weyoun took the smooth blue stone and stared at it uncomprehendingly.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Dowd prompted, hopefully.
“I wouldn’t know,” Weyoun responded sourly. “Where are the rest of the Vorta who are like you?”
“Still waiting in Federation space,” Dowd said. “I was sent here to – well, to tell you that there’s a way to repair the damage that has been done. A Federation doctor has invented a retrovirus that can return you and the other Dominion Vortas to the way you once were. The way you – all of us – were meant to be!”
Weyoun was skeptical. “I don’t believe such a thing is possible,” he said dismissively
“But it’s been done! A Vorta named Edikal was regressed by the virus.”
Weyoun recognized the name. “I heard about that. I wondered how someone with such an exemplary record as Edikal’s could simply go insane.”
“I’m sorry. It wasn’t my intent that Edikal be killed.”
“What did you have to do with it?”
“I was the carrier for the retrovirus. Any of the Vortas in my flotilla could be used as carriers. But when I realized that it would result in the deaths of the Vorta, I refused to go along….”
“With the Federation plot!” Weyoun said. “Well, I’m not surprised they’d try something as vicious as this.”
“But they didn’t try it! When my people refused to cooperate, they were disappointed. But they didn’t try to stop us from leaving. They said their laws would not permit them to interfere with us. I thought they seemed quite principled.”
Weyoun looked as if he were about to laugh. “And you believed them? Oh, Dowd! You’ve been in the depths of space too long! I’ve had years to study the Federation up close. They wax quite poetic about their principles, their laws. But the way they act – that’s a different matter entirely! The Dominion always tries to co-exist with all its neighbors. But the Federation – devious and untrustworthy in the extreme. Why do you suppose we’ve never been able to make peace with them? Every overture is rebuffed! And now they’re turning our own brothers against us!”
Dowd was confused. It was true – he only knew the Federation side of the story. Could they have been deceiving him all along? They were aliens, after all.
Weyoun put his arm around Dowd. “I’m overjoyed to see you managed to get away from them. But did you say the rest of your vessels were still in Federation space?”
“Yes – but no one pursued us.”
Weyoun walked to the comm station and opened a channel. “Tell them to cross the border immediately. I’ll send an escort out to meet them, in case of trouble.”
“Come now,” Weyoun said, smiling. “You’ve been wandering for a long time, Dowd. It’s time to come home. All of you will be welcomed with open arms.”
The flotilla had docked at the Dominion station, and the few hundred Vortas on board had assembled, as Weyoun had requested, in an enormous room that looked to Dowd like a cargo hold.***
“Did this Weyoun agree to allow the Dominion Vorta to be returned to their natural state?” Senza asked.
“I explained what happened to Edikal, and that the regression could be done in a safe environment, where none of them would be harmed. He didn’t agree, exactly. But he said he’d talk about it later.”
“Imagine,” Senza replied. “After all these centuries of wandering, we’ve found our kin at last.”
Dowd nodded. “I shouldn’t have been so naïve, to believe Sisko and the rest. The Dominion Vorta aren’t any more evil than….”
A soft whine filled the room. Even with so many chattering people in the crowd, the whine was audible to their sensitive hearing. Abruptly, the whine increased into a violent burst of sound. As one, the Vortas collapsed to the floor, where they lay unmoving.
A door opened. Weyoun, followed by another Vorta, entered the now-silent hold.
Strolling around the hold, Weyoun repressed a shudder at what he saw. Dowd had been right. Old people, children…. These Vorta evidently reproduced like Alpha Quadrant races. Disgusting. He said a silent prayer of thanks to the benevolent Founders for rescuing the Vorta from this primitive state, and for giving him the wisdom to avert this latest threat. Now there would be no way for the Federation to proceed with their heinous plan. And, had the existence of these perverse Vorta been known, who knows how damaging it might have been to the morale of those under Weyoun’s command?
Weyoun spotted Dowd, lying near his daughter, Kersis. He removed the blue stone from his pocket and contemptuously tossed it. It rolled to a stop near Dowd’s hand.
“Have the bodies disposed of as quickly as possible,” Weyoun said tersely. Then he walked out.