Chapter 1: Photo Negative
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.
Chapter 2: Double Exposure
The second time Miles met Julian Bashir, it came as such a shock that he dropped his stolen disruptor on the floor with a clang that earned him a harsh glare from Sisko. "Sorry," he muttered, and picked it up, bringing it back to bear on the man who looked so familiar. Now that he was beyond his first, startled reaction, though, Miles could see the differences: longer hair, a scruffy beard, and beneath it all, a frustrated, terrified anger.
"No relays. No power junctions. Nothing of interest here," Sisko said, staring out over the room full of slaves with a dismissal that Miles figured to be a bit too carefully calculated. Silence met his words: they were all staring at him, dumbfounded, and Miles felt a twinge of sympathy for their bewilderment. Sisko toed the dead Klingon at their feet, and looked up with a grin, pitching his voice a bit higher. "Unless any of these useless Terrans feel like joining the revolution."
Miles had been avoiding looking at Bashir, but now he couldn't resist darting a glance in his direction. He was staring at Sisko with a strange hunger that was steadily giving way to a sullen resentment. He didn't step forward, but his eyes were blazing, and Sisko zeroed in on him instantly. Give the man credit, he had this whole recruiting business down to a science.
"What about this one, Smiley? Seems a little weak-willed. We need fighters!" Again, his voice rose. The slaves nearest Bashir flinched away, but he merely glowered, sinking further from hunger and deeper into resentment. "Pathetic, eh, Smiley?"
"Uh," said Miles, noncommittally. It seemed clear that Bashir was interested, but it was equally clear that he didn't want to play Sisko's game in order to get involved. It was, he had to admit, a sound recruiting strategy: don't take anyone on who isn't willing to toe the line, to sacrifice dignity for the cause. Loose cannons destroy revolutions. Still, he felt an uncomfortable knot building in his stomach at the thought of turning away, of leaving Bashir – even this Bashir – in a place like this.
Sisko slung an arm across Miles's shoulders. "I guess we'll have to go elsewhere."
Bashir's eyes flickered to Miles, and his lip curled in disgust. Miles thought about probabilities, about the odds of seeing another Julian Bashir, about things that were broken. He met Bashir's gaze steadily, for long enough that the sneer started to smooth out, replaced with confusion, then shrugged off Sisko's arm and took a step forward. "Come with us," he said.
Bashir cocked his head to one side, then dragged his gaze slowly and deliberately over to Sisko, frowning. Miles also glanced self-consciously to Sisko, who was staring at him with a furrowed brow. He'd never really taken a close look at the other Bashir, Miles realized. Probably hadn't even made the connection. Maybe it was for the best.
Miles turned back to Bashir, took a deep breath, and added, "Please."
After a moment, Bashir sighed and stood up, accepting the concession with ill grace. "I hope you're a hell of a lot more competent than you look."
The Bashir in this universe, Miles discovered, was somewhat more difficult to befriend. He wasn't sure how much of it was a genuine dislike, and how much of it was an unfair comparison to the man who'd had such a strong impact on Miles's life, but whatever the case, within three weeks Miles had decided he sort of hated this Bashir's guts.
Fortunately, they'd widened their net of recruitment lately, picking up the odd mercenary or soldier of fortune, and Miles found he got along with some of them considerably better than his fellow Terrans. One such merc was a Trill named Jadzia Dax, and while she'd taken an instant liking to Sisko for reasons beyond his comprehension, she also treated Miles with a modicum of teasing respect, and they'd taken to eating lunch together, during the odd days of downtime.
"Tell me again about these invaders from another universe," she said today, eyes sparkling wickedly over her bowl of gruel-like soup. He wasn't quite able to judge yet if she really believed his stories, but she seemed content to listen to them, and he was finding that telling stories was a lot like fixing a ruptured plasma conduit – they were a balm, a way to smooth out the broken places.
So he told her the tale again, with hardly any hesitation this time, and she listened, head cocked to one side, a tiny quirk of her lips the only indication of her amusement at his enthusiasm. This time, instead of smoothing over his meeting with the other universe's Julian Bashir, he paused.
"You know," he said slowly, "I think I probably should've expected how different they were. I mean, their Kira and the Intendant seemed nothing alike."
Jadzia shrugged. "I've seen a lot of people be a lot of different things under different circumstances. You can run all you like, but trust me, you can't ever really get away from the people who live under your skin. I'd be willing to bet that the man you met is buried deep inside there somewhere." Her voice had taken on a thicker layer of irony, and her eyes darted to a point just beyond his right shoulder.
He turned, and came face-to-face with Julian Bashir.
Bashir made a concerted effort to avoid him after that, and Miles spent a few distracted days replaying that conversation with Jadzia, trying to remember just how much awe and wonder had spilled into his voice when talking about the other Bashir. Eventually, he stopped wondering: the wary looks Bashir shot him from time to time were answer enough.
In the time since the escape from Terok Nor, operations had drifted gradually toward the routine. Another unlikely recruit found his way to their fast-growing rebellion: a Ferengi named Rom, whose stubborn claim of wanting revenge for his brother's death was enough for even Sisko to treat him with a grudging respect. Miles liked the man, but couldn't help holding up the warped mirror of the other universe, trying to picture what was missing in Rom, what was keeping him from being a whole person. His brother's death, presumably.
After one of the good days, when they'd both imbibed enough of an intercepted shipment of Romulan Ale to loosen their tongues, Miles brought up that other universe, with the fuzzy-headed intention of drawing Rom out in some idle speculation. Instead, Rom only offered him a blank stare and an annoyingly unslurred and coherent reply. "Why should I care about some other universe? This is the one that matters."
"No," said Miles, and added, with a wobbly earnestness, "Everything's better there. Different. Changed." It took him a moment to notice that Bashir, sitting at a nearby table, was listening in on their conversation with a deepening scowl. That suited Miles just fine, he decided, and raised his voice. "Maybe if we tried to act more like them and less-" He hiccupped. "-less like us, we wouldn't need this revolution in the first place."
Bashir shoved his chair back; though he'd seen the anger building, Miles was so startled by the noise that he nearly fell off his own chair. "Look," Bashir said, a fresh edge to his voice, "I don't know who you think I am or... or who you think I should be, but if you're so disgusted by this whole bloody mess of a universe, do us all a favor and remove yourself from it."
Miles just stared at the glass in his hands, fighting a belated sense of unease, until Bashir stomped away. He felt vaguely ill, and he was sure it wasn't all down to the ale.
After a few uncomfortable moments, Rom snorted. "No wonder you're quiet all the time."
Miles sighed, and slouched away to be quite thoroughly sick until morning. The next time they intercepted a shipment of Romulan Ale, he found an excuse to be as far from it as possible.
A few weeks later, Rom brought Sisko a new scrap of intel – apparently he still had a contact on Terok Nor with some level of freedom, though he steadfastly refused to reveal that contact's identity. Miles trusted Rom, and he knew Sisko did as well, so plans started unfolding with a little more speed and confidence than their usual skulking in the shadows. It was a good feeling, Miles thought. Professional.
Rom's informant had identified a small Alliance outpost – little more than a shuttle acting as a sentry – and had somehow managed to obtain a series of codes that would give them full access to the outpost's systems. They had to act quickly; the codes would reset automatically every twenty hours, and they had no information about the algorithm used to regenerate the passkeys.
Even with the time limit, it was almost laughably easy to take Sisko's ship in, take advantage of the outpost's short-staffed status, and take out its defenses remotely. They hadn't really thought too far beyond that point, though, and when long-range sensors picked up an Alliance cruiser on the approach, Miles managed to convince Sisko and a seething Bashir that discretion was the better part of valor. The rebels retreated.
The effect of even this short-lived victory on morale was surprisingly palpable. A lifetime of oppression, Miles was finding, tended to create a mental avalanche of successes for every act of rebellion. Tapping into those long-quashed dreams of freedom opened a floodgate of possibilities.
They took another minor outpost, and managed to hang on to it this time by waiting and watching, gathering sufficient intel that they could simulate standard operations to outside observers, all the while planting tiny, significant orders here and there, destabilizing piece by piece. That victory was smaller, but no less symbolic, and their numbers were buoyed as tales of their accomplishments spread, illicit and whispered by slaves, ground out and cursed by their masters.
They were learning.
One evening, in the midst of another recruiting operation, Miles found himself sitting across from Bashir in the slaves' mess on a small Alliance transport. He suspected assigning the two of them to infiltrate the place together had been a joke on Sisko's part – even he couldn't have missed their growing animosity – and so far, their attempts at reaching out to the dispirited Terrans aboard the ship had only ended in dull, blank looks. They needed a breakthrough of some sort, so they'd taken a moment to regroup, but Miles found he was having trouble meeting Bashir's eyes. He pretended his bowl of protein-gruel was the single most interesting thing he'd ever seen, and didn't look up. Bashir seemed to be taking a similar approach.
After a few minutes, though, Bashir broke the silence without preamble, like he was merely continuing an ongoing argument. Miles supposed he was. "Look," Bashir said, "if there's another me in that universe, surely there's got to be another you."
"That's right." Miles risked a glance up to see that Bashir had set his jaw and seemed intent on glaring him down. Miles went back to staring at his gruel.
"If you're going to hold me to that Bashir's high standards, why not yourself?" There was a strangely reasonable tone to Bashir's voice, one Miles wasn't sure he'd ever heard before. It made the hairs at the back of his neck stand up.
Miles stirred his gruel. "That's why I got involved in this whole thing. The other Miles was an important person, and from what I heard, he always did his best to help others."
Now Bashir's voice was nearly a whisper, still frighteningly calm. "How can you know that?"
Miles took a breath, then glanced up and met Bashir's eyes. His voice was suddenly hoarse, quavering. "Does it matter what he's really like? I want to be a better person, and I'm working on it. What's your excuse?"
"My excuse," Bashir said, "is that I don't want to erase my identity to become somebody I've never met." He stood, and in one smooth motion planted his elbow in the throat of a passing Bajoran guard – Miles could hear the snap of something going horribly wrong in the man's breathing – then twisted and jammed the heel of his hand against another guard's nose, breaking it with a crack that echoed through the shocked silence in the room.
Miles fumbled for a moment, then drew his concealed weapon, watching as Bashir wiped some of the guard's blood off his hand. Bashir grinned as another trio of guards started toward them, hampered by new murmurs of discontent among the slaves, the start of an uprising. He glanced back, met Miles's eyes. "I won't betray who I am," he said, and flung himself back into the fight.
As they made their way with a handful of escapees through the labyrinthine corridors of the transport, Miles couldn't shake the stubborn feeling that this had been far too easy. He knew, without asking, that Bashir felt the same way.
When they rounded the corner and came face-to-face with a half-dozen heavily armed Cardassians, Miles felt his heart thud to a stop. Bashir was already raising his weapon, but Miles found himself lowering his own, meeting the lead Cardassian's eyes. There was a faint smile on that reptilian face, coupled with something that looked a bit like resignation.
"You have friends here," the Cardassian said, in a soft voice, then turned and shot the officer standing next to him in the head.
What followed was chaos. Their would-be ally died in the next volley of disruptor fire, but the delay was enough to give Bashir and Miles each time to take down the others, and then they were running again, trying to weave their way through the bodies to the open corridor beyond, spurred on by the stampede of terrified, exhilarated Terrans behind them.
Once they'd reached the getaway shuttle, Miles fell into the navigator's seat and let Bashir pilot their way to freedom. It took them nearly three minutes to clear the transport's sensor range, which Miles knew was far too long considering their escape had already been detected, but, impossibly, nothing happened to stop their flight, and they made it into the comforting haze of the Badlands without any further incident.
Bashir glanced over at Miles. "What the hell happened back there?" He was still breathing hard; they both were.
Miles shook his head, then laughed out loud, giddy with the realization that they'd made it, that they were safe. "I don't know. Maybe... maybe sometimes good things happen to good people."
Bashir rolled his eyes, but there was a faint smile playing at his lips.
"You know," Jadzia told him, another day, as they huddled in yet another captured shuttle, waiting to take its Cardassian owners by surprise, "I think I took on this job out of a sick fascination: when you Terrans fail, it's going to be spectacular. Only I'm starting to wonder if maybe you might pull this whole rebellion off after all. Maybe Sisko really is as impressive as he thinks."
Miles grinned, reveled in the feeling of his heart pounding faster and faster. He felt alive in a way that went beyond breathing. "Maybe he is, at that."
Two days later, Benjamin Sisko was dead.
Things showed every indication of going completely to hell after Sisko's death. Bashir immediately fought tooth and nail to force himself into a position of power, supported by Rom's frustrated rage. The power grab, however, was by no means absolute: the new Vulcan recruit, Tuvok, showed a particular aversion to him. Miles couldn't really blame the man for trying, but appeals to logic only went so far with Bashir.
When word came down that Sisko's estranged wife was on Terok Nor, setting up a sensor array that would light up their hiding place in the Badlands like a beacon, Bashir immediately called for the destruction of the station. Tuvok pointed out that destroying the station to keep their secret safe would also murder the Terran slaves aboard, and would effectively provide the Alliance with all the proof they could ever want to further discredit the rebellion as a bunch of terrorists.
"Oh, yes," Bashir said, sneering. "And you think they aren't already calling us terrorists now? What would the difference be?"
Unperturbed, Tuvok merely raised an eyebrow. "They'd be right."
Bashir gave a snarl of frustration and stalked off. Miles watched his retreating back for a moment, then sought Jadzia's eyes in the crowd. She met his glance and shrugged. Since Sisko's death, most of the non-Terran mercenaries had broken their contracts and bailed out, but those who had stayed betrayed the fact that something was keeping them here, be it anger or fear or... or simple inertia. Behind Jadzia's laconic expression was a stifled defeatism that terrified Miles. He knew it well; he'd started seeing it in the mirror.
Shivering, he turned and jogged after Bashir.
He found the man pacing up and down the length of a back room in a paroxysm of frustrated energy. "Now is not the time for us to develop a moral compass!" His voice was raised, but he avoided Miles's eyes.
Miles leaned against a wall, watching Bashir pace. "I think I agree with Tuvok. Even if we made the operation smaller-scale – say, just smuggled explosives into Professor Sisko's quarters – there'd still be the strong risk of Terran casualties. And you'd need volunteers for what would amount to a suicide mission. That's not what we're about."
Bashir stopped pacing, whirling to face him. "That's exactly what we're about. We're about throwing ourselves against a brick wall until we either smash through it, or until the stack of bodies is tall enough to climb over." Miles must have done a pretty poor job of hiding his expression, because Bashir sneered. "What, would the other Julian have abhorred that plan? Would it have turned his stomach?" He took a step closer. "Surely you've considered that if there's some of him in me, there must be some of me in him. You knew him for what, a day? Two? How long have you known me? Which of us do you think is the more real?"
"You want to know what I think?" Miles set his jaw. "I think you're too damn scared of the possibility that you could live a life that makes you happy. It doesn't matter who you think you are. You're too used to being miserable and angry." He paused, then decided to push his luck. "Scared."
He'd expected an outburst, maybe even a punch to the jaw, but Bashir just lapsed into a sullen silence. After a long moment, he said, "I don't understand you at all."
"No," Miles said, and turned away. "You don't."
The solution came to Miles in the middle of the night, when he was staring up at the ceiling, letting his mind do its slow, methodical work on things that were broken, on twisted mirrors and distorted reflections. He kept catching himself thinking that the revolution needed Sisko again, which wasn't entirely true: it needed stability, adjustment, time to give the thinkers a chance to catch up with the reckless hotheads. The revolution would probably do better without Sisko in the lead: he'd been an effective recruiter, but he'd also had a talent for recruiting thugs, and he had no sense whatsoever of subtlety.
So they needed to stall, to give themselves time to regroup, and that meant neutralizing Jennifer Sisko. But surely there was another way. Talking. Thinking. Changing minds.
He sat up, earning an annoyed grunt from the man bunking next to him. All the loose threads he'd been patiently untangling at the back of his mind for the past year were coming together, a skein, a fine line tracing the only possible course of action. For some time now, he'd been researching, pulling information surreptitiously with every venture near an Alliance database, and he'd started fiddling with a device that would reconfigure the transporter, simulate the effect that had brought James T. Kirk through the looking glass in the first place. If he could reverse the effect, he had a vague sense that he could ask for help and it would come running, that he could ask Julian-
No, not Julian. This time, it had to be Sisko. The other Sisko.
The plan was coming together in his mind, so quickly that Miles was almost overwhelmed. When had he stopped tinkering and puttering, and started plotting and scheming? But it could work, it might work.
It would work.
Before grabbing Sisko, Miles decided it would probably be prudent to try a couple of test transports into the other universe. He told himself it was so that he could scout out the place, make sure the station was the same on the other side as it was on his, but he had to admit that curiosity drove him more than necessity.
The first time, the transport went off without a hitch, and he stepped cautiously through the strange/familiar corridors of the station, peering around every corner, hoping he wouldn't run into someone who had just had a conversation with the Chief. It was a big place, however, and the few glimpses of recognition he saw in passersby were only accompanied by nods of greeting, which he returned with an easy smile. He had the sense that the Miles in this universe smiled a lot.
The second time, he was able to hack a console and find, among other things, the Operations duty roster, including the other Miles's schedule. It would be easy enough to work around that, and he figured it would be a few days anyway before his colleagues noticed he'd made off with his borrowed ship, so what was the harm in making a few more trips through the looking glass? Maybe he'd run into Julian again, see if he could spark a glimmer of true recognition in those eyes. Or the other Kira. Or-
He remembered the other Julian talking about the Miles on his side, mentioning a family. All at once, the notion of cross-universe voyeurism had lost a great deal of its appeal. Maybe some things were best left where they belonged. No broken things, in this universe. No need for him to interfere.
The third time he stepped into the other universe, Miles got straight to business, and successfully abducted Sisko from the other side.
The plan had worked. Miles realized it the first time he locked eyes with Professor Jennifer Sisko and saw the same startled, growing wonder he recognized in himself from the first time he'd met Julian. The other Sisko was no thug, no leader of thugs: he commanded.
When it was all over, when Sisko had returned home, Miles met with Professor Sisko in the quarters they'd hastily erected for her, and saw in her eyes that Sisko had told her the whole truth. They wound up talking, for a while, about the other universe they'd only seen in pieces and snatches.
"It doesn't seem fair, Smiley," Professor Sisko said, leaning back in her chair and tilting her head toward the ceiling. "They're always rescuing us. Don't they ever need rescuing? Is everything really so much better there?"
Miles let the silence stretch, then smiled. "As I understand it, their universe is lacking at least one thing that makes ours superior." At her puzzled glance, he said, "Jennifer Sisko."
She smiled at that, and they talked until the night stretched gradually into day, easy in each other's company.
The next morning, Julian Bashir was waiting for him in the hastily erected mess hall. "We need to talk," he said, and strode out without waiting for Miles to follow.
They walked to a secluded area, and Miles fought down a bizarre paranoia that he was being led off to be murdered somewhere quiet and out of the way. That didn't seem to be Bashir's style. If he was angry enough to kill, he'd kill in the open, where the grand gesture would earn him the fear, if not the respect, of the rest of the rebels.
When Bashir spun to face him, though, Miles immediately crouched into a defensive position. "Where is Sisko?" Bashir's voice was a low, angry hiss.
"Uh," said Miles.
"Where is Sisko?"
"Uh," said Miles, again. It probably wasn't the best strategy, so he took a deep breath and started again. "He's trying to open communications with the Romulans."
Bashir crossed his arms, and there was a wildness behind his eyes that Miles hadn't seen before. "Where is Sisko?"
Miles's mouth twisted. "You know where he is, damn it!" The volume of his voice surprised even him.
Bashir's anger subsided a little and he drew back, looking startled at the ease with which he'd extracted this admission. "So he was from the other universe."
Meeting his gaze head-on, Miles said nothing.
"Then our Sisko-"
"Is dead, yes." In for a penny, in for a pound, Miles figured. "I borrowed a ship, built a device to transport between universes, and abducted their Sisko. It was the only way."
Bashir was watching him with a curious, assessing look, more cautious than Miles had ever seen him. "You're not as stupid as you look," he said, at last.
Miles figured that was the closest he'd get to even a backhanded compliment, and tried to tamp down the weird surge of elation that was welling up in him at the thought. "Thanks."
Chapter 3: Darkroom
The second year of the rebellion, things changed.
They'd established a more formal command structure, and somewhat to his surprise, Miles found himself promoted to captain almost right off the bat. He wasn't sure when he'd stopped being comfortable with merely lurking in the shadows, but he suspected both Professor Sisko and Bashir had been a bad influence on him, each in their own very different ways. The more time Miles spent around Bashir, the more convinced he was that somebody had to keep him in line, and he'd been rising to the challenge far more often than he liked. Anyone who opposed Bashir gained Tuvok's support, and so Miles had been finding himself with a growing pool of allies who also, inexplicably, saw themselves as subordinate to him. For her part, Professor Sisko had done a great deal to shift the balance of power away from the thugs and toward the thinkers. Miles wanted badly to measure up to her expectations, to prove to her that he was among the latter and not the former.
Bashir had also been promoted to captain recently, and the thought of it made Miles deeply uncomfortable in a way he couldn't define. His memories of the other Bashir were fading, and he was beginning to see the flaws in this universe's Bashir for what they were: the marks of a paranoid, angry, frightened man. Some days, he almost regretted that he'd ever recruited Bashir.
Other days, he regretted it very much.
Their latest mission was ambitious, no question. They were going to retake Terok Nor. The wheels had been turning, plans put in motion, spies activated, for the better part of a year, and Miles had made ruthlessly efficient use of the station schematics and access codes he'd acquired during his brief excursion into the other universe. Everything had gone almost suspiciously well, and Miles caught himself remembering the strange Cardassian on the slave transport who'd helped them and died without explanation. Whatever the source of their good fortune, reports started coming in that Professor Sisko's squad had captured the Intendant. At that news, Bashir's eyes had lit up with something wholly disturbing, and Miles had been forced to look away.
Then came the reports that the Intendant's second-in-command, the Cardassian Garak, had escaped custody, and in an unspoken agreement, Bashir and Miles had set out together to run him to ground. They passed through conduits and corridors, following the ragged trail of sightings as best they could.
"I can't wait to get my hands on the Intendant," Bashir said, conversationally, with a broad, nasty grin.
"She's a prisoner," Miles said, a little more sharply than he'd intended. "Not... well, not anything else."
"You take revenge your way," Bashir said, and Miles felt the hairs at the back of his neck stand up at the snarl in his voice. "I'll take it mine."
Before Miles could think up a retort, they rounded a corner and found themselves face-to-face with Garak.
There was a startled moment of silence. Garak reacted first, slamming his fist into Bashir's stomach.
Miles managed to pull his weapon, but Garak was fast. He was already gone around a bend in the corridor by the time Miles's shots sprayed fire across the empty wall. Miles considered pursuit, and then he noticed that Bashir hadn't straightened up, that he was slumping against the wall, that his weapon was falling from his hand with a clatter. Blood trickled between the fingers clamped over his gut, and it took Miles a confused moment to see the hilt of the dagger buried there.
"Oh, hell," Miles bit out, and caught Bashir as he crumpled the rest of the way to the ground, activating his subdermal communicator as he did so. "Medic! We need a medic here! Garak's still loose, heading down corridor thirteen."
Bashir was staring up at him. Even as Miles watched, trying to apply pressure to the wound without shifting the knife around too much, the fear always lurking behind Bashir's eyes was being replaced with a dull, groggy confusion. Miles figured that inane platitudes wouldn't be particularly well-received, so they stayed huddled in silence.
There was a medic not too far behind them, and he rushed up sooner than Miles had expected, pushing him gently out of the way and probing the wound with practiced fingers before applying a hypospray from a first aid kit of unmistakably Alliance design. Miles watched Bashir's eyes flicker shut, stumbled back as another person came rushing up, then watched as the medics set Bashir on an anti-grav pallet and spirited him off to the station's infirmary.
He felt cold. He thought about things that were broken.
The other Bashir had been a doctor.
He avoided visiting Bashir in the infirmary, but he did badger Jadzia with questions after each of her visits. She and Bashir had been growing closer since the truth about Sisko had come out, which was something of a worrying trend, but he still considered her a friend and trusted confidante, and in this case, she was his best source of information.
"They say he's going to be fine," Jadzia said, with a sigh, when he asked her for the fifth time. "Look, Smiley, if you want to check in on him, go yourself."
"I've been too busy with the building of the Defiant," Miles said, a bit weakly. "It's taken up all my time."
"Uh-huh," said Jadzia. "If it's any consolation, he hasn't exactly been asking after you, either."
Miles snorted, but some part of him was strangely disappointed.
It took them almost a week to get the internal sensors up and running – the Alliance officers had managed to sabotage a handful of systems before their capture – and at that point, Garak's escape was confirmed. He would doubtless be bringing reinforcements, and Miles didn't have a good feeling about their chances of victory without the Defiant on hand.
Bashir was back on duty, and seemed to be taking any possible opportunity to interrogate the Intendant. Miles did his best to ensure that there were always other people with him on those occasions, more thinkers than thugs, but he knew it wouldn't be long before the man snapped. Things were coming to a head on many different fronts and, much as he hated to admit it, he was beginning to think they were in need of some assistance from a familiar quarter.
Professor Sisko had the same thought, during one of their evening chats. "We need Ben," she said, bluntly. "I can get him, convince him to come over to help us. He can get the Defiant up and running faster than any of us."
Miles sighed. "You're right, of course, but I'm not sure he'll help. Why should he?"
Professor Sisko folded her arms on the table, quirked a smile. "It's not Ben Sisko we need to lure over here. It's his son."
Miles stopped in, once, to see the Intendant, mostly just to convince himself that she really had been captured. She stared at him, unperturbed by the guards surrounding her, a coy smile playing across her lips. "Well, well," she said. "Smiley."
"How the mighty have fallen," he said, a bit inanely, trying to shake the deep uneasiness welling up within him.
"Funny," she said, and smiled, leaning back against her prison bunk like it was a divan. "I was going to say the same thing."
Miles had always thought of the other universe as a sort of paradise, a place where people didn't want for anything, where Terrans were free to fight and live and love the way they pleased. For the first time, seeing Sisko agree to help them after they'd effectively held his son hostage, he began to see that freedom as a weakness. In this universe, Miles had nobody who could be used against him; anyone who attacked him would have to come at him from the front, not from behind. Surely, he consoled himself, that counted for something.
He didn't have much time to ruminate on mirror images this time around, though. Almost before he knew it, their work was complete.
The Defiant was a beautiful ship. He'd spent most of his life in space, as a slave, and his recent command posting with the rebels had accustomed him to sitting in the captain's chair. But when the ship first left dock, with Miles at the helm, under enemy fire, he swore he was seeing the stars for the first time.
The ship was eminently maneuverable, like nothing he'd ever encountered. His piloting skills – renowned among the rebels for their precision and careful strategy – seemed inadequate to the gentle delicacy of touch the ship's sleek lines commanded. When Sisko took the helm for their last, near-suicidal rush, Miles had to blink rapidly to focus on his weapons console. Something about this was so right, so perfect it ached: the captain and his ship, imbued with training and experience and privilege... but still Terran, underneath it all. Still Terran.
It would be a good death, Miles thought, watching as warning lights blinked out their imminent destruction. To have lived to see this, to have done so much with so little, to disappear in a blaze of beauty and grace. It would be a good death.
The bird of prey that had targeted their dying shields disappeared from his tac display, and he stared in disbelief as a new ship corkscrewed into view, weaving in a beautiful, effortless dance around the Defiant as the two vessels bore down on their target. Miles barely managed to keep a straight face as Bashir crowed victory across the comm.
They fired together on the behemoth, weaving in easy, comfortable rhythm. Miles had known Bashir was a passable pilot, but something about Sisko's maneuvers, combined with the Defiant's grace and power, seemed to be bringing out the best in him.
The cruiser retreated into warp under the onslaught. The rest of the Alliance ships followed. Miles stared, dumbfounded, at his console, and willed his hands to keep from shaking. They'd done it. They'd held. They'd won.
"You sound surprised," Sisko said, grinning.
In that moment, more than any other, Miles knew just how different the two universes were.
They were laughing and joking as they exited the airlocks, joining a crowd of cheering rebels. Miles felt giddy in a way he'd never known, full of hope and happiness at what they'd accomplished, together. From somewhere across the room, he saw Bashir in the midst of a passionate embrace with Jadzia, and they exchanged a brief smile, Bashir's cocky, Miles's hesitant.
A medtech touched Miles's arm, breaking the moment, and the look on her face made the laughter die in Miles's throat. She leaned up to whisper into his ear, then melted back into the hubbub. His head was spinning as he scanned the crowd, and when he finally met Sisko's eyes, the message, the bewildered sorrow, must have communicated even across the distance.
"Jennifer," Sisko mouthed, and ran.
Miles watched Sisko and his son disappear back to the other universe, and found himself wondering what it would be like, to lose someone like Professor Sisko twice. For the first time, he decided that maybe he didn't envy Sisko, after all.
He didn't let himself think too much about it after that, busied himself in repairs of the Defiant. Bashir must have noticed, because he'd taken to baiting him, making snide remarks about Professor Sisko. Miles tried to ignore him, telling himself it was some sort of screwed-up Bashir way of compensating for the fact that Miles had seen him when he was bleeding and vulnerable, but it only seemed to make matters worse. Generally, he managed to avoid committing violence over those particular disagreements. Generally.
"I don't see why you're still so obsessed with her," Bashir drawled, one day, under the guise of handing him a spanner. "I mean, even if you were fucking her-"
Miles whirled and slammed his fist into Bashir's gut, exactly where he knew the half-healed stab wound to be. Bashir dropped like a stone, wheezing, cursing under his breath.
"Professor Sisko," Miles said, slowly and softly into the silence that fell around them, "was a good person. There are few enough of them around this damned place that we should mourn the passing of every single one." Without looking back at Bashir's prone form, he stalked away, back to his quarters, where he paced up and down the room and tried to stop his hands from shaking.
Bashir never spoke ill of Jennifer Sisko again.
Chapter 4: Backlight
"Are the charges in place?"
Julian's remarkable talent when it came to communicating snideness over a comm link never ceased to amaze Miles. He bit back his initial sarcastic reply, reconsidered, then said it anyway. "Yes, Julian, the charges are in place, and I'm just sitting here on my arse taking my time because Alliance bases are so lovely this time of year."
There was a sniff of amusement over the line. "All right, but let me know as soon as you're done seeing the sights. Jadzia's already signalled her group's finished and disembarked. It's just you and me, and I'd just as soon not have a heroic death saving the likes of you."
Miles replied with a string of sunny invective, then killed the link and focused on the task at hand. The wires seemed damnably small, his hands seemed damnably clumsy, and he was sweating in the hot, stale air. No more operations against Cardassian holdings, he decided, unless he remembered to wear a short-sleeved shirt.
Finally, he managed to thread the last wire around the last electrode, saw a small flashing red light confirm the arming sequence had been engaged, and killed all outward signs of potentially explosive activity. They'd run into some trouble a year earlier when a particularly incompetent young engineer they'd recruited had insisted on including massive, conspicuous timer displays on every bomb he built. Sure, it was a bit unnerving to trust that there really was a full hour to detonation left on the clock when you couldn't see it, but Miles trusted in his own mechanical abilities. He didn't need to risk giving anyone else that particular bit of information.
He carefully replaced the panel covering the electronics, and tried very hard not to second-guess himself. One hour. Right.
He reactivated his comm link in time to hear Julian snarl, "-activate your damned comm link, you-"
Then there was the sound of disruptor fire, and Miles was crouched into a defensive position with his weapon at the ready before he realized it was just being transmitted over the comm link. "What? What is it?"
A grunt over the line, then, in a smaller voice, "Damn it. There's too many of them."
Miles cursed. "I'm coming. Just- just stay there."
"Oh, great advice," Julian said. "Brilliant stratagem. What are you going to do, bore them to death with your-" Another grunt, and this time, his voice sounded strained. "-technical knowledge?"
Miles ducked into a conduit, trying to trace the shortest route through the plans he'd examined so carefully this morning. The heat made it hard to think. "Are you injured?"
A sullen silence, then, "One of them winged me. Burn along the leg." Another volley of fire, then, "There are about ten of them."
"Ah, yes," said Miles, and paused at a cross-conduit, considering his options. After a moment, he moved left, decisively. "I suppose if there were nine, you'd have no trouble taking 'em out."
"Naturally," Miles sighed, and carefully pulled a panel free from the wall in front of him. Just as he'd expected, he'd come up behind the Cardassians, and he was relieved to see that Julian had been exaggerating his plight a little – he only counted six of them. He reached for one of the newly minted flash-bang grenades in his pockets, whispered, "Watch out," into the comm, and tossed it right in their midst, flinging himself back into cover and holding an arm over his eyes for good measure.
He was just beginning to think it was a dud when a screaming brightness exploded even behind his sheltered eyes. His ears rang. Sneaking a peek around the corner, he saw the Cardassians in a state of disarray, some with bleeding noses or ears, some already being felled by Julian's ruthlessly precise fire.
By the time Miles reached Julian, all six Cardassians were down, and Julian was emptying shot after shot into the one nearest him. "I think you got him," Miles said, mildly, and was a little disturbed at the weird echo his voice made in his still-ringing ears.
Julian glanced up and smeared away some of the blood streaming from his nose – apparently the grenade had been a bit too high-powered – and very slowly and deliberately fired again at the Cardassian's extremely dead remains. There was a gash along his leg that looked painful but, to Miles's admittedly unpracticed eye, probably not dangerous. Some of his hair had come loose from its ponytail, giving him a strange, feral appearance. Miles approached with caution. "You okay?"
"Fine," Julian said, shortly. "Let's go."
He led the way, limping slightly, and Miles covered their retreat, watching behind them for any signs of enemies. Nobody seemed to be coming to follow up on the disturbance. It was making him nervous. "You might at least say thank you."
"If it weren't for you being so slow, I wouldn't have been pinned down there in the first place." Julian's voice was terse, frustrated; he was nervous, as well. They were approaching the airlock where their stolen shuttle awaited, though, and the Cardassians' ill-preparedness would shortly be their gain.
Julian hit the controls for the airlock, but they only blatted a vaguely rude tone. He scowled, and hit the controls again. Miles moved forward to peer through the airlock. "Um," he said. "Julian?"
Their shuttle was gone.
"How interesting," a new voice drawled, and Miles dropped his weapon without looking back. He turned slowly, to see a dozen Cardassians waiting with disruptors drawn. Julian started to raise his own, and Miles shot him a quelling look. The lead Cardassian stepped forward and took both weapons with a smile. "I do so enjoy visitors."
As they were taken to what had to be an interrogation chamber, Miles frantically tried to count the seconds since he'd started the countdown. If he was adding correctly, they had about forty-five minutes left before detonation. It might be wise at this juncture to admit to the bomb's location, to buy themselves some time for escape. He met Julian's hard-eyed stare, and realized he, at least, was willing to die if it meant taking down this base. He'd probably be a little less fearless in a half-hour or so, Miles thought wryly, but until it came right down to the wire, Julian would keep that heroic death in mind. No help from that quarter.
Miles glanced around, trying to document their travels, trying to fill his mind with as many details as possible that he could turn over and over in his head, later. Surely an escape route was lurking somewhere in all these twists and turns. If there was such an opportunity, though, it certainly wasn't springing to mind.
They were dragged into a small room – well, Miles walked in, and Julian stubbornly refused to move until he was bodily removed from the corridor – and the Cardassians' leader stepped inside after them. The doors closed after him, and Miles and Julian exchanged a meaningful glance. Two against one.
"Of course," the Cardassian said mildly, taking a seat at the large desk that took up most of the room, "what would you do after you killed me? I can assure you that I'd make a poor hostage. Everyone on the base would receive an instant promotion, were my untimely death to occur."
Miles couldn't fault that logic: the Alliance were notoriously cavalier about their chains of command. Julian was looking a lot like he wanted to give it a try, anyway, so Miles elbowed him. "Not worth it," he said.
The Cardassian's attention fixed on him. "You should listen to your friend, Terran," he said. He had a peculiar, overly articulate inflection that made everything he said sound condescending. Combine that talent with Julian's ability to make anything into a sneer, Miles thought, and you'd have the most annoying person in existence.
"What do you want with us?" Miles asked. Julian had been quiet for some time, now, which was making him nervous.
"Merely to know why I've had the pleasure of entertaining you aboard this base," the Cardassian said, and smiled, reptilian. "Please, have a seat."
Neither Miles nor Julian moved to sit down. Undeterred, the Cardassian swung to his feet. "All right. We could all stand a little exercise." He leaned against the desk, hands spread flat against its surface. "Gentlemen. My name is Legate Dukat. And you are?"
Julian made as though to lunge forward, but Dukat had drawn a knife before Julian was halfway across the room. "Ah-ah," Dukat said, waving the point of the knife. "A precaution only, I assure you. I'm afraid you're not doing much for the Terran reputation as a barbaric, impatient species."
"We can't all be as civilised as the Cardassians," Julian sneered. He was watching the knife, like he was thinking of making another lunge for it. Miles was half-tempted to knock him out, just so he could navigate this particular minefield of a conversation without having to worry about Julian's penchant for random acts of violence.
"Look," said Miles, "there's nothing we want to tell you." That, at least, was true for the moment. They might have to reassess their priorities at some point in the next forty minutes.
Dukat grinned, straightening. "I am overjoyed to hear it," he said. "I merely wish to know if you did prepare a bomb, when it's meant to go off, and whether its blast radius will be sufficient to destroy the entire facility."
Julian snorted. "Yeah, that's not asking too much. Would you like the location while you're at it?"
"Oh, no," said Dukat, looking scandalized. "Certainly not. If I knew the location, I might be required to disarm it."
Miles had the distinct sense he was losing the direction of this conversation. "Excuse me?"
"I might be required to disarm it," Dukat repeated, patiently. "And then the base would not explode, unless you set up a secondary explosive somewhere? No? That is a pity."
Julian looked as puzzled as Miles felt. "You want your own base to explode?"
"Of course." Dukat smiled and nodded toward the door. "Like I said, I'm not altogether fond of my compatriots, and they have no love for me. I have several political enemies on this base, and their absence would make my life considerably easier. Your arrival here was quite fortuitous. When my security advisor informed me of your imminent attack, it took some doing to let you slip through the cracks."
This, Miles suspected, was at least partly a boast – if Dukat had known all about their attack plan, he would have left the station already. Still, if what he was saying was true-
No time to think. Miles squared his jaw. "We have a device rigged to go off in about thirty-eight minutes. It will destroy the entire base, and everything within a one hundred kilometer radius."
Julian stared at him like he was some sort of traitor. Miles ignored the look, met Dukat's eyes carefully. There was a calculating coldness there that gave nothing away. "I see," said Dukat. "Is there any chance my men will succeed in disabling the device before then?"
"No," Miles said. "Not unless they know exactly where it is."
Dukat clapped, making Julian jump. "Excellent. Well done, gentlemen. If you'll follow me, we should be able to make our escape on my personal shuttle. I'll say I'm taking you both for interrogation." He paused. "No, that seems suspicious, doesn't it, me going off on an excursion alone with the two of you ready to kill me at a moment's notice. And you can't very well take me hostage, for the reasons I stated earlier. Hm."
Dukat took a step forward, and Miles realized too late that he'd been holding one hand behind his back when that hand came up in a flash. Something cool hissed at Miles's neck, and he slumped, riding a wave of nausea as the carpeted floor crashed up to meet him. His vision swam, badly, and he had a confused glimpse of Julian grappling with Dukat, yelling something that sounded strangely like his name.
When Miles opened his eyes, there was a strange, astringent taste at the back of his mouth. He gagged, then rolled to his side and retched into a small tin basin that had apparently been placed there for that purpose.
"Charming," said a familiar voice, and Miles rolled onto his back, panting for breath. A featureless grey ceiling met his eyes, a couple feet lower than what he was used to, and as he slowly hitched himself onto his elbows, he realized just how small the room was. Julian was sitting against the opposite wall, which put him only a few feet away. Miles realized he hadn't even been lying down flat – his legs were bunched up against the opposite wall.
"What," he said, and had to clear his throat, which nearly prompted another wave of retching. "What happened?"
Julian watched as he pulled himself into a sitting position. His eyes looked a little vague, and the dried blood under his nose only accentuated the dazed appearance. "We were drugged," he said. "You reacted worse than I did, I think."
Was that a hint of concern in Julian's voice? God, he must really be out of it. "Dukat," Miles said, slowly. "I remember Dukat."
"Good for you."
Miles managed a sharp look. "Come on, Julian. I'm trying to figure out what happened, here."
Julian shrugged, laconically. "I think Dukat must have knocked us out and dragged us aboard that shuttle of his. We're in an escape pod." He knocked on the side. "I think we're broadcasting a general distress call, which means the Alliance will be along shortly to pick us up. And then there's this." He held up an isolinear rod.
Miles squinted at it. "Julian, I'm not in the mood for guessing games-"
"If I knew what it is, I'd tell you. I found it in my pocket when I woke up. A message from Dukat, presumably."
Miles's brain was still having trouble with things like making both eyes focus on the same object at once, but even he could see something was strange about the whole situation. "No," he said, "no, this isn't right. Why would Dukat bother setting us free after he'd cleared the blast radius? Even if we are going to be picked up by the Alliance, I mean. Why not just kill us?"
"Maybe he thought he could use a few potential allies among the Terrans." Julian managed a twisted grin, dancing the isolinear rod along his knuckles. "Maybe he did it out of the goodness of his heart."
"Right," said Miles. "Just like when he was willing to blow up a base full of innocent people to take out a few bad eggs."
"Nobody's innocent," Julian said, softly.
At that, the corner of Julian's mouth quirked up. "I'll grant you that." He shifted his position, gave a little hiss of pain and clamped a hand over his leg. His quick glance at Miles dared him to make any move to help. Miles made none.
They lapsed into a silence that, if not exactly companionable, was at least comfortable. Julian was staring at the data rod in his hands like he could divine its secrets just by squinting at it hard enough. Miles contented himself with trying to ignore the tiny shudders in the bulkhead at his back – apparently inertial dampeners hadn't been a priority while constructing these escape pods. His stomach rebelled at the thought, and he was grateful that the pod's cramped size meant the basin was never more than an arm's length away.
A thought hit him. "Hey," he said, "what about that Cardassian on the slave transport a couple years back? The one who helped us."
"You mean the crazy person who committed suicide-by-ally?" Bashir snorted. "Dukat seems too smooth to be involved with someone like him. I'm sure he's got an ulterior motive."
"That's what I'm saying," Miles said, doggedly. His head was swimming; it was difficult to think. "Maybe he's in charge of this whole Cardassian anti-Alliance rebellion thing-"
"What Cardassian anti-Alliance rebellion thing? We've found no evidence of that." But Bashir was leaning forward now, intrigued in spite of himself.
"Come on," Miles said. "Some of this has been far too easy. There's no way we should have been able to take Empok Nor the way we did, not with the Intendant still aboard and waiting to be captured. We've been getting help from somewhere else, and I think you know it."
Julian's brow furrowed, then he sighed and slumped back against the bulkhead. "Granted. It's a possibility."
"Wait, are you agreeing with me?" Miles clutched a hand to his chest, theatrically. "I might just have a heart attack on the spot."
Julian scowled. "If that's what'll happen if I cooperate with you, it's a wonder I didn't try it sooner. Anyway, you're delirious. Might as well relax before the Alliance picks us up and throws us in a dungeon somewhere."
Miles acquiesced, mostly because he was more exhausted than he'd ever been in his life. He was just drifting into a numb, shivering doze when Julian spoke up again. "So. It's only a matter of time before someone comes to investigate. How do you want to spend our last few minutes as free men? Vomiting into a basin?"
"Hm," said Miles, and made a show of considering the idea, tasting bile at the back of his throat. He swallowed, hard. "I don't know about you, but I think I've about explored all the possibilities on that particular front."
Julian's fingers drummed a nervous tattoo against the featureless walls of the pod. "Well," he said, "how about-"
There was a clank, and the pod jerked violently. They slammed into one wall, and Miles caught the basin before it upended. "Someone's got us in a tractor beam."
Julian's eyes were wide, but he spared a glower in Miles's direction. "You're just full of insights today, aren't you?"
A second jerk signalled a new transition – into a cargo bay, Miles supposed. Almost immediately, there was the sound of clanking against the metal as the pod's pressure seal was broken. He and Julian shrank against the opposite wall. Even through the lingering haze of the drugs, Miles couldn't help noticing that Julian had positioned himself slightly in front of Miles, shielding him. A coincidence, surely, owing to the size of the pod.
The pod's door opened. Jadzia Dax stared in at them. "What the hell kept you?"
Miles's reaction to the drug earned him a couple days in the Defiant's sickbay, while Julian's leg wound wasn't severe enough to keep him more than a few hours. Sometimes life was just unfair.
Miles had grown bored with staring at the Defiant's ceiling about two minutes into his convalescence, and had bullied one of the junior technicians into grabbing him a handful of reports. After that, he'd been able to lose himself in the morass of efficiency reports and power ratings, comfortably bland. He'd also spent some time thinking about Dukat – apparently the shuttle had dropped them off in the midst of the Badlands, right next to the rebel hideout nobody was supposed to know about. Miles's theory was starting to hold water - either Dukat was in league with the mysterious hand reaching out to keep the rebellion afloat, or he was that mysterious hand. Unfortunately for his piece of mind, the data rod had proven to be under a complex encryption, one nobody had managed to break, and the suspense on that particular front was making his skin crawl. It'd come with time, he thought, and contented himself with turning the problem over and over in the back of his mind.
On the second day of his medically imposed captivity, Julian marched through the door and plopped into the chair beside Miles's bed.
"I've been thinking," he said, without preamble, and Miles heroically kept himself from making the obvious joke. "There's no reason at all for Dukat to have saved our lives. Not only did he risk his own to get us here, he gave up the important intel that the Alliance knows the location of this particular base of operations."
"That's true," Miles said, a little warily, setting down the report he'd been reading. "Have you decrypted the data rod?"
"Yeah," said Julian. He looked... strange, Miles thought. Thoughtful. Pensive. "We weren't getting anywhere, so I tried a personal encryption protocol. There's no way he could have known it, but it worked."
Miles sat up straighter. "And? What was on it?"
"Nothing." Julian slouched with a sigh. "It was empty, just a bunch of encoded nothing."
Miles felt an itch at the back of his mind, suspicions lining up. "Seems to me he's gone to a lot of trouble to point out that our intelligence has been compromised."
"It has to be part of some larger plot. Maybe we've been programmed. Maybe we're transmitting information to the Alliance."
"Maybe," Miles said. "I'm pretty sure all the scans I went through when I got here would've turned any transmitters up, though. They were pretty thorough. Inside and out." He winced at the memory.
"What other explanation is there?"
Miles met his gaze, significantly. Julian shook his head, adding, "No, it still doesn't hold water, even if he's working with your Cardassian conspiracy group. Why would they be trying to overthrow the Alliance, anyway?"
"Maybe they just want to mess with our heads," Miles offered, then, more seriously, "Maybe it's a power grab – let us destabilize the Klingons and the Bajorans while they sneak in the back door. Maybe they're sympathizers."
Julian stared at him for a long moment. "Why would they sympathize with us?"
Miles shrugged. "Maybe we're part of some political agenda. But maybe... maybe Dukat's trying to tell us we've got allies. I think all we can do now is wait and see, keep doing what we're doing the best we can. And keep a bit of a tighter lid on recruitment and intelligence. I think this is a good thing, Julian. It could be a great help to us, in the long run."
"I hate optimists," Julian groaned, and Miles thought, No, you hate thinking about the long run, but he thought it with a fondness that surprised him. After another silence, Julian leaned back in his chair, rubbing his face. He hadn't shaved since before their mission, Miles noted. The four-day beard suited him.
"Is it so outside the realm of possibility that someone could do something decent just for the sake of decency?" Miles asked, mildly.
To his surprise, Julian just stared at him, then sighed. "This is about the other Julian again, isn't it? Dr. Perfect."
Miles blinked, startled. "No. No, I... I haven't thought about him in a long time." He shifted against the blankets, suddenly unable to find a comfortable position. "It hasn't been about him for a long time. It's about you."
They were quiet for a long moment.
Julian stood up, slowly, and lingered in the doorway. "Look, try not to take any medicine that makes you die before tomorrow, okay? Jadzia wants to throw you a welcome-back party, and I'd rather not lose a prime opportunity to get roaring drunk."
Miles quirked a smile. "I'll be there."
"Good," Julian said, and then he was gone, and the hiss of the sickbay door brought with it a newer, more peaceful silence.
Miles stared at the closed door for some time, turning things over and over in his mind, slowly and methodically. He thought about the strange and vast new political landscape expanding before them, a future of their own making. He thought about exploring that landscape, together.
He thought about things that were broken. Things that were binding.