Things were going well until the Romulans arrived.
The Defiant and Martok’s fleet had waited patiently in the Duralis system, silent and invisible, like a flock of Ktarian raptors. The Dominion fleet was in close formation. When half the fleet had entered the system, Martok gave the signal for his small, swift K’Vort-class ships to de-cloak and strike.
The K’Vorts were no match for the larger Dominion vessels, and their losses were severe. But they succeeded in splitting the Dominion fleet in two, doing some damage, and driving the remaining vessels deeper into the Duralis system, towards the main body of the Klingon force.
On the bridge of the Defiant, the mood was tense. “Wait for it, people,” Sisko said. He didn’t want ‘nervous humans’ spoiling Martok’s elegant strategy by jumping the gun and de-cloaking too soon.
Over the comlink, Martok bellowed the traditional Klingon signal to attack. “Qapla’!”
With the element of surprise in their favor, the Klingons chewed up the enemy vessels like so much gagh. The Dominion ships responded with devastating suicide runs that crippled even the mammoth Vor’cha cruisers.
After only minutes, the Duralis system looked like a floating junkyard. Even Sisko was in awe of the destruction – even though this was hardly the first time he’s witnessed a clash between two such aggressive species as Klingons and Jem’Hadar.
“I’m picking something up on long-range scanners,” O’Brien said. “Switching to main viewer.”
Before Sisko was an ominous and unexpected sight: a cluster of green stars in the distance. But these “stars” were headed their way, and moving very fast.
“Yes, Chief,” Sisko said. “Romulans definitely make worse enemies.”
Sisko couldn’t help thinking of a phrase he once read in an old book, “the chickens have come home to roost,” just before the Defiant was hit by the first wave of disruptor fire.
Caught between the Dominion and Romulans, the Klingons were outnumbered and surrounded. The only option was to cut their losses and run.
Martok’s voice came over the secured subspace channel. “All vessels, prepare to cloak. On my command, set course for heading 312 mark 17 in standard ghoptu formation.”
Then Martok closed the channel to all but the Defiant. “Captain, my helmsman is transmitting the coordinates for the ghoptu formation to you. Activate your cloak on my mark.”
“I’m sorry General, but we’ll have to decline your kind invitation,” Sisko replied.
“What? Why?” Martok sputtered.
“The Defiant has a Romulan cloak,” Sisko said. “It’s a foregone conclusion that they will know how to track it.”
“You can’t stay here to be destroyed!” Martok said.
“We can’t follow you and give away your location, either,” Sisko said. “But I have an idea. We can create mock neutrino emissions to imitate several cloaked Klingon ships. Even if we can’t follow you, we could serve as a decoy.”
Martok was impressed. “You have the spirit of Kahless, Captain. I salute you and your brave crew.” The General nodded to Worf. “Your sacrifice will long be remembered in the House of Martok.”
Sisko watched the viewscreen as the Klingon fleet shimmered and vanished like a mirage.
“General Martok doesn’t think we’ll make it, does he?” Nog squeaked, from the con station.
“Keep your mind on your work, Ensign,” Sisko said. “Activate the cloak. Is there an opening in the Dominion lines?”
“Yes, Sir, at heading 121 mark 6,” Nog replied.
“Then that’s where they assume we’ll go. Let’s not disappoint them.”
The Defiant headed for the gap, buffeted by enemy fire. After more than a year of fighting the Dominion, Sisko recognized the characteristic shudder created by a phased polaron beam.
“Are those Dominion ships?” Sisko yelled.
“Yes, Sir,” Worf said, from the tactical station. “The Romulans must be relaying our heading to them.”
Another big explosion rocked the Defiant. With the cloak activated, Sisko couldn’t raise shields or fire weapons. But without the cloak, the ship would be an easier target. It was a gamble which approach was worse.
“Chief! Damage report,” Sisko said.
“They blasted a hole in the bulkhead,” O’Brien said. “In one of the lower decks – a cargo hold. The bulkhead force fields were activated. We lost whatever was in the cargo hold, but no essential systems were affected.”
More blasts hit in rapid succession, one on each side of the Defiant.
“They’ve destroyed shuttlebay one on the port side, and shuttlebay two on starboard,” O’Brien said.
“I don’t like people blowing holes in my ship!” Sisko yelled. “Worf, what’s your assessment of the tactical situation? What are they trying to accomplish?”
Worf furrowed his brow. “Their pattern of attack so far makes little sense. But they may be trying to destroy the antimatter storage pods, located between the shuttlebays on deck three.”
“They must like doing things the hard way, then,” O’Brien said. “Those pods are in the center of deck three. If that’s what they’re after, the Defiant will look like Swiss cheese before they’re through.”
“There are easier ways to destroy the Defiant than trying to reach the antimatter storage pods,” Sisko said, scowling.
O’Brien chuckled. “Maybe they’re just really bad shots.”
“Let’s get out of here before their aim improves,” Sisko said.
The Defiant changed course abruptly, but a squad of Dominion vessels cut them off – oddly, not firing.
“Maybe they can’t track us that well,” O’Brien said. “They know generally where we are, but not well enough to target us.”
Sisko shook his head. “I can’t believe that’s true. The Romulans must know exactly how to track a ship with one of their own cloaks.”
An unfamiliar force jolted the Defiant, coursing through the ship with a loud hum.
“What was that, Chief?” Sisko says.
“An EM pulse,” O’Brien said, reading off his console. “Odd. It wasn’t a scan and it didn’t have any effect on the engines or weapons.”
Sisko was mad. “This is ridiculous. They know damn well where we are. Cloak off, shields up. We’re going to go down fighting.”
The Defiant turned and inflicted some damage on the dozen or so Dominion ships before them. None returned fire.
“Maybe they don’t feel like fighting today, Sir,” Nog said hopefully.
Sisko was getting more and more baffled. “Get us out of here, Ensign.”
The Defiant turned and ran, jarred by polaron beam fire from the pursuing Dominion vessels.
“Sir, we’re losing shields,” O’Brien said.
“And we’re headed for Dominion space,” Nog added, with panic in his voice.
“Worf! What are they doing now?” Sisko said.
“Incomprehensible,” Worf growled. “They are employing an attack formation that I have never seen before. They are fanned out behind and to both sides of us.”
“Sides?” Sisko said. “Why aren’t we being hit from the sides, then?”
“Because those ships are not firing,” Worf said. “Only the ones directly behind us are, Sir.”
Sisko furrowed his brow. “I have a hunch I know what they’re doing. Ensign, hard to port.”
Nog turned around, startled. “Sir? That will steer us right into the…”
“Hard to port, I said!”
“Yes, Sir,” Nog said.
The Defiant closed in on the line of Dominion ships to port, and received a barrage of polaron beam fire – which hit no vital systems.
“Back off, Ensign,” Sisko said. “Original heading.”
The ships to port stopped firing.
Sisko nodded. “They’re herding us somewhere.”
O’Brien said, “Why?”
“I suppose we’ll find out when we get there,” Sisko replied.
“We’d better get there soon,” Nog said. “Shields are down to 10%.” The young Ferengi glanced at a different panel. “And we’ve entered Dominion space!”
“We’re heading into a star system, Sir,” O’Brien said. We’ll have to drop out of warp.”
“Take us to impulse engines, Chief,” Sisko said.
The pursuing Dominion vessels dropped out of warp behind the Defiant, never breaking formation. The star system had dozens of planets. One was dead ahead - a gas giant, enveloped in swirling red clouds.
“Are they going to make us crash into that planet, Captain?” Nog said.
The Dominion ships to starboard swung around and forced the Defiant to veer towards a large moon orbiting the gas giant. A sudden barrage rocked the battered ship once again.
“That’s it, Captain,” O’Brien said. “Shields are totally gone, and…bloody hell! They hit the inertial dampers. They’ll fail in a few minutes. We have to switch to thrusters, or we’ll all be killed by the G-forces.”
“If we switch to thrusters now, we’ll be pulled into the moon’s gravity,” Nog said.
O’Brien turned in his chair. “We only have one choice, Sir. Use the thrusters to land on the moon.”
Sisko sat back. “Do it.”
As the impulse engines shut down, the Defiant entered a smooth, spiraling orbit around the moon. The ride through the moon’s atmosphere was rocky, and the landing was far from gentle, but the vessel was in one piece.
Sisko spoke into the comlink. “Sickbay, damage report.”
“Two crew members are injured, but everyone is alive,” Bashir said.
“Worf and O’Brien, take a security team and sweep the immediate area,” Sisko said. “Nog, watch the sensors for any signs that the Jem’Hadar have beamed down.”
After a few tense minutes, Worf reported back. “All clear.”
“Nog, where are the Dominion ships?” Sisko said.
“Reading eleven vessels in orbit around this moon,” Nog said. “No signs of activity on the surface.”
Sisko sat back in the command chair. “What do they want?” he said, to himself.
At least we know where we are, Sisko thought. The Parox system.
Bordering Cardassian space, the unpopulated Parox system had been in Dominion hands almost since the start of the war. Nog had identified their coordinates and sent out a distress call on all frequencies. Their rescuers would know where to find them. Assuming the Dominion vessels had departed by then. And that the crew was still alive.
The moon’s surface was covered with heavily wooded swamps. Above was a misty blue sky. The tail end of the Defiant was partly submerged in muck; the front half had settled onto higher, dry ground. Directly in front of the ship was a small clearing, bordered on three sides by swamp, and on the fourth by a boulders at the base of a rocky cliff.
With no sign of the Dominion on the moon’s surface, Sisko, O’Brien and Worf had moved out into the clearing. Sisko asked Worf for his recommendation on preparing for the inevitable attack.
“The Defiant still has sensors, so we can track the Dominion ships in orbit,” Worf said. “Chief, can you get the shields back online?”
“Probably,” O’Brien said. “But why do we need shields now?”
“We can use the shields to create a defensive perimeter 100 meters around the Defiant,” Worf replied. “The Jem’Hadar will not be able to beam into the shielded area. One person will stay on the bridge at all times to monitor the vessels in orbit. The rest of us will stay in the clearing. If the Jem’Hadar attack, we will be in a better position to fight them here. We can fall back into the ship if necessary.
“Good idea, Worf,” O’Brien said. “If we have to stay cooped up in there, we’ll all go nuts.”
Worf smiled slightly. “Yes, Chief. That did occur to me.”
“Chief, how badly damaged is the Defiant?” Sisko asked.
“I can get the engines back on line, but the inertial dampers were obliterated,” O’Brien said, wearily. “We can’t use the engines without the dampers. Two of the shuttlecraft have been destroyed. The third one was badly damaged in the crash, but I can probably replicate the damaged parts and get it working again. “
Nog came out of the ship, carrying several phaser rifles. “What about the escape pods?”
“They’re designed to be jettisoned in space, “O’Brien said. “They’d never be able to escape this moon’s gravity.”
“I wouldn’t want to try to get back to Federation space in nothing but an escape pod, anyway,” Sisko said. “Sounds like repairing the third shuttlecraft is our best option – after you get the shields back online and set up the defensive perimeter. Anything else?”
“Well, there’s the cargo hold that was destroyed,” O’Brien said. “We’ll compile a list of its contents. I doubt there was anything too important in there.”
Sisko turned to go. As an afterthought, O’Brien added, “Oh, one more thing, Sir. The transporters are out. I mean, it really doesn’t matter at this point, but I thought I’d mention it.”
“Were they damaged in the crash?” Sisko asked.
“No, that EM pulse knocked them out,” O’Brien said. “But why would the Dominion target our transporters? It isn’t like there’s any place for us to transport to!”
“Chief, there isn’t much about this situation I do understand,” Sisko said. “But one thing is clear – we’re here because the Dominion wants us here. It’s up to them to make the next move. Until then, we have to be ready for anything.”
Two hours had passed, and nothing had changed. The Dominion ships were still in orbit but seemed unwilling to attack. Most of the crew was now in the clearing, curious to get a look at their new, and hopefully temporary, home.
Ezri Dax and Bashir were taking environmental scans, checking for radiation levels or any other threats to the crew’s safety. So far, the moon appeared to be entirely benign.
Sisko walked through the clearing towards the trees. “Here?”
“Yes,” O’Brien said.
Sisko put up his hand. The shield that now enveloped the Defiant and the surrounding clearing became briefly visible in a flash of light under his hand.
“Excellent, Chief,” Sisko said with a smile.
Nog came running out of the Defiant. “It’s an emergency!”
“Steady Ensign,” Sisko said. “What is it?”
O’Brien scowled at Nog. “I thought you were supposed to be retrieving the list of the destroyed cargo.”
“Sorry, Chief,” Nog said. “I got hungry. Well, you know Ferengi need to eat a lot more often than humans! I went to the replicator to get a nice plate of squid in squill-sauce…just like my grand-moogie makes.”
“Nog, does this story have a point?” Sisko said.
Nog waved his hands in frustration. “But it didn’t work!”
Dax and Bashir wandered over and joined the conversation.
“What didn’t work?” Dax said, with an impish grin. “The squid?”
“No, the replicator!” Nog said.
O’Brien shrugged. “I should have guessed. The EM pulse also fried the replicators. Makes sense. Replicators and transporters are based on same technology.”
“Maybe the EM pulse wasn’t aimed at the transporters,” Bashir said with mock seriousness. “They were going after the replicators all along. Probably jealous of Captain Sisko’s jambalaya recipe.”
“Why should they be jealous that we have jambalaya?” Nog said angrily. “I thought the Vorta had no sense of taste!”
“No sense of aesthetics,” Bashir said. “I don’t know about their sense of taste. Anyway, Nog, it was a joke.”
“We have nothing but field rations now!” Nog whined. “That’s no joke.”
“No parts for the damaged shuttlecraft, either, O’Brien moaned. “My job just got a lot harder.”
With no alternative, Nog reluctantly found the field rations, and passed around the little packets of hard-packed nutrients. That’s when they noticed that they had food, but no water.
“I hate to ask,” Sisko said. “But…what cargo hold was the water in?”
Nog tapped on his padd. “Cargo hold two, Sir. Wasn’t that the one…?”
Sisko sighed. “That was destroyed.”
Dax stopped munching on her field ration. “Our entire water supply was in one cargo hold?”
“The Defiant isn’t a big ship,” O’Brien said.” Not like one of those Galaxy-class behemoths. We don’t have a lot of cargo space, and our survival rations aren’t what you’d call generous.”
“Besides, when was the last time any of us saw a replicator go offline?” Bashir asked.
O’Brien nodded. “You’re right. They’re usually very stable, until there’s a widespread systems failure. Anytime your ship is that badly damaged, replicators are the least of your troubles.”
“So this is one scenario the disaster planners at Utopia Planitia didn’t foresee,” Sisko said.
“Well, it’s no more than an inconvenience,” Bashir said. “We are in the middle of a swamp. I’ll set up a bio-filter, and we’ll have plenty of water in no time.”
“I’ll help Julian,” Dax said.” Jadzia’s – I mean my – science background will be more use now than a ship’s counselor.”
Bashir stepped gingerly around the parts littering the corridor. Nearby, O’Brien and Nog had opened a large panel in the corridor wall and disassembled the central controller for the replicators.
O’Brien ducked out from the controller as Dax walked by, following Bashir. Both were lugging large buckets of swamp water into sickbay, where they had set up a bio-filter, jerry-rigged out of medical equipment.
“That looks heavy,” O’Brien said.
“You said it,” Dax replied. She put the bucket on the floor and rubbed her shoulder. “You forget how easy transporters and replicators make things.”
Bashir returned from sickbay with an empty bucket.
“Hey Nog, why don’t you help them fetch the water?” O’Brien volunteered. Before Nog could reply, Bashir handed him the bucket, with a smile.
Nog left down the corridor, muttering all the way.
O’Brien stuck his head back into the gutted replicator controller. “There isn’t much hope for the replicators. The phase transition coils are totally shot.”
“The worst thing is that the replicators in the crew quarters won’t work, either,” Dax said. “And you know what that means.”
“No showers until we’re rescued,” Bashir said woefully.
This struck everyone as funny.
“Poor Worf!” Dax said. “Klingons have a much better sense of smell than humans or Trills.”
From where he was, halfway inside the controller, O’Brien said, “And it’s so unfair, because Worf smells nicer than any of us.”
Dax and Bashir laughed.
O’Brien ducked out of the controller. “I’m serious!” he said, half jokingly. “Hey, remember when we tried to convince Worf that he smelled like lilac?”
“That was horrible of you two!” Dax scolded. “Worf really believed it.”
“No he didn’t!” Bashir said.
“Yes he did! He asked me to tell him if he smelled like ‘any sort of flower,’” Dax said, imitating Worf’s stiff attitude and deep voice.
They were still laughing when Nog returned with the filled bucket. The young Ferengi grimaced at the ‘privileged’ officers having a good time while he lugged swamp water around, and swore to himself that he’d make sure any ensigns under his future command were treated just as shabbily.
“Thank you, Nog,” Bashir said. “I’ll take it from here.’
In sickbay, Bashir poured some of the water into a beaker. “The bio-filter is set at .0001 microns. That should be small enough to catch any biological or chemical contaminants.”
Bashir poured the brackish water from the beaker through the filter. As the water poured out clear, Dax checked the bio-scan’s readout.
“The original sample has small amounts of cyanobacteria, cryptosporidium and dinoflaggelates,” Dax said. “Not to mention large amounts of yucky green stuff. But it’s fine once it goes through the filter. Nothing’s turning up on the bio-scan except good old H2O.”
Dax looked up, surprised at herself “Hey, I can read the bio-scan. It’s amazing! I’ve never been any good at science at all. I guess I am now.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Ezri,” Bashir said, pouring more water. “You could have read this before you were joined with the symbiont. The bio-scan is a pretty simple piece of equipment. The basic design hasn’t changed in over a century.”
“No, I mean it,” Dax said emphatically. “When I was in school, it took me forever just to learn to use a padd. And you know how simple those are! I had no technical abilities at all. And math – forget it! Do you know that a few days ago, when the con station was acting up? Nog asked me to help him calculate whether it was showing us the correct heading. And I figured it out! It was unbelievable. I have all these abilities I never had before…umm, I guess Jadzia never talked this much, right?”
“Not quite as much, although she wasn’t a Argellian stonetoad, either,” Bashir said. “She could chat up a storm when she felt like it.”
Dax nodded. “That’s Curzon. Jadzia was an Argellian stonetoad before she was joined. I still remember what that felt like – to come out of my shell after so many years. Curzon was…hard for Jadzia to control at first. Of course that was years before you knew her. By then, she was pretty well integrated. Not like me!”
Bashir completed the water filtering. “That should be enough water for the next two days. How long does it usually take a joined Trill to integrate the symbiont’s personalities, anyway?”
“The counselors on Trill told me it would be a few months before I started to feel, you know, comfortable,” Dax said. “But I think I’ve gotten over the worst of it. I’m actually starting to enjoy being joined. It’s an amazing expansion of consciousness – gaining all this knowledge and abilities you never dreamed you could have.”
“I think you are getting more integrated,” Bashir said, smiling. “I can see more of Jadzia in you all the time. And the rest of them, of course.”
After a few hours, the crew had things well organized. They had an abundant water supply. The injured crew members were back on duty. Worf organized patrols around the Defiant, which now served as basecamp. With no change in the orbiting Dominion ships, everyone began to relax a bit.
The crew made themselves as comfortable as they could in the clearing, sitting on some small boulders they had rolled over from the nearby cliff. The light was fading as the Parox star set, turning the misty swamps orange and pink.
Worf’s combadge chirped in the silence as the security officer on the Defiant’s bridge gave his scheduled report: “The Dominion ships are still in orbit, no change.”
“How long will it be until distress signal is picked up and we’re rescued?” Bashir asked.
“That all depends on how much territory the Dominion has gained,” Sisko said. “We don’t know how far the subspace beacon will have to travel before it reaches Federation space.”
“The Duralis system is lost,” Worf said. “Past that, the Regula and Halee systems were not well defended. We should assume they have fallen as well.”
“But then the Dominion would run into the Altair system,” O’Brien said. “They would have given them some trouble.”
“Altair would not have fallen,” Worf said. “It is too well fortified. Most likely, our beacon will be intercepted at starbase 431 in the Altair system. If a rescue operation is mounted immediately, they will be here in a minimum of nine days.”
“So we wait,” Sisko said, squinting up at the sky. “We’ll be fine as long as our neighbors keep their distance. Worf, what’s your analysis of their strategy?”
Worf scowled. “I have never been able to determine how Vortas’ minds work,” he said reluctantly. “And their behavior in this situation is even more incomprehensible than usual. Clearly, they could have killed us all at any time. They must want us to remain alive for some reason.”
“And that reason is a mystery,” Sisko said. “We don’t know enough to even make a reasonable guess.”
“Maybe there’s something on this moon that will give us a clue,” Dax said. “Why don’t I make a survey of the immediate area in the morning?”
“Good idea,” Sisko said. “If there’s something dangerous on this moon, we need to know about it.”
Dax and her security team made their survey and returned just as the others were waking up. Bashir, still bleary-eyed, was setting up the bio-filter in the clearing.
“Well, that’s one thing you and Jadzia do not have in common,” Bashir said, yawning. “She was always a night owl.”
“I just like to wake up early!” Dax said cheerfully. She showed Bashir the padd with her report. “It’s not very interesting. There’s no animal life, but lots of plants. None of it seems dangerous, though.”
“I’m sure Captain Sisko will be interested in your report, anyway,” Bashir said.
Dax headed for the Defiant, and then turned around. “I have some more water?”
“Of course,” Bashir said. “This humidity is going to make us thirstier than usual. I brought the bio-filter out here to encourage everyone to drink as much water as possible.”
Nog and O’Brien came out of the Defiant and headed straight for the water.
“How are the repairs going?” Dax asked.
“They would be going fine if I could replicate some parts to fix the replicators,” O’Brien said, gulping water. “And I wish this moon weren’t so bloody hot!”
“The temperature really isn’t that high,” Bashir said. “But I know what you mean. I’m always thirsty, too.”
Bashir looked at Nog guzzling water. He started to get the feeling that something was wrong.
“Nog, do you feel less thirsty than you did an hour ago?” Bashir asked.
“No!” Nog said. “I feel thirstier all the time. This water doesn’t seem to help at all!”
“Are the field rations salty or something?” Dax said.
Bashir fiddled with the bio-filter. “No, they’re the same as they’ve ever been. Something is wrong with the water.”
Nog abruptly stopped drinking. “How can something be wrong with the water? I thought you ran it through a bio-filter!”
“It should have worked,” Bashir said. “But there could be some unknown germ in the water the bio-filter wasn’t designed to catch.”
“Oh great,” Dax said. “On top of everything else, we’re all going to get sick!”
“Or die!” added Nog.
“Don’t panic, everyone!” Bashir said. “We don’t know that anything’s wrong yet. I’ll do an analysis on the water and tell you what I find.”
Bashir stood before the anxious group and made his report. A biological scan had turned up nothing unusual, so he had run a molecular scan.
“That’s where the trouble is,” Bashir said.
He punched some buttons on his padd. The screen displayed a molecular diagram made up of three-dimensional hexagons. Bashir handed the padd to Dax.
“What is this?” Dax said. “It looks like the normal structure of water, but…”
Bashir pointed to something on the padd. “See that? There’s a new element attached to the molecule that doesn’t belong there. It doesn’t exist in nature, or at least not anywhere in the galaxy we’ve explored so far. It’s an entirely new element!”
“How exciting!” Dax said, handing the padd back to Bashir. “What are you going to name it?”
“‘Bashirium,’ probably,” O’Brien said dryly.
Bashir smiled. “The thought did cross my mind. But ‘Tantalus’ would be more appropriate.”
“Wasn’t Dr. Tantalus the villain in one of your secret spy holo-programs?” Nog asked.
“No, that was Dr. Tarantula, Nog,” Bashir said. “‘Tantalus’ is a mythical figure from ancient Earth. He was condemned by the gods to stand for all eternity in a pool of water. But whenever he tried to drink, the water would rush away from him, and he was wracked with thirst.”
“I get it!” Dax said, excited that she could ‘read’ the diagram. “This element prevents the hydrogen and oxygen from latching onto the cells of humanoids. It means that the water can’t be used by the body.”
“I hate to interrupt this lovely scientific symposium,” O’Brien said, agitatedly. “But are you telling us we can’t drink any of this water?”
“Well, you can drink it,” Bashir replied. “But it won’t do you any good, because your cells can’t absorb it.”
“Oh, thank you Doctor Hairsplitter Bashir,” O’Brien said, sarcastically. “The point is, we’re all going to die of thirst!”
“But the plants on this moon look like they can absorb the water just fine,” Sisko said.
“This new element is specific to humanoid cells,” Bashir said. “It wouldn’t affect the plants.”
“Specific to humanoid cells?” Sisko said. “You make it sound like the element was artificially created!”
Bashir frowned at the padd. “It’s hard to tell. Water doesn’t usually change its molecular structure from planet to planet. I’ve never seen a substance like this. But we’ve seen a lot of strange things, and it could just be natural.”
Sisko glanced skyward. “And it could have something to do with those Dominion ships out there.”
“So they brought us here to watch us die of thirst, surrounded by water?” Nog said, disgusted. “That’s typical of the Dominion.”
“For them to do something so pointless is hardly typical,” Worf said. “There is more to this. Much more.”
“Maybe they’re testing our ability to think our way out of this,” Sisko said. “Well, let’s not disappoint them.”
Sisko ordered everyone to gather in the clearing. He stood on one of the boulders and spoke.
“All right, people. We have a problem. We have no drinkable water. There’s something about the molecular composition of this moon’s water that keeps it from being used by our cells. We won’t be rescued for at least nine days, and with the exception of Worf, none of us can survive without water that long.”
Sisko paused to give everyone time to absorb the information. Then he continued. “Dr. Bashir, this is a medical emergency. What’s your recommendation?”
“Ordinarily, in a situation like this, I’d put everyone into stasis until help arrives,” Bashir said. “But with the Dominion still in the neighborhood, it would be dangerous for us all to be out of commission. Besides, there aren’t enough stasis units for everyone. I propose that all crew members except a core team should go into stasis.”
Bashir continued. “I’ll keep working on altering the water so it’s drinkable. I’ll need Dax to help me. O’Brien and Nog should keep working on the replicators. Captain Sisko needs to stay, of course. And, as you said, because of his Klingon physiology, Worf doesn’t need to go into stasis.”
“Good,” Worf said. “I would not have agreed in any case.”
Bashir smiled. “I didn’t think so.”
Sisko nodded. “Doctor, you set up the stasis units. And don’t worry, people! We’ve been in worse jams than this. We’ll get out of this one, too.”
“Let’s send Nog out to collect some water samples. Oh, brilliant idea!”
Nog was one unhappy Ferengi. Unfortunately for him, it had occurred to Dr. Bashir to check other sources of H2O -- such as water vapor in the atmosphere -- to see if it also had the Tantalus element attached.
And even worse, the doctor wanted a sample of fresh, running water. Which meant Nog had to leave the Defiant’s 100-meter protected area.
Nog grumbled to himself, as he slogged through the swamp. “Dr. Bashir and Lt. Dax want to test fresh water. Fine. Why don’t they come out here themselves and wade waist-deep in muck, where they could be ambushed by a patrol of bloodthirsty Jem’Hadar at any moment…”
Then, Nog saw his deliverance. A small spring bubbled from a nearby cliff. Stumbling through the mud as quickly as possible, he put a handheld device under the spring and filled one of the sample tubes with the water.
He waded out of the swamp and onto dry ground. But to his disappointment, the device’s readout said that the spring’s runoff and the swamp water were identical.
“Darn,” he said. “All this trouble for nothing.”
Even though his assignment had been a failure, Nog looked forward to returning to the basecamp. The fact that he came out here at all proved he had as much courage as any of them. He realized that Ferengi were commonly assumed to be cowards. But he also knew that, for a Ferengi, he was unusually brave.
There were only a few times in Nog’s life that he had really been terrified. Once, when DS9 had still been under Cardassian occupation, he had been accused of stealing a jevonite ring from a visiting legate. Only his uncle’s negotiating skills had saved little Nog’s life – after Nog had given back the ring, of course.
And Empok Nor still gave him nightmares.
It was only the first visit to Empok Nor – when Garak had tried to kill him – that still haunted Nog. The second trip there was scary, but kind of funny in retrospect. He chuckled to himself as he walked through the swamp, keeping to the dry ground. He was proud that a pack of disorganized Ferengi could so completely fool the Dominion.
Nog saw the Defiant through a screen of moss-choked trees. Almost there. His way was blocked by thick trunks, so he made a detour around a large boulder.
Then Nog felt true terror for the third time in his life.
At first, he thought he was hallucinating. “You’re…you’re supposed to be dead!”
The “hallucination” walked towards him. “It’s difficult to completely kill a Vorta. What’s that you’re holding?”
Nog threw the device, water sample and all, at Keevan and ran for his life.
At the edge of the clearing, Nog’s headlong rush was abruptly halted by the shield. He saw O’Brien a few meters away.
“Chief! Lower the shield! Lower the shield!” Nog yelled.
O’Brien slapped his combadge. “O’Brien to bridge. Lower the shield long enough for Nog to get in.”
“They’re here, take cover!” Nog yelled, as he headed for the nearest
O’Brien and the others ducked behind the boulders faster than a pack of Cardassian voles dodging a cleaning crew. Keevan wandered out of the woods and stopped at the edge of the clearing, just outside the shield. His face was expressionless; he seemed to be waiting. The whole tableau was surreal: half a dozen armed Starfleet officers versus one small and seemingly harmless Vorta.
Dax looked at her tricorder. “I’m only reading life signs for one Vorta.”
O’Brien raised his phaser rifle. “I can think of a solution to that.”
“Chief, stay down!” Sisko barked “Everyone stay down. The Jem’Hadar are probably cloaked, back there in the trees.”
Worf stood up.
“Worf, I said stay down!” Sisko hissed.
Worf calmly turned towards Sisko. “I do not think there is any danger here, Sir. In all our encounters with the Vorta, I have yet to see one of them go into battle alongside the Jem’Hadar.”
Worf turned back towards the clearing and sneered at Keevan. “They always stay far behind the lines, where it is safe. It is reasonable to conclude that there are no Jem’Hadar here, and that this Vorta does not intend to fight.”
With his Vorta ears, Keevan had not trouble overhearing Worf. “An accurate assessment. The Klingon reputation for tactical brilliance is not too overrated, I suppose. Although recent events would suggest otherwise…”
Worf stalked threateningly toward Keevan. “General Martok’s forces were ambushed by treacherous Romulans!”
Sisko jumped out from behind the rocks and stopped Worf. “Get back to the boulders and cover me. Just in case.”
Sisko walked up to the limit of the shield. “No Jem’Hadar?” he asked Keevan.
“Of course not,” Keevan said, with a carefully modulated trace of disappointment in his voice. “I am on a humanitarian mission.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you were a humanitarian,” Sisko said sardonically. “You didn’t seem to be one, last time we met. But if you’re here to talk rather than fight, I have a few questions. Would you mind explaining what the Defiant is doing here?”
Keevan looked across the clearing at the crippled ship and tilted his head as though its presence were a genuine mystery. “It appears that you crashed.”
Sisko knew better than to let a Vorta get the better of him. “I know that! Why did you bring us here?”
Keevan shifted his gaze to some unknown point in the sky. “I have to complement your tactics, Captain. The neutrino signatures did fool us momentarily. Of course, the Romulans saw right through it. They knew that you’d veer off from the main Klingon force, to avoid giving them all away. Still, it was clever thinking on your part.”
Sisko sighed. This was going to be another one of those maddeningly circular discussions he always seemed to have with the Vorta. “Thank you. Now why are we here?”
Keevan continued his original train of thought as though Sisko hadn’t said a word. “Starfleet tactics are very different from what I’m used to. It does pose a problem. The Jem’Hadar aren’t much good at coming up with innovative strategies. And though it pains me to admit it, neither are we Vorta. I’ve seen many times when Starfleet vessels have defeated a superior Dominion force by changing tactics on us more quickly than we can respond. I suppose that’s what you’d call creative thinking.”
Sisko was confused. “Is that why we’re here? Do you expect us to teach you ‘creative thinking?’”
Keevan seemed honestly taken aback by this idea. “Of course not. I doubt it’s something we could learn. The Founders engineered us for obedience and diplomacy. And, of course, strategic skills. But we could never hope to match the ingenuity we’ve observed in humans or Klingons.”
Keevan noticed Nog cowering nearby. “Or Ferengi. Now there are some truly creative thinkers! For instance, Nog – is that your name? Your idea to use those neural stimulators was very clever.”
Nog ducked further behind the boulder. “It really wasn’t my idea!” he yelled.
“Well, whoever’s idea it was, it kept the memory synapses of my predecessor from decaying,” Keevan said. “That was fortunate for me. Usually it’s impossible to transfer memories into a new clone from a corpse.”
Sisko looked over his shoulder at Nog with a fearsome frown. “Neural stimulators? Corpse? Ensign, did you leave a few things out of your report? You said the prisoner exchange went ‘as planned.’”
Nog realized that Keevan was the least of his problems. “There were a few…hitches…I didn’t mention. I’ll revise the report right away, Sir.”
Sisko rolled his eyes. “Wait until we’re out of this mess.”
“I hope he isn’t in trouble now,” Keevan said, equitably. “He wasn’t the one who shot my predecessor. One of the other Ferengi did that, although I’m not sure which one. I’m afraid they all look the same to me.”
Sisko was very annoyed. “I certainly hope you don’t think that it’s Federation policy to shoot prisoners!”
“Don’t worry,” Keevan said. “It appeared to be an accident. The Ferengi were arguing over money.”
“Oh, yes. They tend to be dangerous when they do that,” Sisko said. “Still, it shouldn’t have happened.”
Keevan shrugged and returned his gaze to the sky. “It was for the best. Each clone gains experience that is passed on to subsequent clones, and any defects are corrected. My predecessor was…far from an ideal Vorta. Too concerned for his own continued existence, and not nearly concerned enough with serving the Founders.”
“I see,” Sisko said. “So the Founders make mistakes?”
Keevan abruptly shifted his eyes back to Sisko, who was gratified to see he had hit a nerve. Knocking a Vorta off-balance was an accomplishment.
“No,” Keevan said patiently. “The specifics of the cloning process are controlled by Vorta scientists, and sometimes the scientists make mistakes. Which they solve. It’s a learning process. We’ve learned quite a bit in our short time in the Alpha Quadrant. The Jem’Hadar might think obedience leads to victory, but we Vorta think that observation and knowledge are much more useful. Don’t you agree?”
“Knowledge is fine, depending on how it’s put to use,” Sisko said. “You obviously haven’t learned that aggression isn’t the best way to resolve differences!”
“On the contrary. I’m here to call a truce.”
Sisko was suspicious. “Why?”
“So you won’t die, of course! We know there is something wrong with the water on this moon. I’ll let you have some of our stores.”
Keevan used a communicator to call one of the ships in orbit. Beside him, a few large barrels materialized.
“There,” Keevan said. “Now doesn’t that prove our good intentions?”
“You could prove it better by leaving orbit,” Sisko replied.
“Of course, we intend to. We have no intention of attacking you.”
“That’s funny. I seem to recall that you did attack!”
“We didn’t expect to see any Federation ships in the Duralis system,” Keevan said.
“Why not? It’s Federation space!”
“Well, that’s debatable. But the point is this. We have eleven ships, and you have one. And it doesn’t seem to be in working order right now. If we wanted you dead, you would be dead, correct?”
Sisko shrugged, but he had to admit to himself that Keevan was right.
“So you’re probably wondering why you’re not dead,” Keevan continued. “It’s simple. The Dominion is tired of fighting. We need to think of other solutions to this conflict.”
“And I’m tired of this pointless conversation,” Sisko said. “Do you actually expect me to believe that the Dominion is interested in talking? With the Romulans, you stand a good chance of winning this war, and I’m sure you know it. Diplomatic overtures are always welcome, but why now?”
“The Dominion believes that it’s better to negotiate from a position of strength. And now that the Romulans have joined us, we don’t need to pay quite as much attention to our Cardassian allies.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Sisko said, sarcastically. “The Cardassians are the ones who want to fight. Not the Dominion!”
“We don’t like this war any more than you do,” Keevan said, sadly. “You may find this hard to believe, but it honestly pains me every time I lose one of my Jem’Hadar. And personally, I’ve lost so many…”
Sisko was reaching the limits of his patience. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you have. But are you sincere about wanting to prevent more needless deaths?”
“Yes, I am,” Keevan said. “I believe I can solve our mutual…problem. Though I suspect you’ll want proof, not words. I’ll be able to demonstrate my solution in a few days.”
And with that enigmatic comment, Keevan called for transport back to his vessel. As soon as the Vorta was gone, everyone breathed easier.
“All right, Nog,” Sisko said. “I have to know about these ‘neural stimulators.’”
Nog waved his hands excitedly as he concluded his story. “And then the control device broke down, and he kept bumping into the wall!”
“Oh no!” Dax said. “What did you do then?”
“We grabbed grand-moogie and got out of there fast!”
“That really was clever, Nog,” Bashir said. “Why didn’t you put it in your report?”
Nog stopped smiling and squirmed. “Err, I didn’t mean to falsify the report. Really! But when I got back to DS9, it occurred to me to look up the Starfleet regulations regarding treatment of prisoners of war…”
“Heh, that was smart of you,” O’Brien said. “I think you did break a few regulations with those neural stimulators.”
“It’s not fair!” Nog said, angrily. “How was I to know the Federation is so particular? I mean, Keevan was dead, right? It didn’t occur to me that there would be regulations regarding dead prisoners! ‘Proper respect to the deceased…’ On Ferenginar, a corpse is just a corpse…or a potential source of profit!”
“Nog…” Sisko began.
“Besides, I haven’t finished my studies at the Academy!” Nog said. “Federation ethics are so confusing, and we don’t even study ethics until the second year!”
“All right, Nog,” Sisko said, more loudly. “Just make sure that when you get back to the Academy, you pay attention to the ethics courses.”
Night had again fallen on the moon. On Dax’ suggestion, they had used a phaser to make a small campfire – not large enough to contribute to their dehydration, but still a cheerful presence that was good for everyone’s morale.
Nog couldn’t resist making one more point. “Besides, Keevan wasn’t even mad at me! You heard him, Sir.”
“Nog, it’s all right,” Sisko said. “We don’t need to discuss this any more.”
O’Brien sighed. “What I wouldn’t give for a glass of cool, clear water right now.” He looked longingly at the barrels, still sitting at the edge of the clearing.
“Forget about it,” Sisko said. “No one is touching that water.”
“What if the Dominion really does want to negotiate?” Bashir said.
Worf, as ever, was skeptical. “Doubtful. Keep in mind that we have been brought here for some purpose. Until we understand what that purpose is, we should not let down our guard.”
“Maybe that’s the purpose,” Dax said. “The Dominion is sending out peace feelers!”
Sisko tossed some pebbles from hand to hand. He had been mulling over that very idea all evening. “This seems like a pretty strange place for a peace conference.”
“It might not be, from their perspective,” Dax said. “If they like to ‘negotiate from a position of strength.’”
Bashir nodded. “That makes sense. They deliberately maneuver us into an environment where we can’t survive, and then ‘rescue’ us by providing water. That’s one way to keep your opponent off guard. It’s possible that Keevan is at least partially telling the truth.”
“He does seem different,” O’Brien said. “Not as untrustworthy as the previous clone. That’s an improvement, anyway.”
“Is it?” Sisko said “Or has he been ‘improved’ not to show how untrustworthy he is? To lull us into a false sense of security? I have a feeling that integrity is not the Dominion’s idea of ‘improvement.’”
“But, Sir!” Nog said, unable to control his impatience. “If that’s not water in those barrels, then what is it? Is it poisoned? Drugged? What would be the point? We’re helpless anyway!”
“Well, we can’t go much longer without water,” Bashir said. “At the rate Dax and I are progressing, we’ll die of thirst before we can make this moon’s water drinkable. I’ll analyze the barrels’ contents tomorrow morning. Assuming it’s not poisoned, drinking it would be preferable to dying.”
Sisko tossed the pebbles back on the ground. “Let’s see what you find first, before making that decision.”
“It’s some kind of substance I’ve never seen before,” Bashir said.
It hadn’t taken Bashir long to uncover the bad news. The barrels did, indeed, contain water. And the water contained something that shouldn’t have been there.
“What do you think it would do to us if we consumed it?” Sisko asked.
“No idea,” Bashir replied. “It’s definitely not a poison. But other than that it’s difficult to tell what its effects would be, after it was metabolized.”
“Beware of Vortas bearing gifts,” O’Brien said.
Bashir sighed. “Someone has to try drinking it. It’s the only way to find out what it does. If it does anything.”
“That would be unwise, doctor,” Worf said. “We would be playing right into their hands.”
“And exactly what choice do we have?” Bashir said. “We’ll all die, anyway! Maybe this substance is dangerous in some way. But I say it’s worth taking the risk. And I’m the logical person to try it. O’Brien and Nog have to keep working on the replicators. Captain Sisko and Worf will be needed if the Dominion decides to attack. I’m the most expendable.”
“You forgot me,” Dax said. “I’m not much help here, either. And we can’t let Julian do this by himself!”
Bashir dipped into the barrel, and handed a cup to Dax. He kept the second one for himself.
“Captain Sisko,” Bashir said. “We don’t know what the…reaction will be. You should put your phaser on ‘heavy stun.’ You too, Worf.”
Sisko nodded grimly.
“Well,” Dax said, smiling nervously. “Bottoms up!”
No one spoke for a few moments.
“Well, Julian?” Dax said. “Do you feel any different?”
“No. How about you?”
Dax shrugged and smiled broadly. “I feel just the same as before. A little less thirsty, though.”
Bashir examined the empty cup in his hands. “Maybe it’s all right, after all. Just to be on the safe side, let’s wait a few hours before anyone else drinks.”
“Now what?” Dax said, brightly.
“Back to work, everyone,” Sisko replied. “Doctor, since you and Dax appear to be fine, you should keep trying to identify the substance in the water.”
In sickbay, Bashir and Dax had run every scan in the computer database on the water. They had also tried a variety of tricorders, even the ones meant for botanical surveys. After two hours, they had made no progress, and their tempers were starting to fray.
“This is absurd,” Bashir said. “I don’t have the proper equipment. This is a sickbay, not a science lab!”
Dax tossed her tricorder on the table in disgust. “I’m not being much help, I know…what’s wrong with me, anyway? I can’t focus my thoughts. I’m getting too many conflicting memories and feelings from the symbiont. It’s making me confused.”
“I thought Trills consider it an honor to be joined,” Bashir said, with an angrier tone than he intended. “Jadzia died to saved that damned symbiont, you know.”
Dax stared at Bashir. “What are you talking about?”
“You know what I mean!” Bashir yelled. “You should remember. Dax demanded to be removed from Jadzia before she was dead. That symbiont couldn’t wait to get out of its dying host, as soon as she was no longer useful!”
“That was Jadzia’s decision!” Dax yelled back.
“How can I know that for sure? Jadzia is dead!”
“Wrong! Jadzia is alive!” Dax paced around sickbay, getting more agitated by the second. “She’s part of me now, just as much as Dax is. And do you think I like having my life taken over by Jadzia, Curzon, everyone… And not only that, but none of you have shown the slightest bit of gratitude for what I did for Dax! Instead, all everyone does is compare me with Jadzia and tell me how deficient I am! I’m sick of it!”
Stunned by Dax’s tirade, Bashir leaned against a biobed. “Why am I getting upset about this? It’s a patient’s right to refuse treatment. That’s what Jadzia did. She wanted me to stop trying to save her and remove the symbiont to save its life. All Trill hosts are required to do that if they are terminally ill or injured, aren’t they? Even though removing the symbiont guarantees that the host will die.”
Dax took several deep breaths, trying to calm down. “Yes. That’s right. I’ll have to do that someday, too.”
“I should have known that,” Bashir said. “I did know that. I guess I’m just not thinking clearly.”
“Neither am I,” Dax said. “We’ve been working too hard. We need some rest.”
Back in her quarters, Dax tried to sleep, but she was too restless. Leaving her quarters, she literally ran into Worf in the corridor.
“Excuse me,” Worf said.
Dax watched the Klingon walk down the corridor. She had had enough.
“Oh right, just run away!” she yelled. “You’ve done nothing but try to avoid me since I returned. How do you think that makes me feel?”
Worf turned around and stared at Dax as though she were insane. “We agreed not to discuss this.”
Dax put her hand on her forehead. “What am I doing? I’m trying to pick a fight with a Klingon!” A frightening thought occurred to her. “Worf, where’s Julian?”
“I saw him going outside.”
Dax ran into the clearing and saw Bashir drinking more water. She raced up to him and grabbed the cup.
“Julian! Don’t do that. There’s something terribly wrong with this water!”
“Leave me alone!” Bashir snarled. “I’m thirsty. I need more water.”
“Think, Julian!” Dax said. “It’s the water that’s making us act strangely,”
Bashir gazed at Dax, glassy-eyed. Then his mind seemed to start working again. “You’re right. We’re acting hostile. Our thinking is fuzzy. This is exactly like…”
“I read your research on ketracel-white addiction, Julian,” Dax said gravely. “These are the symptoms, aren’t they?”
Sisko overheard the conversation, and walked to where Bashir and Dax were standing.
“Dr. Bashir,” Sisko said. “Bring the other crew members out of stasis. I want them to try drinking this water.”
Bashir walked in a daze towards the Defiant.
“Doctor!” Sisko said, alarmed. “You’re not actually going to obey that order, are you?”
Bashir stopped in his tracks. “Oh no,” he said. “I don’t believe this!”
“Blind obedience,” Dax said. “It is ketracel-white.”
“It…it can’t be,” Bashir said, shaking his head. “I would have recognized it when we did the analysis. Besides, the isogenic enzyme in ketracel-white is specifically designed for the Jem’Hadar. It wouldn’t work on other species.”
“Then the Dominion designed something similar that works on Alpha Quadrant species,” Sisko said. “It amounts to the same thing.”
Soon the whole crew was in the clearing, discussing the ominous news about the water.
“Well, at least we know why the Dominion forced us to crash here,” Nog said. “They’re using us for an experiment!”
“It looks that way,” Sisko said, gravely. “These are just the ‘field trials’ to see how the drug works on us. It’s the first step in using the drug to control the Alpha Quadrant.”
“This drug would be effective at behavioral control,” Bashir said. “I had to concentrate very hard to fight its effects. But one of its effects is to interfere with your ability to concentrate! If it works on two species so dissimilar as humans and Trills, it will probably work on most of the quadrant’s population.”
“It may be powerful, but it wears off quickly,” Dax added. “The Dominion would have to make sure people consume the drug constantly. So these ‘field trials’ don’t make a lot of sense.”
“That’s right,” O’Brien said. “The white works on the Jem’Hadar because they are addicted to it. We aren’t addicted to this water.”
Bashir gazed at the swamp surrounding them. He suddenly understood the Dominion’s plan.
“You’re wrong, Miles,” Bashir said. “We are addicted to this water.”
“What I meant is, we wouldn’t need the water if we weren’t stuck here,” O’Brien said, impatiently. “This scheme wouldn’t work anywhere else, besides on this moon.”
“Don’t you see?” Bashir said. “What if there were no drinkable water? What if the whole quadrant were like this moon? The tainted water is just half the plan. The other half is to poison the natural supplies of water with the Tantalus element. So that there is only one source of drinkable water.”
“Controlled by the Dominion,” Dax said.
“That’s right,” Bashir said. “They could do that in territories they now control. Each new system conquered would be enslaved as effectively as the Jem’Hadar.”
“Then the Dominion is testing us see if their plan will work,” Sisko said. “We have to show them that it won’t. Even if that means we all die of thirst.”
Several days passed. The Defiant crew suffered the effects of extreme dehydration. Even Worf began to be affected. They were tired, feverish and plagued by severe headaches. Soon their kidneys would fail, and that would be the end.
They had abandoned the clearing for the relative protection of the Defiant’s controlled atmosphere. But that merely delayed the inevitable.
A message came in to the Defiant. Sisko picked it up in his quarters, where he lay exhausted. It wasn’t the hoped-for rescue, but he didn’t expect it to be.
He pulled himself up agonizingly and walked back into the clearing. Keevan was once again standing just outside the shield. Sisko smiled; at least he would have the satisfaction of telling the Vorta his experiment was a failure, before he died.
“It won’t work, Keevan,” Sisko said in a raspy voice. “We know what you’re doing. It should be obvious to you that the Dominion cannot enslave the Alpha Quadrant the way they enslaved the Jem’Hadar.”
Keevan looked sad. “I was wondering why your life signs were faltering. I am here because I’m concerned about your welfare. But if you refuse our gift, well, there isn’t really anything I can do about it. You will die, and your deaths will be just one more terrible, needless waste in a senseless and unnecessary war.”
Sisko said nothing.
“I really fail to understand your attitude,” Keevan said, a little annoyed. “A few days ago, you asked me whether I had a way to stop this war. It’s a difficult problem. As I’ve pointed out, we have superior firepower, but you can out-think us. The result: stalemate, and continuing slaughter. There’s really only one solution. You have to stop fighting us.”
“This is how you intend to stop the war?” Sisko said. “I thought you were talking about a diplomatic solution. Not a bio-chemical one!”
“It’s obvious that a military solution will not work,” Keevan said. “The Federation will fight to the last. We don’t want to be the inheritors of a devastated quadrant. There has to be a fundamental change in your people’s attitude.”
“That will never happen,” Sisko croaked. “We won’t drink that water, even if it means our deaths. And you’ll find the same will be true everywhere else!”
“Hmmm,” Keevan said, thinking. “You may be right, but I still think it’s worth trying. If more Alpha Quadrant worlds joined the Dominion, perhaps we would no longer need the Jem’Hadar. I, for one, would not miss them. Too rigid and inflexible. And boring! You have no idea how boring it is to be trapped on a ship with nothing but Jem’Hadar for months at a time. Talking with you is probably the most interesting thing I’ve done so far in my admittedly short life.”
“You have my sympathies,” Sisko said dryly. “I’ll try to be as entertaining as possible, while I’m still alive.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Keevan said. “This experiment is not being conducted for frivolous reasons. We see enormous potential in several Alpha Quadrant species. You, for instance, would make an exceptional First.”
“I disagree. I’m afraid I’m not very obedient,” Sisko said, spitting out the words.
Keevan looked around the clearing abstractedly. “All defects can be corrected. But I suppose I’ll have to admit defeat. It’s probably unrealistic to expect the first test of a new drug to be a success.”
The Vorta beamed back up to his ship. Sisko allowed himself a few moments to exult in his victory. Then, lacking even the strength to return to the Defiant, he dragged himself to the shade of the rocks and waited to die.
The lights hurt Sisko’s eyes. He turned his head and saw a door, leading to a corridor. Sisko recognized the profile of a familiar Klingon, standing outside the door as though on guard.
Sisko tried to speak, but couldn’t. He finally managed a raspy voice. “Worf…is everyone…?”
Worf turned from his post and walked to the bio-bed.
“It is good to see that you are awake, Captain,” Worf said. “Everyone has survived. We are at starbase 431, in the infirmary.”
“What…?” Sisko began.
“I should call for the doctor on duty, now,” Worf said. “When you are well, I will explain everything.”
Like all good Klingons, Worf was adept at telling a tale. And he was telling every Klingon’s favorite type of story, filled with courage in the face of a stronger enemy and the likelihood of violent death.
“I found the Captain unconscious in the clearing, and brought him back into the ship. By that time, the crew was near death. In the evening, I lowered the shield. I stood in the clearing, singing the K’lah’han -- the prayer of death. My hope was that the Jem’Hadar would give me a warrior’s end. Kahless granted my prayer, but only to a point. The Jem’Hadar did arrive. They caught me off-guard and stunned me unconscious.”
“When I awoke, the Defiant was drifting in space. They must have tractored us to the border of the Altair system. Our replicators had been repaired. I used the sickbay’s hyposprays to re-hydrate the crew and stabilize their vital signs. After we were rescued, you were all put into intensive care. It was very close.”
The room was hushed. Along with Worf and Admiral Ross, Sisko and his senior officers were sitting around a conference table. With a few days of care, they had rebounded quickly from their brush with death.
Ross turned to Sisko. “Do you think the Dominion could accomplish such an audacious scheme? Make the water supply of whole planets undrinkable and force the populations to become dependent on a drug that controls their behavior?”
“They’ll try,” Sisko said, tersely.
“Not everyone would be willing to die rather than live under the Dominion,” Bashir said.
“What I don’t understand is why they let you go,” Ross said. “I would have thought they’d at least want to take the Defiant apart and study it.”
Sisko closed his eyes. He could still see the Vorta, unperturbed at the temporary setback in his plans, supremely confident that eventually, the will of the Founders would prevail.
“This is their way of telling us, whether we live or die is not important,” Sisko said. “That understanding our technology is not important. They’re telling us that they’ve found a way to enslave the Alpha Quadrant. And there’s nothing we can do to stop them.”