And you, O'Brien, you tinkerer and putterer and fixer of broken things.
- The Intendant, "Crossover"
Miles Edward O'Brien was a slow, methodical man.
When he noticed, in passing, a series of striations along the thorium containment cells down in ore processing, he filed the problem away in his mind, worked it over carefully and completely even as he replaced a sputtering fuse in secondary communications. When he'd finally finished soldering the fuse into place, he stopped and stared at the wall for a moment, centering his thoughts. The striations could not be natural, not with such a perfect pattern. Sabotage, then. To what end?
He touched the wall thoughtfully, smearing himself a diagram of circuits and conduits with the patina of machine oil left on his hands. The containment cells were weakened, no question. With one finger, he followed the weakness through a maze of spreading failures in the metal, then rocked back on his heels and swallowed, hard. The chance of explosion was non-negligible. People could get seriously hurt.
Swiping the wall with his sleeve, which only succeeded in smearing the dirt and grime across a wider area, he packed his tools carefully into their box, though his hands shook at the thought of the potential destruction just three levels down. The fact that he had any equipment at all was a great honor – if he returned the toolbox with anything missing or poorly arranged, it would certainly be at the price of his hard-earned theta designation.
Then he stood, and walked slowly down to ore processing, his heart pounding faster with every step.
He asked himself many times, later, why he never told the authorities about the sabotage attempt.
He hadn't really had the opportunity, he supposed – there was a fuss over the outsiders, some people who'd arrived at the station to make trouble. Odo was his usual point of contact in these things, and he'd been working his way up to voicing his suspicion when they were interrupted by a Klingon and-
And a Terran.
Miles watched, shocked, as the man willfully defied Odo – worse than that, mocked him, and did it so effortlessly that it seemed as natural as breathing. When Odo finally shoved him into the work line, the man glanced over and met Miles's eyes with a glimmer of, of what? Recognition?
Miles looked away, but he filed the exchange in his mind, turned it over and over, slowly and methodically. His heart was racing.
As a general rule, Miles tried not to hear the workers' gossip. If hearing it was inevitable, he tried not to listen. It was a trick he'd cultivated around the time he'd first gained his theta designation, and he suspected there was a direct causal link between the two events.
"-said he was from some parallel universe," one man was whispering to his companion, and the tone in his voice stripped Miles of his carefully cultivated disinterest. There was awe, and something strangely like hope. He listened more, gathered what information he could, always filing it away for consideration as he worked. Later, later.
He turned at the sound of his name, spoken not with scorn or amusement or indifference, but with warmth. The new Terran was behind him, pretending to look casual, though he wasn't pulling it off very well. Their eyes met.
He looked, Miles thought, very young.
With a wince, Miles turned back to his work, heart pounding in his ears. For some reason, he couldn't stop thinking about those striations in the metal of the containment chamber, the way the metal had been deliberately scored, broken down. Everything here had been broken, in one way or another.
"I know you," the man said, "on my side."
Miles's skin was crawling. Everything here had been broken. "Yeah?"
"Actually, we're best friends."
Miles turned, almost in spite of himself, met the easy smile, was irrevocably drawn in. Action, not reaction; certainty, not hesitation. "You and me?" he said, aiming for polite disinterest.
Some part of him, he realized later, was trying the idea on for size.
He was halfway to Sisko's ship and its damaged impulse system when the echoes of the explosion reached him.
His gut clenched, and he ran, cringing at the sound of his tools rattling loose from their proper places in their box. The diagram he'd drawn himself earlier filtered foggily through his mind, and he traced the danger, the progress of the faults – the damage in ore processing was done, nothing he could do about that, don't think about the explosion, about the people. No, a cross-corridor would house the next set of failsafes, just-
He rounded a corner, and heaved a sigh of relief. Even running on automatic, he knew this station like the back of his hand. An unfamiliar shiver of pride ran through him at the thought, and he shrugged it aside, busying himself with opening the nearest panel, digging into the guts of the machinery, finding the broken pieces.
He turned his head, and like some impossible, horrific apparition, the man from another universe was crouched behind him. Miles turned back to his work. If he didn't see the man, maybe nobody would find him, nobody would blame Miles, nobody would take away his theta designation.
But slowly, methodically, his mind began turning things over and over.
"You've got to help me," said the man, and "I know you, Miles O'Brien," he said, and finally, in a burst of frustrated anguish, "The life inside every human being here, every Terran, died a long time ago."
Heart thrumming a new rhythm, Miles turned, watched the man start down a conduit that would surely lead to his death. Julian, the man had told Odo. His name was Julian.
"That's not the right way."
When they were caught, inevitably, Miles made a stand, too tired to find borrowed courage in Julian, straight-backed and defiant beside him, or in the shark-like grins of Garak and Sisko, waiting for their respective moments to strike. Too tired to borrow courage, so he scrounged up his own.
"There's got to be something better than this," he said. He knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt, somewhere far in the back of his mind.
The Intendant was looking at him like he was some particularly nasty species of rodent – interesting, but not in a good way. And now all the things that Miles kept carefully in the back of his mind, to turn over and over and consider slowly and methodically in all due time, were slipping to the surface. An awakening, of sorts.
No thought, no hesitation. When the chance came, when the others broke and ran, he ran with them.
"You're still welcome to come with us," Julian told him, and Miles realized the choice had come sooner than he'd expected. Too soon, too fast.
Everything here, on this side, was broken, in one way or another, and the faults were spreading, working their way through the machinery. It was a mess. Going to the other side would be easier, cleaner. He could leave the wreckage of this life behind.
But then, fixing broken things was what he did best.
They said their goodbyes with a glance that Miles set firmly in the back of his mind, to consider slowly and methodically some other time, and then he was running after Sisko, heart pounding in time with his footsteps, and the future loomed hollow and echoing and unsure.
For the first time in what seemed like forever, Miles was smiling.