THE ONE WHO GOT AWAY
If it hadn't been so cold on that planet, Quark wouldn't have brought her up to begin with. As it was, he thought he needed something to keep his blood from freezing into nasty little drops of unprofitable ice, and Odo's as well, considering that Odo with his usual flair for bad timing was stuck in a solid frame now. And this girl was still the best way to get the heat back he had ever come across.
"Did I ever tell you about the grey girl?" he asked as they stumbled through the wilderness, with him wearing the jacket of the survival suit and Odo wearing the trousers. It was so unfair. If Odo was really the epitome of nobility he pretended to be, he'd have given Quark the entire suit.
"I'm not interested in hearing about your sordid affairs," Odo grumbled, voice even more scratchy than usual from all the exhaustion and the effort of screaming when a sudden wind had come up a few hours ago and had slapped them around like certain impatient officers of the Bajoran militia did with helpless Ferengi entrepreneurs.
"You should be," Quark shot back. "It's not like you're going to get some any time soon if you don't take a few hints from a master of the art. And don't give me any of that being above sex stuff. That wasn't even true before your Changeling pals decided it was time you got solid for a while."
Odo said nothing, but went a bit faster, which was typical. The humans on the station, with their misplaced ideas about tact, would probably think this meant he didn't want to talk, and would have shut up. But Quark knew better. Besides, he really needed the distraction. He hadn't had anything to eat for nearly a day, and they were still so far from the top of the mountain that it seemed they might as well try to turn into birds for all the good it would do. Of course, if Sisko hadn't insisted on playing it tough with the Dominion, if Odo had had less pride and simply asked the other Changelings to change him back, then Odo at least could have actually turned into a bird. Or some other useful animal, and they would have been rescued eons ago.
"So there was this grey girl. They first thought she was a kind of Vorta when she showed up. Talk about bad timing. With Sisko and you and the others doing your heroic thing on Kronos, Kira was on edge anyway. Hey, do you think this is going to get better when she finally has the baby?"
"I do not want to talk about Kira with you, either," Odo hissed, throwing each syllable out as if biting pieces of an unappetizing meal. Quark waved his hands dismissively.
"Rubbish. Let's face it, Odo, I'm the only guy on the station you do talk with about her, because the others are all too dumb to notice. If it weren't for me..."
Odo stopped walking and turned around, eyes blazing.
"If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be on this planet, and if I am to die because I had to deliver your miserable criminal carcass to your well-earned punishment, I am not going to do so listening to your prattle about the woman I...
Abruptly, he stopped. Quark could have pointed out that they would never have crashlanded here, if Odo had just listened to him earlier, which would have let them discover the bomb on the shuttle much sooner, but there was something in Odo's face, so bizarrely flushed now that it actually consisted of skin and blood vessels and pores, that made him decide otherwise.
"Anyway," he said into the awkward silence. "As I was saying, there was this girl. And her name was Chiana."
"Chiana," said the girl, and Quark decided this was his lucky day. He had heard about her before, of course; her arrival through the wormhole in what appeared to be an antiquated human vessel had caused something of a stir. But it wasn't until Bashir had cleared her of any suspicion of being a Vorta that Kira had permitted her to walk freely on the station, and this was the first time she had visited Quark's Bar.
Watching her move in that fluid, dancing way, seeing her up close, Quark couldn't understand how anyone, no matter how paranoid, could have ever mistaken her for a Vorta. From what he had seen, the Vorta, no matter whether male or female, were dull creatures who exuded as much sex appeal as a Cardassian data rod. This creature here, on the other hand, put every single one of his Dabo girls to shame.
"So," he said, "are you looking for a job, Chiana?"
She leaned closer. Her hair smelled a bit like smoke and a bit like sweat. He found himself wondering how this was possible after spending days in Bashir's sterile infirmary.
"I'm looking for a way off this station," she declared in that breathless, enticing voice of hers. "And I want Crichton's ship back. These Sebacean frellniks won't give it me, but I'm told you're the man to talk to."
"This is getting ridiculous already," Odo interrupted. "Sebaceans? Crichton? What ship? None of my deputies mentioned anything like this in their reports when we returned from Kronos, and neither did Kira. Obviously, you've watched those degrading holosuite programs of yours one time too often."
"There is a reason they didn't mention it," Quark replied chidingly. "I'm getting to that. And you know, someone who reads human nonsense like Mickey Spillane really hasn't got a leg to stand on. At least Vulcan Love Slave is acknowledged as a classic everywhere in the galaxy. And it's immensely profitable. You're still sure you don't want to see the sequel?"
"I'd rather die," Odo declared firmly. Quark threw up his hands.
"Suit yourself. Anyway, Chiana had this thing about humans. For starters, she didn't believe they were humans. She thought they were a species called Sebaceans in disguise, because the only human capable of space travel she ever met was this Crichton fellow. The ship she had come through the wormhole in was his, and O'Brien's team recognised it as some type of ancient Earth design, so they wanted to keep it till the Chief returned, and besides, Kira still didn't trust Chiana and wanted to wait for Captain Sisko before letting her go."
"That woman needs to relax," Chiana said after Quark had poured her a glass of Sumerian sun spot during her explanations. "Looks like she hasn't had any sex in eons. Whoever knocked her up can't be very good at it."
Quark wondered whether he should explain about the emergency operation that had transferred Keiko O'Brien's baby to Kira, but decided to skip it and shrugged. Besides, he suspected Chiana was right anyway.
"Her boyfriend is the Prime Minister of Bajor," he said. "Busy man. Very much into speeches."
Chiana nodded. "That explains it." Her grey lips were glistening with the alcohol she had just drunk, and she leaned just a bit further in his direction.
Quark grinned. "I'm not into speeches," he said. "At all."
"Bet you aren't," she returned. "So, about getting away from this station...?"
"Have you ever heard of the Rules of Acquisition?" he asked back.
"Quark," Odo said firmly, "maybe I am unable to stop you from spinning your bizarre fantasies, but if these are to be our final days, I will spend them without hearing any more Rules of Acquisition! I am truly and entirely sick of them. So sick that I will undoubtedly throw up whatever little is left in my stomach if you quote one more. Besides, I can see where this is going. You blackmailed that woman into having sex with you. Congratulations. Each time I assume you cannot sink any lower..."
This time, it was Quark's turn to stop.
"I did not," he said indignantly, and felt his teeth chattering while he did. Why they couldn't have crash-landed on a nice warm swamp world was beyond him. Or even better, Risa. He'd give anything to be stuck on Risa right now. "I am a businessman, Odo. This was a negotiation. It would have been a waste of an opportunity to demand just sex in return for my services."
"I can't wait till they lock you up for the rest of your life," Odo said disgustedly. Quark rolled his eyes.
"Which they won't. I told you. Anyway, you don't have to look so disappointed. Sex is in the story as well."
"I am not..." Exasperated, Odo turned his back on Quark and stomped away. It didn't take Quark long to catch up with him.
"As I was saying," he continued blithely, "I recognise an opportunity when I see one...
"...So you see," Quark finished, "you'd be ideal. He doesn't know you. You're not an employee of mine, so he can't hold me responsible, either. And once you're gone from the station and back in your universe, he can't even send death squads after you."
Chiana looked thoughtful, a mood which translated into some movement with her head which showed Quark something more of her cleavage. He decided it suited her.
"Hm," she said. "But what's in it for me?"
"The cloaking device which will get you off this station," Quark replied, surprised that she missed this crucial part. Maybe she wasn't so suitable after all.
"Yeah, I got that," Chiana said. "But I don't need any new enemies. I have enough already. So if you want me to make some new ones, you'd better not sell me any dren about doing it for free. I can find other ways to get off this station."
His appreciation went up a few notches again.
"Maybe you can and maybe you can't," he replied, "but in a few days, our chief of security is back. And he's in an awful mood ever since he got solidified. No sense of humour, either. As soon as he hears about you, he's probably going to lock you up again just so one more person feels miserable as well. Ask around."
"No deal," Chiana said, unimpressed.
"I could throw in some really great holosuite programs," Quark said, then got serious. "Listen, guys like that usually carry a lot of valuables around. Take whatever you want, just make sure you get me the data rod. And there is one more reason why you should do it."
"Which is?" she asked.
"Have you ever heard of oomox?" he asked back.
"This is getting more idiotic by the minute," Odo said as they both sat down, too exhausted to continue without a break. Quark looked out for beetles or other insects on the ground, but as before, no little meals crawled around.
"I thought you liked mysteries."
Odo scoffed. "This isn't a mystery. Clearly, the woman was supposed to steal something for you from a business rival. But this nonsense about death squads is just your pathetic attempt at making you look heroic. Moreover, I don't see how the prospect of having to touch your ears would provide an added incentive for her."
"That's because you don't know women," Quark said with relish. "Or oomox. If a bit of ear-stroking was all there was to it, why do you think we'd bother with females?"
"I'm trying not to think about it at all. You do not make it easy."
Quark thought of asking whether Odo would prefer to continue thinking about their impending starvation or death by frost-bite, but telling the story had put it him into too much of a good mood.
"Look," he said, "this woman really knew all the tricks. But she didn't know oomox, because she had never met a Ferengi before."
"Wasn't she lucky."
"So I could introduce her to some new fun while we were negotiating the details for the thing with Beko."
"Fun for... Beko? You were actually stupid enough to involve yourself with Beko?"
Quark smirked. "Why, Odo," he replied, "I didn't think you cared."
"That explains the bomb in the shuttle," Odo said, disregarding the last remark.
"I told you I was going to testify against the Orion syndicate."
"Assuming this isn't part of your very elaborate fantasy about a woman who never existed - why?"
Staring down on the rocky, unyielding ground, Quark said:
"Look, since the FCA revoked my business licence, I haven't been exactly swamped with clients. And the Orion boys have all the big latinum. So Beko wanted to take over some of my trade contracts for some measly strips, far below their worth, and thought that without my licence, I wasn't in a position to say no. So I figured..."
"You'd let Starfleet security take care of Beko and keep your contracts," Odo finished, for a moment looking actually pleased at having figured out a puzzle. Then he frowned.
"And why didn't anyone tell me?"
"Because you were busy playing depressed until Sisko took you out for some adventuring with Klingons," Quark said tersely. "Can I get back to the story now?"
"You mean it still isn't over?" Odo asked drily.
"Ingrate. I don't see you doing anything to keep us distracted. Anyway, things were looking really good, what with Chiana agreeing to putting the moves on Beko and practising a little oomox beforehand. Which was when I found out she was blind."
Finally, Quark got an unguarded reaction out of Odo.
"What?" Quark said, stunned. Here they were in his quarters, with the most exciting woman he'd met in eons draped all over him, the prospect of a scheme finally going right again just around the corner, and then suddenly the vault of eternal destitution appeared right before him.
"Oh, frell," Chiana murmured. "I thought you wouldn't notice."
"Before or after Beko eats me for lunch?" Quark yelped. He hadn't cooled off that fast since he had made the mistake of sleeping with the District Nagus' sister in his youth. Visions of an angry Beko and Orion Syndicate revenge acts did that to you.
Chiana, who was sitting on top of him, gave his ears a small but vicious jerk.
"I can still do it," she hissed. "I get visions of people just a few seconds before they happen - that's how I've been able to fake it."
He felt something shrivel inside him. Unfortunately, something external shrivelled as well.
"I should have known that enthusiasm was too good to be true," he said, which was supposed to sound sarcastic but came out sounding rather hurt. Of course he wasn't supposed to care whether some female enjoyed herself or not, but he had always thought it was much more fun when they did.
Chiana made a face at him.
"How I fake being able to see ," she added, and then gave him a sudden grin, a sharp, fleeting smile which reminded him of the paw of an Earth kitten - claws and softness at the same time. "I never bother with idiots who can't frell, so I never have to fake the other one."
That cheered Quark up, but it still didn't remove his major problem. Would she be able to steal from Beko in this state?
"Don't worry," Chiana said drily, apparently able to read his thoughts. He wondered whether she was part-Betazoid. "He'll be...distracted." She let her hands wander along his ears again, and then he found her mouth exploring his belly as her voice continued a bit muffled: "I'm really good at distraction."
"Bet you are," he said, somewhat breathless again. This would have been the appropriate time to quote the rule of acquisition that said She can touch your lobes, but never your latinum , yet what came out of Quark's mouth sounded more like: "You know, maybe you should tell Bashir about your eyes. He's pretty dumb in most ways but not as a doctor."
She interrupted what she was doing, to his intense disappointment, and frowned a bit.
"Hey," she said, "you're supposed to be Rygel, not Crichton."
Quark groaned. "At least promise me you'll cry out my name when you're with them , too."
Rather gently, she bit into the soft flesh of his throat.
"Not a chance," she said.
"No more," Odo said firmly. "Even freezing to death is preferable to listening to you chatting on about your lurid explorations. Just tell me whether you were stupid enough to let a blind woman attempt to con Beko, and if so, why you even survived long enough to get me stranded on this miserable planet."
Remembering his time with Chiana had warmed Quark up again, but now he felt every freezing air particle attacking his poor, defenceless legs and his very own golden tower of commerce. Trust Odo to do this to him.
"It's my turn for the trousers now," he said sullenly.
"Then I want the jacket."
"If I were Kira, you'd let me have both."
"Thankfully, you and Kira never had the slightest bit in common," Odo stated while taking his time to get out of the survival suit's pants.
"That's what you think," Quark said in grim satisfaction. He hadn't been sure whether or not to tell the next part. For one thing, he knew that Odo took that yearning for Kira thing really seriously, and had the Major on a pedestal high enough to obstruct any sight of any possible imperfection. For another, he didn't want Odo to go for his throat. Even as a solid, Odo was still stronger.
But he really had it coming.
To Quark's relief, the con went off without a hitch. Beko arrived on the station, Chiana attached herself to him in no time flat without ever giving a sign of even knowing how to spell Quark's name, let alone her own, and Beko bought her act completely. He had her background checked by his bodyguards, of course, and they only found what there was to find - that she didn't show up in any Starfleet records. They wiled the hours away in the holosuite before Beko got down to business, and by the time he made his smirking demand of Quark to sign over several of his trade contracts, Chiana had pilfered the incriminating data rod with several of the Orion Syndicate's contacts and deals recorded on them and given it to Quark, who in turn had handed it over to Starfleet Security. Eddington's successor, a taciturn guy named Pryce whose name had endeared him to Quark at once, was appreciative enough to arrest Beko before Beko's bodyguards could start their intimidation routine on Quark.
That, however, was where things stopped going right. For starters, Beko was smart enough to suspect whom to blame for his situation, and returned the favour by crudely insinuating that Quark was a pimp who had demanded payment for Chiana's services from him. Of course Quark protested he didn't even know the woman, but Pryce knew better, and since prostitution was illegal under Federation law, he brought Quark in for a thorough examination.
Next thing you knew they actually found some Orion currency on him. Quite how this had ended up in his pockets Quark had no idea then, though later he suspected Chiana. Everyone, even Major Kira, wasted hours questioning him. Quark didn't quite understand why Kira was suddenly so incensed on Chiana's behalf until the second shoe dropped. This was when someone actually bothered to check and try and find Chiana. She wasn't there. She wasn't on the station at all. Neither was the ancient vehicle she had arrived in, nor did it show up on any scanners when they hastily checked the surrounding area of the station.
Now Quark had expected her to make a run for it as soon as she had done her part, which was wise given Beko's reputation, and had handed over the cloaking device. But it would have been unwise to admit he had had a cloaking device, since this was also illegal, so he accused Beko at once of having had poor Chiana murdered by disintegrating her body, and that antiquity of a space ship while he was at it.
He didn't really expect Kira and the others to believe this; consequently, Quark was quite surprised when they didn't insist on getting the admission about having traded a cloaking device to the grey girl from him. He didn't have to wait long for an explanation. For lo and behold, Chiana had used Kira's own security codes to get off the station to begin with, and the Major was rather too flustered to explain how this had been possible.
"How?" Odo demanded angrily. "I encrypted those codes myself. You don't expect me to believe you could break my encryption and hand the codes over to Chiana, do you?"
Quark smiled at him, sweetly.
"Not at all. You see, Chiana didn't get them from me. She got them from Kira, in the same way she got the data rod from Beko."
It took a while for the insinuation to sink in. Then Odo's face, pinched and blueish in the cold, showed a remarkable flush of red.
"No," he thundered.
"Yes," Quark affirmed and almost added he wished he had known, so he could have arranged for a recording, but decided not to push his luck.
"She wouldn't," Odo said, and Quark knew he didn't mean Chiana. "She would never consort with someone she distrusted, in that way. Besides, she loves Shakaar."
"Firstly, you didn't meet Chiana. She'd have seduced the Kai herself if she had put her mind to it, believe me. Secondly, if you ask me, after years of hanging out with preachy Bareil and speechy Shakaar, Kira was more than ready for some distraction."
"Do not talk about her that way!" Odo hissed. His hands shook, and Quark suspected the temperature was only partly to blame. He retreated a little.
"Of course there might have been another reason why Kira was so embarrassed that Chiana had used her codes that she deleted all entries on Chiana's entire time on the station before you and Sisko returned," he allowed. "I'm just a lowly barkeep, what do I know?"
Odo radiated offended silence at him.
"At least someone had a happy ending."
When Quark finally returned to his quarters, alternately fuming about the ingratitude of Starfleet Security and Chiana and snickering at the thought of Kira and Chiana, there was a recorded message waiting for him. This he had not expected.
"Look," Chiana said on his viewscreen, looking rather nice with the necklace stolen from Beko around her throat, "I've got to beat it. No hard feelings, okay? We both got what we wanted. But just in case you travel through that wormhole and come out in my part of the universe, call my name." She winked at him. "Who knows, I might be calling yours after all."
"And that is a happy ending for you?" Odo asked sourly. "An escaped criminal who bothers to gratify your vanity a bit? Truly a cause for ecstasy."
Quark sighed. Some people really were clueless beyond belief.
"It wasn't a happy ending for me," he explained patiently, "but for her. She got back to that crazy place she had come from, which was what she wanted, with profit, and she had had a good time in between. Me, I was crushed."
"Why? Because she hadn't handed over Beko's other possessions to you as well?"
"Nah. That would have been nice, but... don't you see, Odo, she was the one!"
Odo rose, clearly determined to continue their journey now. Quark grimaced and stood up as well. Without the coat, his upper body felt as if it was slowly changing into an icicle, so Odo might have a point.
"The one what?"
"What do you read all this stuff the Chief gives you for anyway? In every great businessman's life, Odo, there is one woman who would have been perfect. Sexy, with an eye for profit, and an innate understanding about how important it is to get creative with the more distrustful side of law enforcement. And of course," Quark finished glumly, "that is always the one who gets away."
"If you expect me to comfort you over what was clearly an invented story from beginning to end, you must already be delirious. A shame. I was hoping you'd last a bit longer. It will be more difficult to carry the equipment all the way to the top alone."
Quark was indignant.
"More difficult? You'd never make it. And what's more, I'll never tell you a story again. Not me. Not even the one about that weirdo with the black leather suit and the skin condition..."